Leaders' Questions

For some months we have been pointing out that Irish families with variable rate mortgages are being charged 2% more than their European counterparts. For example, on an average mortgage of €200,000, they are paying €4,000 more than somebody living in France or Germany. We have called repeatedly on the Government and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, to get the banks to reduce these rates but, unfortunately, to no avail. Other than AIB which dropped its rates by 0.75%, no other bank has reduced its standard variable rate mortgage. The banks' response has been as inadequate as that of the Government. The mantra from the Minister is that competition will fix it. He has encouraged people to switch banks, but competition alone will not solve this ongoing crisis. Only 712 mortgage customers switched banks in 2015, allegedly from a pool of 100,000. That in itself represents the weak, competitive nature of the mortgage market in Ireland and also illustrates that the Government is suggesting a solution that it knows is not working. Even the Central Bank accepts that there is a problem, while the Minister has washed his hands of the matter. That is unfair and unjust on families who are paying €4,000 more per year than their European counterparts. He said he wanted to wait and see if competition between the banks would decrease the rates offered. Obviously, that wait and see approach is not working and I contend it will not work. It is even harder to stomach when people read that the Exchequer is enjoying unprecedented profitability, with various windfalls, while families are struggling to pay this extra €4,000 on top of what should be their normal mortgage repayments. Does the Tánaiste believe it is fair that banks are charging Irish customers a rate that is up to 2% higher, or €4,000 more per year, on their variable standard rate mortgages? Does she agree with the Central Bank that this is a major problem? Can she honestly say she agrees with the wait and see approach to the issue adopted by Government for close on 12 months?

What I think is unfair on Irish families is that five years ago yesterday Fianna Fáil brought the troika into Ireland-----

Back on message.

-----and delivered desperate circumstances to many families across the country.

Change the record.

I say to Deputy Barry Cowen-----

The Tánaiste has been in government for five years.

We cannot hear what is going on.

A Deputy

Children, stop.

The Members opposite will be going in with them.

(Interruptions).

I ask Members to, please, listen to the Tánaiste.

I agree with Deputy Barry Cowen that it has been a very difficult and long road for many Irish families. Those families who bought in the year or two before the crash generally had the benefit of tracker mortgages. In terms of what happened to the banks-----

They went bust, Joan.

-----as we know, the banks were basically-----

Bust and they are still.

They were broken by the failure of the former Taoiseach and his Minister for Finance to take any action to safeguard them.

What did you do?

I said-----

You said a lot but did nothing.

Through the Chair, please, Deputy.

Cleaning up the mess.

When I appeared before the banking inquiry, I laid out what I had said and done. I gave very good advice to people. It is in everybody's interests that we have banks that are working.

What is the Tánaiste going to do about the people with variable rate mortgages?

Deputy Barry Cowen spoke about people moving their mortgages from one bank to another, but what he did not address - I do not know if he is familiar with this - was the fact that for a number of years many banks offered customers deals with improved interest rates. I do not know whether the Deputy is recommending that people should consider or take these deals-----

Will the Tánaiste share that information with us please?

They are advertised by all of the banks, particularly the two larger banking institutions where various deals have been negotiated. I am sure at a constituency level the Deputy must have dealt with people who have been exploring these deals and seeking advice on them. For many, it may not be the interest rate reduction to the level the Deputy is talking about, but many of the offerings would result in people's overall payments being reduced. The Deputy must have seen these deals being advertised by many of the banks.

Will the Tánaiste share this information with the rest of the country? Is she telling me a 2% reduction is available?

Please, Deputy, the Tánaiste has the floor.

Furthermore, as Deputy Barry Cowen knows, where people have issues and cannot cope with their mortgage repayments, we have a series of structures which we established-----

Yes, the courts. We know what they are - repossessions.

-----including the Insolvency Service of Ireland and so on. However, I assume Deputy Barry Cowen is talking about people who are paying their mortgage but want a better deal on the interest rate charged.

They deserve a better deal.

The Deputy's suggestion is that they switch mortgage provider. As he pointed out correctly, not many people have availed of mortgage switching-----

A Deputy

It costs money.

-----but it is important that people seek better deals which have been and are available from a number of banks in changing terms over a period of years.

Last May the Tánaiste stated:

[Banks] would be extremely wise to consider their corporate responsibility in relation to people on variable rate mortgages. If the banks simply can't recognise they have some obligation to people in Ireland in the context of the bailout that they've enjoyed, there are other avenues to address this.

What was the Tánaiste saying? Is she informing the House and, by extension, the people that there is some secret deal among some of the banks that are offering rates of 2% less?

We must face the facts. Last May, when the Tánaiste came out with her spin and empathy, at which she is very competent, as we saw in the shadow boxing associated with the rent and housing issue in recent weeks-----

There is some shadow-boxing going on over there too.

If Deputy Durkan does not mind-----

Let us hear the Deputy, please.

Does the Tánaiste still realise or has she forgotten? Does she want to refer to the previous Government in every answer she gives in this Chamber?

It will be a long time before the people forget.

Does she realise that the rate is two percentage points above the European average?

It is twice the European average.

I remind the Tánaiste that her former leader and predecessor-----

-----came into this House after a summit in June 2012 and said there was a game changer-----

And it was.

-----that he and the Taoiseach had achieved at a European summit when there would be-----

Speaking of games-----

-----retrospective bank recapitalisation.

I thank the Deputy.

The Government abandoned that trick last Christmas and it moved on to talk about selling AIB which would realise a profit because it is making money again. Why is it making money? It is because it is charging two percentage points above the European average. That is what the Government is standing over and that is what it will be judged on.

A question please, Deputy.

The Tánaiste can say all she likes, but her initial response to me was more of the Tesco advertisement material that Labour is preparing for the next election.

For a party that announced to the national media-----

It is twice the European average.

The Tánaiste has the floor.

-----that it is not in the game at all and will not even be involved in government-----

They are crying their eyes out in Sinn Féin already.

-----it was a fitting announcement on the fifth anniversary of Fianna Fáil bringing the troika into Ireland-----

Here we go again.

-----that it has said, "And by the way, lads, we're taking our ball-----

Heads go back five years. The Government parties will not win the general election with that carry-on.

-----and we're leaving the field".

The Tánaiste has the floor.

Fianna Fáil's strategy spokesperson said-----

Government Members will be judged on their own performance.

-----"We're taking the ball lads and we're leaving the field".

(Interruptions).

Sorry, Deputies, we cannot have this carry-on.

The Labour Party is at 7%.

Deputy Kelleher-----

Is the Deputy asking me to respect a party-----

I ask Deputy Kelleher to lower the-----

-----which claims to be a vital force in Irish politics but says it will not be in government-----

She should respect the people who have been ripped off by the banks.

-----and it is not running to be in government?

Will the Tánaiste please respond to the question, which is that people are paying two percentage points above the European average?

What has the Government done about it? Sweet FA.

Labour will not even be in the Dáil, let alone in government.

We cannot hear what is going on. The Tánaiste to resume.

What we have done in government is that we have-----

-----nearly 2 million people at work, including many of the people-----

With all due respect, I did not ask her about that.

The Deputy does not want to hear it, does he?

The Deputy does not want to hear it.

With all due respect, a Leas Cheann Comhairle-----

-----would the Tánaiste for once answer a question she was asked?

If we lower the noise level, we might get some answers.

(Interruptions).

Order, please, from everybody.

The Deputy is obviously not interested in any answers.

No, the Tánaiste is not interested in answering the question.

Deputy Cowen, please.

He should behave himself.

Listen, Barry, anger is not a policy.

It got used for five years.

It has Labour at 7%.

Anger is not a policy and if Deputy Cowen is interested rather than trying to make some hay and cheap political capital out of people in mortgage difficulties, he should actually address the issue.

Blame is not a policy either.

There are enough histrionics-----

The Tánaiste does not do histrionics.

-----from Deputy Cowen now to fill the Abbey Theatre any night.

The Tánaiste to conclude now, please.

So he should just lay off. His colleague beside him has said-----

The Tánaiste sat over there for 14 years.

She loves the blame game.

-----Fianna Fáil is taking the ball and walking off the pitch. It will not be involved in government, so what are we to believe about any contribution Fianna Fáil Deputies try to make?

What about the people who are paying two percentage points above the European average?

The game changer is a blame game changer.

What are we supposed to believe?

Would the Tánaiste like to address the question?

If the Deputy is gracious enough to give me the opportunity to address it, of course I will address it.

Eventually, thank you.

Eventually, after the Deputy's histrionics.

There is a time limit on all sides.

Will the Deputy lay off the histrionics?

Will the Tánaiste answer the question?

The Tánaiste is the queen of histrionics.

It is not for me; it is for the people who are paying-----

If he wants an answer, he just has to shut up for a while and listen to the answer.

I thank the Tánaiste. The time has-----

(Interruptions).

The Leas Cheann Comhairle should ask the Tánaiste to withdraw that.

I call Deputy McDonald. Order, please.

The Tánaiste did not answer, by the way.

We have experienced the largest jump in rent since 2007.

She is consistent if nothing else.

Deputy McDonald has the floor.

Ireland is now one of the most expensive places in which to rent in Europe. Last year the average increase in rent was 9.3% - it was 9.7% outside Dublin. Rents have returned almost to the level they were at the peak of the housing bubble. Individuals and families throughout the country are already struggling to keep a roof over their heads and yet the Government is unwilling to intervene in the market unless, of course, it is to give tax breaks and incentives to developers. There are no breaks for ordinary families.

The Government promised rent certainty and rent control. All the Minister, Deputy Kelly, could deliver was a two-year rent freeze, which in reality is just a delayed rent review. It has also resulted in an immediate increase in rent for some. The Government promised investment in social housing. The Minister, Deputy Kelly, boasted of a tenfold increase in social housing build, but let us be clear that is a tenfold increase from 20 houses.

This is a case of far too little and much too late. The reality is that the Labour Party has sided with Fine Gael against struggling families. For families who had hoped to own a home, that hope is fading. Labour promised not to introduce, ironically, water charges, but it did that. Today we hear that the Government intends stopping local authority tenants from having the right to buy their homes if they have not paid the water charge. That is some record.

The Labour Party's approach to housing is like its approach to water charges. It folds and adopts Fine Gael policy. It has failed tenants, it has failed families and its policies have created incredible hardship. Is it not now time to go back to the drawing board and deliver what it promised, which was rent control, rent certainty and security for tenants? Is it not time to revisit the things it promised to block, specifically water charges?

I suppose Sinn Féin could be accused of folding the cards and running back to Westminster on the issue of welfare reform.

That is what it chose to do. Hopefully, from its point of view, it will not hear about it until sometime after the elections in different parts of this island. Deputy McDonald has a bit of a cheek to talk about people folding when Sinn Féin members are the champions of it as they have shown again this week.

The Government backs us.

The only solution to housing in this country, following the huge collapse in building following the difficulties the country had and which now thankfully we are exiting, is to actually build more housing. The heart of the Government's housing proposal is to build more units through a variety of mechanisms. This is under way as we speak in every part of the country. Is it under way as quickly as I would like? Frankly, no. It has taken us a long time to, for instance, regenerate the housing departments in various local authorities that had gone out of business largely because the previous Government relied entirely on rented housing.

No. There were 15,000 social houses.

Right now throughout the country-----

-----there are significant allocations to every local authority to recommence the building of social houses.

(Interruptions).

Second, we have NAMA committed to building a significant number of affordable and social housing, which has already started. Third, we have the recent announcement of the further investment being provided in respect of a further 1,500 units by the Strategic Investment Fund. All of this means we have under way the biggest housing programme ever undertaken in Ireland

The Tánaiste has gone beyond the beyond altogether.

I understand and I share Sinn Féin's desire to see houses being built, both affordable houses and houses for social housing and for rent, throughout the country. That is a common view shared by everybody in the House. That is what we are actually doing.

I was present this week at a very nice handing-over ceremony in my constituency, where the first set of new houses will be handed over to a number of families before Christmas.

Forty-four.

Emergency accommodation.

The Tánaiste should put that in her canvass card.

Another seven houses will be handed over after Christmas.

That is about 160 people.

That is in addition to what Deputy McDonald and I discussed on many occasions, namely, ending the practice of voided houses being closed up.

Give me a break. There are 3,000 voids nationally.

In Dublin City Council that has resulted in hundreds of families being housed this year. The Deputy might not check the facts but I invite him to go and check the facts.

In my area, Fingal County Council has reduced the practice of houses being boarded up-----

The Tánaiste should introduce rent certainty.

The Government has a 30,000 cap.

-----when they become vacant to a very small number, less than 35, but one needs to repair houses and that is all now done within six months.

What about the 30,000 cap?

Please. This is Deputy McDonald's question.

I am happy to say that houses are one of the most important commitments of this Government. We have supplied the funding. I want to see the councillors on all the county councils co-operate with county managers around the country to get houses built.

You want them to do your job.

In some cases councillors have delayed the building of houses-----

Dear God, blame the councillors.

-----through, in some cases, spurious objections to planning and other issues. Everyone agrees with proper planning concerns but some councillors and parties must cut to the chase-----

Labour has no councillors anyway.

-----and co-operate with councils to build houses.

The Tánaiste is happy to say that housing is one of the most important commitments of this Government.

I suggest to the Tánaiste that she and her band of merry men from Labour and Fine Gael are the only people who are happy with this issue.

The Deputy should talk to the people who got the houses.

From listening to the Tánaiste's responses this morning the message from Government on variable rate mortgages seems to be to shop around. On the issue of social housing, reference was made to a tenfold increase. Twenty by ten is 200. That is the height and scale of the Government's ambition. The average rent in Dublin now is in excess of €1,400.

That is for a three-bed house.

The Tánaiste's answer to that, it seems, is to turn a blind eye and cross her fingers. She went on at length about voids. There are still 3,000 voids across the State. In other words, the Government's policy in respect of housing is nothing more than waffle.

It is recycled statements, rhetoric, the politics of blaming everybody else - councillors, homeless agencies, campaigners - whoever is at hand to off-set the blame, but the Government refuses to take responsibility on these matters.

That is what your people did. Sinn Féin cannot govern its own members.

Take a deep breath, Bernard.

That is the reality, and the Government has set that position out with glorious clarity here today.

I thank the Deputy. Could she ask a question please?

Could the Tánaiste please answer my question, which revolves around rent certainty? Is the Government still captivated by the notion that it cannot interfere in the market?

Are you still captivated by Gerry?

God help the market. Is the Tánaiste still captivated by that logic, the logic of her Fine Gael partners in government or will the Government move to do something substantive that offers a remedy for people who rent, and afford real rent certainty and security for them in their homes?

Go raibh maith agat. The Tánaiste to reply.

The economic content of the argument Deputy McDonald has just put forward is completely absurd.

It means that however busy the Deputy is, she is not in a position to get familiar with what is happening in housing.

You are deluded.

I regret that.

You are deluded.

If we were talking about market solutions, we would-----

There are thousands of people in emergency accommodation.

-----be looking at the Fianna Fáil solution.

You are deluded.

The Fianna Fáil solution before the party left the pitch was to leave housing to the private market.

Families are living in tents.

We built 15,000 social units. The Government has built 180.

Instead, both Fine Gael and Labour in government got the largest investment programme for housing in the history of the State.

They sat on their hands. The Tánaiste is deluded.

Where is the money for that programme coming from? It is coming from the taxes people in this country are paying and from the country's renewed capacity to borrow-----

No wonder you are at 7%.

----at cheap rates of interest. I do not know why the Deputy is in denial, because all over the country, county councils have been given some of the largest allocations in their individual histories to build more houses for social purposes.

You are deluded, Tánaiste. You are in cuckoo land.

In addition, on the finance side, we have a whole series of initiatives undertaken by NAMA, the NTMA and the strategic investment fund to get affordable housing.

NAMA. Do not go there.

Deputy McDonald should remember that in all of this a very important group of people are the ones who have now been working for a number of years, who are renting but want to buy.

She has gone cuckoo.

Does the Tánaiste live on the same planet as the rest of us?

NAMA is an asset manager. It is not-----

If, for instance, the Deputy were to visit my constituency-----

I regularly visit the Tánaiste's constituency.

-----she would see large numbers of affordable houses now being built.

Look at its title, National Asset Management Agency.

Tánaiste, you are in cuckoo land.

This is Deputy McDonald's question. Please.

You have gone cuckoo, Tánaiste.

Sinn Féin seems to be in denial. We have now provided rent certainty for two years.

You are in la la land.

Rents have gone up.

NAMA is evicting people.

Please. This is-----

You are in la la land.

Are you a baby or are you just acting like a baby?

This is Leaders' Questions. Please. Deputy McDonald has asked a question. The Tánaiste should be allowed to conclude.

Give the man a little bit of music. He needs his afternoon nap.

You are in la la land, missus.

Look at what she believes.

Did Deputy McDonald spend an extra amount of time in the United States and just not have time to visit anywhere in Ireland to see what is happening on the ground? Did she go and look?

Clarity is not your forte.

I invite Deputy McDonald to visit housing estates in Fingal and have a look at the building that is under way.

The Tánaiste might answer the question.

Some of the Independent Members who sit behind Deputy McDonald were so taken with them that they decided to occupy them. There you are.

I call Deputy Thomas Pringle on behalf of the Technical Group.

A comment was made about the Independents.

Could Members please allow Deputy Pringle to ask a question? I have called Deputy Thomas Pringle.

The Tánaiste should withdraw that remark. She made an allegation against the Independents. It is absolutely outrageous.

Let the Independents have their say now. I call Deputy Pringle.

In recent weeks much anger and concern have been expressed about fishing by factory super trawlers off the west and north-west coast. This morning there are three factory super trawlers fishing off the Donegal coast. One vessel has a Lithuanian flag, another vessel has a Dutch flag and the third vessel has a German flag. All of the vessels are more than likely owned by a single Dutch company. They have been happily fishing away while small inshore Irish fishing vessels cannot get quota and are not allowed to fish at all. They are forced to stay at home in ports all around Donegal. Everyone in the Irish fishing community knows that the EU stole our fishing stocks when we joined the EU in 1973.

Successive Governments have refused to attempt to address that wrong for fear of upsetting the EU. Today, more than 1.1 million tonnes of fish are caught in Irish waters every year and less than 20% of that is caught by Irish fishermen. The Government's only response to the situation is to encourage foreign vessels to land their catch in Irish ports, hoping they can be processed here, rather than trying to undo the wrong that has been done to our fishing communities over many years.

Those vessels will not land in Irish ports, they will land in Holland, and the Government's only option is to hope that the Dutch authorities will accurately report what they have caught. Some of this company's vessels have been exposed for fishing illegally in recent years, catching fish to order and falsifying logbooks in order to under-declare their catches. Since January this year there has been a ban on discards for the pelagic fishery, meaning that those vessels can no longer dump fish at sea for which they do not have quota. The Lithuanian factory trawler, MFV Margiris, only has a quota for horse mackerel in Irish waters, yet from talking to fishermen I know that it is practically impossible at this time of year to catch only horse mackerel when fishing off the west coast. One catches mackerel as well at the same time. Either they are dumping the mackerel at sea, which is illegal, or they are processing them on board and keeping them, which is also illegal.

If that was not bad enough, as I speak, a County Donegal fisherman is watching from his home as these vessels tow away his crab pots and take away his livelihood from him and his family. Will the Tánaiste immediately order the Naval Service to intervene to save this fisherman's livelihood and allow him to be able to maintain an income for his family? I have been in contact with the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority and because of the weather conditions off the west coast, it has stated it is unsafe to board these vessels to inspect them at sea. Will the Tánaiste order these vessels to a safe harbour now in order that they can be inspected by Irish authorities?

Deputies

Hear, hear.

Do not forget the fishermen in Howth.

The Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, which is the independent regulator responsible for the enforcement of the State's sea-fishery regulations, has been aware, as the Deputy noted, of the European Union-registered Lithuanian-flagged fishing vessel, the Margiris, since it has entered into Irish waters. In keeping with standard practice for all vessels, it is being monitored continuously by the Naval Service. The vessel is operating within the Irish exclusive economic zone. Under the Common Fisheries Policy, any EU vessel can fish in any region's EU waters where it has a quota. This vessel has a quota entitling it to fish for species such as scad horse mackerel within EU waters and it is authorised to conduct fishing activity in this area. As with all vessels, it must record its catches and assess them against quotas in compliance with EU sea-fisheries legislation. The Margiris, and all vessels operating in Irish waters, are monitored continuously by the Naval Service through the fisheries monitoring centre at the naval base in Haulbowline using satellite vessel monitoring, the automatic identification system and the electronic reporting systems. The authority is committed to ensuring that EU quotas are fairly and sustainably managed continuously. This year, with the support of the Naval Service, there has been a prioritisation to implement the new landing obligation by all vessels operating within the Irish zone.

The Tánaiste has not addressed the direct questions I asked of her.

As I speak, these vessels are destroying the livelihood of an Irish fisherman from County Donegal, who depends on the gear he has at sea to try to feed his family and keep his vessel going. It would be a simple matter for the Government to tell the Naval Service to intervene with that vessel and to stop it from destroying the livelihoods of Irish fishermen. This is happening as I speak. The fisherman in question has tried to contact these vessels by radio to inform them that they are towing through his gear but they will not take his call and will not respond to him.

Call in the navy.

It does no good for Naval Service personnel to be sitting in Haulbowline watching a computer screen showing these vessels.

The Naval Service should be out there now intercepting these vessels to protect fishermen's livelihoods. The response simply is not good enough and this issue must be addressed urgently.

In addition, the online pressure group, Uplift, has created a petition with more than 30,000 signatories condemning the actions of such supertrawlers off the Irish coast. All along the coast, fishermen are sickened because they must sit at home and watch these vessels continue to fish in front of their homes while the Government is standing idly by and is allowing this to happen. Last summer, a Danish vessel in the Irish Sea had penalty points imposed on it by that highly effective agency, the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority. However, the Danish Government refused to add those penalty points to the vessel's licence.

It ignored completely the Common Fisheries Policy rules in a flagrant breach and yet Ireland does nothing. The Government continues to allow this to happen. Will the Government today protect Irish fishermen by ensuring these vessels are held to account for towing away the gear of this County Donegal fishermen?

These issues obviously are extremely important to the fishing community around the coast and, as I stated, the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority is the independent regulator responsible for the enforcement of the State's sea-fisheries regulation. I told the Deputy that the vessel to which he referred, and any other vessels involved, are being monitored continuously by the Naval Service. In addition, basic regulation changes to fisheries policy involving access or restriction to fishing opportunities come within the sole competency of the European Union. I will take the Deputy's concerns to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who, as the Deputy is aware, is extremely active on these issues with the Commission and various other EU agencies. However, only the EU Commission can propose changes and any such proposal must be adopted-----

The Tánaiste has missed the point. It is time for action.

-----under the co-decision process of the European Parliament and the EU Council.

Bring in the navy and tell them to stop.

When will the Government stand up to the EU?

Consequently, member states affected and stakeholders-----

Where is AK47 now?

-----can bring in non-discriminatory measures for the conservation and management of fish stocks within the 12-mile zone, subject to compliance with policy.

A Deputy

Send in a carrier.

He bottled out of appearing on Vincent Browne's programme as well.

However, access to this is set down in the regulation and it cannot be changed by an individual member state.

What the Government can do is to protect Irish fishermen. The Tánaiste will wash her hands of them.

What I will do is raise the Deputy's concerns - I acknowledge he has raised them already - with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

The Government is not going to do anything about it. It cannot, or will not, do anything.

As the Deputy is aware, detailed talks are due to take place next month-----

Will the Government stop raising its eyes to heaven and do something about it?

Deputy Mathews is an expert now.

-----and the Minister will raise these issues with the EU Commission, because in terms of regulation and in terms of authority, these matters must be agreed.

The Government is raising its eyes to heaven again.

I would like to be able to tell the Deputy that EU Commission rules literally have no effect in Ireland-----

They are not working; send in the navy.

When will we stand up to the EU? The Dutch can do it.

-----and that we can ignore them but in fact, we must go back to the Commission.

Action, not words.

The Government must talk to it about how best to protect local fishermen, as the Deputy suggests-----

It will tell us how high to jump.

A family's livelihood is being destroyed right now, as the Tánaiste speaks.

-----as opposed to the supertrawlers to which he referred.

This is a real phoney war.

Do Members ever get Leaders' answers?