Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

The latest daft.ie rental report makes for very bleak reading. It will bring no comfort to tenants who hand over an extortionate amount of their earnings to landlords every month and it again highlights the abject failure of the Government to get to grips with this crisis. Rents, already at record levels, increased by a further 7% in the past year. The average rent has more than doubled in a decade, increasing every year for the past nine years. It now stands at €1,516 per month. It is off the wall.

While rents in Dublin continue to soar to an astonishing average of €2,082, the real punch in the gut in this report is the massive jump in rents people in the regions now face. Rents in Munster are up by 15.6%. In Connacht-Uladh, people in Mayo, Leitrim and Roscommon have been hit by a 20% hike. A bad situation has gotten even worse on the Taoiseach's watch and that of a Fianna Fáil Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Fianna Fáil has picked up right where its Fine Gael partners left off. The party's refusal to take urgent action means this crisis has become a generational catastrophe.

Workers, families and young people cannot afford these rents. They do not stand a chance of saving a deposit to buy their own home. Renters are hanging on now by a thread. Why? This is happening because the Government recycles policies that favour developers, wealthy investors and big landlords over ordinary people. We need only look at what it is dong. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has given landlords the green light to increase rents even further in the midst of this crisis. The Government bends over backwards with sweetheart tax deals and roadshows for cuckoo funds that drive rents through the roof and, by the way, pay no tax on their rental income. The Government did nothing in its budget to help renters. These are the choices it has made and renters are now paying a very heavy price.

There are alternatives that would make a big difference.

Sinn Féin has asked the Taoiseach time and again to cut rents by putting one month's rent back into renters' pockets through a tax credit. He said no. We asked him to ban rent increases for three years. He said no. Now, here we are, with renters staring into the abyss and their lives on hold and aspirations curtailed, unable to plan for the future because many of them do not know whether they will make it to the end of the month. That is the reality and it must change. If the Taoiseach does not show up for renters today, he never will. Tá an ghéarchéim cíosa ina tubaiste faoi deara. Tá mé ag impí air an treo a athrú. Ní mór gníomhú práinneach a dhéanamh chun cíosanna a ghearradh agus cosc a chur ar mhéaduithe cíosa i gcomhair trí bliana. I ask the Taoiseach to act. I ask him to cut rents and ban rent increases for three years. I ask him to do both of these things urgently. No more blah blah blah, kicking for touch or talking down the clock. I ask him to show up and give renters the break they need or make way for a Government that will.

The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, through the Housing for All strategy, has given the most comprehensive and substantive housing programme which will lead to increased supply. The bottom line is the most fundamental way we can ease pressures on rent - there is no question of there being pressures on renters - and the most effective way to deal with it is to increase supply. We had two lockdowns since the commencement of Covid. That hit supply in 2020. It has hit supply in 2021, although we are making a significant comeback on commencements. Commencement notice data showed September commencements increased by 48% on August figures. In the year to September 2021, 30, 519 residential units were commenced, which is up 40% year on year, when compared to the same period to September 2020. Significant momentum is building up in the house construction sector, which we need to get to the average of 33,000 completions per annum. That is a central part of Housing for All.

That will involve the State intervening, as provided for in budget 2021, for affordable housing and cost rental homes to be delivered, of which up to 1,580 are to be delivered next year by approved local housing bodies, local authorities and the Land Development Agency. More than 1,100 social housing homes are to be provided. The emphasis of Government policy is to increase supply across the board, in social, affordable and cost rental housing and to bring back voids, which we have done at an unprecedented rate in the past 18 months. There is no question of the number of voids which have been brought back and the funding given to local authorities to create additional homes in the social sphere, along with working with the approved housing bodies in terms of homelessness and new social housing builds.

In the interim, five pieces of legislation have already passed on protecting security of tenure for tenants and restricting rent increases. Up to quite recently inflation was below 1%. However, inflation has gone up globally so the Minister will now provide for a maximum limit of 2% increases in rent or inflation, whichever is the lower and for an unlimited duration in terms of tenancies. Substantial protection of tenants has been realised by the Minister through a variety of legislation he has passed. Fundamentally, supply is the key and all of us in this House have a responsibility to do everything we possibly can to facilitate supply of housing.

Too many schemes are being left there and deliberated upon by councils, schemes as large as 750 houses in Dublin City Council. It seems they are going on forever. I cannot reconcile all of the angst and anger in here about housing and party colleagues of Deputy McDonald and others, on Dublin City Council, saying no to substantial housing projects because of their mixed nature, be it affordable or some private and some social. It is just not good enough and cannot be sustained. We need to push on ahead, get projects delivered and housing provided for people because that is the most effective way to deal with the rent issue, in addition to the restrictive measures the Minister has and will introduce on the 2% maximum limit.

The Taoiseach's policy and his Minister are failing. Supply is, of course, the issue and that is why the Taoiseach should have embraced the ESRI recommendation to double capital investment in the delivery of homes, but he did not do that. His top economist trashed that report. I ask him not to lecture me or anyone else on the Opposition benches on the issue of supply, while simultaneously allowing a high-ranking Government official to undermine the argument for supplying the resources to underpin it. I do not know if the Taoiseach heard the figures I gave to him. There has been a 20% increase in rents in some Connacht counties and an increase of almost 20% in Munster. I have asked the Taoiseach very simply to take actions that would make the world of difference now to the 300,000 renters in this State. I am asking him to introduce measures that will cut their rents now - cut their rents - not allow for a further increase and I have asked him to introduce a measure to ban increases for three years. Here is the truth: that is what needs to needs to happen. I want him to answer straightforwardly whether he will do those two things. Yes or no?

I have looked at Sinn Féin's policies in Northern Ireland. Deputy McDonald's colleague, the minister, Ms Harrigy MLA, has the responsibility. It is interesting to see we are far more advanced in our legislation on protecting renters than the Sinn Féin minister on the Northern Ireland Executive is. Everything Deputy McDonald has criticised here-----

Blah, blah, blah. I ask the Taoiseach to answer the question.

-----Sinn Féin is doing in Northern Ireland and to a lesser extent than we are doing here. Sinn Féin's proposals would not result in a cutting of rent whatsoever and the substance behind the policies it has advanced is fairly threadbare. The approach the Minister has taken on supply and protecting tenants, which Deputies had asked for in this House, has and will be provided for-----

That is why we have increases in rent of 20%.

-----in the legislation he is bringing forward-----

If that is the Taoiseach's idea of success-----

-----but the fundamental point-----

-----he is really in trouble, more trouble than even I imagined.

This is a well-worn tactic. The Opposition Leader consistently engages in abuse of the House. I have allowed the Deputy to speak, twice, without interruption, but every time I get on my feet, recently-----

The Taoiseach will not answer the question.

-----there is an ongoing tactic of intervening all the time because the microphone is live and it is being facilitated and is not correct or proper practice. The bottom line is supply is the answer. I need the co-operation of everyone in the House, including Sinn Féin on the ground, to get supply through and projects delivered.

The National Transport Authority announced the greater Dublin transport strategy yesterday. It represents a huge blow to the people of the greater Dublin area and what appears to be an abandonment of our emissions targets in the transport area, as set out in the climate action plan. It was particularly devastating for the north side of Dublin because of the further long fingering of MetroLink. I represent Dublin north west, which is the only constituency in the greater Dublin area without any rail service at all. We are entirely dependent on a bus service, which is not capable of meeting the demand from commuters. Large numbers of people have no choice but to get into their cars and drive. Dublin north west is sandwiched between the city centre and Fingal, an area which has seen its population grow by 41% in a 20-year period and it is continuing to grow.

Many residents in Fingal, too, have no choice but to get into their cars to drive because of the inadequate capacity in the public transport system. On top of all of that is the airport, where passenger numbers reached 33 million in 2019. We are the only European capital without a rail link to our airport. All of that adds up to a situation where there is near gridlock for most of the day on most main roads on the northside of Dublin. There is seldom a morning when the Swords Road at Whitehall is not referenced in the traffic reports.

In the 1990s, we were promised a northside Luas line. It never materialised. The metro was first announced in 2001. The Taoiseach’s late colleague, Séamus Brennan, told us that the metro would be open in 2007. We are now on our third iteration of the metro. There have been several rounds of detailed consultation with residents on the northside of Dublin. Hundreds of meetings have been held. Thousands of leaflets have been distributed. Hundreds of millions of euro have been spent on planning and design work. Yesterday the bombshell was dropped that it will be more than ten years, and possibly up to 20 years, before there is any prospect of the metro opening. Yet again, and for the third time, people are being marched to the top of the hill. It is beyond belief that it was a Green Party Minister for Transport who flagged the fact that this project, and indeed DART+, would not go ahead. I ask the Taoiseach what he is saying to the people of the northside of Dublin now?

The Deputy's time is up.

Have they to put up with gridlock for the next ten years? Second, what does the Taoiseach intend to do about our emissions targets, which are not capable of being met in the absence of these projects?

We are way over time.

First, the wrong impression is being put entirely on the National Transport Authority, NTA, report on the transport strategy for the greater Dublin area. I will first deal with the issue of emissions. The strategy was published yesterday and it is a statutory requirement to review the strategy it had published in 2016. Under that strategy, greenhouse gases linked to public transport will fall dramatically, contrary to what the Deputy said. The implementation of the full measures will reduce transport emissions in the greater Dublin area by 69%. That will come about because of further investment in DART and Luas, which are already fully electric. This is also as a result of the complete transition away from fossil fuels for buses within 13 years. I would like to do that faster. I am maintaining the pressure on that. Acceleration of investment into walking and cycling infrastructure will also deliver substantial greenhouse gas reductions. The delivery of existing projects under the current strategy, as well as newly proposed projects, will significantly expand the availability of alternative options to private car journeys. Newly proposed plans include a provision of a new rail line to Navan and extending the DART+ programme to deliver electrified rail services to Sallins, Naas, Kilcock, and Wicklow.

The Deputy has made fair points about the northside, the airport and the rail link. I accept her analysis of gridlock and the unacceptable situation for residents and commuters from the northside. However, the NDP provides the funding to commence delivery of the major public transport projects under the greater Dublin area transport strategy, which include BusConnects, DART+ and MetroLink. The Deputy is correct in saying that enormous work has gone into finalising the preliminary design of MetroLink, completing the required environmental impact assessment reports and closing out property referencing issues. That is all critical work to MetroLink. The Deputy outlined some of it herself when speaking about the consultations. The focus right now is getting all three projects, namely, BusConnects, DART+ and MetroLink to the Government for approval under the public spending code. As well as this, the focus at a project level is on getting planning application documentation ready for submission to An Bord Pleanála in early 2022.

This idea that is being spun that somehow, MetroLink has been shelved for ten years is just not the truth. It will be going to planning in early 2022. It has to go through public spending codes and various approvals. I do not think anybody here would expect otherwise. The fact that the national development plan, NDP, is a ten-year envelope and has a ten-year framework is the ultimate guarantor that we will get MetroLink built. That is our determination as a Government. Far from shelving anything, therefore, work is proceeding at pace to get MetroLink going, as well as all of the necessary decisions that have to be taken to get it ready for planning.

I think that the Taoiseach is misrepresenting what was announced yesterday.

No, I am not. I am genuinely not.

We have been told that DART+ will not happen and cannot happen until the 2040s, post 2042. In spite of the fact that MetroLink has been promised for more than 20 years, and that we have been promised a rail link for more than 30 years, nothing will happen in relation to the opening of the metro until at least post 2031. That is in another ten years. I ask the Taoiseach what is he saying to the people of the northside of Dublin about the gridlock that they now encounter in trying to go about their daily business? What will happen to improve that situation over the next ten years? Are there any grounds for hope that anything will change on the northside of Dublin in the next ten years?

First, BusConnects is a huge priority. There have been comprehensive and extensive consultations with communities about BusConnects. The investment has been put into the NDP to make that happen. Likewise, with MetroLink, that is going to happen. I understand all of the frustrations and I accept the point-----

Not for more than ten years.

No, the documentation-----

It will be more than ten years before it opens.

I have spoken to the Minster for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan about this-----

Please Deputy, do not interrupt.

Did the Taoiseach read the plan?

The Government has provided funding. This will go to planning in early 2022. The three decisions on BusConnects, DART+ and MetroLink will come to Cabinet shortly, before Christmas and early in the new year-----

At best it will open at phase 2. It is phase 2 for opening.

The bottom line is that there are planning processes we have to get through. We have to get through them.

It is Government decisions and funding that are required.

No one in here can determine the length of time that will be involved in getting over those timeframes, challenges and so on that inevitably happen with projects as large as this. What has been provided is the funding to underpin the project in the national development plan. The Minister is determined to progress these three key elements of the transport strategy for the greater Dublin area.

I thank the Taoiseach and his time is up.

It will not be finished within the national development plan timeframe. It is all ten-plus years away.

Please, Deputy. We move to Deputy Carol Nolan.

The dental medical card scheme is in a state of crisis currently. It was confirmed to me in a reply to a parliamentary question that in the period from September 2020 to September 2021, there have been 33 resignations of dental surgeon contractors from the dental treatment services scheme in my constituency of Laois-Offaly alone. This crisis is mirrored in every single region and county right across this State.

In discussions I had with the Irish Dental Association on Monday, it was confirmed to me that there are only 750 dentists actively treating medical card patients. This is less than half the number of contracts held by dentists up to two years ago. This translates to just one dentist per 2,000 medical card patients. It is extremely worrying. The scheme is entirely unfit for purpose. It is under-resourced and restrictive to the point where patients cannot access the care they need in their local communities. It supports the extraction of teeth, rather than preventative treatments to save teeth. An entirely new scheme is required. That is coming from the people themselves, the dentists who are at the coalface.

There are now also enormous and serious concerns regarding access to dental care for children. Over the past decade, there has been a 30% decline in the number of dentists in the public dental service, despite a 23% increase in the number of eligible under-16s due for assessments. Understaffing of the school screening system means that the number of children being seen for targeted checkups is a fraction of what it should be. It also is alarming that the Irish Dental Association says that its members have been repeatedly denied meaningful engagement with the Department of Health, whether through representation in the development of policy, or constructive engagement in its preparation.

We have been promised reform of the Dentists Act 1985 for more than a decade. The Government needs to give this urgent priority. Will the Department of Health respond positively in the near future to the Irish Dental Association's request, communicated two months ago to the Department, for the appointment of an independent chair and confirmation of a framework for negotiations equivalent to that agreed with the Irish Medical Organisation seven years ago? Will the Taoiseach accept that the current crisis is widening the divide in oral health status according to income levels, thereby prohibiting general dentists from following through on their wish to provide access to essential and routine dental care for all of the community?

I thank the Deputy for raising a very important issue. I acknowledge there are significant challenges in fully implementing the dental treatment services scheme, DTSS, which provides dental care, free of charge, to medical card holders aged 16 and over. These services are provided by independent dental practitioners who have a contract with the Health Service Executive. I know the Deputy has spoken eloquently and has been in touch with the Irish Dental Association, IDA. The Irish Dental Association is discussing that contract and the dental treatment services scheme with the Department of Health and the HSE. The Deputy has suggested, following the lobbying of the Irish Dental Association, that an independent chair should be appointed for those talks. The reality is that there are industrial relations and contractual dimensions to this which we cannot lose sight of. That said, additional funding was provided in the budget, of €10 million more than the €56 million base for the existing level of services, so there is now €66 million for the operation of the scheme. The national oral health policy, Smile agus Sláinte, has been developed in consultation with all involved, and was published in 2019. The Minister at that stage meant with representatives of the Irish Dental Association in late November 2020. It was followed by discussions with officials. They have been engaging constantly with the IDA with a view to contractual engagement.

This is about a contract and we need to go into it with our eyes wide open. At the same time, there has been a reduction by more than 200 private dentists holding a DTSS contract to provide dental care to medical card holders. Approximately 1,200 contracted dentists continue to provide oral healthcare to medical card holders under the DTSS. As the Deputy said, recent figures show that there have been about 85 resignations from the DTSS so far this year. Some 81 new contracts have been issued. We are aware that more dentists, particularly recent graduates, have been joining established dental practices. Since they usually, at the outset, provide services under the contract of the practice owner, they are not included in the figures of dental contractors. The salaried public dental services will provide emergency and routine care to children under the age of 16. We want to get these issues resolved. I will again engage with the Minister for Health and the HSE about the ongoing discussions. I am mindful that with matters of this kind, we have to give space for those discussions to continue to get a resolution that is fair to everybody.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response. We have to remember that reform of the Dentists Act 1985 has been promised for the last decade. There are difficulties at play. From speaking with the dentists, there is a lot of frustration which would indicate that there has not been meaningful dialogue with the Department. That concerns me because these issues should have been ironed out long ago and the matter should have been resolved to make sure that people have access to dental treatment. The core issue is that people do not have enough access and that there have been 33 resignations in Laois-Offaly alone. I stress that there needs to be some commitment from the Department to the appointment of an independent chair and confirmation of a framework for negotiations equivalent to that agreed with the Irish Medical Organisation seven years ago. Will the Taoiseach request that the Minister for Health publish the report commissioned by the HSE on orthodontic care and treatment, as an important first step in debating how best to tackle these persistent difficulties that have led to having so few dentists and to 33 resignations in Laois-Offaly?

I thank the Deputy. I will talk to the Minister for Health about the publication of the report on orthodontic care. These are negotiations and discussions that involve contractors seeking a better contract, which will involve additional resources from the taxpayer to provide care for those who have medical cards. We want to provide free dental care for those with medical cards. As always, with contractual negotiations, there are two sides to every story. I am informed that officials in the Department of Health and HSE are in discussions - I will double-check that with the Minister and officials - with the Irish Dental Association on matters concerning the dental treatment services scheme. All matters raised by the Irish Dental Association are under discussion. I will revert to the Minister with the Deputy's views.

I ask the Taoiseach how the current national development plan, NDP, can deliver balanced regional development where previous plans have failed. We have a long list of projects. The language around regional balance is there. We know from bitter experience that that has not worked beforehand and past performance is certainly a poor indicator of future success. Time and again, I have quoted the facts and figures that show the widening economic gap between the northern and western region and the rest of the country. Unfortunately, the European Commission confirmed our worst fears by downgrading the region economically, not just compared to other regions in Ireland but to every single region in the EU. In that context, the NDP has some heavy lifting to do in order to redress the economic imbalance which has worsened over the last 15 years.

I do not believe that the Taoiseach or any of his predecessors intended for such an imbalance in development between the regions to occur. I believe that it was a combination of inertia, a frame of mind wherein a rising tide would lift all boats, a failure to measure systematically the impact of policy from a regional perspective across all Departments and, more than anything else, the absence of a disciplined and ongoing commitment to provide the necessary investment and support to the northern and western region.

There is a five city-led approach to development, not exclusively but significantly. However, the northern and western region cannot benefit from that approach as it has only one city, which is situated at its southern tip. The NDP needs to be explicitly nuanced to allow other towns in the region, such as Sligo, to play a special role as a driver for development. If it is to close that gap, towns such as Sligo and Letterkenny must be afforded opportunities and provided with investment that is comparatively greater than that being provided to similar-sized towns in other regions. That is not favouritism. It is an absolute necessity to rebalance the part of the plan that is city-led. We need timelines and benchmarks to measure progress. Finally, we need a form of regional proofing when assessing projects.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue and assure her that the essence of the national development plan is to address the regional imbalance in economic development in the country. She mentioned the citywide strategy. That is a good thing because it will help all regions in terms of that imbalance.

If the Deputy looks at key sectors such as education, for example, there is investment in the technological university embracing Sligo, Letterkenny and Galway-Mayo institutes of technology, ITs. They will comprise one technological university for the north west, which will be a significant help in driving the economy of the region. Each of those institutional campuses has its strengths. I have been to the IT Sligo campus on a number of occasions. It has a unique robotic technology centre, for example. It is also strong in relation to small to medium-sized companies. Funding is provided for further development for the IT Sligo central campus extension. The Sligo Cultural Plaza is identified in the NDP as are the Sligo cultural and learning hub, the Sligo hospital regeneration and a range of other proposals. I was recently at the ceremony for the completion of the Sligo western distributor road as well as the new N4 upgrade. That will be a significant boost from a road infrastructure perspective.

The various funding streams through the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, and the rural development fund will add to the NDP in creating infrastructural and human skills investment in the north-west region. There is no doubt that we have to rebalance economic development in the country. In this NDP there is a strong focus on that rebalancing.

Only last week the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, published the rural transport plans, which involve a substantial expansion of what was there before. That is about trying to create a critical mass in the regions, particularly in the north west, to ensure sustained economic development. The NDP is a high-level document in terms of the broader range of objectives, aims and so on. Within that, it gives rise to a range of projects on a smaller scale which will be delivered in a timely and efficient manner.

I thank the Taoiseach. I do not dispute the city-led approach. I am saying the northern and western region cannot benefit from it to the same extent as other regions. We need a more nuanced approach. The Taoiseach mentioned all the great projects in Sligo. I could say we have not had a road project in 20 years. I could quote the Northern and Western Regional Assembly report, which states that we are not getting our fair share in regard to regional projects in the NDP, but that is not the point. The Taoiseach and I could play ping-pong across the floor of the Dáil all day regarding projects. However, unless we can measure progress and there is a system in place to do so and unless there is accountability across Departments, a nuanced approach to the northern and western region that recognises its specific circumstances and challenges and regional-proofing like we have with the climate action plan that requires adjustments to achieve planned outcomes, I do not believe we will see change.

I accept the Deputy's point about the need for accountability and metrics and measurements to ensure the objectives of the plan materialise. There are always different metrics used by different bodies and groups to analyse and reach conclusions. For me, one of the essential ingredients of the NDP is human capital. Maybe all of us focus too much on the big, mega-project. What drives economics and society is investment in human capital. Education at all levels is the key to the economic development of any region. That is why the NDP, in underpinning the establishment and investment in key elements of the technological university, will be an important economic driver for the region. The wider skills provision in Skillnet and the apprenticeship programme that is developing at pace and expanding are also important. Then there is the industrial part of the project in terms of foreign direct investment, FDI. Critically, as I said in the Dáil recently, the last 50 years might have been about FDI and we will always maintain our focus on that but the next 50 years has to be about growing indigenous industry to an even higher scale than we have.