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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 19 Jan 2022

Vol. 1016 No. 4

Ceisteanna - Questions

Departmental Offices

Richard Boyd Barrett


1. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit of his Department. [60209/21]

Paul Murphy


2. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit of his Department. [60212/21]

Mick Barry


3. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit of his Department. [61473/21]

Alan Kelly


4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit of his Department. [61498/21]

Cian O'Callaghan


5. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit of his Department. [61736/21]

Peadar Tóibín


6. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit of his Department. [61918/21]

Aindrias Moynihan


7. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit of his Department. [61984/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.

The parliamentary liaison unit in my Department assists the Government in its relationship with the Oireachtas. It works with the Office of the Government Chief Whip on issues that arise at the Business Committee and the Committee on Standing Orders and Dáil Reform, including Dáil reform proposals and amendments to Standing Orders. The unit supports the Office of the Government Chief Whip in the implementation of the Government's legislation programme. In addition, the unit assists the office of the leader of the Green Party in work relating to Cabinet, Cabinet committees and oversight of the implementation of the programme for Government. In carrying out these duties, it provides detailed information on upcoming matters in the Dáil and Seanad, highlights any new Oireachtas reform issues and provides assistance in engaging with the new processes arising from Dáil reform. The unit is staffed by three and a half whole-time equivalent staff, one principal officer, one and a half higher executive officer posts and one clerical officer.

Last year, People Before Profit brought a Bill to the Dáil that proposed a constitutional referendum to enshrine the right to housing. There was a commitment in the programme for Government to have a referendum on housing but nothing is happening on these things. There are consequences for real human beings as a result of the Government's failure to do something on this.

On dozens of occasion, I have raised the plight of tenants in St. Helen's Court, Dún Laoghaire, a multi-unit apartment complex bought by two successive vulture funds. Tenants who have lived there for years and years, who always paid their rent, are decent working people and never did a thing wrong will be in court in the first week of February, when the vulture fund will get an enforcement order to throw them out because legally it is allowed do so. The vulture fund does not need the accommodation for family members. It is not a so-called mom-and-pop landlord. The fund has no reason to throw these tenants out other than to increase its profits and the value of that property. By the way, 12 of the units in that property have now been sitting empty for two years, fully refurbished, not rented out to people and not leased to the council, but the vulture fund will not rent them to the tenants it is going to evict.

The lawyer we got to represent the tenants in court said that there was no argument against this injustice but if the right to housing was enshrined in the Constitution, that lawyer would have a legal argument to protect these tenants, who have done nothing wrong, against a cruelly unjust eviction. When will the Government address these kinds of unjust evictions and put the right to housing into the Constitution?

During the first year of lockdown, more than 20,000 fines were handed out for the breaking of Covid regulations. A special hotline was set up for people to report illegal gatherings. Some 3,000 people were fined for attending social gatherings that broke the law, while another 700 were fined for organising those events. Last summer, a group of young people socialising on South William Street were batoned simply for the crime of enjoying an outdoor summer.

Instead of a visit by the Garda, the champagne party in the Department of Foreign Affairs in June 2020 got a visit from the Minister, Deputy Coveney. He admits to visiting the office at 11.10 p.m., after the champagne had been popped. He seems to be claiming that after opening the champagne and taking the picture they all went back to work late into the night. Does the Taoiseach seriously expect people to believe that story? Does he think the Garda should investigate this party or are Covid fines only for the little people? Does he have confidence in an in-house investigation by a hand-selected civil servant or does he instead agree that the Minister should come before the House to answer questions on this matter?

This is not a normal year. Why then is the Government still entertaining the idea of a normal leaving certificate examination this summer? To do so would fly in the face of the wishes of the large majority of sixth-year students, who made their views very clear in the Irish Second-Level Students Union, ISSU, poll. Anyone who has been in touch with these students will know that real mental health pressures are bearing down. The Government should not compound them by taking a clumsy approach to this issue. Nor should the Government force these young people to compete against each other for a limited number of college places. That is wrong. It is doubly wrong in a pandemic year and it is wrong at a time when our society has a shortage of nurses, teachers, doctors and apprentices - I could go on. The State should invest heavily in third level education to ensure that a college place is provided for all and end the rat race of the CAO system. Will the Taoiseach listen to these young people or will he pretend to listen and then drive on with an unwanted, traditional leaving certificate?

I welcome and support the Taoiseach's earlier comments on the need to work together to tackle violence against women and misogyny, in addition to the importance of men listening to women on this issue. I will ask about the lack of places for women and children seeking refuge from violence. While presenting to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice last November, Mary McDermott from Safe Ireland stated:

Ireland's domestic violence response infrastructure, and in particular its accommodation infrastructure, is critically deficient. These deficiencies place women and children at very real risk of grievous trauma, injury or fatality.

Between March and August 2020 alone, there were 1,351 unmet requests for refuge. It is completely and utterly unacceptable that women and children who need somewhere safe to stay have been turned away. Will funding be urgently provided to ensure there are enough refuge places for women and children seeking somewhere safe away from violence?

I wish to raise the issue of Richard O'Halloran. As the Taoiseach knows, Mr. O'Halloran has been in China for more than 1,000 days at this stage. He has spent another Christmas in China and is being held against his will. He is the only Irish citizen ever to be subject to a Chinese exit ban, which has been implemented upon him even though he is not accused of any wrongdoing. There is no complaint, allegation, charge or suspicion against Richard O'Halloran. He is fully co-operating with the Chinese state on this matter. He has a wife and four children in Ireland, who have suffered enormously from stress related to this.

I understand that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has not been directly involved in this for a long period, as is the case for the Taoiseach. I also understand, from information I received today, that the European Commission has not been asked by the Government to help with this case as of yet. It is incredible that we would, as a country, leave a citizen in this situation. Maybe the country is not defending its citizen for economic or bigger reasons but I urge the Taoiseach to take this issue into his own hands and, diplomatically, try to achieve the freedom of Richard O'Halloran in order that he can go back to his family.

I will address the last point. In situations like this, perhaps it might be better if the Deputy spoke to the Minister directly.

The Deputy will then know that what he said regarding the Minister not being directly involved in this matter was not true.

I have spoken to Mr. O'Halloran directly.

I do not want to have a row about this because it is an important matter and very serious issues are at stake, not least the capacity to get Richard O'Halloran back home to Ireland, which is my objective and that of the Minister and the Government. There has been state-to-state engagement on this at all levels. People at all levels of this State have communicated with their counterparts at all levels of the Chinese Government. Unprecedented measures have been taken by the Government, through the Minister for Foreign Affairs, in respect of commitments given by this State regarding this issue. I do not want to say anything more than that. It is not true to say that this has not been attended to but, and the Deputy may not want to accept advice, there is a way of proceeding with this. It is extremely frustrating and agonising for the family. It is terrible that they have been without their father and husband for so long.

We have worked on this, particularly the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and his officials, to get the best outcome. I will leave it at that for the moment. The Deputy might talk to the Minister who might brief him on the measures taken to date to secure Richard O'Halloran's return to Ireland.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the right to housing. The Government supports a right to housing constitutional amendment. I am not clear yet as to whether an amendment of that kind would deal with the issues in St. Helen's Court. Just because a senior counsel advances that argument, that does not necessarily mean it is the case. There are specific issues, which the Deputy has highlighted, that need to be addressed now in terms of the tenants involved.

There are issues in terms of protecting tenants in various situations from unacceptable activities. In addition, having units vacant for so long is unacceptable in the current housing situation. We want to deal with that through a number of measures, particularly the vacant property tax. Across the board, from zoning to vacancy, we want to bring in a system that penalises vacancy and incentivises occupancy and protecting people. One of the first tasks of the new housing commission is to work on a constitutional referendum on the right to housing.

On the specific case, I ask if anything can be done, please.

I will follow that up and come back to the Deputy.

On Deputy Paul Murphy's point, the Garda initiates its own investigations. Politicians do not tell it to do so, nor should they. The Government certainly should not be involved in how the law works. We do not engage in the operational activities of the Garda. Increasingly, we hear clarion calls that the Garda should do this and arrest this or that person. That is not the remit of the political world, nor should it be. I do not believe a politician should be going down-----

Any citizen can report-----

I know people can report, but then it is a matter for the Garda to decide. Eighteen months on, people are telling the Garda what it should do.

The deputy leader of Fine Gael should report it.

I just think that is an issue. On the issue raised by Deputy Paul Murphy, as I said, the people involved have said what they did was wrong, and it was wrong. It should not have happened and was clearly in breach of guidelines. There is no question about that.

I know but the people have put their hands up-----

Hands up is not a-----

-----and apologised for what was an impromptu gathering, it seems to me. They were there in anticipation of a second vote in the Security Council. Ireland won on the first count. The previous Government had been campaigning for a seat on the Security Council and apparently on the first count Ireland was elected. The anticipation was there would be a lot of work required for the second count, in terms of working the phones to secure our place. That is my understanding but the Minister is prepared to go before the Oireachtas committee and explain what happened on the night.

On Deputy Barry's point, this will not be a normal leaving certificate. As I said earlier, modifications to the exam have already happened-----

They are very minor.

-----in terms of giving greater choice to the students. That happened last August. A change has been made in the timing of the oral examinations and practicals to preserve another week for the schools. There is a meeting tomorrow between the stakeholders and there will be further engagement with the Minister and partners in education.

The Deputy suggested there should not be competition for places. We have one of the highest per capita participation rates in third level across Europe and one of the highest second level completion rates. The Deputy's idea that there should be a place for everybody is not feasible or tenable. It is not in the real world in terms of third level. There are other places across the board that suit people and that people want to access but we will not create thousands of medicine places tomorrow morning, which is what the Deputy seems to be suggesting.

We are over time. There is an outstanding issue.

Deputy Cian Ó Callaghan spoke on the lack of places. I dealt with that earlier and agree with him. We need to provide more places and a better system to do it.

Northern Ireland

Neale Richmond


8. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent conversations with the First and deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland. [60572/21]

Neale Richmond


9. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings with leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland. [61418/21]

Seán Haughey


10. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach the recent engagement he has had with the First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. [61489/21]

Alan Kelly


11. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent conversations with the First and deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland. [61500/21]

Brendan Smith


12. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he has had recent discussions with the First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. [61600/21]

Peadar Tóibín


13. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings with the First and deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland. [61917/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 13, inclusive, together.

I briefly spoke by phone on Thursday, 2 December with the First Minister, Paul Givan, to discuss the evolving Covid situation North and South and the additional measures we had announced in light of the emergence of the Omicron variant. We agreed on the importance of ongoing North-South co-operation and communication in this area.

In November, I spoke by phone with the deputy First Minister as part of a series of calls with the Northern Ireland party leaders to discuss the ongoing talks on the Northern Ireland protocol. I also spoke with the First Minister and deputy First Minister in Belfast on 8 October, when we all attended and addressed a conference on climate action, and again at the beginning of November at the COP26 leaders' summit in Glasgow.

During my visit to Belfast, I also separately had meetings with the leaders of the five main political parties, including the deputy First Minister. During these meetings, the main topics for discussion were the Northern Ireland protocol, legacy issues and the stability of the institutions. I also briefly spoke with First Minister Paul Givan at the Ireland-New Zealand rugby test match in October.

Regarding the North-South Ministerial Council, NSMC, plenary, it was decided by the NSMC at its last plenary meeting, which was hosted by the Irish Government in July, that the next plenary will be hosted by the Northern Ireland Executive. We await a proposal from the Executive on the date and arrangements for that meeting. Usually, this would have taken place in December and it is disappointing that it is yet to be scheduled.

I appreciate the update from the Taoiseach. He will appreciate that it is a brief update. That is no fault of his or anyone in the Government. That is the striking issue here. North-south relations are not operating at their optimum due to a political decision by a certain party in Northern Ireland.

I note that the last telephone conversation call was in the area of dealing with Covid-19, where back and forth discussion needs to be increased in the coming weeks as we look to loosen restrictions and possibly moving away from the wave of the current variant. Will the Taoiseach address the efforts being made between the chief medical officers and health Ministers, North and South, to maintain that important level of engagement on vaccination numbers, restrictions and hospital capacity, which has been a huge concern, particularly in Northern Ireland?

I echo the Taoiseach's disappointment that the meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council has not taken place. Now that we are into an electoral cycle in Northern Ireland, from our vantage point it is important to keep pushing the door and not allow certain political actors to derail the important North-South engagements in every area.

This will be a significant year for Northern Ireland, with Assembly elections taking place in May. Meanwhile, Brexit and, in particular, the Northern Ireland protocol remain issues of concern to the First Minister and deputy First Minister, albeit from different perspectives. Business, though, can clearly see the benefits of the protocol. It is interesting to note that recent statistics show cross-Border trade between the Republic and Northern Ireland continues to grow.

Negotiations have resumed on the implementation of the protocol between the UK and the EU. David Frost has resigned and the British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has taken over the negotiations from the UK side. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has since met with Liz Truss but she has stated the UK could still trigger Article 16 if necessary. What is the Taoiseach's sense at this stage of how the negotiations are going in relation to the protocol? Has there been a change of approach by the UK side to the negotiations with the appointment of Liz Truss? It seems the issue concerning the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland has been resolved by the European Commission. Does the Taoiseach believe that all sides, including the parties in Northern Ireland, are ready to cut a deal on the issue and resolve this problem well before the Assembly elections in May?

I presume that, in all meetings with members of the British Government or Northern Ireland Executive, legacy issues are discussed. A message needs to be clearly and repeatedly given to the British Government concerning its proposal to introduce an amnesty for murderers, be they members of the state forces or of paramilitary organisations, some who masqueraded as republicans and others who masqueraded as loyalists.

Under no circumstances should such persons be given an amnesty for committing heinous crimes that, in many instances, included murder. It is very important for that message to be repeated to the British Government.

As the Taoiseach knows, it is approaching half a century since some of those crimes were carried out. Next December will mark the 50th anniversary of the murder of two teenagers in Belturbet, County Cavan, by a bomb that was brought across the Border from County Fermanagh. Nobody has ever been brought to justice for that. In two years my own constituency will mark the desperate atrocities that happened in Dublin and Monaghan in May 1974 and still nobody has been brought to justice. There has been a complete lack of recognition by the British Government over the years of the need to give full co-operation and conduct full and thorough investigations into those desperate atrocities. People have campaigned for decades to get the truth and they want to see the truth established. We all know that every day that goes by means it will be more difficult. Particular emphasis needs to be put on the need to get progress with regard to legacy issues.

I thank the Taoiseach for meeting with the victims and survivors of the Glennane gang. I want to give credit where it is due. When I asked the Taoiseach to do that, he gave his time and effort and he listened respectfully and engaged very well with those victims. I appreciate that greatly.

On the ombudsman's report on the RUC handling of paramilitary attacks by the UDA and UVF, it is important that the Government focuses on that issue. When a state kills a citizen or is involved in collusive behaviour, as is reported in this ombudsman report, in the killing of the citizens of that state, it is unbelievably shocking. The Taoiseach mentioned Teebane. I want the victims and survivors of the Teebane affair to have justice and a proper investigation and for full knowledge and truth to be brought to them. It is also important to realise that when republicans were involved in these actions, they were pursued fully by the state. Republicans spent 100,000 years, cumulatively, imprisoned during the Troubles for the actions they took. On the other side, the British military side, in most cases there were no investigations at all, there were no convictions and people were not held to account. That is why it is important that this Government raises the matter with the British. We must also raise it in an international forum, even with the UN, to make sure that the British state is held to account for the wrongs it has done.

Last night, I was privileged to speak at a meeting marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. It was attended by hundreds and hundreds of people from this country, including many young people wanting to learn about the history of Bloody Sunday. The meeting was addressed by Kate Nash of the Bloody Sunday families, people from the Black Lives Matter movement and people from the Hillsborough disaster campaign. The message at that meeting was resounding. After a long struggle at least to deconstruct the disgusting narrative that tried to blame, if you like, the victims of Bloody Sunday for what happened that day, as eventually happened with the Saville inquiry, there still has not been real accountability for the military commanders and political leaders who the families hold responsible for the massacre, the murder, by the British state that took place 50 years ago. The families are still seeking that justice, accountability and truth about the political culpability of the people who ordered that massacre and the senior military figures, not just the foot soldiers, who were responsible for that massacre.

As we approach the anniversary, I ask the Taoiseach whether he agrees that we still need justice and accountability for Bloody Sunday. As we approach the half century anniversary, what is the Government going to do to try finally to get justice and accountability for the Bloody Sunday families?

I thank all the Deputies for raising those issues. Deputy Richmond raised the issue of the North-South Ministerial Council. I agree with him. He also spoke about the need for co-ordination of the vaccination programme and around the whole Covid issue. I wish to make clear that such co-ordination is continuing between our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, and his counterpart in the North, Dr. Michael McBride. There is also co-ordination between the health services, which are sharing experiences and trying to keep their processes relatively parallel. That is not always at an optimal level and the North may take measures ahead of us.

Deputy Haughey raised the issue of the latest state of play in respect of the protocol discussions in the context of the retirement of Lord Frost. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has met with the Secretary of State, Liz Truss MP, and Commissioner Šefčovič has also had meetings with her. Suffice to say there is good engagement and goodwill on both sides, the European Union and the British Government, to get this resolved. Timelines are challenging in respect of elections in the North and so forth. It is extremely important that we get an agreed resolution. The most recent meeting between the UK foreign secretary and Commissioner Šefčovič was useful. Those discussions will continue with a view to bringing about a resolution. The European Union has been very committed to this and has been open in terms of endeavouring to get it resolved.

The matter of cross-Border trade and the patterns of trade that have developed since Brexit are interesting. It is interesting that aspects of the Northern Ireland economy have done well as a result of the operation of the protocol. That needs to be put on the record. Continued access to the Single Market is critical for businesses and enterprises and for jobs in Northern Ireland. No one is arguing for that access to end anytime soon, from what I can tell from the engagement I have had with all of the Northern parties. It is at a delicate stage. It is important to keep faith in the process.

In response to Deputy Smith's point, which others have also raised, there is no question of the Irish Government supporting an amnesty in any shape or form. We do not agree with the British Government's proposals in respect of legacy. We believe it is wrong because such a step would give everybody who has committed murder, including state forces, paramilitaries and whoever, an amnesty. That would be totally unacceptable. It would be a betrayal of the victims of all violence. I take on board what the Deputy said about the upcoming 50th anniversary of Belturbet and the other attacks in Dublin and Monaghan. I accept his point that for many victims, there is not yet any sense of closure or of answers in terms of who did what.

Deputy Tóibín mentioned that we met the victims of the Glennane gang. I accept the point that there is an extra onus on the state but that does not excuse what happened on Bloody Friday or at Kingsmill. I was watching, the week before last, the episode of "Reeling in the Years" dealing with 1974. It was shocking. The Birmingham bombs and the Guildford Four featured. The caption on the footage made it clear that no one has ever been brought to justice for committing that atrocity. For the victims of that atrocity, that hurts to this day. We need to acknowledge that too in respect of what happened in a whole range of situations during those very dark years. Many people feel that they are being forgotten about or the loss of their loved ones is being completely forgotten about and there is no balance in terms of how we approach that. I believe that the British Government has dragged its feet too long on legacy issues. Agreement was reached ten years ago between the two Governments. We believe that British soldiers should be brought to justice for atrocities such as Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy and others. As I said earlier, state forces were involved with all paramilitaries. Operation Kenova is revealing a lot too, according to what I have read in various reports in the media and so on, about the operation of intelligence operatives in the North during a prolonged period of time.

It seems to me that the people who do not want closure the most or do not want a light shone on this are all those who were engaged in the killing. I get the sense that it is almost unspoken. I have been dealing with legacy for a long time. I can go back to the Eames-Bradley report. I was sceptical then that those who pulled the triggers and planted the bombs would ever come forward and tell an unvarnished truth about what happened, and that has not happened - they have never come forward. The result is that a lot of families have never got answers as to why their loved ones were killed. That is an issue. In any event, we are all agreed in this House that we are against the legacy proposals of the British Government and the idea of an amnesty. Clarity and transparency need to be brought to what happened.

Cabinet Committees

Mary Lou McDonald


14. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination last met and will next meet. [61312/21]

Cian O'Callaghan


15. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination last met and will next meet. [63547/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 14 and 15 together.

The Government co-ordination committee last met on Monday and it is scheduled to meet again next Monday, 24 January. The committee reviews the activity of Cabinet committees and the agenda for the week's Government meeting, discusses political priorities and reviews implementation of a specified element of the programme for Government. I am a member of the committee along with the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party. The Secretary General to the Government, my chief of staff and the chiefs of staff for the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party also sit in on meetings.

I hope the Taoiseach will agree with me when I note that the statement issued by the Women of Honour group last month in response to the proposed internal review by the Department of Defence should now trigger a reconsideration by the leaders of the Government parties.

It is accepted that violence, abuse, coercion and harassment of women and girls is systemic in Irish society. The evidence also tells us that this abuse is worse again for women in environments that are heavily reliant on power structures. In its statement in December, the Women of Honour group described the Government's proposals for a review as shocking. Has the Taoiseach discussed the Women of Honour group's statement with his coalition partners? The women have stated that the Minister does not appear to appreciate the seriousness of the issues and concerns they have raised. These are concerns based on their lived experiences surrounding dignity in the workplace, bullying, harassment, discrimination, assault, sexual harassment and sexual assault. This simply is not acceptable.

In their engagements with the Minister, the women have called on the Government to bring about real change and shape the Defence Forces for the 21st century by delivering a full investigation, with a comprehensive independent report, into past and ongoing events. Instead, the Minister has proposed a process that is not independent, has no investigative powers and cannot compel perpetrators who refuse to participate.

If we are truly committing to a zero tolerance policy on violence, abuse, coercion and harassment against women and girls, then we have a moral responsibility to use all the powers at our disposal to ensure that those who protect us and others are, in fact, protected themselves. If the Taoiseach has not discussed the matter with his Government partners, will he commit to do so at the earliest opportunity? The women are due to meet the Minister again tomorrow afternoon.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about an issue of Government co-ordination with regard to what it is doing to tackle vacancy and dereliction. In Ireland right now, more than 9,000 people are homeless and at least 90,000 homes are vacant. That is a conservative estimate as the census put the figure for empty homes at more than 180,000. That figure excludes holiday homes and homes that were empty on the night of the census. It relates to homes that were empty during multiple inspections over three months.

In addition, some 22,000 residential buildings are derelict. Ireland has one of the highest rates of vacancy in the world. This would be scandalous at any time but in the middle of a housing crisis, with escalating rents and house prices that people cannot afford going up month after month and year after year, this is completely unacceptable. Will the Government urgently introduce a tax on vacant buildings to bring them back into use, not next year or some time in the future, but now?

For many years, People Before Profit has called for a wealth tax to try to redistribute wealth in what is one of the richest countries in the world where wealth has increased exponentially year after year, including during the pandemic. We now have the ironic situation that today, 100 of the richest people in the world have sent a begging letter to the political leaders of the world asking if the leaders will please tax them more because they are not being taxed enough, and to introduce wealth taxes. Even the billionaires see the gross inequality and pleaded with political leaders at Davos to tax them more. However, the Government resisted and tried to rubbish what Oxfam said this week.

For the Taoiseach's information or that of the officials who wrote his earlier response, the Central Bank quarterly report every single year spells out the amount of personal, financial and household wealth in this country and shows increases in that wealth in exactly the same proportions that Oxfam is outlining. The Department of Finance did a study, and the Taoiseach is right to say there are no studies, although there should be, which I think is deliberate, of the distribution of that wealth. The Department of Finance did a distribution study in 2017, however, which showed the richest 10% in this country have 53% of that wealth whereas the poorest 50% have less than 2% of the wealth. If we are going to address inequality and have the money for housing, health and education, surely we could impose a little bit of additional tax on the super-wealthy millionaires and billionaires.

One of the many scandals of Covid-19 in this country has been how our pupils, teachers and schools have been treated. One of the latest episodes is that right across the country today and for the last couple of weeks, people are attempting to teach and learn in temperatures of 8°C, 9°C and 10°C. This is almost impossible to do in those circumstances. The reason is that the Government failed to act on our repeated requests in the Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill 2021, which was passed more than a month ago, and failed to invest in buying and installing HEPA filters in schools. Instead, many private fundraising efforts are taking place in schools across the country to get the HEPA filters, which will mean they will not have to leave the windows open as wide for as long in the course of the day.

Today, a number of reports from different schools seemed to suggest the HSE helpline for principals was refusing to record positive cases from antigen tests. The HSE said it needed a PCR test when it is not possible for those under the age of 39 to get a PCR test today anywhere in the country. Will the Taoiseach intervene to resolve this issue? Will he ensure the Department of Education buys and distributes HEPA filters and all educators, special needs assistants, SNA, etc., have access to FFP2 or N95 masks for free, just as we do in the Oireachtas?

I thank the Deputies for raising the various issues. In the first instance, the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, has been dealing and having engagements with the Women of Honour representative group. As Deputy Clarke said, I understand there will be further engagement shortly. Regarding the issues the Deputy raised, it would seem that on the face of the evidence and what has been put forward, there could in some instances be a case for criminal investigations in terms of the abuse that took place. To have a statutory or investigative inquiry that is outside of the normal processes of criminal investigation could potentially undermine such investigations. That said, I am open to engaging with the group. I want to see what transpires with the Minister and the group first. My understanding is that things were progressing for a while. The Government is prepared to continue the engagement.

If there are certain desired outcomes, which I think there are, people who commit abuse should be followed up on. The Deputy was talking about the investigative powers and the compelling of people to give evidence, which takes it out of the hands - if there was wrongdoing - of the Garda Síochána and any processes that it would engage in. That is something we would need to assess.

On Deputy O’Callahan’s point, I dealt earlier with some of the cases he raised regarding vacant properties and dereliction. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohue, through the local property tax, LTP, review is doing some valuable work in collecting information on vacant properties, with a view to designing a proper vacant property tax. The Government is committed to a vacant property tax. That is important in our view. We have to get it right. We have to design it right. We have to get a far better understanding of the vacant properties out there, the types of such properties and so on. Through the LPT process, which is extremely comprehensive, the Minister for Finance will be in a position to make recommendations in that respect.

Meanwhile, on the social housing side, 5,500 units have brought back since this Government came to office. We provided additional money, beginning with the July stimulus of 2020, to get thousands of void houses in local authority ownership back in operation. In 2022, a further 1,500 voids will be brought back into operation as a result of funding that has been provided by Minister of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien. It is important that this continues, because we do not want to necessary vacancies. There are other issues we are looking at also, for example, nursing home legislation, to see if we can free up more units are vacant because people have gone into nursing homes. All efforts will be made to deal with the vacancy issue. As I said earlier, there has been a 40% year-on-year increase in commencements for housing. This is good news, especially in the context of the momentum that has gone into house building since the last lockdown in the first half of 2021. The latter hit construction somewhat, but we are now at 30,724 commencements.

On Deputy Boyd Barrett’s points, I was not rubbishing any report. It is important that we analyse reports and raise issues relating to them. It is also important that we go through reports with the authors and work issues out. It is not deliberate that there is no comprehensive data on wealth distribution. Again, there are questions around the figures. That is all I am saying. Let us park that for a moment. We have wealth taxes in Ireland. We have the capital gains tax of 33%, as well as the capital acquisitions tax. We have the LPT. Property is where a lot of wealth resides. Deputy Boyd Barrett opposes that, I think-----.

That is not a wealth tax. It is seriously not a wealth tax.

-----as do all of those on the left. The Deputy keeps calling for a wealth tax and then he attacks-----

That is not a wealth tax. Give me a break.

It is, especially in the context of the very high value of houses that he wants-----

It is a few hundred quid that billionaires are paying.

Deputy Boyd Barrett wants all the millionaires and billionaires to get away scot-free. He does not think that they should be taxed at all in respect of their massive properties.

They should be taxed for property.

The Deputy does not believe so because he votes against it all the time. There is an ESRI study which shows that if the French wealth tax system applied in Ireland, it would only yield €22 million. That was an ESRI analysis back in 2016. There is a big difference between €22 million and €4 billion. There are issues of residency and so on, as the Deputy knows, as well as a whole lot of other stuff.

The billionaires are claiming-----

Deputy Paul Murphy referred to schools. Again, I pay tribute to all the teachers, principals, parents and students in our schools for their efforts throughout the pandemic. It has been difficult and challenging time for them. Significant resources have been provided to schools, from PPE right the way through to funding for expenditure, to allow them to deal with the Covid-19 challenge. My view is that schools have coped well. There have clearly been challenges, not least in terms of the most recent wave caused by Omicron, which has affected so many people. I do not accept the charges the Deputy made. The issue relating to antigen tests has been fixed and resolved by the HSE.

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