Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Exactly one year ago the Government rammed through the legislation to establish Irish Water and water charges without any substantial debate. There have been massive public marches in opposition to Irish Water and numerous U-turns, the most recent of which was the Government's announcement that it wanted to bring clarity and certainty and to restore confidence where there was confusion. After the debate of the past week, people remain confused, baffled and bewildered, because the Government is making it up as it goes along. Last Wednesday evening, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and his entire project were exposed, because when one adds up the figures - the €165 million cost of the conservation grant, the cost of the metering project, at €41 million, and other administrative costs such as billing - if there is 80% compliance and 80% take-up of the grant, we are looking at a net revenue of €25 million per annum. That is after €539 million has been ploughed into the ground for meters that will never be read and €180 million has been spent on establishing Irish Water in the first instance.
The Government is desperate to do anything it can to reduce the cost of Irish Water so it can pass the famous market corporation test to remain off-balance-sheet. Last night at the 11th hour, the Minister announced that the servicing and repayment of outstanding local authority loans which were to be transferred to Irish Water will instead be repaid by the Exchequer. Deputy Cowen asked about the transfer of loans last month and received a misleading reply from the Minister. Three devices have now been used to subsidise Irish Water so that it can pass this test. The first is the water conservation grant, costing €165 million, the second is the estimated €60 million for the rates attached to properties that were transferred, and the third is this €460 millions in loans. This is being done in a desperate bid to pass the test. One could not make it up. I ask the Taoiseach to go back to the drawing board and, more fundamentally, to have the confidence to ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine the value for money of this project. Will the Taoiseach or the Minister correct the record of the House regarding the reply issued to Deputy Cowen on 26 November, which stated that the process of valuing the liabilities to transfer to Irish Water was ongoing?
Last night, the Minister indicated that the Government changed tack in May by deciding not to transfer all local authority liabilities to Irish Water. That was misleading information, and it is another example of the Government's attempt to keep the truth from the Irish people for as long as possible. That has been the defining characteristic of how this entire project has been handled.
In the last few days, Deputy Cowen proposed that these charges and all costs relating to Irish Water would be paid through the Exchequer.
That means further tax increases, which Deputy Barry Cowen should explain. This matter has been assessed independently by the Commission for Energy Regulation and its assessments have been published for all to read. The Comptroller and Auditor General has always assessed the validity of financial arrangements under the statutory requirements after things have been set up.
The Deputy referred to the conservation grant. The Government estimates that it will cost €130 million, but, as is the case with all Estimates, one must cater for the reality when something happens, for example, in the case of unemployed persons, the number who are likely to be unemployed next year or the year after. If the number of unemployed rises in any year, there must be a provision to meet the extra demand. The same applies to medical cards and other matters. In the case of the conservation grant, if there is a need for a further increase in the sum, it will be provided for. This has been independently assessed for its financial viability by the energy regulator. The grant will apply like every other facility and if there is increased demand, it will be provided for.
An unprecedented amount of time has been allocated for discussion of the Bill before the House. The Bill is about reducing charges and giving certainty to people that their water supply will not be cut off and that pressure will not be reduced. It gives certainty that Irish Water will never be privatised in the years ahead and that beyond 2019 the Minister of the day will have the authority to cap water charges to make them affordable, viable and fair. These are the issues that the people wanted to be dealt with when they marched a number of weeks ago. They wanted clarity and certainty about the cost factor and affordability. All of these matters are dealt with in the Bill under discussion in the House.
There were 19 Bills, the debates on which were guillotined in 2010, nine in 2011, ten in 2012 when the troika was here, 12 in 2013 and two this year. A total of 40 hours was allocated for discussion of the Bill.
It is about reducing costs, clarifying that water pressure will not be reduced and that the water supply will not be cut off, giving people certainty that Irish Water will never be privatised and that after 2019 the Minister of the day will have the authority to cap water charges to ensure they will be affordable and fair.
It is important that the Taoiseach answer the questions asked and address the issues raised, not duck, dive and dodge all the time. The bottom line is that in a scenario in which there is 80% compliance and 80% take-up of the conservation grant net revenue will be €25 million. Most people ask, from a common-sense perspective, why the Government would spend almost €1 billion on establishing something for the sake of €25 million in revenue.
The Taoiseach talks about going off balance sheet. The Government has allocated up to €700 million to subsidise Irish Water through the three devices I mentioned. The latest one was revealed last night at 8 p.m., after a year of debate and procrastination, and the figure amounts to €460 million. Deputy Barry Cowen asked in November about the transfer of liabilities and the reply he received was that work was still under way in preparing balance statements for each local authority for their end-2013 positions and that this would be used in determining the value of the liabilities to be transferred to Irish Water. Last night the Minister said the Government had taken a decision in May not to transfer all liabilities to Irish Water, but nobody was informed of this publicly. Even as late as one month ago, the Minister deliberately misled the Deputy in the reply he gave to the question. The Taoiseach should correct the misleading information given.
Furthermore, this information is going to EUROSTAT. All of the manoeuvres by the Government in terms of commercial rates, last night's manoeuvre of an amendment being tabled at the eleventh hour and the water conservation grant are designed to pass the market test. That is what is driving water policy. What is plan B if the test is not passed?
There is no need to go through the litany of inefficiencies in the system, the number of kilometres of pipe work that is inferior, the extent of leakages throughout the system-----
The figure required for investment in wastewater and sewerage schemes and water infrastructure has been stated on many occasions. That is the reason for the necessity to set up Irish Water and the expenditure in establishing it.
The Government is happy that EUROSTAT's assessment which is completely independent will be met by the way Irish Water has been set up and its structure. We are happy that it will pass that test. The Commission for Energy Regulation has independently verified the validity of Irish Water.
The long awaited banking inquiry begins its first day of taking evidence today, but that development has been overshadowed by the refusal of representatives of the European Central Bank to appear before the inquiry.
The ECB played a direct and central role in the matters the inquiry will examine. It had a central role in the inflation of the property and credit bubbles which burst so catastrophically. In 2010 the then ECB president, Jean-Claude Trichet, demanded that the State apply for a bailout to recapitalise the banks and that a vicious programme of austerity be imposed on the people. These demands were made using the threat of withdrawing emergency funding from the Irish banking system. The Government of the day succumbed to that threat and did the bidding of the ECB, thus saving the euro, the banks and the bondholders, as well as crippling the people with debt and austerity.
Mario Draghi, the President of the ECB, once again demonstrates an arrogant disregard for this State and our people. The ECB's snub to the banking inquiry is not just unacceptable but a calculated insult. Mr. Draghi has given two fingers to the members of the inquiry, the Oireachtas and Irish citizens, and it is unacceptable. This morning, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, said the ECB had an obligation to attend the inquiry. Does the Taoiseach believe the ECB is obliged to attend the inquiry? What does he intend to do to ensure it faces up to its obligation? Has the Taoiseach or anyone in the Government been in direct contact with Mr. Draghi? Has anyone challenged him on his refusal to co-operate with the banking inquiry?
Deputy McDonald gave two fingers to a number of people who were not here to defend themselves when she read from a confidential document given to members of the Committee of Public Accounts here last week. For that, she should correct the record.
The ECB is not obliged to attend here but to respond to the European Parliament. Although I see no reason the ECB should not be represented at the banking inquiry, I cannot force it to attend. Mr. Draghi is more than competent to attend this banking inquiry or any other. In his position in the ECB he said he would do everything he could to protect the euro, and he has. This is very important to this country and all the eurozone members. I have not spoken to Mr. Draghi and asked him to attend the banking inquiry, which commences today with Mr. Peter Nyberg. On Thursday, Mr. Rob Wright is coming in to discuss the independent review panel and strengthening the Department of Finance. While I understand the ECB is not obliged to attend, it would be appropriate if it did; however, I cannot force it to.
We are all too familiar with the ECB's efforts to save the euro. The people watching know from direct experience what the cost of it was. The previous Government was bullied, threatened and harangued into doing the bidding of the ECB. The country and the people were not bailed out; the banks were. We have had year after year and budget after budget of cutbacks and austerity. People know all about the ECB and its efforts to protect the euro. They also know the ECB has shown an utter disregard for the people and economy of this State. We also know, if we did not before, that the Taoiseach is a crawler.
The Taoiseach is not prepared to call the institution to account. He said the ECB was not obliged to attend but that it should. What does the Taoiseach propose to do to ensure its representatives attend? He is not a disinterested bystander or onlooker. He is not - heaven forbid - Mr. Draghi's messenger boy. He is the Taoiseach of the country, and the people expect him to stand by them.
Has the Taoiseach been in touch with Mr. Draghi? Will he be in touch with Mr. Draghi? What does he propose to do to ensure his co-operation with the inquiry, or will he, once again, doff his forelock and do the ECB's bidding?
If she speaks about crawling, I could remind her of a few events very quickly, although I will not do so here. The Deputy does not realise this country is recognised as having the fastest growing economy in Europe. Between 80,000 and 100,000 people are going to work who did not have that opportunity before. The number of people who are finding new jobs is increasing, which is important. The Deputy seems to want to get rid of the euro and return to a different type of currency. I am unclear what her projection is.
We know she wants to increase income tax by 8% and introduce a land tax and an exorbitant wealth tax for people who earn over €100,000. She does not seem to recognise that the Government has focused on the lower and middle-income group to give them relief and some certainty in the future in light of the sacrifices they have made.
The Deputy's question was whether the ECB is obliged to attend the inquiry. The ECB is obliged to respond to the European Parliament. Sinn Féin has a number of Members in the European Parliament. I do not hear them asking these questions in the Parliament or telling us what they are doing out there. They seem to have vanished into some kind of vacant space. Deputy McDonald cannot come here before Christmas and be all things to all people, pretending she knows all the answers. Her party will not accept responsibility in Northern Ireland and could well be a catalyst in bringing down the institutions.
She does not understand that the ECB is responsible to the European Parliament. She does not want to appreciate that the ECB did a very big deal with Ireland in respect of our negotiations about the promissory note. She does not seem to understand that Mr. Draghi and the ECB have brought interest rates to an historic low so that business can thrive across the eurozone and the EU. Unlike the party she represents in some of its sectors, we are not in the business of forcing people who have no legal responsibility to turn up here.
However, as I said already, I do not have the authority to require or force him. Of course I will ask him. However, I will not listen to a sham argument here when Sinn Féin's leader declines to accept responsibility for what he has done in Northern Ireland.
Although there is always much talk about transparency here, as under the previous Government, secrecy seems to be the order of the day. Last week, I asked the Taoiseach about surveillance being carried out by the British Government's communications headquarters, GCHQ, on cables in the Irish Sea. I asked whether the Government had sanctioned it; if so, under what legislation; and if not, what it will do to protect citizens' rights. The recent report on torture by the CIA also involves much secrecy around Shannon Airport. The US Senate's report on the CIA's use of torture has made little of American assurances that military aircraft passing through Shannon Airport do not carry military arms. The dogs in the street know they do. Given the extent of the report, it is pretty clear that Shannon Airport has been used for rendition flights as part of the torture programme. Normally, when talking about something that happened on Fianna Fáil's watch, as this did, the Government is jumping up and down to kick Fianna Fáil around. I am surprised the Government is not seeking to investigate this. Given all the information that has come our way regarding Shannon Airport, rendition flights and the CIA torture programme, does the Taoiseach not think it is time we had a full investigation into everything that has happened in Shannon Airport since 9/11?
The Ministers for Justice and Equality and Foreign Affairs and Trade have been in touch constantly with the authorities from the United States in respect of rendition. Deputy Wallace will appreciate that this matter has been the subject of discussion in this House many times in recent years. I am unsure as to the kind of full investigation he is talking about. Clearly, the relationship between the United States and this country, no more than many other countries, deals with those issues. If the Deputy is suggesting the Government is not being told the truth about every flight that goes through Shannon, I would like to hear some evidence of the Deputy's proof of this. He states that every flight was carrying arms and weapons.
The Deputy might explain to me what sort of investigation he is talking about, because there have been claims about this in the House on many occasions previously. They all were investigated and down-to-earth-----
If the Taoiseach thinks not enough information has been brought forward already, I expect to have a former United States marine come forward in the new year who has passed through Shannon on a regular basis. He will give evidence to the fact that Ireland is in breach of international law in respect of things that have gone on in Shannon and how the United States has used the place.
Given the assurances the United States has provided to different people around the world about what it does and does not do and given the extent of the CIA torture programme, has it any credibility left in this area? Since the events of 11 September 2001, the United States has completely contravened human rights law. It has abandoned it and has lost its moral value in this area.
The murder of innocent civilians in foreign countries is illegal. Unwarranted surveillance of the Irish public is illegal in this State. Is the Government really serious about doing things differently than its predecessor? I ask because some transparency is needed on this entire area.
I thank Deputy Wallace. He asked whether the Government will do things differently than before and he has evidence of this even within the past fortnight. On foot of the new information that came forward in a recent television programme, as well as other documentation, the Government made a decision in respect of reopening the case with regard to what are known as the hooded men where torture was involved. Obviously, as Deputy Wallace is well aware, that original decision had implications for other cases around the world. I do not have any information about the former member of United States marines of whom the Deputy speaks but if that person is coming forward and is making available information of which the Government is not aware, obviously it will be happy to hear that information from the person involved. Moreover, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will take that up directly with the American authorities. Last week, I dealt with the question of the cables, their ownership, the requirement for High Court judges and the fact that unwarranted surveillance is not legal and clearly, the Government would take a serious view of that. Of course, there is the question of major companies requiring information to be had or in issues of criminal activities where, under conditions, that information can be made available. Our country always has tried to measure up to the highest standards in respect of international law and if Deputy Wallace's contact has information that is not available to the Government, the Department or to the authorities, the Government will be glad to hear it in the new year.