Wednesday, 25 April 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Micheál Martin: It is accepted by many members of the Government that the handling of the water meters project has been diabolical and a shambles. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, has been upfront in apologising for the confusion. Flat charges, metered charges and usage charges were proposed and the prospect of cutting off water supplies was articulated by Ministers and Government spokespeople. We learned from the executive manager of Dublin City Council last week that up to 300,000 houses could not have water meters installed. More alarmingly, given the Taoiseach’s comments last week in the Dáil, there is a divergence in the decision of the Government to ignore the central recommendations of the PwC report, on which it spent over €130,000 to recommend how a model would be established. In particular, the recommendation to set up an independent new utility company to oversee the water meter programme was ignored. It is clear from the PwC report that there will be significant job losses. Last week, the Taoiseach dismissed this aspect in a one sentence reply to me. I do not know whether the Taoiseach has read the PwC report and I will quote from it——
Deputy Micheál Martin: It is actually Leaders’ Questions, which concerns questions on matters raised. There is an important distinction between Question Time and this. The Standing Order is very clear.
Deputy Micheál Martin: It says that when Irish Water is fully operational staffing will be significantly lower than the approximately 4,300 involved in water services today. It makes the point cogently yet the Taoiseach dismissed it last week. The PwC report was based on the 2006 census. The 2011 census highlights even further challenges for the Government in the project. Why did the Taoiseach ignore the recommendations of the PwC in respect of this issue? Will the Taoiseach pause the project and carry out a fundamental review of it?
The Taoiseach: Today is national job shadow day in respect of people in supported employment and I would like the House to recognise Cian O’Connor, who is shadowing me in my work in the Department of the Taoiseach. I happen to be one of hundreds of people being shadowed by people in supported employment and it is a good thing to do.
The question asked by Deputy Martin was why the Government did not accept the PwC recommendations in respect of setting up Irish Water. The Government considered the future resource of water and how it should be used quite some time ago. PwC was given the responsibility of producing a report in respect of the options. The Government considered it more appropriate to use the expertise in existing semi-State bodies with a proven record of dealing with consumers, clients, networks, accountants and bills when setting up Irish Water. The Government made its decision clearly that, first, a new entity would be set up as a public utility subsidiary of Bord Gáis Éireann — Irish Water — and that it would set out the details and strategy of how water resources can be used properly, efficiently and professionally for the good of the nation and the economy. As pointed out by the chief executive of Bord Gáis, serious engineering challenges must be dealt with. When Irish Water is set up, it will carry out its analysis and monitoring of what needs to be done from an engineering perspective and draw together the local authorities’ different systems under a single system with national competence, which will be for the good of the economy. The Government made it perfectly clear that there will be no upfront charges until 2014. The details of these will be worked out by Bord Gáis Éireann and Irish Water and the Government will, in due course, make its decision with regard to the free water allowance to be given to every household. This means that those who are prudent and who conserve what is a precious resource should not find themselves in difficulty.
I was asked by Sinn Féin last week whether people’s water supply might be cut off. Clearly it was looking for guarantees on that. If we gave a guarantee of that nature, people would feel they did not have to pay for anything. Water is a precious resource and we want to use it properly for the good of everybody and for the good of the economy, industry and business. There are demands for high levels of safe, high-quality water and that is what this is about. It is a structural change from the way water has been dealt with, provided and treated since the foundation of the State.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The Taoiseach commissioned the report, but on what basis did he select Bord Gáis Éireann? Will he publish the research, the evidence, the model and the rationale for selecting Bord Gáis Éireann above anybody else? We have a paucity of any documentation, any business case and any research as to why we are doing this.
Deputy Micheál Martin: There is a basic requirement and prerequisite before any Government goes down the road of a minimum investment of at least €500 million. It could be multiples of that before we are finished, if one listens to executive engineers across the country or to the executive manager of Dublin City Council.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The only plan the Taoiseach has now on this is to pass the buck. What we are hearing now is that Bord Gáis is saying there are serious engineering challenges. The census has thrown up more challenges and some 300,000 houses cannot be metered and so on and on. There will be no charges before 2014. We are being told not to worry about the detail, as the regulator and Bord Gáis will take care of that. The Government wants to sidestep and move away from the issue. It is just trying to pass the buck for political reasons.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The country is owed more than that. I ask the Taoiseach to publish all documentation and all advice he has received on this project, from all Departments and agencies so that we can have an informed debate on the merits or demerits of the entire project.
The Taoiseach: We will have a debate on Thursday on this matter. Essentially, the question asked in this regard was what was the best thing to do in respect of dealing with water, water resources and the provision of water for the years ahead. The PwC report set out its view and the Government looked at the PwC report and read it, unlike some previous Ministers in previous Governments who did not read their brief at all. The Government came to the conclusion, in accordance with the programme for Government, that new entities and operations should not be set up where existing ones could do the job. Bord Gáis Éireann has a proven track record of great competence in dealing with thousands of consumers, national lines, accountants, bills and all of that and the Government decided it would be preferable to do it as a public entity under Bord Gáis Éireann and this was the clear decision of the Government. That decision keeps this in public ownership, with no intention, as will be demonstrated legally, of privatising Irish Water. This is very important for Irish people, businesses and the economy.
What is involved here is giving responsibility, not passing the buck. We are giving official State responsibility to Bord Gáis Éireann to set up Irish Water. This will be implemented through the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Responsibility will be transferred to Bord Gáis Éireann, as Irish Water, to deal with this issue over the next number of years. No charges will apply until 2014 and all of the detail will be worked out. The Deputy is aware of the PwC report. The Government looked at that report and the question was whether to set up a brand new entity or use existing expertise and professionalism.
The Taoiseach: While PwC made the report, that report was not accepted from that aspect by the Government and it decided to do it on the basis of setting up a public utility with an existing State agency with a clear track record of high competence.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: A question in almost all conversations throughout the land today is why it is that the Taoiseach and his colleagues in Fine Gael and the Labour Party are pressing the people to change the Constitution to facilitate policies that are inflicting more and more misery on our people. Last week, the Irish League of Credit Unions published the results of a survey that showed that 47% of Irish homes had but €100 to spend following the payment of expected bills on a monthly basis. The Government is imposing more stealth taxes and charges on these same families. It is cutting health, education and social welfare, even for people with disabilities and special needs, a number of whom protested outside the gates of this building yesterday. Without question, this is austerity in action and the Taoiseach is presiding over it. This approach is not working. We have growing unemployment and significant emigration. Make no mistake, we have a stagnant economy.
Will the Taoiseach withdraw the bogus threat that in the event of our voting “No” to the austerity treaty on 31 May, we will no longer be able to access funding under the ESM? This is the only argument I have heard from Government voices with regard to this treaty. Will the Taoiseach admit to the House that this threat and blackmail clause is not part of the austerity treaty on which we will vote on 31 May but is part of another treaty, the ESM treaty, over which the Government has the power of veto and which it can block?
The Taoiseach: I will deal with the Deputy’s last question first. I understand that Deputy Pringle has decided to initiate proceedings in the High Court which include the seeking of an order to compel the State to hold a referendum on the ESM. He is also challenging the process to amend articles of the Lisbon treaty. Deputy Ó Caoláin should be well aware that the ESM is a funding arrangement and that it is not necessary to hold a referendum on it because it is a funding arrangement that is entirely compatible with the Constitution. It does not in any way limit sovereignty of the State in the exercise of its economic affairs, but merely indicates the State’s willingness to participate as an equal sovereign nation in the permanent stability mechanism.
I find it quite incongruous that a party like Sinn Féin would seek to take action with regard to the State giving people information about what is in this treaty and what it means. Deputy Ó Caoláin can take it from me the Government wants the citizens of our State to have all available information given to them in understandable form, so that they are properly and fully aware of the decision——
The Taoiseach: ——they must make on 31 May which is the most important decision the Irish people will make in a very long time because it is about our future, our country’s future and our children’s future. Deputy Ó Caoláin seeks to challenge this referendum in the court, on the basis that the Government is not acting in accordance with the McKenna judgment. On this occasion, unlike any other previous referendum, the Government will send every household in the country the exact wording of the treaty, in both Irish and English, together with a factual explanation of what the treaty is about. Separately, the Government parties will run their own individual party campaigns which will——
The Taoiseach: ——promote a very strong “Yes” campaign on the basis of asking the people on 31 May for their authorisation to ratify the treaty because of its importance to the Irish economy, to the future of our country and the future of every worker, business and person in the country. We make no apology for this. The treaty wording is being delivered to every household, together with a factual explanatory memorandum which is entirely in keeping with the McKenna judgment. This will be followed later in the course of the campaign with the delivery of a second leaflet.
For the information of Deputy Ó Caoláin, at last week’s meeting of the committee, I dealt with this matter in some detail when dealing with the Estimates for my Department. I explained to the members of the committee who were present at the meeting the Government expenditure on the factual information. There was no Sinn Féin representative at that meeting; Deputy Mac Lochlainn chose not to turn up.
The Taoiseach: There was no objection raised either at the committee or when the Estimate went through the House on Friday last. For Deputy Ó Caoláin to say now that this is a blackmail clause about an austerity treaty smacks of absolute hypocrisy. I suggest he might inform Deputy Adams of that and he might also inform him that when he makes his proposition for a “No” vote, he should explain to the people of Ireland how he proposes that this country be run, how we should fund our services, how we should pay our people. He should explain the context for confidence in the future, given that Sinn Féin advocates a “No” vote in this referendum. The Government will provide factual information on the treaty to every citizen and the parties supporting this referendum will launch their own individual campaigns.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: For someone who claims that he wants to ensure full information, the Taoiseach did not answer any of my questions. He has offered no information this morning other than to regurgitate the same position and to utilise the argument of fear which is what he is proposing once again——
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: He has repeated the bogus threat, which is what it amounts to. I believe the people will see that it is bogus and they will have the courage, recognising it is not only in Ireland’s interest but also in the interest of people right across Europe, to vote “No” on 31 May. How does the Taoiseach intend to put our public finances back in order? How does he intend to pay teachers, nurses and gardaí? This is a question he is very happy to put across this House but I put the question back to him. How does he propose to pay teachers, nurses and gardaí if this treaty is ratified?
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: ——that is a sorry reflection on the Taoiseach and his ministerial colleagues. Will the Taoiseach admit that the facts and figures I have outlined are the reality of the treaty if that treaty is adopted and if we are tied to a GDP structural deficit limit of 0.5% and an equally severe debt to GDP reduction target? Let there be no mistake, there is only one real troika on the floor of this House and that is the troika of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil who want, once again, to pull the wool over the eyes of the Irish electorate.
The Taoiseach: Central to that mandate is to rectify the problem in our public finances. I know and understand — as does everyone — the challenge this places on our people and the difficulties that many people find with living up to that challenge, be it in terms of pay reductions or structural changes. These are issues we must address ourselves as a nation because nobody else will deal with it for us. Deputy Ó Caoláin proposes that the teachers, the gardaí, the public servants, county council workers, fire brigade personnel and everybody else can be paid from some phantom fund. If his proposition were to be carried through——
The Taoiseach: Deputy Ó Caoláin’s suggestion seems to be that we take a real step into the unknown. This would restrict and prohibit Ireland from ever having access to ESM funding should the country need it at some future date. He says it will be all right on the night and that they will bail us out at the end of the day.
The Taoiseach: The Government is asking the people for their authorisation to ratify this treaty to guarantee Ireland’s future. As regards paying the teachers, public servants and everybody else, the Deputy will be aware that €150 billion of European money is in circulation as liquidity in this country in order to keep those services going and to keep those salaries paid. This will continue as Ireland remains in its programme for the next two years. Deputy Ó Caoláin is saying that the access to that level of funding should be cut off at the end of that period.
The Taoiseach: Today’s economic statistics show that for the first time since 2007, job creation is now running at the same level as job losses. I am not happy with this because there are 445,000 on the live register. This is the reason we did not increase income tax nor did we increase taxes on work and employment. This is the reason we have put together 270 propositions for the improvement of the environment for business and job creation so that employers can take on new employees. This is the reason PRSI was reduced for lower paid workers so that it would be easier for employers to keep employing them. This is the reason VAT was reduced in the hospitality sector which resulted in 6,000 jobs being created. This the reason we have a deliberate and conscious effort internationally and Enterprise Ireland is helping exporters and there is a continued strong line of inward investment from companies such as PayPal, Microsoft, Mylan, Allergan and other companies——
The Taoiseach: ——the capacity and the potential of Irish workers by saying that he has no confidence in the country when other people from outside want to invest here because they recognise the potential and the work rate and the productivity of our workforce. We are very happy to support that. The Government will continue to make efforts to stimulate our indigenous economy so that young men and young women can go to work in their own townlands, towns and counties if that is what they wish to do.
Deputy Ó Caoláin does not support that proposition. He has never supported anything in this House. He wants to pay for nothing and votes against everything on the basis of swimming with the tide and attempting to be popular on all occasions.
The Taoiseach: The Irish people are much smarter than that. In my view, when they are given this information they will support Ireland’s future and their own families’ future, because that is what this is about.
Deputy Shane Ross: I would like to raise an issue which emerged at the weekend about disturbing activities in the Department of Finance. I refer to a story written by Daniel McConnell and Tom Lyons in the Sunday Independent——
Deputy Shane Ross: Even if this matter does not come under the auspices of the Department of the Taoiseach, I would like an assurance that such activities are not still going on. The Taoiseach may be familiar with the matter but for the benefit of the House I will explain it briefly. An assistant principal officer in the Department, who is also an economist, continually expressed warnings and reservations about the dangers of a property collapse and, following that, a banking collapse. Those particular warnings fell on deaf ears and were not just discouraged, but dismissed by senior officials above her. She was told not to put those particular views in e-mails because there was a danger they would emerge under the Freedom of Information Act. A pattern is emerging from memos she wrote of there being no room whatsoever for dissent from the prevailing conformist, consensus culture in the Department, particularly when she expressed reservations about the doctrine at the time of a soft landing. She was told that in answering parliamentary questions she was not, under any circumstances, to include stuff which was negative, but to redraft them and put a positive spin on them. Had she been listened to, we would today perhaps not be in the situation that we are.
Deputy Shane Ross: This is not something I blame the Taoiseach for, but I would like to ask him this. In his view, is that conformist culture still in operation in the Department of Finance? In his own experience of a year in office has he found that there is still no room for dissent in the Department, which obviously could be to the detriment of the nation?
The Taoiseach: I read the reports in regard to the matter Deputy Ross has raised. I recall that the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, in particular, and members of the Labour Party, for years in opposition were pointing out the dangers of a property bubble and what might happen. Clearly some people in the public service were presenting memos pointing out those dangers. The political leaders of the day chose not to accept those recommendations or take heed of them.
The Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts is preparing recommendations that will come to the Government for a full inquiry into this matter. We await those recommendations. Legislation in respect of whistleblowers is being worked on. The attitude has very much changed from what it was——
The Taoiseach: ——in that this Government is very open to hearing the truth of the recommendations that people in the public service wish to make. Deputy Ross asked if there is room for dissent. There is certainly room for an opposing or alternative view. The Government’s only focus is to make decisions that are in the best interests of the people and the country. Clearly this was a situation that was not acted upon, where at least one person made recommendations warning about the dangers that were there. That is part of the mess that we must now deal with as a legacy. I hope that for the future the structures we set in place will ensure that openness and responsibility are accepted by all, and that — far from being some kind of dictatorship — if there is an alternative or opposing view to a proposition in a Department, it will be listened to and discussed. The vested authorities of the Government will make their decisions in an open and democratic fashion in the best interests of the people and the country.
Deputy Shane Ross: I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. Can he give me a personal assurance that in future the woman in question will not be, as she describes herself at the moment, sidelined, ostracised or alienated in her job? She apparently feels so at the moment because of the pressures from above.
I am concerned about the fact, and I would be interested in the Taoiseach’s views on this, that the Department of Finance at the time was so extraordinarily bullish. Was it simply parroting the optimistic views of its political masters because that is what it felt was its brief? I would be concerned that is continuing today. Specifically, the Department of Finance must be the only economic barometer in the world which is still saying that the Irish growth rate will be 1.3%. No one else takes that view.
Deputy Shane Ross: I hope the Taoiseach will reassure me that this is not happening and that the Department of Finance is subject to strict scrutiny. In future, this particular woman should be assured of protection not when the whistleblowers Bill goes through, but today and from now on.
The Taoiseach: I have dealt before with Deputy Ross in respect of the growth estimate of 1.2%. On that occasion, I said that these growth factors take into account a whole range of issues and are periodically reviewed. There is such a review due at the end of the month.
I do not want to talk about any individual in the public service. Suffice it to say, however, that the Government is intent on giving full protection to anybody in the public service who brings to attention or notice issues that should be in the public domain where anybody might attempt to do something illegal or wrong that they should not be doing.
The Taoiseach: I would also point out to Deputy Ross that for the first time a new Department has been set up. The Department of Finance, as he knows, has been split into two Departments: the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Finance. There is a whole new attitude, focus and set of priorities within the Department of Finance. For the first time in many years, it is proactively engaging with organisations, individuals and bodies that have credible propositions for economic development and the good of the country. In that sense, between both Departments, there is a new regime in the way decisions are being taken concerning the development of the economy. Both Ministers have been intensively engaged with the troika on the memorandum of understanding and bringing about changes which have been negotiated for the betterment of our people and the economy.
I can assure Deputy Ross that everybody in the public service will have the full protection of the Government as of now. When the whistleblowers legislation is enacted it will strengthen that even further. We are fully supportive of that. I want the Deputy to understand that an opposing or alternative view is certainly listened to, discussed and taken into account before decisions are taken by the Government.
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