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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 29 Mar 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 2

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I gently remind all speakers to keep to the time.

I welcome the Taoiseach back. I am glad to see him well after his brush with Covid.

I also offer my congratulations to Deputy Ivana Bacik as she takes on her leadership role. Every best wish to her.

Go raibh maith agat.

Workers and families face a cost of living crisis that demands an urgent response. Last week, Energia became the third energy supplier this year to announce a price increase for its customers. The increase will come into effect next month and it will add €427 to the yearly household bill. This is the fourth price hike announced by Energia in the past year and it comes just a week after Bord Gáis announced a massive price increase that will add a €775 additionality to the yearly household bills of its customers. These are frightening numbers and they come after 35 energy price hikes announced last year. Without action, low- and middle-income households face an income squeeze that they will struggle to withstand and, indeed, many are already unable to cope. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has seen requests for help soar, with households facing an impossible and unacceptable choice between keeping the heating on and doing the weekly food shop.

Last week, the Central Bank told an Teachta Pearse Doherty that households would see energy and food costs rise by €1,900 this year. Workers and families cannot bear these costs without very significant financial hardship. They need help. We recognise the causes of this cost of living crisis and we know that households cannot be fully insulated from these costs, but they can and they must be supported as much as possible. The good news is that more can be done. Indeed, the responsibility of the Government is to ensure that more is done. Caithfear níos mó tacaíochta a thabhairt do theaghlaigh. Is féidir níos mó a dhéanamh agus is é cúram an Rialtais cinntiú go ndéantar níos mó. Táimid tar éis insint don Taoiseach cad is féidir a dhéanamh.

For five months now, we in Sinn Féin have been calling on the Government and the Minister for Finance to work with the European Commission to remove VAT from household energy bills, and for months that proposal has been dismissed. I welcome the fact that the Taoiseach has now changed position and that he is now, finally, engaging with the Commission to allow for a reduction or a removal in the level of VAT applied to fuels, just as we have been calling for. The conclusions published after the meeting of the European Council last week provide scope to engage with the Commission further on the issue of VAT.

What specific ask has the Taoiseach made of the Commission? Has he sought scope for the Government to reduce VAT on domestic energy bills to zero for a period of time, as we have asked? Has the Government applied for a derogation from the current VAT rules? When does the Taoiseach expect this process to be concluded so customers can get the break they need?

The Government could take measures now to reduce the cost of home heating oil for hundreds of thousands of households. This month the cost of filling a tank rose to more than €1,600. Many households cannot afford this. We in Sinn Féin have called on the Taoiseach to remove excise duty on home heating oil. Up to now he has ruled this out but given the pressure so many workers and families are under, will he change his position and provide them with additional support by removing excise duty from home heating oil?

I thank the Deputy, all Members of the House and many well-wishers for their kind remarks in the aftermath of my brush with Covid. Thankfully, it was a light brush and probably points to the value of vaccination. I urge anybody who is not vaccinated to get the booster.

There is no doubt that there has been a severe increase in the cost of living in recent months. As we emerged from Covid we had an initial inflationary cycle which was described by the Central Bank as a pandemic cycle of inflation because of the imbalance between supply and demand. There was huge demand as people and societies emerged from Covid. Economies rebounded, supply chains were under strain, manufacturing could not keep up with the demand and prices rose.

Prior to the war on Ukraine, the energy market was being manipulated, in our view, to create spikes in prices and challenges around energy. There is no doubt that the energy question is being leveraged by the Russian Federation in respect of the conduct of the war. The war itself is significantly adding to and making worse the inflationary pressures on our economy, particularly on households and people generally. That is across the board, particularly in energy, but it will be manifested in food and other commodities, particularly certain metals. Russia and Ukraine account for about 30% of global exports of wheat, 7% of maize and more than 50% of sunflower seed oil. Together they produce 12% of calories consumed globally. Ukraine supplies about a quarter of the European Union's cereal and vegetable oil imports.

There will be ongoing impacts from the war, over and above what we have witnessed to date. Transport routes have been disrupted because of the war so the cost of trade is increasing. For example, rail freight between Asia and Europe via Russia or Ukraine is interrupted. Trade has switched to sea freight, which is slower and more costly. Sea freight routes through the Black Sea are affected. The annual rate of inflation in Ireland rose to 5.7% in February. Euro area inflation was 5.8%. Wholesale oil prices are up 40% compared to January, on average, and gas prices are up 60%. The cost of base metals and agricultural commodities has also surged. A barrel of oil costs $114 today on international markets, up from $96 on 23 February. UK natural gas on wholesale markets is trading at around £2.45 per therm today. This day last year a therm of gas cost 47p. Wages went up 4.7% in 2021, following a rise of 5.2% in 2020.

This dramatic and phenomenal increase in prices is having impacts. The Government has, from the budget on, produced close to €2 billion in income supports and targeted measures around energy, in particular, and other areas through welfare payments, in response to the increase in inflation.

We have also targeted measures for hauliers, tillage farmers and the pig meat sector and we are looking at other sectors. Regarding the EU, we sought an amendment to the conclusions to create the opportunity for flexibility around the VAT and energy tax directives, which restrict us now. We were not ignoring anything. We simply pointed out at the time that what Sinn Féin was asking for could not be done then because of the regulations. We do not want to go back to 23% in respect of oil once this crisis is over. On home heating-----

In essence, Deputy McDonald is saying we should reduce the carbon tax. Let us call a spade a spade. There is VAT and carbon tax on home heating oil.

The Taoiseach has described the problem and accurately signposted that it will be an ongoing problem, so the pressure households are under will remain constant. The Taoiseach must recognise, as I am sure he does, the struggle that means for households and families right across the State. The Taoiseach did not answer a series of very straightforward questions. On the issue of home heating oil, we want the excise duty removed from it.

Is the Deputy referring to the carbon tax?

Yes, which is an excise charge on-----

The Deputy needs to be honest about saying that.

Revenue describes it as an excise.

I do not care what it is called.

I do not care what it is described as. It needs to be removed.

Well, the Deputy needs to be transparent.

It needs to be removed.

It is the cost of living.

Will the Taoiseach remove the excise from home heating oil? That is the question. I believe the Government should do that and do it urgently to give relief to those who cannot now fill their tanks and are struggling. I also asked the Taoiseach what specific request was made of the European Commission. Have we sought a derogation in respect of the VAT directives? How long will this process take? What ask has been made? As the Taoiseach is aware, we believe we should look for a zero rate for a defined period of time. Is that what has been sought?

The Deputy knows that is what I sought. I said that to her already. We have sought a derogation in respect of the application of the rules around the VAT directive and the energy tax directive, which covers excise. Basically, we have sought that if we reduce our VAT rate, because we have an historical derogation already in this regard and already have one of the lower VAT rates on energy now, of 13.5%-----

If we bring that down-----

No, I do not think we should go to zero. If we did bring the rate down, we would go back up to 23% under the existing rules.

Change the existing rules.

I have been saying this to Deputy McDonald for two or three months and so has the Minister for Finance.

I am not stupid. I am aware of that. Answer the questions.

The Deputy is well aware of it, but she should know that. Therefore, we have been seeking from the European Commission-----

-----a change in the application of those rules and a temporary derogation from those rules so we could give ourselves and other states flexibility in respect of the application of VAT, or, indeed, excise duties. Turning to home heating oil, carbon tax is there now, with VAT. Those are the two options. The Deputy is technically using different terms, deliberately to-----

Revenue uses that term.

Politically, the Deputy wishes to avoid the charge that she wishes to get rid of the carbon tax.

I am avoiding nothing.

That is what it means. That said, we want flexibility on the VAT side, obviously.

I used the language the Revenue used.

The Deputy is right to say that this is going to go right through to the end of the year, and that is how the Government must react here. We cannot be bringing in separate measures every week.

I thank the Taoiseach. We are moving on.

We have to prepare for the medium term in terms of helping to manage the economy properly.

It is not fair-----

Táim ag bogadh ar aghaidh go ceannaire nua Pháirtí an Lucht Oibre. I am moving on to the new leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Bacik. I congratulate her and we will give her a few extra seconds.

I will take up that offer. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I appreciate that. I also welcome the Taoiseach back. Fáilte ar ais. I pay tribute to my colleague, and the outgoing leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Kelly, for his immense work, commitment and contribution to the party, to the House and to public debate over many years.

My solidarity and that of the Labour Party is with the people of Ukraine, who for the past month have been enduring the horrific war crimes and the brutal Russian invasion and bombardment. I have just come from the funeral of Pierre Zakrzewski. I was honoured to receive an invitation to attend from Michelle and his family. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, was also there. I pay tribute to the immense bravery of Mr. Zakrzewski and that of his colleagues, war reporters and journalists, who have brought us news of the atrocities and shone a spotlight on the war crimes being committed daily in Ukraine by Russia and Putin's brutal regime.

There is a moral and political imperative on us to do more to support the people of Ukraine through all the peaceful and humanitarian means at our disposal.

We have supported Ukraine's application for accession to the EU, which is very welcome, and we have moved with a number of EU states on that. We have opened our doors to refugees fleeing Ukraine and I pay tribute to the many people across Ireland welcoming refugees and doing so much to support refugees coming here.

I call again for the expulsion of the Russian ambassador from Ireland. If EU member states do not act in concert in such action, as would be ideal, we should move to do it unilaterally. The time has come when we see the horrors of Mariupol and the horrors being rained down on the people of Ukraine. It is now incumbent on us to do this.

Remaining conscious of the carnage and loss of life in Ukraine, I believe the Government should be doing more to support people through the fallout of the war in Ukraine, which has compounded the three crises facing people across the country today. There is a crisis in the cost of living, with rising inflation; a crisis in fuel and energy security and supply; and, of course, the existential climate emergency or crisis. The effects of the terrible war in Ukraine are, among other things, posing a threat to the limited but nonetheless welcome gains we saw at an international level in reducing emissions at COP26 and our own welcome ambitious targets in the climate action Act.

We know European countries are seeking ways to reduce reliance on Russian oil and gas and I have called for Ireland at an EU level to do more to push for a full embargo on Russian oil and gas. In order to do that, we must ensure we do not look to other fossil fuels in that period as that is not the approach we should be taking. For example, there are reports that nine liquefied natural gas terminals are due to be constructed on this island, with eight in this jurisdiction, over coming years, and that is concerning. It would be concerning to see us locking ourselves into that when instead we should be looking at ramping up our renewables and our capacity in renewables. We are seeing concerns being expressed by Wind Energy Ireland and others about how we can achieve those targets.

What is the Government doing on a process to expel the Russian ambassador? What is the Government doing to ensure we can have energy security without further reliance on fossil fuels?

I congratulate the Deputy on her election as leader of the Labour Party. I wish her every success.

Really? Does the Taoiseach wish me every success?

I express the very best wishes from us. I pay tribute to the Deputy's predecessor as leader, Deputy Alan Kelly. Notwithstanding the odd spat we enjoyed a good relationship. His heart was always in the public interest and of that there can be no doubt. I appreciated his constructive leadership in the teeth of the Covid-19 crisis.

I concur with much of what the Deputy has said in respect of the Ukrainian crisis. I express my sympathies to Pierre's family. I was invited to the service but was at Cabinet so my aide-de-camp and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, represented the Cabinet. His death illustrates the vital importance of modern media and the bravery and courage of journalists in battle zones. They shine a light on atrocities and the barbaric attacks on civilisation, including citizens and households, the indiscriminate bombings of towns and people and the horrendous human trauma visited on the women, children and men of Ukraine. We do not often reflect on the degree to which members of the media put their lives literally on the line to bring the truth to us. We see in authoritarian regimes, and in Russia itself, what happens with the suppression of anybody who voices dissent: it is savage, it is severe, it is imprisonment. It is important we remind ourselves of the importance in our society of the tenets of democracy, including separation of powers, including on the judicial side, the freedom of media and the necessary tension between all the different pillars.

On sanctions, we sought to act in unison all along with our fellow European member states in the belief that this has the greatest impact. To date, the economic sanctions have been severe and unprecedented. The fact they happened with the United States, the European Union and others was powerful. Last week we saw very strong unity from the United States and Europe together, along with Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom, saying we are democracies and we stand with the people of Ukraine. That is impactful.

On the diplomatic side we have also sought to work with others and will continue to do so.

We will keep all of those issues under review in respect of diplomatic sanctions or initiatives to illustrate the country's dissatisfaction, to put it mildly, or outrage at the war. I refer also to other activities that are under way in the name of diplomacy but may not necessarily be bona fide diplomacy.

On climate change, perhaps the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will also give me a few extra seconds.

Deputy Bacik is the new Labour Party leader.

I wanted to respond to questions she raised. I can take them up in the next round.

I thank the Taoiseach for his kind words. I also appreciate his comments about the importance of war reporting. I absolutely agree with him that this is an attack on democracy. It is a brutal and unprovoked attack on a peaceful sovereign state. We have to be absolutely clear in our condemnation of Russian action and our solidarity with Ukraine. It is in that spirit that I offer constructively my view that we should be doing more as a neutral country through non-military means to express that condemnation. Just as we have seen Ireland moving along with other nations to support Ukraine's application for accession to the EU, so too should we be moving with like-minded nations, even if we do not have full agreement across the EU, on more stringent diplomatic measures such as expulsions of diplomats. I think that is one way, along with the other things we are doing, that we as a neutral State can show our outright condemnation.

On the issue of climate, I ask the Taoiseach again about how the construction of new gas-fired plants is compatible with meeting our targets on renewables, particularly as there are already so many concerns about whether we can, in fact, meet those targets with offshore wind development.

We are still 80% reliant on importation of fossil fuels more broadly across the energy portfolio. We are making good progress on the contribution of renewables to electricity where I think we are at 41% or 43%. The point is that gas will be a transitional backup fuel for a long time, behind our renewables effort. The Deputy is correct that this war means we have to double down on renewables. However, alongside and parallel with renewables, we will need gas. We have to be clear about that. The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications has been working for quite some time on an energy security review. The war has thrown into sharp focus our dependency on imported fossil fuels but also vulnerabilities across Europe in terms of security of supply. That is why Europe is moving strongly on liquefied natural gas now to stop its dependency on Russian gas and oil. The German Government is making it very clear that it is going to reduce its dependency and it is very highly dependent. We are going to have to watch the energy security side of the equation as well. We are focused particularly on next winter.

Is deas an rud é an Taoiseach a fheiceáil iomlán folláin. Guím gach rath ar cheannaire nua an Lucht Oibre freisin. It is hard to remember any time since the Good Friday Agreement when the political infrastructure in the North of Ireland was in such chaos. In the North today, there are 44,000 people on housing waiting lists and 250,000 people have been on health waiting lists for more than a year. That is one in seven people in the North of Ireland. Some 300,000 men, women and children are living in poverty in the North. A cost-of-living crisis is engulfing families every day yet the Executive charged with fixing the situation is crashed.

For the government of any society that is dealing with such a confluence of crises to be suspended would not be tolerated in any other democracy in the world. The truth of the matter is that the Good Friday Agreement has been gutted. The Executive is not working at all. The North-South Ministerial Council, which was a significant reason for nationalists to support the Good Friday Agreement, is not working either. There is no sign of resolution. The DUP states that if nationalists hold the position of First Minister after the elections, they may not hold the position of Deputy First Minister. Shockingly, even after the people of the North get to cast their votes on 5 May, the DUP is stating that it may not return to any Executive. The DUP has approximately 8% of the vote in the island of Ireland.

It is polling at about 19% of the vote in the North of Ireland at the moment. A total of 85% of the population of Ireland, North and South, voted for the Good Friday Agreement. Such an obvious violation of the democratic will of the people would not be tolerated in any other democracy on the planet. Right now, in the streets, the UDA and UVF are still active, yet British Government officials are still meeting with them and the DUP considers them stakeholders. Today, we learned that the Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, has said he will not bring forward Irish language legislation in Westminster before May's assembly elections. This Irish language Act has been promised for 15 years. Indeed, Sinn Féin returned to Stormont in January 2020 after previously collapsing the Executive because it said it had achieved an Irish language Act. In a combination of bad faith by London and naivete from Sinn Féin, we found out this morning that the commitment was hocus-pocus all along.

The British and Irish Governments are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement but both Governments are not co-guaranteeing anything at the moment. The Government is sitting on its hands, keeping its head down and hoping the crisis will go away. It cannot be ignored any longer. The Taoiseach was in Washington two weeks ago. The White House is one of the few cards we have in terms of leverage to protect the Good Friday Agreement.

Thank you, Deputy.

What material help has he got from the White House to protect the agreement?

The Taoiseach to respond.

To take the Deputy's last question first, I think the White House, through the person of President Biden, has been remarkably consistent, strong and assertive in regard to the Good Friday Agreement and the protection of the agreement. In my meeting with the President, he was very strong on that. I briefed him on the current situation in Northern Ireland in respect of the Executive and the fact it was not operational, given what had happened, that elections were pending and that, from our perspective, a lot of work will be needed in the aftermath of those elections to restore the institutions.

On the socioeconomic front and the political front, I always have been very consistent in saying that the institutions should never be undermined and should never be collapsed by anybody or by any political party. If the people elect one to the assembly and then to the Executive, one should take one's seat and one's position on the Executive and discharge one's duties on behalf of the people for the full duration of that parliamentary cycle. Unfortunately, the history of the Good Friday Agreement, the assembly and the Executive is that, too often, the default position has been either to withdraw for periods from the Executive or to collapse it when different crises emerge. That has been a very significant problem in terms of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement which, in turn, has weakened people's respect and esteem for the institutions. If we compare consistent surveys in terms of opinion on the assembly versus the Scottish Parliament, there is a marked difference. I would put forward that the basis for this is that, in Scotland, there has not been a similar interruption and the Government there is perceived to be working for its people. I acknowledge that the Scottish Parliament has some more powers, but the North has been interrupted too much by collapse. This recent collapse is unacceptable. It should not have happened and it is wrong for it to occur. I have been very consistent about that.

There have been numerous commitments at this stage regarding the Irish language Act. The Secretary of State committed to Sinn Féin that he would bring it in at the Westminster Parliament. In my view, that promise should be fulfilled. When agreements are made, agreements should be honoured.

We have been working extremely hard in endeavouring to create the right environment and framework for a resolution of the protocol issue, which stems from the Brexit issue. Brexit was passed and we accept the decision of the British people but no one, particularly on the British Government side, properly thought through the implications of Brexit for the Good Friday Agreement itself or for relationships within the island of Ireland. The protocol was designed to be a resolution mechanism for those issues. In our view, the evidence now is increasingly showing, from talking to people in Northern Ireland industry, business, farming and agriculture, that the protocol is actually helping economic development in the North, particularly in terms of potential foreign direct investment, FDI. The signs are good and, in fact, investment queries are increasing because of the fact the protocol gives access to the European Single Market and the UK market. No one within Northern Ireland has said to us they want to be cut off from the Single Market.

I met Vice President Šefčovič in Washington and had lunch with him and Mr. Richard Neal, head of Friends of Ireland, again going through the efforts and initiatives of Vice President Šefčovič of this issue.

Let us be honest: the Good Friday Agreement is not being protected. It is gutted and needs to be fixed, but not with a sticking plaster to get it up and running with some pretend compromise that will never be implemented. The current arrangements are a recipe for dysfunction and instability. The political institutions in the North have to be reformed.

I take the Taoiseach's fine words on the fact that the Stormont Executive and Assembly should never be collapsed, but I want to know from him how it can be stopped from being collapsed. What the people of the North of Ireland want to know is how to stop the Executive in the North from being collapsed. The only way that can be done is through the reform of the political institutions in the North of Ireland. The North–South Ministerial Council is collapsed at the moment. That is illegal according to a recent court judgment. There must be a penalty for that illegality. We have to change the law relating to the political institutions to prevent a party on 8% of the vote on the island of Ireland from bringing down the institutions. What steps will the Taoiseach take to make the reforms real?

In the first instance, we have to deal with the agreement we have.

It is not working.

Yes, but there is an election on right now. Whatever the outcome of the election, the status quo applies regarding the election of the Executive First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Once that happens and an Executive is established under the current electoral and political framework, the parties in the North can by all means engage regarding whatever reforms-----

The two governments need to do it.

Just hear me out, please. They can engage with the two governments regarding whatever reforms they believe are desirable. There is an election on right now, however, and we should allow it to take its course and the people elected to create the Executive.

According to a national survey by the Real Estate Alliance, the average house price across the country is now rising by almost €100 per day. Today saw the release of the latest daft.ie sales report, which shows that the average listed price nationwide in the first quarter of 2022 was €299,000, up 8.4% on the same period in 2021, with the largest increases in Connacht–Ulster, where prices rose by 20.1% in the year to March. This is indicative of the systemic failure of the housing policies being pursued by the Government that the Taoiseach leads.

The social media commentary on this issue consistently refers to the stories of people who are locked out of the market through their inability to access mortgages. A combination of high prices and low wages resulting from the extremist ideological position pursued by the Taoiseach and his partners in government to satisfy their free-marketeer masters comes at the expense of ordinary citizens and it is unsustainable. Let us consider the knock-on effects of this failure and the most vulnerable in society. It is a real test of how Government policy is working, or, in this case, not working.

Just an hour ago, I received an email from parents and friends of people with intellectual disabilities in south Donegal. They provided me with the names of 17 people in my immediate area for whom there is no provision for sheltered accommodation. One man has been on the social housing list for 16 years. Many of the elderly parents of those affected are sole caregivers and worry about their children's future beyond their lifetimes. Can you imagine the stress this puts on parents and the anxiety associated with wondering every day who will care for their loved ones when they are gone?

Approved housing bodies operating in Donegal have told me that financial viability modelling constrains their ability regarding project approval in towns and villages across the county outside Letterkenny. There is housing need but the bodies are not allowed to meet it. This is compounded by housing assistance payments, HAPs, that have been stagnant for six years in the face of a 20% rent increase in Donegal over the same period. I raised this three weeks ago with the Tánaiste. It is pushing people into poverty, yet we see no action.

The income limits for social housing eligibility have not been reviewed since 2011. It is depressing to read the litany of parliamentary questions tabled by Members on this topic and the ministerial responses that blatantly ignore the questions asked. Will the Government urgently review the HAP and social housing income thresholds to address the cost-of-living crisis?

Will he explain the Government's policy on the provision of sheltered accommodation for vulnerable adults so that I can go back to my constituents, many of whom are watching this debate today, with an answer for them regarding the long-term care of their adult children?

I have said consistently in the House that housing is the single most important social and economic issue facing us as a country at this moment in time. Access to housing is fundamental to people's sense of well-being, security, stability and health, and for us as a broader society in terms of our progress as a nation. That is why we have, on a whole-of-government approach, developed the Housing for All strategy, with significant resources put at the disposal of that strategy, namely €4 billion a year every year over the next five years and beyond.

I am in no doubt as to the scale of the challenge and the need to, at a minimum, get to 33,000 or 34,000 houses built per annum in this country. That will take a variety of forms, from social housing to private housing, affordable housing, cost rental and the HAP initiative. We are building more social housing now and reducing, over time, dependency on HAP. For the time being, given the scale of the HAP provision over the past decade, it will be necessary to enable people to access social housing.

The decisions we have taken represent watershed interventions in the housing market. Covid impacted us over the past two years, with the two lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. On the positive side, the number of new builds commenced in 2021 was 31,000, the highest figure since 2008. Approximately 20,000 houses were completed in 2021, notwithstanding the lockdown. That is not enough. Until we get an adequate supply of houses, we will not be able to deal with all of the manifestations of the housing crisis in all their forms.

Approximately 40,000 planning permissions were granted in the year to quarter 3 of 2021. The challenge for 2022 is to maintain that momentum. Inflation has proved to be problematic. As we discussed earlier, the massive increases in the cost of living and construction materials are now having an impact on the pricing of house construction and the price of housing more generally.

Regarding approved social housing bodies, I ask the Deputy to send the detail of what he has raised to me because we have the capital and we are supporting many approved social housing bodies in respect of the provision of social housing. I am not au fait with the specifics of the sheltered housing problem to which the Deputy referred in Donegal, but funding is there for approved social housing bodies to complete projects. Our approach is a constructive and proactive one, operating with approved social housing bodies to get as many projects as we can started and completed. That is our objective. We do not want to frustrate people and we do not want any barriers to frustrate organisations and approved social housing bodies in that regard.

On HAP, there are flexibilities within the scheme in terms of increases over and both the normal threshold in given situations.

The Taoiseach said the housing issue is the single most important social issue of his time. That is true, but the Government has failed miserably, and is continuing to fail miserably, to solve or deal with the issue because it has focused entirely on the private housing market to solve this issue, and the private sector will not do it. The only way to deal with this issue is through a public building programme.

A family of four earning €28,000 a year cannot get on the housing list in Donegal and will never, ever be able to buy a house in Donegal. That is the reality of the situation. That is what the Taoiseach is missing in everything he is saying and the facts he is throwing out regarding what is being done. These people are continuously being left behind because the Government is not dealing with them. None of its housing policies will deal with those people and they will not get on the housing list because they are not allowed onto it. The Government's policies stop that. The reason the Government will not let them on the housing list is because the housing list would balloon through the roof straightaway, and that would be a massive failure that would expose the Government housing policies for what they are. The reality is that the policy is not working. Public housing bodies and solutions led by local authorities are the only way to deal with the issue.

That is what we are doing. There is a very strong social housing construction component in Housing for All. It is the largest component. In 2022, we will deliver close to 12,000 social homes, the highest number ever, of which 9,000 will be new builds. In addition, since the Government came into office more than 18 months ago we have focused strongly on voids, as has the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. In the past 18 months, 5,500 social homes have been brought back into use. Again, we have put effort into that and we wanted an urgency attached to that. In the current context, we are saying to local authorities that there should be no excuse for houses being left vacant. When people leave homes for different reasons, those houses should be reoccupied very quickly thereafter. There will be no toleration. We are saying to local authorities that they cannot allow social housing stock remain idle. This year, we have provided funding for 1,500 void homes to be remediated and brought back into use. There is a very strong social housing component. In addition, there is cost rental, which will be a significant measure. It will take time to ramp up.

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