Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

In response to the shameful practice of institutional investors, or cuckoo funds, buying up family homes in bulk and pushing ordinary home buyers out of the market, the Government chose to introduce an inadequate increase in stamp duty in respect of houses. Not alone did the Government fail to tackle the issue in relation to houses, it decided to take no action whatsoever on apartments. It is important for us to remember that half of all homes built in Dublin last year were apartments. Six out of seven homes in Dublin city are apartments. The vast majority of these homes are being snapped up by funds, which do not pay even a single cent of tax on rental income. In fact, last year, one of them made €75 million in rental income and paid no tax on it whatsoever. The Government has taken no action on this. It is little wonder the funds' share price increased following the Government's announcement last month. Clearly, the Government's message to those who want to buy a home that is affordable is, "Sorry, not on our watch", because it is actively facilitating a free-for-all for these institutional funds.

It was not just Sinn Féin that called this out and stated the Government's measures were inadequate. Others did likewise, not least senior officials within the Department of Finance. Through freedom of information, we can now clearly see that, in early May, the Government was warned that no extra stamp duty on bulk purchases of apartments means individual purchasers are potentially driven out of the market due to the lack of availability. That is what the Government was told by its own officials, yet it ignored their advice and proceeded with a policy it knows will not address the issue in respect of apartments.

Let me spell it out for the Tánaiste. Apartments are homes just like houses. People want to live in these homes in our cities. They should not be forced to fork out unaffordable rents in perpetuity to do so. The policy choice the Tánaiste and his Government made says to workers and families that this Government is not on their side, but on the side of the funds, developers and banks. That is the reality. Yesterday, we saw other evidence of this, when it was reported that 398 homes across three locations in this city, Santry, Finglas and Clongriffin, were snapped up by these funds. Not one of these homes will come on to the market for first-time buyers and not one of the funds has to pay the increased stamp duty.

Why did the Minister for Finance ignore the warnings from his own Department officials that the decision taken on apartments would continue to see first-time buyers blocked and locked out of the market? Will the Government, once and for all, end the sweetheart tax deals that these funds enjoy? We need to stop these funds snapping up homes, apartments and houses that should, and must, go to ordinary workers and families. Further to this, just a couple of weeks ago, the Dáil was emphatically told by the Taoiseach that the message that should "go out loud and clear" was that "No local authority should be on the other side of this, engaging in a long lease with these institutional investors". However, we learned just this morning that the Minister for Finance intends to do exactly the opposite. He intends to exempt these funds from paying the higher stamp duty if they lease these houses back to the local authorities. How the hell can this stand? How can this be facilitated, given the Taoiseach's comments in the Dáil just a couple of weeks ago?

It is important, once again, to be aware of the facts. We know from the most recent statistics produced that approximately 10% of new homes in Ireland were bought by investment funds. Some 20% were bought by the State, through local authorities and affordable housing bodies. I have said previously we also need to take into account that first-time buyers, and people who want to upgrade or downsize, are sometimes not just competing with investment funds but with the State. In fact, they are more likely to be competing with the State than with investment funds. We need to bear that in mind. The figure is 10% for the year gone by but it will be less this year and in future years because of the action we took, which was to impose a very high stamp duty rate on any fund that buys more than ten houses anywhere in Ireland in a given year. They cannot buy ten in every estate; it is ten anywhere in Ireland in any one year. We believe that will significantly reduce, or eliminate, the practice of investment funds buying up new houses.

As we explained at the time, we took a decision not to apply that to apartments, having taken advice widely and having heard, in particular, from builders who build apartments, who very clearly said to us that if we did this we would see reduced supply. Builders are simply not in a position to build apartments if they do not have the assurance of a forward buyer. They cannot get the finance to build in those circumstances. As we said at the time, this is something we will keep under review. If we have to alter that policy, we are open to doing so, but we do not want to do anything that is counterproductive and only results in fewer apartments being built. If fewer apartments are built, that means less places for people to rent and, therefore, rents go up for everyone else. That is something we obviously want to avoid.

By the way, I totally agree with the Deputy's earlier statement. I agree that apartments are homes too. I have lived in an apartment for 14 years. I know that apartments are homes too. It might be the case that around the world, including Ireland, the vast majority of people in apartments are renting but there are those of us who are owner-occupiers as well. I happen to be one of them. It is why I was surprised to hear Senator Lynn Boylan, on two occasions, refer to people who live in apartments as "transients". Those of us who live in apartments are not transients. Senator Boylan should not have said that. Perhaps she did not mean it, but she should withdraw it. I am pretty sure that if anyone in Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael referred to apartment livers as "transients", we would be attacked and savaged online. Senator Boylan is a Sinn Féin representative and she got away with it. I hope the Deputy does not stand over that remark and will address it in his reply.

As a Government, we are trying to help. We are in a housing crisis but we are trying to help renters. The Deputy knows the decision we took in the last few days, which was a necessary change of policy, to link rents to the consumer price index and inflation. This is so people who are now renting will not see their rent increase by any more than the rate of inflation, probably 1% or 2%, or maybe even less in the coming years. We will leave that in place until rents fall and become more affordable again.

We are helping home buyers as well, particularly through the help-to-buy scheme. Tens of thousands of people have been helped to get their deposit through the help-to-buy scheme, something the Deputy's party has consistently opposed.

The Tánaiste needs to get real. He lives in this city and he should understand what is happening. Six of seven homes in this city are apartments, 95% of which have been bought up by institutional funds. They are able to do that because the Tánaiste, when Taoiseach, along with the then Government, introduced sweetheart deals that allow the sky high rents of €2,500 per month, which they are charging ordinary, hard-pressed families, to go tax-free. That is why they are able to do it. The Government has now exempted them from the higher level of stamp duty despite the most senior official in the Department charged with drafting this legislation saying it could potentially drive individual purchasers out of the market due to the lack of availability. This is eyes wide open stuff. The Tánaiste and his party are deliberately locking out individuals from home ownership in relation to apartments. The opportunity the Tánaiste had will not be available to people in Dublin at this point in time because the investors are snapping them up.

I will give another example. There are three sites across Dublin on which there will be 400 homes, not one of which will come on the market. We will see more of this. To make things worse-----

The Deputy is over time.

-----the Government proposes to bring in an exemption that will allow these funds to snap up houses and to rent them back to local authorities-----

The Tánaiste to reply, please.

-----which the Taoiseach, rightly, says, is terrible value for money and should not be happening.

Thank you Deputy. The Tánaiste to reply.

I ask the Tánaiste to square this for me.

No, Deputy. You are out of time.

Otherwise, the only reason I have is that the Government is in the pockets of the investment funds and it will continue to put their interests above the interests of homeowners.

The Deputy continues to go over time.

I apologise to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle that she had to endure that display, ring her bell and be shouted over and shouted down by Deputy Doherty again.

Deputy Doherty said that I need to get real. He needs to calm down. The constant display every Thursday of aggression, nastiness, fury and anger is all preplanned and done for his social media video he will put out in a few minutes or an hour's time. Everyone knows that. Let us have a rational grown up conversation about housing policy and about what are the right and the wrong things to do. As a Government, we have displayed on a number of occasions that we have been willing to change our policy where we think it needs to be changed. That is why we changed the law in relation to stamp duty to stop investment funds buying up houses and housing estates in the way they were doing so. It is why we are now changing the law to bring rent controls so that people living in rent pressure zones will see their rent increases linked to the consumer price index, CPI. Let us have a grown up conversation about policy. Let us talk about the pros and cons.

Thank you Tánaiste.

Let us not have this display of histrionics and anxiety every Thursday.

Tánaiste you are over time.

It is just done for social media; you do not really care.

I do not need an apology. It is the rough and tumble of politics. I ask all Deputies to co-operate. I call Deputy Alan Kelly.

On the decision made by Government this week in regard to the Covid restrictions and where we are going, the manner in which it happened was embarrassing. I know what it is like to be in government. I have been on both sides of the fence in this House. I know issues arise, but on behalf of the Irish people what happened was embarrassing. It was chaos and it was unacceptable. Ministers at Cabinet either did not understand what was in front of them or they were misled. It was one or the other. They are saying quite forcefully that they did not know that the modelling put in front of them by NPHET did not include the new national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, advice in regard to two vaccine types. That is a fact. I will not have an argy-bargy on it because I do not have time, but it is embarrassing. It should not happen. We need a level of competency from the Government that will deliver for the people.

The decision was made based on data from 23 June. It did not include the following figures. We know about Pfizer and Moderna and how many vaccines are due over the next quarter. In the case of Pfizer, it is 2.3 million and for Modern, it is 850,000. The modelling did not include the expected approximately 900,000 single dose Janssen vaccines and approximately 2 million AstraZeneca vaccines which can inoculate 1 million people. Therefore, an additional 1.9 million people could be inoculated. As we know, there have been changes in regard to the AstraZeneca as regards the four weeks. We all know we are in a race of variant versus vaccines. The Government often asks Members of the Opposition what they would do. For a change, I will offer what I would do.

First, from Monday next, I would roll out the Janssen vaccine to all 18 to 29 year olds who will take it. There would be queues out the door for it. A pharmacist we both know has had 60 Janssen vaccines for two weeks. Only ten of those 60 vaccines have been administered. I would ask NIAC to endorse the study about mRNA vaccines providing five times more protection for the over 60s who have been already administered the AstraZeneca vaccine and who are most vulnerable. I would gather two weeks data from the UK and ensure that we have explored all avenues in relation to the reopening of the hospitality industry so that they can protect people - rushing out ventilation systems. Finally, I would use the next two weeks to ensure that the travel certificate launched today, which Ireland is the only country in Europe not to have proceeded with yet, is used in some way or mirrored in relation to the hospitality industry. In doing all of that, the Government should remodel all of the data so that we get a true picture of where we are going for the Irish people.

The modelling presented by NPHET to the Cabinet on Tuesday did not take account of the changes that NIAC has now permitted in relation to vaccines, nor could it have. We still do not know for sure what the changes that NIAC is now permitting will do in terms of the vaccination programme. We knew that the vaccination programme would slow down in July because we could not use the AstraZeneca and Janssen vaccines on young people. We now know that we can do that, but we do not yet know how much it will allow us to speed up the vaccination programme in July, or when. That work is being done today. There are still some uncertainties. There is uncertainty around the supply of AstraZeneca and uncertainty, for example, as to what uptake will be if we change to a different model such as a walk-in type model. All of those things have to be worked out. It is only when they are worked out that the data can be input into the modelling. The Deputy will understand why that is.

In terms of the ideas put forward by the Deputy, the Government is considering a proposal regarding use of the Janssen vaccine. We do have some surplus stocks. We may get more, but we do not know that for sure. We are certainly considering the possibility of opening that up to be people under 50, who could go to the 750 community pharmacists providing this service and avail of that vaccine. What the Deputy said was very prescient. He said that if we announce this, there will be queues outside the pharmacies. There might be, but will there be the stocks? That is the type of work the HSE has to do: talk with pharmacists, ask them whether they can do this, what level of stock they would need, and whether we have them. In fairness, this decision from NIAC was only made on Monday. Today, is only Thursday. In fairness, to the HSE it will take a couple of days to operationalise this and to work out what the implications are. I want to extend my thanks and respect to the HSE as there have been so many changes to the vaccine programme. Where we are is, perhaps, where we should have been at the start. All of the vaccines work and they can be used on all age groups. Two doses of AstraZeneca is as good as two doses of Pfizer as makes no difference. In all case there are size effects and in all cases the benefits outweigh the risks. We are now in that place. Perhaps, if we had been there from the start we would have got more done more quickly.

On the digital Covid cert, again, what the Deputy suggested is exactly what we are doing. We are working out whether we can use the digital Covid cert to apply it domestically. We do expect that within the next three weeks hundreds of thousands of people will receive their digital Covid cert, electronically or by post. We are working out now whether we can use that domestically. It was only ever intended for international travel. Border check control staff checking these passes is a very different thing to staff in the local pub or restaurant doing it. That needs to be worked out.

In terms of remodelling the data, that is exactly what we are going to do. We will remodel the models. That will be done in advance of 19 July as I said yesterday on "Morning Ireland" and it will take into account two things: the experience from Britain, Scotland and England in particular, and how bad the Delta variant really is. We will have a better idea in two or three weeks and we will certainly know what changes to the vaccination programme will mean. We can then make decisions again.

I thank the Tánaiste for being so frank with me.

I am delighted the Tánaiste is taking on board basically everything I have said. I appreciate that but I would ask him to do one more thing. It relates to young people. The Tánaiste will know that there was an Economic and Social Research Institution, ESRI, report showing that the impact of this on young people over the last couple of years has been disproportionate. Economically, they are poorer than any younger generation for decades. Whatever we proceed with, we are all in this together. We cannot leave one group behind. We cannot say that the unvaccinated have to serve the vaccinated. Will the Tánaiste please give a commitment in that regard? I believe in the use of antigen testing. I was the first person to raise the matter here last October. Regardless of the mix of measures taken, which may potentially involve testing, I ask that the Tánaiste ensures that whatever certificate is to be used includes everybody, no matter their age, so that we can continue bringing everyone along together rather than discriminating against young people. Will the Tánaiste give us that commitment this morning?

The pandemic is unfair, as are viruses and, sometimes, science. Older people have borne the brunt of the pandemic by quite a distance with regard to illness, hospitalisation and deaths. Younger people have borne the brunt economically with regard to the impact on their incomes and on their freedoms. At the start of this pandemic, we told older people that they were the most vulnerable and asked them to please cocoon, to stay inside and not to go out. They did that. It was unfair but it was the right thing to do. We are now telling people who are not vaccinated, who are mostly, although not only, younger people, that they are now the most vulnerable and we are asking them to avoid socialising and congregating indoors for the next couple of weeks until we get them vaccinated. That is what we are saying. We are doing it for a good reason, backed by public health advice and science.

We are not at all.

With regard to the digital Covid certificate, we will give consideration to the testing option for the exact reasons the Deputy has mentioned. However, in giving that consideration, we also need to be honest with people. Nobody will ever say that any test, whether a PCR test or an antigen test, is as good as vaccination or immunity from exposure. We could do that in order to address the unfairness and inequality issues the Deputy has raised but it would make things less safe. We need to be honest about that.

Cork Airport is due to close for ten weeks for essential runway repairs between 12 September and 22 November. Having kept workers on the payroll throughout 16 months of the pandemic, Aer Lingus has announced plans to temporarily lay off 200 workers for the duration of the repair work. Other airport employers may take similar actions. The workers are opposed to this plan. They want to be kept on the company books and I support them in this aim. This issue is already prominent in Cork. If left unresolved for much longer, it will become an issue of quite major significance and profile locally, including in the constituency of the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

Aer Lingus and other employers at the airport are in receipt of considerable State supports related to the pandemic. For example, Aer Lingus is in talks with the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, having secured €150 million in debt funding to date. According to last Sunday's Business Post, the airports at Cork, Dublin and Shannon are to receive a combined €20 million in funding before 19 July.

There is also the question of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. Last week, the CEO of Aer Lingus, Lynne Embleton, told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications that, at the time the lay-offs were announced, there had been no work in Cork Airport for a period and that this is what lay-offs and closures are there to accommodate. She also said that, at the time of the decision to announce the lay-offs, there was uncertainty around the EWSS, its continuation and what form any continuation would take. There is no uncertainty around the EWSS now. There is no uncertainty about its continuance or what form that continuance will take. The EWSS will continue until 31 December and will be in place for the entirety of the period for which Cork Airport is to be shut.

Does the Tánaiste believe it is appropriate for an employer which has been in receipt of the EWSS since its inception, in addition to other State supports, to take workers off the company books while continuing to be part of the scheme and continuing to negotiate for other supports? As a representative of the State that is providing these supports, is the Tánaiste prepared to voice support for these workers and to indicate support for their very modest and reasonable ask that they be kept on the company books while these repairs take place?

It is welcome that works are to be carried out on the runway of Cork Airport. This is a necessary investment in the airport. For obvious reasons, it is probably the right time to do it given that the level of air travel has reduced so much because of the pandemic. It is welcome that this work is taking place.

As the Deputy pointed out, the aviation sector has received a lot of financial support from the Government and the taxpayer. It is now running close to €500 million. This includes employment wage subsidies to the airlines, loans, wage subsidies for the airport, direct grants to all of the airports except Dublin Airport and funding for marketing supports. Anything that is happening with regard to Aer Lingus's employees in Cork Airport is an industrial relations matter and, therefore, principally a matter for the employer and its staff. It is a matter for the company and the unions and it is for them to engage.

I do not know enough about the dispute to comment on it definitively. That is why I need to be limited in what I say. However, if it is possible for Aer Lingus to keep those staff members on the payroll using the wage subsidy scheme, it would certainly make sense to do so. They might be on a reduced income but at least they would still be on the payroll and would still be connected to the company. It might not be that simple. The Deputy will now what happened with the base at Shannon, for example. When we discussed this with Aer Lingus and when it spoke publicly to others, the company made it very clear that it would have closed the base in any case, even if there had not been a pandemic. There were other reasons. It needed to restructure, reform and modernise the business. I do not know if that is a factor here or not. I encourage the employer to engage with the employees. I encourage Aer Lingus to talk to the union and see what can be worked out.

I want to say a word about Shannon. Today, 1 July, is when the official closure and associated redundancies kick in. Within Aer Lingus nationally, workers are facing the threat of a five-year pay freeze, pay cuts, cuts to starting rates, deep cuts to the sick pay scheme and to duty allowances, and so on. This is clearly a reason for workers not wanting to be taken off the books. The company cannot legally change the terms and conditions while they are off the books but it can use the fact that workers are off the books to strengthen its bargaining position and to try to push through changes of that kind. Workers in Cork Airport, not only Aer Lingus workers but all workers at the airport, find it incredible that Deputies Micheál Martin, Coveney and Michael McGrath, and the Tánaiste as a representative of the Government, are not prepared to go beyond a pious wish and apply pressure to the airport employers on this issue. This issue is not going to go away. If anything, it is going to grow louder as we move towards September.

All of us in this House appreciate that the aviation sector is facing a very difficult period. It was booming before the pandemic but that has fundamentally changed. The pandemic has led to a dramatic reduction in air travel. It may be a very long time before it recovers because this pandemic will affect parts of the world for years. That will have an impact on air travel. I also believe that the adoption of new technologies such as videoconferencing will mean that there will be much less business travel in the years ahead. Business travel is the most profitable area of air travel. This means that we may see fewer routes and fewer people travelling for quite some time.

There is also the impact of climate change, to which aviation contributes. I understand that it is the policy of Deputy Barry's party, or, if not his, one of the other far-left parties, to nationalise the airlines again and wind them down as part of the response to climate change. I am not sure the Deputy tells that to the workers in Shannon or Cork but that is the policy of some on the far left and some who describe themselves as eco-socialists.

On this issue, it is important that engagement happens between the company and the union.

The rising cost of insurance for all sectors is a major concern. While it is understood that the cost of premiums is related to the level of risk, there seems to be a sweeping view taken when calculating that risk. Practicalities determine there is seldom, if ever, an individual assessment of risk carried out, which results in some businesses being penalised for the failings of others.

The Alliance for Insurance Reform recently made a presentation to Department of Finance, which outlined that as many as 35 sectors are either struggling to get insurance or cannot obtain it at all. Those who have managed to get insurance cover have done so at a high cost and are left with a limited number of insurers who will engage with them. Those who fail to get a quote for insurance are left with no alternative but to cease their operations and abandon their plans. The denial of access to insurance cover is an immediate threat. We are in danger of losing thousands of small businesses and voluntary organisations, including adventure centres for children, caravan and camping parks, bike hire shops, equestrian sports, home care providers, festivals and events. For example, a popular, long-established attraction, Aqua Splash, Dromineer, County Tipperary, reopened in May when restrictions were eased. In exhaustive efforts to renew their insurance, it contacted numerous insurers in Ireland and the UK and not one would insure the business. Unfortunately, it is not alone in this dilemma. It appears anything to do with water sports or child play centres has become a taboo for insurance companies. This prevailing attitude impacts on a wide range of activities and services.

The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, has established an office for insurance competition to encourage greater competition in the insurance sector. It is up and running since last December. There appears to be little progress. We have no reports of insurers contacted or new deals done. There are no announcements of new underwriters setting up in Ireland to take advantage of reforms that have happened and are due to happen. There is no sign of the expected new entrants to the insurance market. Where are the specialists in underwriting areas such as child-oriented enterprises, hospitality and tourism, leisure and the creative and sports sectors? The number of sectors that cannot get cover gives an indication of the scale and urgency of the supply issue. The market will take time to respond to reforms. In the interim, the Government must intervene with a sense of urgency on behalf of the sectors I have identified.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of insurance costs for business in the Chamber again. I share his concerns about it, as Minister responsible for employment and enterprise. I assure the House that insurance reform is a priority for the Government. We established a Cabinet committee sub-group on insurance reform, which I chair. It met yesterday and is overseeing the implementation of the action plan for insurance. That is all about bringing down costs for consumers and businesses, introducing more competition to the market, preventing fraud and reducing the burden and cost on businesses and community and voluntary organisations. We will publish our six-monthly update report in the next week.

Significant progress has been made since we started implementing the action plan, for example, the introduction of new personal injury guidelines. The latest data from the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, indicate that payouts on claims made through that board have gone down 50% since the guidelines were introduced. We expect to see that reflected in the courts and in lower premiums, though not 50% lower, as the guidelines begin to take effect.

We have established an office to promote competition in the insurance market chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming. It talks to insurance companies and underwriters and asks them to look again at Ireland and to enter our insurance market. The Deputy will be aware that one large underwriter, Berkshire Hathaway, has expressed an interest in coming back into Ireland in relation to professional indemnity insurance, which is an important issue.

The Criminal Justice (Perjury and Related Offences) Bill has now been enacted and will help us to crack down on insurance fraud and exaggerated claims. That Act will be commenced in the next few weeks by the Minister. The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, is developing proposals to reform the Personal Injuries Assessment Board in order that more claims are settled there, thereby significantly reducing legal costs.

It may be particularly relevant to what the Deputy mentioned that the Department of Justice has recently completed its review of the Occupiers' Liability Act, including the issue of the duty of care and notices and waivers. That is there to increase protections for consumers, businesses, sporting clubs and community groups. The Minister of State is working on formal proposals that can be brought to Government for legislative change to rebalance the expectations in businesses versus those who use those businesses as to who gets injured and why.

Another issue that has been brought to my attention is ghost broking. This appears to be gaining prevalence and should be highlighted in this House. The Garda has in the past issued warnings to motorists about ghost broking, which is an insurance scam to which many people have fallen victim.

This scam sees motorists being charged for fake insurance policies which give them the impression they are fully covered when, in reality, no cover has been provided. The vast majority of fraudulent companies offering such policies are to be found online. They typically state they represent legitimate insurers. The policies they sell are obtained from insurance companies using false information and changed before being sold to customers. The obvious impact of this is that the purchaser does not hold a valid certificate of insurance and there is no cover in place. This leaves them liable for any damage caused or offence committed as a result of having no motor insurance. We should have a buyer beware campaign to educate the public and stamp out such activity.

I have heard of the practice of ghost brokering. It is illegal but it is often difficult to enforce the law against an Internet entity that may not be based in the State. I will take up the Deputy's suggestion of an information campaign to warn consumers about this scam so they might be able to avoid being ripped off in this way. I will speak to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission about that, or perhaps the Central Bank, whichever relevant body could run such a campaign.