Dáil debates

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

5:00 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The manner in which Irish Water has been established under a cloak of secrecy has angered many people across the country. The people were not told by anyone in Government that the establishment of Irish Water would cost €180 million, €50 million of it for consultancies, a fact that we learned only from the Today with Sean O’Rourke radio programme last Thursday. Throughout last year Deputy Barry Cowen, I and Deputies on all sides of the House, Government and Opposition backbenchers, were asking specific questions of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government about the cost of establishing Irish Water, the number of consultancy firms hired and many other questions. No detailed answers were forthcoming despite the fact that, as we now know, all of the information was with the Minister and the relevant Departments for well over 12 months, indeed as far back as the budget announced in December 2012.

It is now clear that the Minister did not want to tell the truth to the Dáil about the establishment costs of Irish Water.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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More porkies.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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This was a deliberate, premeditated, conscious decision to hide information that he had in his possession from the Dáil. He made a decision not to give that information to the House when he was asked for it and by extension to deny it to the people of the country and our citizens. In short, our Parliament and our citizens have been treated with contempt by the Minister and the Government.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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And by the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy O’Dowd.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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There were further attempts to make sure that Irish Water was wrapped in a cloud of secrecy. There was a debacle before Christmas when the entire Opposition had to walk out because debate on Irish Water was shut down. There was a deliberate decision taken to exclude Irish Water from the parameters of the Freedom of Information Act and so forth. All last week Ministers pretended they did not know. That included the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, who said on local radio that he was not aware of the details of the cost. We now know of course that he was because it was decided upon as far back as the budget announced in December 2012. The Government and the Minister made this decision to spend €180 million, at a time when child benefit and the respite care grant were cut.

Will the Taoiseach confirm that he was aware of the cost of €180 million for Irish Water over a year ago? Will he answer the simple question, why did the Minister refuse to provide that information to the House over the past 12 months when he was asked very basic and simple questions about all aspects of the establishment of Irish Water?

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry South, Independent)
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A Father Ted. It was resting in his account.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Martin for his question. I take full responsibility on behalf of the Government for the policy decision to shift from 34 individual local authorities providing this service to a single utility doing so, with a saving of €1.1 billion over the next seven years in operating costs, which will be in the interests of the Irish people, business, taxpayer and our country in the context of achieving the highest standards and the delivery of an efficient supply of water for consumers and business. Yes, I was aware of the estimated overall cost of the setting up of Irish Water at €180 million last year.

I want to be very clear about this. The situation as outlined by Deputy Martin is not as I would see it. This is a public utility in public ownership. Therefore, there is nothing that should be secret about it and there is nothing that will be secret about it – the Deputy may smile – because in that sense the question of the Freedom of Information Act was already dealt with by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform when he spoke on the Bill previously. Of course this will be subject to the full rigours of freedom of information, as it should be, because it involves the Irish taxpayer and the Irish people.

Second, in the matter, as I understand it, of a parliamentary question which was to have been sent to Irish Water, it did not go, and the Department has apparently apologised for that. In any event Irish Water will be the subject of proper responses to parliamentary questions in this House by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. Deputies can be clear on that.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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From when?

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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When will that begin?

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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This is unlike what happened in previous situations when personnel walked off with seven-figure golden handshakes and some never appeared before committees at all.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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So Deputy Hogan is not going to Europe.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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He has got a job with Irish Water.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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The chief executive of Irish Water gave a very detailed presentation for five hours to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht yesterday. He and his officials will appear before the Committee of Public Accounts, I understand at 5.30 p.m. today. As often as Members of this House, through the various committees, want information about Irish Water they will get it. That is their right. It is in the interests of the people and the Irish taxpayer.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry South, Independent)
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Parliamentary Questions were put down but we got no replies. Why?

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Last year in one house in Galway there was a water leakage of over 60,000 litres. People have been subject to boil water notices in various locations around the country for years. There was consternation in Dublin with the difficulties at Poulaphouca just before Christmas. We have to put an end to all of this inconsistency and when one invests in the creation of a utility like Irish Water it is for the long-term benefit of the people, consumers, and of business-----

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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For the consultants.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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-----that we have high standards in the delivery and quality of water for everybody. From a transparency perspective, everything here is available to every Deputy and therefore to the people, as it should be.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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Why did the Minister not answer the parliamentary questions before Christmas?

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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That was pointed out when the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin spoke on this. It is clear that Irish Water, as it has been instituted formally since 1 January, is subject of course to the full rigours of the freedom of information legislation.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It was not. The Taoiseach is wrong.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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He took over responsibility on 1 January.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach’s response is incredible and disgraceful.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I am happy with my response.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It is disgraceful for the Taoiseach to come in here and say that every bit of information is available to the House. I have the list of questions that were tabled over the past 12 months about Irish Water and absolutely no detail or answers were forthcoming for Members of this House.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry South, Independent)
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It is like Moscow.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Members have been treated with contempt.

The Taoiseach has come here today and added insult to injury today by pretending all is well, all is transparent. The only reason we are discussing this question today and people came in yesterday is because Sean O’Rourke asked the question of Mr. Tierney, who gave an answer about consultancies. The Taoiseach and the Minister in particular decided that he would not share information that he had in his possession for the past 12 months. The Taoiseach has now admitted he was also in possession of this information for the past 12 months yet he too would not share it with anybody.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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That is his transparency.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach should not say what he did about savings. The savings will arise because people will be paying for water. That is the basic major saving that will be occasioned as a consequence of the imposition of charges.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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This is a supplementary question. The Deputy is over time.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It is a disingenuous proposition to put to this House, as the Taoiseach has done today, that somehow information will be available to Members when they ask questions, or through freedom of information requests. When the Act was published there was a conscious decision to exclude Irish Water from its parameters. The Taoiseach also needs to confirm that the 34 local authorities will continue to provide the water service for the next 12 years. People will be angry when they will have to pay for this excess through their water charges.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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Will Deputy Martin please put a supplementary question?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I want the Taoiseach to answer the question that I asked originally. Why did the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government decide not to provide specific answers and give the actual information that he had in his possession about the establishment costs of Irish Water to Deputies when they asked those questions over the past 12 months? Why did he refuse to provide that basic information that he had in his possession?

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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He was hiding.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy asked me earlier if I was aware of the set-up cost of Uisce Éireann and I said I was.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister was not.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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It is €180 million. Deputy Martin accuses me now of not making that public.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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Not the consultancy fees.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Second, as Uisce Éireann has taken responsibility-----

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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Perhaps it should have been Uisce Beatha.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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-----for the distribution and management and investment in Uisce Éireann for the future-----

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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Uisce faoi thalamh.

5:10 pm

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Does the Deputy not want the answer?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I merely leaned forward.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I will make it a little clearer for the Deputy again. Uisce Éireann-Irish Water will be subject to the full rigours of the Freedom of Information Act.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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From when?

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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From its inception.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It has been spending money for the past 12 months.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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From its inception last year. Uisce Éireann will be subject to the Freedom of Information Act from the moment it was set up.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Government has been forced into that.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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This is about transparency, accountability and determining and telling the people-----

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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It is about privatisation. It is a troika tax.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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-----the services for which the contracts were awarded-----

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach should take a breath and listen to himself.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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-----in the interests of investment in a situation where we cannot go on as we have been for years.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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Quangos.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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We are spending €1.2 billion every year at the moment in dealing with water. The savings over seven years are estimated at €1.1 billion.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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People will be paying for it.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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In order to create the utility, we have to invest money to have it at the highest level at which it should operate.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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If people conserve water, they will pay more.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Martin understands this himself because he has been around the wheel a few times over the years-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Government was advised not to do this by the body it commissioned.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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This will be open to freedom of information and parliamentary questions. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, is due to speak here on Deputy Martin's party's motion later this evening, and he will answer any question in detail that the Deputy wants to ask him.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Adams.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry South, Independent)
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He had the chance before Christmas and he answered no questions.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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Have you changed your name?

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry South, Independent)
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No, I have not.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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I called Deputy Adams.

Photo of Gerry AdamsGerry Adams (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I have to say the Taoiseach's answer is a joke, and a very bad joke at that. Yesterday, Mr. John Tierney told the Oireachtas environment committee that the Minister, Deputy Hogan, was aware in September 2012 of the allocation of €180 million of public money to establish the company. Despite repeated questions on this issue from Sinn Féin's environment spokesperson, Deputy Brian Stanley, and others, however, the Minister refused to answer questions on Uisce Éireann. He showed contempt for the Dáil, for Teachtaí Dála and for the citizens we represent. Mr. Tierney's submission to the environment committee yesterday confirms - it is all here, Taoiseach - that from March 2013 the Minister's Department was receiving detailed monthly breakdowns of expenditure on Irish Water, including the amount of money being paid to consultants. An Teachta Stanley also submitted parliamentary questions, including a series of detailed questions in June 2013 which asked for a breakdown on expenditure, including wages and service contracts, but the Minister would not answer the questions.

The Taoiseach promised a new way of doing politics. He promised a democratic revolution. He has compounded the worst excesses of his Fianna Fáil predecessors. The Government refused to take amendments, including an amendment on freedom of information, which it blocked. We tried to put forward an amendment to have this agency subject to freedom of information. I brought this to the Taoiseach's attention at the time and I protested here. As an Teachta Martin said, the Opposition benches cleared in protest at the way the Government was dealing with this issue on the very last sitting day of 2013.

The Government has obstructed the Dáil by concealing its knowledge - the Taoiseach said he knew - of the expenditure involved in the establishment of Irish Water. Does the Taoiseach agree that this Minister has had one too many debacles and that this Minister should go?

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy might want to be careful. They might try to shift him.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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Settle down, please.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Adams has had a few debacles himself. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is the one responsible for the Freedom of Information Act.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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It is his fault, so.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Above anybody else, the Minister, Deputy Howlin, has done more than many of his predecessors to make public information available through this Act.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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No, he has not.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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Ráiméis.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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Sorry, would you please stay quiet?

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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In respect of this Bill, when the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, was dealing with this, he read from what the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform had said. These were Deputy Howlin's words:

Irish Water was only recently established and another Bill is under way [that is the Bill in the Seanad] ... which will provide for a structured reporting mechanism to the Oireachtas and the regulatory authorities. That Bill will assign responsibility for economic regulation to the Commission for Energy Regulation, putting Irish Water in the same position as regards clarity and transparency in economic performance and conduct as, for example, the energy companies. In addition, up to 15% of households receive their water from privately operated group water schemes and some commercial enterprises source their own water supplied by private wells. Irish Water will operate in a highly regulated environment, closely monitored by statutory agencies. There are several layers of accountability and transparency envisaged in the legislation before the House. I believe Irish Water should come within the ambit of freedom of information. However, it is not ready to do this yet.
That was when the Bill was going through. Let me assure the House that in the interests of transparency and accountability for everybody around the country - for the Irish people through this House - this utility will be subject to freedom of information, as it should be-----

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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Thanks to Sean O'Rourke.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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-----because it is funded by the taxpayer to this point. The same will apply in respect of questions from Deputies who wish to ask parliamentary questions-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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We put in freedom of information requests and got nothing.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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-----or, as was clearly indicated by the chief executive yesterday, going before any of the Dáil committees, as appropriate, as regularly as is necessary. It is in everybody's interest that Deputy Adams' constituents and mine, and everybody else, have certainty about a supply of high quality water for consumers, their families, for business and for understanding that-----

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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The Government changed because it got caught.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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One of the reasons many companies have come to this country is because of the scale of water we have and the potential to supply it to the highest level.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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Like the pylons.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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We cannot have situations where the inconsistency that has grown up over the years-----

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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That is not the issue.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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-----means that business and people are discommoded because of a lack of quality water. There was consternation in this city for several weeks before Christmas with difficulties out at the Poulaphouca reservoir.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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That was Mr. Tierney. Who was in charge of Dublin?

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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The investment going into the utility called Uisce Éireann or Irish Water is to put an end to that and, over the years, to bring about a situation where we have an entity that delivers high quality water to the most efficient standards.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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Does that require secrecy?

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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To answer Deputy Martin's question, yes, the local authorities continue as agents of Irish Water in the delivery of those new standards.

Photo of Gerry AdamsGerry Adams (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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The Taoiseach totally ignored the thrust of my question. The fact is that for 18 months the Minister refused to give information to Teachtaí Dála who raised legitimate detailed questions about expenditure on this particular project. The Taoiseach said he is taking responsibility for this policy so I put my last question to him again. Is it not time this Minister went? Sinn Féin knows about water charges. We blocked water charges in the North.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick, Fine Gael)
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They put them in for the Six Counties.

Photo of Gerry AdamsGerry Adams (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Sinn Féin saw to it that the Executive invested-----

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick, Fine Gael)
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What about the rates up there?

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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Order, please.

Photo of Gerry AdamsGerry Adams (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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As the Taoiseach knows, this is a Trojan horse for privatisation. There will not be one deor uisce, not one tear of water, going into anyone's water taps from the €86 million that is being given to these consultants, and the Taoiseach knows that. It is coming at a time when the Taoiseach is taking money from citizens and from front-line services. For example, the Government gives €86 million to consultants while it slashes €3 million from housing adaptation grant schemes for the elderly and disabled citizens. That is why citizens are angry. They see the difference. They see the Government paying into the golden circle while denying taxpayers' money for public and, in particular, front-line services.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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Thank you, Deputy.

Photo of Gerry AdamsGerry Adams (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I have just one last point, if I may. The Local Government Audit Service report of 2011 on spending by Dublin City Council raised serious questions about the spending of almost €100 million of public money on the Poolbeg incinerator project. Under whom?

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Ceann Comhairle; Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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That is a separate issue. We cannot have two issues.

Photo of Gerry AdamsGerry Adams (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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It was on John Tierney's watch. Surely, as he said he is taking responsibility for this policy, it is time for the Taoiseach to face up to the failure upon failure, debacle upon debacle. The Taoiseach can give me a direct answer, if he would. Will he ask the Minister to resign over this issue of refusing to give the Dáil the information which we deserve to have?

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick, Fine Gael)
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And deflect attention away from himself.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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"No" is the answer to that question. Deputy Adams did not mention the fact the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, today announced €38 million in investment for people with disabilities and the elderly in their homes, and the improvement of those-----

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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That is the same €38 million as before.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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He did not mention the fact Dublin City Council reversed the decision in respect of cuts for the homeless and that €3 million extra in grants was added by the Government.

As Deputy Adams knows everything, he chose very conveniently not to mention the fact that €12 billion in investment goes into provincial and rural Ireland over the next seven years as a result of the negotiations between Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 from a European perspective and the negotiations between the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Public Expenditure and Reform. This is a public utility. Deputy Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin, knows all the answers but he is wrong on this one because this utility is not being privatised. It is being held in public ownership by a decision of the Government in the interests of the Irish people.

A total of 40% of water has been leaking away for years on end and there is an inconsistency of supply. The setting up of Uisce Éireann will bring about a saving of €1.1 billion over the next seven years. It will be a national flagship of high quality and integrity. As leader of the Government, I say that Uisce Éireann will be wide open in terms of transparency, accountability and justification of expenditure. Every Deputy on all sides and none and Oireachtas committees will have the opportunity to see that this happens. It is in all our interests that this be so.

5:20 pm

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Independent)
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We hear that at Cabinet yesterday a proposal to allow GPs to opt out of the scheme to bring free GP care to the under-fives was discussed. Today, Dr. Ray Walley of the IMO described the scheme and the Government's approach as courting disaster. I and other Deputies recently met with a large group of Wicklow GPs who described the proposal as a mistake. They explained that there is no extra capacity to deal with the extra visits in which this will inevitably result and that in consequence, other patients with more pressing medical or financial needs will either not be seen or will wait much longer to be seen. They predict that children will be brought to them who do not need to be seen, leading to other people who do need to be seen not being seen. They could not understand why the under-fives as a group are being targeted ahead of those who are either in greater need of medical care or cannot afford it.

What the Government is doing does not make any sense. With one hand, it is clearly taking medical cards away from people who desperately need them and with the other, it will give GP cards to many people who do not need them. What GPs are saying is that this will lead to yet more waste in a very wasteful health care sector, with GPs seeing people who do not need to be seen and, therefore, not seeing patients who do need to be seen.

It is clear that the GPs were not consulted in any meaningful way as this plan was put together. The scheme and the approach that the Government has taken is further alienating a GP sector that is crying out about what is already happening in primary care. The GPs pointed out that there are very few young GPs entering the sector, that three out of every four graduating GPs in Ireland are emigrating and that the GPs who are here are advising their colleagues not to come home because of what is happening in primary care and general practice. They explained that the HSE embargo has exacerbated this situation and pointed out that there is a six-month wait for physiotherapy appointments in Wicklow.

Based on common sense, the fact that medical cards are clearly being taken away from people who need them and what appears to be a very solid consensus from the GPs, does the Taoiseach agree that this scheme should be shelved and that money in health care should not be directed using a carte blanche approach but to those who either cannot afford the care or need it most?

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I do not agree. Deputy Donnelly is wrong when he said that this matter was discussed at Cabinet yesterday. There was no discussion about the under-fives or GP care at Cabinet yesterday. The Government made a clear decision to introduce free GP care for under-fives in 2014 as the first of a number of major steps leading to universal health insurance. Every parent and grandparent knows the costs of dealing with family life are now very expensive. They include mortgages, the burden of crèche fees and so on. All these hardworking parents of children in 240,000 families will now have the reassurance that they can bring their children to the doctor without having to pay for each appointment. Moneys were allocated in the budget to deal with this. There was additional separate funding of €37 million for the introduction of this key reform. It is a fully costed estimate based on current rates of reimbursement to GPs under the GMS scheme and includes capitation fees, practice support costs, other claim costs and out-of-hours costs. It is an essential part of the movement towards universal health insurance, was costed by Government and will cover 240,000 families. The parents of those children can have the comfort of knowing they will not have to pay when they go to their doctor for that GP visit.

Deputy Donnelly is also incorrect when he says that the situation regarding medical cards has changed. There has been no change in the criteria for the allocation of medical cards and extra moneys have been included for the provision of new cards this year, as one would expect.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Independent)
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I have heard the Taoiseach make the claim many times that there has been no change in medical card policy but every Member of the House knows that there is clearly a change on the ground. If we go back to Irish Water, the argument is that one has to charge for water because it is a publicly provided good and if it is free, people over-use it. That is the economic argument. We must charge people money for their water. GP care is a publicly provided service as well but here we are being told that it will now be free. We know from recent research that the average number of visits per year to a GP from people who do not have medical cards is three and that for those who have medical cards, the average number is eight.

I am not against reducing the cost. I believe that it should be affordable and that it is not affordable as of now. The GPs are unambiguously saying that if this is made free people will significantly over-use our finite service so they will end up spending time with people who do not need their service, which will take time and medical care away from people who do need it.

The GPs are telling us that general practice in Ireland is in crisis. A total of €160 million was withdrawn from the sector in the past four years. Today the IMO said that many general practices around the country are on a financial precipice. The GPs I met have said that they have had a 33% cut in public funding and a 50% cut in profits to their general practices. There is a false economy at work. I would love GP care to be free - I have two children under six - but it should not be free for those who cannot afford it, rather it should be affordable. Why is the Taoiseach going to direct finite and scarce health services to people who the GPs are saying will over-use them and who do not need them when the Government is taking medical cards away from others? I apologise if the matter did not come up at Cabinet yesterday. Is the Taoiseach, therefore, saying that there will be no opt-out for GPs from this scheme?

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I do not know whether the GPs in Wicklow who met Deputy Donnelly speak for all the GPs in the country. The reason the Government made this decision is very clear. It is the Government's intention to move to the introduction of universal health insurance. The first step in doing that was to move to free GP care for the under-fives in 2014. The reason the decision was made as clearly as it was is that it will benefit 240,000 families with children who are hard-pressed in many circumstances with mortgages, crèche fees and other charges that apply as part of normal family life. An extra €37 million has been allocated to the scheme and takes into account all the general costs that apply under the GMS scheme for GPs. I am sure that the GPs in Wicklow, who no doubt do a very good job as do other GPs, are aware of this. That is the reason we made the decision.

In October 2013, 1,863,984 full medical cards were granted and another 124,337 people received GP cards. That is an increase of almost 590,000 full medical cards since 2008. Last year, the HSE awarded 100,000 medical cards, of which over 23,000 were discretionary. Extra money was allocated for new medical cards in this year's budget. The anecdotal evidence the Deputy cites is true in some cases but it is most certainly not true in all cases.