Tuesday, 8 December 2015
The storms of the past week, in particular, have devastated families, homes, businesses, farms and entire towns. Storm Desmond has wreaked havoc and caused severe dislocation in Bandon, County Cork, and in Ballinasloe, Ballybofey and Crossmolina, in particular. There has been a very serious impact, and potential impact, on the entire Shannon region and in a number of counties beyond that region. Roads, schools and many facilities remain closed as a result of the damage caused.
Having listened and spoken to councillors across the country, I believe it is difficult for those who are not affected to comprehend the impact of the storms on so many communities and the depth of destruction.. The problem is that some of these communities have been hit before, both in 2009 and 2013. As a result, many people cannot get insurance. The affected communities are very angry and feel let down by the Government and authorities in general. They feel there is a lack of urgency and proactivity in prioritising the capital flood relief works. Some 1,500 people marched in Bandon last evening. Councillor Margaret Murphy O'Mahony rang me to say enough is enough, thereby summing up the problem. The councillor was very clear on that and has been speaking to many people in her community.
What is worrying is that the funding allocated for flood relief works remains unspent to a significant degree. For 2015, some €87 million was provided.
Some €60 million or €61 million of that was capital, but up to the end of October only €35 million of the allocation was actually spent. Incredibly, the budget for 2016 is €73 million, with only €44 million for capital works. Therefore, the Government is to spend less in 2016 than was provided in 2015. That is what gives rise to people feeling there is a lack of real proactivity and urgency.
Deputy Keaveney questioned the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Simon Harris, over a month ago on the circumstances in Peterswell and the need for drainage works there.
The Minister of State replied that money was not provided because no one could see the benefit of doing so. If the Taoiseach were to speak to people in the area now, they would tell him about the benefits that would have accrued. If the money had been spent on relatively minor works, it would have spared schools and houses the significant damage that has been done.
Will the Taoiseach indicate when flood relief works in the worst affected areas will proceed? Will the Government introduce emergency measures to address the lack of access to insurance and enable people to deal with this matter? How does the Government propose to allocate humanitarian relief funding? In previous episodes of flooding the money did not reach people. There is anxiety about how this funding will be administered.
I thank Deputy Martin for his comments. This is an ongoing situation and it is not the first time it has happened. On behalf of everybody in the House, I empathise with those whose homes and businesses have been devastated by the impact of serious flooding and those involved in agriculture whose lands have been flooded, causing difficulties for the movement and feeding of stock and so on. We should also express our sympathy to the family of the late Ivan Vaughan, who was caught in the flood waters in Caledon, County Tyrone.
Most areas are on high alert. The River Shannon is slow moving and it takes a number of days for the situation to evolve. Ballina was on high alert because people feared that high tide and surging waters would result in the river walls being breached, although that did not happen. Rainfall for November was more than 50% above average and the Office of Public Works reported that many rivers were at bank level before the rainfall started on Friday. November was a wet month in many areas and the ground was exceptionally saturated. One fifth of the country drains through the River Shannon. It is expected that the lower estuary will be in spate and flood later this week. Further episodes of rain and wind are forecast and there may well be further instances and episodes of flooding. Experience indicates that the waters will not recede for days, weeks and, in some cases, months. Local authorities and supporting agencies remain on high alert in terms of response, and the national co-ordination committee meets again today to discuss threat assessments at national level.
In the past 20 years, Governments invested €410 million in flood relief schemes. In comparison, more than €430 million will be spent on managing flood risk in the coming six years as part of the capital programme that has been set out. This will fund schemes that are either under construction or at design stage, with flood relief works to be carried out in various locations. Flood relief schemes in Mallow, Fermoy, Clonmel and other areas have been successful, although weather may dictate heavier rainfall at different times in these towns.
I met the chairman of the national co-ordination group yesterday to receive a report and discussed the matter with the Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Simon Harris. The Government also considered the matter at today's Cabinet meeting and a number of actions were taken immediately. The Department of Social Protection has in place a humanitarian fund of €10 million for homes that have been affected by flooding. This funding was sanctioned by the Government in 2012 but was not drawn down. It is available for emergency assistance and will be deployed. Community welfare officers are calling to homes in towns that were flooded, including Crossmolina and Bandon. Staff from the Department of Social Protection are on the ground in the affected areas and a three-stage process is in place for immediate relief. The first stage involves determining whether a house is habitable, the second involves providing cash to meet basic requirements, and the third is a longer-term assessment of the house once the flood waters have been pumped out or removed.
This morning, the Government allocated €5 million to be distributed as emergency assistance to small businesses that have suffered flood damage and which, through no fault of their own, were unable to take out flood insurance. I expect that assessments will take place in the coming days with a view to making arrangements to provide whatever assistance can be given in the immediate future.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has introduced a number of measures to deal with the movement of animals from flooded land, to sensitively take into account flood damage when carrying out farm inspections, and in respect of making arrangements for the transportation of slurry from flooded slurry tanks. The Government will receive a full report this week and again at its meeting next week on the damage and scale of what has taken place, including in respect of roads, bridges and other structures that have not yet been assessed, in the same way as when major storms hit just a few years ago.
I again empathise with people facing difficulties only a few weeks before Christmas. The immediate response is as I have outlined for Deputy Martin.
I genuinely do not want to make a political issue out of this. The Taoiseach gave a good weather forecast, and it is important that people know what is coming down the tracks, but I get the sense in the towns that have been affected that people want to know when action will be taken. The relief scheme for Bandon, which was badly flooded in 2009, has not been carried out and the capital works have not been put in place. A report in the Irish Examinerfrom 27 February 2014, referring to a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts, noted the following: "The slow-paced attempts to protect vulnerable communities after the January 2014 storms ravaged the country were revealed by officials tasked with overseeing the funding yesterday." The phrase "slow-paced attempts" sums up the official response to the flooding crisis.
In the context of the Taoiseach's uninspiring speech on climate change in Paris, there is a real sense that the Government does not get what is happening. It must dramatically upgrade this issue in terms of its priorities. The Taoiseach summed it up when he stated that most of the €10 million humanitarian relief scheme introduced in 2012 had not been drawn down. The scheme is not working, as anybody in the areas affected will agree. I remember sending off hundreds of applications for funding in Cork city after a dam was opened during a flood, but no one received anything. There is no confidence in the humanitarian relief scheme and people will not even bother applying for it. There is no point in the Taoiseach's stating that the Government provided €10 million for a scheme in 2012 but no one drew down the funding or that the scheme is still in place. Something is not working.
New measures are needed to address the insurance issue. They could include joint Government-backed insurance programmes for flood areas. Even in areas such as Clonmel, which is in a better position than previously as a result of a good flood relief scheme, people continue to find it difficult to get insurance. The key issue is that less will be spent on capital relief works next year than was spent last year. That sums up the lack of prioritisation.
Will the Taoiseach indicate whether capital works will proceed and what will be the timescale involved?
Deputy Keaveney's parliamentary question to the Minister of State, Deputy Simon Harris, specified works that were to be done. If these works had been done, much of the damage that has occurred could have been averted. Will the Taoiseach undertake to have this matter reviewed and an inquiry carried out into how this situation was allowed to unfold?
I disagree with the Deputy's statement that he gets the sense that the Government does not appreciate this. Does he not understand that we have had reports collated from local authorities and people on the ground whose homes and businesses have been flooded as well as from many other sources?
The schemes that are at the construction stage are those for the River Wad in Clanmoyle, Dublin, which is nearly completed; Fermoy south in Cork, where the scheme has been completed and is operational; Ennis lower, which has been completed; Waterford, phases 2, 3 and 4, which are substantially completed; south Campshire in Dublin, which is to be completed in 2016; Bray, which is to be completed in late 2016 or early 2017; and the River Dodder, phases 2c, 2d and 2e, which are also to be completed in 2016 or early 2017.
Schemes that are likely to go to construction in 2016 include Templemore, Claregalway, Bandon, County Cork, Skibbereen, County Cork and Foynes, County Limerick. Deputies will have heard the Minister of State clarify that we lost two years with legal objections to the tender process for Bandon. While people are perfectly entitled to make objections, those have now been overcome and the Minister of State has given his commitment on the matter.
They are due back in early January for Bandon. The assessment process will take place. The scheme will be constructed between 2016 and 2018. The main elements include new walls and embankments; excavating the channel by approximately 1.6 m for a distance of 3.5 km; replacement of the pedestrian bridge; underpinning Bandon Bridge; construction of new fish passages; and the associated drainage works, including new pump stations. That is in place.
There is a scheme designed for Crossmolina but the town had its worst flooding in 52 years with the result that the bridge through the centre of the town is incapable of taking flood waters and may have to be replaced completely.
The humanitarian process to address the situation on the part of the Department of Social Protection is already in place. There are three phases. There is an immediate assessment if people have to be moved to accommodation. Then there is provision of cash for the immediate situation in any house as well as a longer-term analysis when the water is pumped out. The same will apply in respect of assessments on the €5 million allocated for businesses in the towns. This is now open in respect of Crossmolina, Bandon and the other locations flooded in recent days.
Citizens are understandably incensed at the revelations of outright corruption by a number of politicians exposed by the "RTE Investigates" programme last night. As the Taoiseach knows, this is not new. Mr. Justice Mahon has said that corruption in Irish political life is both endemic and systemic. Fully 18 years after that tribunal began its work, three years after it made its final report and almost five years after the Taoiseach assumed office, the Government has yet to implement the recommendation of Mr. Justice Mahon to appoint an independent planning regulator.
The Taoiseach promised a democratic revolution but he has not delivered it. The Government went as far as cancelling inquiries into planning irregularities. One of Mr. Phil Hogan's first acts as the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government was to scrap planned inquiries into six different local authorities. Why was that? The then Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, subsequently established reviews instead of inquiries to deal with these matters at the councils. Why was that? The reviews were discredited as a result of the testimony in the High Court of the whistleblower, Mr. Gerard Convie, a former senior planner with Donegal County Council. This year, in May, Sinn Féin brought forward a Private Members' motion calling for an independent planning regulator, as recommended by the Mahon tribunal. The Government voted against that proposal. The Government promised at the time that further reviews would be completed by June of this year, but that has not happened. Last night, the Taoiseach signalled that the issue will not be dealt with before the next general election. The Government has had five years to deal with this - five wasted years. It is not good enough.
We have legislation. An Teachta Brian Stanley has brought it forward. There is no point in the Taoiseach condemning corruption unless he is going to tackle it. Will the Taoiseach allow time for an Teachta Stanley's Bill - I have it before me - to be taken and to proceed through the Oireachtas as a matter of urgency to deal with this issue? It would put in place an independent regulator, as recommended by Mr. Justice Mahon.
Let me assure Deputy Adams that it is utterly unacceptable for any public representative to use his or her position for financial and personal gain. There can be no place in public life for the kind of behaviour that was witnessed on the RTE programme last evening. Public representatives are required to comply fully with the codes of conduct governing the performance of their duties. Obviously, the cases involving local authority members are, in the first instance, a matter for the local authority, which can refer the cases to the Standards in Public Office Commission for investigation. Cases involving Members of the Oireachtas are, in the first instance, a matter in for the Oireachtas, which can also refer cases to the Standards in Public Office Commission for investigation.
Notwithstanding these arrangements the Government is bringing forward new legislation to improve the disclosure system and the ability to investigate complaints. The public sector standards Bill will see the establishment of a public sector standards commissioner to replace the Standards in Public Office Commission and oversee the reform, complaints and investigations process. The heads of the Bill were published in June together with a public consultation process. One submission was received. It was sent to the Oireachtas committee and considered. The final draft is almost completed. I hope that, all going well, it can be brought to next week's Cabinet for publication. It will also provide a new consolidated framework to govern officials at national and local level. As a result, we will have a uniform and strengthened ethics code. It will apply across the public service, it will include politicians and officials and there will be a significant increase in disclosure requirements.
The new planning Bill to establish an independent regulator and the new criminal justice (corruption) Bill to replace and update the offences of giving or receiving bribes are at an advanced stage. I put it to Deputy Adams that those Bills are in addition to what has already been produced and implemented by Government. We have brought in legislation to regulate lobbying, bring about the effective banning of corporate donations, the restoration of the Freedom of Information Act, the Protected Disclosures Act to protect whistleblowers and the extension of the powers of the Ombudsman. Following consideration of the final Mahon tribunal report, the Government published a general scheme of a Bill in January this year to provide for the establishment of the office of the planning regulator. Under the provisions of the Bill, the office will be fully independent of the Department and responsible for the independent assessment of all local authority and regional assembly forward planning, including zoning decisions of local authority members in local area development plans, to ensure compliance with relevant national and regional policy. It will be empowered to review the organisation, system and procedures. It will be enabled to drive a national research, education and public information programme. All of these things take time. Those Bills have gone through and are in place. They will be followed by the three I have mentioned. In conclusion, there is no place in public life for what was witnessed by the people on the RTE programme last night.
If there is no place in public life, then the Taoiseach needs to bring forward regulations to take sanctions against these people. The Government has not done that. The Government Bill is totally and absolutely inadequate. The so-called independent regulator envisaged by Fine Gael and the Labour Party is not independently appointed. The regulator is accountable to the Minister. As far as I know, the regulator does not have the power to prosecute. That is simply not good enough. It merely serves to highlight the style of this Government, which is loud on rhetoric and slow on action. It is another part of the Taoiseach's five-point plan biting the dust.
In 2012, the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, who now has responsibility for planning but has ignored this issue entirely, said Fianna Fáil polluted this country with corruption. I do not disagree with him on that point, but those involved were not on their own. Fine Gael is the "what is in it for me party?" and the mé féin party. It is being disgraced by the actions of some of its representatives. Last night's programme illustrates that clearly.
I ask the Taoiseach to support Deputy Stanley's Bill, which establishes the independent planning regulator envisaged in the Mahon report. I set out the three grounds on which it is different from what the Taoiseach is putting forward. Deputy Stanley's Bill gives to the regulator the power to prosecute. It also allows for the regulator to be appointed independently and for him or her to not be answerable to the Minister. He or she would be independent of the Oireachtas and any political influence.
The Taoiseach has never had a problem rushing legislation through to give money to the elites or to take it away from the poor. He has guillotined every social welfare Bill since he came into office. He said he hopes, all going well, that his inadequate Bill will be passed. I ask him to free up time now for the Sinn Féin Bill to be taken before Christmas.
Deputy Adams only hears what he wants to hear. I said the planning reform and planning regulator Bill came from a recommendation of the Mahon tribunal many years ago. The office will be fully independent.
The relevant provisions in Deputy Stanley's Bill will be incorporated into this Bill. It makes him or her responsible for the independent assessment of all local authority and regional assembly forward planning, including zoning decisions of local authority members in local area and development plans, to ensure compliance with relevant national or regional policy or both.
The office will be independently empowered to review the organisation, systems and procedures used by any planning authority or An Bord Pleanála, the national planning appeals board, in the performance of its planning functions under the planning Acts, including risks of corruption and on foot of individual complaints from members of the public. The office will be utterly independent. It will be enabled to drive a national research, education and public information programme to highlight the role and benefits of proper planning. In establishing this office, the aim of the Government is to ensure proper independent oversight of the systems and procedures used by planning authorities. It will ensure public confidence in the delivery of quality outcomes while avoiding the overlap procedures regarding individual cases operated by An Bord Pleanála and the role of the criminal justice system.
I recall watching the "Spotlight" programme on Northern Ireland.
I did not hear Deputy Adams shouting about the need for an independent review of the management of property and the ethics of working property in Northern Ireland with relevance to his party. I condemned that as much as what I saw last night.
This Bill will bring independence and objectivity to all these things, including what the Deputy mentioned regarding corruption, zoning, regional planning, local planning and all that goes along with that.
I also express my revulsion at what I saw last night on the "RTE Investigates" unit programme. While it was sickening, I cannot honestly say I am hugely surprised. The culture of non-compliance and the absence of effective enforcement ensures an utter lack of transparency in corporate and political life. It is a system that the public instinctively mistrusts. We have had the banking inquiry, the Cregan inquiry, the Fennelly inquiry and the Moriarty tribunal. Round and round we go, and we will keep doing that until the penny drops. Unless we implement an effective and modern system with real consequences, nothing will change.
The lack of consequences drives people nuts. The refrain is that "Nothing ever changes" or "Nothing ever happens and there are no consequences". I hear that over and over again. I do not know how many times I have heard people say to me, over the past year in particular, that they genuinely expected a change after 2011 when the Taoiseach promised them a democratic revolution and that he would end the toxic political culture. Things have not changed and we saw that last night.
The Taoiseach wrote to me last Friday regarding the problems with the Cregan inquiry, the investigation into IBRC and transactions involving Siteserv and Topaz, which was in the news recently. With respect, the letter appears to kick these issues to touch given that the measures require emergency legislation which does not appear to be on the agenda, at least this side of a general election. In the same way, the legislation to tackle corruption like that seen on the "RTE Investigates" programme last night has been put beyond the general election. The story never changes. There are a lot of words, but what we need is action.
In recent days Topaz was sold at a significant profit by the person who purchased it at a significant discount from IBRC, the same person who acquired Siteserv from IBRC at a significant discount. At the same time he was one of the biggest debtors of IBRC. Both of these transactions were flagged by Department officials as being included in the six large transactions about which the Department had serious concerns in terms of the poor quality of decisions made by the board of IBRC.
Given that the Mahon tribunal in 2012 found endemic and systemic corruption in political life and the Moriarty tribunal in 2011 was critical of the political culture and clandestine donations, it is hard to be shocked by last night's television programme. When are we going to accept that a new regime is required to tackle corruption in Irish life? The subject of today's Private Members' motion is an anti-corruption agency. It is a document published by the Social Democrats which I sent to the Taoiseach last week. It will be very interesting to see whether the motion is agreed or an amendment is passed. It proposes the kind of system that is in place in other countries where corruption has been identified and where there has been a comprehensive response to it. I urge the Taoiseach to read the paper with a view to accepting the proposal.
The situation that arose in respect of the case mentioned by the Deputy happened in the House. To define a response to it, when the entire Oireachtas wanted an answer to the question, and following a case made by quite a number of Deputies, a facility was put in place. Mr. Justice Cregan made his determination in respect of particular aspects of that. I am as open to new ideas as anybody else, and I look forward to hearing the contributions from Deputy Murphy and others today.
We would all like to think we could have an immediate answer to an issue that is raised. If somebody in the House makes a comment, statement or allegation, as the case may be, which is a matter of public interest or concern, to prove it is not that simple. It is an easy thing to make a statement, but to find a facility to have it proven is the question. The Deputy put forward her views and I look forward to hearing her contribution to the Private Members' debate.
The Bill I mentioned to Deputy Adams is one that will bring absolute independence to a regulator. It will have the authority to oversee processes to evaluate and investigate issues that may arise in the course of any of the areas I mentioned. It will also include the current facilities that are completely independent, such as the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Criminal Assets Bureau, the fraud squad and so on. The Government condemns all instances of corruption, anti-competitive behaviour, breaches of ethics legislation, breaches of the Companies Acts and all other forms of white-collar crime.
I recognise there is a need for a strong public standards legislation system and to prevent wrongdoing on behalf of elected or public officials.
The Ombudsman (Amendment) Act 2012, the Protected Disclosures Act 2014, the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015, the Freedom of Information Act 2014 and the major overhaul of the Companies Act 2014 were major pieces of legislation to put in place objectivity and a standard by which proper business should be conducted. The amalgamation of the Competition Authority and the National Consumer Agency into the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission was also a worthy advance. Quite a number of improvements have been made to legislation enabling the investigation into, and prosecution of, white collar crime, which was occasioned by the Criminal Justice Act 2011. I hope the improvements in respect of the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal dealing with unethical and corrupt behaviour will come to the Government next week. They will be introduced in the forthcoming public sector standards Bill and the criminal justice (corruption) Bill.
All of these are areas that cover particular sectors and they are in the interests of having transparency, accountability, confidence and trust. As I said, I look forward to hearing the presentations and contributions from the Deputy and her colleagues, but we need a system which is able to provide answers to questions, given that we went on a particular route arising from legitimate queries and questions from people. It is never as easy to find and prove an answer as it is to make a comment or give a piece of information to the House.
The Taoiseach listed much legislation, but what we have is a fragmented response to enforcement. It is fairly toothless and this keeps on happening. The Moriarty and Mahon tribunals combined cost more than €200 million, and at the same time they did not flag a response or produce an organisation that is capable of dealing with it. The official line on the Moriarty tribunal is that the Government is waiting for guidance from the DPP on whether to proceed with a full investigation, but the Statute of Limitations runs out next year. This is the type of thing that absolutely demoralises people.
It is one thing to have legislation, but we need an agency with teeth that can operate across sectors and have a cross-sectoral response. This is what we propose. Will the Taoiseach accept the proposal this evening? Given that tomorrow is international anti-corruption day, the revelations last night on RTE and the ongoing unsatisfactory arrangement we have, the response to the proposal we will table will be very closely scrutinised.
I share Deputy Murphy's view on corruption, unethical behaviour and corrupt activities. In the State we have completely independent operations with the fraud squad, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Garda and CAB, which has brought so many people before the courts with a serious amount of money recovered for the taxpayer. Everybody can agree we do not want to see a situation whereby we continue to set up tribunals, such as the experiences we have had over many years, with an enormous cost to the public taxpayer. People tend to forget these things over a period of years. We have Oireachtas inquiries, commissions of investigations and tribunals of inquiry. The recommendations arising from the commission of investigation into unfair activities in respect of write-offs of more than €10 million require further consideration and I expect to meet the leaders of the various parties about this.
I am willing to hear new ideas, but the list of legislation put in place has gone a great length to providing accountability and transparency. Deputy Shortall may shake her head, but I will be happy to hear her contribution about the nature of what she speaks about. Everybody wants to stand over having answers to these issues and prevention if it is at all humanly possible. It will be an interesting debate. The Minister of Justice and Equality will take it for the Government and will set out the work that has been done and what is in place, with more to follow in respect of the independent regulator and the anti-corruption bill.