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Departmental Operations (Continued)

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 979 No. 6

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  2 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin]  I also have a question on the general issue of Government and public service reform, which was an integral part of the agenda of the last Government of which both the Taoiseach and I were members. Is that running? The Taoiseach will recall the raft of legislation that was introduced, ranging from freedom of information updates to the registering of lobbying and everything that flowed from that. Is there still the same focus on reform?

Finally, has there been any advance in respect of Ireland's membership of the Open Government Partnership? Again, that was an important initiative undertaken under the previous Government. How is that process advancing?

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald Last year the Government spent a staggering €695 million on rent subsidies to private landlords and property owners across four schemes administered by two Departments. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection spent €175 million on the rent supplement scheme and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government spent €100 million on long-term leased properties, €143 million on four year rental accommodation scheme leases and €276 million through the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme. One might argue that this demonstrates the need and demand and is a symptom of the Government's more general failure in the housing area, but spending these very large sums does not represent good value for the taxpayer. To put it in perspective, the total budget allocation to local authorities to build and buy new homes last year was just over €560 million. That is almost 20% less than the sum paid to private landlords, which hardly makes sense.

While subsidies for low income households are an important part of any stable housing system, they should be short-term and declining in number and cost. Instead, the figures highlight the Government's over-reliance on the private rental sector to meet long-term housing need while at the same time underinvesting in social housing. We should also note the very insecure nature of rental accommodation for people now, due to the Government's negligence. These policies must be urgently reviewed and a plan must be put in place to reduce the number of subsidised tenancies in the private rental sector. This will only be achieved through a significant increase in the capital budget for local authorities and approved housing bodies to build and buy permanent social housing.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett In the debate later on the motion of no confidence in the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, we will discuss the litany of failures in the area of health. However, the one I cannot understand and which the Government does not appear to wish to resolve given the casual indifference it is displaying is the series of strikes taking place in the national ambulance service. There was one last Friday and there will be others on 28 February and 1 March. It would not cost a penny to resolve this, but the Government appears to be totally uninterested. It is about union recognition and the right of hundreds of ambulance drivers to be in the union of their choice, in this case the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, branch of the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA. Can the Taoiseach explain why he would not wish to act to resolve this by simply accepting people's right to be in a union of their choice and to be recognised in that union in the context of something as critical as the delivery of an ambulance service?

  In addition, will the Taoiseach comment on Mr. Owen Keegan's comments in The Sunday Business Post about homeless accommodation acting as a magnet for the homeless? They were staggering comments. Does that reflect the Government's thinking? Whatever debate we may have on the success or otherwise of the Government's housing policy surely the Taoiseach would accept that the State is failing people who are homeless or who are waiting ten or 15 years on housing lists. The State should be somewhat apologetic and show a little humility in the face of that failure, rather than victim blaming and suggesting that emergency accommodation for the homeless is an attractive option for people in desperate housing need.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin Access to public services is still a major issue for many people across the country. Over half a million people are waiting for hospital appointments and there are 10,000 homeless people, but the waiting list for special needs assessments is particularly damaging for the children on that list. We know that early diagnosis can mean more effective early intervention particularly with therapies such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy, audiology and speech and language therapy, yet thousands of children are waiting for an early needs assessment and their rights are not being realised. I raised this in the context of the last budget to get additional posts appointed, but one wonders whether the division in the Taoiseach's Department has alerted him and the Government to the emergency in that area alone. It is simply unacceptable that parents of young children are at the end of their tethers trying to get an assessment, diagnosis and proper intervention. This has been going on for a long time and the lists have been growing to unacceptable levels over the last two to three years. Will the Taoiseach respond on the level of awareness in his Department, particularly in the social policy and public service reform division, of that issue alone?

Many commitments have been made with regard to the safe access Bill. This Bill would prevent any planned protests or interference with women who are trying to access termination services. Any reasonable person would agree that no woman should be intimidated if she attends a hospital or a GP surgery. Last December, the Minister for Health pledged to bring forward legislation to provide for exclusion or safe zones around premises that women would be attending. That is well intentioned but that approach ran into difficulties in the United Kingdom. Given that we do not have abortion-specific clinics here, are there legal issues in that regard? The United Kingdom tried to introduce a similar Bill but it encountered legal difficulties. Will that arise here? Can the Taoiseach give an indication of when the Bill will be published?

The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar On the initial question Deputy Howlin asked on health, I have not seen any of the emails he mentioned. I presume they are emails between officials rather than emails to which I was a party-----

Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin Yes.

The Taoiseach: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar -----so I am unable to comment on their content. However, the monitoring of the capital plan, the national development plan and the implementation and delivery of Project Ireland 2040 is done by both the line Department or agency that is responsible for a project and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which has overall oversight of the delivery of the capital programme. It is not done by my Department. We have a system, however, whereby a Department can make me and my office aware of a problem. That is the early warning system which is carried out at Secretary General or Minister-to-Minister level. I often receive early warnings of things that may or may not happen through that system, but did not about the children's hospital.

I will have to get an update on the Open Government Partnership for Deputy Howlin. He was very enthusiastic about it when he was a Minister and we were making progress on it, but I am not up-to-date on it. When I get the update I will pass it on to him.

The Government's policy on housing is to increase the stock of social housing, and we are doing that. It is the best way to reduce reliance on rent supplements and HAP into the future. It has to be scaled up because for a long time very few houses were built by the State. That is changing. The figures produced today by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government show that approximately 8,500 new homes were added to the social housing stock last year. Roughly half of those were built by local authorities and affordable housing bodies such as the Iveagh Trust, Clúid Housing Association and so forth.

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