Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Tá teaghlaigh i nDún na nGall ag fanacht go fóill ar fhreagraí maidir le foilsiú thuairisc Brandon. I ndiaidh blianta de mhoill, tá siad go fóill sa dorchadas maidir le caidé a tharlaigh go díreach dá ndaoine muinteartha. Tá siad ag iarraidh fáil amach na fáthanna gur tharlaigh an drochíde seo, cad sa chóras a theip taobh istigh d’Fheidhmeannacht na Seirbhíse Sláinte, agus tá siad ag iarraidh bheith ar a suaimhneas nach bhfuil sé seo le tarlú arís. Cé go bhfuil na freagraí sin ar fáil sa tuairisc, tá an Stát ag seasamh i mbealach na fírinne agus tá an Garda anois ag cur in éadan foilsiú na tuairisce. Caidé atá déanta ag an Rialtas le déanamh cinnte go mbeidh an tuairisc seo foilsithe?

It has been more than a month now since the families of the victims who suffered the most horrendous abuse at Ard Gréine Court, Stranorlar, County Donegal were given a glimmer of hope that the long-awaited Brandon report would be published and finally give them the answers they have been awaiting for years. In circumstances such as these, the comfort of the truth is significant. We know from leaks to the media that more than 118 occurrences of sexually inappropriate behaviour were carried out by a resident who is given the pseudonym of "Brandon" in the report, and that there were 18 victims at Ard Gréine. As the Minister is aware, these victims are among the most vulnerable in society. Many of them are non-verbal. They placed their trust in the centre and the HSE to protect their well-being and safety. Obviously, that did not happen. They were failed again and again.

The bravery of the whistleblower some years ago led to reports to HIQA and the Garda. The individual identified as Brandon was eventually isolated and the abuse stopped. However, astonishingly, two years after that, Brandon was relocated and the abuse started all over again. This was a catastrophic failure. What happened at Ard Gréine can never ever be allowed to happen again, but the HSE continues to fail these families. It moved to block the publication of the independent report. To make matters worse, we have now learned that An Garda Síochána has also moved to block the publication of the report. The Garda is concerned that the report does not accurately reflect the actions it took.

I am saying clearly to the Minister that this needs to stop. It is not acceptable. The Government cannot stand by any longer and allow organs of the State to conceal the truth. This is an independent report that contains findings to which the families are entitled. The ongoing charade, the shrouds of secrecy and the circling of State wagons have no place in a modern democracy. Those days are over and it is the responsibility of the Government to make that message clear.

In 2016, I wrote to the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to raise issue of the under-reporting of abuse at the facility. I got a response from the Minister stating it was a matter for the HSE. Five years on, we now have an independent report that is being blocked by the HSE. This cannot be fobbed off any more to the HSE or any other State agency. The HSE has let these families down again and again. This needs to be dealt with at a political level by the Government. My question is very simple. When will these families have the full report? When will they know the truth of what happened to their loved ones?

First of all, the Government is very aware of the trauma that many individuals and families continue to go through in the context of this issue. The families will get to see a full report. We want that to happen as soon as possible.

The HSE commissioned the national independent review panel, NIRP, to carry out a review of abuse allegations at a HSE-provided residential service for adults with disabilities. The purpose of the NIRP was to review the governance arrangements for the facility to which the Deputy referred and to understand why this situation continued over a period of years without any effective action being taken by management during Brandon's residency to stop and prevent these highly traumatic assaults. The report identified 108 occurrences of sexually inappropriate behaviours by one resident, referred to by the pseudonym Brandon, towards 18 other residents of the facility between 2003 and 2011. The report notes that these incidents occurred with the full knowledge of staff and management of the facility at the time.

The safety and protection of vulnerable people in the care of the State is paramount and the first concern of the Government and the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte, is to ensure that the needs of the current service users are being prioritised fully and addressed. The HSE has assured the Minister that there is no ongoing risk to service users and that the national governance and accountability structures to oversee implementation of the recommendations arising from the report are in place.

Local gardaí wrote to the HSE on Thursday, 4 November, requesting that the HSE continue to maintain the agreement not to publish the detailed executive summary until it completes its process. Separately, An Garda Síochána wrote to the HSE on Friday, 5 November - the following day - indicating there was a factual inaccuracy in the executive summary which it indicated should be corrected and requesting a copy of the full report. The correspondence is being sent to the chair of the NIRP, who drafted the report and executive summary, for her attention.

At this point, the only pause on progressing full publication is the specific request of An Garda Síochána. Currently, if the chair of the NIRP is satisfied that the report is accurate, there will be no need for any further delay. My understanding is that the Minister is very keen to ensure this report is published as soon as possible and that if there are any issues that need to be addressed between An Garda Síochána, the chair of the NIRP and the HSE, they need to be addressed quickly. Families deserve to get the full truth and to see this full report - not an executive summary or an extended executive summary, but the full report. They have already been through enough in relation to this case. The Deputy is correct that there does need to be political input to ensure the full unvarnished truth in respect of what happened here and the responsibility that comes with that in terms of those who were in positions of decision-making needs to be published and it needs to be transparent. That is the least the families deserve. The Minister of State met families who wished to meet her last Friday on a one-to-one basis to discuss the events and to outline the approach she is taking. I assure the Deputy that the Government wants this report published, and quickly.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire for his response, particularly the comment that the families will get to see the full report, because there have been suggestions this would be an executive summary of the report and that parts of it would be redacted. It is really important that families have the full information. He can imagine the nightmare these families are going through in the context of the many vulnerable loved ones who were in this facility.

Even though the HSE knew that this abuse was going on, it never relayed that fact to the families at the time. That is just appalling. It is not acceptable. Along with Deputies Mac Lochlainn and Pringle, former Deputy Pat "the Cope" Gallagher and others, I met representatives of the HSE in 2016 at the time of the publication of the HIQA report. We were not told of it either, at the time. Thankfully, the whistleblower came forward and gave that information.

It has been a week since the Garda raised the issue. I welcome the fact that the Minister has said there needs to be political input here. Is there any indication whatsoever as to when this report will be published? Is there a chance that it will be published next week? In what format will the report be published? Will it be sent to the family members before it is made public?

Once the issue was brought to her attention in November 2020, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, sought an urgent update from the HSE on these matters and has engaged with it extensively since then to reach a point where the full findings can be published. The Minister of State met the families that wanted to meet her on a one-to-one basis last week. The Minister of State has also been in contact with Mr. Paul Reid, CEO of the HSE, and the HSE board on this matter, including last week regarding the publication of the report. The Minister of State also wrote to the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner last week regarding any communications they may have received about the case, as well as reminding them of the importance of publication.

We, in the Government, are more than aware of how traumatising this has been and how totally unacceptable it is that vulnerable adults in a residential facility like this could have been abused in a way that happened over a sustained period. We want this report to be published in full. We want completely transparency and accountability on the back of that. The Minister of State is working hard to bring that about. I do not want to give an exact date of publication but certainly, there is an urgent effort to get it done quickly.

This will be a very serious weekend for the world, as eyes turn to COP26 in anticipation of what the outcome will be. Our former President, Mary Robinson, made an emotional appeal to world leaders yesterday for more ambitious action to be taken. She is right; we cannot negotiate with science or facts. This is on our watch. If we do not radically act to reduce our carbon emissions, temperatures will rise by more than 1.5°C. I want to see a better future for my children, Aoibhe and Senan. I am sure the Minister wants the same for his children. I want them to have a healthy planet to grow up on. I also want a prosperous Ireland for them that can continue to attract jobs and inward investment.

Climate change is real; we know that. However, I am seriously concerned about our energy security and the delays in delivery. I have been raising the issue week after week in the House. We are not acting fast enough to decarbonise. I believe we are losing inward investment and world-leading companies, potentially. Developers of offshore wind are continually frustrated by delays. We will have to resort to the use of emergency gas generators in the years ahead. Most offshore wind developments remain a pipe dream until 2023, when the new maritime area regulatory authority, MARA, will be up and running. It is said that most of those projects will not come online until 2028, which will be too late to help with emission reductions and meeting our target 5 GW of offshore wind by 2030. Serious questions are also being asked about our grid infrastructure, regulatory and planning processes and why we find ourselves at risk of blackouts. Personally, I must say that I am at a crossroads as regards my confidence in the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, and EirGrid. Moneypoint, which is located close to where I live, was to become a base for renewable energy and green hydrogen. Instead, it is back to burning coal. Equinor has pulled out of the €2 billion offshore floating wind farm development that would have powered 1.5 million homes. It is embarrassing.

I had the honour of representing Ireland at the Paris Agreement talks. I know how important the issue of climate change is. It is a challenge but it is also an opportunity. Ardnacrusha was built and we were at the forefront in relation to our foresight of where we needed to go as regards renewables. We are now at a very difficult crossroads. Ireland is reportedly one of three possible countries on a shortlist for the development of a major Intel plant. We are all aware of it. It is very important. A number of other projects, industries, businesses and companies are also potentially coming to Ireland. However, we are facing reputational damage. What efforts is the Government making at COP26 to deliver a meaningful deal that will change this for us on the ground? Has the Government got some tactics or strategies to look at fast-tracking renewable energy projects, especially offshore wind and solar? Critically, is foreign and direct investment at risk because of the lack of generating capacity and grid infrastructure?

I thank the Deputy for raising the question. I know that given his previous experience as a Minister, the issue is something that he knows a lot about. I was in Glasgow yesterday with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who, people should be glad to hear, has been drawn into serious negotiations on issues such as climate finance and so on, in terms of trying to get general agreement, which I think is a recognition of where Ireland stands now in the challenge of climate action debate. Of course, former President Mary Robinson spoke passionately yesterday, which made a big impression and drew big crowds in the COP26 campus in Glasgow. I shared the stage with her at a number of events and I can tell the Deputy that the crowds were there for her.

We are a credible voice in this space now, but we have to deliver on that. The ambition that we have in this country around a renewable energy revolution in many ways, in terms of the scale of what we need to do between now and 2030, is going to be hugely demanding of the Government in terms of licensing systems, certainty, grid management and investment and indeed, bringing new technologies on stream, in particular around hydrogen, by the end of this decade. We are planning supply increases, including 5 GW of offshore wind, an extra 1.3 GW onshore, 1 GW from solar power, around 0.5 GW from microgeneration, which we have been talking about for years but have not managed to deliver, but I think we will, 1.45 GW from batteries and another 2 GW from conventional power sources, predominantly gas-fired power stations. We have got to do all of that in the space of less than ten years, and as I said, we have to provide the investment environment for it to be done, because predominantly, it is all about private sector investment. That is a huge challenge, particularly on the offshore side, where we are finalising legislation, as well as a marine spatial planning plan, and putting certainty around licensing and auctions in place for offshore wind developers, in respect of both fixed and floating platforms, to deliver on that enormous potential not just on the east coast, but also on the south and west coasts.

The challenge in the short term, of course, is one of certainty of supply. The CRU has been challenged in recent weeks and months, as we know, and as the Deputy has raised in this House. The fact that the Huntstown and Whitegate gas-fired power stations were both offline for a number of months has contributed to those challenges. Huntstown is now back online and Whitegate will be online before the end of this month, which will make life a bit easier. It is a difficult management exercise while we bring the substantial renewables that we are planning for onto the system.

We should never have got to the point where Huntstown and Whitegate were down at this critical juncture. The Minister knows that, in fairness. He did not answer the question I asked. Are we potentially losing inward investment?

I have huge time for the IDA and I think Mr. Martin Shanahan has done a superb job at IDA Ireland. He has warned, in submissions to the CRU, EirGrid and others, that attracting inward investment is now at huge risk because of the situation we have as regards the grid and access to it. As I could have done, the Minister listed off a whole range of potential renewables that we have to have in place in ten years. What has happened for the last number of years to plan for the investors that are looking at coming in now? I have referenced one of them already. Are we losing investment because of a lack of foresight over the last few years in order to ensure that we have energy security?

It is a simple question.

No, I do not think we are but we are at risk of losing investment if we cannot provide the assurances that investors need. If we look at the investment flow that has come in over recent years, through IDA Ireland work predominantly and elsewhere, it has been a very strong pipeline of investment. The strength of foreign direct investment here and its expansion have been hugely helpful through the Covid period. The Deputy is right. There are two challenges here. In my view we will lose investment if we do not decarbonise our electricity grid over time because I believe major multinationals will demand electricity grids that prioritise renewables in the future, with regard to their own corporate governance demands on the shift to renewables and away from a carbon-based society. The other challenge is that they will demand energy security. They will demand consistency of supply, whether it is a data centre that uses huge amounts of power or something else. We have to do both. This is the challenge.

The Minister first became a Minister in the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government in 2011. This was the Government that in its programme said it would eradicate homelessness in five years. That Government made a decision in June 2011 to discontinue capital investment in social housing and to rely instead on the outsourcing of social housing to the private sector. Since 2011, average rents have increased from €740 to €1,500 nationally. In Dublin, average rents are now €2,082. My area of Dún Laoghaire in south Dublin has the highest average rents anywhere in the country at €2,280.

The policy of outsourcing is being discussed in the media today, although I received these answers in July. By the end of this year, housing assistance payments, HAP, the rental accommodation scheme, RAS and leasing arrangements will have cost €1.8 billion. This will go to the private sector. In most cases, it will be to pay for properties that the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, sold, another decision made by that Government. This is, in itself, fairly extraordinary. One target in Rebuilding Ireland that the Minister met when he had responsibility for housing was to get to 80,000 RAS, HAP and leasing properties. To get another bit of information out there, we now have 61,312 HAP tenancies, 17,507 RAS tenancies and 952 leasing arrangements. There are 10,000 to 15,000 more projected for the course of 2022. This far exceeds the amount of local authority housing or public housing that will be built in that period.

As if all of this, landing us with the housing crisis we are now in, were not bad enough, during the same period, including the period the Minister was the Minister with responsibility for housing, the HAP limits in this dysfunctional incredibly expensive system have not increased since 2017 while rents have continued to increase. Given the average rents in some areas of Dublin, including my area, people are, by definition, homeless if they need accommodation and are relying on HAP limits. The maximum HAP even for people who are homeless is €1,950 and the average HAP is €1,300. In the same period since the Minister entered Government in 2011, the income thresholds for eligibility for social housing have not changed. If people are knocked off the housing list, as many are, because they exceed the income threshold they are not entitled to HAP either. This means they are, by definition, homeless. Does the Minister accept this was a disastrous failure? What will the Government do to compensate those who have suffered as a result in terms of delivering them affordable and secure housing?

The Deputy and I have had this debate many times in the House. He is right on one thing. Overly relying on rental supports is not a long to medium term solution for the housing challenges we face. Supply is the solution, with more social housing, more affordable housing, more targeted and tailor-made solutions for people who need housing and who want to own and pay for their own homes but need the support of the State to do so, and people who want to be in the rental market and need supports to be there.

The truth is that there has been an over-reliance on HAP in recent years because we simply have not been able to deliver enough new builds at the pace needed. This is a simple and practical problem. We are now committing to spend €4 billion on housing each year but it takes time to build significant numbers of houses. We will provide approximately 10,000 social housing units per year, as well as affordable housing on top of this which, in time, will have a huge impact on responding to housing need.

The Deputy cannot on the one hand say we should not be continuing to spend more and more money on HAP and at the same time make the case for increasing thresholds and increasing the amount of money tenants can get. This is a contradiction. In many ways, HAP is an emergency response for people while the State builds a housing stock that responds to the extraordinary demands we are seeing at present. This is what we will do in the coming years. Next year, in 2022, there will be 11,800 social homes delivered, including 9,000 new social housing builds. This year, in 2021, there will be 12,750 new social homes, including 9,500 new builds, 800 targeted acquisitions and 2,450 homes through leasing programmes.

I can remember clearly when I came into the Department with responsibility for housing. Deputy Kelly was the Minister prior to me. We were faced with trying to reignite a building sector to build huge quantities of housing stock from a completely flat start. I think, and I stand to be corrected, that the year before I became Minister with responsibility for housing, all of the local authorities combined built 75 social houses. Now, that figure is 7,000 or 8,000. This is something that will take time to fix. In the meantime, we need to support people in rental accommodation through HAP and other solutions which are there.

It was not an accident, it was not an emergency, it was a policy. Let us just be honest about it. It was a policy. The reason so few houses were built in the year the Minister referred to was because a policy decision was made in 2011 to discontinue them. Meanwhile, we were selling properties, which we are now renting back at extraordinary cost. The target for HAP, RAS and leasing was not an accident. It was a policy. It is in Rebuilding Ireland. It was the Minister's policy that the amount of HAP, RAS and leasing would be 2.5 times what we were going to deliver in terms of actual local authority housing.

Is it a contradiction to say I want the thresholds raised? No, it is not. I am sorry. The Minister has created the mess but I am afraid the consequence of this mess is that while the Government ramps up, and it has to do so at far greater speed than it has been doing, it cannot have a situation where people who are ten years on the housing list get made homeless because their average income briefly goes over the threshold. Huge numbers of people have lost out. They cannot afford the rents. They are then thrown off the housing list. HAP levels are not enough in the capital and many other areas for people to get properties. They are, by definition, homeless. I am afraid the Minister is going to have to do something about it. This week, I met a family, who are solely dependent on social welfare and who have been in homeless accommodation for three years, who have been taken off the housing list because they exceeded the limits.

The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, is looking at the limits issue. There are areas, particularly in the capital, where rental prices are significantly higher than HAP can support. I recognise this. It is an issue that is being looked at. To correct the record, it was not policy, either for me or my predecessor, to not build large numbers of social housing homes. It was the opposite, in fact. It was about ramping up as quickly as we possibly could and spending billions of euro in taxpayers' money to do so.

That has taken years to deliver and continues to do so. We are now spending €4 billion as opposed to €2 billion. It is important that we do not start rewriting history here in terms of what happened pre-2011 and where this country was and what it could afford to do.

The issues the Deputy raised in respect of thresholds and ceilings have some validity but the truth is that these support programmes for leasing and rental are necessary while we dramatically increase social and affordable housing stock, which we will do in the years ahead.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. Our country is currently facing the greatest housing crisis since the foundation of the State. At the heart of our housing delivery problem and the requirement to increase supply in this precarious market is the application of planning policy. Some 80% of strategic housing development, SHD, grants of planning permission that were judicially reviewed were quashed, primarily because the board went rogue and attempted to apply ministerial guidelines as higher planning policy, completely ignoring 20 years of jurisprudence and the laws laid down by this House. Professional planners and this Government deployed a narrative that it was not they who had caused this problem but the NIMBY objectors who took judicial review proceedings.

Last Friday in a landmark judgment, Cork County Council v. the Minister, the Attorney General and the Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, laid bare the rot that exists at the heart of the planning system. The judgment filleted the Office of the Planning Regulator and the Department’s planning policy unit. An eminent planning senior counsel described this planning judgment as one of the most accurate and scathing he has seen. What is striking about the judgment is the frustration of Mr. Justice Humphreys at the obvious and fundamental lack of knowledge of the Office of Planning Regulator in respect of the basic legal principles of planning law. At paragraph 30, Mr. Justice Humphreys said of the regulator that, “If the caselaw had been engaged with, the untenability of [his] point would have become apparent.” He continues at paragraph 62 to state, “The attempt by the OPR and the Minister to turbo-charge non-binding guidelines by drawing the conclusion that non-compliance contributed to a conclusion that the council was in breach of s. 10(1) is unfortunately a rewriting of the Act."

I could continue with these damning quotes because they are endless. No planning system or those who operate it could survive such a damning judgment. Thankfully, Cork County Council saw fit to bring proceedings to vindicate its decision and, as a consequence, it has been made plain that it is the regulator and the planning policy unit that are undermining the planning system by making it up as they see fit and consequently we are removing certainty from the system. Having regard to this judgment, the dissemination of unlawful advice by the regulator to local authorities concerning the application of section 28 guidelines will potentially undermine the legality of county development plans and cause further expense to the State in legal proceedings.

What actions is the Government taking to restore confidence to the planning system to ensure that the Office of the Planning Regulator complies with and operates within the law? Further, has the Government confidence in Mr. Cussen to continue in his position as the planning regulator?

The straight answer to the Deputy’s last question is “Yes”. The Government has confidence in the Office of the Planning Regulator and in the individual referred to by the Deputy. The role of the Office of the Planning Regulator is clear. This office ensures that county development plans, as they are developed, are consistent with national planning framework. If mistakes are made and there are legal challenges, then that is why we have a court system. I do not want to go in to the detail of the particular court judgment referred to by the Deputy but if mistakes were made there, then we need to learn from them. The principle of having a planning regulator, however, which ensures that we have consistency across the country in how we plan for and pursue development into the future is a good one.

Countries need national planning frameworks which set the guidelines and parameters within which the local authorities work in how they plan in a sustainable way for how we live and move around, and the infrastructure that is needed to facilitate that.

There will always be tension and challenges when there is disagreement, and that happened here. I am very familiar with the case referred to by the Deputy but it does not call into question, in as fundamental a way as the Deputy is suggesting, the role of the Office of the Planning Regulator. The planning regulator has a difficult job to do and sometimes it is not a popular one. He, of course, needs to be transparent about how he makes his decisions and has to be consistent with planning law and other legislation. His office’s relationship with the local authorities is an important one, so that we have consistency across the country from all local authorities in our national planning framework. It is the role obviously of the Minister and his Department to ensure we get that balance right.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Minister. In regard to the Minister being familiar with the 26-page judgment and him making a statement like that, this was not a disagreement. It was ignorance of basic planning policy and the legal framework. Mr. Justice Humphreys spelled it out in black and white, saying that irrespective of the law of the land, the regulator fails to operate within the law and makes it up as he goes along. Those are Mr. Justice Humphreys’s words on the case the Minister is familiar with. They are not my words. I will give the Minister another quote from the judgment that demonstrates the total incompetence.

...the [planning regulator] and the Minister are trying to shoehorn the circumstances here ... even though the council did not fail to comply with any requirement ... That is in effect a shortcut and a failure to do the necessary groundwork...

The Minister’s endorsement of the planning regulator is unbecoming. Even the most ardent supporters of the regulator could not have confidence in him, having read last Friday’s judgment that the Minister states he is familiar with.

I have not read the judgment. I said I was familiar with the case and the issues around it as are others in this House. I have spoken to the Minister about it at different points because it is an issue that has been ongoing for quite a period of time. It involves both Cork City Council and Cork County Council and an ambition to develop a big new retail centre in east Cork.

This is a landmark case, Minister.

Yes, if it is a landmark case, we will learn from it. That is what the courts are there for.

Who regulates the regulator?

Cork County Council felt aggrieved on this issue and took a court case. We now have a judgment and we need to act on it. That is how the system works.

What will that mean?

That does not mean that the role of the Office of the Planning Regulator is not still an important one. It is. If mistakes were made here, they need to be corrected and we need to learn lessons from that. I do not want to comment on the judgment or its text because I have not read it yet but, as I said, I am familiar with the overall issue here and the tension and differences of views around it and the role of the local authorities and of the OPR in regard to it. I am glad we now have clarity in a court judgment and I hope that we can learn some lessons and move on from it.