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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 4 Nov 2021

Vol. 1013 No. 4

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

As always, impím oraibh cloí leis na srianta ama, más é bhur dtoil é.

Tá an scannal ó thaobh cúiteamh do theaghlaigh atá cráite ag míoca agus pirít ag dul ar aghaidh go fóill. Chuala muid ar fad na scéalta ó na teaghlaigh agus tá sár-jab déanta acu ag cur a gcuid pointí trasna le linn an fheachtais seo. Ar an 15 Meitheamh, thacaigh an tAire agus an Rialtas le rún ó Shinn Féin a thabharfadh 100% cúiteamh do na daoine seo, ach tuigim ó bheith ag caint leo aréir nár bhuail an tAire leo go fóill agus nár thug sé cuairt ar na ceantair seo leis an scannal agus an briseadh croí a fheiceáil dó féin. Tugann siad an cuireadh don Aire é seo a dhéanamh anois.

I want to raise with the Minister the mica and pyrite redress scheme, which is currently the subject of discussion between various Departments, including the Minister's own Department. The families involved are living in homes that are literally crumbling around them. That is a result of light-touch regulation and no regulation during the Celtic tiger period. It is important to say again that none of this is the fault of those families that are affected. I am sure we can all agree in this House that their campaign has touched the hearts of many people throughout the State. They have shown great resolve in their campaign for justice and for 100% redress. They have laid out their case, opened up their hearts and told their own personal stories to the entire nation. Now they need the Government to step up for them. They need the Government to have their backs and to be in their corner, and that includes the Minister.

On 15 June, the Dáil unanimously voted for a motion which mandates the Government to deliver 100% redress. The Minister supported the motion and now he needs to deliver on it. I am aware from those involved and the people I spoke to last night that thus far, the Minister has not had the opportunity to meet with them or to visit the areas affected. The families would like to extend that opportunity to the Minister before he sits down at the Cabinet table to make a decision on this matter. On behalf of the families affected in Donegal and elsewhere, I ask the Minister if he will take up the offer from them to meet with those affected and, ideally, to visit the areas affected. They have said that they will meet with the Minister any time, anywhere, in person or online. The Minister should do that before he sits down to make a decision.

The other key issue at play is who will manage the scheme if it is agreed and is acceptable to those involved. The families are very clear on this. They want the Housing Agency to manage this from start to finish. That has numerous benefits which the Minister should be concerned about, not least the benefit of economies of scale, which will help deliver better value for money. The opposite of that is that it would leave those devastated, crushed families competing for materials, personnel and at the mercy of construction inflation. Just like with the pyrite resolution scheme in Leinster, the Housing Agency, with its proven expertise, should be tasked with the responsibility of project managing the restoration of the affected homes in partnership with the families, from the tendering of works, to the appointment of contractors, to ensuring quality and right through to providing a State guarantee for the works to the families.

Does the Minister believe that the Housing Agency should be responsible for managing the scheme, delivering better value for money, dealing with economies of scale and ensuring quality? Will he take up the offer the families have asked me to make to him to meet with them in person, preferably physically at the locations? None of us, even including those who represent the people who live in the counties most affected, can comprehend the scale of the problem until we hear what it means to the families living in those houses, until we reach into those blocks that crumble in our hands and talk to the children about how they are not having a normal childhood. That offer is being extended to the Minister today.

I thank Deputy Doherty for raising this immensely important issue. I want to begin by acknowledging the extraordinary trauma, anxiety and stress that all those who have been afflicted by the awful change in the building blocks of their homes have confronted and endured. I have been aware of this issue because I worked as a member of the previous Government to bring forward the scheme, which in light of the continuing challenges the families face, the Government now accepts needs to be strengthened. This is why I am working very closely on this matter with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on a regular basis. The Government is committed to bringing forward a strengthened scheme to respond to the anguish, human need and to the basic need for the stability and safety of a family home. We all know how important that is to families all over the country. We are committed to bringing that forward. What we are working on at the moment is that we have to acknowledge that in addition to the huge need that Deputy Doherty and other Deputies have raised, including Deputy McHugh, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, we are also aware that the cost of dealing with this issue is very significant. We are aware not just of the challenges of mica, but other challenges across the country in relation to how homes have been built and what their future is. As a Government we need to ensure that we are confident that we are dealing with this in a way that meets the needs that are being raised with us by those families directly, while being conscious of the cost involved in this and also dealing with the important point Deputy Doherty raised, which is how such a scheme is administered and how it is delivered not only in his community but potentially in other communities that are afflicted by this issue.

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and I are currently considering this issue. Of course, it is a challenge regarding how we can respond in a humane, compassionate and effective way, which we are committed to doing. We will be making this decision conscious of significant amounts of money being spent on this, which we acknowledge needs to happen. We must focus on ensuring that as this money is being spent, it is being done in a way that can deliver speed of execution, confidence about being able to meet the needs, and does also reflect on what we have learnt from how other schemes have been administered across the country, in particular for pyrite. This is an issue that we are working on at the moment. The Ministers, Deputy Darragh O'Brien and Deputy Michael McGrath, and I are going to continue with the work, which we are doing as quickly as we can. We want to get this right.

I will not have the opportunity to travel to Donegal as we move through this process, but I have met families who have been afflicted by this. I am aware of the horror when a home turns into a property that is falling down in front of your eyes. Of course, I am aware of the anxiety that is causing and the deep and profound stress. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has met the families involved on many occasions. He has concluded a process that began at the end of June and lasted all the way up until the end of September.

I know he has been in regular and direct contact with many of the families that are very active on this issue. We will of course be guided by the input they are giving, recognising the scale of the matter. We must also be conscious of the funding that will be involved in this while dealing with the execution and governance questions that Deputy Doherty has correctly raised.

The Minister mentioned learning the lessons from pyrite and looking at examples. The Housing Agency took on that project and it is the only agency that can do this properly. We should not force families at their wits' end to compete for developers' prices and tenders and all the rest. The Minister for Finance clearly must have a view on this.

The families are well aware of the Minister's busy schedule but they are also aware he is a key person, as Minister for Finance, for the scheme that could address and lift the burden from those families. Alternatively, it could leave many of them behind. They are appealing to meet the Minister any time and anywhere, whether it is online or in person. They want to meet him before he sits at the Cabinet table and makes this decision. It is a fair request from the families and I encourage the Minister to take up that offer.

As the Minister knows, these families are at their wits' end and they have won the hearts of this nation. These families expect the Government to have their back. They did not cause this problem, which arose because of light-touch or no regulation. This came from the Celtic tiger era and these homes are literally falling apart. Will the Minister please take up that offer and provide an answer on whether he will meet the families online or in person over the next number of days?

I thank the Deputy. The last thing I am concerned about is my schedule, whether it is busy or not. All that matters is how we as a Government can meet the needs being raised in the House by Deputy Doherty and others in a compassionate and fair way while also being conscious that the funding involved and the commitment from the Exchequer is very significant. The Ministers, Deputies Darragh O'Brien and Michael McGrath, and I are aware that as we deal with this matter, we may well have other challenges to which we must respond regarding the future of building within our country. We are aiming to get that balance right. I can assure Deputy Doherty that I am absolutely aware of the human need he referred to. The Government will do all it can to conclude a process that aims to respond to this issue.

Does that mean the Minister will not meet them? They asked me to ask the Minister if he would meet them.

Deputy Doherty-----

I thank the Minister but we are over the allocated time.

With respect, thousands of these families came to the streets of Dublin twice. The Minister should respond to the question of whether he will meet them. It is unfair on the families.

We have all been alarmed by the rapid increase in the incidence of Covid-19 in recent weeks, with nearly 7,000 cases reported in the past two days amid an upward trajectory. We appear to be going from one wave to another without moving to a point where we accept this as endemic and we need strategies to deal with the virus into the medium term.

It has been clear for a long time that Covid-19 is airborne, and this presents significant challenges, particularly in the winter months when people are more likely to be indoors. Despite this, very little has been done in terms of ventilation in the Government response. We can take primary schools as an example, as we all want them to remain open and be safe. We also know a large number of children have tested positive for Covid-19. CO2 monitors have been provided for most classrooms. I spoke to a teacher yesterday who told me windows are fully open all the time, along with the classroom door, with the CO2 levels monitored constantly. They only have to close the door for a short time before the indicator turns red. Where it is not possible to have good ventilation, the advice is to contact an architect and apply for remedial funding.

A contrasting approach is being taken in Victoria, Australia, which has invested in air filtration systems with HEPA filters for every classroom. This is a proactive approach. Not only do we see large numbers of children with Covid-19 but there are also other nasty viruses on the go, such as respiratory syncytial virus, RSV, that result in hospitalisations. Good ventilation could play its part in reducing the risk of the spread of more than Covid-19. It is particularly important in this country, where class sizes are particularly high.

We have been repeatedly told schools are somehow immune to the spread of Covid-19 but that view is contested. We have 500,000 primary school children who are unvaccinated and many of them attend classes with poor ventilation. None of these is being tested when there is a positive case in the class. It seems we are taking a very high risk. We could take other action and the use of antigen testing has been discussed. The medium-term view is very important.

Is there any change in the approach to the time horizon for managing Covid-19 or will we continue to go from wave to wave and hope it will not reoccur? Has the Minister had discussions with the Department of Education about taking a proactive approach, with investment in good ventilation? Is there a change in approach in new school design, for example, that would incorporate better ventilation standards? Energy is very expensive now and windows are being left open so will there be additional funding for schools for such costs?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Government and the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, are very much aware of the change we are seeing in community transmission and the level of Covid-19 incidence across our country. Of course, we take heart in the fact we are in a very different position from where we were a year ago due to the success of the vaccination programme of the Government, the resilience of the Irish people and the extraordinary work done by all our front-line workers in healthcare services.

Of course, we are looking at the current change in the spread of disease, and as Dr. Tony Holohan and the Government have acknowledged, there is real cause for additional focus and concern as we move to a period when socialisation and household contacts increase. The Government is acting to manage this risk and continue protecting the health of this country. In testing alone, we now have capacity in place for 175,000 tests per week, with 140,000 of them within our community teams and 35,000 in acute testing services. We have put in place a very significant testing programme.

As the House is aware, we are also in an important phase in rolling out our booster campaign. The national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, will make further considerations on the future of the booster campaign in Ireland and we have, due to the work of the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, maintained €1.2 billion of additional funding made available to our health services last year. That will equip our nurses, doctors, healthcare professionals and consultants for what we acknowledge will be a challenging period.

The Deputy asked a particular question about schools. Our public health experts continue to acknowledge and advise us that our school and classroom settings are lower risk and safer when the right measures are put in place. The Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, noted this morning that with the capital plans and capital expenditure she has available for this year, additional funding is being used to invest in our school buildings and do what we can to make them safer as we help our schools, teachers and pupils to stay as safe as possible at this time of additional risk.

I will conclude with the point that this appears to be quite a shift in position from the Social Democrats. Not so long ago I remember the Social Democrats being the lead advocates for a zero Covid approach. The party is now in a very different place. I acknowledge that shift in position and it is welcome. It should be acknowledged that the party was making the case for setting tests and standards that we, at the time, believed would be difficult to deliver. The approach being taken by the Government now looks to reduce risk, although we acknowledge all we still need to do.

I am sure the state of Victoria, for example, took expert advice before investing heavily in ventilation in schools. We are constantly being asked by people why we are so different from our European counterparts when it comes to the rate of transmission of the virus.

We seem to be going from wave to wave and hoping it will not reoccur. The reality is that this is a substantial wave with 7,000 cases in the last two days and many children and their parents testing positive. I have no desire to get into a Punch and Judy act with the Minister on this but it seems self-evident that where a virus is transmitted by air, in congested environments such as schools the Government should take a longer term approach. This will not go away overnight. I acknowledge that the vaccination programme has been extraordinarily good but it will not be enough on its own.

There is great value in hope as we look to how we can lead our country through this awful disease but the strategy we have is not based on hope. We have a strategy that is based on putting in place public health guidance with immense resources from our country to equip our hospitals, GPs and nurses with all possible measures and supports to help them deal with the approaching challenge. The Deputy compared us with other countries. Every country is different and the health conditions and geography of every country are different. However, in many of the measurements of Ireland's performance and resilience in dealing with Covid, the efforts the Irish people have made and our efforts to reduce the loss of life are recognised. Every life lost is one too many and in every case where a person's health has suffered, that loss of health is a loss too many for this Government. We will continue with our focus and efforts in the coming period.

I raise the important issue of agriculture. This week, there has been much discussion of the environment, with the ongoing conference in Glasgow discussing how we will save the world from itself and from us. I also understand the climate action plan will be launched today. The KPMG economic impact analysis carried out on behalf of the Irish Farmers Journal points to a frightening scenario for farming in this country as a result of proposals to reduce carbon emissions for the farming sector. Small family farms of 50 acres or less will probably face the greatest burden arising from the new farming methods that will be brought in to try to deal with carbon emissions.

The CAP proposals put forward by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine are creating a sense that CAP funding, which has been used historically to provide family income support, will be used to provide for environmental schemes. The farming community is concerned that this will be done without first considering that income has to be protected before we look at how to provide investment upfront to ensure small family farms survive. The programme for Government proposes that additional funding be made available beyond the CAP to help farmers to meet these challenges. It is important that the Minister understand that farmers in my area, including small suckler farmers, beef cattle finishers, sheep farmers and tillage farmers, all of whom depend heavily on direct payments for their incomes, are worried that they will not get the same level of support they got in the past. They are also worried that they will have to invest more in their farms to bring them to a point where they reduce carbon emissions.

Farmers want to participate in this and ensure we have a better environment. Over the years, they have shown themselves to be good custodians of the environment. Ireland ranks first and fifth, respectively, in Europe for dairy and beef production. We are at a crossroads worldwide in an environmental sense but we are also putting agriculture at a crossroads. I ask the Minister to outline how we will ensure that the proper turn is taken at that crossroads.

In my experience of engaging directly with farmers and the agricultural community, those who most understand the challenges of sustainability and what is happening in nature in front of our eyes are those who earn a living from it and engage with it every day on their farms with their herds. I fully understand the anxiety about what the future could bring. It is a future and an anxiety that stretch beyond our agricultural community. Of course I understand that this issue is of fundamental importance to farmers. This is why the climate action plan the Government will launch today is a plan for our entire country and every sector of our society and economy. We are asking and calling on all to play their part in responding to this great challenge.

It is in recognition of the issues that Deputy Canney raised that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, worked so hard to get where we are now with CAP funding and to put in place the funding that would be needed to respond to the issues the Deputy is referring to. Deputy Canney will be aware of the strategic plan in CAP, which has funding of €3.86 billion. Pillar 2 of that plan is focused on how we can invest in the future and focus on the investment and infrastructure that will be needed to cope with change. There is increased funding for the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, the dairy beef welfare scheme, the sheep improvement scheme and the organic farming scheme. Funding is being put against all of those programmes to respond to the needs farmers and the farming community are raising directly with the Government and through Deputy Canney.

The Minister and the entire Government believe that Irish farming has demonstrated again and again its ability to put in place sustainable practices to bring the best of organic farming into farms all over the country. We will harness that commitment and co-operate and work closely with our farmers to move to a future in which they are central. Along with all of us in the country, farmers will make changes and we will support them in doing so to help us respond to the existential challenge we face.

The point I am making, one which the Minister has not homed in on, is that we need to protect family farm income in the first instance. We also need to provide front-loaded funding to allow farmers to change their work practices to ensure they are doing so in an environmentally-friendly way. Those are two separate matters. The concern farmers have is that the CAP is being taken hostage to pay for the environmental measures and that their family supports will be lost. To take small farms of 50 acres as an example, only one third of these farms are viable. The security of these family farms is in doubt if we do not address this matter in a tangible way. I ask for further engagement with the farming organisations to ensure Pillar 2 of the CAP is administered in a way that makes a difference to farm incomes, rather than just creating consultancy fees.

I understand where the Deputy is coming from. This is the reason Pillar 2 funding is now €900 million higher than it was in the previous scheme between 2016 and 2020. This is an increase in funding of 30% for Pillar 2. Deputy Canney will know better than me that it is sometimes the case that funding made available through the CAP or through the Government directly has conditions and requirements attached to it. This funding should be used to support our farming community and farm incomes when farmers are going through a period of such change.

To go into the specifics, this is why there will be a dairy beef welfare scheme and a sheep improvement scheme and it is why we will honour the commitment to put in place an organic farming scheme for which €256 million of funding will be made available. The Minister has already given the commitment that he will consult widely with the agricultural community on this plan and this issue. I will pass on to him directly what Deputy Canney has said.

I ask the Minister about the cost of living and what will be done about it. Energy prices are rocketing. We saw two energy companies, Budget Energy and SSE Airtricity, announce cost increases of 29% and 9%, respectively, in September. Our laoch thar lear or dhroimeann donn dílis who will save us, Equinor, has pulled out of the Moneypoint project which hopefully will not scuttle it but will certainly delay it. People are seeing increases in the costs of their shopping baskets already. Almost all of the big agrifood companies published warnings about increasing costs through the late summer and September. Somebody who works in the agrifood sector and for whom I have great regard told me he expected to see food inflation hit 40% by the end of next spring. A 40% increase in the cost of a shopping basket is huge on top of energy costs.

As regards the construction industry, the CSO has announced that this year, the cost of structural steel has increased by 26.7%, the cost of rough timber has increased by 60% and the cost of plaster has increased by 20%. I do not know what the Government can do about all of these increases individually, with the possible exception of timber. The lack of felling licences is inexplicable when the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is being warned about the costs of materials. Of course, these do not only apply to timber. We do not produce steel in this country but the lack of felling licences is inexplicable.

On the broader issue, what will be done? It seems clear now that we are in a period of inflation, which is estimated to have been 3.79% in September. It is 3% in Germany. The Financial Times yesterday announced that the Federal Reserve was to taper its stimulus programmes. I accept it has been a long time since monetary policy for Ireland was set by the Minister for Finance. It was set for a very short period given the peg to sterling and that short period is not really a glowing reference. However, the Minister is also the chair of the group of eurozone finance ministers. Is inflation a concern of the Minister and his colleagues? What will be done about it because monetary policy is obviously the response? The Minister does not control it; it is controlled by the European Central Bank. Professor Philip Lane is the chief economist in the ECB and its head is not an economist. I am not suggesting that monetary policy will be set for Ireland, which is on the periphery. Clearly, it will be set for Germany. Does the Minister accept that inflation is a concern everywhere? Does he expect to see counter-inflationary measures? What would he like to see done about inflation because ordinary people cannot bear the rising costs?

I thank Deputy McNamara for raising this matter. This is an issue that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and I acknowledged in our budget day contributions. We acknowledged that we have seen, particularly across the summer period, a steady increase in the inflationary and cost-of-living pressures that many are facing. The Government is well aware of the additional challenge and cost that these are adding to families, businesses and workers all over the country. We appreciate that, as we try to put this awful disease behind us and heal the economy and lead it to recovery, for this additional burden of rising costs to be faced by many is an additional and a real challenge that we have to acknowledge and respond to.

At European level and on a global level, there are many catalysts for this change that, as Deputy McNamara acknowledged, are beyond the influence and control of a small open economy like Ireland's and even economies that are far bigger than ours. The biggest countries are having to confront the changes happening in energy markets and the changes that have happened in global supply chains.

The Deputy asked what my colleagues across Europe feel about this and what their judgment is on the matter. As I indicated on budget day, we are seeing inflation levels begin to increase. We said that there is a risk that they will increase further beyond the forecast on budget day. In terms of what we can do about it at an economic level across the eurozone, the President of the European Central Bank has already said that she will take care regarding changes in monetary policy because we are still in a situation where the economic costs of the pandemic are so real that we must nurture many employers back to a position where they are able to provide sustainable employment. That is a key consideration in the choices that employers are making.

That leads into what we can do here in Ireland. What we are doing here is making practical changes, such as the increase in the fuel allowance made by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, which took effect on 27 September, and also the changes to the income threshold, which will be increased by €20 in January 2022. This is also the reason the Government brought forward a personal tax package. We believe that those on low and middle incomes in particular should receive additional support in coping with the cost of living. Other than the Government, it appears that no one in this House believes that targeted changes in personal tax have a role to play in helping people with the cost of living. Those changes, combined with what we have done on social welfare, are what we are doing to respond to the challenge Deputy McNamara correctly identified.

With respect, I think the Minister will agree that the relatively minor changes to social welfare will be eaten up quickly by the inflationary pressures, in particular in the energy market, and beyond that in food prices, building costs, etc. People cannot afford to heat their homes or carry out the building that would make it cheaper to heat their homes.

I asked the Minister what he would like to see and I did not hear that. I can read a commentary in The Economist on what Christine Lagarde is doing but I would like to think that we are more than mere bystanders reading the Financial Times and The Economist, that we have some input as a nation, either at the eurozone table or, more broadly, into our monetary policy, and that we are not just drifting along. As the Minister for Finance of a sovereign state, what does the Minister want to see done with monetary policy in Europe in response to this? Only that will have an impact on inflation and inflationary measures in the long term. Are we entering a period of quantitative tightening? What impact will that have on the Government's ability to borrow?

In any comments that I make publicly, particularly on the work I do within the eurozone, I have to be conscious of and respect the independence that the European Central Bank has in these matters and I have to recognise that, for decisions that it makes that are significant for all of the economies in Europe, it is independent and it has to make those decisions independent of public and political influence.

More broadly, what I want to see is budgetary and monetary policy continuing to operate in an integrated way. Recognition that the financial market environment within which Ireland borrows could change is the reason Ireland is committed, over time, to steadily reducing the amount of money that we need to borrow and to getting ourselves in a position for next year - one year ahead of schedule - where our only borrowing needs will be to fund to invest in our future. I believe we will see over time - I hope at the right time - changes in how countries such as Ireland need to fund themselves.