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FactCheck: The claims made by Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin in the first leaders' debate

Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin clashed last night in a debate on Virgin Media One. We’ve looked at the main claims.

Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

AS PART OF our coverage of the general election campaign, we’ve been factchecking the claims of candidates and parties. 

The debate last night between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is no exception. 

Both party leaders made various claims and counter-claims as they clashed on issues like housing, waiting lists and pensions. 

Last night, we ran a live factcheck of the debate on Twitter and today we’ve factchecked some of the major claims and points of contention. 

Claim 1: Homeownership

“We have the lowest level of homeownership in this country since 1971. And that’s, in my view, something that you [Taoiseach Leo Varadkar] contributed to creating”, Martin said during last night’s debate. 

“Those numbers are disputable”, Varadkar replied. 

It’s a claim Micheál Martin has made before. In the Dáil last July, he accused Fine Gael of presiding over an economy that has the lowest rate of homeownership in 50 years. 

So is he correct? Does Ireland have the lowest level of homeownership now since 1971? 

The facts

Ireland has often been seen as a country with home-ownership rates among the highest in the world. In 1971, 70.8% of Irish households were home-owners, compared to 50% in the UK. 

By 1991, homeownership rates had risen to 80%, compared to 65% in the UK. 

However, in recent years the rate of homeownership has indeed decreased. 

As of 2016, homeownership rates had dropped from 69.7% in 2011 to 67.6%. 

This does mean that homeownership rates have dropped to figures last seen in 1971. 

Micheal Martin’s implication was that Fine Gael governments have contributed to the falling rates of homeownership; however it should be noted that homeownership rates have actually been steadily dropping since 1991 – a 29-year period during which both of the main parties held power – with a steeper decline beginning in 2006. 

Capture Source: CSO

UCD academic and housing expert Michelle Norris wrote in 2013 that “the reasons for the rise and fall in Ireland’s homeownership rate have been subject to remarkably little research to date”, but that high ownership rates during the 20th century was the “result of very extensive government supports”.

The drop in the 21st century, she wrote, cannot be separated from the 2008 crash.

Verdict

Micheál Martin is correct to state that homeownership rates are at the lowest level since 1971.

He also said that Fine Gael had “contributed to creating” these lower rates of homeownership, which ignores the fact that Fianna Fáil was in power for 16 years of the period since 1991 during which homeownership rates have declined. 

Therefore, our verdict for this is:  TRUE

As per our verdict guide, this means: The claim is accurate, and is not missing any significant details or context.

Claim 2: Housing

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said last night that over 20,000 homes were built last year by the government. 

It’s a claim that has been repeatedly made by housing minister Eoghan Murphy. Back in December 2019, TheJournal.ie tried to decipher how many new homes are actually being built. 

Here’s what we found:  

2,949 new homes have been delivered through the social housing leasing scheme, where local authorities pay near market rent to private landlords for social housing over a period of 25 years.Another 7,783 homes have been acquired from banks’ investment or loan portfolios for use as social housing.But the number of new homes the government has actually built through local authorities or AHBs stands at 13,036, including just over 1,200 new builds during the first half of 2019.

The government is targeting an additional 5,300 new builds by the end of 2019 and another 16,600 in the next two calendar years.

This would bring the most realistic figure to around 6,000 units a year in terms of homes built by the government during the lifetime of Rebuilding Ireland. 

For more, read the factfind here

Claim 3: Help to Buy

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was questioned last night on his government’s record on housing. Host Pat Kenny asked Varadkar about his own experience of buying a house at 24 or 25 – an experience the taoiseach had discussed in a previous interview during the campaign. 

“We’ve already made a big change by introducing the Help to Buy scheme. That’s helped 15,000 individuals and couples to buy their first home,” Varadkar said. 

The Facts

The government has used the election campaign to talk about the impact of the Help to Buy scheme, which Varadkar has said he wants to expand further. 

The Help-to-Buy scheme is an incentive introduced for first-time buyers in Budget 2017, to try to help them reach the level of savings required to afford a deposit for a house.

The scheme, which was announced in Budget 2017, entitles those buying new-build or self-build homes valued up to €600,000 to claim a tax rebate of up to 5% of the value of the home up to €20,000.

The scheme is controversial and then-Central Bank Governor Philip Lane said in 2017 that it would increase the cost of house prices. 

Statistics published by Revenue at the start of the month show that Revenue has received 35,225 Help to Buy applications. 

17,062 Help-to-Buy claims – the second stage of the process – have been made, with 16,409 approved as of 2 January 2020. 

“Applications will progress to the claim stage only if the applicant decides to purchase a property that is eligible for the scheme. Many applications may never progress to the claim stage because the applicant does not purchase a property or purchases a property not eligible for the scheme,” according to Revenue

In 2019, 12,981 approved and pending applications were made to Help-to-Buy. This year, a total of 6,713 applications made it to the claims stage. 

For more on the scheme, read this piece from January 2019.

Verdict

Focused solely on the numbers of people who have made a successful Help to Buy application, Leo Varadkar is correct. 

Therefore, our verdict for this is: TRUE

As per our verdict guide, this means: The claim is accurate, and is not missing any significant details or context.

Claim 4: Waiting lists

A significant portion of last night’s interview focused on the two former health ministers defending their record. 

One significant claim was the one made by Micheál Martin. Questioned by host Pat Kenny, Martin said that “waiting lists were down to six months when I was Minister for Health, by the end of it.”

But is it true? Did Martin cut waiting lists to six months?

The Facts

This isn’t the first time Micheál Martin has promoted his record as health minister and he has often focused on the issue as leader of Fianna Fáil. Martin was Minister for Health and Children under Taoiseach Bertie Ahern between 2000 and 2004. 

The creation of the National Treatment Purchase Fund in 2004 undoubtedly changed the provision of healthcare in Ireland – it was designed to help adults and children who had been waiting more than six months for an operation. 

Martin didn’t specify last night what type of waiting lists he meant, but in-patient waiting data was being widely cited by the government as a success story in 2004. 

Answering parliamentary questions in February 2004, only a few months before he left the role of health minister, Martin cited waiting list data from September 2003. 

The data, he said, showed that the total number of adults waiting for more than 12 months for in-patient treatment across the nine target surgical specialities fell by 42% between September 2002 and September 2003. 

“The total number of children waiting more than six months for in-patient treatment in the target specialities has decreased by approximately 39% in the same period,” Martin told the Dáil. 

“Significant progress has been made in many health board areas to achieve reductions in waiting times,” he said. 

He credited reductions with the creation of the National Treatment Purchase Fund. 

His figures appear to come partially from this report on waiting lists published by the Department of Health and Children.

Capture Source: Department of Health

The report states that in December 2003 4,245 people were on a three to six-month waiting list, 4,472 people were on a six to 12-month waiting list, while 2,080 people were waiting between 12 and 24 months. 

1,257 people were waiting over 24 months. 

This is backed up by research from the Central Statistics Office. A CSO report here also details waiting list figures in 2001, 2007 and 2010 – a time when Fianna Fáil was in government. 

It found that while the number of people waiting for an outpatient appointment for less than three months had declined from 2001 to 2010, the number of people waiting between three and six months actually increased from 2001 onwards. 

Verdict

Micheál Martin, as health minister, did introduce measures to tackle waiting lists. However, waiting lists were not all completely reduced to six months and many people were still waiting for longer. 

Even in the Dáil a few months before he left the department in September 2004, Martin was not claiming to have succeeded in bringing waiting lists down to six months. 

Therefore our verdict for this is: Mostly FALSE: 

As per our verdict guide, this means: There is an element of truth in the claim, but it is missing critical details or context. Or, the best available evidence weighs against the claim.

With reporting from Emer Moreau

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