Wednesday, 19 December 2007
One of the hallmarks of the Government has been inconsistency and confusion. One of the national newspapers refers today to the latest U-turn in respect of water charges for schools as being a Pontius Pilate programme that has turned into a water pilot programme.
Following the confusing statement put up by the Minister for Education and Science on her departmental website, the Taoiseach should clear up a few simple matters for Members. Yesterday, the Taoiseach conceded that it was his intention to introduce a flat rate of payment for water usage in schools. He stated that he intended to introduce a transition period. Can the Taoiseach explain the basis on which the size of schools will determine the flat rate? Will it be based on usage of water or on a per capita attendance at schools?
Does the transition period only apply until the end of 2009? Given that the Government negotiated a derogation to the framework water directive in the first instance, will schools be obliged to pay for water they receive from 2010, on the basis of either an allocation given free and a charge applying thereafter or a continuation of the flat rate? I refer to schools that have received bills this week, many of which have received bills for water and sewerage charges combined. When the Taoiseach says that such schools should hold those bills, what is the position in respect of the discharge of such charges? In other words, will they be obliged to pay charges at all or will they be obliged to pay an element of them in a flat rate? Alternatively, can they dispose of them in the wastepaper bin?
Twenty minutes before the Taoiseach made his comments in the House yesterday, officials of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government were saying that it would be completely impractical to introduce a flat rate charge for water in schools and that it would be impossible. The Taoiseach either showed leadership or desperation and I am unsure which. People are very confused about the outcome of his statements and he should clear up this issue for me.
Under the heading, "Improved Funding for our Schools", the education section of the programme for Government contains the following commitment: "We will ... examine the provision of waste and water allowances to school, with charges becoming effective after these agreed allowances are exceeded." The Minister has explained repeatedly that because of the framework water directive, the Government would work out this commitment between the Departments and would implement it. This is the first time in my memory of implementing programmes for Government that implementing a measure is considered to be a U-turn. This is extraordinary.
ââand to enable conservation measures to be implemented to deal with these issues and particularly to conserve our water, with which everyone in the House yesterday was in agreement, the Government is considering the length of a transition period. The length of that period has not yet been decided. While it can be up to the end of 2009, the Government must decide on its length. As I noted yesterday, schools should monitor water usage and institute repairs and conservation measures during this period. There already is support for so doing. The Government also has sought advice from the Attorney General's office regarding the long-term options.
I refer to Deputy Kenny's question regarding the payment to schools of flat rate charges. This would be proportionate to school size as happens at present. I examined the schedule of local authority charges on Monday or yesterday morning. While such local authority charges differ nationwide, school size is what is used.
I refer to the intentions of the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Education and Science. There are a number of issues, some of which were raised in the meeting yesterday of the Joint Committee on Education and Science. Some were raised by the Minister and others have been sent in from schools in recent weeks. The Government's intention is to draw up a single comprehensive statement and release it after Christmas. The schools will not return until 7 January.
Moreover, the Cabinet will meet on 4 January, before the schools return, and will deal with these issues. Yesterday and the day before I looked into the number of schools that have received large bills and not many have received such bills.
Not many. In the case of a number of schools that had received such bills during the year, they had been negotiated downwards with the local authorities. Others that received quite large bills were the result of arrears. I detect that Members are not really interested in the details. However, we will work it out.
I certainly will allow the Taoiseach to give the details contained in his briefing note. The schools and parents want to know the detail because the Taoiseach's latest statement does not add to their store of knowledge about their position. Must schools that received bills of between â¬500 and â¬10,000 hold on to those bills or dump them? Will they be paying a flat charge from 1 January? If so, how is it to be computed on the basis of school size? What will the flat charge be for a 40-pupil country school in Caherciveen as opposed to one in Kildare that is bursting at the seams? Will the Department of Education and Science negotiate with the local authority between now and the end of January on the flat rate? Will schools that have already paid their bills receive a refund over and above the flat rate the Taoiseach intends to introduce for the transition period? This refund could be used for many facilities in those schools.
Given that the framework directive requires the use of financial incentives so individuals, from pupils to adults, can understand the importance of water conservation, with which concept they generally agree, what system will be introduced by the Government from 2010? Will the flat rate be abolished and will a generous allowance be given to every school above which a charge will apply? Can we take it that all these questions will be dealt with when the House resumes at the end of January 2008?
In the past six months, we have had leadership by the worst Government in the past 40 years. It has lurched from crisis to crisis, including those involving provisional licences, cancer scares, the inability to publish reports and the acceptance of huge pay increases by the Government. As the Taoiseach might say, we are not going to play "smokes and daggers" with this. There have been climbdowns every day. I heard the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy John McGuinness, say an hour ago that he does U-turns every day and the Government is quite prepared to do U-turns every day. The signs are that this is the case.
I thank the Taoiseach for the beautiful card he sent me of the orchid, which states "Mo chara â Bertie Ahern". "Mo chara", as the Taoiseach knows, means "My friend" and the Taoiseach knows the definition of a friend these days.
The same orchid was titled ARANDA Ishbel Manisaki. Its first date of pollination was 20 November 1996 and its date of first flowering was 19 March 2002.
Will the Taoiseach answer the questions on the flat rates and the transition periods and state what system will be in place beyond 2010? Perhaps this time the Taoiseach will not step out of the frying pan into the fire.
We are fully committed to the implementation of the water framework directive, as I stated yesterday. It is appropriate and necessary for conserving water as a national resource and it was agreed with the European Union in 2003. In a number of areas, there is a phase-in period and an implementation period. If the measure were just implemented on a usage basis in all schools, they would have very large bills and this is why we included a clause in the programme for Government on how we would work to introduce a system with a flat rate and how, at the same time, work to ensure the conservation of water. Even if it were possible to have a flat rate for everybody â one cannot because local authorities have different bases for charging â there would be no incentive for schools to conserve water. There are pilot schemes in many schools and these have shown how much water the schools can conserve. This is good and proper.
We cannot just have a flat rate after 2010, whereby one would have one's bill paid, regardless of the amount of water one uses and even if one takes no interest in conservation.
I am just answering Deputy Kenny's questions. We are endeavouring to ascertain, with the local authorities, the basis on which we can operate. Let me give an example. On the basis of information supplied by the authorities â they did not all supply it â the combined charge for water and waste water services across local authorities varied from 0.99 cent/cu.m. to 2.62 cent/cu.m. and the average was 1.74 cent/cu.m. A school in Caherciveen could have a very low cost and an understanding with the local authorities. Most of the 4,000 schools in the Republic have quite low charges. Some of the schools that have had high costs this year accrued them because of remedial work or leaks. One school that had a bill of â¬6,000, spent â¬500 on repairs and thereby reduced its bill to just over â¬1,000. There is a variety of reasons and we must work out a fair system.
It seems to us that the fairest system involves a flat rate attached to which there would be some kind of incentive to conserve water. Some schools admitted in their letters that their water supplies are left on for the entire summer, thus increasing their bills. This issue is not too difficult to resolve, as teachers point out themselves. I heard a teacher state this morning that his school is twinned with a school in France, but he did not say that all the citizens in France pay a very expensive domestic water charge.
I hope to be able to issue one comprehensive statement as early as I can have it agreed. I have asked officials to meet over the next few days to try to have it finished before Christmas. We will try to clear it at the Government meeting on 4 January.
ââlet me draw attention the case of people whose needs have been overlooked in recent years and who do not exercise a great deal of political clout because they do not have a vote. I refer to approximately 6,000 asylum seekers who are in receipt of direct provision. This is the arrangement whereby the State pays for their board and lodgings. They are not permitted to work or claim social welfare benefits in the normal way while their asylum claims are being processed. As we know, processing can take considerable time.
When the system of direct provision was introduced in 1999, a payment was introduced to cover the incidental expenses asylum seekers might have, including the cost of bus fares, additional food and Christmas gifts. It is a weekly payment that amounts to â¬19.10 for adults and â¬9.60 for children. The problem is that the payment has not been increased since 1999. It still stands at â¬19.10. It is not a great bounty and one would not go wild on it. I need not remind the Taoiseach the number of times that he and the rest of us have seen increases in our salaries since 1999. Would he consider, at this time of the year, bringing that â¬19.10 into line with the movement in incomes over the period of time since 1999? It is very regrettable that this small allowance has not been increased in that period of time. The number of people involved is declining because the number of asylum applications is on the way down. The Government could make a generous gesture at this time of the year.
It is correct to say that the allowance has not been increased. The Minister informs me that he has been in discussions with the groups about that particular issue. However, the cost to the State has increased. Modern accommodation has been purchased with taxpayers' money and the State has often had to pay high capital costs towards such direct provision. Services, ancillary facilities and staff are also provided. While the cost of this allowance has not increased since 1999, the cost to the State in providing these facilities has been enormous in the past eight or nine years.
Our asylum system compares to the best in the world in terms of its fairness, decision making and support services for asylum seekers, including access to the necessary legal and medical services. We have reduced the waiting time for people who are on refugee application determination since the late 1990s. The number of asylum applications increased dramatically between 1998 and 2002. It is now declining, as Deputy Gilmore pointed out. Last year, there were almost 4,500 applications, which was the lowest in a number of years. In April, the figure was down to just under 300, the lowest monthly figure for eight or nine years. However, the cost to the State of providing accommodation and services is high. I am not involved in the details of the Minister's meeting, but we must operate a fair system. It is not an open door system. We treat asylum seekers in a very fair way in this country. Within his limits, the Minister always takes this matter into consideration. The kind of accommodation we are purchasing and the direct provision is very good, notwithstanding the fact that the payment has not been increased.
The cost to the State of running the Taoiseach's Department has also risen quite considerably since 1999, but it would hardly justify the Taoiseach being paid the same salary as he was paid then. Some of the cost to the State associated with the asylum process was not very prudent expenditure on the part of the State. Hotels were bought that were never used. If we want to go down the road of what it has cost the State, a different argument can be made.
The fairness or otherwise of our system is not the issue I am raising. This is a small amount of money; â¬19 per week covers people's bus fares and other incidental expenses, such as whether they want to buy their children a gift for Christmas. I am disappointed at the Scrooge-like response of the Taoiseach this morning. I did not honestly expect that there would be resistance to it. This issue has been overlooked and the payment has been stuck at that level since 1999. These people have no political clout as they do not have a vote and, therefore, they are not exerting political influence. Many of them have come here from very trying situations in their own countries, perhaps fleeing latter-day Herods. They are not allowed to work here and they simply have to sit there while their asylum cases are being processed. Some of the processing can take a very long period of time.
I ask the Taoiseach to look at this issue generously. It is not a substantial amount of money and it will not involve a significant cost to the State. It will only bring the â¬19 payment up to what it would have been in real terms in 1999. It is not an outrageous demand and it could be readily agreed to. I ask the Taoiseach and his Government to agree to it before Christmas.
It is a matter for the Minister in terms of what he can or cannot do. He has been in discussions. I am not getting into that, but I do not believe that there will be any changes, to be frank. We have considerable guidelines that we have followed under both the UN and with our own policies. We have been fair and generous with direct provision in this country. We have not taken the routes of other countries as we do not agree with them. Direct provision is a costly system and we operate that rather than direct payments. There is a substantial cost involved. If we took the opposite route, direct payments would be made rather than give direct provision and â¬19. We provide accommodation and food and we have substantially improved direct provision each year over the past few years. I am not doing the budget for the Department, but that is the principle.
Our asylum system compares to the best in the world in terms of fairness, support and back-up services. We do not have to make any apology in that regard.