Dáil debates

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Appropriation Bill 2020: Second and Subsequent Stages


1:15 pm

Photo of Michael McGrathMichael McGrath (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Appropriation Bill represents the final fiscal action of the year to be taken by the Oireachtas. This year has been like no other. The arrival of Covid-19 on our shores in March represented a major challenge for the people of this country and us, as their representatives, in this Oireachtas. People have been cut off from family and friends, have lost jobs and have seen their businesses collapse. Tragically, 3,283 people lost their lives on the island of Ireland as a result of this virus. Our fight against Covid-19 continues. Even at this time as we approach Christmas, a special time for so many individuals and families, we are reminded of the impacts this virus is having and the actions we all must take to prevent its spread.

The scale of the response taken by the previous Government and the current Government has been truly extraordinary and it needed to be. The Appropriation Act 2019 approved €54.6 billion in net voted expenditure. In this Bill, subject to the approval of the House, we will be approving €69.7 billion, representing a €15.1 billion increase on 2019. That is a rise of 27% and it highlights in a stark manner the scale of the Government response. Much of this money was spent on meeting the health crisis: through investment in the public health system; in supporting incomes and jobs through the pandemic unemployment payment, the temporary wage subsidy scheme and the employment wage subsidy scheme; and in saving businesses through the restart grant, the local authority commercial rates waiver and the Covid restrictions support scheme. While the challenge has been unprecedented, so too has the response from Government and from the Oireachtas.

The Appropriation Bill 2020 is an essential element of financial housekeeping that must be concluded by the Dáil this year. The Appropriation Bill has two primary purposes. The first is that it provides legal authorisation for all of the expenditure that has occurred in 2020 on the basis of the Estimates voted by the Dáil over the course of this year. These allocations, known as the amounts to be appropriated for supply services, are set out in section 1 and Schedule 1 of the Bill. These relate to the Revised Estimates, Further Revised Estimates and Supplementary Estimates agreed by the Dáil. In aggregate, these Estimates amount to €69.7 billion. This represents not only the substantial level of support provided to households and businesses with regard to Covid-19, but also the commitment to provide for the necessary infrastructure to support our continuing social and economic progress, and a significant investment in the delivery of our essential day-to-day public services, which the people we serve rely on.

In aggregate, taking into account expenditure on the Social Insurance Fund and the National Training Fund, total gross voted expenditure made available this year was €87.3 billion. The equivalent amount planned for 2020 in the pre-Covid Revised Estimates Volume was €70.4 billion. Making provision for additional exceptional spending of this scale was absolutely necessary given the profound effect of the pandemic on our people. Over the course of the year, the Government has taken significant steps to cushion the impact of the crisis on households and firms. These additional resources, approved by Dáil Éireann in Estimates over the course of the year, have been crucial to support our key front-line services in responding to Covid-19 and to support workers and businesses devastated by the impact of the virus.

This response has been driven by the priority to protect citizens from the virus and to ensure that the health service can respond effectively to meet demands for services while dealing with the impact of the pandemic.

The second key purpose of the Appropriation Bill is to provide a legal basis for spending to continue into next year, in the period before the Dáil votes on the 2021 Estimates. As set out in the Central Fund (Permanent Provisions) Act 1965, the authority for spending in 2021, prior to the agreement of the 2021 Estimates by the Dáil, is based on the amounts included in the 2020 Appropriation Bill. It is for this reason that it is so important that this Bill is enacted before the end of 2020. If it were not, there would be no authority to spend any voted moneys in 2021 from the start of January until approval of the 2021 Estimates.

In recognition of the difficulty faced by Departments in planning for capital projects, the rolling multi-annual capital envelopes introduced in 2004 allow for carry-over of up to 10% of unspent voted capital expenditure from the current year into the following year. This provides a degree of flexibility in terms of capital expenditure planning. The 2020 Appropriation Bill sets out the capital amounts which are to be carried over to 2021 on a Vote basis. In aggregate, capital carry-over from 2020 to 2021 amounts to €748.5 million, which is approximately 7.5% of the overall Exchequer capital programme for 2020. This is significantly higher than last year's equivalent figure of €215 million. This increase has been driven by the delays to capital projects that occurred in 2020 as a consequence of Covid-19. As evident from the monthly expenditure figures, spending plans were impacted by project interruptions due to the pandemic.

In addition, substantial additional capital resources were made available to Departments to ensure that all feasible work could proceed over the course of 2020. As can be the norm in capital development, planning and procurement of capital projects can take some time to become operational. Therefore, while some of the stimulus projects have commenced in 2020, it will be 2021 before some of them are completed.

With almost €750 million in carry-over to fund capital investments next year, this will bring the overall amount available to Departments for Exchequer capital spending in 2021 to more than €10.8 billion. This represents a record level of investment as we seek to address the challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit next year. Schedule 2 of the Appropriation Bill sets out the proposed capital carry-over amounts. The Revised Estimates Volume for 2021, published yesterday, includes for each Vote availing of the capital carry-over facility a table listing the amounts to be deferred by subhead.

As in previous years, the Appropriation Bill provides for a repayable advance from the Central Fund to the Paymaster General's supply account in order to meet certain 2021 Exchequer liabilities due for payment over the first week of January. The need for this provision arises because, with the banking system closed on 1 January, funding will need to be in place in departmental bank accounts before the end of this year in order to meet those liabilities on a timely basis. The amount provided in section 3 of the Bill is €280 million. There is also a need to pre-fund An Post in order to meet certain payments due between 1 January and 5 January 2021, so that payments can be transferred from the Department of Social Protection to the network of post offices throughout the country.

The annual Appropriation Bill is an essential element of housekeeping undertaken by the Dáil each year. The passage of this Bill will authorise in law all of the expenditure that has taken place in 2020, on the basis of the Estimates voted on by the Dáil in the course of this year. Importantly, it will also ensure that voted expenditure can continue into 2021 in the period before the Dáil approves the 2021 Estimates. This means keeping our public services such as schools and hospitals operating, as well as continuing payments funded from voted expenditure in 2020 such as the employment wage subsidy scheme and the other social assistance scheme payments. I commend the Bill to the House.

1:20 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Táimid ag bogadh ar aghaidh go dtí páirtí Shinn Féin agus an Teachta Farrell agus tá sí ag roinnt a cuid ama.

Photo of Mairead FarrellMairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)
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Tá mé ag roinnt mo chuid ama le mo chomhghleacaí, an Teachta Ó Dochartaigh. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle agus leis an Aire. Tuigim gur Bille fíorthábhachtach é seo chun a chinntiú gur féidir le Ranna Rialtais airgead a chaitheamh ag tús mhí Eanáir agus nach dteastófar Vótaí breise chun é seo a dhéanamh. Tá bunús bunreachtúil leis an mBille seo agus beimid i Sinn Féin ag tacú leis. I understand that there is a constitutional requirement for this Bill, as it legislates for the financial resolutions which includes all the Estimates voted on by the Dáil this year. This year, the figure is €69.7 billion, which reflects the net amount voted by the Dáil, while €87 billion is the full amount allocated. The key to this Appropriation Bill is that it is a constitutional requirement and that it is essential in order to ensure that Departments can spend, come January, and therefore we will be supporting it.

The Bill allows for the four-fifths rule, provided for under the Central Fund (Permanent Provisions) Act, which means that Departments can spend four fifths of the previous Appropriation Bill without having to wait for a Vote, and if the Bill was not enacted these Departments could not spend. The Bill also allows for capital carry-over, as per the Finance Act 2004. Each Department can carry over 10% of its capital allocation to the next year. This year, I note that the carry-over is 7.4%, which is higher than usual, however that is due to the restrictions imposed this year as a result of Covid-19. Hopefully, next year will see a better year and we will be able to see large-scale capital projects on a regionally balanced basis.

As I have raised with the Minister many times, capital investment will be key, not only in dealing with the major cracks in public infrastructure but it will also be a key driver in terms of job creation, as we hopefully move forward out of this crisis. This point is not just being made by me and my party, Sinn Féin, but it is something that has been raised across the political spectrum and by the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, the International Monetary Fund and by many others. We have seen large-scale job losses in the State this year, and I think of those families in the lead-up to Christmas, which is a trying financial time for many, made even more worrying at the very uncertain financial future many are facing as we approach 2021. The Covid-adjusted unemployment figures are approximately 20%. We know that capital investment has a positive jobs-multiplier effect, so if we want the economy to bounce back quickly in 2021, it is of the utmost importance that these matters are attended to urgently. We are all aware of badly needed capital investment projects and the deficiencies in our creaking infrastructure, which could certainly use a capital investment boost. Given that we are going to be playing catch-up next year, I sincerely hope that any capital projects that are in train will be fast-tracked and given the appropriate resources, be they housing, healthcare, transport or environmental projects.

Ar an deireadh seachtaine bhí mé i gCeantar na nOileán i gConamara le roinnt ionadaithe eile ón gceantar. Tugadh cuireadh dúinn ón ngrúpa gnímh Bóithre Chonamara chun breathnú ar na droichid atá mar infreastruchtúr fíorthábhachtach dóibh siúd atá ina gcónaí sa cheantar sin. Bhreathnaigh muid orthu agus muid i gcurach, rud a thug radharc maith dúinn ar na droichid agus na scoilteanna atá sna droichid. Tugadh le fios dúinn gur níos measa atá na scoilteanna sin ón am céanna an bhliain seo caite. Caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuil droch-chaoi ar na droichid sin. Tá an droch-chaoi sin orthu le fada an lá ach, faraor, tá siad ag éirí níos measa bliain i ndiaidh bliana mar gheall nach bhfuil an infheistíocht chuí á chur isteach iontu. Impím ar an Aire, agus é ag breathnú ar phlean d’infheistíocht chaipitil, go mbreathnófar ar Chonamara agus an easpa infreastruchtúr atá sa cheantar. Tá sé dochreidte cé chomh contúirteach is atá na bóithre agus na droichid sin. Tá bóthar Chuan na Luinge ardaithe agam sa Dáil seo cheana ach ardóidh mé é arís eile leis an Aire.

Rud eile a chuireann as dom ná go bhfuil roinnt áiseanna poiblí ann nach dteastaíonn ach beagán airgid uathu ionas go mbeidh an pobal in ann iad a úsáid agus níl sé sin á chur ar fáil. Is sampla iontach í linn snámha Ros Muc d’áis álainn don phobal atá imithe i léig le roinnt blianta. Is áis í seo ina bhféadfadh páistí ón gceantar an snámh a fhoghlaim ach níl sí ar fáil don phobal. Táim cinnte go bhfuil áiseanna díreach cosúil le linn snámha Ros Muc ar fud fad an Stáit. Tá deis againn i mbliana airgead a infheistiú i gcúrsaí infreastruchtúir chun feabhas a chur ar shaol an ghnáthdhuine. Mar a dúirt mé níos luaithe, tá a fhios againn go gcruthaíonn infheistíocht i dtionscnaimh caipitil fostaíocht, rud a bhéas ag teastáil go géar san am atá romhainn. Níor chóir dúinn dearmad arís eile a dhéanamh ar Chonamara, go háirithe ar bhóithre Chonamara, droichid Chonamara agus áiseanna poiblí Chonamara.

At the weekend I and other representatives in Galway went to the Ceantar na nOileán region of Connemara to look at the very poor state of the bridges in the area. These bridges are a key part of the local infrastructure on which local people rely heavily. I saw the cracks in these bridges and I am deeply disturbed by this. I have previously highlighted in this Chamber the very dangerous nature of roads in Connemara and the need for adequate investment in them. We must use next year as an opportunity to fix these dangerous cracks in our public infrastructure.

We must also put sufficient resources into our public amenities. A fantastic example of such a public amenity is the outdoor pool in Ros Muc, which has given much joy to the people of the area over the years, but unfortunately the pool has a number of issues that need to be fixed to make it usable again. This pool would be a fantastic resource and safe amenity for people of all ages, including people learning to swim. As we move from 2020 to 2021, we need to fix the cracks in our infrastructure and ensure we put adequate resources into capital investment projects because we know of the fantastic benefit they have in job creation. We also need to deal with very real cracks in our infrastructure. I hope the roads and bridges of Connemara are not forgotten once more.

This year has been a very tough year for us all. We need to regard 2021 as an opportunity to reimagine what this State can be and the role the State can play to provide sufficient housing, a robust healthcare system and public amenities. The restrictions imposed due to Covid-19 in 2020 have given us some time to reimagine what kind of society we want to live in. Let us use that time of reflection to build a better and fairer society for us all.

1:30 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Táim sásta labhairt ar an mBille seo tráthnóna inniu. Mar a dúirt mo chomhghleacaí, an Teachta Mairéad Farrell, tá an reachtaíocht seo de dhíth mar gheall ar an mBunreacht. Tugann sé cead don riail cheithre cúigiú, sé sin, go bhfuil cead ag Ranna Stáit ceithre chúigiú den chaiteachas a vótáladh sa bhliain a chuaigh roimhe sin a chaitheamh sa bhliain atá amach romhainn.

Along with the four fifths rule, this legislation also allows for the carryover of capital, whereby Departments can carry over up to 10% of their allocations into the following year. This year's capital carryover stands at 7.4%, which is a very high figure, but obviously representing the severe challenges that Covid restrictions have had leading to certain projects being held up.

As the Bill relates to capital expenditure and drawdown, I want to raise an issue that is important to the sporting life in my constituency in Donegal: the new Finn Harps stadium, an issue I have raised with the Minister in the past. It is a shovel-ready project that would create local jobs and serve the sporting life of the community. Over a decade ago €1.2 million was spent on this project, but since then it has been left idle. Work has stalled since 2014. It is ready to go and has planning permission. Previous commitments were made by the Department and all that is needed now is the funding and the fulfilment of those commitments. I am glad that the Minister of State has agreed to come to Donegal on 5 and 6 January when he will meet a delegation from Finn Harps. I ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to take this as an example of a shovel-ready project that can generate employment and is a social good, and ensure that the €1.2 million already spent by the Department is not wasted.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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While we are on the issue of League of Ireland football clubs, I wish Finn Harps well with its stadium project. It is a great club in Donegal and the north west. I have made many unsuccessful journeys up there as a Drogheda United fan over the years, having been beaten on a number of occasions by Finn Harps. I take this opportunity to notify the Minister that Drogheda United has its own plans to develop a stadium in the northern environs of our town, a town that hopeful will become a city in the future given its size.

Much of that will be dependent on an imminent decision from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on a €70 million investment applied for by Louth County Council to develop some very significant infrastructure on the northern side of Drogheda which will allow lands to be opened up for housing and economic development in the future to link the M1 to Drogheda Port. As the Minister will be aware, that port has ambitions to develop a new deepwater facility just north of Balbriggan and close to Gormanston. That is a matter for another day and will be considered in the context of the planning process and other factors.

I put the Minister on notice that Drogheda United and the FAI, no doubt, will be making approaches to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and its line Department for support for the Drogheda United stadium project at some point in the near future.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill, which is an annual requirement on the legislative calendar and gives the authority of the Dáil for all the spending undertaken this year based on the various Estimates prepared by Departments in 2020. As the Minister pointed out, this involves expenditure of just under €70 billion, an increase of €15 billion on last year. Because of the pandemic and the extraordinary response to this unprecedented public health and economic crisis, spending this year and into next year bears little comparison with 2019. As we all know, the Bill when passed will also allow the Government to continue to spend within the four fifths limit on services and State payments into 2021 before the House gets to vote on the 2021 Estimates in due course.

We all remember the position we were in earlier this year where Estimates had to be presented again and again in revised format and Dáil sanction was required almost on an emergency basis time and time again to provide the Government with the power and authority to allocate moneys to schemes that would otherwise have breached the allowable expenditure ceiling and before the Estimates more generally were dealt with.

The Labour Party united behind the Government to endorse the necessary injections of cash into businesses and in support of jobs, livelihoods and public services at a time of unprecedented crisis for our citizens. However, we have been very critical of the de factosuspension of many of the robust budgetary oversight practices that we have come to expect and demand in recent years in the presentation of Government spending plans. The Minister knows that exceptions were made this year and that the Dáil would not be inclined to show the same kind of patience and understanding if that were to happen again next year. The lack of transparency and key information on outputs and performances at times in 2020 was troubling. I hope as a once-off it is explained by the crisis that the country faced. I think the Minister understands and accepts that.

It is also very important that the Dáil is not just seen as a rubber stamp for Estimates and Government spending. In my view and that of international experts, this Parliament's role in the annual budget and Estimates process is comparatively weak by international standards. This needs work and is an area that we will all be able and willing to contribute to in terms of Dáil reform.

I will limit my remarks on the Bill at this stage.

I ask the Minister to comment more on the carry over on the capital side from this year. Obviously, much of it is explained by the crisis situation that we have been in for the bulk of 2020, but I ask the Minister to elaborate on the Departments that have been most impacted by the crisis. My sense is that we will not be anywhere near meeting our targets for this year, for example, in respect of social housing new builds, and that is worrying. We all understand the circumstances and there were periods of time when building sites were not operating, which has caused delays. That is entirely understandable. I ask the Minister to elaborate on where the key pressure points are and how he expects and plans to expedite projects which were delayed this year next year. It is critical projects are expedited, particularly on the housing side, which I know the Minister will accept.

1:40 pm

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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There is a part of the budgetary process that perplexes me annually. I have not been able to get any Minister to take responsibility for the Vote in question. Even the Ceann Comhairle has continually blocked my attempts to get an answer, stating, in response to my parliamentary questions, that the Minister has no official responsibility to the Dáil for this matter. The only response I ever received was from the former Minister, the late Brian Lenihan, in 2005, when he provided me with the annual costs from 1996 onwards. I cannot even get that much from the Minister in a reply to a parliamentary question because of the interference of the Ceann Comhairle regarding Vote 15, which was previously Vote 12. This Vote is contained in the group of Estimates and Votes which fall under the Minister's remit and it is bizarre that sums granted under Vote 15 for the Secret Service are regarded as public expenditure rather than expenditure on justice, foreign affairs or defence. The fact that it does not exist, is not accountable and still manages to spend €2 million annually is even more bizarre. Perhaps in his concluding remarks, the Minister could confirm for the public whether he is the head of Ireland's MI5, KGB or CIA, or who, in fact, is. The only glimpse of the true purpose of the Secret Service Vote of €2 million annually came in a note which appeared inbox in 2009. It stated that the purpose of the Secret Service Vote is to obtain information which is necessary for the security of the country and that given the sensitivities associated with a Vote of this nature, information relating to its operation is not made public. So much for transparency.

This all has the hallmarks of a spoof spy film, although it is serious because there is money involved. Maybe the Minister is being protected by the Ranger wing at a secret international auction, bidding for classified, confidential documents. Maybe the Tánaiste could help the Minister, or perhaps he would be bidding against him, given his skills with confidential documents. I ask the Minister to ensure that at some point there is a discussion about this expenditure of Irish money.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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On one issue, I am not sure it is appropriate to refer to interference by the Ceann Comhairle. I am aware of the point being made by the Deputy, but the Ceann Comhairle has discretion in respect of parliamentary questions. I would not describe it as interference.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I accept that. It is not interference.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The Ceann Comhairle makes a decision based on knowledge. The Deputy might not accept it and that is fine. It is not interference.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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To be helpful to Deputy Ó Snodaigh, in one of the more memorable answers I got to a question on the very same matter when Alan Shatter was Minister, namely, what the €2 million for the Secret Service was actually spent on, he informed me that it was a secret. Maybe the Minister will echo that response.

This end-of-year accounting exercise, as it is being presented, is quite a fascinating and perhaps eye-watering discussion. This is everything. It is all the money - the billions of euro that were spent, and will be spent in January, across all Departments, current and capital. It is worth reflecting on a very important macro economic point. It has been a point of dispute and debate over the past decade or two and ,indeed, a matter of dispute and debate in what is often called an ideological discussion, namely, what is a legitimate economic strategy. Some people want to pretend there was no crash at all in 2008 and that it was all just a bad dream about bank bailouts, bondholders and gambling banks and the austerity that followed and that we should just forget about it and imagine that it did not happen. A much more serious debate would be to ask whether we have learned something from the contrast between the approach that was taken in the post-2008 period in response to an economic cataclysm and the approach taken in the past year in the face of Covid-19. We really should let that lesson sink in. In 2008, faced with an economic cataclysm, we made a decision to bail out the senior bondholders, the global and international investors who had financed banks, gambled on property and crashed the economy. Working people were asked to pay the bill. The consequence was dire hardship and austerity. The long-term legacy was a housing crisis that is still with us, a public health service that is chronically understaffed and teetered on the brink at the beginning of this pandemic and a decade-long recession. This time around, under pressure because the people would not have taken it again, we made a different decision. It was decided, to some degree at least, to bail out working people, support them and to invest additional expenditures in public health services, in housing, etc. We should look at the net effect of things we were told were impossible in the period after 2008, that were "fantasy economics". God almighty, I remember that phrase being repeated endlessly. It was fantasy economics, for us, as we did in budget submission after budget submission, to propose adjustments upwards in current and capital expenditure of €10 billion to €20 billion for health services, etc. Yet, here, in this Appropriation Bill, we have precisely that. There is €17 billion in additional expenditure, which we were told was a fantasy before. What was the consequence of that? It sustained the country through an extremely difficult pandemic, which we are still going through, and it produced economic growth. It did not produce a decade-long recession; it produced economic growth.

One would think that lesson would be absorbed and that people would put up their hands and say they got it wrong the last time, that approach was a disaster, they made a bad situation worse and they would learn the lessons of what happened in the past year. Indeed, there was some rhetoric to that effect from both the previous Government and the current Government that perhaps we would learn the lessons and that we had learned who was important, who was essential, what was the front line that protected us all and that Covid might be the springboard for a different type of future in which we would bail out and support the things that really mattered when the chips were down and we would recognise the critical importance of our front-line health workers and of supporting workers' incomes and jobs when things got tough economically. That was the rhetoric; the new normal. We were not going back to the old normal; we were going forward to the new normal. However, it has not taken long to revert to type.

The best example of that concerns health workers. As the applause of March and April fades into memory, what does the Government do to reward the front-line healthcare workers?

Where was the bonus payment that some countries gave to their healthcare workers for their extraordinary sacrifice and work in the face of the pandemic, which they continue to do? This is not history because they will be doing it again in January. Owing to the Government's Covid strategy we will be facing into further spikes in January and those front-line healthcare workers will be faced with similar situations in January and February. They got no bonus and they are still working free hours under the Croke Park agreement.

The other issue is the student nurses and midwives who were briefly rewarded with the healthcare assistant pay rate and then had the rug pulled from under them when, in the quiet of the summer in August, the Government stopped paying them. These are, by the way, the student and nurses we are going to need again when the almost inevitable spike in Covid-19 cases comes in January and February and infection rates among healthcare workers start to climb again, and the numbers are already shockingly high. We will be needing those student nurses and midwives to hold together our health services but the Government expects them to do it for free. To my mind, that is a scandal. It speaks to a longer term problem. If there was any real learning of the lessons of the last while, it is that we need permanent increases in the capacity of our health service, which is chronically understaffed and under-resourced. To achieve that, we should be treating our healthcare workers with the utmost respect, financially rewarding and remunerating them for the work they do and trying to encourage them not to leave this country, as 71% of student nurses and midwives are likely to do because the conditions in which they have to work are so poor, their pay is poor and the cost of accommodation is out of reach in terms of the salaries they receive. It seems those lessons are not learned.

It is particularly worth dwelling on these appropriations. This morning, the Tánaiste referred to those people who come over the hill to Debenhams workers and tell them there is a pot of money that does not exist. This is such a pot of money. It is massive. It is an enormous pot of money, but one that provides for grossly inflated salaries for taoisigh, special advisers, Ministers, Ministers of State and people in State agencies earning hundreds of thousands of euro, but nothing for nurses except, perhaps, a €50 allowance. That is the reality in terms of what is provided for in this Appropriation Bill. The cost that we bear from an Exchequer point of view in regard to HAP is shocking, as pointed out by the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service, IGEES, report of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It is massively higher than if we were delivering public housing directly, and yet the Government continues along that path and we continue to allow people to be evicted, as some people will be over the coming weeks because the Government has lifted the eviction ban. When those people are evicted because the vulture landlords want to raise rents and make more profit, they will turn up at the local authority offices looking for homeless HAP, which will cost a hell of a lot more. It seems the promise that we were going to learn the existential lessons of the year of Covid for the future have been quickly forgotten as we move towards the beginning of 2021.

1:50 pm

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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I apologise for not being hear earlier but I expected the Government speakers who are listed to be here and I did not realise they were not.

I am happy to support the Appropriations Bill 2020. Given the year that is in it, any kind of comparisons are fairly meaningless. It has been an exceptional year. Many decisions were taken about spending, most of them correct but some of them questionable. It is important that as we approach the end of the year consideration is given to how those decisions were taken.

As I said, most of the decisions were correct. We had to provide income support for people and supports for businesses in a situation which was completely unprecedented and catastrophic for many individuals and companies. We also had an enormous spend in the health area, which needs attention at this point. Earlier this morning, I said here that I completely appreciate the fact that people were under enormous pressure and we did not know what was coming at us from down the tracks as we followed the experience in Italy. There was a mad scramble to get equipment, personal protective equipment, PPE, and medications and to procure beds and so on. Initially, there was a scramble and mad rush. Decisions were taken during that period that I think were questionable. Whatever about that point in March, there should have been lessons learned. While at that point there may have been some justification for bypassing the usual financial controls, we needed to get back on track sooner than we did. There still is no assurance that we are back on track in terms of proper procurement and adherence to existing financial controls.

This morning, I raised with the Tánaiste the awarding of a €14 million contract for ventilators to a company that had no expertise in the area. The company's only experience is in festival organisation in the Middle East. It is an events management company whose only employee is the owner and its address is a residential apartment in Dublin city centre. I queried how it came about that a contract was awarded to this individual. The Tánaiste undertook to check records and come back to me with information in that regard. It is important that we have that information. It beggars belief that a decision like that could have been taken. In terms of those ventilators, we do not know where they are now. We know that there were serious issues with quality control and that they have not been used in a clinical setting, as told to us by Paul Reid. Other than that, we have no idea how many of them arrived in this country, where they are and what action is being taken to get back some of that money for the Irish taxpayer. There a many outstanding questions like that. We have that information, thanks to the investigative journalism, principally, of Cianan Brennan of theIrish Examinerand, also, because the issue was raised in an RTÉ programme last week, but we do not have answers to those questions.

Whatever about taking short cuts earlier in the year, I am concerned that that practice continued. There is a report in today's, or, perhaps, yesterday's, The New York Timeson some of the very questionable practices in the UK and political involvement in the awarding of contracts, with no proper procurement procedures followed and no controls in place. It was a jamboree for many politicians whose business contacts, family or friends, ended up being awarded very valuable contracts without any of the normal procedures being followed. We do not want that situation to arise here. We do not know whether there has been element of it here, or not. There should have been much greater control from an earlier stage. By mid-summer, we should have been in a situation where all of the normal controls kicked back in. We have no assurance as to whether that happened or not.

From the point of view of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and its oversight role, in the health area in particular, what is the view at this point in regard to the expenditure of such a vast amount of money? Is the Minister confident that the proper controls were in place over recent months and are in place now? Irrespective of emergency situations, we must adhere to proper financial controls. I am interested in hearing the Minister's response from the point of view of his Department and the oversight group in regard to health expenditure.

Apart from that example, I also raised questions about the whole issue of personal protective equipment, PPE. From a very early stage, the State had to acquire vast quantities of PPE. I remember that Paul Reid, CEO of the HSE, gave an estimate at the time that PPE expenditure would be in the region of €1 billion this year. I understand it has not quite got to that yet. There will also be a very substantial investment in it next year. Rather than heading off all around the world trying to locate this equipment, we should be doing things differently. I recognise that this was a very difficult task in the early days. I remember proposing at the time, and Paul Reid said it was being done, that given the level of expenditure expected this year, next year and possibly in future years on the whole area of PPE, why were we not manufacturing it ourselves. That expenditure of €1 billion could create a massive industry and provide jobs for people who have lost out in other areas. It makes absolute sense that we would bring into use the manufacturing facilities that we have around the country, many of which are lying idle, to train people to produce PPE. I was given an assurance at the time, last April or May, that arrangements would be made for the manufacture of PPE here. Has that happened? Has a new industry been developed and are we producing our own PPE? When we consider the massive amount of money involved, there should be a spin-off for Irish jobs. I am interested in hearing the Minister's response in this regard.

As we look to move forward, we undoubtedly have serious issues around procurement in a general sense. There were serious problems even before the Covid crisis. The Office of Government Procurement was set up with the intention of dealing with those issues, yet we see all of the same mistakes being repeated in respect of the national paediatric hospital, for example, and broadband provision. There is a weariness and a lack of confidence that we are capable, as a State, of delivering major infrastructural projects on budget and on time. While I recognise that this has been achieved in respect of roads projects, for instance, and some transport projects, in the case of other major infrastructural projects, we are not there yet or anywhere close to it. I am concerned that the expertise does not exist currently within the public sector. The Minister really needs to review the procurement procedures, the level of expertise that is available and the number of personnel. A very specialised expertise is required, which very few people have. We really need to bring it into service in this country because we have not been well served in this regard in the past.

In terms of moving forward with major capital projects, I urge the Minister to take on board the points other speakers have made in regard to housing. The provision of housing is central to the cost of living and that, in turn, is central to demands for wage increases and general affordability of living. We have to bring down the cost of housing and we must stop subsidising overpriced housing. We have to bring to an end long-term leases, the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme and public private partnerships, PPPs, because they just do not work. We should be building housing at the cost of building, which is approximately €250,000 per three-bedroom house. It has been done by the co-operative in Ballymun. If we provide the land, and there is plenty of public land, we can deliver housing at that affordable price. I urge the Minister to take on board the points raised on that issue and also in regard to health facilities. Building community healthcare facilities is part and parcel of Sláintecare and they will, in turn, result in a lower-cost model of care. We desperately need to move to a lower-cost, more effective public model of care. I urge the Minister to give priority to those key areas.

2:00 pm

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I want to raise the need for capital expenditure to be provided this year for the building of a hospital on the north side of Cork city. Deputy Colm Burke, the Fine Gael health spokesperson, has raised this issue over the years. Somehow, however, we are entering ten years of Fine Gael being in government and there is still no hospital on Cork's north side. It is unbelievable that nothing has happened after a decade of Fine Gael talking about building it. The proposed site study of the St. Stephen's hospital site in Glanmire, an ideal location, has been indefinitely delayed. The people of Cork North-Central are sick and tired of broken promises from Fine Gael. It is about time that party stepped up to the plate and delivered this much-needed hospital, which has been talked about for 20 years. Last year, we had three different announcements that the project was delayed. In January this year, it was delayed once again. Can the Minister, for once and for all, clarify when the hospital will be delivered and whether it will be located on the north side of Cork city?

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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The provisions in the Appropriation Bill, particularly the carry-over in regard to capital expenditure, are obviously a necessity. In terms of dealing with housing, we not only have to use fiscal rectitude but we also must ensure we are more imaginative if we are to solve the housing problem for people in this country.

I would like to draw attention to two particular capital projects which Louth County Council has submitted to the urban regeneration and development fund. One of them is a project to develop Bridge Street and Linenhall Street in Dundalk, which is a continuity of a piece of work that has already started on Clanbrassil Street and the St. Nicholas Quarter. This work is an absolute necessity for the town and for ensuing it is not left with what sometimes happens in this State, namely, half a job. It needs to be completed and it does not necessarily need huge money to do so. The other project, the port access northern cross route, has been championed by my constituency colleague, Deputy Munster, for many years. It was referred to earlier by Deputy Nash. It is a huge project that will cost more than €70 million, but it is an absolute necessity for the development of Drogheda.

Finally, I remind the Minister that we have been promised a primary care centre for Dundalk. We need to ensure that project falls within the timeframes that were given.

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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The Minister referred to the importance of having this Bill passed before the end of the year. I am sure he will receive widespread support in that regard but not without reservation from many of us in the House. He highlighted the scale of spending this year and the facility to provide €10.8 billion in capital expenditure in 2021. That is a mind-boggling figure when one thinks of the past number of years when the State was trying to close the budget deficit gap from a couple of billion euro down to €1 billion or so and then down to €500 million. Before Covid came along, we were running a very tight ship. All of a sudden, in the year that is just ending and in the year to come, we are, and will be, borrowing very extensively. Deputy Shortall highlighted the difficulties that has brought in terms of making sure we are spending well and strategically, that we have good procurement procedures and that we are getting value for money.

There is no doubt that the Covid crisis sprang incredible surprises on our economy, on the healthcare sector, in particular, and on the Government. There were a lot of decisions to be made, many of which we probably would not make again if we were looking at them a second time around. It is interesting that Deputy Shortall highlighted the ventilators issue. I had some dealings with HSE procurement over the past year on behalf of companies that were looking to supply products and medicines to Covid supports. It was incredibly difficult to get any engagement at all from the HSE. During my time on the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, I brought up the difficulty of trying to get access to key decision makers.

Deputy Shortall was alluding to people with commercial interests who were trying to make these contacts. I know many people who were trying to make these contacts because they had the interests of the country in mind and at heart, people who had widespread contacts in the Far East for the procurement of personal protective equipment, PPE, who offered their services and were not called upon. There are lessons to be learned about that.

We are also still going through the issues of Brexit, which are very significant for the country. One of the things that we know is that, whatever way the Brexit deal rolls out, we are going to have a very different relationship with the UK afterwards. We are certainly going to have some very significant transport issues. Within that we have seen the issues of the UK land bridge potentially being bypassed in trying to get direct access to the European Continent. Thankfully, services are going to start from Rosslare Europort through DFDS but I have not heard anything about Government capital supports for Rosslare Europort nor for the Port of Waterford, which is a bulk port. The south east has the fastest sea routes to the European Continent and I cannot understand why I am not hearing from Government about initiatives to support additional scaling of services from these ports. That is something that the Minister needs to incorporate in his planning.

On health planning, I brought up with the Tánaiste this morning and with the Taoiseach last week the issue of a second catheterization laboratory. I remind the Minister that we are now into the fourth calendar year in terms of the delivery of a €5 million capital spend. At present, we have been going through a four-month Office of Government Procurement review of a €5 million spend. I compare that with the decision that was made earlier this year to provide €350 million in surge capacity under a private hospital contract deal, a deal I believe that was brokered in less than three weeks.

Again, we must look at how we are doing our business. It will largely fall to the Minister’s Department in the coming year to provide oversight for this money, but we cannot say that on the one hand that we are going to be looking at all of the minutiae of spending for a €5 million deal while, on the other, when it comes to a deal worth tens of millions of euro, we ask how somebody with no expertise in the area could be awarded such a contract for €14 million. These are issues that will have to be looked at.

From my own perspective, while I do not want to get into pork barrel politics, I want to mention some issues on both regional and national development. It has now been properly recognised that we need major funding within the mental health sector. We have a very poor service in the south east in child and adult mental health supports, certainly in the community. There is none in University Hospital Waterford and we are totally dependent on the child and adult mental health services in Cork University Hospital, CUH. We were promised a block for this service.

We have a problem with hospital groups, and I have said this before. We have money being channelled into one central position. The money is supposed to be given from that on an equitable basis, but all we need do is look at where University Hospital Kerry in Tralee is at the moment or where University Hospital Waterford has been in their efforts at trying to get funding from the centre. As I said this morning, an announcement of 12 new consultant posts was made by the HSE in Waterford recently which have not even been approved yet by the Consultant Applications Advisory Committee, so these will be a minimum of 12 months to two years away. Why announce these? We need to get away from this spin.

I have thanked the Minister on previous occasions for the funding for the North Quays in Waterford, but that will not be the driver in closing the gap in GDP for the south east and making up the ground we have lost. That will largely be in the education sector. We need significant capital moneys to be given to the third level sector. I am aware that the technological university for the south east is being discussed at present. That has to be of the quantum and scale that is required to drive the south east. We do not have a national university in the south east, unlike all the other regions of the country. Therefore, we need this to solve that education deficit problem. I hope that will be given the attention it requires.

Housing has been mentioned before. I welcome the Minister’s announcement recently on the affordable housing scheme but we need to understand that there is a very significant number of people who have fallen into the trap of being outside of any support from the local authority and yet who are finding it impossible to save and get on to the property ladder. I agree with some of the previous Deputies that we have to get back to local authorities providing some housing mix and not just handing tenders over here and there. We had that expertise years ago and it can be developed again. We need to look at that.

Most important in terms of this €10.8 billion allocation, we will need to see transparent and equitable decision-making in respect of it. We can no longer have these out-of-the-blue announcements that something is going to be funded for €50 million and €100 million because this creates disharmony in the State. Now more than ever and post Covid-19, we will have to work together and we are all in this together. I plead with the Minister to secure the tangible assets of our State into the future. I am thinking of our agricultural sector and of our aviation sector, which has taken an incredible hammering. We are going to need that sector to get back up and going. Our enterprise and innovation sectors also need to be supported in the areas of technology and communications, together with our arts and culture.

It is to be hoped we can get back to supporting these sectors, but what I want to see most of all after this Bill has been passed and in the new year is a more transparent way of doing business, with evidence-based research to back up what we are doing in achieving value for money in the processes that we are undertaking.

2:10 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Shíl mé go raibh mé ag roinnt mo chuid ama. Níl an duine sin anseo agus leanfaidh mé ar aghaidh mar sin.

I have no problem with the Bill. It is to put the Vote on a statutory footing and to carry over the capital and I fully support that. I could not let this opportunity go, however, without adding my voice to those voices that said that we need a transformative change in the way that we do business.

Covid-19 was the opportunity to do that. It challenged us to do it, and for a little while I dared to hope that that was what was going to happen. The Government did the right thing and we in this Dáil unanimously supported the measures on the various schemes that were brought in. We had a sense of solidarity that was just something to behold. We did, unfortunately, undo that sense of solidarity by telling 70-year-olds to stay at home and so on, and led them to believe that they had no choice. By and large we inculcated a sense of solidarity, that we were all in this together, that somebody who had Covid-19 was not alone and that we were there with him or her to change things. I had that moment of hope. I also had that moment of hope on climate change that we finally saw the light. As more time goes on I am losing that sense of hope, which I do not like.

We have no choice but to take different types of actions. We have a major housing crisis. I know that the Minister and Fianna Fáil are aware of this but they are still persisting with language in terms of social housing which is not social housing. I want to avoid that word completely and talk about public housing. We need to provide public housing for all our citizens and residents. That is the only way. We have different schemes within that, such as cost rental schemes and local authority houses, but we need to have public housing. Without that message going out to the market, we are going to go from crisis to crisis. It is difficult to watch the amount of public money involved, which is in excess of €1 billion this year, I understand. I knew that figure was coming because I sat on the Committee of Public Accounts for four and a half years and it was a complete education. It was a privilege to be there and to learn and we saw where the money was going. Unfortunately, I always had a sense of frustration because we were looking back at where the mistakes were made. I wondered at what stage we would learn.

We all make mistakes and I am not going to haul somebody over the coals for making mistakes, but it is about the learning from those mistakes. We should have learned by now that the market cannot be left unregulated. The market is not there to provide a home for people, it is there to make a profit. I am sorry if this is old hat but the strong narrative from the Government has to be challenged by the few voices in this Chamber that challenge it in a constructive and positive way. We need public housing. We need the market, of course, and private landlords, but as a help to our housing, not as the main player in the game.

Unfortunately, that is what we have done. That is what happened with the housing assistance payment legislation. Therefore, we need to examine the housing legislation very soon and change the provisions on the housing assistance payment. Rent supplement was a temporary measure to assist people. The housing assistance payment became a permanent solution. Many of my colleagues in the Dáil and I spent a long time as members of local authorities. We were told repeatedly that the housing assistance payment was the only game in town and that there was nothing else. Once a person took that payment, he or she came off the waiting list. I recall being told I was a liar when I said that. At the time, I was a lawyer. I recall saying there might be very little difference between the two but that there was a difference and that I was not lying. The housing assistance payment was considered to be a social housing payment. The recipient was regarded as adequately housed even though he or she was in a private house with absolutely no security of tenure and so on. We are persisting with that model. I realise we cannot change it overnight. There is no way we can do so but at least let us decide that it is not the solution and that we need public housing.

The rain came into two hospital operating theatres in my city in 2017 but one of them has still not been put right. I cannot remember the figure precisely but I believe there were over 6,000 waiting on the outpatient waiting list to be seen by an orthopaedic surgeon. There were thousands on the inpatient waiting list waiting for surgery, in a city that has two private hospitals where nobody waits.

At some stage, we need to decide, and push the Government to decide, what a civilised society is and the best way to inculcate a healthy society. It is by providing basic public services and enshrining them in the Constitution. The right to a home has to be enshrined in the Constitution as soon as possible. It is the most basic right that allows for security of tenure and allows people to participate in society. We need a public health system based on need, not profit. We need balanced regional development.

Various organisations, such as the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, have told us that we need public infrastructure. I do not know how many economists have finally found the courage to say we need public infrastructure. Now is the time to build. Doing so creates employment but it also deals with our problems. That is not happening. In Galway, we are crying out for a hospital. I do not expect the Minister to tell me we are going to get one but I am simply saying it is needed. We have been waiting for an accident and emergency unit for years. Prior to the 2016 election, those who have now served as taoisigh told us it was not fit for purpose. Here we are, in the 21st-century, going into 2021, and we are still waiting for an accident and emergency unit. We are still waiting for two theatres to be put back into action four years after they were closed. A brand-new hospital could have been built in the meantime. We have 180 acres of land at Merlin Park and we have a city that is being choked by traffic. Is as Gaillimh mé agus ní féidir a bheith níos bródúla as an gcathair ná mé ach tá easpa struchtúir ann ó thaobh tráchta de. We are choked with traffic because of bad planning decisions, some of which were instigated by councillors. The planners were very often on the side of the angels in regard to planning decisions. Since then, management has persisted in not coming up with a sustainable solution. We have never rolled out park-and-ride facilities. The population of the city is destined to grow by 50%. In such a city, we have never rolled out park-and-ride facilities. It has been in the city development plan since 2005. I had the privilege, as mayor, of putting it in the plan. At the time, management fought us tooth and nail. The councillors led the way. Fifteen years later, we have no park-and-ride facilities in Galway. We have no integrated school transport system. We have some school transport in the city and some in the rural areas that should be expanded. We are currently telling people not to use public transport, which is most unfortunate. I do not know how we are going to gain their trust again but we should be preparing for that time because of climate change.

Luiagh my colleague from Galway, Deputy Mairéad Farrell, Conamara agus an easpa infreastruchtúir out there. Ros a Mhíl is crying out to be developed. In any planned infrastructure project, it should be Ros a Mhíl that is developed, in partnership with Galway city. Galway city has a planning application for the docks before An Bord Pleanála. Although I am no expert, it makes no sense to me that we are going to develop Galway, which is tidal, at an extraordinary cost, and not touch Ros a Mhíl, which has deep-sea facilities and is in the heart of the Gaeltacht.

We should be considering light rail for Galway. It is a hobbyhorse of mine but I fundamentally believe in it. Two years ago, I stood on the streets of Galway with a dedicated group to address this. No member of the group was political in the sense of belonging to a political party, as far as I know. Twenty-four thousand people signed a petition requesting that a feasibility study on light rail be considered so we could see whether it is possible. If it is not possible, so be it. There has been no action since then. A feasibility study is the most basic thing we should have. If Fianna Fáil is to make a difference in government, it should consider a feasibility study on light rail for Galway city. It should have balanced regional development.

I really appreciate the money that is being given to businesses and employees. The pandemic unemployment payment was the best thing that happened but it has not led to transformative change.

I mentioned Inishbofin either this morning or yesterday. It is struggling to get a primary care centre. On the Aran Islands, through pressure, and rightly so, the airport has now been bought. I pay tribute to both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in regard to that matter but everything has to be fought for rather than having a policy and realising the better way to do things in the long run. From my experience having been a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, I believe it is the cheaper way to do things because if we do not proceed in that way, we end up paying millions of euro in fines and in cleaning up. Consider the amount of money we are using to clean up former quarries and extraction facilities and so on. It is unbelievable.

I am glad I have had the opportunity to contribute to this debate.

2:20 pm

Photo of Michael McGrathMichael McGrath (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate the contributions of all Deputies across the House. I will just make some brief remarks in response. It will not be possible to cover the very wide range of points that have been made by colleagues. I thank colleagues for their support for this vital legislation, which is to provide a sound legal basis for the expenditure incurred in 2020. It also allows for the continuation of expenditure into 2021 prior to the passing by this House of the Estimates for 2021.

There are a few common themes in the various subjects the Deputies have raised. Capital expenditure was dealt with extensively by a number of Deputies, who quite understandably took the opportunity to raise projects and needs in various areas. Deputy Mairéad Farrell referred to Conamara's roads and bridges, Deputy Doherty referred to the development of Finn Harps, Deputy Nash referred to the Drogheda United development plans, and Deputy Shanahan raised a number of issues concerning Waterford and the wider south-east region. The offer I would make to individual Deputies is that I will work with them in respect of individual projects they want to see developed. We have a review of the national development plan under way. I encourage everyone to participate as part of the public consultation phase, which is now open. Information thereon is available on www.gov.ie/2040. Public submissions are possible right up to late January. It is a really important opportunity for members of the public, stakeholders, civic society groups and representative bodies from across the country to have their say on the direction of capital investment in the country over the next decade. By quarter 2 of next year, the intention is to adopt what will essentially be a new ten-year national development plan for the period to 2030. It will have to be consistent with Project Ireland 2040, the overarching spatial strategy for the development of our country and with the priorities in the programme for Government on tackling climate change and investing in transport, housing, healthcare, education and so on.

Reforms will be introduced as part of the review of the national development plan to address our ability to deliver the public capital investment programme. There will be strengthened oversight in respect of individual projects. External experts will be involved in making critical decisions during the life cycle of individual projects. We are also reviewing the capacity of the public sector to deliver on those major public capital programmes. It is a comprehensive review. We will be looking at the overall quantum of money required to deliver a national development plan over the next decade and assessing the different priorities, including some of the issues my colleagues have raised this afternoon, such as balanced regional development and many other areas. That is an important issue to highlight.

The issue of underspending was raised by a number of Deputies. This was a year like no other. The delivery of major construction projects was, understandably, impacted by the shutdown earlier in the year. Deputy Nash asked where the pressures are. The overall underspend in capital was almost €900 million and more than €200 million of that was in the area of housing. Construction was shut down for a number of months and that has had an impact on the delivery of the public housing programme. There has been an underspend in the region of €150 million in transport. On the capital side of the health budget, there has been an underspend of more than €100 million. The Deputy can see how those numbers add up in the context of the overall underspend. It should be put in perspective. The original budget for the 2020 capital investment programme was €8.2 billion and the final allocation, including extra allocations that were made over the course of the year, was almost €9.9 billion and the outturn is expected to be €9.3 billion. That is still more than €1 billion more than the original allocation for capital budgets in 2020. It is important to make that point. The vast majority of the amount that has been underspent will be carried forward into 2021 under the provisions that are available in the legislation. That will bring our programme next year to approximately €10.8 billion, which is a record level in the history of the State and it is important to say that.

A number of colleagues emphasised the need for investment in public housing and the public health service. That is exactly what we are seeking to do. For example, the plan for next year is to build 9,500 public houses in our country. The last year that we have complete data for is 2019, when approximately 6,500 public housing units were built. The ambition and funding are available to increase that to 9,500 next year. That will be part of an overall addition to the social housing stock of approximately 12,750. We absolutely want to see a shift in emphasis towards building public housing. That is what my party has done through the decades and we are determined to put the emphasis on direct delivery and direct building of public housing by approved housing bodies and local authorities. We will see significant progress in that area over the period ahead. I will be working closely with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in that space.

I will take up the point made by Deputy Boyd Barrett in asking what is different from a decade ago. The reality is that we are now in a position to access funding and that has allowed us to bring forward the type of response which simply was not available a decade ago, as Deputy Howlin knows all about. We are in a position to borrow at historically low interest rates and the right thing to do now is to pursue counter-cyclical policies. Governments have not always had the opportunity to adopt such an approach. The truth is that these exceptional policies at European Central Bank, ECB, level will not be continued indefinitely. We welcome the statement from the ECB earlier this week to the effect that its bond-buying programme will now be extended through until March 2022. That is positive news but we will, over time, have to ensure that our public finances are on a sustainable path. That is about ensuring that we are borrowing for capital purposes and not for current purposes and, ultimately, moving towards a deficit of less than 3% and a broadly balanced budget. In the April stability programme update the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and I will publish in April 2021, we will set out the pathway and trajectory as to how we achieve that.

I draw the attention of Members to the Revised Estimates for Public Services 2021 published this week. It is important that we learn from our experience of public expenditure in 2020 and achieve value for money. It is important to have strict expenditure control mechanisms in place. There is a wealth of information in the published Revised Estimates for 2021 relating to performance metrics, outputs from different Votes and exactly what the Government expects to be achieved by different Departments in respect of the extraordinary budgets that have been provided for 2021. In 2020, gross Government expenditure is of the order of €87.3 billion. If we spend all of the money allocated to the recovery fund and the Covid-19 contingency fund, we have the capacity for an outturn of €87.8 billion in 2021. We are maintaining an elevated level of public expenditure to support the economy because addressing the legacy unemployment issues from Covid is going to be a top priority for this Government in 2021 and beyond. We are determined to do that, to support households and businesses and to do all that we can to support our economy in what will remain a challenging time. We will know the outcome of Brexit in a short period of time. We also need to improve public services and that is why we have made a step change in investment in the public health system with an increase in funding of €4 billion in 2021. Those are extraordinary sums, but we need to get a return in respect of them.

I thank my colleagues for their support for this Bill and look forward to working with them through 2021 as we implement the budget for next year. I know that the Estimates will be considered at committee level and will ultimately come back into the House to be voted upon.

2:30 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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With the permission of the Minister and that of the House, we will allow Deputy Michael Collins in because he came into the Chamber as the Minister got to his feet. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I apologise for being late. I sprinted to get here but the Minister had just got to his feet when I arrived. I appreciate the Minister giving us a full and detailed rundown of the capital funding and the ten-year national development plan ahead. I plead with him to give serious consideration to a constituency that I feel has been starved of good, serious funding for a long time to allow it to make changes. We have many issues in west Cork. The Minister is a fellow Corkman and he was down in west Cork during the summer, as he probably has been often. I would appreciate it if these issues were looked at in a more serious light. There is no point in anybody telling me that Cork has got a fair slice of the cake because it has not.

There was €63.5 million of greenway funding announced recently. It is a great boost to any community to get funding for projects and especially for a constituency like Cork South-West that needs that type of funding. There are possibilities there, as I have said, in Ballinhassig, Kinsale, Innishannon, down to Mizen Head and up into Beara to create employment in what will be a tough time ahead. With Brexit and everything, the fishing and farming sectors are going to be hit. People are going to have to think outside the box for survival. I appreciate the Minister cannot get projects shovel ready but work is still required on the Innishannon bypass, the Bandon southern relief road and the northern relief road. Even passing bays on the N71 and the R586 are an example of an issue that has been omitted.

I said it to the Taoiseach and I say to the Minister that, in the past 20 years, the only progressive work I saw done on the N71 was the opening of the Skibbereen bypass, and that was 18 years ago. No archway or leeway into a huge constituency like Cork South-West can be starved for 20 years of investment and funding, which would bring us into line with other counties and open up places like Skibbereen and Bantry and far-reaching places like Castletownbere, Schull and Mizen Head. Innishannon and Bandon are bottlenecks and desperately need funds to be made available either to look at relief roads or passing bays. A person does not have to be a rocket scientist for some of these works.

Issues that desperately need funding include the sewerage systems in Belgooly, Ballinspittle, Castletownshend and Goleen. I mentioned Ballinspittle in a discussion we had in the Dáil last night. The county development plan allows for 50 or 60 houses there, but they cannot build any house because they cannot increase the capacity of the sewerage system. It is in such close proximity to Cork. Castletownshend is probably pumping raw sewage into the sea, the same as places like Goleen, where I come from. They are areas that need funding and that need to be focused on. Many feel they have not had that.

The endoscopy unit promised to Bantry General Hospital has not been delivered. Bantry hospital serves a catchment of anything up to 80,000 people. I was canvassing around Bandon and Innishannon and it shocked me when people told me they would not dare turn to Cork University Hospital and that they would love to go and do go to Bantry hospital. We have to protect areas like that. Clonakilty Community Hospital has been starved of funding in recent years, which has led to unfortunate situations during Covid. HIQA reports have made it clear that funding has not been spent there in certain important areas where it should have been spent. Staff were left with a massive headache.

I do not want to paint a bleak picture all the time but I have been speaking about these things since 2016 and they need progression. The Minister might have his finger on the pulse more, being from the county. I respect that he is a national Minister but my problem is that a lot of good projects in west Cork are being put before the Government. It might not be very good politically and the Chair might stop me saying this but a lot of nod-and-wink politics seems to go on and the money goes in a certain direction. Proof of that was the rural regeneration fund. I called for an independent investigation into where that money was being spent. That was prior to the Minister taking office. There were shovel-ready projects that did not get any funding.

I know one such project in Schull that would have been a game changer and have provided between 60 and 80 jobs, which in a place like Schull would have been incredible. That project was shovel-ready, had planning and everything but got nothing. It was twice the lead project of Cork County Council and it got zero. I saw projects that were only aspirational coming near senior Ministers and they were given millions. Something is wrong somewhere. Everyone has to push for their own area as best they can but we need to ensure that type of politics does not continue.

The sad thing is the Schull Harbour project looks like it has been shelved because Cork County Council, in its wisdom, with seven days to go before a decision was to be made, and it was assumed it would put the project forward again because it was shovel ready and there was planning in place, pulled the plug and left the group flat-footed with no lead body going forward. If that project had happened for Schull, it would have been a massive game changer for the whole of west Cork because tourism is a road we must travel, given the difficulties in the fishing industry, as I said, and the farming industry.

I have said to the Taoiseach, though it is falling on deaf ears on the moment, that we need to set up a task force in west Cork to look at tourism and areas that have had a complete lack of investment and funding. I will keep calling for that task force. If the Taoiseach does not provide it, it is to be hoped that in the next term, when the Tánaiste might be Taoiseach, he will understand where I am coming from. I can put before the Government 50 or 60 projects that have been there or thereabouts and have been continually refused funding. A task force is what we need in west Cork in order that there is complete focus on the projects, that the projects are brought before the Ministries where the funding is available, and that we are on a level playing pitch with everybody else, be they in Dublin city, out in Castletownbere or down in Ballinadee or Belgooly. It should not make a difference but, unfortunately, it has made such. As a public representative, I have to fight the corner.

There are many issues with flooding in west Cork. Skibbereen, Rosscarbery, Bantry and many other places got flooded. The Minister was down there, as I said, and I appreciate his visit. Rathbarry and such places need funding.

The one criticism I had about the funding that became available was that it was not open to 70%, 80% or maybe 90% of the people who desperately needed it. It was humanitarian aid but there were so many hoops and fences. If a person had insurance, he or she did not get it. I know a business that did not have and could not afford insurance that did not get it because it was told it probably could have got insurance. Some people had insurance with, unfortunately, an excess of maybe €10,000, and they were not able to get it. Some people's damage could have been €8,000 or €9,000. A huge number of people were affected. For most of them, their businesses had closed due to Covid and had just reopened. We were helping them. There was little in Bandon but a good bit in Bantry, obviously, and I saw the damage and the sheer devastation to businesses. Many good people, neighbours and friends put their hands to the wheel. I said at the time that there should have been a stand-alone fund - a very fair and open fund.

We have done this for years in Ireland. When places abroad were destroyed with floods or whatever, we were always the ones to send aid abroad but we did not look after ourselves. We gave a small percentage of people funding and made it look as if they all got it. I know, because I spoke to them, that they did not all get it. They could not get it because the criteria were so difficult and teased out. Businesses and people needed it. Private individuals could get it for their premises, but they were as bad as the rest in that they might not have been able to afford insurance. Flooding is an act of God, not of their own negligence. They only thing they can look out for is if someone will help them. The public representative is the first person to be asked. I look at what is there and tell most of them I am sorry but they cannot get anything. Then there are announcements on TV and radio that there is plenty of money and flooding funding available.

I want to focus back on west Cork. The Minister said people should not be pushing their own wheelbarrow, but nobody has been pushing this wheelbarrow. I would appreciate if the Minister would jump on board the wheelbarrow with me and we will work together. We cannot get it all done in the number of years the Minister will hold office, but we can get some projects done. I would greatly appreciate it if he would work with me on that.

2:40 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Perhaps an Teachta Collins will get a hybrid wheelbarrow. Does the Minister want to make a brief reply or will we move on? Is there someone else wishing to contribute? Is it agreed to let Deputy O'Dowd in?

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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On a point of order, the debate is supposed to be concluded. Is any Deputy who comes in now simply going to be allowed to speak?

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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To be fair, many people missed their slots. I am in Deputies' hands.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Two justice Bills are due now and people are scheduled to speak here until 11.15 tonight. I am just being reasonable.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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We are still within the timeframe. I am in Deputies' hands.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Tá deich nóiméad fós. We have ten minutes within the time allocated.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I am happy to speak and I hope will not take anything like ten minutes.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I did not see the Deputy up there.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I appreciate the Acting Chairman allowing not just Opposition Deputies but Government Deputies to make a contribution when they have come in late, like myself.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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A number of Government Deputies missed their slot.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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It is important that my voice be heard like other Deputies from other parties. It is important to articulate on behalf or our constituencies needs which are real and growing. I welcome the Government initiatives in terms of their investment in the east Meath, south Louth, north Louth and mid-Louth areas. Some important projects have been completed.

Considerable progress has been made at Lourdes hospital in terms of improvements, additional wards and investment in its health infrastructure. The extension of the DART is an important and major transport project. I believe it has received adequate funding and that the orders for the construction of the carriages will be issued. While the project's construction will take a couple of years, it will have important benefits for Drogheda and east Meath. It will mean that many more people will be able to work in Drogheda and travel from Dublin. It will also mean that our population centre can grow sustainably. We talk about sustainability of employment and, where possible, keeping people where they live, but 12,000 commuters leave the Drogheda-south Louth-east Meath area per day, which is a major operation.

The northern cross route in Drogheda will cost approximately €60 million. That is how much the county council is requesting. All political parties in County Louth are united in supporting the project. It is a matter for the Minister, who is examining all of the options as to where he can and should invest, but Drogheda town is choked by traffic, including port bound traffic. This morning, large articulated trucks passed through the one-way system in the town centre, holding up everything and trying to get around narrow corners. As a Government, the most important thing we could do would be to ensure that the northern cross route was constructed. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has visited and is aware of the issues. He expressed his view on the matter when he was spokesman in opposition. Since he was in favour of the project then, we hope that he will be in favour of it now. Let there be no mistake - all parties and Independents want it to happen.

The Ardee bypass is an essential road infrastructure project. There is money for it. The council is trying to address problems that have arisen around Ardee. Many people are concerned about the delays, but there are those who would be significantly disadvantaged by the change in the route, which only came to their attention recently. I hope that the council will be able to find a compromise that leaves everyone happy by building an additional intersection. Doing so would be beneficial to the people living in the area because they would not have to drive over bog roads and wreck their commercial and personal vehicles.

These are the main issues I wish to highlight. I thank the Acting Chairman for allowing me to contribute. I am glad that I have kept within the time allocated for this debate.

2:50 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Since there is no Green Party Member in the Chamber, I invite the Minister to respond. I thank him for his forbearance.

Photo of Michael McGrathMichael McGrath (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I have already given my closing remarks, but I will work with Deputies Michael Collins and O'Dowd on the issues they raised. I encourage them to participate in the national development plan review. For our Departments to be of assistance, we need specific projects. A point was rightly made about projects being shovel ready. Some are, but many are not and there are various bottlenecks in the system. We need to improve the way in which we deliver capital projects. This matter will form part of our review because there are too many delays and the process takes too long. A key focus for me in the period ahead will be on trying to speed up the delivery of projects while complying fully with the public spending code and the requirements around financial controls.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Bill, which is certified to be a money Bill in accordance with Article 22.2.1° of the Constitution, will be sent to the Seanad.

Sitting suspended at 3.20 p.m. and resumed at 3.25 p.m.