Wednesday, 11 December 2019
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)
Cabinet Committee Meetings
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on infrastructure last met on 4 November and is next scheduled to meet on 16 December. In 2019, Cabinet committee D met twice, and post the restructuring of Cabinet committees in July, the Cabinet committee on infrastructure has since met twice. The Cabinet committee works to ensure a co-ordinated approach in the areas of infrastructure investment and delivery, Project Ireland 2040, and Rebuilding Ireland. There is significant work under way across each of the areas covered by the committee through Departments, agencies and a range of interdepartmental groups such as the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board. These matters are also regularly considered at meetings of Government and in bilateral meetings with the relevant Ministers.
Significant work is continuing to deliver Project Ireland 2040. Recent projects delivered on budget include the M11 Gorey-Enniscorthy road, which was under budget, the N22 Tralee bypass, the Luas green line infrastructure and capacity upgrade, a 100-bed community nursing unit in Tymon North and the Cork radiation oncology unit, among others. Long-term projects under way include the national broadband plan, the contract for which is now signed, and the north runway at Dublin Airport, which is now under construction. The four funds launched under Project Ireland 2040 have a total of €4 billion to invest. The first round of funding allocations under these funds, amounting to just over €150 million in 2019, have been announced. Second round calls have been launched for the disruptive technologies innovation fund and the rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF. A further call for the urban regeneration fund will be announced soon, and work is continuing on legislation to underpin the climate action fund, to be funded by a levy on the oil industry.
As we know, effective project delivery needs effective governance. The Government is considering some reforms to oversight and governance of project selection, appraisal and delivery. This includes updating the public spending code, which was approved at Government yesterday. Targeted interventions under Rebuilding Ireland are also working to respond to housing needs. In the 12 months to the end of quarter 3, more than 20,000 new dwellings were completed and we have seen strong growth in leading indicators such as planning permissions, commencement notices and housing registrations. Next year we will invest in excess of €2.6 billion in housing, making it the highest investment in housing by any Government in a single year since the foundation of the State.
The Taoiseach mentioned various infrastructure projects that are going ahead throughout the State. All of that is welcome where it is happening. I want to take this opportunity to raise healthcare infrastructure, namely the Cuisle home in County Roscommon. It is unique infrastructure as a resort that provides for people with disabilities, which many people across the country use for respite. Even people from the North of Ireland travel and use that facility, which is run by the Irish Wheelchair Association, IWA. The community in Donamon is annoyed and frustrated to see this service being taken away from them and from the entire country. The Department of Health has been in contact with the IWA to see what assistance can be put in place. My understanding is that to date there has been a denial of funding to keep this infrastructure in place. It is vital that this be funded. The excuse being used that they do not own the building is clearly off the table as the owners have stated they have no difficulty in extending the lease and they have even stated that they are prepared to pay back the money they have received in rent over the past number of years to assist the redevelopment work that needs to be carried out in the facility.
Will the Taoiseach use whatever emphasis is required in speaking to the Minister for Health to ensure that this unique infrastructure, the only facility in the country offering a holiday home for people with disabilities and providing for all their care needs, remains open? The users of the service are determined that it is where they want to go. The offer has been made to put them in hotels and other facilities, but they do not want to use them.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach came out with another of his increasingly desperate attack lines, with the bizarre claim that we, on the Opposition side, are calling for the re-profiling of capital projects and to delay them. His memory is, again, very selective. The statement that capital projects would be re-profiled was made by his Government. For example, on 4 April, the Minister for Finance announced that he had decided to re-profile money allocated to Project Ireland 2040, the new marketing name for the national development plan, NDP. One of the direct cuts involved in this was a €24 million reduction in funding for repairs and renovation projects in the health sector this year. I am looking for some honesty about the timing of projects on which the Government has spent millions of euro in public money marketing to national and local audiences. When the now inevitable video with drone shots of the Cliffs of Moher was published at the start of this marketing campaign, we were told there would be absolute transparency about funding and timing. Yet, when we seek clarity following billions of euro in overruns, the Taoiseach comes out with this nonsense that we are seeking cutbacks.
It takes a special form of almost childish brazenness to sign a contract rapidly to make a project irreversible and then attack others for not proposing to incur massive costs for the State by reversing it. This appears to be the core Fine Gael strategy now, so we will all have to get used to it. The Government not only wants to pretend that it is funding projects, which will not be planned or funded for many years; it wants to deny the impact of overruns. It should be noted by the House that each of the major overruns has been hidden from the public until the last moment. The Taoiseach accused us of conspiracy theories about broadband and the children's hospital when we said the cost in each case would be what it has turned out to be.
When will the Taoiseach publish the reprofiling timetable and costs under the plan? I note his indication that the code for public spending will be updated. I note, too, that the Secretary General said in a memorandum to the Taoiseach and Cabinet that the Government had breached existing spending codes.
It is more than a year since the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, promised that the new national maternity hospital would be publicly owned and run. Twelve months on, there has been absolutely no legal clarity on the matter. In fact, a bizarre situation is ongoing whereby the Vatican, apparently, can veto the new hospital set to be built with public money and determine which procedures may be carried out there. It is reported that this €350 million project - that is the current estimate; it could be a lot more than that - may not be put out to tender until these matters are determined. Even when the hospital is finally built and funded, with a significant outlay of taxpayers' money, we have no legal certainty in terms of its public ownership. Put simply, we will have to negotiate for a place on the board of a hospital for which the public has paid and which the public should rightly own. It is time for absolute clarity in this regard. We have gone around this issue during several debates. Will the Taoiseach indicate clearly to the House when the national maternity hospital will be built, confirm that the commitment made by the Minister that it will be publicly owned and run will be fulfilled to the letter, and tell us when the tendering process will begin?
The Taoiseach advised me yesterday that, in his view, the problem with air quality in Dublin is down to diesel cars. A promise was given by the Government of which he and I were both members, as had been given by the previous Government, to electrify the railway lines to Maynooth. If the Taoiseach is concerned about diesel cars, the only way of getting a significant number of those cars off the road is to develop public transport. However, there has been neither sight nor sound of a project to electrify the Dublin to Maynooth railway line. It seems to have been put out to the back end of 2040. The Taoiseach probably knows, as he uses the line from time to time, that when one gets to stations such as Ashtown and Pelletstown, it is almost impossible and even physically dangerous in the case of a pregnant woman, for instance, to get on the train and access the railway carriages. It is also impossible to board at Broombridge.
I do not want a list of the things the Government of which we were both members did. It did quite a lot, including extending the Luas line to Broombridge. That project was championed by the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and me over a long period of time. When will the capacity of the railway lines increase, given that can only come about if they are electrified? It would also enable significant numbers of houses to be built in the Kildare area at a much cheaper price than is currently available in Dublin city. The Government is sitting on its hands with promises of "mañana,mañana" and no action at all is being taken.
Deputy Paul Murphy's name is not attached to these questions because they were carried over from yesterday. Under Standing Order 39(1)(e), it is necessary to advise the Questions Office in such instances. However, I will use my discretion and allow the Deputy to contribute.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I wish to follow up on Deputy Howlin's point regarding the ownership and management ethos of the national maternity hospital. The Religious Sisters of Charity own the land on which the new facility is being built and the Government is negotiating with the order through its company, St. Vincent's Healthcare Group. That group will have a majority on the hospital's board of management and will chair it. If things do not change, the reality is that women's healthcare will be at risk, as well as the State's finances. Ethos will follow ownership. It is unrealistic to expect a Catholic maternity hospital owned by the nuns' company to provide a full range of services, including contraception, sterilisation, abortion, IVF, etc., because those services contravene the Catholic code. There must be a review of the contract agreed between the Minister for Health and the Religious Sisters of Charity and measures proposed to bring the hospital into public ownership with a secular ethos and a secular board of management.
I have a question regarding the carbon emissions specifications to which the national maternity hospital and the national children's hospital are being built. When I asked about this in a parliamentary question to the Minister for Health, I received an answer from the HSE stating that the maternity hospital is being built to A3 standard. The expert advice I have received on the matter makes clear that this is nowhere near the near-zero energy building standards required for all new public buildings from 1 January 2020. In fact, the building is being designed to 2008 building regulations rather than the 2019 regulations. If it continues to be built in the current way, the hospital will need to be retrofitted at up to ten times the cost of building it to near-zero standards from the outset, if a deep retrofit is even possible. That change must happen urgently while the building is ongoing.
I thank Deputies for their questions. The Cuisle holiday home is operated by the IWA but is not owned by that body, as Deputy Martin Kenny mentioned. I acknowledge that there are real concerns from people with disabilities who have used the home in the past for their holidays and want to be able to do so again. Local people, too, are concerned because the facility provides employment and is a large part of the economy in the area. We do not want to see that lost because it is a part of the country in which, unfortunately, there are not many other economic or employment opportunities. In terms of grant aid from Government, we would need to know that there is a long-term lease in place, as is always the case when it comes to Government capital funding. We do not want a situation where we provides hundreds of thousands or millions of euro for works to be done only to find out a year or two later that the owner has decided to do something else with the property. I am sure the issues can be resolved by way of a long-term lease being provided. I will raise the matter again with the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, who is responsible for disability services.
Deputy Martin referred to cutting back the roads budget and re-profiling it. In the interest of clarity, I was referring to a Green Party motion that Fianna Fáil voted for-----
-----which called for the reprofiling of funds away from roads to public transport, even though Project Ireland 2040 already favours public transport over roads at a 2:1 ratio. It is on the record of the Dáil that Fianna Fáil did vote for that motion. Deputy Eamon Ryan has raised it on Leader's Questions and is concerned that Fianna Fáil backtracked so quickly on a motion that it voted for. Perhaps it did not understand the motion.
I think it is part of an increasingly anti-rural agenda by the Fianna Fáil party, opposing the national broadband plan, advocating that we cut back the roads budget-----
-----which Fianna Fáil seems to want to support, even though it does not seem to realise it.
I do, of course, understand why it is doing this. The party wants the Greens to put it in office after the next general election. I totally understand the strategy behind that but Fianna Fáil cannot have two faces. It cannot cosy up to the Greens in Dublin and pretend to be the party of rural Ireland when its members are not in Dublin. I am glad that we have been able to expose the party on that.
Updating the profile for Project Ireland 2040 is done twice a year at the time of the budget and the summer economic statement. There is an online tracker, which I accept is not up to date, but we will-----
We will update it.
Deputy Howlin asked about the new national maternity hospital. It is our policy that the hospital will be publicly owned and that the land it is on will be in public control. It is important to acknowledge that the National Maternity Hospital, not too far from here, is a good hospital and already has a Catholic ethos. The chairman of the board is the Archbishop of Dublin. He does not attend but its Catholic ethos has not prevented it performing terminations and providing fertility treatment. We should not get involved in unnecessary church bashing when it is not fair and I do not think it is fair on this occasion. Work is being done on the St. Vincent's site. A new pharmacy is being built and works are happening on the car park. Those works have to be done before the new national maternity hospital is built. It is intended that it shall go to tender in 2020. The Minister for Health is ambitious that we can get it started in 2020. At the very least we can get it to tender next year.
On the railway line to Maynooth, I will not irritate Deputy Burton by listing all the achievements of Fine Gael and Labour in the five years that we served together in government. I will mention only those done by Fine Gael, the Independent Alliance and the Independents in the past three and a half years in respect of this railway line. First, we have on order new carriages for a number of railway lines. They are coming from Japan and will be in service by 2021 and will increase by 34% the capacity on the Maynooth, Drogheda------
-----and Kildare lines. It is now 2019, so 2021 is just under two years away. They are on order. If they could come any faster, they would but no Government can make carriages come from Japan any faster, unfortunately, so it would not be any different if the Deputy was in government.
I will have to double check but I think the new locomotives are on order as well and they will by hybrids - electric and diesel. That will allow us to shift on a phased basis from diesel to electric on that line. We have also approved €100 million in funding for the national train control centre at Heuston Station and that will allow us to organise the slots better and get more trains in and out of Heuston and Connolly, which are pinch points.