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Cabinet Committees

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 7 December 2021

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

Mary Lou McDonald


1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [57208/21]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [58592/21]

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Paul Murphy


3. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [58594/21]

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Alan Kelly


4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality last met. [58858/21]

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Peadar Tóibín


5. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [58863/21]

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Niamh Smyth


6. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will meet next. [60020/21]

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Michael Moynihan


7. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will meet next. [60022/21]

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Seán Haughey


8. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality is next due to meet. [60023/21]

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Cian O'Callaghan


9. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [60354/21]

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Oral answers (12 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality oversees implementation of programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, including sport, arts and culture, equality, including children and youth affairs, and public services, including matters relating to justice, policing reform and community safety. The Cabinet committee last met on 25 November and will meet again at an appropriate date.

I have regular engagements with Ministers at Cabinet and individually to discuss priority issues relating to their Departments. In addition, a number of meetings have been held between my officials and officials from relevant Departments on various social policy issues since the establishment of the Cabinet committee in July 2020. The impacts of the pandemic, across all areas, including arts, sports and culture, have been considered by the Cabinet committee on Covid-19. The Cabinet committee on education considers early education, special education and third level institutions in addition to planning and preparing for the medium term impacts and implications of Covid-19 on education.

As there are a lot of questions, I ask that we stick to one minute for each supplementary. I call Deputy McDonald.

Following publication of the mid-term review of the national drug strategy, a decision was made by the Department of Health to remove the community and voluntary sector from the strategy's national oversight committee. The sector is to be replaced by a civic society forum made up of Department of Health appointees. This new structure has yet to be formalised or established. There is a growing opinion across the oversight committee that officials are now intent on pushing out those who voice opinions contrary to the Department’s or, worse still, who attempt to hold it to account. I hope the Taoiseach is as alarmed as I am at this development, although I have to say I am not entirely surprised by the Department's actions.

Speaking at two recent events in the north inner-city, the Taoiseach acknowledged the irreplaceable work of the community in tackling addiction over the last three decades. His support for the community was widely welcomed but there is now a concern across the north inner-city that his view is at odds with the actions of departmental officials with responsibility for the national drug strategy. Following a cross-party initiative last week opposing the Department's decision to remove the community and voluntary networks from the national drug strategy oversight committee, the Minister of State, Deputy Frankie Feighan, asked Department officials to engage further on the matter. While I welcome this intervention, I am sorry to say that my experience tells me not to hold out too much hope as the Department has, in effect, dismantled the north inner-city drug and alcohol task force and closed down the community sector’s involvement in its work.

So bad is the situation that the Inner City Organisations Network and the North West Inner City Network, which are long-established bodies, have been left with no option but to issue a joint statement calling on the Taoiseach to urgently intervene. I wish to echo their call. There is now a clear and dangerous bias within the Department of Health against the community's role in the national drug strategy, locally and nationally, and that cannot stand.

As mentioned earlier, a social housing development which was going to deliver 34 social houses and eight affordable-to-buy houses in a project between an approved housing body and a local co-operative, facilitated by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, has collapsed because the preferred tenderer has pulled out, citing hyperinflation in the construction sector. These are badly needed social and affordable houses, so this is a pretty devastating blow in a situation where there is a desperate crisis in our area in terms of the lack of social and affordable housing.

I put it to the Taoiseach that not only does he need to intervene on this, but the problem is the council cannot even give it to the other tenderers because of the time limits of the tendering process, and so on. This contractor who has pulled out is also involved in another social housing project in the area. This calls into question the entire Housing for All strategy. If a contractor can pull out based on hyperinflation, because it cannot make money, this can happen at any time. We know there is hyperinflation going on in the construction sector and profiteering, arguably, around the housing crisis. We need intervention around this particular project but, actually, it speaks loudly to the need for a State construction company to deliver on the social and affordable housing targets. We cannot be in a situation where, in terms of the delivery of social and affordable housing, we can be held hostage by contractors who can just pull out on the basis they have decided something is not profitable for them. I ask seriously whether we need to consider the establishment of a State construction company to deliver social and affordable housing. Otherwise, we could find our entire project in that regard under serious threat.

I want to return to the question I asked on the Order of Business. I got a lot of bluster back from the Taoiseach but I did not get an answer. It seems to me that a point of very basic inequality has been created, if I am reading the terms of the new PUP scheme correctly. I would be delighted if the Taoiseach could confirm to me that I am reading them incorrectly and that this inequality is not being created.

It seems pretty clear that if, for example, a worker who was earning €450 a week in the entertainment sector lost their job last week as a result of the impact of the Covid restrictions, the impact on the night-time economy and so on, and they then went on the dole, they are not entitled to move onto the pandemic unemployment payment, whereas the equivalent worker who loses their job next week will be entitled, correctly, to go onto the pandemic unemployment payment and will be able to get €350 per week. There will be a difference of income between two workers in identical situations in that they are both out of work as a consequence of pandemic restrictions but have a difference of income between them of €147 per week. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm that that is the case and to take action to reverse it to ensure that anybody who loses their job as a result of Covid restrictions is able to access the PUP at that €350 rate.

An in-depth TILDA - The Irish LongituDinal Study on Ageing - report published recently showed there is currently a crisis among older people in the State. Physical activity by older people during Covid is at 22% lower than it should be. Loneliness is a significant issue as well and the figures indicate there is double the level of loneliness that existed before the crisis. Loneliness is a threat to physical and mental health and, for example, 21% of older adults say they are currently suffering from depression, a figure that is double what it was before Covid. Nearly one third of older people say they are suffering from increased levels of stress.

One third of older adults said that they either delayed medical care or that medical care was delayed for them. These are heartbreaking and shocking figures. By any measure these figures are a disaster and they are mostly invisible to society. What is the Government doing to mitigate that?

Theatres, music venues and promoters have again borne the burnt of the most recent Covid-19 restrictions. They have been left floundering trying to come up with ways to implement the 50% rules on capacity. It leaves them in the unenviable position of having to put on twice the number of performances on depleted finances or of having to cancel their shows. I welcome the fact the National Campaign for the Arts met Department officials yesterday and that supports will be put in place. I would like to draw the Taoiseach’s attention to the amateur and community arts sector. For example, Born 2 Perform is an amateur kids theatre company in Cavan and Monaghan with hundreds of kids in it who need these supports. It has performances booked out for a week in January and it is left with nothing because it does not reach the benchmark of €150,000 of a turnover. We need to put something in place to save it.

The Department of Justice is spearheading a number of initiatives to tackle concerns about community safety, crime and quality of life issues throughout the country. I refer to the Greentown initiative, which aims to deal with criminal networks and to the recently established community safety partnerships arising from the Commission on the Future of Policing, one of which is located in Dublin’s north inner city. I welcome the fact the Taoiseach launched the fourth annual report of the north-east inner city forum last week.

I wish to draw the Taoiseach’s attention to a report published last year by Dr. Jack Nolan, retired assistant commissioner for Dublin City Council, on the Darndale, Belcamp and Moatview areas of Dublin Bay North entitled, Darndale, A Long View of an Enduring Challenge, A Socio-Economic & Community Plan. The report was drawn up in response to the escalating levels of violence and antisocial behaviour in the area. It advances an inter-agency approach and makes a number of recommendations. The Department of Justice and An Garda Síochána are central to the report. Can this report be considered by the Cabinet committee as a model of best practice and can all relevant Departments get fully behind the report?

I agree with Deputy Haughey about that report and how important it is.

The average deposit a first-time buyer needs to buy a home stands at €52,500. This has doubled in less than a decade. The average age of a first-time buyer is rising steeply and rents have almost doubled in the last decade. According to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, "The construction of new rental homes ... is only viable for households with a gross annual income of at least €100,000.” Does the Taoiseach agree that the increases in house prices and rents, well beyond the rate of wage increases, are completely unsustainable? Does he agree with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that the kind of new rental properties that investment funds are bringing on stream are simply unaffordable and out of reach for most people?

I will engage with the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, on the community and voluntary networks and their engagement in the national alcohol and drug strategy. I passionately believe in the community and voluntary pillar in terms of the implementation of national strategies and in working to formulate and implement those strategies.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of tenders. The issue he raises is a feature of the current inflation hike and the increase in building costs, which is not profiteering. We all know the cost of raw materials for building has increased due to supply chain issues arising from Covid-19. The Deputy is correct that there are procurement issues around what happens if somebody pulls out of a project, particularly in public contracts. As I told Deputy Kelly earlier, I will ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, to engage on this issue and to see what can possibly be done to rescue the provision of that housing. It is a feature of the tendering process that costs have gone up across the board, which everybody acknowledges.

What are we going to do about it though?

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is reforming and adapting the public procurement frameworks to accommodate this and to make sure we can get projects going and not lose too much time in getting projects completed. In this case the developer has pulled out. I will ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, to get involved and to see if he can do something.

I refer to the points raised by Deputy Paul Murphy. I would not describe what I was doing earlier as “bluster”. On the issue of intervening in the jobs market, the point I was making is that there are 30,000 vacancies in the jobs market, which is up from 19,000 vacancies two years ago. We need to take focused and targeted approaches as we emerge from and evolve throughout the pandemic. We are not where we were when we were in level 5 and level 3 lockdowns; sectors of the economy are open. Anyone who has been on the PUP for more than 12 months will be targeted with activation measures to help them secure work. We will do whatever we can to support those people.

Deputy Tóibín raised the TILDA study. Covid has had an impact and this is a pandemic. We have provided unprecedented resources across the board, including community supports and mental health supports, to enable people to try to deal with this. There is no question but that it is stressful for people and it has dampened their future horizons. Delayed medical care is a sad, difficult and challenging reality of Covid-19, so we will put more resources in place to deal with that. We are hiring a lot more capacity from the private sector to deal with elective care, in particular, so that we can get operations, procedures and diagnostics done.

The report Deputy Haughey raised is an important framework within which to develop policy on community safety. In the north inner city last week I saw at first hand the significant progress that was made within that community due to the initiatives that have been taken in recent years. I am looking to see where wider application of that model can be carried out in other areas with a more multidisciplinary and multi-agency approach to dealing with a range of challenges that communities across the city and in other cities are facing. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, has made proposals in that regard.

Deputy Cian O’Callaghan made similar comments on that report and he raised the issue of first-time buyers. I agree houses are expensive and we need more supply. Since the last lockdown we have made a significant rebound in housing and there have been about 31,000 commencements from October 2020 to October 2021, which is good. The mortgage market is robust with significant increases in the number of people taking out mortgages. The help-to-buy scheme is helping people with affordability. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, has developed a range of affordability measures that are making a difference.