Dáil debates

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Revised Estimates for Public Services 2020

 

12:50 pm

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I move the following Revised Estimates:

Vote 11 - Public Expenditure and Reform (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €42,745,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, for certain services administered by the Office of the Minister and for payment of certain grants and that a sum not exceeding €146,000 be granted by way of the application for capital supply services of unspent appropriations, the surrender of which may be deferred under Section 91 of the Finance Act 2004.

Vote 12 - Superannuation and Retired Allowances (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €375,517,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for pensions, superannuation, occupational injuries, and additional and other allowances and gratuities under the Superannuation Acts 1834 to 2004 and sundry other statutes; extra-statutory pensions, allowances and gratuities awarded by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, fees to medical referees and occasional fees to doctors; compensation and other payments in respect of personal injuries; fees to Pensions Authority and other professional fees, miscellaneous payments, etc.

Vote 13 — Office of Public Works (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €490,427,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of Public Works; for services administered by that Office and for payment of certain grants and for the recoupment of certain expenditure and that a sum not exceeding €8,000,000 be granted by way of the application for capital supply services of unspent appropriations, the surrender of which may be deferred under Section 91 of the Finance Act 2004.

Vote 14 - State Laboratory (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €10,271,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the State Laboratory.

Vote 15 - Secret Service (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €2,000,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for Secret Service.

Vote 17 - Public Appointments Service (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €16,291,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Public Appointments Service and that a sum not exceeding €150,000 be granted by way of the application for capital supply services of unspent appropriations, the surrender of which may be deferred under Section 91 of the Finance Act 2004.

Vote 18 — National Shared Services Office (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €55,400,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the National Shared Services Office and that a sum not exceeding €1,024,000 be granted by way of the application for capital supply services of unspent appropriations, the surrender of which may be deferred under Section 91 of the Finance Act 2004.

Vote 19 - Office of the Ombudsman (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €11,839,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Ombudsman, the Office of the Commission for Public Service Appointments, the Standards in Public Office Commission, the Office of the Information Commissioner and the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information.

Vote 39 - Office of Government Procurement (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €18,352,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of Government Procurement and that a sum not exceeding €59,000 be granted by way of the application for capital supply services of unspent appropriations, the surrender of which may be deferred under Section 91 of the Finance Act 2004.

Vote 43 - Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €21,704,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer.

I am appearing today on behalf of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, to present the 2020 Estimate for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform group of Votes. This includes the Office of Public Works, which is my responsibility. I intend to share my time with the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth.

The group comprises a significant number of Votes, including the Vote for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the Votes for a number of offices under the aegis of the Department, including the State Laboratory, the Public Appointments Service, the National Shared Services Office and the Office of the Ombudsman, the Vote for Superannuation and Retired Allowances, which covers Civil Service pensions, the Secret Service, the Office of Government Procurement, the Office of the Chief Government Information Officer, OCGIO, which is a new Vote, and the Vote of the Office of Public Works. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, will address the issues relating to the Office of Government Procurement and the Office of the Chief Government Information Officer.

As the Revised Estimates for 2020 published in December 2019 were not voted upon prior to the dissolution of Dáil Éireann earlier this year - the Estimates process is normally concluded in February - spending to date in 2020 has proceeded under the four fifths rule, which is applied under the Central Fund (Permanent Provisions) Act 1965. Under this rule, Departments can spend an amount up to 80% of that included for the relevant Department in the previous year's Appropriation Act. This provision ensures that Departments can continue to spend in the period before the Estimates are voted by the Dáil. A number of Votes within the public expenditure and reform group are at risk of reaching their four fifths limit in the coming weeks so to enable spending, both in terms of pay and pensions of the public servants concerned, and that the important programmes administered across these Votes continue, the 2020 Estimates are presented today for approval by Dáil Éireann, and I would appreciate the support of the House.

I note that a detailed briefing has been supplied to Deputies by the Department's officials who were assisted in this task by their colleagues in a number of bodies under the aegis of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Further detailed material is also contained in the Revised Estimates for Public Services 2020, which was prepared by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

Covid-19, along with other areas, has presented unprecedented challenges for our officials, Members of this House and communities across the country. Arrangements for business continuity and flexible working have ensured that essential public services can continue to be delivered while also ensuring that the general principles of health and safety and welfare in the workplace are adhered to. Officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the bodies under the Department's aegis have played a central role in responding to the challenges of the crisis. On behalf of the Government, I take the opportunity to thank all of those involved for their collective efforts in this regard.

In an overall context, it is worth noting that the total gross allocation for the public expenditure and reform group, comprising ten distinct Votes for 2020, shows an increase of 6.4% on the 2019 allocation. The majority of Votes are showing very modest increases. The 2020 overall gross figure is approximately €1.334 billion compared to €1.25 billion in 2019. In 2020, a new Vote, Vote 43, has been established for the OCGIO. This new Vote will serve to drive a process of digital transformation across Government and the implementation of various strategies. That is something I am fully aware of having been Minister with responsibility for eGovernment in the previous Government.

The structure of the public expenditure and reform Vote remains unchanged in 2020, with two strategic programmes focused on public expenditure and sectoral policy and public service management and reform. The requested resources for each programme in terms of staffing and funding are set out in part III of the Estimate. In 2020, a 27% decrease in the gross allocation for this Vote brings the total gross allocation to €44.9 million. This decrease is driven largely by the move of the OCGIO subhead to a new stand-alone Vote for 2020.

Public service reform remains a key priority for the Department. Funding for the public service innovation fund has doubled to €1 million in 2020 to reflect the demand from public service bodies seeking their services and operations.

Turning now to the other Votes within Vote group 1, I would like to mention that a memorandum of understanding has been agreed between the Public Appointments Service, PAS, Vote 17, and An Garda Síochána. This will result in the Public Appointments Service playing a key role in the selection aspects of internal Garda to sergeant and sergeant to inspector promotion competitions in 2020. Agreement has also been reached to transfer associated funding from the An Garda Síochána fund to the PAS fund to reflect this additional level of service. The impetus for this development is the 2018 Future of Policing in Ireland report which highlighted the importance of putting in place well-designed promotion systems within An Garda Síochána that are managed transparently and in line with best practice in the public sector. The Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána management have welcomed the increased involvement of the PAS in terms of introducing modern practices to the Garda in terms of its internal promotion procedures and practices. This can represent an important symbol of change within An Garda Síochána as people promoted through these competitions will have a critical role to play in shaping the future of policing across Ireland.

Regarding superannuation and retired allowances, Vote 12, this Vote provides for funding to allow the payment of pensions for retired civil servants.

2 o’clock

The variation in expenditure from year to year is primarily driven by the number of individuals who will opt to retire before reaching their compulsory retirement age and whose age, service, grade or pay level are variable and uncertain. The Estimate being proposed today involves a gross provision of €640.1 million, representing an increase of €25 million, or 4.1%, on the gross figure for superannuation. This reflects an increase in the number of pensioners on the payroll and the number of civil servants reaching retirement age this year. The increase in gross expenditure is mitigated by an increase in contributions from the single public service pension scheme.

A modest increase to the State Laboratory's 2020 Estimate under Vote 14 will allow for investment in specialised laboratory equipment enabling the lab to respond to increases in the number of samples to be tested for veterinary drug residues following the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

The National Shared Services Office, NSSO - Vote 18 - has played an important role in the reform of public services in recent years through the delivery of human resources services, payroll services and shared services to clients in the Civil Service and the public service. The increase of the NSSO's gross budget by 10% in 2020 reflects the continued need for investment to save, in other words, to deliver more efficient standardised services.

The Estimate providing for the Office of the Ombudsman, Vote 19, will allow the various constituent offices to deal with their increased workload, continue investment in ICT modernisation and meet the challenge of delivering essential services to the public remotely at this time.

The 2020 Estimate provides a gross allocation of €505.427 million for the Office of Public of Works, OPW, which is my responsibility. This supports the ongoing and widely respected work of the OPW and the provision of vital services to people across the areas of flood risk management and estate management, including our much-valued heritage estate. Our programme for Government recognises that climate change is one of the most significant challenges facing our country. The OPW has a significant role to play in climate action in two specific areas, namely, ensuring the energy-efficiency of the State's building stock and implementing a holistic approach to flood risk management.

At the core of the OPW's flood risk management work is the objective of reducing the flood risk to people, property, infrastructure and the environment to the greatest extent possible. In the context of this role, the OPW delivers services in four key areas. These include: strategic planning to manage future flood risk, including the co-ordination on behalf of the Government of cross-sectoral policies that mitigate flood risk; a programme of capital investment delivered in partnership with local authorities; programme maintenance of 11,500 km of river channels, including 800 km of embankments, and of arterial drainage; and advising the State and the general public on preparation for and response to flooding events.

The OPW has completed the largest study of flood risk ever undertaken in the history of the State, the catchment flood risk assessment and management programme, CFRAM. This study included an analysis of significant flood risks throughout 300 designated communities that are home to more than 3 million people. It provided 29 flood risk management plans which prioritise feasible measures to manage the assessed flood risk. As Deputies will be aware, the Government launched a €1 billion flood risk management investment programme under the National Development Plan 2018-2027 as part of Project Ireland 2040. Since the launch of the flood risk management plan in May 2018, the OPW has almost tripled the number of major flood relief schemes at design and construction stage, increasing the number from 33 to 92 by the end of 2019. This investment will provide protection to 95% of the homes identified under CFRAM as being at significant risk of flooding. It will also deliver sustainable benefits to our communities.

The OPW has incorporated assessments of the potential impacts of climate change into the CFRAM programme to identify potential future risks. It takes account of the need for adaption in the design and implementation of each flood relief scheme. In addition to this, the OPW has prepared a climate change sectoral adaptation plan for flood risk management which runs from 2019 to 2024. This is in line with the requirements of the national adaptation framework and the climate action plan of 2019. The plan was approved by the Government in October 2019 and includes a range of actions to adapt our flood risk management practice to effectively manage the potential impacts of climate change on future flood risk. Managing Ireland's flood risk is a long-term commitment requiring a multisectoral approach involving both capital infrastructural measures and non-infrastructural measures. The OPW co-ordinates an integrated whole-of-Government approach to flood risk management and an allocation of €126.219 million has been provided for within the Estimate to deliver this essential service.

The OPW's second significant programme, estate management, has been allocated a gross sum of €379.208 million. This allocation supports essential work in the management, design, maintenance and conservation of State properties, including Civil Service office accommodation and our internationally recognised heritage sites and monuments. In all, the OPW manages 2,500 properties on behalf of the State. The OPW continues to focus on optimising and sustaining modern, flexible and energy-efficient working environments for Departments and their employees. Like all public bodies, the OPW is in the process of responding to the immediate challenge arising from Covid-19 and will have a key role to play in designing the workplace of the future for the Civil Service. The OPW is working with other Departments to address this issue and to ensure new and agile ways of working are developed to meet the changing requirements for our office accommodation.

The OPW is also responsible for the management and conservation of some of Ireland's most significant heritage properties, monuments, gardens and arboreta. The management role includes the curation and presentation of 30 major historical properties, gardens and arboreta and significant collections of art, artefacts, plants and trees. It also ensures public well-being and enjoyment of these estates. Heritage continues to play a pivotal role in our tourism sector, which, like many other business activities, has been sorely affected by the current pandemic. It is important, therefore, that we adequately fund this area in order to ensure we are all well positioned to support the recovery of the sector and the wider economy.

I have only made reference to a small section of the work of the OPW and I have not gone into the detail of how it can contribute widely to the economic stimulus. However, it goes without saying that investment in the work programme of the OPW reaches into every county and community in the country, providing support and significant public benefits.

The Minister of State with responsibility for public procurement and eGovernment, Deputy Ossian Smyth, will address the issue of the Votes in his own areas of responsibility.

1:00 pm

Ossian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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As Minister of State with responsibility for public procurement and eGovernment, I am very pleased to introduce the 2020 Estimates for the Votes for the Office of Government Procurement and the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, OGCIO.

The Vote for the OGCIO, Vote 43, is new and has only been established this year. As Minister of State with responsibility for eGovernment, I am pleased to lead the continued digital transformation across government and the implementation of associated strategies through the OGCIO. It is important that the State matches the productivity gains which 21st century technology is bringing to industry. As a result, it is essential to have a dedicated Minister and a public body to champion, innovate with and harness automation and technology. This can enable public service employees to give their best, provide greater value for money for the taxpayer and improve services for the citizen. The establishment of the Vote for the OGCIO will enable an even wider adoption of its full range of build-to-share services, which in turn will drive digital transformation in government at a faster pace by freeing up Departments and bodies to focus on transformation initiatives rather than simply keeping the lights on.

Building on our recent experiences of digitally enabled large-scale remote working, there is much we can learn to introduce more long-term improvements in how we work throughout the Civil Service and the public service and how we serve our stakeholders. The impact of the OGCIO Vote will be seen on two fronts. It will enable more bodies to avail of the OGCIO's common ICT services and it will provide increased scope for the OGCIO to drive the Government's digital agenda through further strategic investment, thus ensuring digital transformation is a high priority across all sectors of Government.

In the current situation, it is even more critical that the public service continues to develop digital services that are consistently easy and convenient to use. In recent months we have seen the value of our public service portal in providing the single source for information for citizens about the pandemic itself and the Government response. Use of the gov.ie platform has increased by 760% from 2019. The key to progress in providing digital public services is having people with the right skills in the right roles to develop the services. We have been working with Civil Service HR departments to progress a range of initiatives relating to ICT professionalisation in the Civil Service. I am very pleased with the progress of our pilot. An apprentice ICT specialist programme has been designed and more than 30 apprentices have already been placed with 11 Departments and offices. I look forward to seeing our apprentices qualify and join the Civil Service ICT cohort in the coming year. I am also looking into a similar programme for retraining people whose jobs have been affected by the pandemic and the related growth in digitisation and automation.

I see great potential for the digital technology sector to help to drive recovery through the establishment of a govtech ecosystem, as it is called, which could further accelerate digital government while also stimulating our indigenous SME start-up sector. The recent success of the Covid-19 contact tracing app, which was developed by an Irish company and is now being replicated across the world, is evidence of what can be achieved when we all work together.

I will turn now to my responsibilities for public procurement. The Office of Government Procurement, which is covered in Vote 39, has played an important role in recent months in supporting the national response to Covid-19. This has included direct procurement support to the HSE and other public bodies engaged in the delivery of front-line services to the public. The office has issued a number of important policy information notes to public bodies providing guidance on managing the procurement implications of Covid-19. The office has ongoing responsibilities as the central purchasing body for eight categories of commonly purchased goods and services, leading the ongoing reform programme for public procurement, setting national policy in regard to public procurement, supporting the professionalisation of the practice of public procurement and managing the national procurement platform, eTenders.

The programme for Government sets out a number of ambitious policy objectives in the areas of environmental and social considerations through public procurement while also delivering value for money and supporting the continued participation of small and medium enterprises in this important business opportunity. I look forward to working with the Office of Government Procurement to build on its ongoing work in these areas. I am happy to present the 2020 Revised Estimates for the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer and the Office of Government Procurement, approval of which will allow them to continue to meet their responsibilities and deliver essential services. I look forward to the debate on these proposals and I am happy to answer any questions that arise.

1:10 pm

Mairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)
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Táimse ag tosnú do Shinn Féin. Tá sé dochreidte go bhfuil muid anseo inniu ag plé athruithe airgeadais agus muid i lár paindéime. Sa tseachtain chéanna inár chlois muid go mbeidh Airí Stáit ag fáil ardú pá d'os cionn €16,000, tá daoine agus gnólachtaí faoi bhrú uafásach. Níl a fhios acu cén t-ioncam a bheidh acu sa todhchaí. Léiríonn an cinneadh seo nach bhfuil tuiscint ar bith ag an Rialtas ar shaol an gnáthdhuine. B'fhéidir, fiú, nach bhfuil suim ag an Rialtas i saol an ghnáthdhuine.

This has been another chaotic week for the Government. Once again, it has proved itself to be completely out of touch with reality. On Tuesday, I questioned the Minister on the use of taxpayers' money for the hiring of excessive numbers of well-paid advisers, 17 in total, for the Taoiseach and the leader of the Green Party. That same evening, media sources reported that a decision had been made at Cabinet to increase the wages of the three super junior Ministers by €16,000. Does the Government need a reality check? In the middle of a pandemic, a wage increase of €16,000 is massive. Are they called super junior Ministers because they have some kind of superpower? Unless they do actually have superpowers, I do not understand why the Government thinks they need an extra €16,000 in income.

In regard to the Revised Estimates, the manner in which the information has been presented to us is lacking in specific detail and does not allow for as much scrutiny as we would like. A consistent approach to performance budgeting, including metrics on financial allocations, would help to facilitate more effective scrutiny, which is surely in the public interest. In addition, it would be helpful if there were a proper breakdown of capital expenditure into subsections for the acquisition of new non-current assets versus the enhancement of existing ones. I am aware that there will be a difference in how capital expenditure and current expenditure can be reported given that the former must go through several stages before construction begins. Nevertheless, greater clarity and transparency could be provided on forthcoming capital expenditure projects that are proceeding to the implementation stage.

With regard to capital expenditure, there should be no doubt, in the midst of an economic crisis, that we need shovel-ready projects that will put people directly to work in good jobs and support ancillary jobs in local communities. We need strong procurement contracts and to move away from the cost overruns we have seen in the past. We need the inclusion of social clauses that allow people to get jobs in their communities and enable apprentices to be taken on and upskilled. There is an opportunity for the Minister to do this right. However, as I alluded to, the lack of detail in the Revised Estimates makes it more difficult to know what the capital expenditure consists of.

In my own constituency, there are numerous badly needed capital projects, many of which have already been subject to a cost-benefit analysis and given initial approval. The much-needed Inis Oírr pier development, for example, was promised in 2015 under the Government's capital investment plan, Building on Recovery: Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2016-21. It is now more than four years since that plan was published but no works have been done on the pier. I put in a parliamentary question on this issue to the previous Minister, who was unable to give an exact update as to when the works would commence. This is a critical piece of infrastructure for Inis Oírr. The project is essential for public safety as well as being fundamental to the survival and sustainability of the island's economy. The development of Inis Oírr pier cannot be rowed back on by the Government under any circumstance.

Another example of a project in my constituency that has not progressed is the development of Rossaveel Harbour in Connemara. A cost-benefit analysis report on the proposed deepwater quay was undertaken by DKM Economic Consultants for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, following which planning permission was sought and obtained in 2018 for the new development. However, there has been no further movement on the project and the people of Rossaveel and Connemara have been left in the dark, with no explanation or justification for this lack of action and progress. The report clearly states that the development of a deepwater quay in Rossaveel is a worthwhile project that would yield significant and substantial benefits for the local economy in terms of tourism and employment, something that is made all the more pressing in the current economic climate.

I strongly welcome the funding that is to go towards flooding prevention. It is absolutely essential for Galway, the west and the midlands. We have seen time and again the devastation that flooding can visit on communities, businesses and family homes. It is essential that the work is done to alleviate it.

I have a question regarding the allocation to the secret service. I have seen an indication that there will be a 60% increase in this provision from €900,000 in 2019 to an estimated €2 million this year. I would like clarity as to the accuracy of that apparent jump.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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We are, in effect, in committee when debating the Revised Estimates and, as such, I expect a back-and-forth engagement with the Ministers of State during the five minutes available to me. I want to make the point again and send a clear signal to the Government that the way some of the business in this House is conducted is not acceptable and is showing disregard to the Dáil and to Members. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform should be here for this discussion. It is standard practice that it is the Minister who brings forward Estimates. With no disrespect to the Ministers of State, they are not responsible for the vast amount of the Estimates that are being put forward here. We had the Tánaiste not turning up for legislation last night. We had the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform leaving after 30 minutes of Question Time. We had the Minister for Finance not turning up for legislation last week, which meant the Dáil had to be suspended. That has to stop and we must send a clear signal in this regard. The Ceann Comhairle needs to intervene if this is the way Ministers think they are going to treat the Members who are in here representing the public in their constituencies. Ministers must start attending the relevant business. If there is a scheduling issue with committees or subcommittees, that issue will have to be dealt with.

My main question for the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, is whether he can confirm that a memorandum went to Cabinet to approve a €16,288 increase for a Minister of State who is already receiving a salary of €124,439. I ask him to answer that question first.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I will try to respond briefly to the questions from both of the Sinn Féin Deputies.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Minister of State should only respond to Deputy Doherty.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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This is Sinn Féin's time.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Deputy Doherty has asked the Minister of State to respond in the time allocated to the Deputy.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I will try to answer both sets of questions because the Deputies are from the same party. First of all, as I said out at the outset, I apologise for the fact that the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, is not available. There is a Cabinet meeting on the July stimulus which he had to attend.

Deputy Farrell referred to a lack of detail in the Revised Estimates. We are fully prepared to take on any additional scrutiny measures that might be needed in terms of the metrics for financial reporting.

It is unfortunate that we are in the current position. As Deputy Doherty and other Members will know, this procedure normally takes place in February. We are where we are because there was no functioning Dáil due to Covid and everything else. A Government had not been formed. We now have a situation whereby gross voted expenditure is almost hitting the four fifths threshold----

1:20 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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With respect, I have five minutes to make my points. I asked the Minister of State a direct question: did a memorandum go to Cabinet last night----

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Minister of State without interruption.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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-----to increase the wages of a junior Minister who is already on €124,000 by €16,288?

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Minister of State is in possession. Deputy Doherty may not interrupt while another Deputy is on his or her feet.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I am trying to be-----

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The Acting Chair is obliged to protect Deputies. I asked the Minister of State a direct question but he is speaking about something else-----

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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He has answered the question.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I am trying to be respectful to the Deputy's party and answer the questions asked by the previous Sinn Féin speaker, Deputy Mairéad Farrell, as well as those asked by Deputy Doherty. She deserves answers to the very important questions she raised.

On the issue of capital expenditure within my Department, Deputy Farrell raised a very interesting issue in the context of Covid in particular. There is a €200,000 allocation within the voted Estimate for additional ICT expenditure. Much of this funding will help to support staff of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform who must work from home, including staff of my section, the OPW.

The Deputy raised the issue of shovel-ready projects. I am the Minister of State with responsibility for most of the capital works carried out by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform because they come under the auspices of the OPW. We are on target to spend €1 billion over ten years. I will have to revert to the Deputy on the issues she raised in respect of Inis Oírr and Rossaveel in Galway because I think they relate to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

I thank the Deputy for her support for the OPW in the context of its work on flooding. The more support I get from Deputies and the more the issue is raised, the better.

On the secret service, there has been a convention in the Dáil that the Vote for the secret service is noted but it is not discussed in detail. There has been a marginal increase in the allocation and I think the Deputy will accept it.

I understand that Deputy Doherty is not happy. I was here last week. I cannot do anything about the matter. A Cabinet meeting is currently under way. I hope he will respect the fact that I am trying to answer his question. On the issue of the memorandum he stated was brought to the Government last night, I will try to get that confirmed for him before the sitting is finished.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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I believe I am correct in my understanding because legislation is being brought forward tomorrow. The priority of the Government in the middle of a pandemic, at a time when cancer patients cannot get medical cards, people are seeing their PUP being cut and students are wondering how they will get back to school, is to introduce legislation to give a junior Minister who is already on €124,000 an extra €16,000. The former Tánaiste did not know that this even happened at Cabinet. Can the Minister of State confirm whether Ministers nod off at Cabinet meetings as well as doing so in the Dáil? Can he explain to me and, more important, to the public, how under God the Government thinks it appropriate at this time to increase the salary of a junior Minister who is already on €124,000? A sum of €16,000 is a significant amount of money. This sends out all the wrong signals. Just a few years ago when Fianna Fáil was in opposition it stated that it is adequate to have two super junior Ministers and that it is not a matter for the Dáil to pass legislation to solve an informal Fine Gael demotion or promotion issue. What has changed? We know that Fianna Fáil could never be trusted. The only thing that has changed is that it is now the beneficiary of the super junior Ministry and the bump of €16,000.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I thank the Deputy and call the Minister of State.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister of State does not have the right to respond. It is the turn of my Sinn Féin colleague to speak. The Minister of State was waffling for long enough.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I remind the Deputy that I am the one in the Chair.

Photo of Maurice QuinlivanMaurice Quinlivan (Limerick City, Sinn Fein)
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On Vote 13 - Office of Public Works, I wish to raise the issue of flood defences. The Minister of State will be well aware of the flooding problems in Limerick city in recent years. In 2014, a massive flood destroyed parts of the city. A report was carried out under the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme, but it is now six years later and most of the required defences have not been put in place. Is there any way to prioritise them or speed up their delivery? The Minister of State referred to the CFRAM programme and stated that 95% of flood areas in the country will be protected under the programme. What will be done for the other 5%? Is the Minister of State looking at a plan to bail out people living in houses that, unfortunately, cannot be protected by flood defences?

The Minister of State was at a meeting last week with Shannon Group which I also attended. I raise the matter as it relates to Vote 13 - Office of Public Works. Will the OPW consider taking Shannon Heritage into its charge? The Minister of State will be well aware that many people have no confidence in Shannon Group. I and other Sinn Féin members representing the mid-west have asked that the board of Shannon Group would step down. We believe it has not focused on Shannon Heritage whatsoever. The sites are to close at the end of August. Staff are concerned about their jobs. We believe many of the sites, which include Bunratty Castle in County Clare, King John's Castle in Limerick City, my constituency, and, believe it or not, Malahide Castle in County Dublin, could remain open all year around. They were profitable last year. We understand that there has been a drop in the number of foreign tourists, but people are being encouraged to take staycations. I was in Bunratty Castle last Sunday and it was packed. One had to queue for everything. There is demand for it. I respectfully ask the OPW to consider taking Shannon Heritage into its charge because Shannon Group has not looked after it to date.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I point out to Deputy Doherty that I do not come to the House to waffle. If he does not like the answers I give, that is fine, but he should not try to insult people. I am present and I am answerable to the House. I provide answers to the questions I am asked. If he does not like the answers, that is fine. He should try to show a bit of respect.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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It is the Minister who has responsibility for-----

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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Through the Chair, there is a way to take that issue up without insulting somebody who is here trying to answer questions.

On the issue of King's Island, as Deputy Quinlivan is aware, it is at design and planning stage. The current level of expenditure is approximately €4.18 million. The expenditure for 2019 is €452,000. I have an interest in this issue because it affects my local area. I understand the issues raised by the Deputy.

On the issue of Shannon Heritage, I was at several meetings organised by Deputy Carey specifically in respect of the Shannon Group's handling of its heritage portfolio. It is an issue about which I am concerned. I understand that Clare County Council and Limerick City and County Councils have engaged on the matter. If there are specific forms of support the OPW can give, such as advice and so on, it will certainly consider that. It already has a comprehensive portfolio of sites which take up a substantial amount of money. My understanding is that there was a development plan for Bunratty Castle and King John's Castle. I will request further detail in that regard and have it circulated to the Deputy. No formal request for the OPW to take on those properties has been received. Obviously, we are prepared to engage in dialogue regarding Bunratty Castle and King John's Castle because we understand their significance in the context of tourism.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I share the disappointment of the Sinn Féin Deputies that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, is not here for this matter. I mean no disrespect to the Ministers of State who are present. It is incredible that the Minister, Deputy McGrath, is not present, but it is more incredible that there have been several Cabinet meetings so far this week. That is not a good image for a Government that is in its early days to portray. A Government that holds so many meetings in such a short time is a Government that is under serious pressure.

The belated July stimulus will be announced today after the Government spent the past three weeks inventing a mini July stimulus for itself. There are now a near-record 20 junior Ministers. There have not been so many Ministers of State since the days of Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy. Some 17 special advisers are soon to be appointed to work with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Green Party leader and Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Eamon Ryan. As has been noted on the record, yesterday it emerged that the three super junior Ministers will receive an additional €16,000 each in allowances. I am old enough to remember when two super junior Ministers were sufficient. This is a very anxious time for families and businesses, but there is no sign whatsoever of the Government tightening its belt and acknowledging or understanding the pain and difficulty in which many people find themselves.

This approach is absolutely tone-deaf to the day-to-day needs of families across the country.

They say a good start is half the battle but most people are watching the first few weeks of this Government's tenure and observing its behaviour from behind their hands and behind the couch, it is such a car crash. Much of what is in this document is actually historic. In many ways, going through these Revised Estimates is almost pointless. This is no way to present the Estimates. They are quite opaque and lacking in detail. We have no real idea or granular detail regarding how much of this money has been spent, nor do we have sufficient time to forensically examine expenditure, which is unfortunate to say the least. Today we will get the first glimpse of the economic trajectory and philosophy of this Government. Unfortunately, I get a sense from newspapers and media reports in recent days that in many respects it is going to be a case of "Meet the new Government, same as the old Government" only with a small change of emphasis.

What lessons have been learned from the overspend on the children's hospital debacle? The capital works management framework has been established. This is an important body charged with managing an enormous amount of public expenditure over the next number of years in the context of Project Ireland 2040. We need to ensure that we get value for money and that cost overruns are managed properly, transparently and accountably.

Can the Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW advise which of the office's sites have been most impacted in terms of the fall-off in admission revenue this year? Clearly, the figures there are very concerning. In terms of subhead B.5, could the Minister of State also comment on what sites and buildings the OPW intends to purchase this year? Are any current leases being reviewed given the number of public and civil servants who are working from home. That should be the new normal. They should be supported to do that and the public service should lead by example. Are any expensive leases being reviewed in terms of cost-saving measures for the State?

In response to our Sinn Féin colleague's question about the comparatively high increase of 60% in the expenditure on the allocation to the Secret Service, it was stated that there is a convention in this House that this is passed on the nod. Clearly, that is a secret and we have to accept it.

On the Special EU Programmes Body, has any progress been made in respect of the Narrow Water bridge initiative involving north County Louth and south County Down?

There is a programme for Government commitment on transitioning the national minimum wage to a real living wage. A good place to start would be for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to take responsibility for ensuring that all public and civil servants receive the hourly rate of the minimum wage in terms of their salaries. There are several thousand who do not and I would like the Ministers of State to elaborate on plans that the Department may have to progress this initiative across the public service. The State must lead by example.

One of the Ministers of State might outline the Department's commitments and those of the new group of Ministers in terms of the reform agenda, particularly around political reform. That agenda has been let slide since 2016, which is a concern. Government must happen transparently and accountably. There are things that we need to do that we are not doing. Some of the behaviour over recent days in terms of the reduction in the number of people who can be members of committees, issues in respect of speaking time and so on constitutes a flagrant abuse of this house and of our rights as Deputies. Those rights need to be protected. I want to hear from the Ministers of State regarding the political reform agenda.

There has been a long-running open sore in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of the pension rights of community employment supervisors. There was a 2007 Labour Court recommendation and a forum was established by the former Minister, Deputy Howlin. That has essentially been ignored and bypassed by the Department over the last couple of years. Can the Ministers give any clarity on the provision of pensions and redundancy payments, if the need arises, for community employment supervisors in the future?

1:30 pm

Ossian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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Deputy Nash asked about any new financial controls or reforms that may have been put in place. He referred to the national children's hospital. He is absolutely right to ask that question. There was a gross overspend in respect of the national children's hospital. We have a substantial number of large capital projects planned, by which I mean those valued at more than €100 million, under the national development plan. I have no wish to see a second national children's hospital-style event take place. With that in mind, there was a report by PwC last year on what went wrong with the project. That report contained specific recommendations about reforms to be made. Included in those was that governance had to be improved, risk-sharing had to be improved and there had to be better analysis. Specifically, PwC also pointed out that the system whereby the contracting body was also the body that monitored projects was not good enough. Whoever commissions a huge project costing more than €100 million cannot also be responsible for monitoring whether that project is on track. There has to be some independent external review all the way through of the cost of these projects. That unit is the investment projects and programmes office, IPPO, which is within the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It will be reviewing and providing ongoing control of costs on major capital projects.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Just to make it clear, one of the Sinn Féin Deputies did not get in. There are only 20 minutes available. Deputy Pearse Doherty wanted a question-and-answer session. It was not my fault. The Minister only had a minute and a half to reply to all the questions. I cannot be criticised for how Deputies divide time among themselves.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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I have a number of questions about and comments on the Estimates. I join others in saying that it is disappointing that the senior Minister has not seen fit to turn up for this debate in order to account for spending within his Department. This session has been scheduled for some time. It is disrespectful to the House and to Opposition spokespersons that he is not present for the scheduled debate.

I want to raise an issue that has come to the fore recently, namely, the role of the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of the health budget oversight group. Questions have been asked of the Secretary General about spending for the purposes of testing and tracing but he was reluctant, and in fact refused, to answer questions on that matter. I find it quite difficult to understand why that was the case. Perhaps one of the Ministers of State could explain. There are questions about the overall budget for the testing and tracing regime. A figure of €206 million was sanctioned. To date, €47 million has been spent. There is an estimated total spend this year of €414 million. Given that we are into the seventh month of the year, maybe somebody could explain why there is such wide variation in those figures and why the Secretary General has not responded to questions on the matter.

On the decision to appoint three super junior Ministers and the additional Estimate that is required to top up their salaries, can either of the Ministers of State provide a justification for that top-up? It is very hard to understand. There might be an argument in a three-party coalition for somebody from each party to attend Cabinet. What is the rationale or justification, though, for a top-up on what is already quite a generous salary?

The overall 2020 budget allocation was 22% less than last year's Estimate because of the establishment of the OGCIO.

Excluding a fall due to the office being established, the Department's programme expenditure increased by €1.1 million. My question relates to the office of the Government Chief Information officer. This is a new Vote which has been established. It is worth €21.7 million, which accounts for the 28% reduction in the Department's main Vote. What is the exact purpose of this office? Why was it established as a separate office? Could it not have operated as a unit in the Department? Are there additional expenses associated with establishing it as an office? What are the main projects that it will concentrate on?

The public service innovation fund is another new subhead. It receives €1 million, double the allocation of last year. There is a good argument for such a fund. The Civil Service is often criticised for not being sufficiently innovative and we need to bring new thinking and new approaches across the Civil Service. Last year the fund was very highly oversubscribed, to the tune of 136 projects requesting nearly €7 million across the public service, and we see the same has happened again this year. Does the Minister of State accept that the figure is an underestimation of the level of funding needed if we are serious about innovation across the service? It strikes me as tokenism. Was there any attempt to measure the demand for such a budget? Does the Minister of State accept that we should put our money where our mouth is to a far greater extent to encourage that fresh thinking and innovation?

The construction innovation support is a new subhead to encourage innovation and increase productivity in the construction sector. There seems to be a good argument for that. We should encourage innovation across the sectors. The fund's purpose is to foster digital leadership and culture change, to create digital standards, encourage digital education and training and introduce digital procurement. Why was only the construction sector selected for this? What was the basis for this decision?

I will stop there and ask if the Ministers of State can answer.

1:40 pm

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I will try to answer as quickly as I can. Some of them are no longer my brief, although they were until the transition.

The construction innovation fund is a concept that was developed during my time in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform around the area of building information modelling technology so that we could use best practice in the private sector to ensure that when the State goes out to the market or develops concepts internally, we can use the best available technology like building information modelling. That goes on to the next point on the innovation services and fund in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I drove this concept initially because I believe that across the Civil Service, we have a range of talents that might not necessarily be exploited, and to allow people from outside agencies and the outside world with skills that are not exploited to use those skills. The Deputy is correct that the fund was oversubscribed in the first year. It is being doubled. The first thing was to get the centre up and running and give it teeth. People were seconded from agencies or organisations, including the Defence Forces. It is innovative in that it brings people from all over, seconding them and allowing them to go back to use their energies and experience. Often Governments are criticised - I was a member of the Committee of Public Accounts - rightly or wrongly for the overuse of consultants. As a former Minister of State with responsibility for the area now covered by Deputy Ossian Smyth, I believed that this was a way to make progress.

The Deputy mentioned the Secretary General's role in relation to the Health Vote. I do not know the detail but I will bring this back and ask that the Deputy get a response on the €414 million. That topic might be specific to the Health Vote which the Minister for Health might take.

The additional Ministers of State at Cabinet will be debated in the Seanad today. Before the Government was formed, there was much concern about the possibility of Departments being reconfigured and different areas of society requiring different people to have higher levels of responsibility. The Government is responding to demands where the 15 Minsters sitting at Cabinet allowed for by Bunreacht na hÉireann may no longer be fit for purpose given the range of demands across Government. I am sure this will be debated in the Seanad over the next few days.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Tá an t-am caite.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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That is not much use to us. I asked the Minister of State the rationale for the top-up payment for those.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I think I answered it. People take responsibility based on the demands that society as a whole puts on us as a Government. If people have additional responsibilities and are expected to be able to relay those to the House, I think their salaries should reflect the responsibilities of everyone else sitting at the Cabinet table.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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That is really not good enough. I will tell the Minister of State who deserves pay rises for their level of responsibility. It is the nurses and the health workers who fought on the front line to protect our health, and the many workers in retail and other essential front-line services, often very low-paid workers, who worked throughout the pandemic. They deserve an increase. The people who do not deserve pay increases are politicians and Ministers. It is shocking and disgusting that Ministers of State on €124,000, about three times the average industrial wage, and about three times what the average nurse would get, are now to get an additional €16,000: Jack Chambers, Hildegarde Naughton and Pippa Hackett. It is extraordinary. Is €124,000 not enough for these people that they have to get an additional €16,000 and this is to be done at the very same time that the Government is planning to cut the pandemic unemployment payment from €350 to €300, and for others down to €250 or €200. Workers who have lost their jobs and incomes through no fault of their own as a result of a pandemic and Government-imposed necessary public health guidelines are to see their incomes slashed where it may be very difficult or impossible for them to return to work, but Ministers of State on €120,000 will receive an additional €16,000. Seriously, it is shocking. Does the Minister of State really think that is the right signal to send out? Does he really think that is just in the current climate when hundreds of thousands of workers in this country face serious hardship and uncertainty or are simply unable to go back to work because of the situation we are in? Will the Minister of State give us a better explanation or justification for that?

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I ask the Deputy to refer to people as Deputy rather than just using their names, please.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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As I already told Deputy Shortall, the rationale for increasing the number sitting at Cabinet was laid out by the three party leaders when the Government was formed. There are increasing demands on all of us.

There was a suggestion of Departments being abolished or being merged in advance of the programme for Government, which some interest groups, lobbies and Deputies opposed. There were suggestions before the Government was formed that new Departments were needed. The Government is bound by the Constitution of 1937 to limit the number of people with seals of office sitting at the Cabinet table to 15. After that, decisions have to be made as to how the various different interests and demands, be they societal, economic or otherwise, are to be represented at Cabinet. The decision was taken and was published in the programme for Government. It is on its back page of it. It was not something that was concealed or dreamed up. It was designed to ensure that specific areas were covered. For instance, the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegard Naughton, to whom the Deputy referred, will have overall responsibility for aviation and other elements of the transport sector, an area I know from being a Minister of State in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in the previous Dáil. Myself and the Deputy would have clashed on a number of occasions. That sector, along with other sectors, has grown massively since the 1937 Constitution was written. The real issue here is that the 1937 Constitution is no longer fit for the purpose in terms of dividing out responsibilities within Government to people who need to represent particular sectors. Everybody will accept that if someone is sitting at the Cabinet table and he or she takes on responsibilities to this House and the other House, then he or she should be treated the same as other Ministers sitting at the Cabinet table. They need to be accountable to the House, and this accountability will continue in this House.

The Deputy is absolutely right on the point he made about other workers. That is why we are committed, and I said it here last night, to the 2% increase for public servants which will have a significant impact on the finances of the State. We are also committed - the Minister, Deputy McGrath, has made this very clear - to opening up discussions as soon as possible with representatives of employees within the civil and public services and employers to ensure that in the context of Covid-19, which we have all learned a great deal from, a new way to address pay over the next number of years will have to reflect the points that have been raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett, which are no different from the points I raised. Nobody has a monopoly of concern on low pay. We all have family members who might be regarded by some as being low paid. This Government has started on an agenda, which will be seen later on, to stimulate the economy, to put more people back to work, to keep people at work and to spend a significant amount of money which will be voted through from this Department. Some of this may require legislation but it is designed to support the people the Deputy mentioned today and who he routinely mentions, and in respect of whom I support him. We have to do it in a way that is reflective of the current climate, which we will do. We would welcome the Deputy's support.

1:50 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I will support the Minister of State if he gives our nurses and front-line healthcare workers the pay rise they deserve and gets rid of the absolutely shameful pay inequalities suffered by public servants at every level in the public service, where new entrants have to suffer the indignity of working on lower pay than people doing exactly the same job, just because they came in after a certain arbitrary date when austerity was imposed on them.

Whatever way the Minister of State cuts it, in the current climate where the Government is talking about cutting the pandemic payments for people who have lost jobs and income as a result of a public health crisis over which they have no control, and then to give junior Ministers a €16,000 increase is, to put it mildly, sending the wrong signals. To put it not so mildly, it is absolutely disgraceful. If the Minister of State wants equality at the Cabinet table perhaps the senior Cabinet Ministers might cut their pay a little to show leadership for people who are suffering out there and are on fractions of the salaries and wages they are on.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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In response to the Deputy's earlier contribution, I meant to acknowledged the support he has given to the temporary wage subsidy scheme and to the pandemic unemployment payment. We are in the situation with this Estimate where four fifths of our spending has already been reached. We need to ensure that this Estimate is passed for the very people the Deputy talks about, namely, nurses and public servants who are on different levels of pay, and to ensure we can pay salaries and pensions next week or shortly after that. If we go over that four fifths limit the Government will not have the power to do that. The Government responded initially, and I thank the Deputy for his support, by way of some €16 billion to shore up this economy and to ensure it did not go down the tubes like it did in 2008. We will continuing on that road today.

It is also important to point out that in respect of the two schemes the Deputy referenced, 50,000 people came off them at the last count and 35,000 people off them at the count before. We are getting people back to work, which needs to be acknowledged.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit. Bogaimid ar aghaidh anois leis na Rural Independent Group. There are four Deputies to speak, namely, Deputies Nolan, Michael Healy Rae, O’Donoghue and Danny Healy Rae.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offally, Independent)
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Last year the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform allocated €1.6 billion to agriculture, food and marine. A significant amount of that allocation was aimed at delivering the high level goal of income and market supports to underpin the rural economy and environment. That particular amount was €874.1 million. What was surprising to me, however, was the fact that a further €356.7 million was spent on agricultural policy and strategy. I fully accept that we need to have good and robust policies in place but does this not seem like a disproportionate amount, especially in light of the overall spend on actual financial supports being delivered to farmers and the rural economy? This is something I have concerns about, especially in the context of the public service performance report. Last year’s report highlighted the pilot programme of equality budgeting within a number of Departments. This process is supposed to track the progression of policies that aim to advance equality, reduce poverty and strengthen the economic and social rights of citizens. How is the equality budgeting concept being implemented with reference to agriculture and the rural economy? Is it reducing poverty and strengthening the rural economies? We need to know the answer to that given the level of expenditure being directed to that Department.

On community employment, CE, scheme supervisors, we know the Labour Court ruling in 2008 recommended that they be afforded occupational pensions. Is provision being made for those supervisors? That issue has dragged on for far too long.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I will start where the previous Deputy finished, which is on the issue of the money for the supervisors, which is very important-----

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Seas suas sa suíochán, please.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Is that better?

The money for the supervisors is a very important issue because these people have played an integral role in our society and have done so much for small towns and villages and have been treated very badly. I want to know for a fact if these people are going to have their pension rights and entitlements taken care of or not.

When we are talking about prudence, managing finances and budgets, we have to be sure, and I have said this here already today, about what we are doing with money because people are very concerned and worried about this. I welcome the July stimulus in advance but I want it to be spent prudently. The Minister of State has common sense and will understand what I am trying to say here. If one goes back - I am not talking about this Government or the last one but about previous Governments - to the issue of housing, what we are all doing is issuing policy after policy and document after document on how we are going to address this housing crisis or how we are going to address the poor prices farmers will receive for their beef. We are getting bogged down continuously in what I call money evaporating schemes in order to dream up a solution for the problem. For instance, when we are talking about beef, it is the easiest thing in the world to solve because all we need to do is to ensure the factories give the beef producers a proper price for the beef at the end of the day. We need not have conferences to discuss it.

When we need to know how to provide housing for homeless people and people on our housing list, let us go back to what the politicians before us did, and in my case Jackie Healy-Rae who was a Member of the Dáil and Kerry County Council. What was their ambition? What did the Acting Chairman do when he was a member of Tipperary County Council? They fought to ensure fields were bought, machines were sent in, planning permission was got, and houses were built. Those houses were local authority houses forever. That is how problems are tackled.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta. It would not be right if the Healy-Raes were not heard. I call now on Deputy O’Donoghue to speak.

2:00 pm

Richard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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3 o’clock

Restaurants, pubs and hotels are calling for the continuation of the temporary wage subsidy scheme to be able to keep staff employed over the autumn and winter lean period. I am sure it is more important to have people working than unemployed. They are also calling for a reduction of VAT to a minimum of 9% and refer to Northern Ireland, where it is at 5%. Will the Government, from today, continue to pay the trainee nurses? All other apprentices in this State are paid while they train. Our front-line staff and nurses need to be paid properly while they train. They looked after us through the pandemic and now it is time that we stood up and paid them for the training they are doing to look after us in future.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I am glad to get this opportunity. There was a big announcement yesterday by the EPA about septic tanks. I believe it is targeting people who want to build single, one-off houses in the country, and to stop them from doing that. I want to talk about Kilcummin. This village has been promised a sewerage scheme since 2004. It was to start in 2008. Money was announced here in 2013 by a Labour Deputy and the job was supposed to be done last year. It was cancelled last year. I ask the Minister of State to make sure it is on a programme this year and no later than next year.

I want to ask about funding for group water schemes. Kerry County Council is practically at a standstill, pushing the can down the road. One can make an application but it will go nowhere. Several groups of people such as those in Lyreacrompane, Gneeveguilla, Rathmore or other parts of Kilcummin are waiting to get approval for a group water scheme. The basic right of any householder or community is water, and many of them do not have a safe water supply at present. We have had a rates waiver scheme for many years. Where people could not pay, it was either waived or reduced. Much is happening now and I ask the Minister of State to ensure the Government compensates the local authorities, including our local authority in Kerry, because if he does not, many other services will be denied to people who are entitled to the services. I can see a problem there if the Government does not adjust and ensure it gets the funding to compensate the local authorities for the lost rates revenue they cannot get. Look at the rural publicans; they cannot even open. I ask the Minister of State to look at that.

Cathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, on his appointment. He is a mid-west Minister of State so we hope he will deliver plenty in Clare and his home county, Limerick. I wish him the best as he gets under way with his new portfolio.

There are a number of things I wish to bring to his attention in the realm of public expenditure. The first is a sewerage scheme in Meelick which is supposed to be completed in quarter 4 of 2021. As I am speaking, there are technicians from Irish Water applying older suppressants to the sewage treatment plant. Calling it a "treatment plant" is a stretch of the imagination. It is actually an open tank, 7 ft or 8 ft deep, with a fence around it. Occasionally, children have hopped over it to retrieve footballs and have gone in. It is probably the most dangerous sewage treatment plant I can think of in the country. There is a plan to replace it and to link it up to the Limerick mains drainage. A 300 m pipeline will bring it from Ballycannon Heights to the nearby estate of Elton Court and on into Limerick city. It is simple and the design is agreed but it needs funding. Irish Water has it tentatively in its calendar but in light of everything going on there today and of the ongoing public health risk it poses, there is a need to move that forward. It is a real cause of nausea. It is headache-inducing. People cannot even hang out there clothes there, so it needs to be advanced.

I know the Minister of State has been good at calling out to the Shannon Group meetings at Bunratty and the Shannon Heritage sites. A number of long-term solutions for Shannon Heritage sites have been looked at, including divesting them to Clare and Limerick authorities and to the Office of Public Works. I have spoken with a number of workers on the ground. There is a closure looming for Shannon Heritage long after the end of August. Long after we have dealt with that, we need to look at a different management model for the sites. I think the OPW, which is the Minister of State's responsibility, would be ideal for that. If we go with the local authority model, we would end up splitting the Shannon Heritage sites across their constituent counties. There is King John's Castle in Limerick, Bunratty, Knappogue and Craggaunowen in Clare. The OPW offers a perfect fit. More immediately, we have a need for the Government to step in and help to keep these sites open beyond 31 August. It is of strategic importance that they remain open. There are 350 staff, with 145 employed year-round.

The next issue I wish to raise is flood defences in Clonlara. It has been called a 100 year flood phenomenon, yet there were serious floods there in 1995, 2009, 2015, 2018 and in February 2020. The week after the election, there was 4 ft of water in the Clonlara area, spilling into and destroying houses. It cannot be called a 100 year flood any more. It happens almost annually or biennially. In 2009, there was an elderly lady who has since passed away, Lord have mercy on her, Laura Mason, who at 80 years of age had to be lifted out of her house in the front-loader bucket of a tractor, and brought out to safety in a trailer and a boat. There is a plan for this scheme but it has been held up over the years.

There is a man, Peter Sweetman, who fronts The Swans and the Snails Ltd. He is an environmental objector. He lives in Rathmines, which is more than 200 km from Clonlara. He is a serial objector. He has objected to and held up flood defences in Clonlara, coastal defences in Doonbeg and a bridge crossing in Killaloe. In future, the Government needs to look at having pre-qualifiers for those who can object to projects. I would not dream, in a month of Sundays, of objecting to a project in the middle of Dublin or in Cork city. There is a place for environmental groups, An Taisce and for lobbyists to come in and look at the environmental implications of projects, but I believe it is vexatious for someone in Rathmines to hold up key projects that are required in the mid-west and elsewhere in the country. There is planning going on in Clonlara and I have every faith in the Minister of State, as a Minister of State in the mid-west, that he will allow for safe passage so that we can actually see that happen. We cannot go through another winter in that area without those key flood defences.

The final issue I wish to raise relates to the Inagh river in north Clare. I visited it recently on the invitation of Ger McDonagh. Ger and about 50 other landowners are flooded several times a year. Most of their land holdings are along the main road from Ennis to Ennistymon and falls from there to the Inagh river. It is prone to flooding. Unfortunately this is one of the old drainage districts that falls outside the remit of the OPW. Clare County Council gets an annual sum of approximately €20,000 to deal with the drainage districts throughout the county. It is an inoperable, unrealistic sum, yet these lands flood and are totally unviable. I saw cattle out there last week. One would want to see it in the winter. Their winter is much longer than it is for other people in the area due to the geography of their land. Will the OPW facilitate or give strong consideration to a minor works scheme application in this area?

2:10 pm

Joe Flaherty (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I commend both Ministers of State on an excellent insight into the Estimates. It is good to have an opportunity to speak to them here today. Later this afternoon we will see the launch of the July stimulus, which is all about securing jobs, securing the viability of businesses and attempting to address regional imbalance across Ireland. Political commentators and economists are telling us that the way to deal with the crisis we face is to borrow money and subsequently to spend that money on capital projects. It has never been as cheap or as opportunistic to borrow money, with sovereign finance now available at nominal rates just above 0%. In reality, we have a blueprint for getting the country back on its feet that is Project Ireland 2040. It is further copperfastened by the current programme for Government.

On the back of Covid-19 we have the opportunity, and possibly our best chance ever, to truly address rural imbalance and especially some of the regional and structural deficiencies that haunt counties such as Longford. In Longford we have waited ten years for the N4 upgrade. It is one of the final pieces of major road infrastructure that needs to be completed. It is probable that every industrialist or investor who has travelled on that short section of road will say that it is one of the single biggest impediments to foreign direct investment in Longford and the wider region. Covid-19 has challenged us on an awful lot of levels. It has challenged us to look at how we live and how we function. It has also challenged us as a Government to do better and to ensure proper regional growth and development will, in time, take the strain off our big cities and urban centres. The N4 is the big ticket item for County Longford at the moment.

We also note that our second and third largest towns in the county, Edgeworthstown and Ballymahon, are both effectively at a standstill with further development because both require new sewage treatment plant upgrades. The challenge for Longford as a county, and for many other similar-sized counties, is to try to kick-start commercial house building activity within the county once again. We have not had a three-bedroom semi-detached house built in Longford in more than 11 years. This is the standard-bearer in commercial house building. There is a difficulty for any developer who wants to build a scheme in Ballymahon or Edgeworthstown now because Irish Water would inflict heavy and punitive charges onto that developer in an attempt to finance the upgrade of those sewage treatment plants. Both of those projects need to be addressed.

Staying in Ballymahon, it is more than two and a half years since the county council submitted a request for a new fire station in the town. Since then Center Parcs has opened in Ballymahon, which is the largest new tourism project in Europe, let alone in Ireland. When it is fully operational, the park attracts 2,000 visitors to the town each week. It is simply unbelievable to think that the town does not have a modern and up-to-date fire station at this stage.

Moving on to Longford town and out towards the Dublin Road and still within the 40 mph speed limit, houses there were built more than 30 years ago that have still not been able to connect to the main sewers. These houses have extremely deficient and archaic sceptic tanks. Within the town confines, two of our oldest and proudest estates, Teffia Park and Annaly Park, have sewerage systems that are creaking. Going across to south Longford and to Lanesborough, there is an issue with the rising main leading to the reservoir that serves up to 4,000 houses in the south Longford area and into Longford town. At one point this was at the top of the list for an upgrade, but suddenly Irish Water appointed a new contractor, and because the work would have required cutting through limestone and the contractor only likes to work with clay-based projects, it has fallen down the pecking order.

How we respond to Covid-19 and the challenges it presents will define us as a nation. We have an opportunity as elected Members in this House to make the right decision on so many levels: the right decision for rural Ireland and, more importantly the right decision for future generations.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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Do I have time to respond to the Fianna Fáil Deputies?

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Minister of State has time.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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Much of what Deputy Flaherty referred to is covered in the national development plan under a number of different agencies, including Transport Infrastructure Ireland, Irish Water and the councils.

With regard to Deputy Crowe's comments, I do not have responsibility for water in the sewerage system. This is under the remit of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. I have attended the meetings organised by Deputy Carey and I also referred to Deputy Quinlivan in the Sinn Féin group.

I am well aware of the issue around Shannon Group and I know what is being tried and attended to. My colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Naughton, will have role in this because she is the line Minister with responsibility for aviation and the Shannon Group.

I remember the Clonlara incident when a lady had to be lifted out of her house. As Deputy Crowe has rightly said, Clare County Council has submitted an application to An Bord Pleanála. I am glad the Deputy referred to objections. The Acting Chairman will also be aware of this. As a Government we are going to have to do something about what defines an objection. I am veering off-script now but we have to try to make sure that objections to large infrastructural projects, which are there to protect property and protect people's lives, are not vexatious objections. Often many objections are submitted, especially on flooding issues, and every rural Deputy will be aware that sometimes those objections do not even come from the area where the flood relief scheme is to be built. It is a source of massive frustration for local authorities. The OPW normally gets the blame then. We get the blame for people lodging objections, which has nothing at all to do with us. If schemes are outside the Arterial Drainage Act, then Clare County Council can apply, and naturally consideration is given to all applications. The better the application, the more likely it is to be funded.

Photo of Joe CareyJoe Carey (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I congratulate the Ministers of State, Deputies O'Donovan and Smyth, on their appointments. I wish them well in their new roles.

I support the Estimate as presented. I have a number of issues I want to raise, predominantly around the OPW and the work it does. There are many unresolved issues in County Clare. The flooding at Clonlara and in Springfield is an issue that has raised its head far too frequently over the past two decades. There was flooding in Springfield in 1995, 2002, 2009, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2020. While floodwaters have disappeared since the spring of this year and the residents who were evacuated have returned to their homes, it is important that when this scheme secures the necessary planning approval from An Bord Pleanála, it proceeds with pace. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, can give me an assurance that he will support this very important scheme when it comes before him. I also join the Minister of State in his comments on serial objectors. This scheme has been held up as a result of that.

Another important issue is the Shannon town and environs flood relief scheme. The scheme was launched last year. It is a three-element scheme that will protect Shannon town and provide the necessary flood defences to protect families, individuals, communities, companies and the driver of economic activity in the mid-west and west, Shannon Airport. It is important that this project is enabled to progress through all the different phases in a timely manner.

There are many other issues such as the Kilkee flood relief scheme, the Spanish Point minor works scheme, and the White Strand at Miltown Malbay scheme.

I turn now to the continual flooding of the Limerick-Ennis railway line. As Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development, I brought all the stakeholders together. Up to that point it had been a case of pass the parcel.

All the agencies, Clare County Council, the Office of Public Works, OPW, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Irish Rail came together to produce a report. Will the Minister of State resurrect that work to bring about a solution? It is a much used piece of infrastructure and has been flooded over the past decade.

The minor works scheme is an essential tool. Will the Minister of State consider enhancing this particular scheme? Much of what is not facilitated through the Arterial Drainage Act can be facilitated through the scheme. Will the Minister of State consider expanding the scheme's role?

The Minister of State has attended meetings with me, as have other Oireachtas Members from the mid-west region, about the Shannon Heritage sites. The State-owned assets of Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, King John's Castle, Craggaunowen Castle, Knappogue Castle and Dunguaire Castle are magnets for drawing tourists into the area and drivers of tourism traffic to smaller attractions across County Clare and the mid-west region. The Shannon Group intends to close these sites on 31 August, however. Such a move would lead to the loss of jobs on the sites themselves and would have a detrimental impact on County Clare. Bunratty Village indirectly employs 600 people in the hospitality and services sector. Their trade is intrinsically linked to visitors coming to the Bunratty site. Its closure will have a detrimental impact on them.

There is a need for an interim arrangement to be put in place and a cash injection to keep these sites going on a year-round basis. A new home for Shannon Heritage is also needed. Perhaps the OPW, Clare or Limerick County Councils could step in to provide a lifeline to these particular sites. This is critically important. What are the views of the Minister of State on this?

2:20 pm

Alan Dillon (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I also want to extend my best wishes to the Ministers of State, Deputies O'Donovan and Ossian Smyth. I wish them every success in their new roles and portfolios. I look forward to working with them both in the period ahead.

One particular project of vital importance in the Mayo constituency is ensuring that the Crossmolina flood relief scheme goes to tender as quickly as possible. As we are discussing the Revised Estimates for the Office of Public Works today, I welcome the funding that has been allocated to the Crossmolina flood relief scheme. This is an area which has seen repeated flooding of a severe nature, adversely impacting local residents and business owners who are living in fear of further flooding potential.

The Minister of State's predecessor, along with other Oireachtas Members, councillors and I, met with the Crossmolina community to get an update on progress of the project plans last October. While funding has been allocated and secured for this €10 million project to succeed, it has been delayed for various technical reasons. I want to ensure no further delays occur.

I note a new fire station went to tender in May which will be a welcome addition to tackling flooding in the winter months once it is completed. However, local residents are living in fear of gloomy skies, fearful of the devastating impact further flooding will cause to their livelihoods and community. I am aware that both the OPW and Mayo County Council, working in collaboration with the local flood action group, have been proactive in implementing interim flood protection measures in Crossmolina pending the construction of permanent flood defences. It is now time, however, to ensure there are no further delays in proceeding with the erection of permanent defences. Significant time has been given to ensuring the scheme adheres to both Irish and European environmental legislation for which significant effort has been made.

I truly empathise with the local community when rising waters devastate their homes and businesses. Crossmolina is one community which quite simply cannot afford to wait any longer for its flood defences. Accordingly, I am hoping the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, will be able to provide an update on the timeline for when the project will proceed.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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On Cloonlara and the area around Springfield in particular, Clare County Council applied under Part 10 for planning permission on 20 July. I lend my support to the council's application for that scheme. The OPW is committed to it. I am a neighbour down the road in County Limerick. We in the midwest know the connection between Cloonlara and Limerick. We have sympathy for the people in this area because there is much history with the Shannon scheme. What happened over several occasions was terrible.

The current costs for the Shannon flood scheme are estimated at €20 million. It is the airport that is applying for permission. Consultants have been appointed for the design of the scheme. Again, it is not just of a local but national infrastructural importance, considering the importance of the airport and protecting it. The OPW is supportive of what the Shannon Group is trying to do in this regard.

I am aware of the issues around the rail line because many people use it for commuting. It is the main rail line from Ennis to Dublin and Limerick to Galway. The Government is committed in the programme for Government to increase rail usage and to get more people using public transport. There is a problem with this line north of Limerick when there is heavy rain and it floods. The OPW is part of a group which is working with the stakeholders in ensuring an alleviation can be got there. I will revert to Deputy Carey on the latest update.

I thank Deputy Carey for his initiative to bring all Oireachtas Members from the midwest together on Shannon Airport. It involves not just the airport but it is the properties and the Shannon Heritage group. I responded earlier on this. The OPW is prepared to assist in terms of advice and co-operation, particularly around the area of protecting national monuments. The councils have an important role as does the Shannon Group. Aviation is the responsibility of the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton. Her role will be formalised tomorrow. I am sure this will be one of the issues she will be anxious to progress as she is also a local deputy.

Deputy Dillon has raised the issue of the Crossmolina flood relief scheme in the House on several occasions. It is a €13.5 million scheme but it has run into several difficulties, however, primarily due to the karst landscape with much underground drainage issues. It is not the easiest of flood relief schemes to design. An OPW team is finalising the environmental impact statement. Hopefully, we should be in a position to go for approval for the next stage in the third quarter of the year.

I thank the Deputies for raising these issues. These are important issues for the people of Crossmolina, Cloonlara and Shannon.

Photo of Joe CareyJoe Carey (Clare, Fine Gael)
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On the Ennis South flood relief scheme, it is the third and last part of a €40 million investment in providing flood protection works for Ennis. This and other schemes such as the Shannon flood relief scheme will have embankments. Will the Minister of State give consideration to provide cycling and walking lanes along these embankments? Funding has been set aside for the development of greenways in the programme for Government.

Perhaps a new scheme could be put together to fast-track this type of development. Will the Minister of State revert to me on this matter?

2:30 pm

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I have already initiated discussions within the Department. I am a former Minister of State with responsibility for sport and we were trying to develop a national greenways strategy. I have asked the Commissioners and chairman of the OPW to consider this matter. Some of our old embankments are incapable of carrying walkways, but some of the newer ones that we are rolling out present an opportunity for them to do more than just hold back water. I have asked the Commissioners to begin a process that will involve other stakeholders, including councils, landowners, Sport Ireland and the Department with responsibility for sport under the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Catherine Martin. Obviously, we will be seeking co-financing. This is a long-term project whose details I hope to be able to bring to the House over time. I hope to see our flood defences being used for more than just flood defences. We could then change the narrative around them. I am a cyclist. As Deputy Carey mentioned, many of these flood embankments are in urban areas, but some are in quite isolated rural areas.

This will be a process, however, and we will have to bring people with us. Naturally, we would appreciate any support that local Deputies, including those in Clare, could give us as part of the planning process.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The next slot is the Green Party's. I call Deputy Hourigan.

Neasa Hourigan (Dublin Central, Green Party)
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As has been stated a number of times, the figures involved in these Revised Estimates are large and denote the scale of the challenge we face in the coming months and years. Coupled with this is the considerable level of uncertainty with regard to the future of our economy, education system, health system and communities as the pandemic continues to play a major part in our decision-making. This will likely continue in the months ahead until a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus is made fully available. It is only right that the focus of the Government when agreeing spending and supports should be on providing a safety net to those grappling with difficulties during these times. It is in this context of challenge and uncertainty that we should seek to bring a rigour to our methodology in public spending. This is where developing our processes in respect of a just transition and the use of our future budgets, particularly available stimulus funds, will be important and keenly felt.

In March 2020, the National Economic and Social Council issued a report that considered the most effective and people-centred way of implementing a just transition. It recognised that governments around the world were trying to identify with the greatest possible certainty which sectors of their economies were most at risk of disruption from transitions over the coming decades. The pandemic is a microcosm of that work. The report notes that complex transitions were not occurring in isolation from other global trends and potential transformations, such as urbanisation, population growth and globalisation as well as the move towards a circular economy and increased protection of biodiversity, habitats and ecosystems. It also noted that societies and economies were becoming increasingly service oriented and urbanised. For Ireland, this will present a significant challenge. In the programme for Government, we committed to a just transition. As we end fossil fuel dependence and digital disruption and automation become more prevalent, we need to ensure that no one is left behind. This means creating economic opportunity through climate justice policymaking.

In considering the broad scope of these Estimates and some of the newly created subheads, and in light of the newly announced EU stimulus package, I was disappointed to see that the allocation for the just transition fund will be €17.5 billion, less than half of what was previously proposed. This is one of the supports that we will rely on to move towards a fairer and more environmentally responsible economy. The changes to the fund do not match the scale of the challenge that the EU and, specifically, Ireland face in the economic impact of Covid-19 or the unfolding climate emergency. In gutting the just transition fund, a small number of countries have decided that electoral politics back home matter more than EU solidarity. Poorer countries will pay the price for populist politics in wealthier nations.

Though itself one of the wealthier nations, this is particularly relevant for Ireland, given that there is considerable uncertainty around upcoming issues like the CAP reforms for farmers. We are asking farmers to play a big role in reducing carbon emissions, improving biodiversity and ensuring food security, but many of their farms are not big enterprises, meaning it is not clear how they will do this with much less support.

With these gaps in funding for a just transition and farmers, how will these activities now be funded? The need for such funding has not gone away. More than ever, it is important that we use the funding we are getting from the EU, including Brexit funding where appropriate, and our own borrowing to invest in public services and projects that will support these aims. As we vote through these Estimates and continue the discussions in respect of further supports, it is imperative that we get this right and instil a just transition in any and all legislative work. Will the Minister of State outline how, as Estimates continue to increase, we can stitch just transition decision making into our legislative work?

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. Instead of specific numbers that I would ordinarily be asked to respond on, she is asking more of a policy question in the particular context of what is happening at the moment. I do not disagree with what she has said. In recent years, we have seen different types of displacement in our economy, including in terms of what the future of jobs will look like. For example, there has been a climate change displacement in recent years, with the Government, society and communities realising that things will have to be done differently. We have seen displacement in terms of Brexit, where our country was jolted into considering how to manage our connectivity to and place within the centre of the EU. I mean connectivity in basic terms, for example, in the context of infrastructure. This does not even take into consideration the wider issue of how to connect ourselves to the EU while working with the UK, which will become a third country. There has also been digital displacement. As part of the national development plan under the previous Government, the then Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, launched a specific fund in that regard to assist businesses, communities and individuals where there was going to be displacement. Over the past number of years, certain types of job have disappeared and will never return.

A just transition needs to happen in the midlands. Other communities will face challenges. For instance, the agriculture sector is facing challenges, which is spelled out in the programme for Government. The farming organisations, in conjunction with farmers, have taken to the concept of accepting change. Through various initiatives established by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Teagasc and others in recent years, farmers have changed. Deputy Hourigan is right, in that we are trying to provide a food island not only for ourselves, but for the wider EU and beyond in the most responsible way. We are transitioning in that regard and must bring people with us.

To give the House the short version, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has a role in this matter. The largest part of that role will be the bilateral meetings that will run between now and the end of September between the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and individual Ministers and Ministers of State. Regard will have to be had of those elements that are spelled out in the programme for Government. The Government has already shown that it is adept at and up to doing so, but there will be a process of change.

Covid has been another major shock to us, but whether the displacement is in the just transition, farming practices, digital disruption, changed work practices or gender equality - Deputy Nolan raised that issue and I am sorry that I did not get a chance to respond to her, but I hope to revert to her in writing - our Department plays a central role in leading that. Every penny that passes through the State's coffers must come through us. We are almost like a clearing house. Consequently, the policies adopted by every Department must come through us. We are not just accountants or financial types who only have regard for pounds, shillings and pence. We also have regard for the programme for Government and the legislative programme that the Government has laid out. The Department oversees that. We will work with Deputy Hourigan, Deputy Nolan and every other Deputy who has raised important issues to ensure that those matters are addressed over the coming years.

Votes put and agreed to.