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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 23 Sep 2021

Vol. 1011 No. 5

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Tá na mic linn taobh amuigh den Dáil agus iad ag agóid mar go bhfuil siad ag stopadh in óstáin, i lóistín Bhia agus Leaba agus i mbrúnna óige. Tá mic léinn eile ag taistil ar feadh uaireanta fada gach uile lá, óna dtithe féin, isteach go dtí an chathair ar maidin agus ar ais tráthnóna agus níos measa arís, tá mic léinn ag bogadh ó tholg go tolg gach oíche. Is é an cheist atá againn ná cá huair a bheidh deireadh leis an scannal seo?

You would have to have a heart of stone not to be affected by the stories we heard this week from the countless families and individuals who have been failed by the Government's housing policy. I refer to stories from those of the families whose houses have been affected by mica and who continue to campaign for 100% redress as their homes crumble around them to those of students who told us how what should have been one of the proudest and most exciting moments for any students, namely, going off to college, has turned into a nightmare for many of them because they cannot meet the most basic needs, namely, finding a place to live.

I am not sure whether the Tánaiste heard the harrowing stories told yesterday by those who further on in years. On "Liveline" we heard the reality of a broken system laid bare. We heard Sandra, a woman in her 50s, share her story with us. In tears, she said she could not afford her rent and is living in a shed with no running water. She said she felt ashamed and that there is no hope, but the only people who should feel ashamed are those sitting on that side of this House. I refer to the Members on those benches who have presided over a situation where people today are living in sheds with no running water.

This is a crisis that is ruining people's lives. It is absolutely devastating. It is a crisis that impacts on every citizen in the State, from the cradle to the grave. As we meet here this afternoon, outside the gates of Leinster House students are protesting due to the lack of accommodation for them. Many of them are staying in hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation or hostels, and are paying crazy prices. Others are commuting the long distance from home to college every day, with many more of them going from home to home, house to house, couch to couch, with a rucksack on their back and a sleeping bag under their arm. This is having a profound effect on access to education and it particularly disadvantages people from rural communities.

This is a ridiculous and unsustainable situation, but it has been well flagged to the Tánaiste, his Government and previous Governments for many years. It is a situation made worse as a result of the provision of tax breaks to those who were supposed to provide purpose-built student accommodation, only for many of the units in question to be now repurposed into tourist accommodation. The Tánaiste will trot out a line, as he has been doing in the media, about Fine Gael wanting to see tax cuts in this budget, while people like Sandra cannot get a roof over their heads, while there are 1,000 students in Waterford who do not have a home and while students across the State cannot find accommodation. The Government's priorities are clear.

Does the Tánaiste accept that the Government's housing policies have failed the young and the old to a spectacular degree? When he answers that question, I ask him please to listen to the stories and voices we heard over this week, from mica families to students and people like Sandra and other women. Does he accept, as the president of Dublin City University, DCU, said today, that the Government's Housing for All plan is uneconomic, based on a false assumption and will only result in rents beyond the ability to pay for most students and their families? Will the Government, as an immediate measure, do what our party spokesperson for higher education, Deputy Conway-Walsh, has been calling on it for many months to do, namely, legislate to prevent purpose-built student accommodation being repurposed as tourist accommodation?

There were a lot of threads to the Deputy's question. I will, perhaps, focus my reply on the issue of student accommodation in recognition of the fact there will be a student protest today on that issue. Students have suffered a lot during this pandemic. They have seen changes to the leaving certificate cancelled and calculated grades. Many of them have had to experience college from home, from a bedroom or a boxroom. There have been no sports, no societies and no ability to socialise in a normal way.

We are now entering a new phase of the pandemic and, because of that, it is possible for students to go back on campus. That is something everyone in the House will welcome, but it does, of course, bring back into sharp focus the issue of student accommodation and the shortage thereof. The Government is very much aware of the challenges students face as they return to third level. We have responded by increasing the student assistance fund. Covid-19 has had a significant impact on the availability of bed spaces in on-campus accommodation. With the exception of National University of Ireland, NUI, Galway, shared rooms are not being offered this year, because of concerns around Covid. This removes the most affordable option available in most universities and decreases the number of places available. There is also evidence fewer people are willing to offer digs than was the case in previous years. Both these issues have contributed to the shortage this year.

The Departments of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science have been engaging on a number of issues, including the use of privately owned accommodation for other purposes, and this is contrary to the student accommodation strategy. The Government has also put in place measures in respect of affordability. As the Deputy will know, the cost of student accommodation is capped under the rent pressure zones. In addition, legislation brought forward by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to restrict the upfront payments that students used to be asked to pay has been passed. Previously, a student or his or her family was asked to pay a lump sum each term of €2,500 or €3,500; thankfully, that is now gone. Students also have the option to pay monthly. That lowers the upfront payment costs required for student accommodation and we think that can help against losses such as those suffered by students. In addition, under Housing for All, Ministers have secured Government approval to allow the new technological universities to borrow in order to build student accommodation, which, I think, will increase availability a great deal. One thing we need to see, which has been happening but needs to happen more and faster, is universities and technological universities building on-campus student accommodation on a cost-rental basis and thereby providing more options for students to live on campus or near campus and pay affordable rents.

This is not just a Covid story. Students down through the years have lived in tents, hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation and hostels. There is a housing crisis right across society, as I laid out for the Tánaiste, from mica families to the women we heard yesterday. What they had to say was devastating. I do not know whether the Tánaiste heard them but he should listen to what they said. This has happened because the Government has looked at homes as an investment, as a potential profit margin for investors or individuals, as opposed to looking through the prism of securing a roof over somebody's head, whether it is the student, the woman in her 50s or the mica families, who have had to take their campaign to the streets.

The Tánaiste talks about his plans in Housing for All. Is he not listening? The president of DCU stated, very clearly, that it is uneconomic, based on a false assumptions and will only result in rents that are beyond the ability to pay for most students and their families. There are immediate steps the Government can take. More than one third of all purpose-built student accommodation, which gets tax breaks and planning for student accommodation, is being repurposed as tourist accommodation. Will the Government introduce the legislation we, and in particular Deputy Conway-Walsh, have been calling for to stop that in its tracks and provide the capital for the State to build the necessary units?

The Minister will give consideration to any legislation brought forward by the Opposition. I am very aware that we face a housing crisis and I am also very aware of the many personal stories. The Deputy does not have a monopoly on compassion or understanding. He may think he does but he does not. Every Member of this House has constituents and friends and family.

Every Member of the House can recount personal stories about how people have been impacted by the housing crisis, be it through high rents, the difficulty finding a place to buy and the many other issues the Deputy mentioned. That is why we have Housing for All, the biggest investment in social housing in the history of the State. That is why we have cost rental for the first time and why we have introduced a rent freeze in real terms, linking rent increases to inflation.

Inflation is at 3%.

It is why we are doing so many things. The Deputy said earlier that Members on the Government benches should be ashamed. Maybe he should ask himself whether he should be ashamed too. His party voted to increase rents in Northern Ireland in a pandemic.

Thank you, Tánaiste.

The Deputy never misses-----

Get out of here. The Tánaiste has been in government for ten years and there are people lying in sheds without running water. He should be ashamed.

Deputy Doherty-----

A bit of humility from him would go a long way. It is ridiculous.

A bit of humility from the Deputy, too, would go a long way. A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, we have the usual display. The truth hurts, and they go mad. It drives them crazy.

Get up the yard.

Sinn Féin increased rents in Northern Ireland. It never misses an opportunity to oppose housing here in the South.

Did the Tánaiste not read our Bill?

Will the Tánaiste listen to the voices of the people? Forget what we are saying and listen to them. Have a bit of humility and maybe look at it through the prism of individuals as opposed to the landlords and speculators, whose side he always takes.

Deputy Doherty, you had four minutes to put a question and a further minute to put a question.

That is the reality. The truth hurts.

The Tánaiste-----

It hurts the Deputy more.

Did the Tánaiste listen to "Liveline" yesterday?

The two gentlemen are acting in a most ungentlemanly fashion. Would you please have a little respect for the Leas-Cheann Comhairle? If you are going to use my name, would you please listen to the response? We are going to stick to the times. Unfortunately, I am going to be focused on you, a Theachta Kelly, for your three minutes. Perhaps you could stick to the three minutes.

With your indulgence, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle-----

I have used it all up.

That is true. Before I commence my question to the Tánaiste, I wish to acknowledge the passing of Mr. Mervyn Taylor, who has been an incredible servant to this State. He brought in many progressive policies. The list is long. We went through it earlier and I cannot list them here, but obviously at the top was his handling of the divorce referendum in 1995. I acknowledge and remember him. Our party has suffered a huge loss this morning.

I am a little concerned about revisionism from the Government, so I will take the Tánaiste back to the spring of 2020. A virus with no cure was terrifying the world and our country went into lockdown. The Tánaiste announced it. We turned to our front-line workers to keep public services running and essential retail open. A call was put to the diaspora around the world asking those with the right skills to be on call for Ireland. I would like everybody in the House to put themselves in the shoes of a nurse at that time. Nurses were turning up for work in hospitals with little or no personal protective equipment, PPE. They were separated from their families and their children, isolating themselves to keep away from their loved ones due to the fear of Covid-19 and its impact. Crèches and schools were closed and they struggled to arrange childcare. Shifts and leave went out the window. They were there to work as long as necessary, to save as many lives as possible and to protect our people. They made massive sacrifices - personal, professional and financial. When we asked them to serve they reported for duty. In this House, we would literally have paid them anything to get us out of what was unknown to us in the pandemic, and we are not out of it yet.

It was not just in the hospitals that workers turned up; the list is endless. From gardaí to bus drivers, our workers did their bit. Cleaners, carers and retail workers all played their part. Anybody reading the news headlines this morning about a Covid bonus for front-line workers will hear the sounds of wheels rapidly reversing in the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. On Monday, it was floated that a recognition payment would be announced in the budget, but the scaremongering is now under way. Sources today say that a special payment or leave would eat up the cash available for the budget. What is happening? Are we forgetting these workers? On Monday we were informed that it would impact on the budget numbers because it would come out of this year's revenue. The HSE is saying it would cost at least €377 million to grant ten days of extra leave. The health unions have disputed this and are seeking engagement. The Tánaiste told me on Tuesday: "Whether that is a financial bonus or additional annual leave needs to be discussed but I would have a strong view as well that it should not be limited to front-line workers in our health service". The Taoiseach said on Tuesday that the Government is giving active consideration to extra payment or leave.

Will the Government effectively engage with unions? Can the Tánaiste guarantee that their work will be recognised in the budget?

Thank you, Deputy.

People need to know if the cost of this will be paid out of this year's revenue. Will the Tánaiste confirm that this is the case and that this House will not engage in revisionism?

I had not heard that Mr. Mervyn Taylor had passed away until I heard it from the Deputy now. I extend my condolences to his family and friends and to the Labour Party. He was a fine man. I met him only once or twice, but he was a democratic revolutionary. He served as the Minister for Equality and Law Reform in the Fine Gael and Labour Party Government headed by Mr. John Bruton. I will never forget the role he played in the divorce referendum. I was a teenager who was getting interested in politics at the time and I remember that day when the referendum was won by such a small margin. I remember his speech that evening after the count and him saying that it was done. That heralded the many changes and social reforms that happened in this country afterwards. The course of our history would have been very different but for 10,000 or 20,000 votes that might have gone the other way. That shows how much every vote matters in politics and democracy, and people such as Mr. Mervyn Taylor really matter.

To answer the Deputy's question, first, he should not believe everything he reads in the newspapers, particularly in the run up to the budget. I do not know how many absolutely contradictory stories I have seen in newspapers over the past couple of weeks regarding what is and is not in the budget and what is and is not being considered. I can say that we will engage with the unions and worker representatives on a recognition bonus for staff who went out of their way and did the extra mile during the pandemic. We want to do it, they deserve it and the public wants us to do it as well. We want a recognition payment or additional leave. I am not sure exactly how it will be done. It would be better if it fell into this financial year rather than next year, but that is not the most important thing. The most important thing is that it is done.

However, it also must be done fairly and in the right way. As the Deputy acknowledges and I acknowledged earlier this week, it is not just people in the health service who went the extra mile during the pandemic. Others did too, such as the gardaí and the Defence forces and many people not considered to be front-line workers but who administered the pandemic unemployment payment and the employment wage subsidy scheme and people in many other parts of the public service. We must have regard to that. Calculating how to do it in a fair way is complicated too. There were people who put in enormous numbers of extra hours, as the Deputy mentioned, but there were also people who did not. That might not have been through any fault of theirs. It was just that their services were reduced or shut down and they were not redeployed. Therefore, calculating it in a way that is fair is not straightforward. We do not want to create a division between some sectors and others in the public service and we do not want to create a division within sectors either, so we have to do it in a way that is fair. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, is exploring options. He is keen to bring proposals to the party leaders. It is something we are committed to doing, and we believe it is the right thing to do.

I ask that we do not engage in revisionism. I am glad to hear the Tánaiste's commitment not to do so. However, I have been raising this issue for a considerable period of time, in fact, since last April. We are very slow on this. Other countries have moved on this more quickly than us. A proposal is being brought to party leaders now, and it is 19 days away from the budget. This is a comprehensive amount of money and I am concerned that it is coming only now. Many people have to be considered in this. One example is sections 38 and 39 organisations, who do not often come to the forefront when one thinks of the organisations that had to go out of their way to help people during the pandemic. Will the Tánaiste engage very quickly with the trade unions on this? Will he recognise those outside in the non-public service and private areas? In what time period will he ensure the unions and those involved know this will be a satisfactory arrangement?

The Deputy is right that many things need to be considered. While some countries have already paid a recognition bonus to staff, they have done it on a very narrow basis. For example, it has often been limited to healthcare workers only. The Deputy and I agree that we need to do something broader than that. That also must be borne in mind. I cannot give exact timelines. This does not need to be a budget-day decision, but it might be. This is something that is being led by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. I know that the Minister wants to engage with the unions and the Labour Employer Economic Forum, wants to talk to the party leaders about it and wants to be able to come up with a proposal that the Government can then endorse.

I wish to raise an important issue that affects all parts of the country. Electric scooters are now commonplace. They have soared in popularity in recent times. Their ever-increasing popularity is also creating some serious issues for many people. One of the biggest single complaints my constituency office receives is from people who are taking issue with electric scooters. I also have many issues with electric scooters. Electric scooters have the ability to travel at between 20 km/h and 40 km/h. Unfortunately, many users are travelling at these speeds not only on roads but also on footpaths. It is this travel on footpaths that causes most concern. I have heard many stories from constituents of near misses they have had with these electric scooters. I know from experience how dangerous they can be. I have had a number of near misses with electric scooters. Since the start of the pandemic, the number of people walking has increased. People should feel safe walking on footpaths but they do not. There are those who are riding electric scooters at high speed on footpaths and who are intimidating others. People should feel safe on the roads.

I am sure that nearly everybody in this Chamber has had some kind of near miss or accident with a scooter. Even this morning coming to Leinster House, I was stopped at traffic lights and I saw a young fellow on an electric scooter cross the road onto another road. He even went into a shop on the scooter. He did not have the decency to get off the scooter. These are serious issues.

A few weeks ago, one of our national newspapers had a photograph of a family of four - a man, a woman and two children - on a scooter. The man had a two- or three-year-old child on his shoulders. This is getting very serious. It is now common for electric scooters to come in ones, twos or fours. My understanding is that users of these motorised bicycles or scooters are not permitted to use them on public footpaths. In order to use them on public roads, insurance is required. Are those who ride scooters allowed to carry one, two, three or more passengers? Are they allowed to drive them on footpaths or roads, or into shops? At night, they can be seen on the wrong side of the road or in cycle lanes. Those riding them have no lights and they wear dark clothes. It is important to have clarity on this, not only for the general public but also for the users of electric scooters and bikes. Does the Government have any plans to introduce regulation for the use of these electric scooters on our public roads?

This is a serious matter and it must be sorted out as soon as possible. People need to feel safe on our footpaths and roads. It only a matter of time before someone is seriously hurt or even killed as a result of the of the improper use of electric scooters.

Currently, e-scooters are not covered by the law here in Ireland. In order to deal with this, Government intends to legislate for e-scooters and e-bikes in accordance with the commitment in the programme for Government. Department of Transport officials have now drafted the necessary changes to primary legislation as part of the forthcoming road traffic (miscellaneous provisions) Bill 2021. This will provide the basis for regulating what will be described as powered personal transporters, PPTs, including e-scooters. The general scheme of the Bill has completed pre-legislative scrutiny and will go to the Government shortly with a request for permission to publish, before proceeding to the House of the Oireachtas.

When the forthcoming Bill is enacted, it will give the Minister the powers to make regulations for the use of these vehicles and other PPTs. Once this new category of transport has been defined, the vehicles will be incorporated into the existing legal framework, which includes a range of powers and offences. It will permit the Minister for Transport to regulate the use or misuse and the standards of different types of PPTs through the introduction of regulations. Furthermore, the existing powers of An Garda Síochána in road traffic legislation concerning offences relating to careless and dangerous driving, driving under the influence of intoxicants or driving an unroadworthy vehicle can the be extended to these personal powered transporters where required.

As I said, it is only a matter of time before someone is seriously hurt or even killed as result of the improper use of electric scooters, which have become very common. We need to act now, particularly in view of the number of near misses I have seen recently. Those on electric scooters think they have a God-given right to be on our footpaths and roads at night. Even when gardaí are asked, nobody seems to want to do anything. I plead with the Tánaiste to contact the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner so that gardaí can start enforcing the law. It is only a matter of time before someone is seriously hurt. It would be good idea to start a public awareness campaign to highlight the safe and proper use of electric scooters along the lines of other campaigns in the past.

E-scooters could be good if they are regulated and looked after properly. Many young people use these to go to colleges and jobs and I do not have a problem with that. However, regulations need to be put in place. I plead with the Tánaiste to act now.

I appreciate the Deputy raising this issue. I agree with his sentiments entirely. There is a gap in the law. These new vehicles and new methods of personal transport have emerged in recent years. The law as it is now written is written for cars, vehicles, animals and bikes, not for these PPTs, as they will be described in the law. We need to close that gap in the law. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is keen to do so soon, ideally during this parliamentary session.

It must be said by those on all sides that no one can condone the protest outside the Tánaiste's house last weekend. Nothing seems to be out of bounds at the moment. I stand in solidarity with him on this.

I wish to speak about rural Ireland. When I was going to school in 1980, old yellow buses used to bring youngsters to school in all parts of Ireland. With Covid, the capacity of buses was reduced by 50%. Unfortunately, some children have been left behind. This seems to be an annual thing. We have become a more affluent society and we are leaving children behind. As buses in cities are rightly back to operating at full capacity, obviously children can get to school. However, in rural areas, mothers and fathers who need to go to work are trying to solve the problem of bringing their youngsters to school. A few months ago, the Tánaiste and his colleagues decided to vote in new climate change legislation. Now, we are putting more people on the road.

In today's edition of the Irish Farmers' Journal, there is a report in which the Taoiseach and Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine speak about stabilising the herd. There is considerable confusion. Youngsters starting out in farming who approach a bank need to know their future and where they are going. Will the Government go back to 100% capacity on buses and sort out the children whose fathers or mothers are now going on the road? If the Government is so interested in climate change, will it sort them out by ensuring that the buses go back to 100% capacity, which will thereby allow them to cater for most of the children who are being transported in cars and SUVs at present?

In light of what is reported in the Irish Farmers' Journal this morning, it is important for farmers and others in rural areas for the Government to indicate if it is staying with the roadmap in respect of nitrates - with different figures for dairy cows, suckler cows, calves, etc. - or is there a new agenda under the climate legislation. Can we have clarity for those farmers going forward?

Energy prices have soared. You will say that people will get more in their fuel allowance but I am talking about the people who make up middle Ireland here, Taoiseach. They are paying more on fuel to bring their kids to school, paying more to go to work and more to heat their homes. Middle Ireland does not get any of those subsidies. Will you please answer those questions for me?

The Taoiseach is in New York chairing the UN Security Council. I, as Tánaiste, am just the first substitute, in case anyone was not aware of that, but I am happy to be first sub here today.

First, on the carbon budget, the plan is to stabilise the herd, not reduce it. However, that does mean we have to do a lot in other areas to reduce emissions from agriculture. We do not want to have to reduce the size of the herd or the amount of food produced because all that will then happen is that it will be displaced to other parts of the world where they will produce it less sustainably than we do, and that is not good for the environment. The aim is stabilisation and continuing to produce as much meat and milk as we do now but we will have to do a lot more in sustainability in agriculture to enable us to do that.

The point the Deputy makes about middle Ireland is absolutely right. In the budget we are looking at things like an increase in the fuel allowance and increases in pensions and social welfare so that people can keep up with the rise in the cost of living. It is not an increase; it is really just indexation, and the same thing applies to our working people too. That is why we need pay increases and there will be pay increases in most parts of the economy in the coming year, including the public service, as well as an increase in the minimum wage. That is also why we need tax indexation. These are not tax cuts, as Sinn Féin likes to describe them - it is tax indexation. It is just making sure that if people get that pay increase or increment, they are able to keep it. If they are earning €40,000, which is roughly the average income, and they get a pay increase of 2%, that is €800. At the moment, someone would lose half of that in tax and would only get €400. That is not enough to keep up with the rise in the cost of living. With indexation, they will keep most of that €800. They will get €650 or €700. That is the whole point of indexation. It is not a tax cut. It is just making sure that middle Ireland holds on to whatever small pay increase or increment they get. In the same way as we increase pensions or welfare to take account of the rise in the cost of living, we should do the same when it comes to income tax and that is what indexation is. It is not a tax cut.

That is not what IFAC says.

It is just making sure that middle Ireland is not left out and that is why I am sure the Deputy will be supporting that measure in the budget.

Regarding school transport, to date over 100,000 tickets have been issued for children availing of transport on primary and post-primary school transport schemes, which is an increase of 7% on the tickets issued this time last year. Planning for school transport for the 2021-22 school year has proceeded on the basis that the public health measures in place when schools closed at the end of the last school year would remain as the term began in this new school year. These include recommendations from public health that post-primary services operate at 50% capacity. All other measures relating to hygiene, preassigned seating, cleaning and the wearing of masks by post-primary students are also in place. However, as the vaccination programme for children on post-primary services is rolled out and the lifting of restrictions on public transport services proceeds, the capacity limit of 50% on post-primary school transport services will be subject to ongoing review. The Department will make decision on that in the coming weeks.

If we are interested in talking about climate change, the first thing we should be doing, as a minimum requisite, is saying to all school-going children in rural Ireland or, indeed, in the cities, that there is a ticket there for them. We should not have cars or the SUVs or whatever going up and down the road with one child in them. That is the first common-sense thing. It is not going to rob the bank because there is plenty of money wasted in this country. That is the first thing.

I welcome what the Tánaiste said about tax and the other measures in the budget but there are more than public service workers in rural Ireland. There are private operators, people who set up their own businesses and people working in the private sector. I understand that the tax system the Tánaiste talked about will help them but the reality of it is, with electricity over the last year, heating their homes and transport for going to work, these people are probably about €1,200 out of pocket. That is what we need to be talking about.

The Tánaiste spoke about stabilising the national herd. I want clarification on this. Will young farmers who are starting up-----

Deputy, we are out of time.

-----be allowed and able to go into stocking if they want to? Is it going to be on the nitrates, with X amount of units per hectare, like it was proposed, or is there a new system coming?

I cannot answer that question today. The carbon budget and climate action plan are not agreed yet but they will be agreed in the next couple of weeks and hopefully that will give certainty not just to people in agriculture but to people across the economy and across our society. We as a Government want young people going into farming. We want them to know that this is a career, a livelihood and a lifestyle that they can have. We want Ireland to continue to be a food producer. I am proud of the fact that this is a country that produces enough food to feed 45 or 50 million people, which is nine times our population. I do not think we would achieve anything in terms of food security or climate by producing less food. That food is going to be needed. There will be an increased demand for food across the world and we produce it more sustainably than others. We are going to have to produce it more sustainably again but it would be a retrograde step if we produced less food and then had other countries produce it for us in a way that would be much less sustainable.