Economic Policy – Tuesday, 18 Oct 2022 – Parliamentary Questions … –

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday – 18 October 2022
1. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic policy unit of his Department. [48746/22]
2. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic policy unit of his Department. [48747/22]
3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic policy unit of his Department. [49697/22]
4. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic policy unit of his Department. [49899/22]
5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic policy unit of his Department. [49963/22]
6. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic policy unit of his Department. [49966/22]
7. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic policy unit of his Department. [50010/22]
8. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic policy unit of his Department. [50014/22]
9. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic policy unit of his Department. [50364/22]
10. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic policy unit of his Department. [51652/22]
11. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic policy unit of his Department. [51688/22]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 11, inclusive, together.
The economic policy unit is part of the economic division of my Department. The unit supports me, as Taoiseach, in delivering sustainable and balanced economic growth and in advancing the Government’s economic priorities. The unit also advises me on a broad range of economic policy areas and issues, and provides me with briefing and speech material on economic and related policy Issues. It supports the delivery of the Government’s economic commitments as outlined in the programme for Government, especially where these are cross-cutting issues affecting multiple Departments. In particular, it supports the work of the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment, and a number of related senior officials’ groups, as well as the Cabinet committee subgroup on insurance reform.
The unit is also responsible for co-ordinating Ireland’s participation in the European semester process, the annual cycle of economic and fiscal policy co-ordination among EU member states. This includes preparing each year the national reform programme for submission to the European Commission. The national reform programme provides an overview of economic reforms and policy actions under way in Ireland, including in response to country-specific recommendations received. The unit is also responsible for liaison with the Central Statistics Office, CSO.
I am still trying to get an answer out of the Taoiseach on question relating to the eviction ban. I do not understand why he will not give a straight answer. Will he please tell me if people who have current notices to quit, prior to the legislation he is promising to bring in, will be protected from eviction over the winter?
I said they would.
Just so it is clear.
I will come back to the Deputy.
Will the Taoiseach clarify whether it is now policy, one that we have been asking for for two years, that the Government will purchase homes where families are threatened with being evicted into homelessness? The Government should go further and proactively purchase developer projects where new houses are coming on stream so that we can get more than 10% for social and affordable housing as well as purchase sites, which should never have been sold off by the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, for the delivery of social and affordable housing, given that the Government’s Housing for All targets are failing catastrophically. Will the protections for tenants generally apply to those above the housing income thresholds, which the Government has refused to raise?
It emerged in the Business Post that, in April, the Tánaiste reassured the big tech companies that the Government would continue to support additional data centres being connected to the Irish grid despite the fact that the data centres combined now use more electricity than all of the rural homes in Ireland and are on track to use approximately one third of our electricity by the end of this decade. Is that why the Government has agreed to give €10,000 per month of public money to data centres through the temporary business energy support scheme, TBESS? This means that people who are suffering from energy poverty are going to be paying to subsidise the enormous energy consumption of data centres owned by some of the richest corporations on the planet. Is it not obscene that the data centres, which have driven up electricity prices for ordinary families, are now going to be subsidised by the public by €10,000 per month to continue doing so? Does the Taoiseach not agree that the TBESS needs to be amended so that data centres are not able to get €10,000 per month, paid for by the public?
The Morgan McKinley quarterly employment monitor, which was published last week, found that employers were struggling to fill entry-level graduate positions because young people were emigrating due to the lack of housing and the cost-of-living crisis. A protracted and acute shortage of affordable and social homes continues to have a profound effect on Ireland’s economy and society. For many, the social contract has been broken for some time, as the ability to keep secure roofs over their heads slips further out of their reach. A winter ban on evictions into homelessness is needed urgently. We do not have clarity on when the Government will do that. Can the Taoiseach reassure renters that the Minister will publish the legislation in the coming days and not December, as has been reported? A temporary ban on evictions is welcome, but we all agree that it will not in itself resolve the core problem. Social housing building output for this year is falling far short of the Government’s target. At the end of June, just 1,765 of the 9,000 new builds for 2022 had been delivered.
Last week, I asked the Taoiseach if the Cabinet would consider increasing income thresholds for social housing eligibility. To be frank, the answer I received was underwhelming. There is an urgent need to increase the thresholds in areas where there are acute affordability issues, such as Dublin, Cork and my county of Limerick. We learned over the weekend that Fine Gael Ministers intend to push for income threshold increases for social housing eligibility. Will the Taoiseach confirm his party’s support for such a measure?
Earlier today, I raised with the Taoiseach the plight of owners in the Carrickmines Green development. Returning to that subject, when is it planned to introduce the redress scheme for homeowners? I think the Taoiseach said it would be done before Christmas. Does this mean that we will not see provision being made for such a scheme in the Finance Bill, which is to be introduced on Thursday? He might clarify that. He might also clarify whether the scheme will include provision for retrospective tax relief on works already carried out to address defects. Many apartment owners have already spent large amounts of money on remedying defects that were in their homes through no fault of their own but due to a lack of regulation in the construction industry.
Will the Taoiseach confirm whether the concrete products levy will now be reduced and delayed beyond the date originally envisaged by the Government? Was any consideration given to Labour’s alternative proposal of levying a tax on the profits of construction companies rather than on concrete products? This would have been a much more effective way of ensuring that the construction industry would bear some of the cost of remedying defects without seeing the direct cost passed on to those seeking to build their own homes and first-time buyers.
Today, there was a school bus protest in Ballivor, County Meath. I joined students and parents who walked 15 km on winding, foggy country roads to the schools in Trim. They were forced to do so by the broken promise of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. Three months ago, she promised with much fanfare that, due to the cost-of-living crisis and the climate crisis, free school bus places would be available to students across the country who needed them. Yet three months later, this has not been resolved. A pattern is emerging of Ministers making promises to loud fanfare about delivering services without doing the necessary work to put the capacity in place, with people still struggling months later as a result. Given the severity of this issue for the families in question, will the Taoiseach get his office to engage with the Department of Education and find a solution for these students and parents in Ballivor?
I have a question on the eviction ban. Let us say that a woman is faced with a choice between not paying some of her family’s rent or having her children go cold or hungry this winter. Is she covered by the ban? Can she be evicted? The Tánaiste says that people who do not pay their rent can be evicted. Other Deputies say that people who wilfully do not pay their rent can be evicted. This needs to be clarified and I would like the Taoiseach’s view on this question.
Last week, we saw the largest cost-of-living protest so far in the course of this crisis. Approximately 20,000 students walked out of classes last Thursday at 11.11 a.m. to protest the lack of decent student accommodation and the inadequate action being taken by the Government to counter the financial pressures bearing down on them. Will the Taoiseach instruct the Ministers, Deputies Harris and Darragh O’Brien, to meet the students’ representatives and consider their demands to make changes or will he decide not to engage in this way and increase the likelihood of a second round before Christmas?
As the Taoiseach is well aware, the economy of Cavan-Monaghan and the wider Border region is heavily dependent on SMEs. These enterprises are concerned about the increasing costs facing businesses. When such enterprises commence, their first export markets are Northern Ireland and Britain, but there are additional costs due to Brexit. There have also been supply chain difficulties in sourcing products for manufacture or addition to manufacturing and for export.
In my recent engagements with SMEs, particularly over the weekend, they were very concerned by the increase in energy costs. They are appealing for very strong Government support to assist them through these particularly difficult months. Many of them fear that their businesses will not be viable if current energy costs remain. In his recent visit to Cavan, the Taoiseach engaged with other public representatives and me. He will recall that we raised SME concerns in this regard and the need for support through these difficult times, particularly with costs.
Last week, I asked the Taoiseach about the possibility of the TBESS or some bespoke scheme for the likes of Frontline Energy, which buys gas for communal heating systems like the one at Carlinn Hall in Dundalk. We would need to ensure that the benefits of such a scheme were passed on to residents, but it is something that we must consider as soon as possible.
I thank the Deputies for raising these issues. First, the strategy that Deputy Boyd Barrett deploys every now and again is to say “Please give me a straight answer”, immediately raising the prospect of the answer he got not being a straight answer when it was.
I wonder why.
The Bill has to be published and enacted before any of its measures can take place. Deputy Boyd Barrett knows that. Therefore, the Bill will defer certain notices of termination served on tenants for the period from the day after the date of the passing of the Act. Irrespective of whether a notice to quit is in process, once the legislation comes into play, no one can be evicted the day after that unless he or she has not paid rent and has not fulfilled obligations in respect of good behaviour and stuff like that, for example, not wrecking the place and so on. I do not think anyone can object to that. Those are the measures.
The full details of this will be published in the Bill in the next day or two. The sooner we can get that through the House, the greater the protection we can give to many people who could be in jeopardy of being evicted.
In respect of purchasing homes as a matter of policy, I already made the point today that up to 650 houses are in the process of being purchased or have been purchased—–
Were the tenants in situ?
—–with tenants in situ. The vast majority of tenants were in situ. This was done with a view to ensuring they are not evicted. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, has conveyed this policy to the local authorities that they may do this. In every given situation local authorities must have some discretion. The dramatic change since July has seen a significant increase in the activity levels and purchasing of houses where tenants in situ were on the cusp of being evicted. This has happened as a result of the Minister’s initiative, and this should be acknowledged.
We were calling for it for a long time and the Government ignored it.
It was not ignored. The Minister has implemented it.
It is not happening in my area.
We are building substantially more social homes through approved social housing bodies and local authorities. We are doing everything we can to increase the number of social homes, primarily through house building, with some through acquisitions and some through leasing in respect of immediate urgency around homelessness, which we want to prevent. The State is the biggest actor in housing now. Go through all the schemes and it will be seen that the Government is bridging the viability gap. This is why Croí Cónaithe schemes are in place for towns and cities and brownfield developments. The State is involved in the first home scheme for first-time buyers, which has a shared equity dimension to it. There is also the help-to-buy scheme, cost rental, etc. These are all new developments and have been brought about by the Minister through the legislation he has put in place. He has been very active during the last two years. He has also brought in many protections for tenants.
I remind the Taoiseach of the time.
Have we time to go through the questions from Deputy Paul Murphy and others, with the agreement of the House? There are two or three others.
Yes, the Deputies deserve answers.
On data centres and TBESS, we must have a general scheme that catches as many people as we possibly can because we do not want to lose jobs.
There are no jobs in data centres.
On another day, we can debate whether we think we should get rid of all data centres or if there is a function or a role for data centres in a digitalised economy. I would like and appreciate hearing the Deputy’s perspective on that. Nevertheless, TBESS is an emergency scheme being brought in as a temporary state aid framework under the auspices of the EU to ensure companies do not go to the wall and we can protect jobs. That is the motivation behind it.
Deputy Quinlivan raised the matter of the income thresholds review. It is under way and the Minister has indicated he will act on that review once he gets it.
As I said to Deputy Bacik, it will be before the end of the year before the scheme itself would be designed. It is unlikely, therefore, that it will be in the Finance Bill, although we have to go through Committee and Report Stages and amendments can be made to it. It is a stand-alone scheme for apartment defects and is not necessarily dependent on the Finance Bill.
To respond to Deputy Tóibín, the Minister for Education has dramatically reduced costs for thousands of people through the initiative she took on free school transport. This is €650 per family that she saved and an extra 21,000 people, above the 100,000, availed of the scheme. The increased demand then, unfortunately, led to some people not being able to avail of it. The option would have been not to do anything but, in fairness, this initiative has had a major beneficial impact on thousands of families. The Minister is working flat out with CIÉ and others to ensure we can get everybody covered and get more buses in place to cover anybody who has not so far been covered by the concessionary scheme.
Deputy Barry also raised the eviction ban and I have given the answer to that in terms of who is covered. Deputy Brendan Smith—–
The Taoiseach has not answered my question.
I have.
The Taoiseach has not.
I said that where there is systemic non-payment of rent, people can still be evicted. In situations where people are in difficulty or trouble, a whole range of measures is in place to intervene to prevent people from being evicted, in terms of additional needs—–
That woman will not be evicted.
I do not know the detail of the individual case the Deputy has brought to my attention.
Exceptional needs.
There are other mechanisms that can be used as well.
The Taoiseach needs to clarify that, Chair.
To respond to Deputy Brendan Smith, the economy is dependent on SMEs. The Deputy is correct in saying that many companies depend on the Northern Ireland or British market in terms of initial exports of goods leaving Ireland and going into the UK market. This is why it is important to us that the UK economy is strong. If the UK’s economy is strong, Ireland’s economy is strong. Energy costs are significant and that is why we have brought in the TBESS. We have also brought in a range of other guaranteed loan schemes to try to help, right down to the micro company level, and to see if we can ensure that we keep companies operating. We will keep the situation under review because the nature of the costs is significant and severe. Regarding the TBESS and how it applies in the case of Dundalk, I ask the Deputy to send in the details in this regard. I do not know whether he has spoken to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about this issue, but he is looking at similar interventions in respect of other anomalies that have arisen. I think he will be anxious to help in any genuine situation like that.
I appreciate that.
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