Tuesday, 15 April 2014
Irish Water has confirmed a story in the Irish Independentthat it has sought the introduction of a standing charge of €100 for all householders. This has shocked many people and has caused a considerable degree of disquiet and anxiety with the public. The Taoiseach promised previously in the House that he would publish, before the local elections, all details on the water tax and the bills that people could expect. People were also promised that there would be a free allowance in advance of any tax coming their way. Many people see the standing charge proposal as a blatant breaking of that promise on a free allowance. The Taoiseach also said in the House that the matter was under consideration by the Government, yet we discover from two Ministers, Deputy Rabbitte and Deputy Burton, that the matter has not even been discussed at the Cabinet since last January. All of that confirms a view that the delay in sending the Government's proposals to the regulator and the delay by the Minister in giving out his instructions is delaying the regulator's timeline for finalising and publishing the water tax bill per household. That is the key point. The idea that people have to pay a standing charge runs contrary to the whole idea of the regime being about the conservation of water, as opposed to just another method of collecting a tax and collecting money. One must now take the view that this is more about collecting money than with the conservation of water or water usage.
Will there be a standing charge in the regime imposed on all homeowners? When will the Government tell the people the truth about all of this? When will the Government publish its proposals on water tax? Will there be a recognition in those proposals of a person's ability to pay?
I saw the report in one of the newspapers in the last couple of days. My understanding is that it arose from a draft memo submitted by Irish Water.
As I have already pointed out, the Government has not signed off on the level of subvention or the average metered charge that will apply. It will do so shortly. As I have said previously, the information will be published before the local elections.
Some of the media reports might be based on a draft memo from Irish Water. The Government will shortly consider a memo from the Minister. As Deputy Martin is aware, there is a process to be gone through. It will be followed carefully. The Government's intention is that the water charge will be as fair and as affordable as possible. Clearly, it has to give careful consideration to the various categories of people who are in different circumstances. As the Deputy knows, there are people with small families, no families and large families. There are people with particular medical needs and requirements.
There is one undoubted fact in this regard. It is clear, in light of the various reports on climate change etc., that this country has not invested sufficient finance in the provision of proper infrastructure to consumers, business and people all over the country. The concept underpinning Irish Water, which will be able to borrow money for infrastructural development, is that the new body will co-ordinate such development in a proper fashion so that a platform for the supply of top quality water to consumers, businesses and industries will be put in place for the next 50 years.
Deputy Martin is well aware from his previous experience that part of the attractiveness of this country is the quantity and high volume of quality water that is available for industry. We need to enhance that. Irish Water will be able to do that. There has been a great deal of economic analysis of what is involved here. The Government will consider it shortly. The people will know in good time. I have already given a commitment to that effect.
The Taoiseach has been saying "the Government will consider it shortly" since January of this year. We have been told that the Government will publish something in two weeks or a couple of weeks. The Taoiseach said the same thing in February and in March. We are now in April. Next month is May. When will this happen? There are five weeks to go until the local elections. One has to come to the conclusion that the only delay here is the delay from the Government. The Ministers, Deputies Rabbitte and Burton, said they have heard nothing about this. They said it has not been discussed at all at Cabinet level. The regulator said he was hoping to publish the domestic tariff structure, the non-domestic tariff structure, the connection-changing policy and the water customer handbook in April as part of the water charges plan for consultation. None of these has been published. They were all supposed to be published in April as part of the ongoing process of consultation and public discourse on the matter. There is a clear strategy of keeping people in the dark.
Even though Irish Water has employed three public relations companies, according to The Sunday Times, the level of information we are getting in this regard is very scarce. I do not doubt that the Taoiseach will defend such spending, just as he defended the expenditure of €180 million to set up an entity that will get the same people - local authority personnel - to deliver the same service. In essence, the savings that the Taoiseach keeps going on about are equal to the taxes that people will have to pay. The only difference is that over the next few years, people will be paying significant taxes that will ultimately result in the savings the Taoiseach keeps going on about. The bottom line is that the Taoiseach needs to be upfront about the publication of the set of proposals he said he would publish. He has delayed the publication of those proposals repeatedly with one purpose in mind. He has done so on the basis of electoral considerations and nothing else. People out there want to know.
I agree with the Deputy's sentiment that it is important for people to be given information on foot of Government decisions. In this case, the Government has to take a range of things into account before it arrives at a decision.
It is not a case of taking electoral considerations into account. People are going to do what they wish to do in any event. That is their absolute choice. That is their right under this country's democracy. It is important for the decision the Government makes in this regard to be fair, equitable and workable.
It must take account of the various strands and categories of people and the circumstances they find themselves in. There is no basis for suggesting that a standing charge of the order of what I saw printed will apply here.
The Government will make decisions on all of these things. They will all be published before the local elections, which will take place on 23 May. I believe that people need to know. If they do not know, it gives rise to wild speculation, as the Deputy will appreciate. According to reports I saw, the deputy leader of his party told people in the heart of Connemara that it would cost €20,000 to desludge a septic tank. He called monster meetings of people who now have to pay just €5 for that service.
For that reason, I advise Deputy Martin not to jump to too many conclusions. The people will be informed of the Government's decision in good time. The Government will issue policy directions to the regulator, which will set the standing charge. That charge will depend on the level of subvention made available in respect of this matter by the Government. As I have said to Deputy Martin previously, that is what will determine what the average meter charge is. The rate of metering is very substantial. I understand that approximately 35,000 meters have been installed in the last month. This is moving very swiftly. People will have their information all in good time.
Our collective hope is that we can have it as fair and as equitable as possible. I ask Deputies to take account of what the future holds, through Irish Water being able to provide major water infrastructure all over the country.
I think that on top of the other difficulties, the problem is that the Taoiseach, on behalf of the Government, gives very opaque and obscure answers to very straight questions. If Deputies will pardon the pun, there seems to be a drip, drip, drip attitude to our attempts to get answers. Contrary to what the Government is saying, we know that Uisce Éireann is seeking to impose a standing charge of one third of its water bill. That is what it is looking for. We know that is very high by comparison with charges in other states. This charge is as low as 10% elsewhere. This is about the introduction of another tax. The introduction of water charges is entirely a revenue-raising exercise and nothing less. We have seen estimates suggesting that the average water bill could be as high as €300. That would be on top of all the other bills people have to face. The Taoiseach knows that many people are struggling and are angry that Uisce Éireann gave €86 million of taxpayers' money to consultants.
The Government told citizens from the very beginning that this whole issue was about conserving water. It said that most of the water bill of each citizen would be based on the amount of water used. The idea was that this would be an incentive to control water use. I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that the higher the standing charge, the worse it is for water conservation and for householders. There can be no doubt that Uisce Éireann is looking for this standing charge of one third. That is a fact. Can the Taoiseach assure the Dáil that this is unacceptable? Does he agree with me that this proposal should be rejected by the energy regulator? Can he not tell us here and now when the Dáil and householders will be given a clear idea of how much they will have to pay in water charges?
It is perfectly entitled to send draft memos to the regulator if it so wishes. As I have said before - I hope this is clear - the level of subvention provided by the Government will determine the average metered charge that people will pay.
The Government has not yet decided what that level of subvention will be. Various matters, such as the weight of metering, have to be taken into consideration. There is a need for a fair assessment of the water usage of houses that are not metered. Consideration must be given to categories of personnel in particular circumstances, such as people with particular medical conditions who need a certain kind of attention.
What the Government set out to do was afford a new opportunity to provide water infrastructure throughout the country, including in towns, villages and cities. As the Deputy knows, 40% of treated water leaks away into the ground, and 18,000 people are subject to boil water notices constantly. There is very much inferior pipework in various parts of the country. These matters all need to be attended to.
Over recent years, Governments have been investing an average of €300 million in trying to maintain creaking or leaking infrastructure. The Government needs to have at its disposal €600 million to €700 million per annum for investment in proper infrastructure. This is not the case but it will be under Irish Water, which will be able to borrow itself.
The Government stated there would be a free allowance for each household and that a charge would apply when one exceeded it. Family circumstances and the number of children in families must be considered. The Government must consider all such matters before making the final decision. The regulator sets the standing charge and that is dependent on the level of subvention provided by the Government. We will make these decisions in good time, and people will be absolutely clear as to what their average standing charge will be.
The only thing I understand from what the Taoiseach told me, and for which news I am really grateful, is that Uisce Éireann is not the Government. I thank the Taoiseach for that. Nothing else gives this House any insight into what the Government has been doing, except the wee remark towards the end of the Taoiseach's contribution indicating the regulator will set a standing charge. Now we can deduce that there will be a standing charge. The Taoiseach provided no evidence at all that wastage, leakage and other problems could not have been better addressed by leaving responsibility for the service in the hands of democratically elected local authorities.
I remember the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, saying Irish Water would lead to savings for the taxpayer of €2 billion. Where is the evidence of that? Let us just consider what this is all about. I ask the Taoiseach to give me a straight answer to this question. Is this not all a prelude to the privatisation of what should be a public service? Is this all preparatory work being done to impose yet another burden on members of the public, including working families and struggling householders? If the Taoiseach is to give the Dáil and citizens information before the local government elections, it defies logic that he does not have it now. Will the Taoiseach own up to the fact that this is subterfuge to privatise our public water service?
Let me give the Deputy four clear answers. First, no decision has been made by the Government on the level of water charges. No decision has been made by the Government on the level of subvention. No decision has been made by the Government on any standing charge. The Deputy can take it that a decision has been made by the Government that this is not the privatisation of water services.
Approximately three weeks ago, on 25 March, I raised with the Taoiseach the absolutely unacceptable number of patients on trolleys and chairs in the accident and emergency department in South Tipperary General Hospital. I described the conditions on that day as reminiscent of those in the Third World. I make no apology for this. Three weeks later, nothing has been done, despite requests from hospital staff and management and the HSE south east management. Today, there is a full-blown crisis in the accident and emergency department. The emergency requires emergency action from the Taoiseach. There were 29 patients on trolleys in the hospital this morning. They are in the accident and emergency department, the corridors of the department, the corridors of the rest of the hospital and along the main public thoroughfare of the hospital. An individual sent me a photograph of a relative who is recovering from a subarachnoid haemorrhage but who is on a trolley in the main public thoroughfare of the hospital, up against a bank of vending machines. Patients have absolutely no privacy. The bathroom and toilet facilities for patients are either totally inadequate or non-existent. This is absolutely unacceptable and outrageous.
The number of patients on trolleys in the hospital increased from 750 in 2011, when the current Government came to power, to 3,100 in 2013. The hospital budget has been cut by €11 million, or nearly 25%, and more than 100 staff have been lost. The hospital is now working at 120% capacity every day of the year. Hospital staff simply cannot cope and, despite their working above and beyond the call of duty, they are struggling to provide a safe service.
The HSE, the Department of Health and the Minister for Health have failed the patients in the hospital. We require emergency action today. I ask the Taoiseach to take charge of this matter personally and approve additional medical, nursing and support staff for the emergency department in the hospital. I want him to approve additional beds and open additional step-down beds for the hospital.
Deputy Healy raised this a number of weeks ago. No less than anyone else, I feel for patients who must go to hospital and those who find themselves in circumstances that are not at a premium level or who are not in the best facilities. I do not have the details Deputy Healy read out, although he raised this three weeks ago. I undertake to ask the Minister for Health for a report on the facts the Deputy mentioned in respect of South Tipperary General Hospital, and I will advise the Deputy on the official response.
The Deputy is well aware of the action taken by the Minister at national level in respect of reducing trolley numbers in recent years. This action has been quite successful. Obviously, there seem to be circumstances in the Deputy's local hospital that are not conducive to providing care of the best level, as the Deputy pointed out. I will undertake to seek a report from the Minister, through the HSE, on the facts the Deputy outlined in his question today.
There is a crisis in the hospital today. It is all very well producing reports but we need action today. There are 29 patients on trolleys in the hospital, which amounts to ten more than three weeks ago when I raised this issue originally. The HSE is well aware of the matter, as are the Department of Health and the Minister. The Taoiseach is aware of it because I raised it with him in the House three weeks ago. I ask the Taoiseach to take action on this crisis in his capacity as Taoiseach and leader of the Government and country. There is a way to do so, as I told him three weeks ago.
There is provision in the HSE national service plan, under "Critical Service Priorities", to have €30 million just for situations like this. I asked the Taoiseach three weeks ago and I ask him again today to initiate moneys from that section of the national service plan to provide additional staff at the Department and to open additional beds in the hospital and also step-down beds. As I said, this is an emergency situation and it requires emergency action. All else has failed. It is now Deputy Kenny's responsibility, as Taoiseach and as leader of this country, to make the necessary decisions and to approve what I have just requested.
Deputy Healy is well aware that when we were spending €16 billion on the health system, the numbers on trolleys and the situation in hospital wards throughout the country were in very poor shape. Money is not the answer here.
I do not know if it is a particular issue with the health of some people in the area or what the reasons are for having 29 patients on trolleys. I have offered to find out for the Deputy but he should not expect me to say that we can employ X number of extra people tonight or tomorrow or that we can open beds.
The Deputy is not dealing with reality there. There has to be a reason for this. The management of the beds in every hospital is a matter for the hospital chief executive and the hospital manager. I do not have a report from them in respect of what the Deputy raises here. I have undertaken to find out for the Deputy from the Minister of Health, through the HSE, what the exact situation is and I will advise Deputy Healy of that.