Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

The Green Party has long campaigned for affordable homes. It promised to invest in large-scale affordable housing developments and reuse vacant stock for affordable homes, thereby revitalising our urban centres and tackling climate change. The Green Party continually promotes compact growth and rightly advocates for the 15-minute city. Yet, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and his colleagues are part of a Government that is actively undermining these policies. That Government is allowing big institutional investors to snap up thousands of family homes and denying would-be buyers from realising their dream of owning homes. It is also allowing these institutional investors to charge sky-high rents, which is squeezing more and more working people out of our city centres.

The planning and tax measures announced last week will do nothing to solve these problems. In fact, the exclusion of apartments from either measure will make matters worse. Are apartments not homes? Do we not want people to rent and buy affordable apartments in our city centres? On Thursday last, the Minister told the Dáil: "The market is not working ... There has to be a radical change and we will help steer that change from within government." Only days later, however, we learned that not only is it allowing big institutional investors buy up family homes, the Government is actually funding them to do this. Home Building Finance Ireland was set up by Government to fund medium-sized builders to build and deliver mid-priced homes. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, is the main shareholder and yet over the past 12 months - with the full knowledge of his Department - he has given €264 million of taxpayers' money to big developers to build almost 1,000 homes. Home Building Finance Ireland and the Department of Finance knew that all of these homes would be sold to big institutional investors which would charge extortionate rents.

Last week, the Tánaiste told the Dáil there may have been only one case or a handful of cases where Home Building Finance Ireland invested in build-to-let investments. Now, of course, we know this is not true. In the past year, 30 Home Building Finance Ireland loans, totalling more than 56% of the homes it is financing to be built, have gone to big institutional investors. What in God's name would the Minister do to allow taxpayers' money to be used to fund wealthy developers build and sell homes that will then be rented out? Why is this money not being used to build homes and apartments for working people to rent and buy at genuinely affordable prices, as the Minister promised in his election manifesto? Will the Minister give a commitment that the Government will immediately cease using taxpayers' money in this way and instead invest the money in the large-scale delivery of affordable homes for working people? The current level of investment by the Government in affordable purchase and affordable cost rental homes is derisory. This is not just the view of the Opposition, it is the view of every independent agency. When will the Government stop allowing taxpayers' money to be used to invest in homes for funds and when will it start to invest in homes for working people?

The housing crisis is at the top of the Government's agenda. We now have to apply the same cross-governmental approach we applied to Covid to housing because it is the real crisis of our time, particularly for young people. The Government is committed to doing everything we can to meet this crisis. It is a multifaceted problem. There is not one simple cure-all solution that will get us out of this. We will require a range of different initiatives. It will be in the delivery of social housing, the delivery of accommodation that people buy and the delivery of rental accommodation, particularly new solutions such as cost rental, that will meet the various needs of various people. More than anything else, we need to do this so our younger people have a chance to set up home in a viable way. An apartment home is absolutely just as important as a house, if not more important because we want, as the Deputy said, to bring back compact development close to the centre of cities and towns so people can live in a sustainable way that creates a good sense of community. Those apartments and flats are just as important as any other community.

How do we do this? In some instances, it will be through the €3.3 billion budget for direct spend by the public sector in social housing. This will give us a lever and control to be able to go flat out on this and build as many homes as we can as quickly as possible. We must also recognise, in truth, that one of the real constraints and problems is the availability of the construction sector to build houses and, at the same time, build the transport system and water, health and education infrastructure, carry out retrofitting and meet the other needs we have. We have huge demand and we will spend a lot of money on capital investment. Having workers with training and skills is one of the key issues.

We will also need agencies such as the Land Development Agency, and I understand the Land Development Agency Bill 2021 is on Committee Stage. This will mean the State will build not just social housing in the traditional model but new housing that is affordable for purchase and affordable cost rental housing. That will be key to the role of the Land Development Agency. The role of other Departments will be to provide State lands to allow the Land Development Agency to provide the cost rental solutions that give security of tenure at affordable rents and will build up the apartment as a home concept.

There is also a role for the private sector. The ESRI's housing needs demand study does not have set targets but makes an indicative case, similar to what the Central Bank has set out, that we need 33,000 houses a year, with one third social housing, one third rental and one third for purchase. The Government may have slightly different figures. We need solutions in these areas also.

The financing in this regard was put in place to help the building sector provide some of those houses for purchase and or rent. Another part of the problem we have, as well as the shortage of building workers, is that we do not have a financing system that is fit for purpose. We are down to two main banks and the legacy of the housing crash is that our basic funding mechanisms for development and construction are not working. The market is not working. We need that type of intervention, among many other initiatives, to get the balanced range of solutions we need. If we present it as though there is one easy fit if only there was political will to do it, that would not be honest and neither would it be accurate in terms of what the problem is. The problem is multifaceted and needs a range of solutions, including the ability of various agencies to make sure that we have the development finance to ensure that a range of different properties are built.

It is revealing that the Minister did not at any stage say that it is wrong for taxpayers' money to be given to large developers who do not need it to build houses and apartments that will be sold to large institutional investors who will charge working families rip-off rents. That is either right or wrong. I would like to hear the Minister's response in respect of it.

The Poolbeg strategic development zone is in the Minister's constituency. This is another example of the failed Government housing policy. Thousands of homes are going to be developed in this area for the high-end high-priced build-to-rent sector. We now have a situation where, because of the Government's failure last week to include apartments in the planning and tax changes, the 550 affordable homes guaranteed in that strategic development zone are in jeopardy. Can the Minister tell us whether he believes it is wrong for taxpayer's money to go to big developers to build developments that will be sold to institutional investors to be rented at sky-high rents? What is he going to do, particularly with respect to including apartments in the measures on planning and tax announced last week, to ensure that the 550 affordable homes that are supposed to be delivered for voters in his constituency will actually be delivered and will not go to large institutional investors, thereby ensuring that people will have to continue to pay rip-off rents?

In the Poolbeg development, I have no sense that those affordable housing units will not become available. I am not happy with the mechanism used in the context of the development of that project to date. I would have much preferred it if we had got direct State build and access to the land but that is not the legacy that we inherited. We will manage matters, however, and make sure that we provide we provide social and affordable housing units on that site and others.

This evening, our councillors will be working - Sinn Féin has been involved with a similar issue in Donabate - in the context of the sort of solutions that we are presenting within government to give power to local authorities in order that they will retain a certain percentage of homes and that homes cannot all be sold off to institutional funds. This is because we want a mix. To go back to my key argument, we need a mix of different solutions. This evening, our councillors will be taking that approach in order to deliver real solutions on the ground.

The provision of finance, be it by the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund or the other financing agencies, is not a cash injection from or a payment by the Exchequer. We are setting up financing mechanisms that allow us have a range of different solutions. We need financing. Our financing system is not working. We need a variety of different operators including, where there are gaps in the market, the State intervening to make sure that we have finance.

No sooner did we get some light at the end of the tunnel in respect of Covid than the B1617 variant appeared on our shores. My home is close to Limerick city. The number of Covid-19 cases in Limerick has increased, with 272 new cases diagnosed in the past week. We do not know how many of those cases involve this variant. Up to Friday last, 73 cases of the B1617.2, commonly known as the Indian variant, had been detected in Ireland. This is just a snapshot of the situation over the past number of weeks because it takes time to sequence the variant but there has been a huge spread of this variant in the UK. I want to question the Minister as regards what the Government is doing to deal with this in the context of our vaccine roll-out. The variant is obviously spreading.

The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, has said that it is genuinely concerned about the number of cases involving the variant.

People are worried about this variant. A concern has been raised with me by many people over the past week or two, in particular those who are due to get their second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, namely, those in the 60 to 70 age cohort. I am sure this has been raised with the Minister and has come up in government.

The latest UK research data for the variant shows that two doses of AstraZeneca provide just under 60% protection, and the figure for the Pfizer vaccine is 87.9%. What is really worrying is that the first dose of AstraZeneca only provides 30% protection according to a very credible UK study. Those who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine must wait at least 12 weeks to get their second dose.

I and my colleague, Deputy Brendan Howlin, have raised this issue with the Minister for Health several times. It is a cause of serious concern to an age group that could be the next most vulnerable, namely, those aged between 60 and 70. This means that of all the cohorts vaccinated, those in the 60 to 70-year-old bracket will have the lowest level of protection, the longest waiting time for a follow-up dose and will be at the greatest risk of ending up in hospital. In order to tackle this concern, across the sea the UK has dropped the time limit from 12 to eight weeks for the second dose of AstraZeneca. This issue is of genuine concern to those aged between 60 and 70 who are constantly raising this issue with all politicians.

Will the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, re-examine the vaccination strategy for people aged 60 and above? Will we follow what has happened in Britain and shorten the waiting time for the second dose? Will we do what has been suggested by some in the medical profession, that is, offer a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine for those aged between 60 and 70 in order to boost their protection against this variant, given that the evidence shows they will have greater protection much more quickly than what is currently proposed, which is a wait of between 12 and 16 weeks?

We have to be constantly vigilant and concerned about what is happening with Covid-19, including local incidence rates. Deputy Kelly cited Limerick as one example. We have to continue to monitor the situation. The reality is that the figures over the past two months have been relatively stable. We would like to see them lower but by any international comparison, we have one of the lowest levels of transmission.

There is a whole variety of variants. The B1617 variant is of particular concern. As of 24 May, there were 128 cases of the variant of concern confirmed in Ireland, 89 cases of B1617.2 and 39 cases of B1617.1. Critical to that is the ongoing high incidence of genomic testing to enable us to find out where there are clusters. One of the reasons the UK may have identified high incidence rates in certain areas is because, in fairness to it, it is doing a very high level of genomic testing, at a rate much higher than most other countries.

We cannot assume that when there is not a higher level of testing that cases are not present in other countries. As we know, a variety of variants are continuing to evolve. Variance is an ongoing risk of the Covid pandemic. The Public Health England study gives some reassurance about protection, in particular, as the Deputy said, after two doses. In terms of percentages, I understand the key figure we need to consider is the level of hospitalisation, while not underestimating the fact that some who are not symptomatic do not have to go to hospital. That is the key measure we have to protect against.

I understand the Deputy's suggestion is that we again alter the vaccine roll-out programme for those aged in their 60s. We will have to defer to public health advice and the vaccine roll-out group in terms of how we do that. I will be honest and say that I would be slightly concerned that we minimise the level of change unless there is a very clear public health argument in favour of it. The vaccination programme is working. We are seeing an incredible show of strength by the HSE in the way it set up vaccination centres and in the GPs have rolled in on the process. That will widen out to pharmacists and others.

One of the real difficulties they have had is constant changes in the roll-out programme. This makes it difficult for them, especially with regard to the AstraZeneca vaccine, because we know that has been the most variable in terms of delivery. Saying anything with certainty on AstraZeneca at the moment might give false hope, because we have not had a clear, absolutely certain delivery timetable for it at any stage over the past six months. I will present the argument to the relevant experts but cannot commit to taking up the Deputy's advice.

I am the most pro-vaccine person the Minister will ever meet. I have a track record to show that. The HSE has done an incredible job under very difficult circumstances, many of them outside its control. However, the real issue I am raising is based on the UK study and the sequencing that has been done. The UK has much more data than us, as the Minister rightly said. Those in that age bracket, based on the analysis that has come from our closest neighbour, will in a few months' time have the lowest level of protection, even though it is a quite vulnerable age group. Members of this group wait the longest for a follow-up dose and, according to the analysis, will have the greatest risk of ending up in hospital.

I am asking the Minister to put this forward to NIAC and ask that it be considered as something that we need to give confidence to, for that age cohort in particular. I have been extremely surprised by the number of people who have come to me to outline this argument, and it is growing. At least if the Minister puts it to NIAC, and it comes back and gives reassurance, that issue will be dealt with. I would appreciate it if the Minister would do so.

I will happily put that to NIAC as the Deputy suggests. One cause of comfort, although maybe it is the wrong word, is to look at what is actually happening. My understanding on what has been reported in Limerick is that there has been a spike locally. The numbers are not huge and, while we still have to keep an eye on every such spike, it has not been in that older age category in Limerick. It has been in the younger age category, so we have to look and see.

Regarding the UK and potential importation, the advice remains the same for the immediate future on no non-essential travel. There is strong advice against it from any location at the present time. There will be statements later on the whole issue of international travel. Again, one issue we have to take account of in any projected timeline for the return of international travel, is it would likely be over three months since most of that age category would have been vaccinated. In that sort of time period, it is likely that the vast majority of the cohort concerned, because there is a concern with older age cohorts, will be in the category of getting 80% to 90%-plus coverage, which the public science seems to indicate. That gives us some protection, but we have to remain vigilant at all times.

Today is the third anniversary of the historic vote to repeal the eighth amendment. That huge pro-woman, pro-civil rights vote was a vote for choice and an end to hypocritical Irish solutions to Irish problems. There are many outstanding issues with the subsequent legislation, including the fact that only one in ten GPs and only half the maternity hospitals are providing for abortion while at least one pregnant person a day is still being forced to travel.

However, the key outstanding issue is who will own the new national maternity hospital and whether it will provide full abortion services. Some €500 million of taxpayers' money is being spent on our new national maternity hospital. The hospital should be 100% State-owned and abortion services should be provided there in full. However, the 2020 annual general meeting, AGM, of the current National Maternity Hospital was informed by its legal team that something very different was on the table. What was being looked at was for the State to gift the hospital to the St. Vincent's Healthcare Group and then to lease it for 99 years, and, along with the National Maternity Hospital medical team, the St. Vincent's Healthcare Group medical team would be granted a licence to work at the hospital.

The St. Vincent's Healthcare Group is the late successor organisation of the nuns of the Religious Sisters of Charity. They are obliged to uphold the values and vision of the founder of the Sisters of Charity, Mary Aikenhead, in other words to uphold Roman Catholic doctrine.

The former master of the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, Dr. Peter Boylan, put it very well in 2017. He said:

To believe that the new National Maternity Hospital will be the only hospital in the world owned by a Catholic congregation to permit sterilisation, IVF, abortion, gender reassignment surgery, and any other procedures prohibited by the Church is naive and delusional ... That approximately €300 million of public money will be spent on such a project is a scandal.

His words require only two updates. The €300 million should now read €500 million, and the same points would apply to the lay successor organisation.

In 2012, Savita Halappanavar died a preventable death in a church-run hospital and in 2018 the people voted for decisive change. The fact that the Government of which the Minister is a part has not ruled out an arrangement for our new national maternity hospital that involves less than 100% State ownership, with medical procedures 100% decided by the State's representatives, is indeed a scandal. I have two questions for the Minister. First, will he take this opportunity to guarantee to the House that the new national maternity hospital will be 100% State-owned? Second, will he also guarantee that abortion services will be fully available to women at the new national maternity hospital?

The Deputy is right to frame this question in the context of the vote three years ago to repeal the eighth amendment. The people are sovereign in our constitutional Republic and what we have to do now, as set out in the legislation following that vote, is to conduct a three-year review of how the new services are working, to heed what the World Health Organization and the National Women's Council of Ireland are saying about gaps in the service that may become apparent, and to adjust accordingly. Included within that will absolutely be a guarantee that the new national maternity hospital will be 100% in public ownership. It will be operated by two separate voluntary hospitals, which will provide health services without religious, ethnic or other distinction or ethos, in accordance with its operating licence. That framework will also ensure that the new national maternity hospital will have clinical, operational, financial and budgetary independence in the provision of maternity, gynaecology and neonatal services. The answer to both the Deputy's questions is "Yes" because this issue goes back to the fundamental decision made by the Irish people in that repeal vote three years ago. The decision is also in line with the legislation and what has been committed to in the programme for Government.

It is important that we build this hospital, which was originally proposed back in 2013. We are not yet even at the planning or tendering stage and as we know, projects in this country - particularly building projects - take significant time. We also have a duty to the parents, the mothers and their partners, to have the very best services. We need to proceed but will only do so on the basis of the hospital not having any clinical, operational or other leads other than the State. That is reflective of what was set out in the Irish Constitution following the repeal vote, which is that such services will be available to all our women, including in our new national maternity hospital.

What the Minister has just said is different from what has been said by representatives of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. To date, they have failed to give an absolute guarantee that this hospital will be 100% owned by the State and that abortion services will be fully and freely available to women there. The Minister is at odds with what his Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael colleagues are saying. I suspect foot-dragging here on the part of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Both parties have a long, sorry and shameful tradition of failing to fight unhesitatingly for the civil rights of women on these issues and of pulling their punches when it comes to dealing with the Roman Catholic Church. Decisions are due on this project in the next few weeks. Will the Minister give a guarantee to the House that, if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael come one iota short of full 100% State ownership of the hospital and full provision of abortion services to Irish women in it, the Green Party will make it an issue and would be prepared to break with the Government, if it does not do the right thing on this key church-State issue?

I do not have a sense that the Taoiseach, and the head of Fianna Fáil, takes such a different position. In fact, going back to the repeal vote, he took a position at that time that was probably difficult within his party. He and the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, have taken similar positions in anything I have heard. It is similar with Fine Gael. I have never heard the previous Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, or the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, say anything different regarding the approach on this issue, the status of the national maternity hospital or the absolute commitment across Government to ensuring that it is fully independent in all its operations. I do not expect there will be any difference on that. It does not divide this House and it does not divide Government. It is a matter of getting on and delivering the hospital, while giving absolute guarantees of its full independence, particularly in all clinical matters with which it has to deal and medical procedures it has to undertake. I see no divide or difference in the Government in that regard.

The fourth question comes from the Regional Group. I call Deputy Grealish.

I was elected to Galway County Council in June 1999. One of the first items on the agenda at my first meeting was the proposed Galway city outer bypass. The initial plan for the bypass was published in October 1999, with a projected cost of £103.8 million or approximately €130 million. The intended route of the bypass would have entailed the demolition of eight houses. The following years saw major legal challenges in respect of the project. Despite An Bord Pleanála part-approving the project, the matter ended up going to the European Court of Justice. After that court’s ruling in April 2013, it was officially abandoned. The projected cost when the project was finally abandoned was approximately €444 million, which was nearly three and a half times the original estimate.

In late 2013, the consultant firm Arup was appointed to design what is now called the N6 Galway city ring road. In 2015, the emerging preferred route was published. It consists of 12 km of dual carriageway, 6 km of single carriageway, a bridge over the River Corrib, a viaduct and two tunnels, one of which will run under part of Galway racecourse. The impact of this new proposed road on families, businesses and farmers will be significantly greater than would have been the case with the original route. It will involve the demolition of 44 family homes, with ten more to be acquired. Several industrial and commercial properties are also to be acquired or demolished. More than 320 non-agricultural properties will be subject to partial land acquisitions, including parts of gardens and driveways, but mostly roadside strips outside boundary walls. Overall, 219 hectares of farmland from 195 land parcels will be acquired.

The proposed cost of this project has increased to approximately €650 million. I firmly believe that the cost of this project, if it gets the go-ahead, will be in excess of €1 billion. More than €35 million has been spent on this project since 1999, €14.7 million on the initial Galway city outer bypass and approximately €20 million on the current project. As already stated, Arup was appointed in 2013. The current proposal emerged in 2015 and was submitted to An Bord Pleanála in October 2018, almost three years ago. The oral hearing in respect of this road project took place in 2020 and the decision on it was deferred from April to 25 June. However, this date is not written in stone. We are 22 years into this project, with millions spent and still no road. Is the Government 100% committed to providing the funding for this project if it gets the go-ahead from An Bord Pleanála?

Deputy Grealish has a good, clear understanding of the history of transport in Galway. I remember that an engineer looked at the city in the late 1990s and stated that there would be a real problem there unless we changed our ways, because the emphasis on building road networks and roundabouts was going to cause gridlock. That is what that person argued at the time, and it subsequently turned out to be true. Galway city's transport system is not working. I would argue that it is the city in this country which is the least functional in transport terms. It needs radical change and a range of different solutions.

The Deputy is also correct with regard to looking at the history of this situation and, returning to earlier discussions, how long it takes for us to build anything.

The Galway road to which the Deputy referred is as good an example as any.

We must await the publication of the findings from the An Bord Pleanála hearing. My understanding is that the board may issue its decision towards the end of June. It could be later, in the order of these things. We will have to await that decision. Even then, as with any large transport project, there will be a series of further decision points before it actually gets the go-ahead. It is still necessary to go through the Government public procurement process for assessing projects. That includes a business case being presented and a tendering stage when the actual cost is determined.

I agree with the Deputy that the actual final cost of the project is likely to be much higher than anything that has been speculated to date. Looking at the cost of other road projects that are being commissioned at this time, the costs tend to be significantly higher than what was originally estimated. Transport Infrastructure Ireland is trying to avoid that eventuality by setting pricing estimates that take into account all eventualities. However, we are still likely to see a higher cost in this area.

The issue of the householders on the proposed route is a critical one. The Deputy has spoken to me on several different occasions in respect of the difficult situation in which they find themselves. He is right. They are unable to sell their houses and do not know what is happening. I am afraid they will have to await the publication of the findings of the An Bord Pleanála hearing. An Bord Pleanála might set conditions that change the route or aspects of the project, which might change their circumstances. Those people have been caught up in this process for a long time. The decision cannot come quickly enough for them.

I have agreed with Government colleagues that we must look at a whole range of different transport projects in Galway and not just focus on one project, as if one project alone can solve the problems. Huge investment in active travel is needed immediately in Galway to address the problems that exist in the city. BusConnects for Galway needs to be built out. That work has started. The development of the routes through sensitive areas, such as across the Salmon Weir Bridge and Eyre Square, is now in progress. It is vital that these projects proceed. No matter what we do on the road, we are going to need that infrastructure. The rail line from Athenry to Ceannt Station will need to be upgraded. The Deputy will have heard me speak about the benefit that development will bring, not just for Athenry but for Oranmore, Ardrahan and new areas in the city which need to be developed. The road project can only be considered in that wider context. That is how it was included in the Galway metropolitan strategy. That is what I follow as our guide in terms of any future Government decisions that are made.

As I stated, 54 homeowners are about to lose their homes and many more landowners and farmers are directly affected by this project. The homeowners find themselves stuck in limbo, whereby they cannot sell their houses or downsize because nobody will buy them. They cannot build new houses because technically, they still have a home. They do not want to spend any significant money renovating or refurbishing because they do not know how much longer they will be living there. They could be stuck in this limbo for years, just as the eight homeowners on the original route were before the project was finally abandoned, 14 years after it was originally proposed.

These homeowners deserve certainty and clarity. Will the Government come up with a plan to buy these houses without delay if An Bord Pleanála gives the project the go-ahead and regardless of any legal or judicial challenges that might be taken, which could last several years? I ask the Minister to give some hope to these homeowners if An Bord Pleanála does grant permission for this project. I urge him not to leave these homeowners hanging for years as the process is ongoing.

I understand that Galway County Council has already set up and advanced the negotiation strategy for the road project. All affected householders are invited to participate. Subject to the decision for approval, I encourage Galway County Council - and we will do everything we can in this regard - to assist those householders who have been affected.

I wish to make one final point. Going back to my earlier statements, I do not wish to be critical of Galway. However, we must think about the special beauty of the city. I recall attending a conference in the National University of Ireland Galway in recent years, at which we looked at the planning and transport systems in Galway. Someone made the point that if only we could go back to that period in 1999, we could build more of Galway in Galway. In other words, the city has unique characteristics. It is located beside its own bay, with good urban features and streets that are attractive to walk on. We need to build more of those features in Galway. We need to develop features that make Galway a spectacular place to live. Galway could be a 15-minute city in which all services are within walking and cycling distance.

Those 54 householders deserve that, and they have to get out of their difficult circumstances. However, every household in Galway deserves us looking at how we can create a planning framework that makes Galway special and, included in that, solves the transport problems that beset the city.