Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I extend a very warm welcome to Deputy Bacik. Fáilte mhór agus comhghairdeas. Well done on a very convincing and wonderful victory. She is now the 37th woman in the House and that is good news for all of us.

Congratulations to Ivana. We all look forward very much to working with her.

Last week, the Taoiseach and his Government forced through an amendment to legislation dealing with Covid-19 business supports that provided yet another tax break to investment funds and cuckoo funds. This was an incredibly bad move, representing very bad value for taxpayers' money, lowering the number of homes available to buy by ordinary workers and families, and pushing up the cost of housing for everyone. Indeed, it is a prime example of all that is wrong with the Government's housing policy and another example of how the Taoiseach, his party and his partners in government do not understand the scale of the crisis in housing.

On Sunday, the Business Post reported that the Government's plan to lease 2,400 homes this year alone will cost in the region of €1 billion over the lifetime of those leasing arrangements. What is worst of all is that, at the end of the 25-year period, the State will not own these properties, despite paying in excess of €375,000 each for them within the 25-year timeframe. We know these leasing arrangements are even more expensive, by the way, in the city of Dublin, running at almost €500,000 for each unit. Little wonder that the funds industry is delighted by the Government's latest move, which continues apace despite the Taoiseach telling the Dáil in May that this practice should cease.

On the flip side of the coin, the latest figures available from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage show that the cost of building social and affordable houses is much less than these expensive leasing arrangements, coming in, on average, at approximately €240,000. It is now apparent that the Government is content to fork out well over the odds to these funds for leasing arrangements for properties that will not be in the ownership of the State at the end of the leasing arrangement. None of this makes any sense at all. In fact, it is the same mentality that has given us the disastrous deal in respect of the cost of the national children's hospital, which, as the Taoiseach knows, is running spectacularly over budget. Private interests should not be skimming super-profits off the top of building public infrastructure, yet that is what the Taoiseach is facilitating. His repeated assertion that these leasing arrangements are short term does not stack up when one considers that the arrangements will be in place for 25 years and, in the case of the 2,400 homes to which I refer, will cost the taxpayer and the State €1 billion.

Can the Taoiseach confirm that cost of €1 billion? Can he confirm what I have said, namely, that at the end of the 25 years, these homes will not be owned by the State? I urge him again, as I have urged him before, to cease and desist from pursuing these failed policies and, instead, invest in the construction of social and affordable homes. What we need is not sweetheart deals for these cuckoo funds; we need a doubling of capital investment in social and affordable housing. That is what should be announced in the summer economic statement.

First, I take the opportunity to congratulate Deputy Bacik on her election to Dáil Éireann and welcome her warmly to the House.

Thank you, Taoiseach.

She has been a long-standing activist on public and social issues. I think the people of Dublin Bay South recognised that and reflected it in their affirmation of her role. I have no doubt from her previous parliamentary experience that the Deputy will add value to Dáil Éireann. I also pay tribute to her party for its success in the by-election. No doubt we will have the occasional engagement and debate on issues pertaining to society and the future of our country.

Regarding Deputy McDonald's charge, her portrayal of the Government's housing policy is flawed and wrong in its assertions. The decision last week related to social homes and social housing. Without question, the Government’s focus has been on the need to build social and affordable housing directly. In fairness, any objective look back over the past month will show a Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage who has been very active here on several fronts. Last week alone, I refer to his decision regarding reducing rent and ensuring it cannot increase in the future beyond the rate of inflation. It was a highly significant move the Deputy chose to ignore. I also point to the range of affordability measures in this regard, including legislation concerning the Land Development Agency, affordable homes and shared equity. I note the Deputy railed against it for the last several weeks but then ended up voting for the Affordable Housing Bill 2021.

Therefore, it is very difficult to take the Deputy seriously. She came in here week after week and attacked the Minister for a variety of measures, which her party subsequently supported and voted for. The Deputy spoke about taking this issue seriously and understanding the nature of housing. In reality, I do not think it is possible to lay that charge against any party in this House, given the record of the Deputy's party in opposing so many housing projects which were shovel-ready and ready to go. Sinn Féin opposed 975 homes in Clondalkin, 30% of which were social houses. The party opposed 500 homes in Tallaght, of which 80% would have been social and affordable houses. In addition, it opposed 278 homes in Swords. More recently, the party voted against 1,200 social, affordable and private homes in Ballymastone, Donabate. That development would have delivered 238 social homes and 238 affordable homes at prices between €250,000 and €270,000. Sinn Féin also opposed the Land Development Agency Bill, which is about affordability and getting State delivery of both social and affordable homes. The party spoke out and railed against the shared equity scheme, which will help people to buy houses at an affordable level and opposed the help-to-buy scheme, which so far has helped 22,000 first-time buyers. The Deputy's party and its spokesperson said we did not need it and have called for the scheme to be scrapped.

I do not get any sincerity in the Deputy's protestations about housing and I do not get any substance either. I get a sense that the Deputy's object and mission is to exploit the housing crisis for electoral gain only and is not interested in solutions around housing. The Deputy and her party are interested in exploiting the housing problem. I can say this much in that regard. In the context of the housing for all strategy, which the Minister is working on and will publish, our overwhelming focus will be on the direct building of social houses. We are in transition now. We simply cannot turn off the tap, when social houses can be provided through this leasing arrangement in the short term to provide for 2,400 families who can avail of social housing through this model. It is not at all the ideal model and that is why it will be seen that the focus is coming off of it. However, it is not the main focus now and it never has been. The main focus is on direct build and on the State getting directly involved in building and providing affordable homes for people who need to get access to homes they can afford in cities and towns across the country.

Public land should be used for building public housing - social and affordable housing - full stop. The days of Fianna Fáil and its crony friends, the big developers, creaming off at the people’s expense should be over. I would have thought the Taoiseach would have learned that from catastrophes past but perhaps he has not. He is confirming that €1 billion will be spent and will go into the pockets of these investment funds to lease back homes that will not be owned by the State. His assertion that this measure is transitional or short-term is patently untrue, given that the lifespan of these leases is 25 years. Moreover, the Government’s focus is not on direct build.

If its focus on was on direct build and the delivery of public, social and affordable housing at scale, then we would not have this point of contention or disagreement. It is Sinn Féin's view, as well as that of the ESRI and many others, that we need to double capital investment in the construction of social and affordable housing. I ask the Taoiseach to please confirm that the summer economic statement will contain a doubling of capital investment in this way. He is the Taoiseach and I would appreciate a direct answer.

The Government is a year in office. It has been hit by the Covid pandemic, which resulted in 8,000 or 9,000, if not 10,000, houses not being built due to the two lockdowns. That has set us back somewhat but we are going to try to catch up as quickly as we possibly can. Anyone looking at the figures would have to come back with the conclusion that the focus is on direct builds, both social and affordable, and the State getting involved in affordable housing. Through the Land Development Agency, we are utilising State lands to get far greater amounts of housing delivered. The issue is about housing supply and getting far more houses built in the coming years than we have been building in the last number of years. Last year, the number was close to 20,000 and it would have been much higher but for Covid. This year, we had a target of 25,000 but Covid hit us again. We are hoping to get close to 18,000 and if we can exceed that, all the better. From then on, in the housing for all strategy, for which additional capital funding will be provided, the focus, as has always been the case as far as I am concerned, will be on direct builds and affordable housing.

I welcome my colleague, Deputy Ivana Bacik, into Dáil Éireann and congratulate her on her achievement. We are very proud of her in the Labour Party. She is an incredible legislator and I thank the Taoiseach and the leader of Sinn Féin for their kind words. I assure the Taoiseach that Deputy Bacik is someone who will hold him and his Government to account over the coming days, weeks and years. He will find that out relatively quickly.

I want to ask about an issue that has come to the fore because an tUachtarán, Michael D. Higgins, raised it, that is, the significant scourge of gambling. It was also raised on "Prime Time" in an excellent report from Conor McMorrow. Oisín McConville, Cathal McCarron and other GAA stars have also highlighted issues they have and have been very open about their concerns and what happened to them. I watched the excellent European soccer championship over the last month or so, as did many others. I sat down to watch it with my daughter Aoibhe, who is a sports fanatic. The volume of gambling advertisements was, frankly, incredible.

I commend the Taoiseach on bringing in the smoking ban. Watching that on "Reeling in the Years", it is clear that it was very positive legislation. When people watch "Reeling in the Years" from 2021 or 2020 they will wonder why we allowed such advertisements on television, radio, in print and online. We need to deal with the issue. The President is right. Twice in the last two weeks, he has raised this issue and said it was a scourge. The Government has talked about bringing in a gambling regulator and we support it on that but it needs to implement Senator Mark Wall's Bill to ban gambling advertising.

The advertising out there is incredible. It never stops. It brings people who have problems with addiction back in. Some €1.36 billion was lost to gamblers last year. That is €300 per person but we all know that a large amount of money is lost by a small number of people. If we do not deal with this issue, many people will continue to have significant problems when it comes to an addiction to gambling, such as mental health issues and even - dare I say it - suicide because of it. The impacts it has on families are often hidden until it is too late.

As I said, the Taoiseach brought in excellent forward-thinking legislation many years ago to ban smoking indoors. The Government is bringing in a regulator for gambling but that is taking too long. In the interim, I ask the Taoiseach please to support us and support what the President of Ireland is asking us to do by banning gambling advertisements, particularly for young people, across all social, print and broadcast media.

We could do this relatively quickly. Other countries have done it. We are behind on this issue. I ask the Taoiseach to please do so.

I thank the Deputy for raising what is an important issue. I take on board the comments made by Uachtarán na hÉireann on gambling advertising. As the Deputy knows, the programme for Government commits to comprehensively reforming the licensing and regulation of gambling activities and the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, is overseeing the reform of that legislation. In particular, he is focusing on the establishment of a gambling regulator which would be focused on public safety and well-being, covering gambling online and in person. The regulator would have the powers to regulate advertising both online and through more traditional media.

We will look at Senator Wall's Bill. It would be important, as a precursor, to have an all-party approach and engagement on this in the Oireachtas. In the meantime, it is important that we pursue the legislation for the establishment of a regulator. The pathway is that it would be fully operational in early 2023 and the work is under way on the legislation to develop modern licensing and regulatory provisions for the industry. As regards the milestones the Minister of State has targeted, he envisages that the draft general scheme will go to government by the end of quarter 3 and it is intended to finalise the appointment of a CEO-designate by the end of the year. The regulator will have enforcement powers for licensing and powers to take action where individual or operators are failing to follow rules and regulations. It will have key objectives in making sure to provide for responsible and safer gambling as well as combating problem gambling.

Addiction to gambling is a terrible illness which can destroy families and individuals. The Deputy is correct on that. We need to stand back from the immediate legislation and look at the bigger picture around gambling. We need to look at what we can do to deal with the issue itself and support those who have an addiction to gambling and provide the necessary supports to them. The establishment of an independent gambling regulator could help to change the debate and the narrative around this. The regulator would develop the regulations, codes of conduct, codes of practice and so forth but perhaps it would also become the catalyst for the further policy changes that are required.

I accept that the situation and frameworks governing gambling are weak. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland develop codes around advertising and so on but it is something we need to take a broader look at as a Legislature. I will look at the Deputy's proposals with a constructive frame of mind.

I thank the Taoiseach for the positive reply and for his comments on taking an all-party approach. Establishing a regulator is taking too long. I have serious issues with regard to what the regulator should be doing about how betting companies and establishments such as casinos behave. Gambling companies are totally unscrupulous. If people have a problem with gambling and they search "gambling" online, they will be flooded with advertisements for gambling. The Labour Party had a campaign to ban these ads and afterwards we were flooded with advertising for gambling based on an algorithm that threw these ads at us. Even having this positive conversation about gambling in Dáil Éireann will result in the people who are engaging on our behalf having gambling advertisements thrown at them. That is outside the print media, television and radio. I should not have to explain to my 11-year-old daughter what in-play betting is when it pops up in the middle of a European championship final. It is not acceptable. I want to see the regulator and I will work with the Taoiseach on that but in advance of that, we need to implement a version of Senator Wall's Bill. We need to ban advertising for gambling in the media I have pointed out.

As I said, there are two steps involved in this. We need to get a gambling regulator in place.

The Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, is determined to do that. He is competent, diligent and committed to it and I have no doubt he will get it done. We will then need to have a wider debate about gambling advertising more generally. It would be useful for an all-party committee to give consideration to the issue the Deputy has raised. A relevant committee may already be in existence. I am conscious of the plethora and proliferation of advertisements on social media. Their impact on the lives of young people, in particular, can be very damaging indeed. We need to do everything to wise up to that and to deal properly with it as a Legislature.

On behalf of the Regional Group, I welcome Deputy Bacik. I am sure she will make a fine contribution to this Dáil.

I have a strange request to make of the Taoiseach. I ask him to please consider pausing the development of the national maternity hospital at St. Vincent's University Hospital and of the Cork elective hospital until we have appropriate project management budgeting and oversight. I make this remarkable request because, as a Deputy, I am notionally charged with providing parliamentary oversight on public spending. Budget 2022 is being framed at the moment, as is the review of the Project Ireland 2040 capital projects, and this Dáil knows virtually nothing of these plans. Parliamentary questions are answered glibly or not at all. Ministers usually refuse to address the question asked. The Committee of Public Accounts and the Comptroller and Auditor General only look at the spilled milk they can find and, from next Monday onwards, even that thin oversight will hibernate until autumn.

There is more drone footage than there are spreadsheets in the Project Ireland 2040 plans. It is impossible to see where public money goes. Is that because it suits those at Cabinet? Is the bulk of discretionary spending being funnelled into Dublin and Cork, which are home to almost all the Ministers? Do not tell me I am wrong. I call on the Taoiseach to namecheck some projects and show me where the money is going. I call on him to publish proper, granular data on public spending, particularly for capital projects. Vast parts of Ireland are frozen out of a fair share of capital spending and are fobbed off by tokenistic urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, funding, when the billion euro projects flow to Cork and Dublin. With €10 billion of capital expenditure this year, the south east should be getting €890 million and Waterford should be getting €230 million. There are no significant projects currently being implemented in the south east. Níl rud ar bith le feiceáil. There is none, nothing, nada in respect of all core regional issues, including our hospital and university, the M24 motorway, the north quays, our railways, port and airport. The Government, like almost every Government before it, has slow-walked every strategic project from the south east while nursing along its own pet projects. We would make wiser decisions about spending if the people could see where their money is going. That is what I am asking the Taoiseach to implement.

The need for a national maternity hospital is without question. The women of Ireland need a modern national maternity hospital providing the best of care at a tertiary level. The current conditions are simply not good enough or tenable into the future and cannot be sustained. We need a new national maternity hospital. In terms of value for money, the procurement provisions in public expenditure will have to apply. That is why I desist from global figures and from saying it will cost this or that. It should very much depend on the tendering operation and a detailed specification before any global figures are referenced in respect of a project of the scale of a national maternity hospital. We need that hospital and the women of Ireland need it without question.

The Deputy asked about funding for the south east. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has been extremely assertive in respect of Waterford and the south east more generally, as have Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, and others.

I was somewhat surprised when the Deputy called the URDF money tokenistic. It must be accepted that the €190 million disbursed from the fund to date is not tokenistic. That is substantial funding. On regional investment in jobs in County Waterford, the regional enterprise plan for the south east is currently being developed by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Tánaiste and Minister of State, Deputy Troy, working closely with the south-east committee. The plan is building on successful clusters in the region in life sciences, pharmaceuticals, medical technologies, biopharma, agrifood, engineering, financial services, technology and international business services. The Technological University of South-East Ireland project has progressed. The university is vital and significant for the region and funding will accompany its development.

It is interesting that employment in IDA Ireland-supported companies has increased by 2.8% in the south east. Approximately 13,461 people are working in 74 such companies. Foreign direct investment, FDI, employment in the south east is now at a ten-year high. We must keep on developing that, however. That is why advanced properties are being developed by IDA Ireland to attract new investment to the region.

As the Deputy may be aware, there was a very welcome announcement recently of 90 jobs by Horizon Therapeutics for County Waterford. Enterprise Ireland is also supporting clients. The south east was one of the few regions with positive employment growth of in 2020. That growth amounted to 2%. As the Deputy will know, progress has been made in respect of the catheterisation laboratory, although it took time. It is expected that the main contractor will hand over the project by the end of June 2022, which is welcome. We will continue to allocate significant funding to the south east into the future.

I do not think anybody would argue that there is a need for a children's hospital but I doubt anybody would agree that we need to spend close to €2 billion providing it. Our country has paid a high price for repeatedly stuffing up its finances. Our methods of oversight are not up to the task and the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, as good as it is, is no match for the scale and ambition of and responsibilities relating to public expenditure. We will be back in the ha'penny place very shortly if we fritter away this public money on political codology and strokes.

An OECD study of budget oversight by the Oireachtas published in 2000 said we - as in Oireachtas Members - did not engage with the budget in a meaningful or impactful way. We still need better budgeting procedures and information. In 500 days or so, the Taoiseach will handle over his office to another person. I offer him the advice that instituting proper reporting on sectoral and regional spending would be an enduring legacy. I ask the Taoiseach to investigate actions that can deliver such a legacy of equity and fairness to the Irish people, particularly those who live in the south east.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. Value for public expenditure is very important. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, is both keenly aware of and focused on that and has already taken a range of measures and decisions to provide for it.

I reassure the Deputy that the Government is absolutely committed to the south east. That is evidenced by the overall funding that has been allocated to County Waterford under urban regeneration and our working with the council chief executive in terms of the north quays project, notwithstanding the recent difficulties there. The funding was allocated in advance in respect of that project and the difficulties relating to it have not been on the State's side. We are working with the council to advance the project. Across the industrial and higher education sectors and in the context of a range of other projects, the Government will continue to support the economic needs of the entire south east region, including County Waterford, obviously, counties Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford and so on.

I thank the Taoiseach. Deputy Shanahan raised the question about responses to parliamentary questions. I must say that in recent years, I would have considered in general that the quality of responses to parliamentary questions has improved. I will bring to the attention of the Deputy and of all Members that Standing Order 54 provides an avenue for Deputies who are dissatisfied with how questions are dealt with to refer them to my office. I am more than happy to deal with such referrals.

First, I am very happy to welcome our new colleague, Deputy Bacik. She will make a positive contribution and I wish her well.

I have raised the following issue with the Taoiseach several times. The only reason I am raising it again is because it is an urgent matter and right decisions can still be taken. I speak of the need for a new Garda station in Sligo. To be clear, I am not asking the Taoiseach to intervene in an operational decision taken by the Garda Commissioner to restructure divisions as part of the new operating model. However, as soon as the Commissioner took that decision, the plans to build a new Garda station in Sligo were scrapped. This is despite the fact that before Christmas 2019, the Office of Public Works, OPW, deemed Sligo Garda station unfit for purpose. The restructuring of the Garda divisions meant approximately ten staff would move from Sligo but the new operating model means additional staff are coming to Sligo. In a recent response, the Taoiseach told me 20 new staff were coming there and consequently, there will be more staff under the current regime than under the old one.

The station is unfit for purpose. It was built in the 1840s and while some refurbishment has taken place, the building is still totally inadequate. It is too small; it is a warren of rooms and stairs with small poky offices and Portakabins out the back. The footprint of the building is just too small. The facilities within the rooms are simply not fit for purpose. I visited two weeks ago with my colleague, Councillor Marie Casserly, and it is not an exaggeration to say I was shocked. For example, the scenes of crime unit, where the equipment necessary to solve crimes is housed and the personnel are based, is beyond belief. I do not know how anyone works in it, let alone solves crimes. In addition, members of the Garda in Sligo have submitted a brief for the refurbishment of the station and 40% of their requirements are not being met. There is a long list. A new site was purchased and plans were drawn up. Sligo was part of a public private partnership, PPP, with Macroom and Clonmel but it has now been dropped and the money has gone elsewhere. The decision not to proceed with a Garda station in Sligo was not operational but financial. I ask the Taoiseach to look at that again.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue with me. However, as I have said to her previously, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the management and administration of An Garda Síochána, including the Garda estate. The Deputy will be aware the Office of Public Works has responsibility for the provision and maintenance of Garda accommodation. Works on Garda accommodation are progressed by Garda authorities, working in close co-operation with the OPW. The determination of the need for the development of a new Garda station in any location is considered by the Garda Commissioner in the context of the overall accommodation requirements arising from the ongoing expansion of the Garda workforce and the availability of capital funding, as well as the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.

My understanding is one of the key recommendations of the commission was the introduction of a new Garda operating model, which was announced by the Commissioner in 2019. As part of this reform, I am informed, the Commissioner decided not to progress a new build for Sligo Garda station, taking account of a range of factors, the most pertinent of which from the Commissioner's perspective,was the decision to create a new three-county division, namely, Donegal-Sligo-Leitrim, the divisional headquarters of which will be in Letterkenny. I understand An Garda Síochána has invested, and continues to invest, significant funding in refurbishing the current Garda station in Sligo and that further upgrade works are currently under way, including the provision of a new cell block to allow for additional capacity and improved custody management facilities. I also understand and am informed the planned works include accommodation for the scenes of crime unit.

It is important to note this is not a decision made due to finance or a lack of resources from Government. This is an operational decision taken by the Garda Commissioner in his capacity as Accounting Officer and as the person responsible by law for the allocation of Garda resources.

The decision was taken in the context of the significant reorganisation of Garda resources that underpins the new Garda Síochána operating model. That is the decision the Garda Commissioner has taken. I understand refurbishment has been carried out and there are further significant upgrades to be carried out to what is, I agree, a very old building. That work will continue and I will provide the Deputy and her Oireachtas colleagues with further timelines on that upgrade. That is the current position.

The Taoiseach mentioned the OPW, which deemed that building unfit for purpose in December 2019. The Garda Commissioner then made changes around the operational model. I am not asking the Taoiseach to interfere but nothing has changed. The footprint of that building is too small and it is a warren of rooms. Despite the fact that some refurbishment has taken place, it still is simply and totally unsuitable. There will be more staff in Sligo Garda station and not fewer, so if it was too small in the first place, it is certainly too small now.

As a proper cost-benefit analysis is needed, will the Taoiseach ensure such a proper analysis happens for the refurbishment that is compliant with the public spending code? We do not have one and we are not getting value for money in that respect. I invite the Taoiseach to see Sligo Garda station when he can, where he can see for himself that what I am saying is not me grandstanding. This is about a Garda station that is totally unfit for purpose.

I accept the Deputy is not grandstanding and I know other Deputies in the House raised the matter also. I get the sense from Deputies that local members of the Garda are clearly very concerned about this. The issue for the Government is that the Garda Commissioner has made a decision in respect of the new operating model and in light of this has made a decision on the capital works across three areas in that one division. That seems to be the challenge and the difficulty.

They are now concentrating on an upgrade of the existing facility in Sligo and Garda estate management is conducting an operational review. They are requesting that the contract to refurbish be amended to provide two additional cells. Works are proposed to redevelop the remainder of the station and these works are currently being assessed between Garda estate management, local management and the Office of Public Works. As the scope of the work has not yet been finalised, we are not in a position to provide timelines or costs but we will keep Deputies informed of the progress.