Monday 14 October 2019

'These guys are as cute as foxes' - officials accused of 'spin' on social housing numbers

Disapproving: Independent TD Catherine Connolly hit out at policy. Photo: Tom Burke
Disapproving: Independent TD Catherine Connolly hit out at policy. Photo: Tom Burke
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

The Department of Housing was accused of "spin" in how it presented figures for the number of new social homes built last year, as senior officials appeared before the Dáil's spending watchdog.

Elsewhere, it was revealed that construction costs have returned to levels not seen since the end of the boom years.

The Government's first annual report on the building sector's performance and prospects found that economy-­wide investment in construction will grow to €30bn this year.

It warns that certain trades like plastering and brick-laying face potential skill shortages and that "costs pressures continue". The report says that construction tender prices grew by 7.4pc last year, putting costs back at peak levels.

Earlier, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) heard from Department of Housing secretary general John McCarthy that roughly one-in-four homes built last year was social housing and the new-build figure was 85pc up on 2017.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy referred to around 1,200 units built by councils last year and claimed the department was engaged in "spin".

She said the way the figures were presented "gives impression that we're really getting ahead of a crisis that's there". She argued that it was not a "fair reflection" on the extent of the crisis.

Mr McCarthy said he "absolutely wouldn't accept at all that there's any element of spin involved here".

Fianna Fáil TD Shane Cassells brought up the use of the department's Rebuilding Ireland Twitter account to share posts by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy that featured the Fine Gael logo and highlighted housing figures.

"This was a Fine Gael graphic indicating a particular message and I have a huge, huge difficulty with that because these guys are as cute as foxes and they're trying to get that imagery out," he said.

He claimed "a department retweeting that for me has major ethical issues".

Mr McCarthy said he wasn't familiar with the retweets and said there was no directive from Mr Murphy to the department about such posts.

He said that his department's social media accounts focused on facts, but added: "I take your point fully. If something in a particular graphic that has a party political element attached to it, I will certainly look into it."

The department last night said the tweets were shared "in error" and the retweets had now been removed from the Rebuilding Ireland account.

Independent TD Catherine Connolly said there were 71,858 households waiting for social housing and 43,000 that are getting Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) who are excluded from the housing list. She put it to Mr McCarthy, "they're off the waiting list and they're considered adequately housed... Isn't that shocking?"

Mr McCarthy said: "That's the policy". He added that €423m would be spent on HAP this year.

Ms Connolly said this was "going straight into the private market". She said that with almost 10,000 in emergency accommodation and millions being spent on hotels and family hubs, she found Government policy to be "unacceptable".

Mr Varadkar was asked about the latest homelessness figures - 9,987 people in January - during an appearance at another Oireachtas committee. He said the numbers were "bad and very disappointing" and he wanted to see the figures going down rather than stabilising around 10,000.

Irish Independent

Also in Business