Wednesday, 25 April 2007
This morning, I met the directors of a number of aid agencies to discuss the question of clean drinking water in developing countries. On the morning the Government will launch its environmental programme, it is ironic that I raise the question of clean drinking water in one of the richest countries in the developed world.
According to the health services, the people of Galway face a health epidemic because of the contamination of their water supply. The Health Service Executive is now informing people — particularly the elderly, very young and vulnerable — that they could die from the contamination of water with cryptosporidium.
In response, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has given a juvenile and irresponsible performance and he has hived off blame to everyone except himself. As has been pointed out on numerous occasions, there has been a €600 million underspend across the broader region. This means that places like Oughterard, Headford, Clonbur and Claregalway have completely insufficient sewerage systems.
In cases where sewage is not treated or where the lake is completely contaminated, the water supply of thousands of people is now causing the current problem. This was well known in advance. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, with his smug approach to the problem, has hived off blame and responsibility to everyone else. The Government and its immediate predecessor did not have the political will to make the investment necessary to deal with this problem.
People in Galway now speak of having had a morning cryptosporidium shower. They are disgusted at the failure to invest in sewerage works.
What do the Taoiseach and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government intend to do about this matter, apart from giving glib answers to questions? There is great concern about the effect of a contaminated water supply on tourism in the area, the Galway economy and families with young babies and elderly members. Will the Taoiseach explain why this has happened and what he proposes to do about it?
Irish drinking water standards are very good. They now stand at 97.6% compliance with EU requirements, according to the latest report, and almost 99% of public supplies, countrywide, have been assessed by the EPA as complying with all the key microbiological standards.
The Government's investment over the period of the national development plan has delivered additional drinking water for a population equivalent to 1 million people. The priority under the new national development plan is to finish that job.
I do not understand Deputy Kenny's complaint regarding what was said by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. A range of approximately six measures were agreed at the meetings. First, it was agreed that efforts by the engineers in the area to identify the source or sources of the outbreak will continue.
Second, the water supply from Tuam will be increased to augment the city supply and the additional supply from this source will come on stream incrementally during the next two months. It was agreed that the old water treatment plant in Galway will be phased out — we hope by the middle of June — as additional supplies are delivered from the Tuam system, and that the installation of a water treatment package plant at Terryland in Galway to provide 18 million litres per day will come on stream before the end of the year.
There is also a longer term commitment to fast-track the advancement of the new treatment plant in Galway at a cost of more than €21 million and to provide €27.4 million for increased storage of water and conservation measures in Tuam, which will allow for additional water to be made available to the city. A range of other issues is being considered but those are the main points.
The Taoiseach's reply does not deal with the problem faced by the people of Galway and the greater Galway region. A similar problem exists in Ennis, where people are still on notice regarding water. The Department of the Environment and Local Government published a study of national urban waste water in April 2004, which contrasts with what the Taoiseach asserts.
Considering the different levels of treatment, the study found that more than 50% of all plant and equipment at the eight primary treatment works was in condition grade 4 or 5 and 18% of the mechanical and electrical plant at the 82 secondary treatment works, excluding those with nutrient reduction factors, was in a similar condition. Grade 4 means serious structural deterioration and grade 5 means that the assets have collapsed or are derelict.
When the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Roche, visited Galway, his answers were far from satisfactory. The water and sewerage services capital budget has declined in recent years. Investment totalled €506 million in 2001, €487 million in 2002, €449 million in 2003, €439 million in 2004, €417 million in 2005 and €399 million in 2006. A significant proportion, over 50%, of these plants were in a seriously deteriorated condition or had collapsed, which was well known to the Department and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The capital injection for sewage treatment services was declining. The pictures shown on television last night of a polluted lake of the scale of Lough Corrib were a national scandal.
The fact that people in the region have to take their daily shower in cryptosporidium has not been dealt with. The Minister, Deputy Roche, might find that funny, but it is not funny to the people in Galway.
If this had happened in a large area in Dublin, what would the response have been? Would the problem have been sorted out? What would have been the emergency response? Are the people in Galway, especially those suffering financial hardship, entitled to free water while the matter is being addressed? Does the Taoiseach agree that the response from Government should be much stronger? While there are water tankers, people in Galway cannot use the water in their taps. They are compliant taxpayers.
Let the Minister go back down to Galway with his programme and explain to the 100,000 people there what the Government intends to do about the problem, in view of the fact, which the Taoiseach did not mention, that there has been a €600 million underspend in the region of the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey.
I will try to reply to Deputy Kenny's questions. Since 2000, we have invested €1.75 billion in more than 100 waste water treatment schemes, including major new treatment plants in Dublin, Wexford, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Drogheda, Dundalk and Westport.
The water services investment programme for the period 2005-07 contained 899 projects at various stages of development, the full cost of which was €5 billion. I do not believe there was a lack of investment.
The answer to Deputy Kenny on the decline in the figures is that Ringsend, the most significant single water scheme carried out in Europe, was included in the base figures. When that scheme was finished, it came out of the base figures. The first ever concerted programme to address the quality of water in group water schemes is nearing completion. We introduced a Water Services Bill four years ago which is now finishing in this House. Work has gone on to consolidate and modernise the existing codes of water schemes.
I will not get myself into the middle of local Galway politics, but it is a fact that €21 million was provided over three years ago to allow the local authority to implement the scheme.
I have outlined that the water supply from Tuam will be increased to augment the city supply, and that can be done fairly quickly. The old water treatment plant will be phased out fairly quickly. I hope the Tuam system will deliver more supply from the summer.
That is being worked on. We are aware of all the issues surrounding that too. The installation of a water treatment package plant at Terryland will provide 18 million litres per day and should come on stream towards the end of the year. We can fast-track on two issues. These are the new treatment plant in Galway, which will now cost €21 million — that money has been allocated for a long time — and the provision of €27.4 million for increased storage and water conservation in Tuam, which will allow additional water to be made available to the city. The Minister and the Department have fast-tracked that project.
Will the Taoiseach tell the House if there will be an audit of the Government's waste of taxpayers' money? How many hundreds of millions of euro does the Government reckon it has wasted in the past five years?
It is solely the prerogative of the Taoiseach to decide when the election is called — we all accept that — but whenever that happens, will we use electronic voting? If the answer is "no", why did we spend €62 million of taxpayers' money on electronic voting machines that we do not propose to use? We have them now, we tested them in the last general election and they have been in storage since then. If we will not use them this time, when will we use them? How much is it costing us to store them?
The Comptroller and Auditor General reckons it costs approximately €1 million per year to store them, but I read that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, has now relocated most of them to a central location. Did we have to buy out the leases on the premises where the machines are being stored?
I saw the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, emerge sheepishly at a breakfast he bought for the esteemed members of the press last week in an attempt to induce them to accept his Ladybird fictional guide to the policies on this side of the House and to lecture us on economic competence. This is the same Minister who spent €62 million on machines that only Robert Mugabe would be interested in purchasing.
This is the same Minister who seeks to lecture us on economic credibility. He was succeeded by my friend, the Minister, Deputy Cullen, who could not wait to get his hands on the machines either. The Government spent €62 million of taxpayers' money when there are people waiting for home help hours.
One would think that in 2007 the people of Galway would be entitled to clean water. That could have been provided with the €62 million. There are so many things which could have been done, for example, for children with autism, the employment of child psychologists and to address the needs of people desperate for home help hours. We wasted €62 million on machines which the Taoiseach will tell me will not be used on 17 May. When, if ever, will they be used? We did not use them in the local or the European elections. The Commission on Electronic Voting found that the software was unreliable and that the machines were not adequately tested. Despite these findings, the Ministers, Deputy Noel Dempsey, Deputy Cullen and Deputy Roche, the storage Minister, will go before the people again and ask them seriously to vote for them. What kind of country is this?
The Deputy is right. I felt embarrassed a few evenings ago when I watched a country with a population of more than 60 million people receive the results of its highest poll ever — 85% of the population — within two hours.
I had to apologise to the people of Meath a few days ago that, despite this being a modern technologically driven country, with one of the biggest exporters of software in the world, we are reverting to the peann luaidhe.
——as we count and check the bins and buckets to see if a vote blew off the file. It is an embarrassment. I hope that in the next Dáil we will be able to rid ourselves of the horrendous difficulties we experience in trying to be a modern country.
——with Deputy Rabbitte who said this morning that he would like the election to be held on 17 May, but I note all his constituency offices have issued letters stating they are reliably informed that the election will be held on 24 May. I will have a word with him later to find out on which date he would like it, but we can work that out.
On a serious note, we are spending more than €50 billion. I genuinely believe that, in terms of staff, health, education and infrastructure, this money is spent as efficiently as possible. There is always room for improvement, as is often highlighted by the Comptroller and Auditor General and internal audit departments.
On the last day of this Dáil, it is the first time I have ever heard the Taoiseach admitting to being embarrassed, and he ought to be embarrassed. Some €162 million has gone down the drain, and that is symptomatic of the waste we have witnessed. The Taoiseach appears to be suggesting that because we are spending €50 billion we can afford to waste those millions. That is what the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, said when asked about PPARS.
Some €162 million was wasted on PPARS and the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, responded that in the context of things, it is a very small amount of money. Many needs could have been addressed by these moneys which have been frittered away, yet the Taoiseach can only admit to being embarrassed and revert to his "give up your ould pencils" raiméis that he goes on with.
Will the Taoiseach apologise to the Irish people for the waste of money involved? There are many other areas in which the Government has distinguished itself by wasting money. We are entitled to know, if this is the last day of this Dáil, whether we will vote by way of electronic voting. I ask the Taoiseach to tell us if that is the case. If not, what will be done with the machines?
Deputy Rabbitte knows the answer to that question. A comprehensive report produced by an independent group highlights what needs to be done to make the machines workable. We can do that only through agreement in this House.
The Opposition should have taken a mature attitude to a voting system that worked particularly well in the last two elections. The voting worked perfectly. All the analysis showed the voting system worked perfectly, but politically the Opposition would not agree to it and it took off on a political exercise engaging people from around the world to find flaws with it. That is a disgrace. Any waste of money on the voting system lies at the Opposition's door.
Deputy Rabbitte raised some other issues. I do not accept his remarks in respect of the €50 billion that is being spent. The vast majority of that money goes to the approximately one million people in receipt of welfare payments, the 130,000 people employed in the health service, the 100,000 teachers and the Garda Síochána, the Army and others involved in a range of services. I do not believe, subject to there always being room for improvement, that this money is in any way wasted.
On transport, we have done an excellent job right across a range of infrastructural issues.
That was his campaign. Some 26 million people have travelled on Luas. I predicted in this House that as soon as Luas was introduced everyone would stop giving out about it and ask for more lines and so on, and that is precisely what has happened.
If somebody dropped in from Mars they would think there was an election coming. How does one explain that in west Dublin, east Meath, Kildare and many other areas of rapidly expanding population in this State hundreds of children wanting to start primary school this September have no classrooms to go to? The Government made no provision for them, leaving hard-working parents angry and frustrated and in crisis. That has been a staggering feature of the current Government for more than ten years. It gave complete freedom to developers to construct tens of thousands of houses and apartments in new areas but did not oblige them to provide social infrastructure at the same time, schools being one of the most vital. In some cases the Government allowed them to use their control of school sites to blackmail the Department of Education and Science and the local authority for millions of euro extra or for planning concessions. It allowed developers to hold children's education to ransom and they walked away with billions, leaving communities bereft. When one looks at the list of donations to Ministers and others by developers one might conclude that, perhaps, that is the explanation.
Since last September, 60 children in the Laytown and Bettystown area have been going to school in a gymnasium. Last June Deputy Cowley and I, representing the independent Deputies, made strong representations to the Minister for Education and Science on their behalf. We were promised that classrooms would be available for the new school year 2006-07. The children moved last week from the gym to the prefabricated buildings that were provided. Now 103 children in that area have nowhere to go in September. There are two schools with 630 children on one site of 2.5 acres. In Littlepace, Ongar in west Dublin we have three schools, one permanent and two temporary, cramped on to one site of 3.5 acres and dozens of children are now being excluded from schools in the area because there is no place in Clonsilla and Castleknock. The position is similar in Kildare. Pupils wanting to start secondary school face a similar crisis.
The Minister for Education and Science has been parading herself around teachers' conferences with an air of it being her first communion day, but she has dismally failed to make provision for new communities and secure school places for children, as would be normal. Will the Taoiseach set up a special unit, a schools emergency response unit, in the Department of Education and Science to address this crisis instantly, to go into talks with teachers, principals and parents in the area to ensure that each child will have a place this September in his or her local community and that there will be permanent provision from September 2008? That is what is desperately required. I want a commitment from the Taoiseach that that will happen.
I visited the Deputy's area on a few occasions recently and attended the opening of the new school in Hartstown. I spoke to teachers from a number of schools in the area and am aware of the pressures and the school needs of communities in rapidly developing areas, particularly Dublin West and mid-west where the population is growing dramatically.
Whatever about setting up a special unit, I assure the Deputy that priority is being given to school building projects in the area. I spoke to some of the officials concerned after my recent visit. A new school for Mary Mother of Hope national school in Littlepace is ahead of schedule and is due to open in September. There are two new schools, the Educate Together national school in Castleheaney and St. Benedict's national school on the site in Ongar. Extension projects for schools in Castleknock and Corduff in Blanchardstown are being progressed. A site has been secured for a new Educate Together national school in Tyrrellstown and that building will be provided as soon as possible.
Several extra new primary schools for the area are being developed and are at various stages of planning. Is there a particular one the Deputy wants to ask me about? I was given a long list of schools. There is a permanent building for a new 1,000 student post-primary school in Phibblestown. That will not be ready until the start of the academic year in two years' time. The Department is considering enabling the school to open before then in temporary accommodation because two years is a long time in that context.
A site has been reserved for a further post-primary school in Tyrrellstown and the Department, with the local authority, is examining site possibilities for a new post-primary school in the Castleknock area. The education reservation in the Hansfield SDZs allows for the development of a post-primary school for up to 1,000 pupils. A project manager has recently been appointed to oversee the development of education provision on the Hansfield site. There is spare capacity in two post-primary schools in the Dublin 15 area and the Department is satisfied that there are sufficient places to cater for current demand, even though every pupil may not secure a place in their school of first choice, which is a difficulty in the area. Enormous attention is being given to the area and new schools will be provided because of growing class sizes.
On the question of developers, I and a number of Members of the House were in Adamstown, where a few hundred people are living, to open a railway station in advance of the development of the area. I also saw the final stages of the school building, to be opened in September, in advance of people coming to live in the area. Building schools side by side with houses or in advance of houses, as in this case, is the proper approach. Politicians on all sides congratulated the developer in Adamstown on his initiative in driving ahead and exceeding the commitments into which he had entered to provide educational facilities. If more developers took that approach we would not have to play catch-up as we do in some areas.
If the Deputy wants to know about any other area, I will have it checked out. The officials gave me a long list of advancements and developments. There are probably more in this area than anywhere else in the country, not that they are not necessary given the enormous number of new houses in west and mid-west Dublin. The ones I mentioned are the main ones.
Schools, railway stations etc. should be in place before the people arrive to take up residence in new communities. We knew that 15 or 20 years ago, and the fact that it is being done in the dying days of this Administration in one area is no vindication of the ten years the Government has been in power. The list the Taoiseach gave me in regard to west Dublin refers to catch-up provision of facilities. Hundreds of children will still have no classrooms to go to in September and that is the issue I want addressed.
Spare capacity in the area means spare capacity in a primary school miles away from where the children live. Given the traffic crisis and gridlock in Dublin West, and the pressure parents are under to get to work, crèches etc., it is not viable for them to cart their children around the area. The same applies to Meath and Kildare. The pressure on school places has some very negative features. It can set parent against parent on the basis of geography, length of time residing in an area and whether people are renting or have bought, and even, perhaps, on the basis of national origins. That is very worrying.
The 29th Dáil is in its swan song days. The Taoiseach's reply will, perhaps, be his swan song, as far as Leaders' Questions go. Will he give me an assurance that this September in the areas I have mentioned there will be a classroom in their local community for every child in primary school and a place in secondary school in their community for every pupil needing to start there next September? Nothing less is required.
First, to correct the Deputy on a factual point, we currently have the largest school building programme in the history of the State. If one looks back on recent years, in the 1994 to 1999 period, €659 million was spent on the school capital programme, whereas in the past six years we have spent more than €2 billion.
Nothing is ever enough but I am just giving the factual position that spending was increased by 400%. Under the 2006 budget we have provided just short of €4 billion to be invested in capital projects over the next five years.
I am trying to answer Deputy Joe Higgins's question. If Deputy Burton wanted to ask this question she should have asked her leader to ask it instead of the one he asked about voting machines. Unfortunately, her party is opposed to technology. As it did in 2006, the Department conducted a survey of——
——all the primary schools in Dublin 15 to determine the number of junior infants who had enrolled from September 2007. This survey indicates a considerable number of children enrolled in more than one school. While I understand this from the parents' point of view, it also resulted in inflating the number of children seeking school places. Notwithstanding this, the Department of Education and Science is aware that extra accommodation is needed for September and it will make this available.
I assure Deputy Joe Higgins that all of the options he has raised will be considered to ensure there are enough school places in September. This will include the provision of school transport if necessary. The Department has assured me it is well aware of the difficulties and problems, notwithstanding what I said. I assure Deputy Joe Higgins the Department is doing its best to resolve the matter.