Leaders' Questions

We all accept and know there is a housing crisis. Despite the Government's best efforts, announcements and plans this crisis is, unfortunately, getting worse rather than better. Research from agencies such as Focus Ireland has confirmed that an overwhelming number of homeless families had their last stable home in the private rental sector. They had to leave those homes as landlords were selling up and an increasing number of property owners do not accept rent supplement. The Government has promised that by July families would no longer be accommodated in hotels. Instead, families are being told that emergency accommodation is not available.

Today we learn that 12 families, with 30 children, were told to go to Garda stations on Tuesday night. Three of these families had been evicted recently and they presented to Store Street Garda station, while other families and their children presented to Pearse Street and Clondalkin Garda stations. These families were homeless and evicted when they presented to the Garda stations. The families depend on bed and breakfast accommodation and emergency accommodation on a day-to-day basis. The situation is bad enough but, unfortunately, the events on Tuesday have brought a very negative and extremely worrying turning point. Hundreds of phone calls were made by Focus Ireland to bed and breakfast accommodations and to hotels for the families on Tuesday night. For them, however, there was no room at the inn. Some of the families ended up sleeping rough that night. Mike Allen of Focus Ireland has said that what happened on Tuesday is unprecedented and shocking.

It is more than three years since Fr. Peter McVerry described the housing crisis as a humanitarian one. There are 61,600 households that qualify for social housing and one in five of those have been on the list for five years. There are more than 60,000 people in severe mortgage distress. Nationwide, there are 7,472 homeless people and this number has now increased by 32% since March 2016. One in three of those who are homeless are children. There are 12,056 families, including 2,563 children, in emergency hotel and bed and breakfast accommodation. In Dublin alone there are 138 rough sleepers. Hotels are now getting busy as the tourism season moves along.

This has very negative consequences for short-term emergency accommodation provision. Nobody accepts that this is normal, but what is the Government doing to prevent this becoming the norm, as appears to be the case, in how homeless families are dealt with? If hotels are booked out, what plans have been put in place to arrange emergency accommodation? Has more emergency accommodation than is currently available - as we witnessed as recently as last night and Tuesday night - been sought by Dublin City Council on a short-term basis?

The Dublin Region Homeless Executive has overall responsibility for co-ordinating the response to homelessness on behalf of the four Dublin local authorities, as the Deputy is aware. What happened on Tuesday night is unacceptable. The demand for accommodation experienced on Tuesday night was exceptional. It was out of the ordinary in comparison with the situation in 2017 to date. In regard to what has happened since then, from last night, 24 May, Dublin City Council has more than doubled the volume of emergency contingency capacity that is available to any family that may present in an emergency situation. Clearly, Garda stations are not suitable places for families to be directed to in any circumstances. There is now additional emergency contingency accommodation for families, which includes large units that can accommodate families of up to six persons. Last night, only one of these new additional contingency units was needed to accommodate a family.

At the end of March, 870 homeless families were housed in commercial hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation in the Dublin region. Statistics to be published later today show a reduction in the number of families in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. I spoke to the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government this morning and he made clear that he wants to ensure that we will have supported and appropriate facilities in order that families will be in more suitable accommodation. The Minister wants these facilities to be in place by mid-year. Over €15 million is being invested in eight new facilities that will offer appropriate services for up to 240 families. Available at these places will be facilities for children, homework clubs and key workers and housing assistance payment, HAP, place finders will be on site. Families will be able to look after themselves in these places. Work on the facilities at Mater Dei on Clonliffe Road, Lynam's Hotel, High Park in Drumcondra, for which Respond! is responsible, Clontarf, Clonard Road in Crumlin, Ballyfermot, Dundrum and Coolock is well advanced. The State is spending €4.5 million on the Mater Dei development alone.

Outside Dublin there will be facilities to accommodate 21 families in Cork and 18 in Limerick. These developments are also being advanced. In Kildare, a facility for eight families operated by the Peter McVerry Trust will open in the coming week .

I acknowledge the provision of family hubs across our cities. They are a welcome development in recent months, although they have come very late in the day. I hope the pace of provision will be quickened such that there will not be a repeat of what occurred on Tuesday night. When a similar situation arose two years ago, in response to being told that the law was not strong enough in respect of the obligation on Government regarding the provision of housing for homeless families - it is very clear in the context of provision for children - the Taoiseach said that the situation would not arise again and that there was no need to strengthen any legislation. It is a damning indictment of him and his Government that, two years later, the situation has arisen again and the crisis has worsened. Despite all the best laid plans and announcements the delivery of housing has not been what it should be. Despite the introduction of rent pressure zones, rent costs are higher. The home-to-buy scheme has done nothing but give rise to higher house prices, particularly in Dublin. Regulation on costs to builders is exceptionally slow and social housing provision is wholly inadequate. In addition, the provision of rapid-build accommodation has been woefully slow.

After a year in office and with the Government on the cusp of having a new leader, it is time to concentrate on the job at hand and provide the services, facilities and housing units people crave. We have heard a lot of sentiment on the subject in recent weeks but we need to deal with reality and the Government has failed to do that up to now.

The Deputy knows, more than most, the intense focus there has been on ensuring supply is developed following the disastrous lack of supply of recent years, the reasons for which I do not need to articulate. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has indicated that the current legislation that defines legal responsibility for the provision of homeless services, including the provision of accommodation to a housing authority, does not require change. I accept there is an extraordinarily big challenge in accelerating housing supply but Rebuilding Ireland has ensured that very many actions are under way, so that we can begin to see the supply that is needed and to provide the necessary accommodation. Nine months into the implementation of Rebuilding Ireland, there is strong evidence that the focus on increasing and accelerating supply is starting to work. Planning permissions for 16,375 new homes were granted in the 12 months up to the end of December, an increase of 26% year on year, and commencement notices for over 13,000 new homes nationwide were submitted in the 12-month period to the end of February 2017. There were 3,000 sustainable exits from homelessness during 2016.

The Government promised 15,000. That is the problem.

Governments should be judged by how they treat the most vulnerable in society. After six years in office, Enda Kenny's record speaks for itself. According to the Central Statistics Office, in 2011 there were 641 homeless children but, last month, 2,563 children slept in emergency accommodation funded by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. That is a 300% increase. These figures do not include children in Tusla-funded domestic violence emergency accommodation or the children of hundreds of families trapped in direct provision after getting their leave to remain or children in emergency accommodation funded by the new communities unit. In fact, the Government has no idea how many children will sleep in emergency accommodation tonight.

There are 183,000 vacant homes across the State, 40,000 in Dublin alone. That is 24 vacant homes for every single adult and child in emergency accommodation. That is Enda Kenny's legacy. He put the rights of the child into the Constitution and he put thousands of children into emergency accommodation. His would-be successor, Deputy Coveney, has been Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government for a year and, contrary to what the Tánaiste said, since taking office child homelessness has increased by 20%. Every single month Deputy Coveney has held office, the number of people in emergency accommodation has increased. Also during his tenure, the length of time children are spending in emergency accommodation has grown ever longer. Last year, before he took office, the average time was 12 months but today it is 24 months. Can the Tánaiste imagine one of her own children or her grandchildren spending two long years in a hotel?

To make matters worse, people are now expected to find their own emergency accommodation and 200 families are being forced by Deputy Coveney to self-accommodate on a night-to-night basis, shunted from one end of the city to another and not knowing if, tomorrow night, they will be forced to sleep on the streets. We might have thought things could not get any worse but now it emerges that homeless families are being forced to sleep in Garda stations, and Deputy Cowen outlined what happened on Tuesday night in this respect. How can the Tánaiste stand over this? How can the Government stand over what is effectively the abuse of thousands of children?

Does the Tánaiste believe that the current situation is acceptable? Will she admit that the Government's response to the crisis of homeless families is failing? Will the Government release emergency funds to allow local authorities to acquire homes to ensure that no child is left in emergency accommodation for more than six months?

All Members are aware of the scale of the challenge in terms of supply of housing and the reasons we are in this situation. The Government has recognised this challenge and has taken every action to ensure that the people of whom the Deputy speaks are provided with appropriate homes as quickly as possible. The most recent homeless figures are a reminder of the challenge we face in dealing with this problem. Dealing with the challenge head on is what the Government has done. Luckily, as the economy has improved due to careful and appropriate management, we are in a position to help the people of whom the Deputy speaks. Rebuilding Ireland has allocated €5.3 billion to the provision of 47,000 social homes. The Government has recognised the seriousness of the situation outlined by Deputy Ó Broin. The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, has particular responsibility for the issue. The biggest budget ever allocated to dealing with these issues has been approved. A range of social supports are being put into place to help the children of whom the Deputy speaks. Significant additional resources have been allocated. In budget 2017, approximately €100 million was allocated to homeless services. Nobody wants to see the situation described by the Deputy. That is why we have prioritised dealing with it and that is why more houses are coming on stream and the rapid builds are developing and will deliver homes for people. Over 3,000 households exited homelessness in 2016, which is the highest level ever. This year, there is a much higher level of response and aspiration to deal with the issue. As I have said, the Government is working on its commitment to exit homeless families from hotels by mid-2017 except in exceptional circumstances. A very broad range of actions, including dealing with vacant properties across the country, are being taken by every local authority. The housing assistance payment is providing help to families to exit homelessness. Multiple initiatives have been taken because we recognise the seriousness of the situation. However, we are coming from a position where there was no new housing supply for several years and no money to pay for it. That has now changed.

It is strange that the problem has increased by 300% during the Tánaiste's time in office as a consequence of the Government prioritising tackling it. I understand that she must defend the Government's position. However, given her background in social care and her time as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I can only imagine how this issue makes her feel in private. In some ways, it makes her defence of Government policy failures even more remarkable. As the family homelessness crisis was spiralling out of control in August 2015, the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, stated "If a family becomes homeless in Dublin this evening as a result of being moved out of a B&B, ... the local authority ... will have the resources to supply emergency accommodation for that family." Two years on from that statement, families are being left on the street or in Garda stations. I will once more ask the Tánaiste the question she did not answer the first time: will the Government release emergency funding to allow local authorities to buy homes to ensure that no child spends more than six months in emergency accommodation?

The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, has made it clear repeatedly that local authorities will have support and funding and they have bought many hundreds of houses over the past year. This has been possible because improvements in the economy mean that the budget to do so is available. I have told the Deputy that €5.3 billion has been allocated to the provision of 47,000 social homes. He knows that South Dublin County Council is increasing the supply of housing available by building new homes, renovating homes and dealing with vacant properties.

There is no lack of will. Every effort and every initiative that can be taken-----

Why is the problem getting worse? The Government has failed.

We have a growing population and extra demands. Houses cannot be built overnight.

The Government has had six years.

It has been six years.

All the different initiatives-----

It has been more than six years and people are sleeping in a Garda station.

Everyone wants to see this problem solved.

The Tánaiste will not support a Bill today that is trying to solve the problem. She will not vote for it.

Everyone is working to ensure we take every initiative at national level and local authority level, in conjunction with private landlords, to ensure housing is available. It is a very challenging situation. What happened on Tuesday night is absolutely unacceptable. We do not want to see one family in that situation. I repeat again that Garda stations are certainly not the places for families to be sent. The Garda works closely with the housing agencies, but clearly a Garda station is no place for a family, and I want to assure the House that no families have stayed overnight in any Garda station.

I also want to focus on housing. There have been regular discussions in this House on the issue of social housing and the housing crisis. From intolerable rent increases to enormous social housing waiting lists to growing homelessness, the situation has been grave for some time now. The Tánaiste is correct in that there have been discussions across parties to develop plans to address these issues, and there are other proposals from all of us on the Opposition benches that could and should be taken on. However, the events of Tuesday night surely must shock us all. There is no amount of discussion on housing policy that could inure us to the real impact of families in this country being required to sleep either in Garda stations or in public parks.

Mr. Mike Allen of Focus Ireland has referred to Tuesday night as unprecedented and shocking. He is correct. Some 12 families could not find emergency accommodation in this city. Some 30 children could not be accommodated. Families were sent to Garda stations for their safety. Seven families spent the night in police stations as it was the only way they could find safety for their children. Unsurprisingly, some of the families were concerned about the potential implications of doing so, and so three families slept in Fairview Park and another family slept in Merrion Square. I say slept, but obviously there was no sleep for those families. Everybody in this House would agree unconditionally that that is unacceptable.

A spokesman for the Dublin Region Homeless Executive was quoted in The Irish Times saying that Dublin City Council provides an emergency supply of contingency capacity for families. Clearly that contingency capacity is insufficient. In the meantime, 200,000 homes lie empty. There is plenty of space to accommodate not only the 12 families we spoke about but all those who need accommodation. While the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, is focused on the Fine Gael leadership debate, this House is still waiting for the vacant homes strategy. We do not know if the Government will consider a vacant home levy to bring 200,000 unused houses back into use. We do not know if the Government will consider the use of compulsory purchase orders for homes that have been vacant for a period of years. We do not even know when the audit of vacant homes will be completed. We do not know if the Government intends to increase the funds to acquire vacant properties. What we do know, shockingly, is that we have families who have spent the night in parks, and that cannot continue. The crisis of family homelessness cannot be allowed to sit side by side with that scale of empty homes. When will we see the vacant homes strategy and what particular assurances will the Tánaiste give us now to ensure we will never again see a repeat of Tuesday night?

The Deputy was in government two years ago.

I want to repeat the point about the extra accommodation that has become available since Tuesday in terms of the emergency contingency capacity. It has doubled for families who present in emergency out of hours.

It is reassuring that not all of the accommodation that has been made available was used last night. Only one of the new additional contingency units was used to accommodate a family. The additional accommodation were available and all the agencies knew this. There was real difficulty on Tuesday, as I have acknowledged, for a variety of reasons including exceptional booking levels in hotels.

I spoke to the Minister this morning and his goal is clearly to move families out of commercial hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. I have outlined the huge range of initiatives he has undertaken in terms of family facilities. The aim of those initiatives is to make sure that more appropriate accommodation is available for families that present in this situation and have previously been housed in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. The budget has been made available, as the Deputy is well aware. A variety of funding mechanisms are in place for buying up more homes. There is a €70 million fund with the Housing Agency to buy houses that are available and are considered suitable. Each local authority has been asked to identify vacant properties. That is a complex situation in terms of who owns the properties, access to them, legal issues and other restrictions on bringing them back into use. Where they belong to local authorities, they of course can be brought back into use.

Every effort is being made to ensure that families get accommodation through the use of the housing assistance payment, HAP, through social builds and through encouraging private supply. All of those initiatives will come more and more into play. I have given the details of the increase of 26% in construction that is under way. An increased number of planning applications also have been submitted. This will ensure that by the end of this year we will see a fairly dramatic increase in supply. It is a very challenging situation. Every resource that is necessary is being provided at a national budgetary level and for local authorities.

Will the Tánaiste acknowledge that it is unacceptable that there are 200,000 vacant homes while we have a homelessness crisis? The figure is not 200 or 2,000. The Government was to have an audit completed and published and a vacant homes strategy published by the end of March. We are now approaching June. All the plans and talk are one thing but when will we see the strategy that was negotiated and accepted by this House actually implemented? What target does the Government have? How many of the 200,000 homes does it aim to bring back into family home usage and by when?

As the Deputy knows, the Department is involved in an analysis of those vacant homes. I do not have the precise timeframe as to when further details will be published. Clearly, every action is being taken to ensure that where it is feasible for vacant homes to be used or purchased by local authorities-----

The strategy is already two months behind.

That does not mean there is not activity going on within the Department. The Deputy knows the complexities around vacant homes. There are ownership and property issues, questions of who in fact the owners are. This is not something that can be dealt with overnight. Every effort is being made to ensure that, where appropriate, vacant properties can be brought back into use.

We have been hearing that for six years.

Yesterday, Kathleen O’Toole confirmed the suspicions of many, namely, that the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland is a fig leaf to divert attention away from the crisis in Garda management. She said that the commission's task is not to scrutinise the performance of individuals and that Garda management inherited a poisoned chalice. However, she forgot to tell us that the current Commissioner was part of the poison when she got the job in 2014.

Why did the board appoint someone who was part of the problem? The head of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring, said last week, "I would have thought you could have this commission done and dusted by December 1st if they just sat down and read the [inspectorate's] reports,". She went on to say that there was no guarantee that the report delivered by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland in September 2018 would be acted upon. The head of the Garda Inspectorate, Robert Olson, has said that previous reforms identified had not been implemented. He said, "No-one had made the change happen".

In recent weeks, things have got so bad at Garda headquarters that a decision was made to grant a barrister and junior counsel to the Commissioner and to a senior assistant commissioner at the expense of the State. They cannot even be in the same room without being lawyered up as a result of the failure to resolve issues around the complaints made by the same assistant commissioner, including those relating to interference in the interview process for the Commissioner's job in 2014. This was despite the expenditure of tens of thousands in consultancy payments to a company to investigate the issue – a job that was never sent out to tender.

Interestingly, the same interview panel that trawled the world before deciding Nóirín O'Sullivan was the best person to replace Martin Callinan included Josephine Feehily, who, in her role as head of the Policing Authority, failed to recommend the removal of the Commissioner; it included Kathleen O'Toole, who yesterday indicated that she wanted to take the heat off Nóirín; and it also included Vivienne Jupp, former executive at global management consultancy Accenture, a company that benefited from multimillion euro contracts with An Garda Síochána. Vivienne Jupp was also instrumental in establishing Cyril Dunne as chief administrative officer in An Garda Síochána. He was among the first to be made aware of the Templemore scandal.

Yesterday, the outgoing Taoiseach said that if a Minister were in charge of a calamity like that at the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, that Minister would be sacked immediately . The Tánaiste might find herself heading up a different Department in a few weeks' time. The current Commissioner has given us more than enough proof that she is not the person to bring An Garda Síochána forward. These might be the last weeks of the Tánaiste in the Department of Justice and Equality. Will she not consider doing what needs to be done in the best interests of An Garda Síochána? Legislation allows for the Minister for Justice and Equality to remove the Commissioner when it is in the best interests of An Garda Síochána. It certainly would be.

I have already made my position and that of the Government in respect of the Garda Commissioner very clear. The Government established the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland under the chairmanship of Kathleen O'Toole. Deputy Wallace comes to the House and puts various names on the record. He does so again and again. I believe that we ought to observe due process.

In respect of the commission, Kathleen O'Toole is a person of the highest calibre. She is uniquely qualified to take on this task. The other 11 members of the commission are all highly respected in their diverse fields. We are fortunate that they have agreed to bring the wealth of their experience to the task of shaping the future of policing in Ireland.

The Government, along with the support of many in the House, decided to establish the commission because we took the view that it was appropriate to examine a range of issues relating to all aspects of policing in Ireland. As the Taoiseach mentioned yesterday, these include whether the combination of State security and policing should be in the one force; an examination of management and the kind of management supports that are necessary within a police force to be equipped to deal with the challenges that, sadly, we saw in Manchester this week; and the other challenges from international criminal gangs and cybercrime. These are all new challenges facing policing. It is altogether appropriate that we decided to establish the commission. It is fully independent and will, I believe, provide a useful service for the future of policing in the country. That is the only job of the commission and that is the job that it will do.

In the meantime, a vast amount of policing work needs to be done in the country, not least that which relates to international terrorism and the threat posed by those who carried out the appalling attack in Manchester this week. There are many other policing challenges. We should support An Garda Síochána in the vital work of securing the peace and keeping our communities and citizens safe. Of course, inquiries are being carried out by the Charleton tribunal and the Committee of Public Accounts.

I suggest that we await the outcome of these inquiries before there is any further comment on the particular issues they are examining.

It is outrageous that they might use international terrorism to defend the present Garda Commissioner. The house that is An Garda Síochána is falling down around her ears. While scandals, which can only be described as white collar crime, continue to escalate around Templemore, at the other end of the scale the plot thickens around the Garda involvement in the heroin trade in Athlone. On 19 May 2017, Judge Keenan Johnson, presiding in the Circuit Court, expressed his displeasure, annoyance and frustration at being seriously misled by a garda. The judge outlined in open court that on 7 June 2016, while sentencing a woman on drug offences committed on 2 June 2015, a garda purposely and deliberately misled the court. This is the same drugs operation in which other gardaí have been found to have had an involvement as a result of the protected disclosure of Garda Nick Keogh three years ago. Despite this, no one has been arrested or charged three years later. Why? It is because some of Nóirín's inner circle are being protected. This is an organisation in crisis. Will the Tánaiste allow this shambles to be her legacy?

As I have often stated, the Deputy comes into the House repeatedly and speaks about individual cases, but I cannot comment on individual cases. However, I can ensure the Garda has the resources to deal with the issues that the Deputy has outlined-----

But it is not.

-----to conduct appropriate investigations and to get on with the operational work it has to do.

Let me be clear. At the very beginning, I indicated my concern at the findings of the interim internal audit report relating to the financial procedures in the Garda College in Templemore. It paints a disturbing picture of the way in which the college's finances were run. In short, it found that financial controls that cannot be stood over were in place there. That is the reality of the situation going right back. Action was not taken in 2008. In respect of 2009, we see reports in the newspapers today about internal inquiries at that time. We need to understand why that action was not taken at that time to deal with the issues emerging and which the Garda Commissioner has dealt with and on which she has taken action. In the most recent report she has outlined to me how the vast majority of the various recommendations in the interim draft report relating to Templemore have been implemented.