Tuesday, 31 January 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Kenny: Before I get into the substance of the question I ask that the Taoiseach dissociate himself from the remarks made by the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science with special responsibility for children yesterday evening when he alleged that Fine Gael was a racist party. I ask the Taoiseach to instruct him forthwith to withdraw that remark. It is not racist to ask legitimate questions about where taxpayers’ money goes, nor is it racist to point out that the Government has not done its sums and that the scheme announced by the Minister for Finance to help parents of all nationalities with the high cost of child care in Ireland now appears to be open to children not living in the country.
On 7 December 2005 the Minister for Finance, in the Budget Statement, said “the Government acknowledges the continuing cost pressures on parents, particularly those with young children”. He then announced the early child care supplement of €1,000 for every child under six. The costing of €353 million was, he said, based on 350,000 children who are under six. In the Taoiseach’s speech he said it constituted realistic and effective support for families and children facing the pressures of life in a modern dynamic economy. The Government does not have a great track record on budget day announcements, be it on pre-1953 pensions or the estimates for medical cards.
It is clear, therefore, that the purpose of the early child care supplement is to help parents with the cost of child care in this country. Will the Taoiseach explain why the supplement will now be payable in respect of children who do not live in Ireland and whose parents do not, therefore, face the same high costs of child care? How does he explain to taxpayers in Ireland that part of what they pay in tax goes toward the cost of child care in other countries, when the clear intention of the measure was to be an early child care supplement to deal with child care costs in Ireland?
The Taoiseach: Under EU regulations migrants from EU member states working in Ireland whose dependent children are resident in their own country are entitled to claim child benefit here for children, either in full or as a top-up, if there is an equivalent payment but at a lower rate in their country of origin. That has been the position since 1971.
This arrangement has been there for 36 years. Obviously, the numbers have been low over those years and this regulation is designed to facilitate people who wish to move to and work in different member states. We have had reciprocal arrangements here since 1 January 1973 for a whole range of areas which have worked for the benefit of Irish people moving abroad, as happened in the 1970s and 1980s when the flows from this country were 30,000 to 40,000 per year. They were able to receive these benefits. To moan and groan because it has turned the other way, now that 2 million people are working here and people are coming to this labour market, is a bit sad. In the past, there were benefits for Irish people who emigrated to other EU countries with far more generous social welfare systems than ours. Recent benefit increases here, EU enlargement and net immigration have reversed the effects. Ireland has long benefited from these reciprocal arrangements and continues to do so. I mentioned earlier that, under EU regulations, the Irish health service benefited to the extent of €420 million last year as a result of similar benefits for people now in Ireland, many of whom are returned emigrants.
Our advice is that this reciprocal approach, which has existed since 1971, also applies to the early child care supplement. To do anything else on budget day would be to say that it was all right for that arrangement to apply in the case of child benefit, as it did for the past 36 years, but, because we are enhancing the position for our own people, we are in some way going to block that off. The figures for child benefit are about 1,800 and, for children, about 4,000 under-18s, one quarter of whom are under six. The additional money, in a budget of €350 million, would be €1 million. Are we to be real scrooges and change a 36 year-old regulation to save €1 million in a calendar year? We did not do that but, if we did, there would be people in here calling me the biggest racist that ever was. Let us not have a lecture on this.
Mr. Kenny: Nobody will give the Taoiseach a lecture. I ask him again to dissociate himself from his Minister of State, who branded the Fine Gael Party racist yesterday evening, and request that he ask the Minister of State to withdraw his remark. If the Taoiseach wants any co-operation in this House, he ought to do that in his reply because I will not stand for that kind of allegation from him or any of his Ministers.
Mr. Kenny: It is beneath the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, in particular, to draw down a remark like that. It is not in keeping with his or his family’s tradition and I ask the Taoiseach to end the matter in his reply.
By calling this a top-up payment, the Government has landed in its current difficulties. Nobody is moaning and groaning and, as I said, it is not racist to ask a legitimate question about legitimate taxpayers’ money going towards the child care costs of children in other countries. The Taoiseach is now indicating that the Government has some discretion in this matter. If he had linked this to child care costs here, which was his intention, he could have done it by having a vouched system for bona fide child care facilities and their costs in Ireland.
I understand it was claimed last night on the nine o’clock news that 25% of the 100,000 Polish people resident here have children in Poland. What is the cost, in the Government’s calculation, of that? Half an hour ago, the Taoiseach informed me that, in child benefit cases, we would be talking about fewer than 2,000. I do not know what figures his assumptions were based on in the first place. Can he tell me whether there is a figure at which a review of this would be triggered? Will that be 1,000, 2,000, 10,000 or 50,000 children living outside Ireland? If the Government has discretion, why does it not focus its resources on children of all nationalities living here, as distinct from what it has now done?
The Taoiseach: One does not have discretion in reciprocal arrangements but, in some cases, people administer their systems differently. As I said earlier, it is always good for us to know how people administer systems. Reciprocal arrangements are applied across Europe and regulation 1408/71 has been around for all those years.
With regard to the figure, the Department of Social and Family Affairs states that currently there are about 1,800 child benefit claims, made in respect of approximately 4,000 children under the age of 18 by EU nationals with children resident in other member states. Assuming that one quarter of those children are under the age of six, the additional annual costs for such children will be approximately €1 million. I would like to see what other countries do in reciprocal arrangements but in health, where we received €400 million last year, we should not start to close off arrangements. Perhaps people will interpret it as being generous or assume we do not have these arrangements but we must remember that Irish people, under this very arrangement, were beneficiaries for many years.
The Taoiseach: ——I would re-think it. I will explain why. I went through these arrangements and discussions at great length last year and sat in on all the meetings. The Deputy’s vouched arrangement would automatically exclude women in the home and that is not very bright.
The Taoiseach: Let us stop this. We cannot have a position where Irish people who go abroad have reciprocal benefits, left, right and centre, but when somebody from another member state comes in here, we close them off.
Mr. Rabbitte: Will the Taoiseach say if it is true, as was quoted in the newspapers, that he approved the proposals from the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, for selling out the toll on the West Link bridge and the imposition of four gantries and four new tolls along the M50? The Taoiseach was reported as having been contacted by Deputy Cullen. Of all the hare-brained, half-baked and off the top of the head mismanaged solutions to problems, this beats anything that either Deputy Cullen or this Government has come up with to date.
Mr. Rabbitte: Is there any understanding over there, from those who are driven around the place, of the punishment taken by long-suffering motorists? The prospect of installing four new tolls on what is now a distributor road for this city——
A sum of €500 million to National Toll Roads and a loss of revenue to the State estimated by DKM Consultants to be €900 million between now and 2020 totals €1.4 billion, which is the amount of money the Minister claims he will raise on the new tolls. The M50 is now a distributor road for Dublin. As well as this, the Secretary General of the Department of Transport informed the Committee of Public Accounts that 2,200 additional trucks will go on to the West Link bridge as soon as the port tunnel opens. This, she said, is the equivalent of 6,600 cars or the annual increase in the rate of traffic over the bridge.
Mr. Rabbitte: Why, for example, did the Minister not opt for an arrangement whereby one moves the toll plaza to a more appropriate site, introduces electronic, barrier-free tolling, for which there is no technological impediment, throws open the bridge in the six or nine months this would take to do and pays the rent to National Toll Roads? I accept the Minister is constrained by the nature of the contract entered into by Mr. Pádraig Flynn and Mr. George Redmond.
Mr. Rabbitte: I accept the Minister is constrained but even within those constraints he could have devised a deal that was in the better interests of the Irish taxpayers and motorists, on whom he now proposes to impose four new tolls for a distributor road. It is outrageous.
The Taoiseach: There has been no change since yesterday or from last week. There is no such arrangement. The National Roads Authority has made a number of arrangements, one of which is to terminate the discussions with National Toll Roads relating to the upgrading of the West Link toll facility. It was considered that a satisfactory commercial and strategic solution that met the objectives of the NRA for the development and management of the M50 could not be achieved. The NRA has tried for some considerable time to come to an agreement with NTR but those discussions have failed and the authority will not continue with them. The reason is that the NRA believes it would infringe on national and EU procurement rules and a number of other arrangements.
On the zero rate of the West Link toll from mid-2008 and compensation for NTR in accordance with the West Link agreement, which stands until 2020, it is the view of the NRA that the process will take about two years. First, it will carry out the strategic management examination of traffic flow on the M50, which, subject to my memory being correct, will be finished towards the end of this year, in October or November. Then it will invite tenders for electronic tolling on the M50 to replace the plaza arrangement in place and bring the tolling more into line with what is in other countries by using what is known as the Hong Kong model. Hong Kong was the first place to introduce electronic tolling, which is far more efficient. The NRA will invite tenders for the design, building and operation of a multi-point, free flow, barrier-free toll regime on the M50.
Any decisions are subject to two conditions: the carrying out of the full examination of traffic flow on the road and an examination of the kind of new arrangements that could be put in place. The NRA will have to come back to Government on this. I am not too sure when it will do so but——
Yesterday saw the beginning of the upgrade of the M50, which is a phased project involving about €1 billion. The first phase will cost approximately €250 million. By the commencement of the second phase, we would like to see the toll plaza replaced by electronic tolling. In fact, we would like to see that done more quickly. I am not sufficiently technically knowledgeable in this area to know why it takes the period stated but that is the view of the experts. I and the Ministers must accept their advice that it will take two years.
Obviously, all the other issues in Transport 21 will come into play over a period. There is a problem in the interregnum and there is no doubt about that. However, discussions are ongoing about the traffic plan that will have to be completed over the next few months and about how quickly alternative arrangements can be put in place. No decision has been made by the Minister or the NRA——
The Taoiseach: We will have to wait to see the alternatives when the traffic flow plan is completed, which was part of the original Bord Pleanála decision. One of the conditions was that the NRA would have to produce a traffic plan and present it to the Department and the Minister. The Government would then have to make a decision but we cannot do so until we see the comprehensive traffic plan, which is due to be finished in October or November.
Mr. Rabbitte: I do not know whether that leaves the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, hanging on one of his virtual gantries and the Taoiseach is backing off or whether the Taoiseach is, as usual, playing with language. What he actually said was that no decision has been taken about the location of new tolls. I have been raising this question, as have other colleagues in this House, for more than five years and now the Taoiseach informs me that although the Minister went on television on Friday night and his staff briefed all the newspapers for Saturday, no decision has been made. What exactly is going on? Why would one need to embark on a new traffic study if one was not planning new tolls? Does any Minister in the Cabinet need to be told about the traffic congestion on the M50? The Government proposes to impose three or four new tolls on that congested road. This is absolutely daft.
Where does the Taoiseach’s statement about the NRA pulling out of the negotiations leave us, having regard to the watertight contract NTR appears to have? Where do we proceed from here? What about the two years when the initial refurbishment takes place and the grade separations are installed? The situation will get immensely worse as a result of the traffic coming out of the port tunnel and the Taoiseach says that there is no immediate prospect of any alleviation for the long-suffering motorist. As I understand it, far from the Government being involved in detailed discussions about the future, it was only after the row at the Committee of Public Accounts that there was any serious engagement on the side of the State, either from the Department or the National Roads Authority.
Mr. Rabbitte: The Government could construct a proper plaza at a more appropriate point, maintain the income stream to the State and avoid imposing new tolls on motorists. This puts electronic voting, PPARS and all the rest in the shade.
Mr. Rabbitte: I hope the Taoiseach will deny — and I give him the opportunity to do so again — that he approves this hare-brained, daft, unworkable and punitive arrangement devised by the Minister, Deputy Cullen.
The Taoiseach: In the remaining minute, I will try to answer some of the issues. Deputy Rabbitte asked if decisions were made and if I sanctioned them. Decisions were not made except on the issues I raised. Deputy Rabbitte asked if a decision was made to put multi-tolling on numerous points on the M50 and the answer is no.
The Taoiseach: It was not announced. On completion of the NRA’s toll demand management study, which it must complete under the arrangement and which is expected in October or November, the NRA will submit specific proposals for the future tolling of the M50 to the Minister. It is not envisaged that we will eliminate tolling on the M50. There will be proper public consultation and involvement.
The Taoiseach: While the NRA may implement tolling schemes on a statutory basis, the agency fully accepts that to make policy decisions of this significant type, when it has completed the demand-led study, it must come back and decisions will then be made. It has stated that it has terminated discussions in which it has tried for a long period to get an agreement with NTR. It has failed to do that because of infringement on national and EU procurement rules. It has also decided that the zero rate of the Westlink road from two years time will end and it will have to compensate NTR in accordance with the Westlink agreement that runs to 2020. I hope that is clear.
The other decision made is that we will go ahead with the upgrade work, which will help the road, along with the Naas Road work and the other issues that have been undertaken. Almost €1 billion of work will be undertaken and a revenue stream will be necessary for the second phase from a toll. We cannot just eliminate a toll road. If it could be done faster I would want to see that.
I accept Deputy Rabbitte’s point that this has been tried and tested in other countries. I have seen it, it is known as the Hong Kong model, where the user receives a bill like a telephone bill from a technological recording. Apparently, however, there is a period required to do that and while they negotiate under the 2020 agreement, that is the position. I am sure the Minister will have more time to outline it in more detail another day.
Mr. J. Higgins: The Taoiseach just does not get it. The agony of the M50 cannot go on as at present for another two years. If a warlord in the Hindukush controlled a vital pass and fleeced the unfortunate peasants who had to pass through it every day for their livelihood, some people would say, “That is Afghanistan; it is the dark ages”. Does it not defy belief that in the capital city of the Ireland of 2006, every day tens of thousands of working people making their way to work are held to ransom because they have to cross the River Liffey, control of which has been given to a private company? Many working people with no public transport options sit unnecessarily in cars for two hours a day every day just to get to work. To illustrate that with a simple calculation, if that went on for 20 years, they would spend an entire year and a month camped on the M50. Put another way, that is the equivalent of three years and three months working an eight hour day. We have 700 metres of privately owned road and a bridge with 40 kilometres of a super highway on either side of it financed to the tune of €1 billion by the taxpayer that acts to funnel the same taxpayers, tens of thousands of them, into the jaws of National Toll Roads to be robbed every day. The Taoiseach is proposing to extend this medieval anachronism, which jails thousands of people daily and fines them at the same time, for another two years.
My research showed that the first we heard of tolls was in Greek mythology. There was a boatman called Charon who charged a penny to ferry the shades of the dead across the River Acheron so they could get to the afterlife. That gentleman could tout for business on the Westlink because by the time the unfortunate motorists reach the bridge, they resemble the shades of the dead in every way from frustration, anger and exhaustion.
I do not accept the constraints put on the Government by the manoeuvrings of dubious politicians and bureaucrats in a previous period. It is time to nationalise the M50 and to get this anachronism off the backs of working people, not just for Dublin but for the whole country, and to do it immediately. Let us get rid of this incredible farce. The Taoiseach just does not understand what working people must endure on a daily basis just to get to work.
The Taoiseach: I am well aware of the problems of the M50 and the history of it. As Deputy Joe Higgins knows, when we used to follow other economic policies, we did not have to worry about the traffic on the M50 because of the policies he supported at that time.
The Taoiseach: The concern at the time was that we would not get sufficient flows of traffic to justify the road. There is an agreement in place. It is simple for Deputy Higgins to suggest scrapping it but there is an agreement until 2020. Satisfactory arrangements between the NRA and NTR cannot be reached. For that reason the NRA says it will take control of the situation but it must honour the agreement with NTR. It has been suggested even when the NRA is taken out of the equation and electronic tolling is introduced, with the upgrade of the work that will go on until 2010 costing €1 billion, NTR will have to be paid €45 million per year. NTR disputes that figure, saying it should be far higher. That is an issue the NRA and NTR will have to sort out in due course but it must be done in an ordered way.
There is a contractual agreement and the NRA is now saying it cannot reach an agreement with NTR and is now taking it out of the equation. It will move the plaza and tender for a replacement arrangement that will introduce free flow electronic tolling on the M50. It will carry out a traffic study between now and the end of the year, get on with the upgrade, which started with phase one yesterday, and we will see if the new operator the NRA will bring in will help the position.
Deputy Joe Higgins knows well that removing the plaza and introducing electronic free flow is not the only resolution, there are the other changes. When it was built they were talking about 700,000 registered cars in the State and we are now talking about 2.1 million. The population has increased by 1 million in 15 years. That must be taken into account. The removal of the plaza and free flow electronic tolling will not resolve that. Already there are plans looking beyond that to the orbital route and other issues. We must complete the Naas Road, which is now well advanced and ahead of schedule. We must deal with the tunnel opening, the extension of the M50 and the compensation of NTR under the arrangements for removing it from the equation. These issues have been set out.
In response to the issue raised by Deputy Rabbitte, a fair question about what happens on the locations of the tolling in future, that decision cannot be made until the comprehensive report is presented in the autumn.
Mr. J. Higgins: If the Taoiseach wants to talk about policies that are redundant, he should talk about tolling. While it was okay over London Bridge with an ass and cart in medieval times, it is hardly appropriate for Dublin in 2006. The revenue could easily have been found elsewhere.
Mr. J. Higgins: The Government slashed capital gains tax for speculators, saving them billions, and slashed corporation tax for big business but has saddled working people who must use the M50 with this new tax. All over the country it is noticeable that it is the commuter belts that are being hit, in other words, working people travelling to and from work.
In his previous role the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, brazenly wasted €50 million on scrapped voting machines and we have major wastage on many infrastructural projects. The Dublin Port tunnel, for example, will be delivered late and may run €200 million over budget. We suggested to Deputy Finian McGrath who acts on this issue on behalf of his constituents that the next time he inspects the port tunnel he will probably have to wear a scuba diving rig-out. Despite this, the Government brazenly insists it cannot remove this anachronism.
I remind the Taoiseach that even Ireland’s conservative Constitution states that private ownership should be curtailed by the common good. If there was ever an example of such curtailment being required in the common good, it is the need to remove forthwith the barriers over the river to bring considerable relief to tens of thousands of hard-pressed people on a daily basis. This measure would not, by any means, be the answer to all the problems as these require massive public transport infrastructural investment.
The Taoiseach: The reason for the proposal is to try, over the next few years, to increase by 50% the capacity of the M50 and remove the toll plaza without getting rid of tolling, without which we would not be able to complete the kind of investment we require. We already spend much more than the European average on infrastructure. This year, we will spend €1.6 billion on main roads and approximately €750 million on secondary roads. We cannot catch up and make these levels of investment, while also putting in a metro orbital route around Dublin and all the other transport initiatives, by having them funded exclusively by the taxpayer. Countries which were much wealthier than Ireland in the past have toll regimes. We must upgrade and enhance the M50, spend €1 billion on the new phases and bring in the best technology possible. The National Roads Authority will go to tender for the best arrangements and we will, I hope, see some best international practice on the roads. The NRA has made the decision to remove the toll plaza but one cannot do so overnight. It is in a contractual arrangement until 2020 but has indicated the plaza will be removed in two years.
The Taoiseach: I am just explaining the factual and legal position with which I am trying to deal, namely, a contractual arrangement made in good faith. As I indicated, I would like the toll plaza to be removed quicker and do not understand the reason it will take two years to do so. We will try to proceed quickly. The first phase will involve completing the study by October. If a new freeflow electronic arrangement goes to tender, the position will improve and there is no argument about that. I am setting out the position.
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