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FactCheck: The claims from the final party leaders' debate of this year's election campaign

We looked at more of the claims made during last night’s last leaders debate.

Factcheck

THERE WAS NO shortage of questionable comments and claims during the final party leaders’ debate of this year’s election campaign – and that was just from the moderators.

The seven-way debate, which aired on Virgin Media One last night, was marked by bad tempers and fiery exchanges as hosts Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates poked and prodded each candidate as they sought to outline their party’s credentials.

But despite all that, some claims did manage to escape between the shouting and the interruptions. We were even able to do a live factcheck on assertions about housing, TDs’ interests, carbon emissions, government spending and Irish unity.

Today, we’ll look at some of the other claims made by the leaders in a bit more detail.

Claim 1: The Housing Assistance Payment

Unlike Monday’s debate on RTÉ, just a small portion of last night’s debate focused on the housing crisis.

And although some of that time was spent repeating claims from Monday’s debate, there was a rare jab at the government over its reliance on the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) to accommodate those on Ireland’s social housing waiting list.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy hit out at the cost of financing the measure, which sees local authorities subsidise the rent paid by tenants on the social housing list to private landlords.

She said:

We’re spending a fortune on the Housing Assistance Payment and delivering terrible outcomes… half a billion this year on HAP.

The Facts

HAP was first brought in on a phased basis by local authorities from 2014, and has formed a central part of the Department of Housing’s Rebuilding Ireland strategy, which was introduced two years later.

So far, 60,770 people have been housed using the payment under Rebuilding Ireland.

The payment is funded annually through the Exchequer, rising from €0.5m in 2014 to €423m for 2018.

Last year, the government ringfenced an additional €80m for HAP as part of Budget 2020, bringing the annual budget for the payment to €503m.

It’s important to point out that the total take-up of HAP came under budget in 2014, 2015 and 2018 – and may well have done so again in 2019 and this year.

But figures for 2019 aren’t available yet, and we obviously won’t know if the payment comes under budget in 2020 until next year.

Verdict

Cathrine Murphy claimed that half a billion Euro would be spent on HAP this year. The government allocated €503m for the payment as part of Budget 2020.

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: Fines for carbon emissions

Expenditure on carbon emissions was also discussed by the party leaders. During one part of the debate, leaders discussed the introduction of free transport, which led to arguments about whether the cost of doing so was worth it in the long run.

That led Green Party leader Eamon Ryan to declare that he would rather invest a significant sum to reduce carbon emissions now, than pay the same money in fines in the coming years.

Taking aim at the climate policies put forward by other parties, he said:

In all those figures that are presented [in other manifestos], they’re not presenting the money that will achieve the reduction [in emissions] that we need.
It’s clearly not. What I’m saying is, is that if any government is going to be formed, it has to look first of all and say that if we don’t do this, we’re facing at least a €7 billion euro fine.

The Evidence

Asked to clarify where Ryan’s figure came from, a Green Party spokesman cited figures obtained by Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty in a Parliamentary Question.

According to the response by Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton, it is expected that Ireland could exceed its cumulative greenhouse gas emissions up to 75 million tonnes between 2021 and 2030.

The estimated figure for the fine cited by Ryan is based on the price of so-called ‘carbon credits’.

These credits allow countries to offset the amount of extra carbon they emit by paying for permits which are valued at the price of a ton of carbon (which allow countries to emit that amount of carbon).

The price is set by the the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme, and is currently €32 per tonne, but is expected to rise to €100 per tonne by 2030.

However, the price of carbon credits has been increasing in recent years because they are seeing increased demand as countries continue to miss their targets. It’s also important to note that these credits are not fines: 

For example, previous recommended projected values of carbon credits under the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme were €10 per tonne by 2020, €35 per tonne by 2030 – so the price could increase again, making the amount paid by Ireland over the next decade even higher.

The Green Party also pointed to articles in the Business Post and Irish Examiner which cited the €7 billion figure when reporting Doherty’s PQ last year. But both reports write about this outcome as conditional, rather than a certainty.

A similar report in the Irish Times the following day cites the figure as €6 billion.

What’s more, the amount of carbon that Ireland emits isn’t a certain quantity – new measures could theoretically be introduced by a new government that lower our carbon excess.

But Ireland’s emissions are continuing to increase, along with the price of carbon credits, so it is entirely possible that we will spend more than €7 billion to offset our emissions by 2030.

Verdict

Minister for Communications Richard Bruton admitted that Ireland could exceed its greenhouse gas emissions by between 59 and 75 million tonnes between 2021 and 2030.

This could see us paying carbon credits of up to €7 billion, and possibly more, according to reports in two national newspapers based on figures outlined by the minister.

However, these credits are not fines; they can be purchased as part of a legitimate trading scheme set up by the EU.

Meanwhile, the amount carbon that Ireland will emit between now and 2030 is neither fixed nor certain, much like the price of carbon credits.

But if Ireland does not offset its emissions and continue to rely on the increasing price of carbon credits, it will likely pay more than €7 billion in carbon credits to offset its emissions based on current trends.

Therefore, our verdict for this is: MIXTURE

As per our verdict guide, this means that there are elements of truth in the claim, but also elements of falsehood, or the best available evidence is evenly weighted in support of, and against, the claim.

Claim 3: Money ‘wasted’ on the National Children’s Hospital

Later, the money already spent by one party on a capital project was the centre to another claim.

It has been repeated by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar multiple times during this campaign, as he seeks to turn accusations about his party’s reckless spending on the National Children’s Hospital on to Fianna Fáil.

Hitting back at claims his party had overspent on the project, he said:

The only money wasted on the National Children’s hospital is the €35m spent by Fianna Fáil not developing a site at the Mater Hospital.

The Evidence

The construction of a new national children’s hospital has been on the cards for decades, but the first serious attempts to get the project off the ground happened under the Fianna Fáil government in the first decade of this century.

After years of false starts, the HSE commissioned a review into tertiary paediatric services, resulting in the ‘Children’s Health First’ McKinsey report in 2006.

Following the publication of that report, a joint HSE and Department of Health group decided that the new hospital should be built at the Mater Hospital in north Dublin.

Then, after years of false starts and controversies, the project hit a brick wall in February 2012, when An Bord Pleanála refused permission for the hospital to be built.

By then, the Fine Gael government was in charge and following another report, it was to decided to build a hospital at St. James’s on the south of the city instead.

Two years later, project director for the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board (NPHDB), John Pollock told the Public Accounts Committee that €41.5m had been spent trying to secure planning at a site at the Mater.

Pollock also said that just €6.2m of this would have a “retained value” at the new site, and that the remaining €35m had been written off – the figure Varadkar is talking about.

The value of money

However, it is important to consider what a true ‘waste’ of money is, as opposed to the price of sounding out options.

For example, with any project of this scale it is inevitable that consultation fees will be paid for advice that isn’t taken – but can this really be considered a ‘waste’?

Even assuming it is, one can also apply Varadkar’s own standards and describe the money that was spent by Fine Gael on an abandoned name for the hospital as a waste.

Within weeks of construction starting on the hospital in October 2017, questions arose about the choice of name after it emerged that it was similar to another facility: the Phoenix Children’s Hospital in Arizona in the US.

A report in the Irish Times later revealed that the Phoenix Children’s Hospital had threatened legal action if the new Irish hospital went ahead with the same name.

The National Children’s Hospital subsequently abandoned the name in April 2018, after the Children’s Hospital Group had already spent over €40,000 on it.

Verdict

The National Children’s Hospital project has been an ongoing saga in Irish politics, with various plans for the project stretching back decades.

The project was originally supposed to be built at the Mater Hospital in north Dublin, but was refused planning permission for that site in 2012.

The hospital’s development board later wrote off most of the money that had been spent trying to secure a planning site at the Mater, which amounted to around €35 million.

However, it’s difficult to define what a ‘waste’ of money is, especially on a capital project of this size. There are simply too many costs and expenses associated with developing a new paediatric hospital to separate money that is ‘wasted’ from money that is not.

What’s more, Fine Gael also spent money on a name for the new hospital at the St James’s site that was eventually dropped – itself a ‘waste’ of money by Varadkar’s standards.

Therefore, our verdict for this claim is: NONSENSE

As per our verdict guide, claim is wildly inaccurate, logically impossible, and/or ridiculous.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here. 

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