Tuesday, 9 December 2014
Ceisteanna - Questions
Economic Management Council Meetings
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.
The Economic Management Council has been established with the status of a Cabinet committee and it has four members: the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The Economic Management Council last met on 26 November 2014.
The Taoiseach did not answers Questions Nos. 3 and 6, which I tabled and which basically asked him to make a statement on the position regarding the Economic Management Council and the position regarding the status of the Economic Management Council.
The reason I put the questions in that form was that I was amused by the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, who on "The Week in Politics" programme articulated the view that there would be changes to the status of the Economic Management Council, that it would be the subject matter of a review and that he was not entirely happy with its position within Cabinet. Prior to becoming Tánaiste, Deputy Burton was very critical of the Economic Management Council and the degree to which it kept other Cabinet members offside and out of the loop in terms of decision-making and budgetary issues.
A number of articles have been written about the constitutionality of the Economic Management Council in that many key decisions are now taken by that council. By the time they get to Cabinet, they are faits accomplis. It is a very dangerous situation where the majority of the Cabinet is essentially excluded from the detailed decision-making required on a range of issues.
I would like to illustrate one example, the Irish Water debacle - the establishment of Irish Water, the decision to spend €500 million on water meters and close to €200 million on the establishment of the utility itself. The Economic Management Council signed off on that and the result has been one of the worst examples of a lack of fundamental accountability to the Cabinet, the Oireachtas and to the people of Ireland. It was a scandalous waste of money. We now have meters in the ground that will never be used. They are pointless in so far as we will have a flat charge for a number of years, which will probably continue.
The danger and incompetence of the Economic Management Council, EMC, were demonstrated by its railroading through and rubberstamping of the expenditure on water meters and Irish Water, without proper consultation with its Cabinet colleagues or this House. As we remember this time last year, or close to it, the Bill was railroaded through the House in two to three hours with no adequate debate. It was guillotined. Since then the Government has made 12 or 13 U-turns on the water charges regime. If the Taoiseach wants an illustration of how the EMC is ineffective and, worse, results in an appalling lack of accountability, the water debacle is one.
There are many more. The dishonest budget last year on health, for example, was the child of the EMC. It did the work on the budget and presented it to Cabinet. That was presented in the House and we now know those figures were dishonest and false because we see the largest health supplementary estimate ever asked for in this House. The books were cooked. The EMC and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform must have known this because as soon as the budget was published, the then Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, said they were not his figures and they belonged to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, who is a key member of the EMC. It is the first budget I have seen that took me two months to work out whether the figures were right or wrong. The figures presented to the Oireachtas proved to be hopelessly erroneous. Under the freedom of information legislation, we then learned that the Health Service Executive, HSE, had written extensively to the then Minister, pointing out that patient safety would be compromised if the estimate went through. The discretionary medical card debacle arose from that. The length of and waiting time on waiting lists have gone dramatically wrong, all because of the budgetary work of the EMC.
There is a fundamental lack of constitutionality that Ministers are excluded from its work and four people make key decisions with officials who are not elected. A Cabinet is elected and appointed by this House for a specific purpose under the Constitution, and each Minister receives a seal of office on that basis. The Government has formalised an entity that has no constitutional basis or status, which has resulted in a lack of accountability in our democratic and parliamentary framework. I have instanced two cases to illustrate that. There are many more. Will the Taoiseach comment on that? Does he accept that the EMC got it particularly wrong in respect of Irish Water? Does he now accept that the €500 million to be spent on water meters represents a scandalous waste of money because there is no use to be made of them? Most of them are in the ground and will not be used.
I am amazed this has got so little attention. No one knows anything about the signing off of that €500 million which was allegedly off balance sheet because it came from the strategic investment fund. It did not seem to matter that it should go before the Oireachtas or be scrutinised in advance, or that a cost-benefit analysis be undertaken and shared with Members of this House. That is a lot of money spent on meters which because of the Government's latest U-turn will not be used. At some stage we need accountability from the Government on that.
The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy White, said he was unhappy with the Economic Management Council, that he understood it would be subject to review and that there would be changes to its status before the lifetime of this Government ended. Could the Taoiseach confirm if that is the case and does he have plans to change the status of the Economic Management Council?
The Deputy started by saying he had asked me two questions that I did not answer and he finished up on meters and water, and all of that, through the EMC. Question No. 3 asks the position regarding the Economic Management Council and Question No. 6 asks the position regarding the status of the Economic Management Council and if I would make a statement on the matter. I answered the two questions and I made a statement on the matter but I will make it again. The Economic Management Council continues in situand the status of the EMC is that of a Cabinet committee, which has only four members. The Deputy questions its constitutionality. It has been set up in accordance with Cabinet procedures and is a very important entity.
I made a point last week in this general discussion which Deputy Martin should bear in mind. The last Government comprised his party and the Green Party with the support of Ms Harney. The problem was that for 12 months before it actually happened this country was on a slide into an economic abyss and the Department of Finance was not talking to the Department of the Taoiseach or anybody else. The Deputy was present at Cabinet meetings where I do not know whether this was discussed or not. The value of having an Economic Management Council was that the information relevant to the country's economic status was made available to the leaders of the parties and also the Ministers involved in this case. When this Government was appointed, we were able to share the information exactly as it was in its rawness and not have a situation where the Governor of the Central Bank was required to go into a telephone kiosk in Frankfurt and ring Ireland to say that the International Monetary Fund, IMF, was already in the country, while two of the Deputy's colleagues were on national television, saying they never heard anything about that, that they did not know it was in Ireland at all and saying, "Did you hear that?" and "I did not hear that either". The value of having it was to have an information flow between the senior members of Government, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and in this case, the Ministers for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform so that we know the financial position of the country at all times. That is why, in part, by following a plan, and given the knowledge we had, we have been able to work with the people to bring the country to a point where we have now emerged from that and are deemed to be making a strong recovery. The next challenge is to build on that.
The Deputy has made the point about the Economic Management Council but not everything is discussed there, as he is aware. We had a Cabinet meeting this morning and there were 18 or 19 items on the agenda, none of which was discussed at the Economic Management Council because they were discussed, as everything else is, at a full Cabinet meeting. At a meeting before that there were 23 items and, as far as I can make out, one or two were discussed at part of an EMC meeting. Binding decisions are not made at the Economic Management Council; they are for that flow of information on the major economic issues. The Cabinet collectively discusses and debates those, if necessary, and comes to a decision. It is not a case of saying people must accept this but of having all the Ministers around the table for collective Cabinet responsibility and to make those decisions.
The Deputy also asked about water. I heard the comment of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy White, that the Economic Management Council served a purpose for a while when we were in an economic war. It still serves a very important purpose and will continue to do so. If I recall correctly, Deputy Martin supported and genuinely supports water contributions. It is hypocritical of him to come in here and say they should be scrapped, abolished and that there is no basis for it.
When a water meter is installed, it is easy to determine whether there is a leak inside the house or between the meter and the house. The more leaks that are determined, the less treated water is wasted and, therefore, the less cost there is in having to produce it. When the country has been metered, obviously it will be very easy to determine the output from reservoirs and the input and throughput through houses. The system will work effectively. Any good plumber will say that when he or she is doing a job on a house.
It is about time the Deputy began to look at the bigger picture, for example with regard to what we will have to do in the next 15 to 20 years. How will Dublin city be supplied with water?
Deputy Martin's party allowed a situation in which nothing was done with this country's piping system for 50 years. Is the Deputy aware that there are pipes in this city that are caked inside and the bore is less than two inches when it should be much more than that? All of that has to be replaced. More than 1 million people are on a knife edge with an inadequate water supply. While the establishment of the Irish Water entity was certainly not without its controversies, it was-----
-----the right thing to do in the interests of conservation. If we are to have an effective system, we need to be able to fix what is wrong and to invest for the future. That is what it is about. The Deputy strayed from the question of the Economic Management Council and its constitutionality-----
I just thought the Deputy should know those things. The next time he is talking to a good plumber in Cork, he will be told that the value of having a meter is that it allows people to know what they are using and what they are losing.
If the Economic Management Council has a function, I presume it is to try to set out the economic priorities of this Government, to look at value for money when it comes to big projects and to decide the broad parameters of raising revenue and collecting taxes. I expect that the four senior members of the Government - the Taoiseach and the other three Ministers - come up with recommendations and argue in favour of them at Cabinet meetings. I imagine that is broadly how it works. I would say that the members of the Economic Management Council get their way most of the time within the broad parameters of economic priorities, tax policy and the big headline issues in terms of expenditure. It is very relevant to ask how the Economic Management Council got it so wrong in this case. The evidence that it got it so wrong has been manifest on the streets in recent weeks as people have reacted to the budget, the broad parameters of which were undoubtedly set out by the Economic Management Council.
I do not doubt - the Taoiseach can correct me if I am wrong - that the Economic Management Council must have discussed the response to the unprecedented popular protest after the budget, particularly on the issue of water charges. The proposals announced by the Minister, Deputy Kelly, were drawn up in response to the unprecedented outrage of the people of this country who told the Government that it got this wrong, that it was not listening to them, that it did not understand their needs and priorities and that they fundamentally disagreed with it on the issue of water charges and the whole Irish Water project. It is very relevant to ask how the Economic Management Council got it so wrong. Does it not prove that it is a dysfunctional entity? It is not the way to go about framing policy and making decisions on the key economic issues facing the people of this country. That is the lesson. There is much speculation about how many people will be on the streets tomorrow. I can tell the Taoiseach that it is going to be massive. Any illusion he may have had that-----
I remind the Deputies that tomorrow is a weekday. It will be probably be a lot bigger than that. For that to happen on a weekday, after the Economic Management Council has signed off on the package I have mentioned, will be an enormous vote of no confidence in the Government and the Economic Management Council, both of which have failed to understand what the people of this country are saying about water charges and more generally about the Government's economic priorities and tax policies. That is what is being said. It will be said again in the most unequivocal terms. Is it not time for the Taoiseach to step back? I absolutely guarantee him that this is what will happen tomorrow. I wonder what his reaction will be. Will he have the humility to say "we got it wrong and we are going to listen"?
I have to make a further comment on the whole issue of value for money and metering, etc. I do not know who is writing this spin for the Taoiseach. If he wants to talk to a plumber about metering, conservation and value for money, he will be told that district meters are a much cheaper and more effective way of ascertaining whether there are major leaks out of pipes in any particular area.
People who have worked in the water infrastructure system for decades have told me that just one district meter, rather than hundreds of meters, could cover all the households in an estate or a local area.
By the way, it measures the amount of water in the pipes going into the area, rather than the amount of water between the meter and the household. It is more effective. A much smaller number of meters is needed. It is much cheaper. Did the Economic Management Council discuss things like that? Can the Taoiseach confirm that Siemens offered to do the whole thing much more cheaply? I understand it offered to do it for free. I have a big question. What was the procedure for giving the contract for the metering to GMC Sierra? Were all the procedures complied with fully? Some serious questions need to be asked about the process of tendering this out. Did it fully comply with the protocols for outsourcing these things? It appears that there were cheaper offers. I am not in favour of metering at all, but it seems that there was a ready-up in terms of who was going to get the contract.
My fundamental point is about how the Economic Management Council, EMC, has got it wrong. Has that not been proven by what we have seen on the streets and what we will see there again tomorrow? Will the Taoiseach go outside and listen to people tomorrow when they tell him that the EMC got it wrong?
First of all, the Deputy made the point about the Economic Management Council and the work that it does. Then he branched into the pipeline for water. The Bill dealing with that will be debated later tonight. There is plenty of time over the next period to discuss that.
The Economic Management Council has a duty to consider some of the major implications in terms of infrastructure that we have to look at for the next number of years. For instance, what does one do in terms of financing broadband for the country outside the cities and bigger towns? How does one do that? Is it to be by private contractors? Is it to be by the ESB being able to form a company or a relationship with a supply company and bring it in on the wires? What is the duty of the State in terms of providing its contribution to this where commercial companies might not go? If we are serious about providing broadband throughout the country, how is that connectivity to be provided: PPP, direct build, commercial entities or the State? Is that, for instance, to be considered for some of the funding that may come from the Juncker investment scheme?
The same applies in the case of social housing. The Government has put up €2.2 billion in this respect. Is there an opportunity for further funding, for PPP investment, for social housing? These are matters that need to be considered and reflected on.
For instance, what does one do with the remainder of the share that Ireland holds in Bank of Ireland? We put in €4 billion; we have got back €6 billion. That is a profit for the taxpayer. The Minister is very clear, in that he is not going to sell the shares in Bank of Ireland, yet we own the vast majority of AIB, as the Deputy is aware. How does one value that? What does one want to do with it? Does one make a decision to test its value by putting up a portion of it for analysis and, if so, how? These are the bigger matters that need to be considered in the interests of the country, and it is right and proper that things of that scale should be considered by the Economic Management Council.
In regard to Irish Water, the Economic Management Council did not go through all of the details. It has had the 34 local authorities, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Irish Water itself, the regulator and so on. Each of these has its own responsibilities and its own matters to attend to. The Deputy seems to assume that the Economic Management Council was involved in tightening every jubilee clip and handling every monkey wrench that went out to put in meters.
This is not the case. I do not know whether the Deputy was ever in a trench himself having to deal with one of those things but, believe me, it is an experience.
For instance, we discussed the question of homelessness. What does one do with an issue that has been around for a long time? The point was that, in addition to the Cabinet sub-committees, which I chair myself, the Minister, Deputy Kelly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey - this was reflected at some element of the EMC in the past - conducted the meetings with the NGOs on Thursday, the lord mayor on Friday, came to the Cabinet committee yesterday and brought their business before the Cabinet this morning, where it was endorsed and set out as a way of dealing with the principal priority of rough sleeping in Dublin and other cities - Cork, to a lesser extent Limerick, to a lesser extent Galway and so on - and then making arrangements as to how one is going to get the voided units renovated and fixed up so that they are suitable for individuals or for families, and the bigger build by providing proper housing through the expenditure of the €2.2 billion. That is what is involved there.
Deputy Boyd Barrett asked me if I would be out listening. There is a debate on homelessness in the Chamber tomorrow, obviously arising from the unfortunate tragedy across the road that needs to be dealt with. The Minister, Deputy Kelly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, are leading that. I hope to contribute to that debate at some stage, but I have listened to the people who came to my office. I have listened to the many people who protested and who rang up, some in not very polite language, I might say, or some who sent messages of a particular kind. In any event, what they did say was that they wanted clarity, they wanted certainty, they wanted to know about affordability, they wanted to know about the entity of Irish Water and it being retained in public ownership, and they wanted to know what was going to happen after 2019. All of those issues have been dealt with as fairly and as clearly and as definitively as can be by the Government. The cost, as the Deputy knows, for somebody who registers and gets €100 back is €1.15 per week for a single person or for a single person with children under 18 and €3 where it is two or more adults in the house, with children being free. There is no cut-off. There is no reduced pressure. The first leak is fixed. It is possible to beat the meter, unlike what Deputy Martin says, by being able to conserve water and understand it. Obviously, Irish Water will be retained in public ownership. Legislation will be drafted so that if some future Government were to say "We want to privatise it", it would have to go and have a referendum. Nobody is going to do that anyway. The last public entity that was sold was Eircom, and we saw what happened there with asset stripping over a period, which turned out to be a complete disaster. The Deputy knows who did that.
There is a situation that Deputy Boyd Barrett will understand. Across rural Ireland, water has been paid for for very many years. Some people have had to put in private wells. It might be €5,000 or €6,000 to bore a well - the pipes, the pumps, the chemicals, the salt and all of that.
It is a contribution every year of a pretty significant amount. Let me give the Deputy an example of three very small rural schemes down the west of 1,200 houses, fragmented holdings, long boreens and all of that, bad sources and everything. They are paying serious money every year.
They bundled them all together with the local authority at the time and the then Department of the Environment, fenced off the sources, put in proper pumps, fixed the leaks, and put a meter on every farm for every trough and for every house. In the first year, those 1,200 houses saved 500 million litres of water. Those people are very happy in the knowledge that they know exactly what they are using and they are paying a hell of a lot less than they used to before. It is about the conservation of water. The more leaks that are fixed, the less treated water is lost and, therefore, the less the cost of producing water. Therefore, one is going to have a much more efficient system.
Deputy Boyd Barrett is a vociferous Deputy who lives in the greater Dublin area. This is a conurbation that needs attention in terms of water. All of these kilometres of pipes that are ruptured and are leaking 40% of the water in them at the moment need to be fixed. In the next 20 years, long after I am gone out of this House, the situation in so far as this, an expanding city, is concerned is that it will need a new major supply of water. It is not going to get it just coming out of the heavens. One has to be able to invest for the future.
I made the point - I think to Deputy Martin - the other day that 1,000 boil water notices went out to Williamstown in east Galway, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will know, and right over into west Roscommon. There are small schemes with turloughs and poor surface supplies. That needs to be dealt with properly and in a coherent fashion. The solution identified in the longer term is to supply that from Lough Mask, which currently supplies most of south Mayo and off into that region.
That is where we need to be. That is the story that Irish Water will be for the next 50 years - to invest and supply and provide a proper scale of clean water. When major pharma companies decide to site in Ireland, they require huge volumes of water, as do software companies. It is very important for consumers, for business and for industry alike that we have this.
The Deputy asked me about humility and getting it wrong. I would say that we certainly did not get it right, but we did listen to the concerns of the people. In respect of clarity, definition, affordability, fairness, the future, public ownership, first leak, no cut-off and no reduced pressure, all of these things have been answered and dealt with. They are now clarified. The Bill is going through the House. I might add that there has been no guillotine this year, and there will not be any guillotine this year. If the House has to sit Saturday, Sunday and Monday, that is what will happen.
Will the Taoiseach explain how the Economic Management Council relates to the full Cabinet? Are there any written formulations in regard to what powers the Cabinet has given the council and whether the latter can work independently of the Cabinet in some circumstances? For example, if there is no Cabinet meeting after a serious decision is taken at the council, is that decision deemed to be Government policy and does it go ahead?
The Taoiseach referred to the two hapless Fianna Fáil Ministers who apparently did not know that secret discussions were going on behind the scenes in 2010 to bring the troika - the representatives of European and world capitalism - to this country to ensure the financial system it represented was not in any way threatened by the Irish people refusing to pay off debts that were not theirs to bankers and bondholders. I remember all of that well. However, did the Taoiseach not leave his Cabinet colleagues in the dark on a related issue not too long after he came into Government? Will he tell us about the infamous day that Monsieur Trichet, the then President of the European Central Bank, telephoned him and the Minister for Finance when he got wind that they were talking about burning some bondholders and that the Minister for Finance was going to come into the Dáil - as I recall, it was to be at 4.30 in the afternoon - to make an announcement along those lines? The Taoiseach and Minister were threatened by the President of the European Central Bank that a financial bomb would go off, not in Frankfurt but in Dublin, if that was done. They ran into this Chamber like scalded cats, having crossed out the part of the Minister's speech that would have relayed the burning of bondholders, with that action dropped completely. Will the Taoiseach confirm this happened with no consultation with the full Cabinet and, in fact, that a previous decision of Cabinet was overturned by the Economic Management Council?
Since she was appointed to that role, has the Tánaiste confided in the Taoiseach whether she is still experiencing the angst she previously referred to with regard to the working of the Economic Management Council? Her view before her elevation was that the council was too powerful and too centralised, did not fit with the idea of open government and excluded what she considered important members of the Cabinet like herself? Does she still suffer these misgivings about the exclusion of her Cabinet colleagues now that she is inside the tent or has she accommodated herself happily to this power structure?
I am a little reluctant to start talking about water charges, but I will say that the Taoiseach should have listened to the people on this issue. He should have gone the whole hog, because his concessions will not be accepted. People are not fools; they know that as soon as the pressure is off, the initial plan for massive charges and €1 billion to €1.3 billion being taken from the pockets of the people, moneys they have already paid through their general taxes, will proceed. If the Taoiseach still does not listen, he will be faced with a huge boycott next April that will dog him right up to the general election and have a huge impact in that election. I advise him, in the quietness of the Chamber, to cut his losses and abolish the water tax, full stop. He should, for once, do what the people want.
The Taoiseach and his Fianna Fáil colleagues have a neck to portray themselves as water conservationists. Since Fine Gael went into Government in 1994, some 500,000 new homes have been built. In that period, neither Fine Gael in Government nor any of the Governments led by Fianna Fáil made the changes we called for during our anti-water charges campaign in the 1990s. We called at that time for conservation measures to be included in the building regulations and factored into the construction of homes by developers, and outlined how it should be done. Nobody in Government lifted a figure over that period, with the result that billions of litres of pristine drinking water, purified at the expense of the people, are going into the sewers. That would not be happening if people in government had listened and brought about the types of conservation measures that other countries - even capitalist countries, like Denmark - have implemented in order to reduce consumption. This Government has no credentials when it comes to conservation. As it happens, conservation has disappeared from the narrative in any case. Perhaps the Taoiseach will tell us where it went. It has been disappeared as effectively as any Stalinist politburo could disappear an issue when the line changes, with no discussion of why it changed or whether it was a mistake that it was initially put forward.
I hope the Taoiseach has taken note of these points and will come back to me on them one by one.
I take the Deputy's point regarding conservation, and he is right about it. This matter has been a source of discussion at local authority meetings and Department meetings over the years. We have seen on the Continent, going back a number of years, a far sharper and more effective method of collecting rainwater for use in gardens, for car washing and all of that. I see water conservation being part of the reconstruction and renovation of houses scheme in respect of which a €200 million investment is being made. Energy refits are part of all that. I note that a number of firms are designing water collection tanks to suit the particular contours of houses and garages. I have heard several people on different radio stations outlining various tips and methods householders can use to conserve water. I am sure people will follow that advice because it is very informative.
I always say to Deputy Higgins that he knows well, as a man from southern Ciarraí, that somebody must pay for the clean water that comes out when one turns the tap. Perhaps it is when the Deputy crosses the border of the Pale and into Dublin that his attitude changes and he decides this resource should be free. Yes, people pay their taxes generally, but when these taxes are all put on the table and divided up between hospitals, schools and other bits and pieces, there never has been enough for water or sewerage infrastructure. That is why it is important to set up Uisce Éireann and have it be able to invest independently of Government. On the occasions when I am in that beloved part of our country that the Deputy calls home, I see that the people of Daingean Uí Chúis know very well that when one invests in taking water from a reservoir or wherever, somebody has to pay for it. It is the same in this city and everywhere else. The water that falls from the sky and the water in our lakes and rivers must be treated at a cost before being distributed through inferior mains in this city for the use of the people. What we are doing is asking them for a contribution to that.
I am not going to inform the Deputy about the issues discussed at meetings of the EMC. As the latter is a Cabinet committee, the matters its discusses and deals with are protected under the Constitution. However, the EMC does not replace the Cabinet, to which collective responsibility applies, in the context of making decisions. As I pointed out to Deputy Martin, what is involved is having an understanding of the scale of particular economic or budgetary issues and that this be reflected in the discussion between the Ministers and leaders involved with the EMC. When the council refers a matter to Cabinet, it is not a case of it being a fait accompli. Rather, the council's members will outline the situation and the options involved and then the Cabinet will make a decision.
The Tánaiste is a very thorough and fulsome contributor to the EMC. She makes very valuable contributions at its meetings-----
-----and she has done so on a number of occasions in respect of important issues. In all honesty, it is not a case of four people entering a room, making a decision and then stating that the Cabinet will accept it. We discuss matters of economic planning or, in some instances, budgetary issues to see if it might be possible to adopt a particular approach in respect of them and then ask the Cabinet, in turn, to discuss and make decisions in respect of them. I reiterate that the Tánaiste is a very worthwhile and fulsome contributor to the discussions the EMC has on such matters. The EMC does not replace the collective responsibility of the Cabinet and never will, nor was it ever intended to do so.
I do not know whether the Taoiseach's concluding remark to the effect that the EMC is not a replacement for the Cabinet in terms of its collective responsibility is true. Personally, I do not believe it to be true. When the Government first entered office, it was obliged to deal with the economic crisis and the troika and the Taoiseach obviously felt that the best, most cohesive and most coherent way to proceed was by establishing the EMC. As the Taoiseach stated, this probably had much to do with ensuring the flow of information in order that everyone would be aware of the exact nature of the challenges involved and decide how best to try to deal with them. If that was the case, that was the Taoiseach's prerogative. However, accusations have been made with regard to the nature of the EMC and the role it plays. Those accusations need to be answered.
If it is the case that the discussions which take place at Economic Management Council level involve putting a number of options on the table and then bringing them to Cabinet for decision, that is fine. However, an accusation has been made to the effect that a number of key decisions have been made by the EMC and then brought to the Cabinet to be rubber-stamped. As I am sure the Taoiseach is aware, I am one of the new cohort of Deputies and I have never been in government. I am not familiar, therefore, with the complexities relating to how the Cabinet works. I understand, however, that only two individuals who are not members of the Cabinet are permitted to attend its meetings, namely, the Attorney General and - I may be wrong in this regard - a secretary to the Taoiseach, whereas a number of senior civil servants and political advisers attend meetings of the EMC. If that is the position, is there not a risk that such civil servants and advisers are having an influence on the matters which can be decided upon by the council and passed on to the Cabinet for final decision?
The Taoiseach indicated that the EMC does not replace the Cabinet in the context of its decision-making powers. However, a former journalist who worked as a special adviser to Deputy Quinn when he served as Minister for Education and Skills recently authored a book, An Education - How An Outsider Became an Insider and Learned What Really Goes on in Irish Government, in which he stated that one of the decisions made at EMC level and brought to the Cabinet to be rubber-stamped was that relating to changes to the pupil-teacher ratio announced in budget 2012. The individual in question stated that the matter was presented to Cabinet as a fait accompliand that the EMC had decided that to meet the particular challenges facing the Department of Education and Skills, changing the PTR was the way to proceed. The Taoiseach may be able to confirm whether that was the case or whether the EMC gives individual Ministers a particular pot of money and grants them complete discretion regarding how it is spent. Is it the case that decisions relating to changing the PTR are the responsibility of the Minister for Education and Skills or are these signed off at Economic Management Council level? It is critical that an answer be provided in this regard because we need to know whether decisions are being made at EMC level or by the Cabinet.
I do not really want to go into great detail in respect of water services. However, there is also an issue in this regard in the context of where the responsibility for making decisions lies. Deputy Martin referred to an amount of €500 million and other Deputies mentioned the water metering programme. I am of the view that what is happening is a fiasco. The Taoiseach states that water meters are required outside every individual home and that such meters serve a purpose in the context of conservation. I represent the same constituency as the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, with whom the Taoiseach is having a conversation at present. The Minister of State may be aware that water meters were recently installed in a particular estate in the constituency. There are no footpaths in the estate - which encompasses Roches Buildings - and when people exit through their front doors, they come straight out onto the road. The meters which were installed have been rendered useless because they were destroyed when bin trucks drove over them. That is the type of planning which marks the process to install water meters. There is an argument to be made regarding the value of this process.
Will the Taoiseach indicate whether it is the case that decisions on policies relating to Departments are made at EMC level or are a number of options presented to the various Ministers, who then have autonomy to make their own decisions?
I put three questions to the Taoiseach in respect of the Economic Management Council. He dismissed any concerns relating to the EMC. However, it was the Tánaiste, Deputy Burton, who first articulated major concerns about the council. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy White, have done likewise. As Deputy O'Brien indicated, a former special adviser to the previous Minister for Education and Skills has confirmed that the Cabinet simply rubber-stamps decisions such as that relating to the cut in the pupil-teacher ratio and that those decisions are actually taken by the EMC. The bottom line is that there are some serious constitutional implications regarding the EMC as an entity. The council makes the major decisions in respect of the budget.
The Taoiseach might say that there are 19 or 20 items on the agenda at any Cabinet meeting. Many of these might relate to appointments to State boards or the adoption of the reports of semi-State bodies for publication. However, there is no doubt that the core decisions relating to budgetary matters have been taken by the EMC. The remaining members of the Cabinet have been made to look like puppets on a string. For them, it is a case of "do what you are told". The Taoiseach stated that the reason for establishing the EMC was to facilitate the flow of information. That is not the reason. He also engaged in his usual cheap political commentary regarding the previous Government, etc. Two thirds of decisions relating to the fiscal correction this country has endured were taken by the previous Cabinet in its entirety. We did not need to establish an entity such as the Economic Management Council to do what was necessary or to identify where cuts should be made. The cuts and decisions which, unfortunately, had to be made and were discussed by all Ministers collectively.
The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and many of the other Deputies opposite voted against the measures introduced by the previous Government but they are now claiming credit for them. They are also claiming credit for the work the late Brian Lenihan did as Minister for Finance. However, that is politics.
The rationale put forward by the Taoiseach in respect of the establishment of the Economic Management Council does not hold water. Deputy Higgins made an extremely important point to which the Taoiseach, quite deliberately, failed to respond. Almost all of those in Cabinet were sitting over there on the fateful day to which the Deputy referred and we were all sitting here. There was a delay of over half an hour because the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, was not present. Why was that? It took a long time for us to learn - the Government was not forthcoming with the relevant information - that the Governor of the Central Bank had contacted the Minister for Finance by telephone.
I do not believe he rang from a telephone kiosk, but he rang and said a bomb would go off. He said it would not go off in Frankfurt, but in Dublin, if any attempt was made to burn bondholders. That was not shared with the Oireachtas that day when the Minister came in late. The feedback to the journalists afterwards by the Cabinet Ministers was that they were taken aback and surprised. They were led to believe at the Cabinet meeting that there would be burning of bondholders and that the Minister for Finance would announce that. They were very shaken and surprised when he did not. There was a complete lack of transparency in the Oireachtas. This gives the lie to the rationale that the Taoiseach put forward for the establishment of the EMC, but it is Ministers themselves who have articulated that.
With regard to the bank guarantee, the Taoiseach keeps making charges. He voted for the bank guarantee and told the then Minister for Finance to do whatever it takes. He carries on as if he did not vote for it at all.
My view is that a guarantee was required at the time in question. It has been renewed by the present Government. The Taoiseach is on public record as accepting the position on bondholders was imposed by the European Central Bank on the then Irish Government. The Taoiseach said it publicly on the record, and repeated it in this House. Despite this, he comes in here and says different things when it suits him for cheap political point-scoring. He should be a little more honourable in regard to the bondholder question. The edict Mr. Trichet gave to the Minister for Finance demonstrates a similar position, by the ECB, on the burning of the bondholders and the failing banks. There was no bank resolution mechanism at the time in question and it did not want banks to collapse after the Lehman affair. That is the bottom line. In any event, those are the realities.
With regard to Irish Water, Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett is correct in so far as the Government now has to invent reasons to justify the expenditure of €500 million on water meters. The Taoiseach is now going around the place pretending the whole thing was about conservation in the first instance. However, if one looks at the original proposals, one realises the whole point of water meters was to deal with the allowances, thresholds of use and so on. The bottom line is now that the EMC agreed all this. It agreed with the off-balance-sheet method of funding and with spending the €500 million. The other Cabinet members just nodded this through without scrutiny or accountability. There was not even accountability in this House. Does the Taoiseach accept that? It was rammed through here in two hours. There was a walkout by all the Opposition parties on the day in protest over the Government's dismissal of democracy and the House itself in regard to the water charges regime to be introduced and the establishment of Irish Water, in particular. I do not believe there was any cost–benefit analysis undertaken by the EMC or the Government on water metering. I have not seen it.
The Taoiseach mentioned plans. There were lots of plans and more than €500 million was spent on water infrastructure. In my city, the main drainage project was built and this involved massive investment by the local authority. It was overseen by the then Government. There were similar infrastructural projects in other locations. Of course, much more remains to be done but there has been no plan presented in this House of which I am aware yet. There has been no plan regarding what is intended to happen and the priorities. Deputy Barry Cowen has been asking about this for 12 to 15 months.
To suggest, as the Taoiseach has done in his reply, that the EMC is just a mere Cabinet committee is to give a dishonest portrayal of what the EMC really is. The EMC calls the shots in this Government. Essentially, it represents a tier of decision-making that was never envisaged by the Constitution. I have one slight disagreement with Deputy O'Brien in that it is not the prerogative of the Taoiseach to do something like this. The Constitution lays down the framework for how Cabinet decisions should be taken. Essentially, a new tier has been established that is taking the real decisions, including fiscal and budgetary decisions, decisions on bodies such as Irish Water and decisions that affect every Department. One is required to accept them irrespective of whether one likes them.
The Taoiseach did not respond to my point on the health service. The former Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, was told to accept the medical card probity figure. That is what caused the disaster of discretionary medical cards being taken from children with life-limiting conditions. An arrogant edict from the EMC dictated the budget and that the Minister must stick with it. That is what happened in this regard.
Unprecedentedly and incredibly, the former Minister for Health came into the House on budget day and announced the figure was not accurate or real and that he did not come up with it. He said he was told to live with the figure. That is how undemocratic circumstances became within the Cabinet. The former Minister should have resigned on that day because he could not stand over his own Estimate. If he was given an Estimate that was inaccurate, dishonest and untrue, he should have resigned there and then as Minister for Health. We now know the figure was untrue, that the presentation by the Minister for Finance on the day was dishonest and that the Cabinet signed off like a puppet to edicts of the EMC on how individual departmental budgets were to be allocated. Now the largest Supplementary Estimate on record is to be allocated in the area of health because of the dishonest Estimate in question.
I remind the Taoiseach that his Cabinet colleagues were the first to raise the undemocratic nature of the EMC, and they were protesting loudly behind his back to anybody who would listen over the regime that had been introduced. Deputy Joan Burton, before she became Tánaiste, was very negative about the EMC. The Taoiseach now seems to have confirmed that such negativity is gone and that she is now a very positive contributor and has lost any reservations she might have had. They seem to have been passed on seamlessly to her rival in the leadership battle, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White, who will now drum them up, perhaps for the next leadership battle in the Labour Party; I do not know.