Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I wish to be associated with you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, in terms of the sad passing of the former Deputy, Micheál Lynch, with whom I served for a brief period in the House. He was an outstanding Deputy and a great cultural man and musician. I know the people of Oldcastle and his family will be grieving today at the loss of such a wonderful and warm person.

There has been understandable concern and anger in respect of the broadband announcement by Government, especially in respect of the escalating costs of up to €3 billion to the taxpayer and, crucially, the capacity of the remaining sole bidder to deliver the project. We have seen shifting sands in respect of the composition of the consortium and the financial guarantees from various entities to underpin the project. I put it to the Taoiseach that the Government is not being fully transparent in respect of these financial guarantees and the relationship between Granahan McCourt Capital, GMC, and the various entities, including Tetrad and McCourt Global.

There has been a drip-feed of information from Government on this as a result of tenacious work by journalists and politicians. Last week, Deputy Cowen was told that there were three investors in the project, namely, GMC, Tetrad and McCourt Global. Yesterday, Deputy Dooley was told that both Tetrad Corporation and McCourt Global reiterated their support of the final tender. Then, last night, further written replies came in saying it was only Tetrad and GMC. Deputy Dooley was also told that Tetrad provided a commitment letter in respect of the equity only required for the project. In other words, it will contractualise a legal underpinning of €175 million from the lead bidder. This is a far cry from the figure of €2.4 billion, a figure the Taoiseach gave the impression to the House some time ago that it would be putting in. There is no legal lien on that, from what we can see. There has been a lack of clarity on all of these issues and there are no legal guarantees in respect of that. Last night, a written reply came in saying there were now only two investors.

I put it to the Taoiseach that in hindsight the meeting held on 16 July 2018 in New York between the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, and David McCourt and Frank McCourt was actually quite significant. It was one month before the deadline for guarantees of financial underpinning and the consortium had to be submitted. The deadline was 15 August. Four serious issues were discussed in respect of the project. There was a need for a permanent Irish-based leadership position. The importance of the 15 August 2018 deadline was relevant, as was the need for the necessary financing to be in place at the time. The minutes state that the deadline would be met and that the need for any changes in the make-up of the consortium should be avoided or, if necessary, kept to a minimum. It was stated that the importance of this issue was understood by the consortium. The consortium had been advised by Arthur Cox that as long as its lead bidder remained unchanged then such changes should not necessitate any delay. We now know of course that there was a change in the leader bidder from Enet to GMC. There was a change in the lead bidder and the consortium. There was a change in those financially underpinning the project too. There has been an impression since that McCourt Global has been in this from the very beginning. McCourt Global is saying it was not involved in this in any shape or form.

I call on the Taoiseach to respond.

Frank McCourt was at that meeting. The former Minister, Deputy Naughten, had to resign. He has been less than forthcoming. He has gone silent. He is not available to comment on this. I put it to the Taoiseach that it is important for him to talk to the former Minister and get him to give a comprehensive and transparent statement in terms of all of these meetings.

The Taoiseach might confirm for me whether Peter Smyth, during his inquiries, spoke to Frank McCourt. Where will ultimate liability fall if the plan fails? If Granahan McCourt Dublin (Ireland) Limited folded, would it fall on Tetra Corporation to provide the equity for National Broadband Ireland?

I do not think there is anything new in the fact that the composition of the consortium changed over time. That is all information we have all been aware of for many months.

I was not at that dinner. No member of the current Government was at that dinner. The former Minister, Deputy Naughten, was but I cannot answer questions on his behalf. In any event I am confident that all of this was covered in the independent report on this matter carried out by Peter Smyth some months ago. That is published and in the public domain.

As for the financial guarantees, National Broadband Ireland will make available €220 million in equity and working capital upfront. This will be legally required by the contract, which is being finalised. There is no upfront contribution from the taxpayer. The taxpayer only contributes after the fibre is deployed and homes are passed and subsequently connected. The total cost of the project is between €5 and €6 billion, including VAT and contingences, with roughly half coming from the State in the form of the Exchequer subsidy and the other half from the investor and commercial revenues.

The Deputy asked about the upfront contribution. A total of €175 million comes from Tetrad Corporation and the rest from Granahan McCourt Dublin (Ireland) Limited. The funding commitments will be contracted in advance of the contract award and any committed funding that has not been drawn down by National Broadband Ireland at financial close will require a guarantee in a form that is acceptable to the Department. This is standard practice for large-scale procurements.

McCourt Global LLC is one of two companies on which the bidder relied to demonstrate its capacity to meet financial and economic criteria at pre-qualification stage. The other company was Tetrad Corporation. Both companies provided the necessary letters of support at that point in the process. They were each assessed in respect of the financial and economic capacity and both passed. There is no issue with any bidder relying on the resources of other companies and requirements were set out for this in advance, in the project information and memorandum and the pre-qualification questionnaire, which were given to all bidders in 2016 and were published. This is a standard procurement procedure to ensure that appropriate financial capacity and guarantees are in place. All other bidders to the process would have sought to do the same. At final tender both Tetrad Corporation and McCourt Global LLC reiterated their support but Tetrad Corporation also provided an equity support letter in respect of the funds outlined in the bidder's funding plan. This means Tetrad has committed to the full equity amount. Decisions on the sources of funding, such as the decision to go with equity from Tetrad rather than McCourt Global, are matters for the bidder and the company.

A parliamentary question last week identified McCourt Global as the ultimate investor but I understand the Department has now corrected the record and has clarified any confusion in respect of the role of McCourt Global. The role of the company, as I outlined to the Dáil last week, is one of two entities relied on for pre-qualification.

It provided a letter of support. At final tender, the equity commitments were provided by Tetrad. I am sure the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment will be happy to clarify any further issues or answer any further questions in this regard.

This is all very unsatisfactory. All of this has all been dragged from the Taoiseach over the past number of weeks and he has been less than transparent on it. He cannot go on being as detached as he is. A former Minister who was responsible for this project and this tender met the preferred bidder on a number of occasions.

He was abandoned.

We were led to believe they were all innocent dinners or personal lunches, but they were not. The Taoiseach needs to come off it. He cannot stand up here as Taoiseach of this country and say that no one in the current Government is involved. For God's sake, Deputy Naughten was a former Minister in the Taoiseach's Government, and the Taoiseach still depends on him for support. Frank McCourt of McCourt Global was at that dinner, and he was not there talking about the weather. He was talking about this project and that was minuted. The official from the Department who was there was from the climate action section, not the section responsible for conducting the tender. That, again, was wrong and inappropriate, which I said at the time. The Taoiseach did not say it. He pretended he saw no evil until all the other dinners emerged, and Deputy Naughten then fell on his sword. The former Minister has an obligation to talk to the House and tell us everything that took place in relation to this. The Taoiseach is saying that the Department has corrected the record, but it was only late last night when the parliamentary questions came in that we learned Granahan McCourt Capital, GMC, and Tetrad are now the investors responsible for the project.

That was in parliamentary questions yesterday.

The Minister's Department told The Sunday Times two weeks ago in two series of articles that McCourt Global was the financial underpinner of this project, but McCourt Global has now disappeared. The Government is confusing the picture deliberately at this stage. What is the Taoiseach hiding in respect of the relationships between GMC, Tetrad, and McCourt Global? He said, and he may correct me on this, that Tetrad is putting up €175 million. Does that mean that GMC is putting no equity in, despite being the sole bidder? I may have picked the Taoiseach up wrong, but I thought he gave a figure of €175 million and said Tetrad was providing that. Does that mean GMC is only providing the working capital and is not putting any equity into the project? Can the Taoiseach confirm that?

What I said was that National Broadband Ireland will make €220 million in working capital available upfront. This will be legally required by the contract, which is being finalised. No upfront contributions will be made by the taxpayer, and the taxpayer will only pay as the fibre is deployed and homes, farms, and businesses are connected. That €220 million is made up of €175 million from Tetrad-----

-----and the rest from Granahan McCourt Capital.

GMC is putting in no money, so is Tetrad putting in the equity? This is a massive revelation.

The Deputy might not want the answer, but the Taoiseach is speaking.

To answer the rest of the Deputy's question, the fact that Deputy Naughten attended those dinners is old news. It has been in the public domain for many months and we knew it last year. The Deputy resigned from Government over six months ago and we used the interim period to make sure this bid was sound and that it was the right one to go forward with. An independent report was conducted by Mr. Peter Smyth, as the independent auditor dealing with all these matters.

Is Tetrad the new preferred bidder? We have been misled all along the way.

The Deputy needs to calm down.

The Taoiseach is not finished yet.

The Taoiseach is now saying for the first time since this was announced that Tetrad is putting in the equity, not GMC.

The Taoiseach is to speak without interruption. There is only one question and one supplementary question allowed, and I cannot be responsible for anything else.

The Deputy really needs to calm down. The Government has been very transparent on this matter.

Deputy Martin is once again weaving one of his many conspiracy theories.

The Taoiseach called it a conspiracy theory when I spoke to him the night before Deputy Naughten resigned, but the Deputy resigned 24 hours later.

I call on Deputy McDonald.

Over the past number of weeks, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has championed the concept of co-living as a solution to the rental crisis. He has gone so far as to say that people should be excited by his co-living plan. One example of this exciting plan is being developed in Dún Laoghaire by Bartra Capital Property Group, and involves 208 studio dwellings that are around the same size as a parking space. It is proposed that on one floor 42 people would share one kitchen and for this exciting proposal, as the Minister puts it, rent would be in excess of €1,300 per month for what amounts to tenement living.

I am not sure about the Taoiseach, but I do not find that proposal exciting in the slightest. Given the public reaction to the Minister's new project, people in the real world do not find it exciting either; in fact, they have been angered by it. The Minister is so out of touch that he cannot seem to grasp that co-living is not an answer to the housing or rental crises. It is an insult to those seeking a safe and secure roof over their heads. Threshold has described these proposed developments as "21st century bedsits with a glossy makeover", and further said that they should not be viewed as a viable solution to the housing shortage. I agree with that assessment, because co-living has no place in our dysfunctional rental market. It is certainly not a solution.

It is, however, the clearest evidence of the biggest obstacle to tackling the housing crisis and that is the Taoiseach's Government. The most serious issue here is that the Minister thinks this is a good idea. Not only does he support and champion it, he doubles down on his message, and is saying to young people, in effect, that a box room with a fold-up bed and a kitchen shared by 42 people for €1,300 a month is as good as it gets. It is absolutely off the wall and it seems the reality of the Government's plan is bed and breakfasts and hotels for homeless children, two and three generations of families under one roof, ridiculous runaway rents, council housing waiting lists that will never be cleared, and the dream of one day owning their own home being totally shattered for many young people. This is as good as it gets on the Taoiseach's watch. Co-living and a perpetual rental crisis are all the Minister has to offer tens of thousands of people affected by the housing crisis. That is his record, his promise and his mantra. How does the Taoiseach defend this?

Deputy McDonald and myself may disagree on many aspects of housing policy, but I think everyone in this House agrees on one thing. At the core to the solution, though not the only solution, is additional supply and new homes and apartments for people who need them. Last year, 18,000 new homes were built in Ireland, up from 15,000 the year before and 9,000 the year before that. We are not building enough yet but we are definitely going in the right direction, and we see that in the fact that house prices are moderating and even falling in Dublin. This year we anticipate that between 20,000 and 25,000 new homes will be built, approximately. Those include houses and apartments of all types for different people such as social housing for people who have been waiting far too long on the housing lists, private homes for people to buy - because most people in Ireland still want to buy their own homes and I believe in homeownership - and homes to rent because many people need to rent for one reason or another. Of those 25,000 new homes, perhaps 1%, or four or five developments, will be co-living. It is important to put it into proportion. They are not going to replace traditional housing and apartments but it is another option for some people, particularly single people who do not want a house share. These developments are part of a housing mix in cities such as Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna, which are held up as examples to follow by Sinn Féin and others. They generally consist of en suite studio apartments with a kitchenette, and common areas such as a gym, laundry, or movie room.

The controversy at the moment appears to relate to one particular development in Dún Laoghaire being put forward by Bartra Capital Property Group. This development has not had planning permission granted yet. The Deputy suggested in her question that it is proposed that 42 people would share one kitchen, but that would not be in line with the Government's co-living guidelines.

I anticipate that An Bord Pleanála, when it makes a decision on a planning application, would either refuse or significantly modify any planning permission that is not in line with Government guidelines.

I am simply reiterating the words of the Taoiseach's own Minister, who regards this co-living concept as "exciting". As a Minister he has championed it and recommends it as an exciting prospect. I think he is targeting this bizarre message at young professionals in particular. This is just a glamourised form of tenement living, with a boxroom no larger than the size of a parking space, a fold-down bed and shared common areas and kitchen facilities for €1,300 per month. If this is what the Minister regards as exciting and something to be embraced by the young people of Ireland, then we do not have to deliberate very much to understand what the problem is in terms of resolving the housing and rental crises. The Government and the Minister are so out of touch that they regard an insult such as this proposition as an exciting offer for young people. The Taoiseach has, no doubt, been around the country like the rest of us talking to people and canvassing for political support. He can be in no doubt that there is no support for this proposition. He can be in no doubt that there is a widespread consensus that his plans for tackling the housing crisis have manifestly failed.

I ask the Taoiseach to respond.

The Taoiseach and his Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, have been found out. This cock-and-bull story around co-living simply amplifies the scale of their failure.

Why did the Deputy not object to the guidelines when they were introduced 14 months ago?

There is no provision for Ministers to take Leaders' Questions.

What the Deputy is doing is what she so often does, which is fallacy, engaging in misrepresentation and being totally disingenuous. When the Minister made his comments he was referring to the concept of co-living and the guidelines, which were not opposed by Sinn Féin. What the Deputy is trying to do now is dishonest and disingenuous, by taking those comments and applying them to a particular development in Dún Laoghaire that does not even have planning permission yet. This is a party that has no solutions for housing. All they can do is launch personal attacks on others.

So says the Taoiseach, having just launched a personal attack.

They have no answers for anyone with a housing need.

The direct provision system has been an outrage of State-sanctioned human rights abuses against men, women and children. It ensures that vulnerable people who are trapped in the system suffer again and again. It is a system of State coercion, disenfranchisement and enforced poverty, run by private companies for huge profit which could not care less about the people they are supposed to be looking after. The plight of these people, trapped for up to a decade, acts as a deterrent to people from coming here - maybe it is intentional. On top of this, the Government's pitiful response to the housing crisis has led to many people who have been granted asylum having to stay in direct provision, because there is no place for them to go.

The fact that the Government has failed to deal with the housing crisis means direct provision will not be closed any time soon. In light of that, I ask the Taoiseach to address two issues. Our office spoke to Nick Henderson, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, this morning. The council sees no vulnerability assessments being done, as were envisaged by Article 22 of the directive. Two other groups confirmed this view in their submission to the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality this morning. Assessments of primary healthcare needs are being done by the Safetynet group and these are clearly required but they are not vulnerability assessments as envisaged by the directive. A much more comprehensive and wide-ranging assessment is envisaged by the directive and required by law. A victim of torture will require intensive counselling and support but we do not even carry out an assessment capable of identifying what a person's problems might have been. Some people have seen family members shot in front of them, or drown beside them in the ocean. Article 22 requires vulnerability assessments but, despite the fact that the Government transposed the directive into domestic law 12 months ago, they are still not happening. We are in breach of EU law. When will a fit-for-purpose system to carry out these vulnerability assessments, in accordance with the wide-ranging and generous spirit envisaged by Article 22 of the directive, be in place?

I am afraid I will have to check up on that and come back to the Deputy with an answer about vulnerability assessments and EU law. I am not fully briefed on this but I will check it out and get back to the Deputy with a reply in the next couple of days, as best I can.

Government acknowledges that there are many people who have been living in direct provision for far too long. A lot of that relates to the fact that we have a very slow system for deciding whether someone is allowed to stay in the country or not when they claim asylum. That is to do with our own processes but it is also to do with the large number of judicial reviews. We believe, however, that as the International Protection Act 2015 is implemented, decisions will be made more speedily and people will find out much more quickly whether they can stay or should return to the country whence they came.

Direct provision is not compulsory and there are many asylum seekers who do not live in direct provision but with friends or family members who have already come to Ireland. After a few months, asylum seekers have the right to work so some can actually provide for their own accommodation. It is not a requirement that a person checks in or out, which some people believe to be the case, and a person is free to leave at any time. Many people have done so, to live with friends and relations who have come from their home country or in their own accommodation, having found work. Direct provision is offered to asylum seekers and they are provided with accommodation, heat, lighting, food and spending money but we are trying to raise the standards. That is being led by the guidelines that were put together by Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon, which we are following in order to raise standards and so that people in direct provision get decent accommodation.

This morning, Mr. Justice McMahon said many of his recommendations were still to be implemented, despite the Government boast last year that 98% of them had been implemented. That is not true. The Taoiseach said people were not compelled to be there but I know plenty of these people and they would not be in there if they had an alternative. Because of the housing shortages, however, there are very few alternatives. Many children still do not feel safe in direct provision, women do not feel safe, members of the LGBT fraternity do not feel safe there and many people are still being stripped of their dignity. In April in the Mosney direct provision centre, a mother of three was hospitalised after an attempt on her life. The incident shows clearly that the direct provision system is sometimes incompatible with basic human dignity and respect for human rights. The residents of Mosney staged a protest on 25 April, which they described as a cry for help. The owner of Mosney was caught on camera trying to break up the protest and in the video one can clearly hear him telling the protestors "this will have an impact on you". It was a direct threat. The residents in direct provision are too afraid to complain about conditions for fear of marginalisation, rejection of their application or relocation by the management. Phelim McCloskey's threat, caught on camera, is evidence of this but this time the situation was too much for residents to take. These people are being brutalised by the system. The Government needs to investigate the management practices in Mosney and other direct provision centres. Inspections by the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, are woefully inadequate. Will the Taoiseach investigate these management practices?

I have met Mr. Justice McMahon on many occasions and I have had the privilege of attending some of the citizenship ceremonies with him. He did a very good piece of work in setting out what the standards should be for direct provision accommodation. We are implementing those standards but they are not fully implemented yet and we acknowledge that. The Department of Justice and Equality, the Refugee Integration Agency and the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, would welcome complaints by any resident in direct provision at Mosney or any other centre and any complaint would certainly not affect a person's application, either adversely or favourably.

However, we do have an underlying problem of a large number of people coming from countries that are considered to be relatively safe, such as Albania, for example, or countries like Georgia, countries that are applying to join the European Union. We have a large number of people as well for whom their applications are taking a very long time to process, in many cases because of recurring judicial reviews. We need to do something to speed up the process so that those who are genuine refugees get quick answers and are allowed to stay here and get the protection they deserve and those who are not get to the quick answer that they need to return to where they came from.