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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 15 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 5

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Tá daoine ag cur síos ar an ngéarchéim tithíochta mar an tubaiste is mó inár n-am agus tá an ceart acu. Tá córas tithíochta tógtha ag Rialtas Fhine Gael agus Fhianna Fáil do na creach-chistí agus tá na gnáthdhaoine fágtha ar an leataobh. Tá iompar níos fearr tuillte ag daoine sa Phoblacht seo. Más Poblacht mar is ceart agus fíor í, ba chóir go dtiocfaí na daoine ar dtús.

Minister, from the people in the street to the highest office in the land your housing crisis has been called out for the disaster and social catastrophe that it is. The truth is being spoken in a powerful way. The cynical Government efforts to shut down and shut up those who stand up for the people are disgraceful. The housing crisis is a decade of shame for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. It has defined life in Ireland for far too long. It has been profoundly damaging to the aspirations of an entire generation. This generation is locked out of home ownership. People are robbed of the ability to put an affordable roof over their heads. The housing crisis is without doubt the great failure of successive Governments. It is a sad reality that a home - a basic necessity of life – has become such a pipe-dream for so many. This is not how things should be in a republic. The coalition came to office two years ago and promised it would fix housing. On the Minister’s watch however things have gone from bad to worse. People caught up in this crisis have had ringside seats as Government has recycled policies after policies that created the mess in the first place.

All the Government has to do is look at the facts. Rip-off rents continue to hit new record levels and the number of available properties has fallen to an all-time low. House prices have soared beyond the reach of ordinary workers and families. Homelessness has returned to pre-pandemic levels with more than 10,000 people in emergency accommodation. In the Ireland of 2022 children are growing up in hotels and B&Bs. This flies in the face of the shared values of the Irish people. It is the undeniable truth that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been the best voice in the class for the speculators. They have turned housing, which is a basic human right, into a cash cow for private interests chasing as much profit as they can get.

The policies of the Minister for Finance have always been about meeting the profit needs of the powerful developments, the landlords and the wealthy international investors and not the needs of ordinary families and workers. Look at how Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have just used big tax advantage to roll out the red carpet for the cuckoo funds to bulk buy family homes. Look at the litany of Government schemes that have lined the pockets of the speculators including the latest bonkers scheme where the Government gifts €450 million of taxpayers’ money to developers to build homes that ordinary families will never ever be able to afford. The charge being levelled at the Government is that it is a government of the top sticks. To underscore the Government’s failure this morning, the CSO published its figures which show house prices are out of control with property prices that have increased by 14.2% nationally in the past year.

Does the Minister now accept that the housing crisis is a disaster? Does he accept that the housing crisis is the great failure of his Government and successive Governments? Will he now finally change direction and build homes that ordinary people and workers can afford to live in?

This Government has always accepted that meeting the housing needs of our society is a critical challenge that we must rise to, not just for our society but for the families, households and tenants who are all affected by the challenge of not enough homes being available to buy and rents not being affordable. We accept this is a challenge to which we must rise and make progress on. It is not just our language that will make a difference, but our efforts. The efforts are showing clear signs of supplying improving. It is only with more homes being built that we have the ability over time to see rents change and to make progress on affordability. While I appreciate at all times the need for us to do more to get more homes built as quickly as we can, the figures in regard to supply are equally clear. There have been 22,000 homes completed in our country over the past 12 months and 35,000 homes commenced. For 2021, 43,000 have received planning permission. They are just overall macro figures regarding what is happening in our economy, that is homes being built, houses and apartments, which are all about providing the additional supply which will make a difference to our country being able to ensure that we are delivering the homes that are needed for our people at the price levels we know are affordable. We know we have to make more progress and do more. That is why we have Housing for All. I reject entirely the image and the tone that Deputy Doherty has suggested here to the House in regard to the intentions of this Government. This Government is about delivering more homes for more people at different prices to meet the many needs we know exist within our society and our economy.

Housing for All involves spending of up to €4 billion per year to deliver the homes we know are needed, and yes, the Government believes that private supply has a role to play in delivering homes that are available to purchase for those who can afford to purchase them. We also believe social, affordable and cost-rental homes are an equally necessary part of the solution that has to be delivered. The progress we are looking to make on that is clear to see in the thousands of homes that are now being built throughout the country for social and public use. I can see it across the city of Dublin. In Dominick Street and in O’Devaney Gardens I can see hundreds of homes now being delivered in that part of our capital city alone to respond to the housing needs that the Government knows are there. That is why we have in Housing for All a plan that is not just looking to deliver this number of homes this year but is looking to deliver nearly 29,000 for next year and 30,000 homes per year for the years after that. Yes, all of us in government accept the need to make more progress. We understand the anxiety, stress and difficulty that this is causing to households all over our country. The figures are there in the more homes that are being completed, the more planning permissions that are coming through and the more commencements that are now underway underpinned by this Government through local authorities all over the length and breadth of our country building thousands of homes for public and social use to respond to the need that the Government accepts is there.

The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has been a Minister for nine years now. Let me give him one fact. For every single year that he has been a Minister the crisis has got worse.

House prices continue to rise every single year including this week, as he serves in office. Rents have continued to soar beyond the reach of any ordinary people. People are being charged €2,500 to rent in this city. What has happened is disgraceful, it is a social catastrophe. Those in the highest office were right to call out this Government in regard to the catastrophe that is being met by ordinary people and families. Homelessness is now at record levels. It has increased year-on-year under the Minister's watch, nine years as a Minister. He is the best boy in the class, he has led the charge for this Government and successive Governments in rolling out the red carpets, providing the tax incentives for those institutional investors that pay no tax on their rent, no capital gains tax, and charge some of the highest costed rent in this city and elsewhere. After nine years surely to God - he could forget about listening to me, listen to ordinary people, particularly that generation that has no hope in his Government to sort this - and actually change track.

Invest properly in social and affordable housing and cost-rental housing and listen to those on the ground and those in the highest office of the State.

I meet those people-----

The Minister might listen to them.

-----in the constituency I have the privilege of representing in this House, in my clinics and in the many engagements I have with those who are dealing with this challenge the Government knows is so real.

The Government created it.

This Government is building social and affordable housing all over the country through the local authorities. That is a reality that is now being delivered. New homes are being built through Dublin City Council and other local authorities the length and breadth of the country to respond to the need that is there.

It is the case that Deputy Doherty wants far more being built but he is against every measure that will deliver the homes for the communities he is making the case for. For example, the Land Development Agency, an agency the Deputy opposed in this House, is the same agency that has now submitted planning applications for 2,358 social and affordable homes in the city. I am certain that when those planning applications come forward they will be the same planning applications Sinn Féin will oppose. We, of course, accept the level of need that is there. We know more needs to be done but we are seeing more homes being built.

Deflection, deflection and more deflection.

The Minister has been saying the same thing for years.

That is vital over time to bringing rents and prices down.

Prices, rents and homelessness numbers are going up. Shame on the Government.

Please, Deputy.

Every week I hear, as I know we all do, from constituents in my constituency in Dublin Bay South about the immense difficulties they face in finding a home and getting support with housing. I hear from renters who are looking at unaffordable rents - rents are as high as €4,000 per month for a house in my area - and renters who are facing eviction and cannot afford find another affordable home to rent. I hear from young couples and individuals who cannot afford, or even aspire to afford, to buy their own homes. This immense cost of housing is clearly contributing vastly to the cost-of-living crisis being faced across the country. Yet, at the weekend, the Minister for Finance warned that there are limits to what the Government will do to ease the cost-of-living crisis.

The pandemic has shown us that State intervention is the art of the possible and State investment and public intervention on housing and the cost-of-living crisis should now be a priority. It is very disappointing to see the lack of action in this regard from the Government. It is no wonder that President Michael D. Higgins has described the housing situation as a housing "disaster". It is no wonder the President is referring to failures in Government policy. It is deeply concerning in this context to see kite-flying from members of the Government about tax cuts being the priority, rather than the priority of spending on housing, childcare and public services such as schools and hospitals and on addressing what ICTU has rightly called the "social wage" measures.

Yesterday in the Seanad, we saw a disappointing indication from Government Senators who qualified their ambition for affordable public services with proposals on tax cuts. That is not what is needed. What we in the Labour Party have called for is a pay rise across public and private sectors to enable working families and individuals to see actual increases in their take-home pay and to see reductions in the costs they are facing in housing, childcare and health and proper Government investment in supports for people that will address the cost-of-living crisis and deliver housing to address the housing disaster we face.

Pay increases are needed for the public and private sectors. I welcome the public sector pay talks that are ongoing. Being conscious that under the current pay agreement, workers are due to receive a 1% pay increase in October, with inflation now standing at 8%, this amounts to an effective pay cut for hardworking people. I know that is understood and it is why the pay talks are under way. I urge the Minister and Government members to take a generous approach to these talks, resist the conservative instinct not to be ambitious and not to trust people to spend wisely and take up the challenge and opportunity to see real investment in social wage measures, in childcare to ensure an equal early start for every child and in education and healthcare to reduce the enormous costs that are coming out of people's pay packets every week.

I thank Deputy Bacik for raising those two matters. On the negotiations that are under way on public pay, it is precisely because the Government recognises and values so much the contribution that nurses, doctors, teachers and civil servants make to society and the economy that these public pay discussions are under way. We believe an agreement on the future of public pay for the country is a just and needed recognition of the efforts of those who play such an important role, particularly during the pandemic.

On the Deputy's point on taxation, the views of the Government, including in the programme for Government, are very clear. The Deputy made the point that if an increase in real pay happens, she wants that pay to feed through into take-home pay improving at the same rate. That is the view of the Government in relation to indexation. The point the Government is making is that if there is an increase in overall wages to respond to the great cost-of-living challenge we face, we simply want to ensure that as much as possible of that increase in overall wages feeds back into people's purses and wallets as opposed to being absorbed into unintentionally higher levels of taxation. That is what we are looking to do.

I would have thought there could be some common ground on this issue between the Deputy and me. If she is making the point that she wants to see real pay increase, what the Government is doing is putting forward, as recognised in the programme for Government, a personal taxation strategy that is looking to do the same - no more and no less. It is something that will be valued and needed at a time in which the cost of living is such a challenge and so many are under such pressure.

In stating that there are limits to what a Government can do, I am simply making the point that the cost of borrowing is changing. It is increasing. It is quite remarkable how little this ever features in Opposition critiques and statements regarding what the Government will do. At the start of this year, the interest rate on Irish Government debt was just above 0%. Today, it is nearly 2.5%. It is a change that is taking place around us, the consequences of which Ireland, the economy and the Government are well able to manage. However, to indicate to the Oireachtas and the people of Ireland that there are no constraints on action the Government can take would plainly be dishonest and even dangerous. Even within the constraints that are there, the Government's response in housing and the need to deliver more homes is an investment of €4 billion and the thousands of homes being directly built by the Government via local authorities all over the country. This is leading to higher numbers of planning approvals, commencements and homes being built.

I thank the Minister. The Labour Party certainly believes in constructive and responsible opposition but we are a party of the left. We believe in the need to ensure investment in public services for all. We do not believe in tax cuts for some at the expense of public services for all. That is our concern. Our concern is that during the pandemic we saw, rightly, the State stepping up to deliver investment. We need to see that level of ambition now in addressing the housing crisis and cost-of-living crisis.

We have welcomed some Government measures but we have also been critical, rightly, when they do not go far enough. For example, the Government's Sick Leave Bill 2021 will leave low-paid workers out of pocket and its flexible work legislation essentially offers employers a right to refuse flexible work options. While we welcomed the Government's proposals on the living wage, they do not go as far as the Labour Party's Bill. Our concern is that people have no more to give.

I express solidarity with the striking Bausch + Lomb workers in Waterford. One striking worker there stated that this winter they will be forced to leave the heat off and put on an extra jumper. They are seeking a pay rise to tide them and their families over. The Government is simply not ambitious enough to deliver the real solutions that are needed to address the cost-of-living crisis for those workers and others.

We recognise the intention of the Deputy in providing more constructive opposition and the different tone of it. At the same time, and with respect to Deputy Bacik, it is simply not open to the Government to be able to maintain the levels of expenditure, borrowing and intervention we had during the era of Covid. That was a unique period in our public and economic health, one that is thankfully coming to an end as the disease is put behind us. Even though it is present, it is not posing the fundamental challenge to society and the economy that it did in recent years.

I return to the point I made.

If Deputy Bacik was looking for real wage growth for workers who need wage growth, surely she would support a personal tax approach that simply looks to move income tax credits and bonds in line with wage growth in our economy. That is what we are looking to do. If workers, particularly those on low to middle incomes, get the wage increase they deserve and will need given the rising cost of living we are now facing, they should not see too much of it absorbed in higher levels of taxation as they earn more. I think there may be more common ground between the Deputy and me on that point than maybe the Deputy would admit.

It is the level of ambition.

Workers, students, pensioners, renters and single parents are sick and tired of the false promises, the failed plans and the half measures to deal with the crushing cost-of-living crisis and, most importantly, the housing disaster people are facing, which gets worse by the day. That is why at 1 p.m. this Saturday, in Parnell Square and five other locations across the country, we in the Cost of Living Coalition hope to see thousands of people come out on the streets to express their fury at the Government’s failure to deal with the cost-of-living crisis and the disastrous housing crisis.

Yesterday, as if we needed reminding, the President had to come out to call the Government to account for what he rightly described as the "great, great failure" of this Government and Republic to deal with the housing disaster over which the Government is presiding. He said that the job of a Government is to build homes-----

Deputy, there is an honourable and long tradition------

-----that we do not become involved in the analysis of or debate the statements of the President.

The clock is ticking.

We will stop the clock, then. I am not saying we cannot make reference to the President but we do not need to quote him. We all know what the man said, so please.

I would think that the President would like to be quoted.

Yes, I think he would be happy to be quoted.

Why is it that we hear Government Ministers are saying that the President crossed the line or that he was even embarrassing? These are Government Ministers when he simply expressed-----

Sorry, Deputy.

It is not incredible. There is a separation of powers. In this Chamber we do not drag the President into any controversy. Please respect that.

He has been referenced already on a couple of occasions, but nobody else was pulled up.

Referencing is fine, but the Deputy is trying to elaborate on that.

It is okay for the Ministers to elaborate on it, though.

It is not for anyone in here to elaborate. Let me be very clear about that. The same rule applies to everybody.

I was delighted to quote the President earlier. His remarks were absolutely correct.

When the President referred to the poor law system that we thought we had left behind us as still being present, he was obviously referring to what is truly embarrassing, namely, the fact that there are 10,000 families, households, individuals and, worst of all, children in emergency accommodation. The situation has got worse and worse month after month under the auspices of this Government. There are 136,000 families on social housing waiting lists, some for a decade or two decades. There are an estimated 136,000 vacant properties, often being sat on by investors and speculators who this Government allowed to run riot and destroy the housing sector, while benefiting from the misery of tens of thousands of people who cannot afford the obscene rents or house prices and who were, in many cases, then driven into homelessness.

Was the President not right when he described this as a disaster? Are the people - the workers, students, pensioners and renters - who are going to come out on the streets this Saturday to protest and say they have had enough not right to be fed up and sick and tired of this Government's failure to do the most basic thing of putting an affordable roof over the heads of the people of this country?

I thank the Deputy. I will point out before the Minister responds that it is inappropriate in this House to analyse or critique any statement made by the President.

The Government appreciates the challenges, anxiety, stress and trauma that so many face as they look for an affordable home or a home they can be confident they will be able to afford to rent in the future and experienced by all those who have been waiting on social housing lists for so many years looking for the opportunity to have a roof over their head that they can call home. We appreciate this and we are determined to make progress on it. However, this is the reason we have such investment by the Government going directly into building more homes on State land, by the State, through local authorities. It is the reason we have plans in place for this year that will deliver up to 9,000 social homes across the country. These social homes are now being built across Dublin and many other cities to respond to the needs and issues we know so many are experiencing at the moment.

Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to where we are with homelessness. We acknowledge that we are seeing an increase in homelessness levels. Every family, child and person who is homeless at the moment is one too many. We are doing all we can to respond to that and make a difference to it. However, it is the reason we have set aside over €100 million in Housing for All to make a difference and put in place the interventions to get families and children out of emergency accommodation and into their own homes and give them the accommodation they need. It is the reason we are so committed to the public, social and affordable housing plans I have outlined in response to questions from Deputies today.

I appreciate that when Deputies are dealing with families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, it gives us an insight into the sheer worry, concern and anxiety they have about a future that is so uncertain. The answer to that is to build more homes through our local authorities. That is what is happening. We will spare no effort in continuing to ensure that the local authority housing targets we have set are met. We are seeing clear signs of progress being made. More homes have commenced, more homes have secured planning permission and more homes were completed over the past 12 months. These will provide a foundation, after the effects of a pandemic during which our construction sector was closed for so long, to make quicker and more effective progress on the housing needs the Deputy described. While I accept these are real, I would argue to the Deputy that the Government is also making progress in responding to them.

There are talks, plans and promises but the reality is the situation just gets worse. More people are homeless and more are being threatened with eviction. Rents are rising to obscene levels and are still going higher. House prices are at obscene levels and are still going higher. Families who have done nothing wrong are being evicted. Students cannot get accommodation that is anything even approaching affordable. It is just gets worse. That is why I invite people who are fed up - and I think the majority of people are fed up and think this is a disaster - to get out on the streets this Saturday and march to force this Government finally to listen.

Frankly, the Minister is not telling the truth when he says the local authorities are building more public housing. I just got the figures from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council on the social housing it will build for the next four years. Out of 2,300 houses, approximately 10% will be directly built by the council. For the rest, it is relying on private developers. This is the truth of what is going on. Anybody can just look around the city to see the apartment blocks going up. They are not being built by councils but investors charging obscene rents and prices. That is the truth.

Those homes will then be available for use by the local authorities-----

Deputy Boyd Barrett knows the truth. He knows well that the houses he has just referenced will then be used by the local authority in his area to respond to housing needs and clear the housing list.

That is a fact. The Deputy comes in here and makes the case about the truth. Any Deputy who is trying to respond to the housing needs within his or her constituency knows a share of the houses being built by private developers and interests is used by the local authority to house people.

It is a tiny percentage.

The Deputy referred to talk, commitments and the time for speaking being over. The reality is 977 homes being built in Dundrum, 817 in Balbriggan, 345 in Skerries and 219 in Naas by the Land Development Agency.

Thank you, Minister. The time is up.

These are planning applications that are in to build the homes we need while our local authorities are directly building thousands of homes across the country this year to make progress on the great challenge on which we know faster progress needs to be made.

Why is it getting worse?

The cost of living is beginning to hurt. I want to raise a specific issue, which is that the cost of getting to and from work is rising, as the Minister well knows. The Government has taken some steps to try to combat the cost of fuel but it has not been able to combat it adequately for the many people in the country who have to travel to work. It is costing people more and more to get to work. Obviously, it has to pay to be at work. The Government has created economic conditions whereby a huge amount of employment has been created in the State, which is to be welcomed. A very large amount of that employment is in low-paid work. That is a problem, particularly when it is costing people money to get to work.

There is a cohort I specifically want to raise, that is, those who drive as part of their work. They not only have to drive to work but driving is a part of their job. Public health nurses are one example but there are many others across the public and private sectors. The Civil Service has set mileage rates for people who drive as part of their work, which give a certain amount per kilometre. Those rates apply not just to everybody in the public sector, including HSE employees, Revenue employees and so on, but, in addition, many, if not all, employers in the private sector use the same rates. In fact, Revenue references those rates.

The rate at which people are paid for driving as part of their work dates from 1 April, April Fool's Day, 2017. The Minister cannot but agree that the cost of driving has increased hugely since then. In fact, the cost of driving has increased hugely since 1 April 2022. While there is a broader issue around the cost of fuel and the cost of living generally, and we can address all of that if the Minister would like to, my specific question is whether he will change the mileage rate to enable people who drive not just to and from work but as part of their work to do so without it coming out of their pocket. By doing so, they are subventing the employment they are engaged in for the benefit of their employers, whether that be the HSE, any other entity of the State or the private sector. That type of work is becoming unaffordable for those who engage in it.

I thank the Deputy for his very detailed question regarding the funding the State makes available to cover a share of the travel expenses of those who work on behalf of the State. Perhaps this is a matter that will form part of the engagement in regard to public sector wages that is currently under way. The Government hopes we will get to a point at which those negotiations will lead to a conclusion that is both fair and affordable. It is a matter for which the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is responsible. I was involved in the setting of the mileage rate in 2017 and I remember some of the discussion around it. I take the point that, obviously, the cost of travel and commuting has fundamentally changed in the past few months, let alone since 2017. This may be a matter that can be dealt with in the discussions that are under way and which I hope will lead to a new agreement on public pay.

The Deputy will be aware of all the measures we have put in place to try to reduce the price of commuting. We know and accept that, for many, the price has still gone up by an awful lot. Clearly, the reductions we have put in place in regard to excise duty will help. The reductions in regard to gas and electricity do not relate directly to the price of fuel for cars but they are reductions from which all the people the Deputy referred to will benefit. I will consider the matter he has raised and I am sure the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, will be looking at it in the context, as I said, of the negotiations that are under way as we speak at the Workplace Relations Commission.

I was hoping for more of a commitment from the Minister that this issue would be addressed, not that it might be or he hopes we will get there. It absolutely needs to be addressed. He talked about the general measures the Government has taken but he also spoke about the money that was spent earlier. The increase in the cost of fuel is something that could not really be predicted because it is caused very directly by the conflict in Ukraine. However, inflation is something that was very predictably driven by the monetary policies the Government, like many governments across the world, pursued throughout 2020 and 2021. The US, in particular, is now bearing the brunt of the policies President Biden introduced. I accept those policies were well intentioned but they have been catastrophic. The reason the cost of fuel is hurting people so much is that it is mirrored by increases in costs right across the system. That inflation includes food inflation, which the Government is doing nothing to combat in terms of the input costs, which will be passed on to consumers from next year, further driving inflation.

The reference the Deputy made to monetary policy is interesting because it is the monetary policy that was in place which allowed the Government to put in place the huge support during the time of Covid, as referenced by Deputy Bacik. There are few economists claiming that it is the budgetary response that was put in place by governments that has led to the inflationary pressures we are now facing in Europe.

Lots of them are making that claim.

I think it is a critique that is developing in other parts of the world. As the Deputy will be aware, it could be the case that the higher levels of savings that are present within economies in Europe after the Covid crisis are playing a role. What is playing a far bigger role is the impact of the war in Ukraine and supply chains that were really weak and fragile as an effect of the pandemic.

The Deputy said he was hoping for a more detailed response. As I said, he put a very detailed question about an aspect of how we pay and recognise our civil servants. It is not up to me here today to prejudge what could happen in the wage negotiations that are under way. Indeed, it would be very unhelpful for me to do so. What I will do is follow up on the specific matter the Deputy raised with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I will come back to him with a more detailed answer on it.

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