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Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 27 April 2022

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit of his Department. [12672/22]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit of his Department. [17987/22]

View answer

Paul Murphy

Question:

3. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit of his Department. [17990/22]

View answer

Ivana Bacik

Question:

4. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit of his Department. [17878/22]

View answer

John Lahart

Question:

5. Deputy John Lahart asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit of his Department. [20341/22]

View answer

Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

The Government Information Service comprises the Government Press Office and the Merrion Street content team. The Government Information Service has the following responsibilities: to provide the Taoiseach and Government with press office support; ensure strong collaboration and co-ordination among press and communications officials in other Departments and agencies; co-ordinate, support and amplify communications on key Government priorities, such as Housing for All, Brexit, the shared island, Covid-19 and Ukraine; and lead the development of Government communications, support and encourage capacity-building in the area of communications and engagement across the civil and public services, and manage the Government of Ireland identity and unified web presence of www.gov.ie.

Sixteen months have passed since the Taoiseach first tasked the outgoing Secretary General of his Department with overseeing the investigation into the leaking of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation Final Report to the media. The Secretary General will be taking up his new position shortly. Can the Taoiseach confirm the status of the investigation, if it has been completed and if he intends to publish its findings and recommendations? It will be important for the Taoiseach to communicate the report's outcomes and recommendations to survivors and their families in the first instance. The leaking of the report was deeply hurtful, disrespectful and wholly inappropriate. In effect, the leaker put headlines ahead of people's dignity and rights. Survivors and their families are entitled to a formal conclusion to this sorry episode.

I want to record my party's disappointment over the Government's decision to retain the deeply offensive mandatory information section in the birth information and tracing legislation. Over the Easter break, the Irish Association of Social Workers added its voice to the call to remove this regressive provision from the legislation. It has described it as a discriminatory and unnecessary measure that will cause further harm to those affected by forced family separation. There is still time for the Government to act. In that spirit, I urge the Taoiseach and his Government colleagues to support the Opposition's amendments to remove the provision from the legislation.

It is now five months since Second Stage of our Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) was passed unanimously. The Government did not oppose it. The Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Damien English, said:

The Government supports the objective of this Bill. I assure the Deputy that my officials and I will work with him to determine the best approach to achieve these objectives.

He also said officials from the Health and Safety Authority and his Department would like the opportunity to meet me before Committee Stage and that he would call me that afternoon. I am still waiting for the phone call and the meeting.

We do not need to pass the Bill because the Government could do what is desired by regulation. We would be happy for it to use regulations to establish standards for clean air quality. Short of regulations and in terms of information, why is the Government not promoting ventilation and filtration among businesses, schools and colleges? Covid is still with us and killing people. We need to do everything we can to be as safe as possible and to have as little disruption to society as possible. The most obvious and scientifically clear things to do are wearing masks and having ventilation and filtration. Why is there no Government messaging around these key issues?

On information from the Government, the latest figures from the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, show rents have increased by an average of 9% across the country. The increase is much higher in some areas. The average rent in Dublin is now almost €2,000 per month, or almost €24,000 per year. As the Taoiseach knows, a significant number of people renting are in low-paid or minimum-wage jobs. Annual rents in Dublin are now in excess of the gross annual earnings of people in minimum-wage jobs. They are utterly unaffordable. The number of people becoming homeless is increasing month after month. This is mainly a result of unaffordable rents in the private rental sector. The Government was not even remotely close to meeting the targets it set for the delivery of social, affordable and cost-rental homes last year. Does the Taoiseach honestly think people will be able to continue to afford these unaffordable rents, let alone the hefty rent increases? What action is the Government going to take to stop these rent increases?

On Deputy Mac Lochlainn's question, the inquiry is not completed. We have to await the recommendations that flow from it.

On the mandatory provision in the Birth Information and Tracing Bill, the Deputy has to accept that the Bill represents a dramatic advancement on previous Bills circulated in previous Dáileanna regarding this issue. It represents a transformative approach to giving everyone full access to their records. The legal advice is that it was necessary to include the provision, even though it is light enough compared to what was in previous Bills. In my view, the legislation is very progressive and gives the access required in terms of people's right to their birth information. In fairness to the Minister, great progress has been made by way of the Information and Tracing Bill, the burials legislation, the payments scheme legislation and the new centre for archiving, memorialisation and research in respect of all institutional abuse, but also in terms of the revitalisation of the inner city.

On Deputy Paul Murphy's point, we have appointed Professor John Wenger to the Covid oversight group with a view to giving a higher profile to ventilation in meeting the ongoing challenge of Covid-19. I accept Covid-19 has not gone away. We need to take this opportunity now to determine the optimal way, in the business sector but also in schools and public State facilities, to use ventilation to combat Covid-19 and, perhaps, other infectious diseases. I will talk to the Minister of State, Deputy English, about the legislation Deputy Paul Murphy has produced. The idea behind the Covid oversight group we have established is to give a more multidisciplinary approach to the next phase of Covid-19. One of our challenges might be next autumn and winter. Coronaviruses tend to become worse during the winter because we are more indoors. I am very anxious that the new oversight group consider this and come back to the Government with recommendations regarding it. That is one additional element we can perhaps do better on in the next phase, although the expertise will be particularly important. The Deputy will recall that HEPA filters were identified as the holy grail for what could be done in schools but others say they are not necessarily as effective as we might have thought. Therefore, we need more expertise on ventilation in public facilities and schools. I will talk to the Minister of State, Deputy English, in that regard. I am not sure but within existing health and safety regulations there should be provisions for regulations. I will consider this in terms of Deputy Paul Murphy's legislation.

On Deputy Cian O'Callaghan's point on rents and the RTB index, the index relates to new tenancies in the first instance, but the figures are very worrying. I accept that rents are too high in the country. Particularly for younger people coming into the market, the burden is extremely onerous. As far as I am concerned, housing represents the single greatest social crisis facing the country. Covid-19 did not help in that we closed down construction fully in 2020 for three to four months and again in 2021 because of the Alpha variant. That said, there has been a significant rebound in housing activity.

There were 35,000 commencements between March 2021 and March 2022. I believe we need to be at 35,000 per annum annually. In addition to that, we have to bring in other forms of housing. The Minister is introducing the shared equity scheme to help people purchase houses. Cost rental is coming on stream. I would argue that the cost rental initiative could perhaps be over time the most significant intervention we could make to enable people to have access to rental accommodation at an affordable level at scale. At the moment it is not at scale. A critical mass of cost rental housing is not available at the moment. The Minister has identified it in Housing for All and is very clear it will be a significant part of the rental situation into the future. That will be important.

On the supply side, there is cost rental, social housing and private housing. We have to look at the private housing side as well as private investment. People will, at varying times, criticise landlords and institutional investors. We need all strands of housing to work to deal with this issue. There has to be room for private institutional investment. Landlords are leaving the market at the moment. If we compare the numbers this year with last year, they have gone down again. We need far more social housing. We want to deliver 9,000 social housing units this year. That will be done through approved housing bodies and local authorities.

The only constraint we have at the moment will be the increase in the cost of building materials and inflation in the housing sector. That is coming back to us. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is examining the public tender situation in terms of existing tenders and people tendering for various projects to make sure they are flexible enough to accommodate the extraordinary surge in pricing and the shortage of materials arising from the imbalance between supply and demand due to Covid-19 and the war on Ukraine, which will have an impact on us from now until the end of the year. That would be my biggest concern in respect of the housing situation, namely, inflationary pressures and the impact on the supply of building materials throughout the country. That could have an impact in respect of housing supply. We are very determined to get to the 9,000 social housing figure in 2022.

In terms of private housing development, I am determined we will see more pick-up in the sector. The skills have come back. Apprenticeships in construction trades have increased significantly. We need to maintain that momentum. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has done good work in the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on the skills side and has worked with further education, including SOLAS and the technological universities, on the provision of apprenticeships for construction.

A figure of 35,000 commencements illustrates a significant momentum beginning to build. The only possible constraint on that will be inflationary pressures arising from the war on Ukraine and the imbalance between supply and demand arising as economies emerge from Covid.

On homelessness, we need a deeper analysis. The Deputy has a particular interest in homelessness. We need a deeper analysis of the components that make up homelessness in the modern era. There are challenges in terms of new arrivals and so on that will put pressure on emergency housing. It would be worth having the Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage look more deeply at the situation because it is now a factor in the increasing levels of homelessness. There are different component elements to the homelessness figures. The initiatives that have been taken and the interaction between the Minister and non-governmental organisations, NGOs, involved in homelessness is bearing fruit, in terms of Housing First policies, which are having a significant impact and are the way to go into the future in respect of the homelessness issue. We need to understand what we are talking about when we talk about homelessness. It has many more different facets in the modern area than it would have had in previous times. That will continue. That is the way it is within the European Union. We have to accept those realities. We have to make sure we get families out of homelessness as quickly as we possibly can.

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