Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Across the country there are many thousands of people who wish to buy their own homes or apartments. They are working, multiple jobs in some cases, and many of them have moved home to have the opportunity to save the deposit. They pay enormous and rising rents and because of the size of those rents it is even harder to save a deposit. They are now faced with a new challenge, that after putting the deposit together, as in a case I came across in Dundrum during the week, and paying a booking deposit, funds are swooping in to buy entire stocks of apartment developments and housing estates around Dublin and the country, leaving these people who are working and saving hard and making enormous sacrifices without access to a first-time home and apartment.

We accept there are many challenges in this housing crisis and many decisions to be taken but Government has control over some areas and this is one where it can begin to make a difference. Legislation in 2013 for these real estate investment trusts, REITs, introduced them into Ireland. It was an ideological position taken at the time to stimulate the development of homes in 2013. That was six years ago. Now, in 2019, these funds are straying far beyond what was intended for them. They are known colloquially as cuckoo funds, they are faceless and profit driven and are swooping in to buy estates and apartment blocks in Balbriggan, Dundrum, Lusk, in Deputy Curran's and Deputy Jack Chambers' constituencies, any number of constituencies, but also outside Dublin, thereby depriving people of that chance to get on the home ownership ladder and forcing people to travel and commute longer distances to work, to continue to live at home with their families well beyond the point when it is sustainable to do so.

These funds are not subject to corporation tax on their Irish property profits or gains. They have no obligation to report what they make in profits here to the Revenue Commissioners. Last Monday's Irish Independent made for chilling reading because it showed that 3,000 homes were snapped up by these big corporations last year, five times more than in 2017 and €1.1 billion was being spent by these funds. All the time rents will rise by a further 17%. We are leaving people to the penury of rent, standing by while those rents increase, depriving them of the opportunity to save for the deposit. Would the Tánaiste agree that it is time to shout stop? It is time that the modus operandi of these funds, buying entire developments either off plan or after building, needs to be curtailed. It should not happen that somebody can work incredibly hard to put down a booking deposit and then be told that the entire development has been taken from them, as happened the people I met in Dundrum on Tuesday night. Is it time to curtail the advantages and to buy entire developments? Would the Tánaiste not agree that it is time to give people a chance to get on the housing ladder?

That is a very interesting question. We are trying to increase supply in the property market to ensure that where possible we see a rental market changing for the better, where large commercial landlords are part of that rental market, providing a professional service at a fair and affordable price. One of the flaws in the Irish rental market is that approximately 85% of all landlords own only one property. In respect of standards and responsibilities that landlords need to take on in law it becomes difficult to manage that. There is a role for investment funds to invest in the rental market in particular to increase supply significantly over a short space of time, which we need to do. The Government needs to be careful to monitor constantly the role and impact of outside investment in the property market here to make sure that it is proportionate and that it is adding positively to increasing supply.

As the Taoiseach repeats, we are a Government that supports home ownership and we want to make sure that people can afford to buy homes close to where they work. That is a supply issue. We need to build approximately 35,000 housing units a year. By the end of this year we hope to be close to 25,000 and increasing. It is a combination of more social and affordable homes and more affordable rental properties, all happening at the same time. Property funds can contribute positively to that but when there is a shortage of supply there is going to be competition between a private homeowner looking to purchase a property and commercial funds looking to increase their portfolios by providing more rental properties. The answer is to increase supply significantly but also to assess constantly the appropriate legislative protections that are needed to make sure that the contribution of international funds to increasing supply is as it should be because our property market is changing all the time.

I agree that we need to increase supply but these funds come in and take 3,000 off the plans before people get a chance to see it. The Tánaiste spoke about competition but that is not fair competition. The Government is equipping and incentivising these funds through our tax laws to offer completely unfair competition. The Government is giving them huge power in comparison to the first-time buyer, the person looking for that start. These funds are given advantages that the individual buyer does not get and the Government is consigning people to high rents, that will increase by 17%, to saving for a deposit for a property they may never get. Yes, it needs to increase supply but it will have to put restrictions on what happens to that supply. Is it in the Tánaiste's mind fair that a fund can come in with very few profit taxation requirements and acquire an entire development of houses, even where people have paid booking deposits? Is that fair and good competition? Is the Tánaiste happy to consign people to a lifetime of rent, of scrimping and saving or to a commute from hell?

I do not think it is either one or the other.

That is what is happening.

The priority needs to be the homeowner or the person looking to get affordable rent.

There are no affordable rents.

That is what this is for, to facilitate profits for international funds that want to come to Ireland to invest in a property market that is evolving or changing. We are trying to ensure that there is investment and that we increase the professionalism of landlords. In other European cities apartment blocks are often owned by one fund that is managed in a way that is in the interests of stable rent. That is the kind of rental market we need to create in Ireland but because of a lack of supply when a new development is selling from the plans or just completed, having large funds competing with individuals who want to buy their own homes is something we need to move away from but primarily by increasing supply.

This week it was reported that a man had been before the courts on three counts of sexual assault of three women over two weeks in 2016.

In one case, the man in question, a taxi driver, touched a 19 year old woman's chest, rubbed her cheek, and when she managed to get out, he followed her in his taxi and continued to harass her and try to get her back into the car. He rubbed the face and lip of another victim, a 20 year old woman, before brushing his hand down the right side of her body. When she arrived at her home, he asked her if she needed a hug before he leaned in towards her as if to kiss her. In another case, an 18 year old schoolgirl got into his taxi and he immediately began rubbing her leg and telling her how soft her skin was. She managed to push him away and he tried to get his hand into her underwear. The woman in question accepted a call from her friend while in the taxi and tried to give her the information she could read from his ID. He became very angry, leaned across her, opened the door and told her to get out. She tried to take a photograph of him but he stopped her from doing so. The man in question here has pleaded guilty to these incidents and his legal team have accepted that these were young vulnerable people who were relying on him to bring them home safely. He did not do that.

I accept that court decisions and sentencing are the remit of the Judiciary and I will not be commenting in a way that influences that, although the Tánaiste will know that I am anxious for sentencing guidelines to be introduced to ensure consistent and fair sentencing. What I want to raise with the Tánaiste is the safety of women. Bail conditions have been agreed for this man that stipulate that he can continue to drive a taxi but that female passengers are not permitted as front seat passengers. Incredibly, this man is still entitled to drive a taxi and carry passengers, including women. This is outrageous. How can any women feel safe in a taxi, no matter where they are seated, that is being driven by a man who has pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault? What mother or father would not be worried that this man could collect their daughters tonight in a taxi? It is unsafe, it is absolutely wrong, and our legislation should not allow it.

What is the Government going to do to ensure that people who are guilty of sexual offences and these specific types of offences are nowhere near taxis and in a position to collect people? What message does this send to the overwhelming majority of decent taxi drivers and the checks they have to go through? If it requires legislative change, let us do that. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, needs to get on top of this immediately. It is beyond unacceptable. It is frightening that such a man could drive a taxi in Dublin tonight and it should not be allowed.

Before the Tánaiste responds, this is a matter that is still before the courts, as I understand it, and it is highly irregular for us to engage in any sort of discussion about a matter still before the courts, notwithstanding the enormity of the importance of the case that the Deputy raises. I trust-----

I accept that, I have given careful thought to what I have worded, and the proposition that I have laid before the Government is on legislation and who is entitled to drive taxis.

Let all of us tread very warily here.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for that guidance. I can understand the Deputy's concern but we need to be careful about what we say here in the context of individual cases, particularly when there are court cases ongoing. I am not familiar with the status of the court case so I need to be careful.

I would like to say more generally that the Government is totally committed to preventing and addressing sexual abuse and gender-based violence. Increased reporting of sexual crime to An Garda Síochána can be seen in some ways as a success in that victims feel more confident in reporting these crimes today. The laws surrounding sexual offences have been significantly strengthened in recent years through the introduction of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 and the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017. This important legislation helps victims identify that the behaviour they are suffering is wrong and encourages them to report it to An Garda Síochána. Divisional protective service units are also being rolled out this year across all policing divisions. These are specialised units tasked with improving services to victims, improving the investigation of sexual violence incidents, and identifying and managing risk. The Government has also approved a radical new national survey approach to the collection of data by the Central Statistics Office on the prevalence of sexual violence in Ireland, which will greatly improve the evidence base for public policymaking in this area in the future.

I know the Deputy is looking for a more specific answer from me. As a father of three daughters, I have to say that it is important that parents and young people can have faith that when they get into a taxi, they are safe. I need to be careful in referring to any individual case but I will try to come back to the Deputy later, having taken some advice on it, to give him a more detailed answer.

The question I asked was not answered and perhaps I can put it in a way that the Tánaiste can answer. For the Ceann Comhairle's information, what I am about to say is quoting directly from newspaper reports and I will not depart from that. It is what is in the public record.

The victim impact statement from the first woman said that she would not allow her boyfriend to touch her where this man had touched her and she said she felt scared and numb and had problems sleeping at night. She later attended weekly counselling and she still finds it difficult to get a taxi, especially at night. The second woman was traumatised after the incident and lost trust in taxi drivers. She worries about the safety of others in taxis and feels ashamed for allowing herself to be so vulnerable.

I ask the Tánaiste this in the abstract in the hope he can answer it. Is he confident that the Taxi Regulation Act 2013 ensures that people who are guilty of sexual offences are not entitled to drive taxis? If not, will the Government bring forward legislation to ensure that is the case?

As I said earlier, we need to be careful what we say, regardless of what is written in newspapers or what has been in the media, whether it is social media or mainstream media. We have to stand over what we say in this House ourselves because we should set the standard in cases such as this. Having said that, the issue the Deputy is referring to is a serious issue and of course legislation should be tested and, if necessary, changed to ensure that people who are travelling in taxis are protected appropriately and that people who are given a licence to drive taxis are appropriately vetted to make sure that women or men who are travelling in taxis are given the appropriate legal protections that they deserve.

This question refers to threats to our agricultural industry and our agricultural community. There are three threats as I see it. In the short term there is Brexit, as we are all aware. In the medium term there is the potential reduction in the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, budget. In the longer term there are challenges presented to the agricultural community by climate change and climate action.

On Brexit, the issues have been well identified and I will not go over them now, but any form of Brexit will have a negative impact, whether it is a soft Brexit via a withdrawal agreement involving the UK staying within the customs union and the Single Market in some form or other, or a harder Brexit where the UK cuts its ties almost completely with the EU. The loss of the UK market will be substantial for the beef and dairy industries. The imposition of tariffs will add to that and the delays in transport across the UK landbridge will be a serious blow to agricultural exports. Farm families need to know from the Tánaiste what level of support will be available from the Government and from Europe to maintain their incomes. I would like the Tánaiste to outline what those supports will be.

The CAP budget is under review and there are fears that this will be reduced substantially, with consequent threats to the beef and dairy sectors, if the UK leaves the European Union. The loss of the financial contribution that the UK makes to the CAP will obviously be a major factor there, so what reassurances can the Tánaiste give to farmers on this? Ireland is the most exposed of the European countries to a CAP reduction.

On the challenge posed by carbon emissions from beef and dairy farming, farmers are very fearful of the narrative that their traditional indigenous industry is being blamed in some quarters as a major damaging contributor to greenhouse gases and the threat to our planet.

An educational guide recently issued to schools by An Taisce recommends a reduction in meat and dairy consumption, equating such consumption with contributing to environmental damage. I believe this is the wrong message to give to our children, who are very impressionable. Excessive intakes of sugar, processed carbohydrates and salt are all contributing to obesity, which is now reaching epidemic proportions. This is the message which should be given to our children and their parents regarding diet while at the same time promoting exercise and sport. We all know that a balanced diet is very important for health and well-being, and the manner in which we process and cook our food is as important as the content of that food. The message should go out that farm families are custodians of our environment and are not contributing to its destruction. The uncertainty in the farming sector regarding Brexit and the CAP budget is being compounded by the narrative that farming damages our planet and provides food that can damage our health. We should ensure educational material does not do that.

I thank Deputy Harty for those questions. I would have liked a much longer time to reply because I have a lot of personal interest in this area given that I am a former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and a farmer.

We know that Ireland is more exposed and more vulnerable to a no-deal Brexit or the wrong outcome from Brexit. Ireland exports more than €1 billion worth of beef to the UK and dairy products worth more than €1 billion. We also import food and drink worth billions of euro from the UK. Should this trade be subject to tariffs in the future, or to other non-tariff trade barriers, it would be very damaging to the Irish agricultural and food industry and to Irish farming. We are conscious of this and we have been for many months. Hardly a Cabinet meeting passes without the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, raising these issues and the challenges that emerge from them.

I want to reassure farm families. There are 130,000 farm families in Ireland, nearly 100,000 of whom get some farm income from beef and 70,000 of whom get all of their farming income from beef. I want to reassure them that if Ireland faces a no-deal Brexit - which looks less likely today than it did last week - we will be ready to support Irish farm families and the food industry through what will be a very difficult period of change and disruption. We are working with the European Commission and Commissioner Hogan has been very strong on this also. There will be a significant support package to help farmers through the disruption of a no-deal Brexit, which would be considerable for Irish agriculture.

On the issue of CAP, I was involved in trying to finalise the Common Agricultural Policy the last time around. There is a really competitive environment for EU funds now. With the UK likely to leave the European Union and in the medium term no longer contributing to EU budgets, and with increasing demand for more money in EU budgets at the same time, especially in respect of security, external relations, climate and the promotion of technology and research, we have seen some pressure on the CAP budget and on other regional budgets. The Government has made it very clear that it is a priority for us in the new multi-annual financial framework, MFF, to protect the CAP budget. We have said that we will contribute more to EU budgets as long as the CAP budget is protected. We have developed a strong alliance - and the Minister, Deputy Creed, has worked very hard on this - across the European Union to protect the CAP budget. A significant number of countries are now part of that coalition to do this. As the debates continue on the MFF I can assure the House that the CAP budget will be a big priority for us.

The third issue raised by Deputy Harty was on climate. The agriculture and food industry has a responsibility to ensure we respond to the emissions challenge facing the sector, as faced by other sectors also. We need to do that in a way that continues to protect farm incomes and to protect the agriculture and food industry as part of the broader economy. This is what we will continue to do, as the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton and the Minister, Deputy Creed, work together from a climate change perspective, as well as an agricultural perspective.

I linked the three items of Brexit, CAP and climate change together because I have met farmers over the last months who have become quite disillusioned with the way they are being portrayed and in how they are being supported. I accept the Tánaiste's comments on the supports that will be delivered, whatever form of Brexit develops over the next months. The uncertainty over CAP cannot be predicted but the farmers can certainly see, coming down the line, that they will be under severe financial pressure if there is a reduction in the CAP budget.

Because they are a traditional, indigenous industry, farming families feel they are now being blamed for climate change, for damaging the climate and for producing food that is deemed to be unhealthy. As I said earlier, a balanced diet is very important. Farmers need to be reassured that they are recognised as being custodians of the environment and the land, and that they are not producing products that damage people's health or damage children's health. Perhaps the Tánaiste might address this issue in his next response.

Food Wise 2025, the current agrifood plan for the country, is about sustainable growth and expansion. It is about ensuring that young people are still attracted to farming as a way of life and as a way of deriving an income. It is also about driving efficiency: driving down the carbon efficiency of how we produce food while sustainably realising the potential of a growing and expanding dairy sector. Ireland produces dairy products at the lowest carbon intensity on the planet. Surely it makes sense for countries that have the capacity to produce dairy products, which is a huge part of human nutrition globally, and who do this best from a climate and emissions intensity perspective, to allow their industries to grow and expand.

In respect of beef, Ireland is probably in the top 30% in terms of efficiency and we need to do more in that regard. Part of the challenge is the herd size. We are breeding more efficiency into our breeds and supporting farmers financially in making that change through the beef genomic scheme and other innovative schemes. We will continue to support this sector to make the changes it needs to make to become more climate aware and emissions efficient. This does not mean the farming and food industry does not have a bright future of growth and expansion.

South Tipperary General Hospital is a success story despite swingeing cuts to budgets and staff numbers and a shortage of beds. I compliment and thank all of the staff at the hospital, from the newest recruit to senior management, who work in partnership and as a team in delivering quality hospital services under very difficult circumstances.

In November 2008, in response to the HSE and the Department of Health proposals to downgrade the hospital and to transfer all of its acute services - medicine, surgery, maternity, paediatrics and emergency department - to Kilkenny and Waterford, the Save Our Acute Hospital Services Committee was formed. Working with the whole hospital community, all stakeholders and the public, the committee responded to the threat and put 15,000 people onto the streets of Clonmel to stop the proposals in their tracks. Success saw a huge increase in hospital activity, a significant increase in inpatient admissions, and a virtual explosion in outpatient and emergency department attendances. Side by side with this we had budget cuts, staff cuts and shortages of beds. The hospital today works at 120% capacity overall. The medical department works at approximately 150% capacity. Unfortunately, given that the hospital regularly has 40 or more patients on trolleys we are consistently near the top of the trolley watch figure. Last week the hospital had to appeal to the public not to attend the emergency department because of the huge overcrowding.

Despite the best efforts of staff, the conditions for patients in that overcrowded emergency department are totally unacceptable. Staff are under constant pressure every minute of every day. Fortunately, pressure was applied and led to the approval of a new 40-bed modular unit for the hospital, and after several false dawns that unit is now under construction and will be completed at the end of July. It was supposed to have been completed by June of last year. However, there have been significant delays in approving funding for equipping and staffing the unit. It is required urgently and should be opened immediately upon completion. I want the Tánaiste to confirm today and give us a guarantee that this unit will not be the subject of the staff freeze which was announced last week by the HSE. Will the Tánaiste assure us that staff numbers and funding will be agreed by the HSE and that the unit will not be subject to a phased opening into next year? It should be fully opened on completion because the hospital desperately needs beds.

I thank the Deputy for his very reasonable approach to this issue. It is true to say that South Tipperary General Hospital has been under pressure, as have other hospitals, through the winter. Looking at the national picture, it is true to say that the trolley count through the winter months this year was about 13% less than last year and the lowest for the past five years. That being said, many individual hospitals, including South Tipperary General Hospital, have been under pressure at different times. There is a capacity issue in Tipperary, which is why the Government is committed to and has funded the building of a 40-bed modular unit to add capacity. It is under construction and will open mid-summer. My understanding is that there will not be staffing difficulties associated with the new unit, but I will revert to the Deputy later today with an exact response from the HSE on that matter.

On the circular from the HSE concerning staffing freezes, which has been raised this week in the House, where there are plans that are within the spending estimates of this year, there are no problems in terms of taking on more staff. In fact, the ambition is to take on significantly more staff this year, but that ambition has to be managed from a cost perspective. I will revert to the Deputy on the staffing implications of a new 40-bed modular unit in south Tipperary. It makes no sense to open that new unit with the aim of increasing capacity and taking pressure off the existing hospital infrastructure if appropriate staffing is not lined up to ensure that the unit can do what it is intended to do. I will revert to the Deputy later today with a more precise response on the staffing implications, the staffing decisions and the financing of it.

The concern around staffing stems from the fact that the HSE has form in allowing units to be completed and then allowing them to lie vacant for quite considerable lengths of time. We have only to look at Our Lady's Hospital in Cashel, just 15 miles down the road. Some €14 million was spent on that facility, it was in pristine condition, but it has been vacant, with not a bed in it, for the past ten years. Something similar happened in South Tipperary General Hospital in the early 2000s. I am asking the Tánaiste to instruct the HSE to exempt this unit from any staffing freeze and to agree the business case and the staffing proposals from hospital management which have been with the HSE for the past 12 months. This unit must be opened urgently. The hospital is under severe pressure. It is doing excellent work under very difficult circumstances. I welcome the Tánaiste's indication that he will come back to me later today on some of the issues I have raised.

Under the capacity programme for 2019, which has been agreed, provision is made for increases in capacity. As set out in the national service plan for 2019, 78 additional beds are planned for quarter one of this year, including a 40-bed modular build in South Tipperary General Hospital, which the Deputy referred to. The plan also refers to other hospitals. Funding has been provided in the national service plan 2019 to facilitate the opening of the modular build at South Tipperary General Hospital, and the HSE has advised that the project is at an advanced stage. There is no reason that this building should not open once it is completed. It should serve the purpose it is being built for, which is to relieve pressure on South Tipperary General Hospital from a beds capacity perspective. I will get back to the Deputy with the precise costing for staff to ensure it gets across the line.