Thursday, 17 December 2020
Appropriation Bill 2020: Second and Subsequent Stages
The Minister referred to the importance of having this Bill passed before the end of the year. I am sure he will receive widespread support in that regard but not without reservation from many of us in the House. He highlighted the scale of spending this year and the facility to provide €10.8 billion in capital expenditure in 2021. That is a mind-boggling figure when one thinks of the past number of years when the State was trying to close the budget deficit gap from a couple of billion euro down to €1 billion or so and then down to €500 million. Before Covid came along, we were running a very tight ship. All of a sudden, in the year that is just ending and in the year to come, we are, and will be, borrowing very extensively. Deputy Shortall highlighted the difficulties that has brought in terms of making sure we are spending well and strategically, that we have good procurement procedures and that we are getting value for money.
There is no doubt that the Covid crisis sprang incredible surprises on our economy, on the healthcare sector, in particular, and on the Government. There were a lot of decisions to be made, many of which we probably would not make again if we were looking at them a second time around. It is interesting that Deputy Shortall highlighted the ventilators issue. I had some dealings with HSE procurement over the past year on behalf of companies that were looking to supply products and medicines to Covid supports. It was incredibly difficult to get any engagement at all from the HSE. During my time on the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, I brought up the difficulty of trying to get access to key decision makers.
Deputy Shortall was alluding to people with commercial interests who were trying to make these contacts. I know many people who were trying to make these contacts because they had the interests of the country in mind and at heart, people who had widespread contacts in the Far East for the procurement of personal protective equipment, PPE, who offered their services and were not called upon. There are lessons to be learned about that.
We are also still going through the issues of Brexit, which are very significant for the country. One of the things that we know is that, whatever way the Brexit deal rolls out, we are going to have a very different relationship with the UK afterwards. We are certainly going to have some very significant transport issues. Within that we have seen the issues of the UK land bridge potentially being bypassed in trying to get direct access to the European Continent. Thankfully, services are going to start from Rosslare Europort through DFDS but I have not heard anything about Government capital supports for Rosslare Europort nor for the Port of Waterford, which is a bulk port. The south east has the fastest sea routes to the European Continent and I cannot understand why I am not hearing from Government about initiatives to support additional scaling of services from these ports. That is something that the Minister needs to incorporate in his planning.
On health planning, I brought up with the Tánaiste this morning and with the Taoiseach last week the issue of a second catheterization laboratory. I remind the Minister that we are now into the fourth calendar year in terms of the delivery of a €5 million capital spend. At present, we have been going through a four-month Office of Government Procurement review of a €5 million spend. I compare that with the decision that was made earlier this year to provide €350 million in surge capacity under a private hospital contract deal, a deal I believe that was brokered in less than three weeks.
Again, we must look at how we are doing our business. It will largely fall to the Minister’s Department in the coming year to provide oversight for this money, but we cannot say that on the one hand that we are going to be looking at all of the minutiae of spending for a €5 million deal while, on the other, when it comes to a deal worth tens of millions of euro, we ask how somebody with no expertise in the area could be awarded such a contract for €14 million. These are issues that will have to be looked at.
From my own perspective, while I do not want to get into pork barrel politics, I want to mention some issues on both regional and national development. It has now been properly recognised that we need major funding within the mental health sector. We have a very poor service in the south east in child and adult mental health supports, certainly in the community. There is none in University Hospital Waterford and we are totally dependent on the child and adult mental health services in Cork University Hospital, CUH. We were promised a block for this service.
We have a problem with hospital groups, and I have said this before. We have money being channelled into one central position. The money is supposed to be given from that on an equitable basis, but all we need do is look at where University Hospital Kerry in Tralee is at the moment or where University Hospital Waterford has been in their efforts at trying to get funding from the centre. As I said this morning, an announcement of 12 new consultant posts was made by the HSE in Waterford recently which have not even been approved yet by the Consultant Applications Advisory Committee, so these will be a minimum of 12 months to two years away. Why announce these? We need to get away from this spin.
I have thanked the Minister on previous occasions for the funding for the North Quays in Waterford, but that will not be the driver in closing the gap in GDP for the south east and making up the ground we have lost. That will largely be in the education sector. We need significant capital moneys to be given to the third level sector. I am aware that the technological university for the south east is being discussed at present. That has to be of the quantum and scale that is required to drive the south east. We do not have a national university in the south east, unlike all the other regions of the country. Therefore, we need this to solve that education deficit problem. I hope that will be given the attention it requires.
Housing has been mentioned before. I welcome the Minister’s announcement recently on the affordable housing scheme but we need to understand that there is a very significant number of people who have fallen into the trap of being outside of any support from the local authority and yet who are finding it impossible to save and get on to the property ladder. I agree with some of the previous Deputies that we have to get back to local authorities providing some housing mix and not just handing tenders over here and there. We had that expertise years ago and it can be developed again. We need to look at that.
Most important in terms of this €10.8 billion allocation, we will need to see transparent and equitable decision-making in respect of it. We can no longer have these out-of-the-blue announcements that something is going to be funded for €50 million and €100 million because this creates disharmony in the State. Now more than ever and post Covid-19, we will have to work together and we are all in this together. I plead with the Minister to secure the tangible assets of our State into the future. I am thinking of our agricultural sector and of our aviation sector, which has taken an incredible hammering. We are going to need that sector to get back up and going. Our enterprise and innovation sectors also need to be supported in the areas of technology and communications, together with our arts and culture.
It is to be hoped we can get back to supporting these sectors, but what I want to see most of all after this Bill has been passed and in the new year is a more transparent way of doing business, with evidence-based research to back up what we are doing in achieving value for money in the processes that we are undertaking.