Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

We all saw and heard Ms Rebecca Carter this morning. She is an 18 year old student from Wexford who completed her leaving certificate examination this year hoping to get enough points to do veterinary medicine in University College Dublin, UCD. When Rebecca received her results in August, she fell just short for the first and second round offers and sought a recheck of her papers. That review revealed that the examiner had wrongly added up her marks. Had that error not occurred, Rebecca would have received a higher grade. She would have exceeded the points required and been offered a place. However, the State Examinations Commission, SEC, decided not to formally recheck her results before mid-October, thereby costing her the place in university she had earned. The commission says that any alleged error can only be corrected through the formal appeals process and that the error could not be dealt with through a rectification process. It is extraordinary that if the totting up error had appeared on the front cover of the examination script, it would have been rectified outside the normal appeals process but because it happened inside the paper, it had to be dealt with through the formal system. One could not make it up.

Rebecca decided she would not allow such absurd bureaucracy to waste her life. She took her case to the court and won it yesterday. She should be commended for shining a light on the system. However, the case has highlighted a number of serious deficiencies in our examination marking process. If the SEC cannot decide on an appeal prior to the allocation of places in the academic year for which students are sitting the leaving certificate examination, the system is clearly unfit for purpose. On RTÉ this morning, Brian Mooney, who is well respected in this area, said the examiners are totting up marks using their own pens and pencils. They do not have IT available to them to carry out that process. Deputy Thomas Byrne has pointed out for some time the inadequacies of the resources being allocated to the marking process for both the leaving certificate and junior certificate examinations. It was shown during the court hearing yesterday that 1,700 examiners marked 390,000 papers in 54 days. Mistakes will be made with that type of pressure on examiners but, as we saw in Rebecca's case, mistakes interfere with people's futures. Deputy Thomas Byrne has repeatedly pointed to a major resource issue in terms of recruiting examiners yet the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, continued to stick his head in the sand.

What plans has the Government to review the system and the outcome of the case yesterday? What does it say about our State examination marking system that a student must go to the High Court to get the place in university she has worked hard for awarded to her this year? Is the Government aware of any other such cases where errors in the process have cost people places?

I thank the Deputy for raising this case. I will respond in two ways. First, I am the mother of somebody who is the same age as Rebecca. I have children at home who have just gone through the leaving certificate examination and who are going through it. The smile on that young lady's face yesterday was worth €1 million, and the pride and happiness of her parents show the determination that young woman has to achieve and succeed in what she wishes to do. I am delighted for her and wish her every success. The Ceann Comhairle should watch this space because that young woman is going to have a bright future.

Speaking as a politician, what happened in the past number of weeks is regrettable. From the perspective of the Department of Education and Skills, we watched and noted what happened as it was played out in the High Court over the past couple of days. We will review what happened with a view to ensuring that something similar does not happen again. The specifics of the review have not yet been released because the High Court judgment was only made yesterday, but I guarantee that the terms of reference of the review will be reviewed in the next couple of days. Tens of thousands of people sit the State examinations. The mistakes that can be made are human. It is not because people are under pressure or they do not have pens, as the Deputy's colleague suggested. It is because people are human and they make mistakes. However, there is a fundamental need to ensure there is enough time after the errors have been recognised to have them corrected before somebody's place is taken from them in the given academic year. If Rebecca had not gone to the High Court, she would have had to defer her application until next year, which is not a situation anybody can countenance or stand over. I certainly cannot, and neither can the Government.

The review will take into account the number of people sitting examinations, the average number of appeals and the duration of those appeals. Perhaps, as has been suggested by some commentators this morning, we need to address the recruitment issue for that time in the appeals process when most secondary school teachers have gone back to work in their normal day job and are not available. The review must be thorough and ensure that when it is completed cases such as Rebecca's never happen again.

On the Deputy's final question, I am not aware of any other cases. That does not mean there are no others, only that I am not aware of them.

We all smiled with Rebecca, but where were we last August when Rebecca was in tears when she missed out on her place? Where were we when she was told that she should not have missed out on that place but that she would not have it until this time next year? We smiled because Rebecca had to go to the High Court to smile. She had to go that far and spend that kind of money to secure her right to something she had earned. The Minister announced a review. What is the timeline for the review? Who will conduct it? Will it be outsiders, people who will bring some type of order to the system and, most importantly, give clarity to the 60,000 students who will sit the leaving certificate examination next year in order that none of them falls into the trap that affected Rebecca? We accept that mistakes can be made and that these things happen.

We cannot allow this to happen. There needs to be additional checks when dealing with people's futures, particularly people of a young age who have worked incredibly hard to achieve an ambition but who have that ambition denied to them because of error. This cannot and should not be stood over. I am sure the Minister will want to give an assurance to the 60,000 people who will sit the leaving certificate examination next year that this will not happen again.

In fairness, nobody was smiling at the fact that she had to go to the High Court, which I acknowledge the Deputy did not infer, but we were all happy to see her determination pay dividends. I hope that she gets what she wants before noon on Friday, which is a well deserved place to study to become a veterinarian in this country. The Deputy will be aware, as I am sure everybody else will be, that the SEC is an independent public body under the aegis of the Department of Education and Skills. It is because of that independence that the public has confidence in the process that is the examination of the leaving certificate and in the outcome and the results arising therefrom. Errors are made by human beings. I cannot confirm to the Deputy that the review will be done in a week or a month, though I will come back to him on the matter, but we do need to ensure that it is robust so that when errors do occur the process facilitates people being able to access the places they apply for in a given year. Some 57,000 people sat the leaving certificate last year and more than 3,000 examiners examined approximately 380,000 papers. That is a big task. The review has to be conducted and a better process put in place in order that there will be no mistakes that cannot be rectified in a timely manner in the future.

This morning, the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, published its quarterly rental index for quarter 2 of 2018, which shows that rents continue to spiral out of control. The average cost of renting a home across the State is now €1,094. This equates to an annual increase of 7.6%. In the greater Dublin area, the situation is even worse in that average rents are now a shocking €1,587, which is an annual increase of 8.8%. In my home county of Donegal, the increase year-on-year is 6.7%. What is equally worrying is a clear emergence of two-tiered rental market. The report shows that while rental costs in existing tenancies increased by 4.9%, which is in excess of the Government's rent cap of 4%, those in new tenancies increased by 8.4%. Sinn Féin warned the Government that landlords would use the refurbishment clause to circumvent the rent pressure zone, RPZ, caps and re-let properties. All of us in this House know that this is happening. In a large number of cases, landlords are using these loopholes to evict tenants and secure increased rents, which is scandalous.

Sinn Féin has been calling for some time now for the RTB to be given additional powers to combat this practice. I acknowledge that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has finally accepted this argument from my colleague, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin. We now need to see that legislation introduced without delay. This morning during Oral Questions, the Minister said that people are paying too much in rent and that this has to be better controlled. On that point, he is correct, but his plan is wrong. It is now essential that the RPZ legislation be reviewed because it is not working. We need a change of policy and this means taking urgent action to help hard-pressed renters. Sinn Féin has proposed the introduction of a three-year emergency rent freeze. Existing tenancies would have their rents frozen at current levels, while new tenancies would be pegged to the RTB average rent index for the their area. Even with a freeze, rents are too high and, for this reason, Sinn Féin believes a tax relief for tenants for a period of three years needs to be introduced. This would give hard-pressed renters one month's rent back annually. This is a proper response to this crisis that has unfolded under the watch of the Government.

We also need to fast-track the legislation to give the RTB more enforcement powers and additional resources. The Minister, Deputy Doherty, must accept that this crisis is out of control and that meaningful and real action is required now. Will the Government introduce the measures I have outlined, including a rent freeze and a tax relief for hard-pressed renters, and will it ensure that a residential tenancies Bill is introduced to this House without delay?

The Deputy is correct that the latest RTB data was published in the past 24 hours. The report on rents paints a much more nuanced picture than the headline. The Government is aware that quarterly trends are volatile and that because rents continue to increase, we face a considerable challenge. People are paying what we consider to be too much rent. Rents need to be controlled. Rents for existing tenants are in line with the RPZs but rents for new tenancies and leases tend to be higher. One in five tenancies is now for longer than four years, which is welcome, and one in four new tenancies agreed in the past number of quarters was for more than 12 months, which shows a sign of stability for tenants. That said, there is still a tremendous way to go. We propose to introduce a rent register that will show comparable rents in areas, which will be published and in place before the end of the year, because we know people renting continue to face a challenge. It is because of the challenges in this area that the Government proposes to introduce a new rent protection measure into the Dáil in the next number of weeks and to pursue measures to provide for longer leases and tenant protections when properties are sold by landlords regardless of the reasons put forward for that sale. Home-sharing by organisations such as Airbnb will be tackled in the next number of weeks. It is because of all of these challenges, of which Government is well aware, that all of these actions will be taken in the next couple of weeks, on top of all of the actions taken over recent years.

Existing rents are not in line with the RPZs. I am sure the Minister has read the report. The increase in rents was 4.9%, which is in excess of the 4% cap. The Minister's reference to the volatility of quarter-on-quarter reports is accurate but the problem is that the Government does not understand the pressures that renters are under at this point. According to the RTB report, rents in the greater Dublin area have increased by €1,536, which is €1,536 more that people renting in the greater Dublin area have to find. Wages are not increasing by that amount. These families are under pressure as a result of the high cost of living, childcare costs, insurance costs and other cost-of-living pressures. We all know that those entering homelessness are, in the main, tenants whose landlords have taken vacant possession and who are no longer able to afford rents in their areas. We need serious proposals. On six occasions, the Government, with Fianna Fáil, voted down rent certainty that would have curtailed these increases, which is the reason landlords are able to seek sky-high rent prices.

Will the Government introduce the measures I have proposed? Rather than continually saying that rents are too high, will it introduce a rent freeze and a tax relief for renters and bring forward the necessary legislation, staff and resources to enable the RTB to properly monitor and police this area?

In case the Deputy missed what I said in my initial response, I will repeat it. It is because the Government recognises the challenges in the market that it proposes to introduce, between now and Christmas, a rent register which will show the average rents street by street, town by town and county by county.

That will not stop rent increases.

It is because of those challenges the Government will introduce new rent protection measures through legislation in the Dáil, giving the RTB increased powers to interact with people on a case-by-case basis; continue to pursue measures that will see people having access to longer leases and thus stability in their home lives in the places they choose to rent; and introduce new measures to tackle the issue of short-term letting in the next number of weeks.

Yesterday in the Dáil when debating the issue of social housing the Taoiseach said that the socialists want to divide our society into people who live in different areas, with some people paying for everything but qualifying for nothing, following which he checked himself, paused and did not finish the sentence. Perhaps the full sentence was, "some people paying for everything but qualifying for nothing and some people paying for nothing and qualifying for everything"?

The Taoiseach did not have to finish the sentence. A dog whistle is a dog whistle, half sentence or full.

When Fintan O'Toole wrote last week in The Irish Times accusing the Government of supporting an ideology, which contains "a profound class prejudice against social housing", he hit the mark.

The Taoiseach made that attack when criticising comments I had made suggesting that public land should not be privatised and should be used entirely for both social and genuinely affordable housing. Income thresholds for social housing should be raised to include more middle-income earners, young people and workers on the average wage currently locked out of the housing market. The State should directly engage builders, write off land prices and value added tax, VAT, and offer genuinely affordable housing at cost price. Rather than sell to developers and define "affordable" as being exorbitant market rates minus a discount, such a model could cut the price of affordable homes from €300,000 plus to less than €200,000 and a 50:50 social and affordable mix is a good mix to build new communities. Who could argue with that? The Taoiseach could and so too last Tuesday night could the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. He stated that we must avoid "failed policies that did not work before such as building giant social housing estates." Was Ballyphehane a failure? How about Marino or Drimnagh? Was Gurranabraher a failure? These schemes rescued a generation from the lanes and slums. This generation needs to be rescued from being forced to live at home with their parents into their 30s, from sky-high rents which have gone up again today and from the hotels, bed and breakfasts and Garda stations.

The Government is not letting a good crisis go to waste. It is exploiting it to push a privatisation agenda. The Government's vision is for 87,000 households to be housed with housing assistance payment, HAP, landlords in the years to 2021. If that effort was put into building an equivalent number of social homes, €23.8 billion would be saved over 30 years. The Government preaches prudence to the people but the same does not apply when steps are taken to enrich the landlords. The Government wishes to privatise public land and sell houses at unaffordable market rates and unaffordable so-called affordable rates. I conclude by asking the Government to stop the privatisation madness. There is enough public land in the hands of the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, and the local authorities alone have zoned enough residential land to build 114,000 homes. How can the Government disagree in the face of all of this evidence that building public homes on public land on a major scale is the only way to go?

I do not know whether the Deputy has noticed but I am not the Taoiseach, nor am I in the habit of finishing anybody else's questions unlike him. However, increasing housing supply is the most fundamental and important issue on the agenda of our Cabinet and Government at the moment because it is raised at every Cabinet meeting and in every session of this Dáil. We intend to introduce affordable housing for purchase, to make sure that cost rental homes will form a major chunk of the landscape in the rental market in the future and to provide €75 million in Exchequer funding to enable infrastructure to be developed on service sites in order that local authorities can open up land for development. The most recent announcement we made a couple of weeks ago was the establishment of one of the most important State organisations in generations, which will open up public land to offer social, private and rental houses to everybody in the market at every cost that they can afford-----

That is all in the future.

I do not know what part of that the Deputy could disagree with but given his practice, I am sure he will find something to disagree with. The fundamental project for this Government is to ensure that anybody who wants to rent, purchase or mortgage a house is able to do so at an affordable rate according to their income. That is the fundamental premise behind what we are trying to do and it is the backdrop of every policy and initiative that has been instigated in the past number of months and that this country will continue to support. The local authorities are starting to gear up and we can see in our towns and villages that houses are starting to be built, maybe not as quickly as the Deputy or I would like, but they are starting. The percentage increases year on year from last year to this are enormous. The figures are still small but they will grow larger. So far this year, in excess of 14,000 homes have been built. It is nowhere close to what is needed but it is a hell of a lot more than the number built last year and the year before.

I reiterate that we have no ideological issue with building any homes. There are a tremendous numbers of people in my party, not just in the parliamentary party, but in towns and villages up and down the country who grew up in county council houses and have no ideology against them whatsoever. I am proud of the community that I came from, which gave me the fundamental beliefs that I hold today. We will build and we will solve the housing crisis. We will not sit on Opposition benches and come up with unworkable and unrealistic claptrap. We will support local authorities and private developers and we will fundamentally open up publicly-owned lands to ensure that people such as couples of all ages can afford to buy or rent in the areas that they want to.

I realise that the Minister is not the Taoiseach-----

-----but I note the fact that she did not distance herself one iota from the dog-whistle politics that the Taoiseach demonstrated on the floor yesterday. I note her points on affordable homes but everyone should note the comments of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government earlier when he repeated his claim that €320,000 falls within the remit of affordable housing as he sees it. I note the Minister for Employment and Social Affairs' points on the Land Development Agency and suffice to say that it will prepare the ground for the biggest privatisation of land in the history of the State. The Government's housing policies are divisive. They are dividing rich from poor and we heard the Taoiseach's rhetoric yesterday about families in hotels being split up and so on but ordinary people are beginning to unite. The single mother who has received notice to quit, the student who cannot afford the rent, the homeless couple, workers on an average wage and ordinary people with a social conscience are giving their support to social movements such as Take Back the City. It is not just in the Dáil that the Government has an alternative and an opposition now but it is on the streets as well and we will see it next Wednesday, 3 October at 12.30 p.m. outside the front of this House when I hope that thousands will converge to demand a major increase in the capital spend on social housing in the budget and I appeal to all, especially young people, to attend that.

If anything, the plans that the Government has announced and will continue to work on are inclusive. They are far from divisive. Building large-scale social developments in the hundreds is divisive-----

How is it divisive for God's sake?

It puts people in segregated areas when we want people to live happily together in communities and that is why mixed developments are the foundation of Government's policy. When we look at the indicators, the figures are trending positively. The number of new homes that have become available for use in the past 12 months to the end of June was 19,650 individual homes. That is a 24% increase on the year from the end of June 2017. Planning permissions were up to 26,752 units to the end of the second quarter of 2018.

That just puts up the value of land.

Commencement notices are up to 19,451 units, a 17% increase from the previous year and registrations are up to 9,269 units, an increase of 9%. The numbers might not be going up as quickly as some people would like but what some Deputies cannot ignore, even though they will do their best to do so, is that the numbers are going in the right direction.

Homeless numbers are also going up.

I better not call the Minister "Taoiseach" whatever I do. After a long and hard fought community-based campaign relating to South Tipperary General Hospital, we will, hopefully, see construction of a modular unit that will provide 40 additional beds for the facility. Planning permission was granted for this recently. Despite the many premature announcements surrounding delivery, this is a welcome development. However, what is deeply concerning to patients, staff and the community is the issue of recruitment and retention of staff in the unit. I have been told by one of my colleagues that 75 new staff, including nurses, will be needed. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, says that at the current rate of recruitment, it will be impossible to find the staff needed to allow that unit to open. Not only would this be a crushing blow but it would greatly increase the existing problems in the hospital, where I understand that there is a staff deficit of 35 nurses. This is causing awful stress to patients and staff alike and it is unfair to them.

The INMO indicated the total number of nursing staff was to increase nationally by 1,224 whole-time equivalents yet the latest data show only a net increase of 13 whole-time equivalents was achieved. That is not even 1%. It is appalling. It seems increasingly likely that it will result in a long list of wards and other spectacular new facilities around the country lying idle and empty due to an inability to get staff. One of those is in Cashel, where more than €21 million was spent, and it is lying idle. It is a pristine building which the Minister of Health saw.

The Government’s Bring them Home campaign, which was launched in July 2015, targeted 500 nurses and midwives employed in the UK. However, only 91 nurses were enticed to return to work in the Irish public health system and a staggering 40 of them left prior to fulfilling a year's service. What is wrong? It clearly indicates that something is profoundly wrong with the current system and that it will have a devastating impact on South Tipperary General Hospital's future. Will the Minister outline to me what measures the Government is taking to ensure that South Tipperary General Hospital and its modular unit will be targeted for adequate staff recruitment? I am very concerned. Unfortunately it is not the only issue of staff recruitment affecting the health infrastructure in our county. Information supplied to me in reply to a parliamentary question showed that Clonmel, Thurles, Cashel, Tipperary town, Nenagh and Roscrea each has only one emergency ambulance to cover night duty from Monday to Sunday each week. The reply given to me shows there is not a single rapid response vehicle for either day or night duty in Thurles, Nenagh, Roscrea or Cashel. It is appalling when the Government is talking about the recovery in the economy.

In January of last year I was informed by the National Ambulance Service that despite recommendations from its first ever capacity review on the urgent need to recruit additional staff, this would only occur over the next four years. It is now clear that as far as Tipperary is concerned, there has been zero additional capacity built into the ambulance service covering the county. It is also clear that no matter what area of healthcare delivery or staff recruitment one looks at, the Government is failing on all fronts.

I acknowledge the development of the modular unit that both Deputy Mattie McGrath and a number of other Deputies, both past and present, in Tipperary have been fighting for in the last number of years. To see it reach its final stages and be a provision of service in the Deputy's county is an excellent result. I congratulate the Deputy and his constituency colleagues including my former colleague, former Deputy Tom Hayes-----

A new coalition.

-----for the service they have given to their county. It is off the back of the growing and recovering economy that we are in the fortunate position to be able to increase the spend on health and to be able to provide the extra 40 beds in Tipperary that the Deputy is so good to mention. The €14.5 billion that was implanted in the HSE's budget this year is €608 million more than it was, year on year, and that allowed us to do a capacity bed review and to commit to 2,600 acute beds and 4,500 additional short-term and long-term residential beds of which the 40 the Deputy has just described are part.

I could go on and list all the other positive things we are doing in health but I think the Deputy wants me to assure him that the staffing required to make sure those 40 beds are operational will be put in place. I assure the Deputy the staff will be put in place. We are not in the practice of opening beds and not having staff to staff them. I was not aware the Deputy was going to raise the issue today so my information is not as accurate as it might otherwise have been. I will come back to the Deputy in the next number of days with the exact details of the HSE local area plan and how it is going to develop the opening of the 40 beds, what staff will be required and how we will recruit that staff to make sure we get it open as soon as possible.

The Government keeps making the same mistakes. It tried to bring home and recruit 500 nurses. It successfully recruited 90 and 40 left after a year. There is something appallingly wrong if we cannot get staff. The Minister cannot assure me the HSE will have the staff because they do not want to work in the health service. I salute the many who do. I walked into a GP's office in Clonmel last Monday week and she told me that after 18 years she could not wait to get out of the hospital because of the intolerable conditions and shortage of staff. I could point to example after example such as Cashel hospital, which is pristine. This year €600 million has been added to a budget that is expanding to billions but there is waste and people do not want to work. I met representatives of the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, this morning. It cannot get doctors or consultants. They are voting with their feet. Our brightest and best have been educated here. They had the passion and vision to go into all types of medicine. They do not want to leave but they are forced to leave because of the unorganised bedlam that is allowed to continue. The Government keeps throwing money at it and keeps paying architects to design new buildings and they are lying empty. In the Minister's county and all over the country, pristine buildings are unoccupied. They are unoccupied and unstaffed and it is costing a fortune to heat them and keep the lights on with no staff. It is a failed policy. There has to be a system that people want to work in. There has to be a system that doctors and nurses want to give their dedication to and serve our people in but the Government is not making the conditions right for them.

The Deputy does a real disservice to the thousands of women and men who man our hospitals and primary care centres and provide an absolutely state-of-the-art, excellent service, day in, day out, on a 24-7 basis. Our young nurses are the bedrock of our delivery of services and they work their socks off, which is why the Government has worked so hard to provide a pay agreement for the next couple of years to recognise the concerns they have raised over the past number of years. That is why the ballots will be taking place in the next couple of weeks. I wish everybody well. I do not accept that people are leaving in their droves.

People have pride in our health service.

I have the figures.

While we might stand in this Chamber and pick out the blatantly obvious concerns we have with regard to the delivering of the health service, it is not true to say the health service does not deserve the pride and respect of every Member of the House. I challenge the Deputy. If he has any bright ideas that might lead to the increased retention of staff let me hear them instead of just giving out about it all the time.