Dáil Éireann - Volume 566 - 13 May, 2003

Ceisteanna – Questions. - Committee on the Constitution.

  1. Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent progress in respect of the implementation of the recommendations of the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7870/03]

  2. Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent progress in implementing the recommendations of the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution. [8991/03]

  3. Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach if he will report on progress in implementing the recommendations of the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9684/03]

  4. Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress in implementing the recommendations of the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution; and if, arising from this, a referendum or referenda will be held within the next year. [10699/03]

  5. Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach when he next intends to hold a referendum; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11475/03]

  6. Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach the progress made to date in implementing the recommendations of the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution; the recommendations implemented to date; the recommendations which have still to be implemented; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11602/03]

  The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

  In my reply to similar questions on 11 February 2003, I stated that the previous Government acted on most of the key recommendations which have emanated from the All Party Committee on [786]the Constitution. In all, the previous Government brought forward nine referenda on Cabinet confidentiality, the Amsterdam treaty the British-Irish Agreement, local government, the death penalty, the International Criminal Court, the protection of human life in pregnancy and two on the Nice treaty. Unfortunately, a proposed referendum on judicial conduct did not proceed due to lack of cross-party support in the Dáil.

  The Government will avail of appropriate opportunities to take forward further recommendations of the all-party committee. The complexities involved in holding a referendum require that careful consideration be given to the frequency with which referenda can realistically be held and the significance of the issues in question. At this point, there are no plans to hold any referenda during 2003.

  I wrote to the All-Party Committee on the Constitution in February 2000, requesting it to consider the property rights aspects of the Constitution. To this end, it has invited submissions on property rights from the public and interest groups by way of advertisements in the newspapers on Friday, 11 April and Sunday, 13 April 2003. The committee is giving this matter priority and will make recommendations as soon as deliberations are completed.

  The Deputies will also be aware that a sub-committee of the Seanad Committee on Procedures and Privileges is considering the overall issue of reform of the Seanad. The recommendations they will make in due course may also require constitutional amendment.

  Mr. Kenny: Does the Taoiseach accept that the opportunity to provide housing at an affordable price is now beyond the reach of most young couples? The recent reference to the examination by an Oireachtas committee of a report which envisages a constitutional change on the issue of compulsory purchase of land for housing is only a smokescreen which will not deal with the immediate problem. Figures in yesterday's newspapers indicated that the average cost of a house is now €256,000 in Dublin and €198,000 outside the capital. Does this not amount to an economic crucifixion for young couples, who are forced to borrow up to €250,000 in some cases? The Government abolished the first-time buyer's grant, increased VAT charges and introduced a whole range of stealth taxes—

  An Ceann Comhairle: The question relates to amendments to the Constitution.

  Mr. Kenny: I understand that, but what I am trying to do—

  An Ceann Comhairle: A passing reference is fine, but we cannot enter into a debate on the issue.

  Mr. Kenny: It is a passing reference. In the absence of this report, which will not be produced [787]until next year at the earliest, what does the Taoiseach intend to do about the constitutional right to home ownership of the thousands of young couples who are now denied that aspiration?

  An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy's question should relate to changes in the Constitution.

  Mr. Kenny: I have said my piece.

  The Taoiseach: There is no constitutional right to home ownership. The all-party committee is examining this issue in the context of the Constitution and I hope it comes up with some initiatives. I accept that, as the Deputy said, this will not change the current position – it is not designed to do so. The issue is also being examined in the context of Sustaining Progress. The Deputy knows the current position of house building and ownership, so I will not go into that. Almost 60,000 houses were built over the past year, which equates to a rate of 14.5 per thousand. This is double the rate of anywhere else in the EU. In the UK, excluding Northern Ireland, about 170,000 houses were built in the past year. The percentage of first-time buyers is increasing.

  Mr. Kenny: I am not sure whether the Taoiseach said he envisages having a constitutional referendum during the lifetime of this Government. A total of 38% of people did not vote in the last election. That means that either politics passed them by or they saw no relevance in it. This may well be because both Church and State have let down a great number of people. Arising from those statistics, do the Taoiseach and the Government have any strategy for attempting to make politics more relevant to the people who did not vote, particularly among the younger and poorer sections of society? Do they have a plan of campaign, working through the various Departments, to make people appreciate, if that is possible, that good politics and decisive and moral leadership can have a beneficial impact on their lives?

  The Taoiseach: As Deputy Kenny knows, following a case some years ago we set up the Electoral Commission, which made some changes in the way things were done by the Referendum Commission. A report was subsequently issued by the commission to the effect that in the last referendum improvements were made. It believes that the way it ran the last campaign in terms of advertising, the time allowed and other matters have been resolved and that the system is more effective.

  Generally, on referenda, if issues are being grouped in referenda, one must try to select issues which stimulate public interest. During the lifetime of the previous Dáil it was difficult to stimulate the interest of people on some referenda issues. When an issue arises in which the political system is involved, whether it is for or against it [788]or divided it is a different matter. The work of the Referendum Commission should be built on. The chairperson of the Referendum Commission in its last report set out some further issues that we should examine. As previous Governments have done in respect of all previous reports of the Referendum Commission, the Government has dealt with those and put in the effort.

  On the matter of trying to gain electoral support, a campaign will be run at the time of next year's elections to explain how the electronic voting system works for those who have not used it, to attract people to exercise their vote and to highlight the issues. Unfortunately, it is now necessary to build a campaign for a period in advance of an election on the issues and that will happen next year.

  Mr. J. Higgins: The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Noel Ahern, spoke on Vincent Browne's RTE programme last night and on “Morning Ireland” this morning. He stated that €100,000 of the €250,000 cost of an average home in Dublin should be put down to the price of the site, the price of the land on which the home was built. Why has it taken this and the previous Government six years before the Taoiseach has come to the Dáil and promised that an all-party Oireachtas committee will look into this crisis? He was spitting fire against profiteering at the IMI conference in Killarney a few weeks ago.

  An Ceann Comhairle: A question, please, Deputy.

  Mr. J. Higgins: One would imagine that the profiteering horse has only just bolted. Is the Taoiseach aware that this horse has not so much bolted as has been running around rezoned fields in Dublin and other areas for five years and is completely out of control? Rather than going off now on another chase to the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, will he act on a report that is 30 years old, known as the Kenny report, which recommended at that stage controlling building land prices, the implementation of which does not need a constitutional referendum?

  The Taoiseach: I have answered all these matters recently. What is happening now in the House is that in regard to the issues I stated, Members are now supporting them but saying that they thought them up. That is what is happening. If the Deputy wishes me to repeat the issues, I will do so. I have revived the property issue and the Kenny report. The Deputy will be aware that there were a number of flaws in the Kenny report and that is why it was not acted on. If the Deputy were to note some of the proposals stated in it, he would note that they would not result in increasing the supply side. Even five or six years ago, we were building about 35,000 houses a year; we are now building 60,000 houses a year. It is a demand and supply issue. It was [789]written a long time ago by an eminent professor of economics, Professor Hansen, that where the problem is one of supply and demand and there is an excess of demand that the only way to deal with that is to deal with the supply side. That theory has not changed.

  There is a related issue of property and land values, and I have stated on numerous occasions what we could try to do in this area. Addressing these issues is not simple and I do not believe anyone purports to believe that it is. To increase the supply side, the Government has had to intervene in the market through the implementation of three Bacon reports and through changing the Planning and Development Act on two occasions. We have got the supply side right. What people have done down through the years is to manage to create problems in the marketplace. The first issue is that of supply.

  There is the related issue of land and there is the question of spatial strategy, where people live and where industry is based. This Government has dealt with most of those issues and is dealing with the other issues.

  Mr. Allen: It has not. It has done nothing.

  An Ceann Comhairle: I call Deputy Sargent.

  Mr. J. Higgins: I wish to ask a supplementary question.

  An Ceann Comhairle: I will come back to the Deputy.

  Mr. Sargent: The Taoiseach will not be surprised to hear that people do not believe the Government has dealt or is dealing with this matter. Many feel it is unable or is not willing to deal with it. The committee has met since 1995 and has made a litany of recommendations, but there is no great history of implementing them.

  In regard to the price of land and the housing crisis, which is worsening for many, would the Government be prepared to implement recommendations which went beyond changes in the Constitution? So far, the comments committee members have heard are to the effect that the problem is not the Constitution but the lack of political will to take on the vested interests in the property market. Would the Taoiseach be prepared to act on recommendations in this regard, whether they involve a site value tax to deal with speculation on development land or stricter planning so that every farm does not become a potential area for development, driving up land prices, making farming unviable and denying people shelter and housing? Will the Government reflect on that and not wait for recommendations from the committee in regard to the Constitution which may not be the nub of the problem?

  The Taoiseach: Deputy Sargent is correct and that is why the Government is not waiting and has progressed matters in a number of ways. We [790]were once building fewer than 35,000 houses a year whereas now we are building 60,000.

  Mr. Sargent: Who can afford them?

  The Taoiseach: It is not a case that they are being built and no one is buying them.

  Mr. Allen: Speculators are. They comprise 30% of buyers.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Does Deputy Allen have a question?

  The Taoiseach: The proportion of first-time buyers is increasing.

  Mr. Sargent: The banks are buying them.

  The Taoiseach: A few years ago when we clamped down on the rental market, there was an outcry in the House to the effect that it was the wrong thing—

  Mr. Allen: There was not.

  The Taoiseach: There was.

  Mr. Allen: The Government discovered it was wrong and did a U-turn.

  An Ceann Comhairle: I will take that as Deputy Allen's supplementary question.

  The Taoiseach: There was an outcry in the House that we should not affect the rental market in that way, that it was the wrong thing to do. We know that since those changes were made rents of properties have decreased dramatically in Dublin and other parts of the country.

  Mr. Durkan: They have not down our way.

  The Taoiseach: It can be seen in the figures that are issued every quarter.

  It is a question of getting the supply side right and dealing with the land aspect. I spent a great deal of time recently with the social partners in the discussions on Sustaining Progress examining the issues involved in this matter. They are not simple and I presume that is the reason successive Governments did not implement the Kenny report. With the legislation coming before us on protecting rents and in combination with the Planning and Development Act, the supply side has been moved forward.

  The constitutional review group is one aspect and Deputy Sargent is correct to say that there are aspects to this that do not require constitutional amendment, especially since the debate that took place in court on Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000. There are other issues that can be progressed, such as what land can be compulsorily purchased, where it is to be zoned, what framework plan is put in place for [791]local authorities and so on. They are not part of this question but I will freely debate them.

  Mr. Sargent: What about a site value tax on development land?

  The Taoiseach: Many measures, such as imposing wealth taxes, have been played with for the past 30 years. The first problem is to try to get the supply correct when there is a demand for housing.

  Mr. Sargent: It is not affordable.

  The Taoiseach: One would say nothing is affordable if one examines the prices, but if the ratio of mortgages to income over a period is examined, and such data are available, there is not much difference between 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001. All these data have been produced and Members should inform themselves of some of these issues.

  Mr. Kenny: A house in Galway costs €280,000.

  Mr. Cullen: The ratio of mortgages to income has not changed.

  Mr. Kenny: A three bedroom house in Galway—

  An Ceann Comhairle: We are wandering well away from the substance of the six questions asked of the Taoiseach.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Focusing on another area of the work of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, I wish to ask the Taoiseach if he recognises that following the unilateral suspension of the Assembly elections by the British Government, people in the Six Counties have no democratic forum to which to send their representatives? What steps are being taken by the Taoiseach to pursue the recommendations of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution regarding access for elected MPs in the Six Counties' constituencies to the Houses of the Oireachtas? I missed the Taoiseach's initial response to the questions so may I ask whether changes envisaged in order to accommodate these important steps require constitutional change through referenda or whether, as I and others believe, such changes might not be necessary and that what is required is a decision by the Taoiseach and his Cabinet to allow for the facilitation? Will the Taoiseach recognise the importance of filling the current vacuum and allowing northern elected MPs the opportunity to have rights of attendance and rights of participation in specific debates accommodated at the earliest opportunity?

  The Taoiseach: Some of these issues may ultimately require constitutional amendments but others do not. The All-Party Committee on the [792]Constitution set out what could be done in regard to the right of audience and the right to participate in debates in this House. There was an all-party agreement on that early last year. The Government agreed to that. I have since asked party leaders for their views on the matter. The Government is in favour of the right of MEPS to attend and participate in committee debates on the EU and for Northern Ireland elected representatives to participate in debates on the Good Friday Agreement and other relevant debates. Some of those mechanisms can be put in place if there is agreement in the House.

  On the more long-term issue, the all-party committee raised the issue of Seanad Éireann. That will be further developed when a report is published later this year on the long-term position and that has my support. As soon as there is agreement in the House, I am prepared to move on those issues.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Will the Taoiseach take ownership of this matter?

  The Taoiseach: Yes, most certainly.

  Mr. Rabbitte: For the Taoiseach to accuse Deputy Joe Higgins and Deputy Sargent of following his lead on this matter is like accusing 100,000 people of going out on the streets following his lead on the invasion of Iraq. I do not know if the Taoiseach listened to the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Noel Ahern, on the radio last night who said that the reason the Simon Community has found more people on the streets is because he has given them more money for outreach workers and that if he had not done so, they would not have found all these people on the streets.

  I wish to return to the question of private property. A number of months ago I asked the Taoiseach a question about private property and whether we could assert the primacy of the public good over private property in the matter of housing. The Taoiseach announced, much to the shock of Deputy Denis O'Donovan, that he had referred the matter to the all-party committee. What is the point of referring this urgent, immediate issue to an all-party committee that will take a couple of years to make a report on it? More importantly, what is the point when it is the manifestly inappropriate thing to do? I can understand the Taoiseach referring the matter of whether the Constitution ought to be reformed to a committee of the Oireachtas or of this House, but if one wants to know whether there is a constitutional impediment in the matter of the regulation of the cost of land, that is a matter for the law officer to the Government.

  Did the Taoiseach seek the advice of the Attorney General and if he did, what is his advice? Has he any plausible explanation for referring this to a committee which will spend a couple of years waffling about it – after six years [793]have passed, as Deputy Higgins said, which comes to a total of eight years – rather than ask for the view of the man who sits at his left-hand at the Cabinet table whose job it is to answer such questions? The Taoiseach is not serious about this matter. Does he agree that five, six or perhaps seven developers hoard all the land in this county and the surrounding counties and does he intend to have the register examined to see what steps might be taken to cause that land to come into the marketplace at the speed our people require housing as distinct from at the speed his supporter friends require development?

  The Taoiseach: I am sorry for upsetting Deputy Rabbitte if he thought it was his idea. On 29 February 2000 – it was not just a few weeks ago – I wrote to Deputy O'Donovan and I wrote to the then chairperson of the committee in relation to the consideration by the All-Party Committee on the Constitution of the personal and property rights aspects of the Constitution. That was more than three years ago. I will give a brief summary of the letter. I stated that there were major strategic issues arising in relation to the delivery of accelerated infrastructural projects under consideration by the Cabinet committee on infrastructural development. On 15 February the Government endorsed an integrated package of changes under the statutory approval and judicial review process in order to underpin that. In the course of preparing the package of measures I set out—

  Mr. Rabbitte: What happened in the three years?

  An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy must allow the Taoiseach to answer the question.

  Mr. Rabbitte: Zilch happened.

  The Taoiseach: I will tell the Deputy.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Rabbitte will have a chance to put a supplementary question to the Taoiseach. I ask Members to allow any Member who is called by the Chair to make a contribution without interruption.

  The Taoiseach: My reply will be very brief, a Cheann Comhairle. In the course of preparing the package of measures, a number of issues recognised under the Constitution as having a bearing on planning cases which came before the courts were identified. These were outlined in detail and at great length. Following that and in trying to move on the infrastructural issues, the Planning and Development Act was referred to the Supreme Court during that summer. The Government fought the case to make changes on the grounds of affordability for houses. The Government won its case, including the important aspect under Part V which recognised for the first time since 1937 that the State had a right to intervene in these matters and to try to deal with afford[794]ability issues. This allowed us to move on and make further changes last year to make this work and we passed the Bill in this House.

  These measures have helped affordability and supply. We know from those involved in the industry that we are fairly close to maximum capacity in the construction industry. We have gone from a maximum of approximately 35,000 houses five or six years ago to 60% currently—

  Mr. Allen: At unaffordable prices?

  The Taoiseach: —with a higher proportion of affordability. If one considers the indices over several years, there is not much difference.

  Mr. Rabbitte: What is the answer to the question I raised.

  The Taoiseach: We have addressed the issue of supply. The construction industry is on maximum affordability. We have moved the supply side up—

  Mr. Rabbitte: There was no need to do that. That is not the question I asked.

  The Taoiseach: The Deputy asked what has happened since.

  Mr. Rabbitte: I asked the Taoiseach if he consulted the Attorney General and, if so, what did he say. Why did he not go that route rather than wasting another two years, with all due respect to the eminent Deputy O'Donovan?

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy, I take it this is a supplementary question.

  The Taoiseach: I will answer it as a supplementary question. The advice of the Attorney General is that one will be able to do certain things in line with Part V of the Act. It will not be everything. However, it will be useful for the short term and we are using that mechanism in the action programme as one of the ten items listed in Sustaining Progress.

  Mr. Rabbitte: With respect, that does not make sense.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Rabbitte.

  The Taoiseach: It does.

  Mr. Rabbitte: If he told the Taoiseach that, he is talking nonsense.

  The Taoiseach: If the Deputy wishes to say the Attorney General, who went in and fought the case, is talking nonsense—

  Mr. Rabbitte: No, but I doubt he said that. That is complete spoof.

  The Taoiseach: There is a capacity for the [795]Government, using Part V of the Act relating to which we won the case in the Supreme Court—

  Mr. Allen: You did a U-turn there.

  The Taoiseach: Please, I am trying to answer the question.

  Mr. Rabbitte: You gave the 16,000 sites back to the builders.

  The Taoiseach: —to actually improve the affordability of the housing market.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Rabbitte, I ask you to keep quiet for the Taoiseach.

  Mr. Allen: We cannot even understand what he is saying.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Allen, I will ask you to leave the House if you do not conduct yourself.

  Mr. Rabbitte: There is no constitutional imposition on us to sit here and listen to waffle, a Cheann Comhairle.

  An Ceann Comhairle: The Taoiseach is entitled to make his contribution and have it on the record like any other Member. I will ask the Deputy to leave if he opens his mouth again.

  Mr. Allen: You are very touchy today.

  The Taoiseach: Deputy Rabbitte asked why we are not using a route other than what is offered by the constitutional review group. I have answered him by saying that Part V of the 2000 Act is the means we have been using to increase the affordability of the supply of houses. We are up to over 12,000—

  Mr. Allen: The Taoiseach said nothing happened in December, when he did a U-turn.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Allen, I ask you to leave the House.

  Mr. Allen: It is rubbish.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Allen, we cannot have this continuous interruption during Question Time. I am asking you to leave the House.

  Mr. Kenny: That is very unfair, a Cheann Comhairle.

  An Ceann Comhairle: I am asking you to leave the House. I told you I would ask you to leave the House if you did not stop interrupting.

  Mr. Allen: Let me put a question, Sir.

[796]  An Ceann Comhairle: No, I am asking you to leave the House.

  Mr. McGinley: A Cheann Comhairle, give him a chance.

  Mr. Kenny: Give him a chance.

  An Ceann Comhairle: No, I am asking you to leave the House. If not, I will have to name you.

  Mr. McGinley: He means well.

  Mr. Allen: When one is listening to that rubbish, one is provoked. However, I will stay quiet.

  An Ceann Comhairle: I am asking you to leave the House, Deputy.

  Mr. Allen: I will stay quiet.

  An Ceann Comhairle: No, I asked you to leave the House. If not, I will name you because you are totally out of order.

  Mr. Rabbitte: A Cheann Comhairle, you cannot be serious.

  Mr. Kenny: That is most unfair. Deputy Allen did no more than any Deputy would do when they are concerned about an issue.

  An Ceann Comhairle: I move: “That Deputy Bernard Allen be suspended from the service of the Dáil.” Is the motion opposed?

  Mr. Rabbitte: That is outrageous. Are you serious? Are you suggesting that a Member cannot heckle in this House anymore?

  Mr. Kenny: This is the national House of Parliament and we are not entitled to ask a question.

  An Ceann Comhairle: It is more than heckling. This is happening on a regular basis.

  Mr. Kenny: This is a poor day for democracy.

  An Ceann Comhairle: A heckle is all right but there has to be order at Question Time. Deputy Rabbitte, you did not give good example. Deputy Allen, I am asking you to leave the House.

  Mr. McGinley: I think the Taoiseach wants him to stay.

  Mr. Rabbitte: A Cheann Comhairle, were it not for the fact that you would name me, I would mention something about protecting the Taoiseach.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Is the motion opposed?

  Mr. Kenny: We oppose the motion.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Under Standing Order 61, any division is postponed, to take place [797]immediately before the Order of Business on the next sitting day. The Deputy must leave the House.

  Mr. Allen: This is unbelievable.

  Mr. Kenny: That is incredible, a Cheann Comhairle. It is grossly unfair to a senior member of the Fine Gael front bench.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy, I ask you to leave the House.

  Mr. Allen: I thought the vote would be taken tomorrow.

  An Ceann Comhairle: The vote is postponed but you must leave the House now.

  Mr. Allen: Does that mean I have to leave now?

  An Ceann Comhairle: Yes.

  Mr. Allen: What if the House decides that I should not leave?

  An Ceann Comhairle: That will happen tomorrow morning. That is stated in the Standing Order, Deputy.

  Mr. Rabbitte: We will decide tomorrow whether the Deputy should leave today.

  Mr. Allen: That is not rational or logical. There will be a vote tomorrow and you are asking me to leave today.

  An Ceann Comhairle: We cannot have a debate on it, Deputy. I ask you to leave the House. The ruling has been made and that is as stated in the Standing Order.

  Mr. Allen: I do not accept it because I think you are protecting the Taoiseach and his waffle.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Then we will have to suspend the sitting for five minutes.

  Mr. Kenny: Will the Chair explain the criteria he used for the expulsion of Deputy Allen from the House?

  Mr. McGinley: Under what Standing Order?

  Mr. Durkan: For what reason?

  Mr. Kenny: It is grossly unfair to do this.

  An Ceann Comhairle: The sitting is suspended for five minutes to give Deputy Allen a chance to leave the House.

  Sitting suspended at 3.04 p.m. and resumed at 3.16 p.m.

  An Ceann Comhairle: As Deputy Allen is still [798]in his seat the House will be suspended for a further 20 minutes. Should Deputy Allen still be in the House at that stage, Question Time will be suspended until 4.15 p.m. There will be no negotiations.

  Sitting suspended at 3.17 p.m. and resumed at 3.37 p.m.