Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Questions (10, 11, 12)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent engagements with the National Economic and Social Council. [26895/18]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

11. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent engagements with the National Economic and Social Council. [27723/18]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

12. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent engagements with the National Economic and Social Council. [28954/18]

View answer

Oral answers (12 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 12, inclusive, together.

The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, is an independent statutory agency operating under the aegis of my Department. The council analyses and reports on strategic policy matters relevant to Ireland's economic, social, environmental and sustainable development. Its membership comprises representatives of business and employers’ organisations, ICTU, agricultural and farming organisations, community and voluntary organisations and environmental organisations, together with heads of Departments and independent experts. This composition means that it plays an important and unique role in bringing different perspectives from civil society together with the Government. This helps the NESC to analyse the challenges facing Irish society and develop a shared understanding among its members of how to tackle them.

In accordance with the National Economic and Social Development Office Act 2006, I have certain functions such as appointing the members of the NESC and presenting reports to the Government prior to publication or laying them before the Houses, as in the case of the annual reports. The council is funded from my Department’s Vote. My Department also has governance responsibilities in regard to the council. In the coming years Ireland will face into a period of significant change, both at home and abroad, which will present some new and exceptional challenges. In that regard, A Programme for a Partnership Government specifically notes that there are policy challenges on which long-term thinking is required. I expect the council to continue to contribute to policy development, with a focus on the strategic and longer term view.

The council’s current work programme comprises a key social challenge - low work intensity households, quality tailored services and participation; climate change - governance of the low-carbon transition; and land value, land use and urban development. The Government may ask the NESC to explore a report on certain issues, but how it will choose to do this will be a matter for the council, which is independent in its day-to-day business and working arrangements. The most recent NESC reports are Urban Development Land, Housing and Infrastructure: Fixing Ireland's Broken System and Moving from Welfare to Work: Low Work Intensity Households and the Quality of Supportive Services. In recent months I have brought both reports to the Government in advance of publication. I have also appointed four independent members of the council to fill remaining vacancies, following an open process conducted by the Public Appointments Service through stateboards.ie.

On an issue I have already raised, the NESC's report refers 12 times to the problem of precarious work. When talking about economic benefits, one needs to look at the prevalence of precarious work and the extent to which the State is subsidising and facilitating work that does not have to be precarious. I again cite the film industry as an example. If we are putting in a lot of public money, we need to ensure it is being put in in a way that will create quality employment and provide training for people to create sustainable jobs and industries. I ask the Taoiseach to look seriously at this sector. Anywhere public money is put in, it should not unnecessarily subsidise precarious work, but that is what is happening in many sectors, including the film industry.

With reference to the report, Urban Development Land, Housing and Infrastructure: Fixing Ireland's Broken System and so on, Deputy Mick Wallace brought up these issues last night, while I brought them up two weeks ago in a motion against which the Government voted. The House passed Deputy Mick Wallace's Bill, about which I am delighted, but what is the Government going to do about it?

There are vulture funds sitting on perfectly good empty units. I have cited two examples several times in the House because they are staring me in the face every week in Dún Laoghaire. A vulture fund, Apollo Global Management, has been sitting on ten empty apartments for about two years in the centre of Dún Laoghaire. It tried to evict the tenants and got some of them out, although some fought it through the Residential Tenancies Board and are still in place. Nonetheless, there are ten empty apartments. Cerberus, which bought a block of apartments from NAMA, has been sitting on 25 perfectly good empty units for about five years. These are just two examples. Does the Taoiseach think it is a problem? Does he think it is acceptable that these vulture funds are also beneficiaries of section 110 tax relief? If he thinks it is not acceptable in the face of a housing crisis, what does he propose to do about it?

The Taoiseach mentioned the report, Urban Development Land, Housing and Infrastructure: Fixing Ireland's Broken System. It is a welcome piece of work which includes a number of very welcome recommendations such as building affordability into policies designed to increase the supply of housing, starting with land and rental costs; using publicly owned land to increase the supply of housing; and ensuring affordability in creating quality residential developments, all of which are music to our ears. They are very welcome recommendations, but what is important is actually implementing them. Having received and brought forward the reports, has the Taoiseach any serious intention of acting on their very sensible recommendations? I note that yesterday the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, organised a housing summit which really consisted of a reannouncement of existing policies which were not working and which demonstrated an ongoing and lamentable lack of ambition.

The NESC has probably been the body which has commented most on the climate change risks facing Ireland. Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to study the work it has done on climate change? In particular, has he had a chance to look at the report published last week by the Climate Action Network that ranked Ireland 27th out of 28, second last behind Poland, which is a coal-producing country, when it came to climate change actions? Will he consider commissioning an update from the NESC on a risk assessment of the cost to Ireland of abjectly failing to meet climate change targets? This is not to mention the fact that, of course, we know that it impacts on farmers in terms of fodder shortages resulting, in particular, from winter storms that cause flooding in communities. We are living with the effects of climate change, some of which are probably very pleasant such as the current warm weather, some of which, however, are pretty miserable during the winter. Does the Taoiseach and the Government have concerns about climate change? The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, while not a denier of climate change, barely acknowledges that it is a problem for us.

In recent years the NESC has spent a lot of time focusing on the short, medium and long-term problems in the housing sector. It has brought important experts to the country and emphasised the hard substance in looking at every angle of the problem. It is unfortunate that much of this work has not had the impact on the Government we would have expected it to have and that the Government has not been able to come up with proposals to overcome the chronic delivery deficit between promises and outcomes. Because the Taoiseach is so concerned to ensure issues of substance will be covered in the media, he will have noticed the extensive coverage last week that noted that there were close to 10,000 people on the homeless lists, even after the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, had acted to change the way the statistics were prepared. A further 137 children have become homeless for the first time, as revealed by the figures, yet, when the figures were released, there was no comment from the Taoiseach who had nothing to say about the continuing rise in the level of homelessness under the Government and the increasingly hapless performance of the Minister. Last year the Taoiseach announced at the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis, "We have a plan and it is working." He came into the House many times to announce that everything was looking up. Will he accept that he was wrong to declare that everything was in hand? What are the new emergency measures the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, told journalists he would soon be publishing?

In fairness, probably two days do not pass when I do not have something to say about housing or homelessness.

No, the Taoiseach does not. He never comments when the official figures come out.

I did at noon today.

That is beside the point. When the figures are announced, the Taoiseach always hides away.

If anyone cares to check the record, there is not a week, or even a period of two or three days, that goes by when I am not asked about housing or homelessness and I do not have something to say about it. It is not necessary for me to issue a press statement every time a set of figures comes out. I do not do that as standard, even if the figures are positive, and there are plenty of such figures.

As to Deputy Boyd Barrett's earlier question, I do not know the circumstances of the developments he mentioned and I do not want to comment on them without knowing. However, we have introduced a vacant sites levy which is now in place. It imposes a levy on the value of vacant land which is not being developed. I am aware that Deputy Wallace has made interesting proposals about how that can be strengthened, which we want to examine. We have given some consideration to the application of a vacant home tax or levy, although there are many complications in doing so. Local authorities have the power to CPO units. Louth County Council has been particularly active in compulsorily purchasing vacant housing units. I would certainly like to see more local authorities using the powers they have to CPO homes or apartments which are vacant to bring them into use as social housing. It is something the Government very much supports.

Including those owned by the vulture funds.

It should not matter who owns them. Local authorities have CPO powers to purchase unused properties and add them to the social housing stock. Whether they are owned by the Deputy, me or a vulture fund should not really matter. The objective is to get vacant homes into use at a time when we need more homes.

The NESC land use report is very strong and we intend to act on it. We have outlined already our proposal to establish a Government land agency which will identify and take control of publicly owned lands which could be made available for housing development and development more generally. The agency may also on occasion buy privately owned land to unlock its development potential. It will be a real step change in the way in which the Government is active in the housing market. We have seen some examples of how measures like this were introduced in the docklands, Grangegorman and through the Limerick regeneration project. This will be on a much greater scale and it will make a big difference.

I have acknowledged in my speech to the European Parliament and elsewhere that Ireland has fallen behind on climate change. I used the term "laggard" in describing our performance. It does not give me any pleasure to say that and I do not say it without wanting to act. We must focus now on what the Government will actually do to enable Ireland to meet its 2030 targets. From the middle of next year, for example, any new buses bought by Bus Éireann or Dublin bus will be low-emission or no-emission vehicles. We have confirmed that in 2025, we will take coal off the grid and no longer burn it at Moneypoint. By 2030, we will have taken peat off the grid and that time will allow for a just transition in recognition of the fact that a great deal of employment in the midlands is created by that industry. From 2030, there will be no new diesel or petrol-fuelled cars for sale in Ireland, which gives us time to electrify the fleet. There will be a renewable heat initiative, a whole programme of deep refitting of public buildings and private homes. We will also have a new refit or RESS scheme to promote investment in renewable energy. We will need to solve the problem of foreshore licences which is creating major difficulties in respect of the development of offshore wind energy. We have run into constitutional issues there which I am determined to resolve. Project Ireland 2040 outlines €22 billion worth of investment in climate action.

Rather than commissioning reports, we want to get on with the job of tackling climate change and meeting our obligations under the Paris Agreement and our 2030 targets. We are not doing it to meet targets or avoid financial penalties but because it is absolutely the right thing to do.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.