Thursday, 10 April 2014
In January this year the chief executive of Irish Water confirmed on RTE that in excess of €180 million was spent on setting up Irish Water. Many Cabinet members, as well as Members of the Oireachtas and the public, were made aware of the extent of those costs. The Oireachtas was subsequently drip-fed information about the make-up of that €180 million, including, for example, €85 million spent on consultancy fees. Irish Water was set up under a cloud of secrecy from Bord Gáis, despite warnings about taking this avenue from the Opposition and PricewaterhouseCoopers, which in 2011 confirmed that would be a more expensive route. We now have massive duplication as tiers of upper and middle management are recruited while local authorities will continue to maintain and repair water works for the next 12 years at least.
The Government defended setting up this white elephant - a bonus-driven quango - by stating it would save the State €2 billion by 2021. The savings that will be made are actually water charges. We were told in the aftermath of January's debacle by the Taoiseach, among others, that what Paddy needs to know, Paddy will know at the earliest opportunity.
The Government's position was meant to be set out well in advance of local elections in May, let alone the first billing in October. Is the Minister satisfied that Irish Water comes under the full auspices of the Freedom of Information Act? Is he satisfied that Irish Water and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government are acting in an open and transparent manner? Is the Minister satisfied the public knows where the Government stands with the free allowance, public and low-income subsidies and first-fix pricing policies, for example? Is the Minister happy that since the debacle last January and all that ensued, based on the commitments made by the members of the Government, including the Taoiseach, that the process will become much more open and transparent? The public will be asked to pay for a system that might not be fit for practice in the near future but they should at least know what they are facing well in advance not only of the May elections but, more importantly, the arrival of the first bills in January next year.
I do not accept the Deputy's contention that the biggest new public utility company in a generation, Irish Water, is a white elephant. The status quois the difficulty rather than what will happen in future. The status quois a fragmented, under-invested delivery system for the most important of public resources to people, which is water. There are 34 local authorities using €1.2 billion in taxpayers' money to provide an unsuccessful and inadequate system. There are 18,000 people on the public water supply with a boil notice or other restriction in place. An Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, report has stated that remedial action is required on 16% of supplies at risk, including schemes such as the Dublin and Cork supplies. There are constraints on capacity for the people of Dublin, which constitute a third of the population, as we experienced last year. Unaccountable water loss amounts to 40% of capacity, which means 40% of our water leaks, and 36% of water treatment plants were not up to EPA standards. If we do not take remedial action, we will probably face legal action in the European courts. That is the bad system in place and this Government is determined to find the wherewithal to invest and improve the process. That is the genesis of Irish Water, which will bring a series of benefits for us.
The Deputy asked a number of specific questions. He asked if Irish Water is currently within the ambit of the freedom of information system and I am sure it is, as I signed the order, which became operable during the course of last month. It is completely open to the freedom of information process. The Deputy asked if there will be issues in the migration of 34 local authorities and staff to a new single consolidated entity, and of course there will be. If we had taken a different course of action, these would have been the difficulties raised by the Deputy. There would be talk of not giving fair deals to each local authority and the workers instead of having a proper system to migrate local authority workers into an integrated entity.
We are now working on the next phase and it will be a matter for the regulator to determine the pricing structure. That will be done in good time, as promised by the Taoiseach, to allow people to make the budgetary adjustments that will be necessitated when charging for water commences at the end of this year and bills arrive next year.
I thank the Minister for his initial response. He indicated this will be done "in good time" but I remind the Minister that the consultation process initiated by the Government and led by the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, began a number of weeks ago and neither the Government nor Irish Water has made a submission. There has been no consultation, even at committee level, in this regard. How can the Government expect full engagement from ourselves and the public if we do not know the costs? We have no idea of them despite the commitment made this House by the Taoiseach and Government Members that the process would be open, transparent, consultative and all-encompassing. There is nothing encompassing about the fact that the Cabinet has yet to discuss this, let alone make a submission to the CER and allow it to continue with the business of setting a price process in motion.
The Minister and I meet members of the public on a daily basis in the course of the current election campaign and they have been left in the dark as the secrecy continues. There has been no effort by anybody representing the Government to change this, and the silence from the Minister and his Department on the issue is deafening. It is high time the Government did as it said it would; it must match rhetoric with action. The Minister of State behind the Minister, Deputy Howlin, referred to the derogatory term of "Paddy", meaning the general public. I accept it is a derogatory term which should not be used but it was used by the Taoiseach. The public needs information but it is not being told anything because of continuing secrecy. Nothing has changed and it is high time there were changes.
The Deputy referred to conspiracy and problems but in truth we must deal with enough real problems without having imaginary problems. There are real issues to be dealt with in the country. God knows the legacy of the Deputy's party's term in Government.
One of the big issues we need to deal with as a people is to create proper infrastructure. Nothing is more important for our people's health and well-being, and for those who might invest in our State, than to have a decent water system. I do not for a second believe the Opposition Members believe the current system provided by 34 local authorities, in which one third of the wastewater plants are suspect and where 18,000 people are subject to boil water notices is adequate. Is that their position? After the boom times when, apparently, we were awash with money, as one member of the former Cabinet said, we still have that dreadful infrastructural deficit. We will deal with that. We have said we would.
To deal with the specific point the Deputy raised, my understanding is that the regulator began the process in April. It is a two-phase process. There will be inputs from Government but we have to await a determination from our soundings with EUROSTAT of how much money will ensure this State company remains off balance sheet. The Deputy knows that full well.
Of the expanding number of crises emerging from this Government the most life-threatening is the ambulance crisis. Two weeks ago “Prime Time” broadcast an excellent programme on the collapsing ambulance service. The details were shocking. In 2008 there were 320 ambulances in this State. Last year that dropped to 265, only 137 during the day and 113 at night. That is when the staff are there to drive them. In 2012, a total of 21,000 shift hours were dropped and 14,500 last year. The State has half the number of paramedics per capitacompared to the North or Scotland. The National Ambulance Service is failing miserably to meet its Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, targets. Last year fewer than 30% of people with life-threatening conditions received an on time response. This compares with 75% in England and Scotland. Ambulance staff regularly have to go out on their own which leads to poor outcomes and injury to themselves. Gardaí are now being asked to go to emergencies and ascertain whether there is a need for an ambulance. These are people who may have had first aid training in Templemore 20 years ago and are now being asked to make a clinical decision on whether they must rush an individual to hospital in their cars or wait for an ambulance.
In the past 12 months I have received approximately 35 reports in my county of the ambulance being late for people in serious emergency situations. I reckon that other Deputies have heard similar reports. Seven of these people died. Will the Minister agree that a person dying for an hour on the roadside while waiting for an ambulance is unacceptable? Will he confirm his commitment to making sure these cuts are reversed? How many deaths will it take before the Government reverses the cuts?
This Government is determined to ensure people get medical treatment as swiftly, effectively and efficiently as possible. Since 2011 a major programme of change has been under way to reconfigure totally the way pre-hospital emergency care services are managed and delivered. In my three years as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the absolute resistance of the Deputies opposite to any change has been abundantly clear. They always talk about cuts, as if the measurement of inputs as opposed to outcomes was all that mattered. When this Government came into office in 2011, almost exactly three years ago, there were no targets set for the ambulance service. The Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, has raised the bar annually for response times and for 2014 a new target of 80% of life-threatening calls to be responded to in under 19 minutes has been set. We are measuring it now. We did not know what it was pre-2011.
The emergency services in Dublin are provided by Dublin Fire Brigade through an arrangement between Dublin City Council and the Health Service Executive. The National Ambulance Service is working to modernise and reconfigure its service to ensure emergency pre-hospital care is delivered in an appropriate and timely manner. In particular a single national control system is being developed. That will be in operation next year. Significant change is happening. The review was expected to be completed in early summer but the timescale has now been revised in order to allow the results of the National Ambulance Service capacity review to inform the recommendations. We are having, regardless of Government, changes to what is happening on the ground. We are changing and reconfiguring the delivery model for health services to make sure the outcomes for people, their life chances, are better, so that when the first responder arrives treatment can start on the spot. That is what is important to people.
The Deputy should not always measure inputs in every situation, whether health or education or anything else and say the more we spend the better. Let us start measuring the outputs of our systems to ensure they are reconfigured, refined and improved to have a better quality of outcome for our citizens.
I am not sure the Minister heard me. I did discuss outputs. I indicated that 30% of people in life-threatening situations are receiving ambulances on time in this State, under this Government. That is an output. The Minister talks about change. There is change. Access to the health service is constricted at every level, including the ambulance service. The Minister also talked about what things are like on the ground: the "Prime Time" programme indicated what things are like on the ground. Despite the life-threatening absence of ambulances around the State, 60 senior management drive home, for their own purposes, in fully kitted-out ambulances worth €100,000. These vehicles lie mostly idle outside their houses for weeks at a time. We, the taxpayers, are filling their tanks. Taxpayers' money in this sector is intended to save people’s lives but it is being siphoned off to blue light senior managers on their way home.
This smacks to me of the culture of entitlement that was rife under the Fianna Fáil regime and is still coming to light with regard to the Central Remedial Clinic, CRC, and Rehab. Is the Minister happy that 60 managers drive home in fully kitted-out emergency response vehicles worth €100,000, and that those vehicles are not used for their intended purpose? Will the Minister admit this is mismanagement under the remit of the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly? Will he commit today to making sure this does not happen in future?
In respect of outcomes, we need to have a system where we measure the quality of service to the citizen. At present if an ambulance responds to a life-threatening incident in under 19 minutes but the patient passes away, that is regarded as the ambulance meeting its targets. If the ambulance arrives one minute later and saves the life of that person and the person makes a full recovery that is recorded as missing the target. We need to have targets geared to ensure the impact-----
-----of our health service on citizens. That is what the HIQA process that has commenced will do, measuring not only the time it takes to arrive but also the outcome, and what happens in the interim where ongoing advice is given to the caller so that the treatment can commence as soon as the call is made.
The Department of Health is reviewing the matter the Deputy raises about officers. We need to ensure that we have an open mind, and with the resources available, which the Deputy knows are and will be constrained, that we configure a service that is as efficient as we can make it, that takes account of best international practice and with a focus on the best outcome for the people who depend on our health service.
The Minister has been inviting us to consider outcomes. Maybe we should examine some of the outcomes of the social and economic policy of this Government. The gap between rich and poor in Ireland is now four times the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, average. Incomes in the average Irish household have fallen by 50% and low income households lost a greater proportion of their income than the better off. The number of those in poverty has risen and the level of the poverty has deepened.
That is the view expressed recently by the OECD which confirmed the ESRI's finding that budget 2014 had had the greatest impact on low income groups, the incomes of which had declined by 2%, and supported the claim by Social Justice Ireland that budget 2013 had been unjust and regressive. Social Justice Ireland stated:
For the second year in a row this Government has introduced a Budget that is deeply regressive, both socially and economically ... Socially it hits people on low incomes, including the working poor, more than it hits the better off.That is the result of the Government, the Labour Party in particular, reneging on the commitments given in the programme for Government and during the 2011 general election. One of the most blatant examples is the cut in child benefit. During the 2011 general election the Labour Party took out Tesco-like advertisements and at every door its candidates told voters that Fine Gael wanted to cut child benefit.
Labour Party candidates asked the public to vote for them in order to stop child benefit cuts. The public put its trust in the Labour Party and what happened? The party has supported cuts in child benefit every year since it entered government.
My question for the Minister, if he will listen, is whether he will reverse the social welfare cuts, including, in particular, the cuts in child benefit, heating, fuel and telephone allowances for elderly people and the carer's allowance. Is the Labour Party not ashamed, in this the centenary year of the 1913 Lockout and the party's foundation-----
It may have escaped the Deputy - perhaps his salary and other supports are too healthy - that we have just gone through the worst economic crisis in the history of the State. The Government has managed to pick up the broken pieces of a shattered economy and returned it to growth. The critical criteria people will consider are fundamental issues such as employment. How many people have jobs? When we entered government, the unemployment figure was heading towards 500,000. The Deputy is not interested in listening to me. He is fumbling with his papers.
The unemployment rate is now falling. It is still too high, at 290,000, but we expect it to fall below 11% this year. Nobody would have believed this a few years ago. We have stabilised our budgets and torn up the prom note, that despicable arrangement made by the previous Administration. We have brought confidence back to the economy. That is the judgment people will make.
The Deputy referred to commitments made by my party. He may not have noticed that it is not in a single party Government. We did not win an overall majority in the last general election. We negotiated a programme for Government with a party which had won significantly more seats than we had. However, if one considers the balance between all of the commitments made by my party and Fine Gael to the people, one will see that the vast bulk have been delivered on. For some Deputies opposite, the very prospect of recovery and renewal is anathema to their political outlook. There are Deputies on the Opposition side who revel in the misfortune of the people and the State because they think they can make political capital from it.
There is wealth in this country that is not being taxed by the Government. Will the Minister introduce a tax on wealth and assets to ensure the very wealthy in society, that is, those who earn €595,000 a year and those who have significant assets, pay their fair share of taxes?
The Deputy is probably aware that we have one of the most progressive income tax regimes in the world. Aside from only one country in the OECD, our progressive tax rate is the best.
He had his say, but I am afraid that he just reads his script and is not interested in the reply. We have the second most progressive income tax regime, with a high marginal rate of tax, that we have defended because the crisis in the country requires everyone to make an appropriate contribution.
When we introduce asset taxes, for example, a local property tax which is regarded as the norm among social democratic parties, the Deputy opposite opposes them. He is only in favour of fantasy taxes on fantasy people.
If we were to impose a tax on those earning in excess of €590,000, as the Deputy suggests, how many people would it cover and how much would accrue to the State?
Deputy Seamus Healy is not interested in the answer. He is only interested in making a stump speech. His greatest regret is that the Government's economic policies are driving recovery and job creation and bringing investment into the State.