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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 1 Dec 2021

Vol. 1015 No. 1

Ceisteanna - Questions

National Economic and Social Council

Mary Lou McDonald


1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council. [55836/21]

Alan Kelly


2. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council. [57205/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council.. [57556/21]

Paul Murphy


4. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council.. [57559/21]

Brendan Smith


5. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach the status of the work of the National Economic and Social Council. [57728/21]

Mick Barry


6. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council. [58667/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, advises me on strategic policy issues relating to sustainable economic, social and environmental development in Ireland. The NESC work programme includes work in five areas. With regard to shared island, NESC is undertaking a programme of research covering a range of issues, including economy, regional development, poverty, mental health, climate, biodiversity and well-being. It will produce a comprehensive report on the shared island in quarter 1 of 2022. This research is part of a comprehensive research programme on shared island matters, involving NESC, as well as the ESRI, the Irish Research Council and other partners.

NESC is providing advice on just transition, including case studies and work on developing indicators. It is also beginning a significant piece of research and consultation on climate, biodiversity and transition in agriculture.

NESC research has helped build consensus on the need for change in our housing system. In 2022, it will further consider practical aspects of a more proactive land management system. It will also continue to examine housing systems that achieve affordability, inclusion and sustainability, drawing on aspects of the Irish system, including initial cost-rental projects, and international experience.

The work on recovery and resilience will examine aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic to help identify strategic lessons about public governance and how Government can be supported to arrange and manage its activity to deliver the best results for society. The council has so far published five reports in 2021: NESC Report No. 152, Grounding the Recovery in Sustainable Development: A Statement from the Council; NESC Report No. 153, Shared Island: Projects, Progress & Policy Scoping Paper; NESC Report No. 154, Digital Inclusion in Ireland: Connectivity, Devices & Skills; NESC Report No. 155, Ireland's Well-Being Framework: Consultation Report; and NESC Report No. 156, Collaboration on Climate and Biodiversity: Shared Island as a Catalyst for Renewed Ambition & Action. As reports are finalised in the relevant areas they are brought to Government for approval in advance of publication.

A report from earlier this year from the NESC highlighted the LEADER programme as a crucial programme for addressing and developing the rural economy. In fact, in the Taoiseach's remarks yesterday, he made a similar point and he was right. The difficulty, though, is that the LEADER programme has been hollowed out in recent years. In the 2007 to 2013 programme, the allocation to LEADER represented €60 million per year. Between 2014 and 2020, it was nearly halved to €35 million per year. The proposed funding for the next round will see, in real terms, a reduction of somewhere between 6% and 10%. Does the Taoiseach acknowledge and accept that the LEADER programme is crucially important for regional and rural development? There is not a community that has failed to benefit from it in recent decades. The €100 million that has been allocated to the programme needs to be €300 million in order for LEADER projects to deliver the type of investment that those communities need. I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that that money is provided to the programme.

At the start of the pandemic, NSEC published a series of papers on the crisis, including one on protecting enterprises, employment and incomes. One of the key Government policies was the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. I have long called for this to be turned into a permanent short-term working scheme - a call which the Government has obviously ignored. More critically right now, cuts to the rates of payment under the EWSS come into force today. I ask the Taoiseach to reverse that. As I was sitting here, I received a WhatsApp message from an employer who is basically saying his business will not survive. Last month, 25,900 employers availed of the scheme using it to supplement the wages of 290,400 workers at a cost of €52.7 million. As the Taoiseach will be aware, the restaurant and hospitality sectors are being badly hit now. I was just sent a list through WhatsApp by a gastropub owner in my hometown of Nenagh showing details of hundreds of cancelled reservations. It is a well-known gastropub, and the owner does not think the business will survive because he was depending on trade during the Christmas period.

This is short-termism. The Government needs to change tack here. Otherwise, these businesses, particularly restaurants and those in the hospitality sector, really will go out of business. Young workers, women and single people with children are most at risk of seeing their disposable income fall or disappear altogether if this scheme is wrapped up. I urge the Taoiseach to look at the issue again.

The Taoiseach mentioned that under the framework for well-being, particular groups were being looked at, and that NESC produced a report on building a new relationship between voluntary organisations and the State, including disability groups in that sector. I will repeat a point that I have made previously to the Taoiseach. In the area of disability, we are failing at many levels. Covid has highlighted further the deficit in supports and services for people with disabilities.

I will cite two examples, but the issue is urgent. Accessible Community Transport Southside is a charitable, not-for-profit, voluntary group that provides 1,200 door-to-door trips for people in wheelchairs and those with mobility issues. It is threatened with closure now because of the impact of Covid on its income streams. For the lack of approximately €50,000 in funding, this critical service for people with disabilities is faced with closure in the next two months. It is going to run out of funding.

Accessible Community Transport Southside, ACTS, is a door-to-door service for people who are wheelchair users and who cannot use public transport, and for those who have significant mobility problems.

Autism-specific residential respite services cater to a group of people who have been particularly hit. Many of the day services were closed during Covid-19. There is a huge deficit of those services, especially in our area. This needs to be looked at in a coherent and cohesive way.

Will the Taoiseach respond to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, fiscal assessment report that was published today, which makes the central point that the Government has not budgeted for action on climate change or for the implementation of Sláintecare? This is in line with criticism we have made of the Government's approach to the climate action Bill, for example, outlining the scale of the plan at €125 billion, the vast majority of which is to be offloaded onto private individuals as opposed to the necessary State-driven public investment along the lines of an eco-socialist green new deal to transform the nature of the economy and a just transition to transform people's lives for the better while rapidly moving to a zero carbon economy. Similarly, to actually move to a fully public healthcare system will clearly require public investment. We would also make the case that it should involve nationalising by taking the private hospitals out of for-profit ownership and taking them into the public system,. At the very least, the Government certainly needs to budget for public healthcare.

During a Question Time last July I referred to the work commissioned from the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, by the shared island unit of the Taoiseach's Department, across all areas of possible co-operation on a North-South and an all-island basis. That comprehensive research project is to be welcomed. In that context, I requested that a specific study be undertaken by the NESC on the particular challenges faced by the Border region, North and South. I again emphasise that the needs of the central Border area need particular attention.

Brexit unfortunately impacted on areas such as Cavan, Monaghan and Fermanagh where our economy is very dependent on the agrifood, engineering and construction product sectors. In turn, those sectors are very dependent on Britain as an export destination. Covid-19 will also have an impact in the longer term, more severely on small-scale enterprises that are the backbone of rural economy.

As well as the challenges, I believe that our strengths in the Border region need to be considered in the context of forward planning. Let us face the reality that the Dublin-Belfast corridor would be more than capable of looking after itself. It is the areas that have fewer advantages that need a particular focus. The strengths, the opportunities, and the potential of the region - not just the difficulties - need to be part of a detailed analysis in planning the further development of the all-island economy and the cross-Border economy. Without sloganeering, thankfully there has been a huge development of the all-island economy since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. We have a huge infrastructure in the social and voluntary sector, and in education in areas such as Cavan, Fermanagh and the neighbouring counties of Tyrone and Armagh. We can cater for growth in population but we need proper planning for the infrastructure needs of the region, as well as using the potential of the region.

What is the Government's vision for the development of our cities? Is it a vision in which the agenda is dictated by developers and by speculators, or is it one where the agenda is the needs of ordinary people? We have already seen a real debate open up in Dublin on the issue of Dublin docklands and the question of gentrification. I believe we also need a debate around what is to happen to the docklands in Cork. Last week there was announcement on the plan to develop on the South Docks. The highlighted key points were three office blocks of nine to 12 storeys high, a private hospital and apartment developments. The last big announcement for the Port of Cork was for a 34 storey hotel, which would be Ireland's tallest building. I described it then as a capitalist glory project, and I stand over that statement today. In the meantime, we have the greatest housing emergency in the history of the State, there is a huge need for social housing and a huge need for affordable housing. There is talk in relation to Cork docklands about housing targets but I would like to see specific targets for social and affordable housing. We are talking about a city where the price of a home last year increased by more than the average annual wage of a young worker. Is Cork docklands to be for profit or for people?

Two minutes remain for the Taoiseach to respond and we cannot give any additional time because of the groupings of questions that are to follow.

There will be no cut to the LEADER programme. It is the same as the transition funding, which I believe the Deputy is ignoring in his presentation, which is the allocation during the transition years.

On Deputy Kelly's questions on the pandemic, as I said earlier, we are keeping this under constant review. The economy-wide measure of EWSS has been very effective and successful. About one quarter of employers who benefit from EWSS are in the hospitality sector and some 40% of employees who benefit are working in the hospitality sector. It is economy wide and we are going to keep this under continual review. I hear what Deputy Kelly is saying.

I will check on that particular individual service for Deputy Boyd Barrett. It is well documented on the well-being framework that equity, stakeholder engagement and equality are very important aspects of a well-being and sustainability framework.

With regard to Deputy Murphy's comments on Sláintecare, IFAC is worried about expenditure levels. It may have a different perspective to that presented by Deputy Murphy.

To my knowledge IFAC has not recommended nationalisation-----

With regard to climate change, we have provided a very extensive programme in legislation that sets the agenda for the next ten years. On Sláintecare, the investment in health since this Government came in has been very significant, and this may be causing concern for IFAC. So far, within the fiscal framework we have announced, we have managed to come in within that framework.

Deputy Brendan Smith spoke about the Border area. Certainly, the NESC work on the shared island is informed by broad consultation with stakeholders North and South. The research has put a considerable focus of the circumstances of the Border regions, and of the potential to deepen beneficial co-operation on a cross-Border regional basis, right across the island in a range of social and economic and environmental domains. NESC is bringing a shared-island lens to issues including the economy, regional development, tackling poverty, mental health, social enterprise, and climate biodiversity and environment. NESC is also conducting a cross-sectoral examination of issues relating to sustainability and connectivity on the island.

NESC will be asked to conduct work next year to further inform the development of our shared island initiative. In light of the conclusions and recommendations of the forthcoming report I will ask that there is consideration of what more work could usefully be undertaken for the Border regions, and the forms that might take.

I thank the Taoiseach, we need to move to question No.7.

On Deputy Barry's question, the development of cities is about people. We have invested a lot in regeneration, in retrofitting in Knocknaheeny and in Hollyhill, and we will continue to do so in other parts of the city. The city council had extensive consultations on the docklands and on the development of the city more widely.

We must conclude please. We move on to question No. 7, which is included in a group of 12 questions.

Economic Policy

Aindrias Moynihan


7. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of his Department on the development of the well-being framework. [57353/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


8. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the public conversation on the well-being framework for Ireland. [57557/21]

Paul Murphy


9. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the public conversation on the well-being framework for Ireland. [57560/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress made on the economic recovery plan published by his Department in May 2021. [57558/21]

Paul Murphy


11. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress made on the economic recovery plan published by his Department in May 2021. [57561/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


12. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress made on the economic recovery plan published by his Department in May 2021. [58384/21]

Cian O'Callaghan


13. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the public conversation on the well-being framework for Ireland. [58661/21]

Alan Kelly


14. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the public conversation on the well-being framework for Ireland. [58859/21]

Peadar Tóibín


15. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress made on the economic recovery plan published by his Department in May 2021. [58862/21]

Mick Barry


16. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the public conversation on the well-being framework for Ireland. [59073/21]

Mick Barry


17. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress made on the economic recovery plan published by his Department in May 2021 [59074/21]

Gary Gannon


18. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of his Department on the development of the well-being framework [59099/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 18, inclusive, together.

The economic recovery plan was published on 1 June, and is helping to drive a sustainable recovery in economic activity and employment, while also investing in the transition towards a decarbonised and digital economy. The plan is based on four key pillars: helping people back into work; rebuilding sustainable enterprise; a balanced and inclusive recovery; and ensuring sustainable public finances. Good progress has been made in all these areas, with very strong increases in employment over recent months, as well as a strong performance of the public finances.

Other significant milestones achieved under the plan, notwithstanding ongoing challenges around Covid-19, include implementation of the Pathways to Work strategy, which provides training, support and activation to help people back into work; the summer economic statement; finalisation of the Housing For All strategy with record levels of investment in social and affordable housing: the publication of the revised national development plan, allocating more than €165 billion for public investment over the decade; and the new Climate Action Plan 2021, which sets out ambitious targets and measures across all sectors of the economy.

Other significant developments include a new Al strategy which was launched in July, while work is also well-advanced on a new national strategy for research and innovation.

In all of these actions under the plan, the focus is on a recovery that aligns with the Government's ambitious green and digital objectives.

Another key deliverable under the economic recovery plan is a well-being framework for Ireland. This is being jointly sponsored by my Department and the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance. The first report on this was approved by Government and published in July. It will help us to consider, understand and measure Ireland's progress more holistically through the recovery and beyond.

A follow-up phase of consultation and engagement on the initial framework is currently under way. This public conversation on the well-being initiative was launched on 26 October to create awareness, gain feedback on the framework and get a broader sense of people's priorities. Key elements of this conversation include an online survey targeting a wide audience; thematic workshops; and a large online stakeholder event, on 17 November, to which I contributed. A Government well-being portal has also been developed alongside the CSO's interactive dashboard. A follow-up report will be submitted to Government in early 2022, informed by this public conversation and broader ongoing work. This second report will also identify steps for fully embedding the framework within the policy-making process.

Given the number of questions involved, I propose we limit the supplementaries to one minute. I call Deputy Moynihan.

The well-being framework is a positive initiative from the Government, bringing focus on overall quality of life, community connections, equality and mental health, for example. While the initial report was published in recent months, I am asking for a progress report on the overall framework.

How would this overall framework reflect on the very worrying situation on accessing education in Ballincollig, where the newly established Le Chéile school is in temporary accommodation and is looking for a permanent home, the same as Gaelscoil an Chaisleáin? Planning permission was recently refused to Le Chéile school. There is a great need for ASD education in Ballincollig and the school was offering the best opportunity for many people on that. The Taoiseach can imagine the level of anxiety locally when that option was closed off with the refusal. There is a need to advance permanent homes and to give people equal access to education in Ballincollig. Can the Taoiseach outline how advanced the well-being framework is? Can it bring extra energy and focus to ensure there is equal access to education for people in Ballincollig?

Thank you. That was a creative use of time. I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.

There has been a lot of talk from the Government about recognising the work of essential workers during the pandemic, that things will be different and that, for those workers who carried us through the pandemic, there will be payback. One group of workers that have not been talked about enough, but who were absolutely essential and worked throughout the pandemic, are private security workers working in our hospitals, on the buses and the Luas, and in the courts, supermarkets, the ESB, Google, nightclubs, hotels - you name it. Average pay in the sector is €11.65. There have been two delays in pay increases they were supposed to get under an employment regulation order, ERO, because the Minister did not sign off on the pay increases. The Scrooge employers in this sector are now trying, through court action, to block pay increases for these workers. I ask the Taoiseach to address the low pay plight and the failure to get pay increases for these private security workers and, indeed, to talk about increasing the living wage to increase their low pay.

It is clear that the new wave of Covid and the Covid restrictions are setting back economic recovery. In fact, we have seen people losing work or even losing their jobs as a result of the restrictions that have had to be brought back in. With the new round of restrictions, one thing that has been very definitely missing is another round of supports. Last year, the Government accepted and bowed to the pressure of the demands from the left and the housing movement for an eviction ban during Covid. With another round of restrictions and with people out of work due to Covid, does the Taoiseach accept it is now necessary to reintroduce that ban? The last thing we want is that people who lost their jobs due to these new restrictions are made homeless over Christmas or are forced into unnecessary visits, looking for a new place to live. Will the Government act now and reintroduce the eviction ban, at the very least until Covid restrictions can be lifted?

We cannot talk about economic recovery without talking about a cost-of-living crisis facing many families and workers across an array of areas, whether it be the huge rents and mortgages we talk about here, the insurance costs that are still crippling people or childcare costs. In particular, the issue that comes up time and again is the cost of home heating and motor fuel, which is putting people over the edge. I know people who are missing meals in order to be able to travel to work. Regardless of what we might talk about, whether it is the fuel allowance or anything else, the vast majority of people who are getting up in the morning to travel to work have had no support from the Government. I acknowledge that the Government is not responsible for the global issues that have led to the high cost of fuel, but it has done nothing to help. In fact, its response in the budget was to increase those costs further through the carbon tax. Has the Taoiseach spoken to the European Commission with regard to reducing the VAT rate on motor fuel and home heating costs? That needs to be done and it needs to happen quickly.

I want to raise with the Taoiseach the well-being of people living in emergency accommodation. Over the past year, I have been raising with him and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the conditions in privately run emergency accommodation. There is a complete lack of Garda vetting of staff, a lack of proper policies and procedures, a lack of safeguarding procedures and a lack of proper training of staff. There is a complete failure to implement or apply the national quality standards framework, which is meant to apply to all providers of homeless services.

In one hostel, residents complain that there are no sheets or duvets provided on their beds. They also complain that members of staff take drugs while on duty, source drugs from the residents in the hostel, sell drugs in the hostel-----

Where is this?

I can provide the Taoiseach with the details. This is utterly unacceptable behaviour and complaints have gone in on this. People living in emergency accommodation deserve a proper response on this and that proper standards are implemented.

Quality of life is an important metric. During Covid, we saw a drastic increase in domestic abuse cases as lockdowns led to an increase in emotional, physical and sexual assaults, particularly against women. We had the shocking revelations about the 999 calls, as the Taoiseach knows, and there is a bit of work to be done on that yet. According to Safe Ireland, an average of 180 women and 275 children looked for emergency accommodation every month between March and December 2020. At the same time, 2,159 requests for refuge from vulnerable women and children could not be met by the services.

It was 2,159. That is deeply worrying. The facts speak for themselves; we need more capacity in the system. Will the Taoiseach consider a timeline to provide the additional requirements and spaces that we need, particularly as we have signed up to the Istanbul convention? Ultimately, we are failing these people by not being able to provide such services.

Fáilte ar ais, a Cheann Comhairle. Much of the domestic economy is radically suffering. The hospitality, travel and entertainment sectors are in big trouble. Many have reopened after long closures just to find they either have to close again or partially close. Nightclubs opened on 22 October and then effectively had to close a month later. Pubs and restaurants are telling me they have had widespread Christmas party cancellations during one of their busiest seasons. The constant stopping and starting and changing is taking a significant toll on businesses. We saw that the €9 meals were safer than the €8 meals. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, said that PCR tests taken before outbound journeys are good for when people come back, so people can actually take a PCR test in Ireland, fly to South Africa and come back on the same PCR test, on the basis of that statement. The Minister for Health said pantomimes can go ahead but children should not go to them. We are at peak confusion in the enterprise sector at the moment. At the same time, supports such as the EWSS are starting to reduce. Can the Taoiseach guarantee businesses that, while this confusion is happening, they will have the necessary supports?

In response to Deputy Tóibín, I have never actually heard him support public health measures. Does he? Every time he comes in, he is always trying to undermine the fundamental public health messaging, which is fairly basic, straightforward and appropriate.

I have supported some health measures. My job is to challenge and hold to account.

In my view, it is important that the Deputy be transparent in terms of his position in regard to public health and as a Member of this House.

I just rhetorically put the point in response to the questions he asked, which I think are a distortion of what has transpired over the past while. Ireland's overall response to the pandemic has been, relatively speaking, much better than that of many others. We had an example of that yesterday with the presentation by Emer Cooke, director of the European Medicines Agency, EMA, in terms of the high vaccination rate in Ireland, which has resulted in low deaths per million relative to other countries where vaccination is lower.

That is good news.

We have to keep things in perspective as well in regard to all of this. The overall objective is to protect lives and public health. That is what we are all here for.

Regarding Deputy Kelly's points, I made my comments in terms of the EWSS. In regard to gender-based and domestic violence and so on, the Ministers for Justice, Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth are working on a strategic framework on domestic abuse and working, in a more timely way, on areas where we have reduced capacity or no capacity geographically in terms of refuges and supports, with a view to providing additional supports. I take the issue the Deputy addressed seriously and in good faith and will continue to work on it.

On Deputy O'Callaghan's point, I do not know whether that matter has been referred to the Garda. If people who are meant to be looking after the homeless are looking for drugs and selling drugs, that is a very serious assertion. I take his point about an overall regulatory framework governing emergency accommodation and the homeless. To be fair to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, it works with tried and trusted partners, and local authorities do likewise. That is why I am always very worried about new developments or new organisations being established. We have existing organisations that are tried and trusted and we should work with them on the homeless issue.

Deputy Carthy spoke about the cost of living and so forth. I made the overall point on this earlier. On VAT, we all need to be honest with ourselves. He knows that what he has suggested cannot be done. As for his get-out clause of asking whether I asked the Commission, he knows the answer. His party said we should go to zero. We cannot go to zero; that is the problem.

What are other EU states doing?

We would end up coming back to a much higher rate of 23%. We would end up with 23% if the Deputy had his way. We cannot do that.

What is the Taoiseach going to do for those families who cannot pay for fuel?

We all have a duty to be a bit more straight with people in respect of this.

I asked the Taoiseach what he will do.

On Deputy Paul Murphy's point, there are a range of protections that have been provided through successive legislation brought in by the Minister, who keeps the legislation under ongoing review in the context of the pandemic and will continue to do so.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the situation of private security workers. Obviously, there is an industrial relations process that is under way in respect of pay claims. Many of those workers have provided very valuable services throughout the pandemic. Regarding the full background of the particular claim, the Minister responsible-----

It is the Minister of State, Deputy English.

Yes, but the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform obviously has a role as well. I will check that with the Minister of State.

Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked about accessing education and the well-being framework. In the engagement with stakeholders, equality of opportunity, equality of access and equity will be key elements of an eventual well-being framework that will be developed. Those are emerging themes in the current well-being consultation process. In the immediate sense, however, in terms of individual school projects, refusals and so forth, was the Deputy referring to a planning refusal?

That is problematic in terms of school developments and so on. I will talk to the Minister to see what we can do, particularly in terms of the ASD provision, which is urgent for the children involved.

We need to move on to the next group of questions.

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly


19. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [57206/21]

Cian O'Callaghan


20. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing last met. [58321/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


21. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [58385/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


22. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [58591/21]

Paul Murphy


23. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [58593/21]

Mick Barry


24. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [59075/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 19 to 24, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on housing has met eight times to date in 2021 and will meet again next week on Monday, 6 December. The committee works to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of programme for Government commitments regarding housing and related matters. The focus of recent meetings has been on progressing the Housing for All plan. It is the most ambitious housing plan in the history of our State and contains a range of actions and measures to ensure more than 300,000 new homes are built by 2030. This figure includes 90,000 social, 36,000 affordable purchase and 18,000 cost rental homes. The plan includes measures to support availability of the land, workforce, funding and capacity to enable both the public and private sectors to meet the targets. The actions outlined in the plan are backed by more than €4 billion in annual guaranteed State investment in housing over the coming years, including through Exchequer funding and Land Development Agency and Housing Finance Agency investment.

Through Housing for All, we will also continue to support our most vulnerable, including those experiencing homelessness and who have more complex housing needs. The plan will provide the basis for a long-term sustainable housing system for this and future generations and supports the ambitions of the climate action plan through measures on retrofitting and waste reduction. The committee supports a strong focus on delivery of the Housing for All plan. A delivery group of Secretaries General oversees implementation, and a unit in my Department oversees the cross-government implementation of the plan. The next quarterly report, due in the new year, will set out performance against the targets and actions in the plan for quarter 4.

The Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2021 went through the Seanad last week and is in the Dáil this week. It is the Government's latest effort to deal with this issue. We have been calling for a rent freeze of three years or more and I urge the Taoiseach to consider it. I do not buy any of the argument about it being unconstitutional. I know because I got the constitutional advice from the then Attorney General. Our housing spokesperson, Senator Moynihan, has highlighted a major flaw in the latest Bill. While the Minister is seeking to limit rent increases to 2% a year or in line with inflation, whichever is lower, landlords will be able to increase rents by multiples of that if they have not applied the previous increases in the previous years. The Labour Party tabled an amendment on this in the Seanad but it was defeated by the Government. If a landlord has not raised the rent in the preceding five years because he or she was being sound, it is then possible to raise it all in one go. This is farcical and completely unfair and wrong. I ask the Taoiseach, please, to accept amendments in the Dáil. If there is not a rent cap, we are, in essence, allowing landlords to increase rents by multiples of the allowable amount over a number of years. It is genuinely not fair and it is misleading. I ask that he please consider it. I believe it will be a big vote in here when it comes in.

The Minister has sought expressions of interest for nine appointments to the commission on housing. Will they be State board appointments, going through the normal appointments process, or will they be appointed directly by the Minister?

To follow up on the previous question, the issue around private emergency accommodation is that, taking Dublin as an example, approximately half of the accommodation is provided by tried and trusted not-for-profit partners of the local authorities, with the other half, in recent years, provided by privately run operators, some of which have no experience or qualifications whatsoever in this area. I raised a particular instance in respect of which complaints have gone in, but it is a systemic problem, with half of the provision not regulated or subject to proper inspections by HIQA, as called for by the Oireachtas housing committee, and staff not being Garda vetted. I am not tarring all private providers with the same brush here. There is a variance in standards but there is a problem in terms of the whole sector not being properly regulated. That has to be addressed.

The recommendations of the housing committee from earlier this year, which have not been implemented at all, must be implemented in full. In addition, the quality standards that were brought in for all homes providers need to be applied to privately run emergency accommodation. Providers cannot just be allowed to carry on as they are, with some appalling practices in place in some of them. I am asking the Taoiseach and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to address this. It is not fair that people who are vulnerable and trying to get out of homelessness, including some who are recovering from addiction or trying to get out of addiction, are in these situations.

Does the Taoiseach accept that rents are too high? If he does, and I think most objective people would accept the premise that rents in this State are far too high, then he will have to accept that his Government's record on controlling rent costs has been abysmal. I could go back through all the successive Ministers with responsibility for housing who have failed, including Deputy Kelly, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and Eoghan Murphy.

Let us deal with the current Minister.

All of the Deputy's crowd up in the North.

We do not even need to go back that far. In May this year, the Minister brought forward proposals that would cap rent increases at 4%. There was a provision to allow landlords who had not previously increased rents to accumulate an increase in one go. An increase of 8% was permissible. When he realised that had failed, he brought forward a proposal that would link rent to the cost of inflation. Even though he was told by Deputy Ó Broin and others that inflation would surpass 4%, he proceeded anyway. We are now back for a third go with this. He has proposed a cap of 2%, but again it includes a crucial loophole that will allow landlords, according to some reports, to increase rents to by up to 5.9%. Will the Taoiseach accept that what is now required is a rent freeze and measures put in place to reduce rents for hard-working families and workers who are crippled by the failure of this Government and successive Governments to address the rental crisis we face?

At the risk of blowing our own trumpet on this issue, we have always said that whether it was inflation, rent freezes or anything else proposed by Government or Opposition parties, it would not work because rents were already too high. We need to set rents. The obvious gap relates to any new property. The Government said we will solve the problem by increasing supply, but any cap or freeze is meaningless because landlords can set whatever rents they like for any new properties. We need to set rents at affordable levels. Unless we do that, rent will continue to climb, even if there is new supply.

I have to be honest. I will plague the Taoiseach on this issue. I have raised the income thresholds for eligibility for social housing with the Taoiseach last week and the week before. I have raised this with the Minister. There has been review after review and promise after promise but nothing has been done. I understand there are now four cases in my area alone of people in homeless accommodation who are being threatened with homelessness. In fairness, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, intervened in one of the cases to stop the immediate threat of a family being put out onto the street, but the fundamental problem remains. The local authority has said the rules are such that it is required to put people out of homeless accommodation when they go above the income threshold. We need to raise the income threshold immediately.

The Government is operating at a snail's pace when it comes to retrofitting housing across the country to improve insulation and building energy ratings, BERs. A new element of the problem was highlighted to me last week. In Limerick, much of the council housing retrofitting is being done through the regeneration thermal upgrades programme but it is not being done to the level necessary to meet Government targets. While the climate action plan sets a target of 600,000 homes to be raised to a B grade, it turns out that Limerick City and County Council is planning on retrofitting homes in Southill and elsewhere next year to bring them up to only a C level. That seems ludicrous and could mean that the homes will need a further retrofit in a few years to bring them up to a B level. Does the Taoiseach agree that all retrofitting of council housing taking place now should be done to ensure that B rating, improve energy efficiency, tackle fuel property and help us to meet our climate targets? Will he intervene with Limerick City and County Council and urge it to adopt this improved standard?

Deputy Kelly was first into the fray in terms of the overall rent situation and the potential for multiple increases for those who did not increase rents over the past while. First, we should acknowledge there are landlords who did not increase rents. We will reflect on this, but the point is that we can incentivise increases very quickly by not accepting the bona fides of those who have not increased rents to date for existing tenants, something which has helped them. Ultimately, on the rental side supply is vital. I do not think we can simply set targets to the degree suggested by Deputy Boyd Barrett. There is no guarantee of supply after that if we are being honest.

In terms of Deputy Carthy's position, Sinn Féin is the establishment in Northern Ireland and has been in government there for a long time. The situation is even worse in many respects in the North. It has not managed to achieve anything in terms of rent reductions. I happen to think that Sinn Féin's policies-----

Completely disingenuous.

It is true.

Answer the question that was put to you.

I am answering the question. I am illustrating to the Deputy there are no magic wands. The Deputy should know that from his experience.

Does the Taoiseach accept the Government is failing?

He does not accept that. Does the Taoiseach accept that rent prices are too high?

Sinn Féin has been in government for the past decade in Northern Ireland. I have been in government for close to two years.

That is completely disingenuous.

The Taoiseach has been in government-----

I have been in government for a year and a half. We have identified the housing crisis as a key priority. We have to build more houses. All I see in Sinn Féin's policies is policies to win votes and not policies to provide solutions.

The Government is adopting our policies from five years ago, but now it is too late.

What Sinn Féin is advocating would depress supply. We need more supply. We do not need measures that would depress supply. That is my view. Supply is key. The Minister has made efforts and has introduced legislation to deal with this. We have been hit with a current wave of inflation-----

The Government was told that would happen.

No, come off it - in terms of what has happened-----

Read the Dáil record.

We are going to respond to that. The Minister has been responsive and nimble in that particular issue.

On the social housing income thresholds, I have indicated they are under review. I have sympathy with the position of the Deputy on it and we will continue to bring the matter to a conclusion.

Deputy Murphy raised the issue of retrofitting houses. We also need to get on with it. I take his point that retrofitting should be at the standards laid out in Housing for All. I will check out what is happening in Limerick. We need to get on with it. Councils have been quite good. I have seen what has been done in Knocknaheeny, Hollyhill and other parts of my city where the city council has retrofitted houses.

If we give councils the resources, they will do more of it. We need to get on with it because it will help with energy costs, better quality housing and so forth for tenants.

I hope the case mentioned by Deputy O'Callaghan has been referred to the Garda, because it should. I take his point. Obviously over recent years, to be fair to everybody concerned, there was a need to ramp up emergency accommodation to deal with families, including families who come into the country at short notice and require emergency accommodation. There is no excuse for poor or low quality standards. The dignity of the human being must be uppermost at all times in terms of the provision of emergency accommodation and housing. I will speak to the Minister and alert him to the concerns and points the Deputy has raised, which concern me, in terms of how homeless people in one particular centre the Deputy has identified have been treated. These are serious allegations on which we need to follow up.

On Deputy Kelly's point, we will reflect on it but there will be a number of considerations. I will revert to him on the specifics of the housing commission in terms of appointments. There will be a public appointment element to that. We need to make sure it is a broadly representative group in terms of the various sectors of expertise around housing that would be reflected in the composition of the commission.

I have dealt with almost all of the questions.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 1.58 p.m. and resumed at 2.58 p.m.