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Appointment of Taoiseach and Nomination of Members of Government (Continued)

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 953 No. 4

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Billy Kelleher: Information on Billy Kelleher Zoom on Billy Kelleher] Some 660,000 people today are waiting for an inpatient or outpatient appointment. It is simply not acceptable and I believe that collectively the Ministers have a duty to address these huge challenges in health. I do not underestimate the challenges but to date they have been very lacking in respect of real commitment to addressing it.

The then Minister for Health, the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, said that he had unfinished business in the area of health. It was the understatement of the century because the fact of the matter was that there was no business done in health for a long time under the last Fine Gael Government and this Government. We abandoned universal health insurance, the underpinning of what was going to fund the public health system, and we have simply stripped away the ability of our public health system to deliver services. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, who I have congratulated and wish well personally, have significant opportunities and power in their hands to address the major deficiencies that are causing inordinate suffering to vulnerable people, especially children who are waiting for scoliosis operations.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne Zoom on Thomas Byrne Go raibh maith agat a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo chomhghairdeas a chur in iúl don Taoiseach nua, an Teachta Leo Varadkar. Tháinig an bheirt againn agus an bheirt Teachtaí Mhic Graith isteach sa Dáil deich mbliana ó shin inniu. Is onóir mhór do Theachta Varadkar agus a chlann gur thogadh ina Thaoiseach é inniu. Táimid lán-sásta leis sin agus táimid ag súil go ndéanfaidh sé gach iarracht an tír seo a chur chun cinn. Má dhéanann sé an iarracht sin tabharfaimid tacaíocht dó, fiú muna tabharfaimid tacaíocht do gach polasaí atá á chur i bhfeidhm aige. I also congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Regina Doherty, from my constituency on her elevation. It is an honour for the constituency, as well as for her and her family.

  I want to refer to education. I was briefly heartened with the news that a "super junior" Minister of State was to be appointed with responsibility for higher education. I was very happy with the appointment of the Minister, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, because Fianna Fáil has very much pushed the issue of further education. I thought that finally, at last, the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, is getting to grips with this and realising it is an important issue. I was, however, somewhat confused and there were question marks in my head when the Taoiseach spoke. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, was mentioned as having responsibility for the Technological Universities Bill and third level funding. Media reports are now coming through that what happened, in fact, was a row behind the scenes when the Minister, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, was offered a justice and equality brief, refused it and was given higher education instead. This disappoints me greatly because if this is the way higher education is being treated by the Government - this is being reported by The Irish Times this evening - then my hopes were completely unfounded and all the fears we have about Fine Gael and higher education are absolutely true.

  All the fears that have been expressed throughout the university sector and the higher education sector are well founded. They worry about Fine Gael's commitment to higher education and its funding. Now the whole sector has been thrown as a bauble to keep someone who is getting a demotion happy. Higher education should be promoted, not demoted. This is an absolute scandal and an insult to a sector that could be one of the ways of rescuing Ireland from Brexit. It is one of the first bad moves made by the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, and he will have to answer for it. We have said to the Government that the Technological Universities Bill can be brought forward and passed by the summer recess. We urge the Government to do this and we want it, somehow, to finally get the message. Tonight, it does not look as though the Government has got that message. The Minister, Deputy Bruton has a job ahead of him. I do not know who is responsible for the sector; no one knows who is responsible for it. The Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, has demoted not only the Minister, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, but he has also demoted higher education.

  Turning to the appointment of Ms Máire Whelan SC as President of the Court of Appeal, I worry for the Government that the appointment will carry with it the stain of original sin for the entire length of the rest of the Taoiseach's term, one for which I wonder if there will be any redemption. This appointment will hang over the Government like a sword of Damocles. It will damage this Administration unless the questions that were raised legitimately by my party leader today are answered fully.

Deputy Eoin Ó Broin: Information on Eoin Ó Broin Zoom on Eoin Ó Broin There has been a huge degree of excitement around the House today for those newly appointed Ministers and "super junior" Ministers of State and their families. There is obviously a significant sense of achievement for them, while for others there is a sense of disappointment. Large numbers of people beyond the gates of Leinster House, however, will be deeply unmoved by what they have heard today. I am talking about the 7,680 homeless people, including 2,780 children, who tonight will sleep in emergency accommodation; the more than 90,000 families who are languishing on local authority housing waiting lists; and the tens of thousands of struggling renters and potential first-time buyers who are locked out of the housing market.

For six years, we have had Fine Gael in government. By any indicator, the housing crisis is worse today than it was when it took office. The outgoing Minister with responsibility for housing, the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, took office some 12 months ago. It genuinely gives me no pleasure to say this, but never has a Minister with responsibility for housing promised so much and yet delivered so little. His legacy is a 20% increase in adult and child homelessness in the State, increasing numbers of people at risk of homelessness, spiralling costs for the rental or purchase of homes and a snail's pace delivery of social housing. The Minister, Deputy Coveney's first self-imposed test in the housing action plan was to end the use of hotels for families and to house those adults and children in permanent homes. Just weeks before the deadline for this measure was to pass, it is unfulfilled and he walks away. Just 12 months into a six year plan he is, in my view, turning his back on the thousands of families who were looking to him and to whom he promised hope for the future.

Ultimately this was a decision of the new Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, I have no doubt that if the Minister, Deputy Coveney, had really wanted to stay in housing, he could have done so. This is the sixth Minister in five years with responsibility for housing. Is it any wonder that the crisis has yet to be resolved? It sends out a very worrying signal that the Taoiseach neither understands nor is serious about tackling the housing crisis.

The proposed appointment of the Taoiseach's close ally, the Minister of State, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, as the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government is a big surprise. I know the Minister of State from over the last years and he is very smart. I have no doubt that he will work hard, as the former Minister, Deputy Coveney, did, in the brief. The Minister of State, Deputy Murphy, however, has shown little interest in housing policy during his six years in the Dáil. In total, he has raised the issue of housing on the floor of the House 25 times. He has mentioned the issue of homelessness five times and social housing four times. He has mentioned the private rental sector just once. The Minister of State has an awful lot of catching up to do.

On hearing that he was appointed as the Minister, I wrote to the Minister of State formally, requesting a meeting at his earliest convenience in order to outline our ongoing and deep-rooted concerns over the failure of his Government's housing policy. As I said to his predecessor when he took office, if the Minister does the right thing I will support him and I will stand here and welcome initiatives that he takes that would relieve acute housing stress. When he makes mistakes, however, we will do everything we can to hold him to account.

I note with interest that the Minister of State, Deputy Murphy, has been asked to undertake a review of the Government's housing plan and part of me would like to welcome this, especially the promise of potentially increased social housing delivery and the possibility of a vacant home tax. Given the level of disappointment that many of us now feel after 12 months of the Minister, Deputy Coveney's failure to tackle the housing crisis, I am not going to hold my breath that much is going to change in three months' time.

Sinn Féin will, of course, engage constructively in any review and we will continue to offer credible policy alternatives to tackle the housing and homeless crises. Crucially, we will continue to argue that the over reliance on the private sector to meet social and affordable housing needs, and the weak regulation of the private rental sector, are central to the failures of this Government's and previous Governments' policies. The housing crisis can be solved, but only if the right policies and, crucially, the right level of investment are put in place to ensure that secure and affordable housing is a right affordable to all and not just to the few.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (Deputy Paschal Donohoe): Information on Paschal Donohoe Zoom on Paschal Donohoe I begin by recognising the contribution and achievement of the former Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan. It is an honour to follow in his footsteps in leading the Department of Finance in addition to my current responsibilities at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. In the budget that I had the honour of introducing in the House with the former Minister, Deputy Noonan, I concluded my words with a statement.

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