Dáil debates

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Appropriation Bill 2021: Second Stage


6:20 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."

I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce the Appropriation Bill 2021 to the House. This Bill is essential financial legislation that must be concluded in the current year. The Appropriation Bill has two primary purposes. First, it provides legal authorisation for all of the expenditure that has occurred in 2021 on the basis of the Estimates voted on by the Dáil over the course of the year. These allocations, known as the amounts to be appropriated for the supply of services, are set out in section 1 and Schedule 1. These relate to the Revised Estimates, further Revised Estimates and Supplementary Estimates agreed by the Dáil. In aggregate, these Estimates amount to €73.1 billion. The comparable amount in the Appropriation Act of 2020 was €69.7 billion. The amount to be appropriated this year, therefore, represents an increase of close to €3.4 billion or just under 5% of last year’s net voted expenditure.

This represents not only the substantial level of support provided to households and businesses in respect of Covid-19 but also the commitment to provide for the necessary infrastructure to support our continuing social and economic progress and significant investment in the delivery of our essential day-to-day public services on which, of course, so many rely.

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 €88.9 billion. This included substantial provision for the continuation of Covid-related supports, with almost €13.5 billion made available in 2021 for measures to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. This provision of additional exceptional funding has been critical in supporting citizens and businesses impacted by the pandemic and providing the necessary funding to allow our key public services to respond effectively to the crisis. For example, it has allowed for key income and employment support schemes such as the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, to be extended this year. In addition, grants and other supports for businesses and impacted sectors have been provided along wit funding for key public services, including healthcare, education and public transport.

The second key purpose of the Bill is to provide a legal basis for spending to continue into next year in the period before the Dáil votes on the 2022 Estimates. As set out in the Central Fund (Permanent Provisions) Act 1965, the authority for spending in 2022 prior to the agreement of the 2022 Estimates by the Dáil is based on the amounts included in the Appropriation Bill 2021. It is for this reason it is so important the Bill is enacted before the end of 2021. If it were not, there would be no authority to spend any voted moneys from the start of January 2022 until the approval of the 2022 Estimates.

In October, I, along with Government colleagues, launched the revised national development plan, NDP, which set out capital allocations for the next decade as part of an overall €165 billion investment package. In recent years, capital investment has increased dramatically. We are now investing significantly more than the European average. The NDP provides a clear signal to industry of the State's investment profile for the next ten years. This will, in turn, encourage investment and job creation from the construction industry in particular. It is estimated the investment in the NDP will create more than 80,000 direct and indirect jobs in the construction industry alone. It is also estimated that just over €100 billion in direct spending in construction generates a further €60 billion in indirect output throughout the supply chain. When the wider economy outside the construction industry is taken into account, the economic benefits of sustained capital investment by the State are crystal clear and this investment is producing results. It is expected that 20 major projects will be finished this year alone, including the recently opened upgrade of the N4 to Sligo and the north runway project at Dublin Airport. In recent weeks, we saw the completion of the runway reconstruction at Cork Airport. Looking at the education sector alone, an average of 150 to 200 school building projects will be delivered every single year in the period from 2021 to 2025.

I acknowledge there have been challenges relating to spending public money when it has been allocated in the context of capital investment. In recognition of the difficulty faced by Departments in planning for major capital projects, the rolling multi-annual capital envelopes introduced in 2004 allow for carryover 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 Bill sets out the capital amounts that are to be carried over to 2022 on a Vote basis. In aggregate, capital carryover from 2021 to next year amounts to €820.1 million, or approximately 7.8% of the overall Exchequer capital programme in 2021. This level of capital carryover into 2022 is broadly in line with the level that was expected at the time of the budget in October. As evident from the monthly expenditure figures throughout 2021, the spending plans were impacted by project interruptions due to the pandemic, largely due to the impact of construction closures on public health grounds in the earlier part of the year.

With just over €820 million in carryover to fund capital investments next year, this will bring the overall amount available to Departments for gross voted capital spending in 2022 to a record €12 billion. This represents a substantial investment as we look both to address the continued challenges posed by Covid-19 and Brexit next year and to support economic, social, environmental and cultural development across all parts of the country under the revised national development plan.

As Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, I would like to see capital allocations spent in the year they are allocated. Notwithstanding the challenges from Covid in the past two years, there are things we can do to improve capacity in both the public and private sectors so that the ambitious pipeline of projects can be delivered in the next ten years on time and on budget.

As I have previously announced, I will be bringing additional external expertise to the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board which will assist the State in implementing both Project Ireland 2040 and the national development plan. The report of the supporting excellence action team, published in October alongside the revised NDP, examined the capability of the public service to deliver a large-scale capital programme and sets out a number of significant recommendations to support the agenda of improved delivery capability. The range of measures outlined include the development of the commercial skills academy of the Office of Government Procurement to enhance procurement and introduce further legal and planning reforms.

Enhancing the capacity of the private sector is also required to ensure projects are delivered on time and on budget. Increasing the levels of innovation in the construction sector through digital ambition supports will ultimately see public projects delivered to a higher standard using digital efficiencies. Capacity, innovation and digital adoption within the construction sector is increasing through the Government's collaborative approach and continued regular engagement with industry representatives through the construction sector group. In early November, I announced that a consortium led by TU Dublin was the winner of a €2.5 million grant to deliver the build digital project. This project is one of seven priority action points arising from the building innovation report, which drew upon an extensive consultation and international benchmarking process and an economic analysis of the causes of productivity trends in the construction sector. This build digital funding will assist in the effective delivery of projects and, ultimately, in meeting our Project Ireland 2040 and national development plan ambitions.

Schedule 2 sets out the proposed capital carryover amounts. The Revised Estimates Volume for 2022, to be published this week, includes for each Vote availing of the capital carryover facility a table listing by subhead the amounts to be deferred. As in previous years, the Bill provides for a repayable advance from the Central Fund to the Paymaster General's supply account to meet certain 2022 Exchequer liabilities due for payment in the first week of January. The need for this provision arises because, with the banking system closed on Monday, 3 January, funding will need to be in place in departmental bank accounts before the end of this year to meet those liabilities on a timely basis. There is also a need to pre-fund An Post to meet certain payments due between 1 and 5 January 2022 so that payments can be transferred from the Department of Social Protection to the network of post offices throughout the country. Section 3 provides for up to €292 million to be advanced from the Central Fund to meet these requirements, with this advance then being repaid to the Central Fund in January 2022.

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 2021 on the basis of the Estimates voted on by the Dáil in the course of the year. Importantly, it will also ensure voted expenditure can continue into 2022 in the period before the Dáil approves the 2022 Estimates. This means keeping our public services, such as schools and hospitals, operating, as well as continuing payments funded from voted expenditure in 2021, such as the employment wage subsidy scheme and other social assistance scheme payments.

I commend the Bill to the House.

6:40 pm

Photo of Sorca ClarkeSorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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As has been observed many times, we have a series of housekeeping Bills that must go through the Oireachtas and this is one of them. The Appropriation Bill has two primary purposes, the first of which is to give the legal authorisation for the expenditure that occurred in 2021 on the basis of Estimates voted by the Dáil over the course of the year, and the second of which is to provide the legal basis for spending to continue into next year in the period before the Dáil votes on the Estimates. The sums granted by the Central Fund (Permanent Provisions) Act 1965 enable the Central Fund to make good supply granted, and the aggregate sum the Minister mentioned was €73 billion. We are all aware there is a constitutional requirement for this Bill as it legislates for the financial resolution that includes all the Estimates agreed by the Dáil this year, and this explains why it has come so late in the year. In many ways this is a box that absolutely needs to be ticked to ensure much of the show continues to be on the road.

The key to the Appropriation Bill is the four fifths rule spoken of by the Minister as it means Departments can spend money come January 2022. If the Bill is not enacted, the Departments could not spend and, in its simplest form, the four fifths rule means Departments can spend up to four fifths of the previous year's voted expenditure before a vote is required to take place to authorise extra money. The Bill also allows for that capital carry-over as per the Finance Act whereby each Department can carry over that 10% capital allocation to the next year. I note this year the deferred surrender relating to capital supply services is totalling €820 million, the spending of which will be key to our recovery and tackling the big issues to come.

Such matters are still very much to come. Despite us thinking we may be progressing through Covid-19, we are certainly not at the end of it. Nobody has a total figure for what this country will be required to carry for the foreseeable future. The carry-over from 2020 to 2021 was €748 million, attributed by the Minister to the delay in capital projects throughout 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Delays and interruptions to capital projects as a consequence of the country dealing with Covid-19 were responsible for a significant increase in capital carry-over compared with the previous year. Will the Minister clarify the level of anticipated capital carry-over into 2023 should the Covid-19 pandemic worsen or if there is a requirement to increase restrictions? We certainly acknowledge there is a valid reason for a period of catching up on capital projects, but this cannot continue indefinitely.

I take this opportunity to speak to some of those capital projects and the funding models currently in place. I will use a specific example. Currently, there are two proposed palliative care units in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 8, one in the Midland Regional Hospital Tullamore and the other in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. The former, despite being mooted for many years and a hospice room being provided in the hospital in Tullamore since the early 1990s, is still at the very initial stages of development. It is also caught at a level of legal quagmire to boot.

In March this year, through a reply to a parliamentary question, I learned the HSE agreed to provide funding from the capital budget to enable architectural plans to be drafted to support the development. The information was updated in April, noting that the Offaly Hospice Foundation had commissioned drawings to inform the development and, together with the Hooves 4 Hospice and the Tullamore Lions Club, hoped to raise €1.5 million for the build. Essentially, to date, the HSE has incurred little to no costs relating to that proposed 16-bed to 20-bed hospice. Its commitment to providing funds for the architectural plans was negated by the submission of drawings paid for by the Offaly Hospice Foundation.

At the other end of CHO 8 in County Louth, plans appear to be significantly further ahead by virtue of the presence of a philanthropic donor who has retained project managers and architects for the development of a hospice on site and adjacent to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. This was donated by a religious order. All of the costs associated with this are again expected to be borne by philanthropic donations, and the unit will be built by the charity and signed over to the HSE on a 9,999-year lease. As in the midlands, the HSE has again incurred little to no cost to date relating to the proposed 30-bed to 36-bed hospice in that location.

These may be classed as capital projects but they are not funded through that process. Every cent spent on the examples I have been given has been donated to a State service that gives dignity at the end of life. Nobody underestimates the importance and vital role hospices play at the end of a person's life and the impact dignity in death has on the grieving loved ones left after the person passes away.

While this is ongoing, in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath the voluntary South Westmeath Hospice committee has had to resort to legal action as a result of the disdain with which it was treated by the HSE. I remind Members that, without making generalisations or assumptions, usually when community members come together for a cause such as a local hospice service, it is because a need for such a service has been brought to their attention or they have experienced that lack of service personally or through family or a circle of friends.

A voluntary committee usually grows from an identified need or gap in the community and it takes it on itself to do its best to fill it. What the voluntary committee of South Westmeath Hospice managed to achieve just as the recession began to really sink its teeth into the country is extraordinary and it should be commended. In August 2010, its fundraising efforts in support of the people of south Westmeath and beyond led to a four-bed inpatient palliative care unit being opened on the grounds of what used to be St. Vincent's hospital and is now St. Vincent's care centre in Athlone. It is a two-storey unit of 8,500 sq. ft. Of the €1.9 million required for its construction, the vast majority - a staggering €1.45 million - was financed again not through capital expenditure but through fundraising campaigns and voluntary donations.

Nobody can dispute that the people of south Westmeath own the blood, mortar, sweat and tears of almost every inch of that building. However, that is being dismissed by the "take it or leave it" attitude from the HSE, again when it has access to the capital funding. Instead, the committee is being told there will be a commemorative plaque but there will be no transferring or mirroring in a new premises. Where is the capital funding in this regard? What has been offered by the HSE is an insult to the committee and every single person - man, woman and child - who bought tickets, baked cakes, engaged in various fundraising activities, and worked so hard to provide that vital specialist service in the area.

More important, the impact of moves like those of the HSE in this case will have a knock-on effect when other projects are in need of community contributions. This is just one example and I can confidently say there is not a community throughout this country that at some point has not dug deep into their after-tax pay to contribute to a fund for some essential building or service. We might speak of capital funding here but we do it against the backdrop of a reality where communities with deeper pockets are better placed to see realised projects like a modern and fit-for-purpose hospice, an MRI machine, a school or a domestic violence refuge.

As I have said, this Bill is akin to housekeeping and we support it. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for her discretion in allowing me to speak this evening.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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As has been said, we all understand this is a housekeeping Bill and it is required for Exchequer funds to be spent by Departments on various capital projects. I, in common with most Deputies, am concerned about capital funding across our constituencies and particularly Sligo, Leitrim, north Roscommon and south Donegal. We have issues with various capital projects we hoped to see progressed but very little has been happening.

One that immediately comes to mind is the Garda station in Sligo town. The Minister knows it is a headquarters for the area and yet it is a building that has been expanded or added to. One might go up a stairs to go across the building before going down and up some other stairs. It is like something from a Lego set. However, we were told by the Minister, as recently as last July, that there is no plan to build a new Garda station in Sligo. That is not just regrettable but simply unacceptable for the gardaí who have to work in that very dilapidated and poorly laid out building. It is also unacceptable for the people in the region. I hope this matter will be revisited because we can see the current state of the Garda station in Sligo in which people are expected to work. It should be acknowledged and the building should be replaced by a proper building accessible to everybody, especially people with disabilities. Currently, they have no access to the building.

There are projects throughout the country that we need to see put in place. They would create the opportunity for the Government to put money back into communities. It is not just about the possibilities from the work but about building confidence in particular in the regions if people see the Government is prepared to spend money to provide for them.

That is greatly lacking in many areas. One of the big issues in my region relates to Sligo University Hospital and the issues there. It has been almost 25 years since we were promised a full-time cath lab would be established at Sligo hospital and still it is not in place. The cardiologist at the hospital is about to retire and he is telling everybody there will be nobody to replace him as a senior cardiologist at the hospital if it does not have a proper cath lab. It is a matter of joining the dots. If the facilities are not in place, hospitals will not get the staff in place. There needs to be an acknowledgement of that within the Government and we need to ensure we put the facilities in place for people, particularly facilities relating to health, housing and education, which are key capital projects we need to deliver for people throughout the country.

Yesterday, 46 people were on trolleys in Sligo hospital because there were no beds for them on the wards. That is the case not just in Sligo hospital but throughout the Saolta University Healthcare Group in the west and the midlands, where there are significant problems. People end up on trolleys in hospital and cannot go anywhere else because the capacity simply is not there in our hospital system. That is not Covid related; this was an issue long before Covid. It is because of underinvestment in the past, which needs to change.

They are just two examples I wanted to raise in regard to capital funding having failed to deliver for people throughout my region, but there are many others. The main one that springs to mind for most people relates to housing and how, particularly in the case of social and affordable housing, in every constituency not enough houses are being built or delivered, despite continuous promises from the Government. While we understand the Bill is a housekeeping Bill and so on, the debate is an opportunity for us to raise this issue with the Government. It needs to put the money in place to ensure we deliver for people throughout the country.

6:50 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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That was within the scope of the debate. The rules state that, on Second Stage, Deputies may refer not only to what is in the Bill but what could relevantly be put into it. I suppose the Deputy’s contribution came under that stipulation.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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Precisely, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle agus déanfaidh mé iarracht cloí leis an méid atá sa Bhille agus tá an ceart ag na Teachtaí a tháinig romham. I ndeireadh thiar thall níl i gceist anseo ach glanadh suas ag deireadh na bliana, ag déanamh cinnte de go bhfuil na cuntais in ord agus go bhfuil an t-airgead ar a raibh vóta caite ina leith caite agus go bhfuil cuntasaíocht cheart déanta faoi.

Ar an gceist sin táim chun díriú isteach ar an méid a bhí sa doiciméad a d’fhoilsigh an Rialtas anuraidh, Budget 2021: Expenditure Report 2021. Tagann sé seo amach gach uile bhliain ach gach uile bhliain ardaím an cheist chéanna mar tá píosaí ann, nach ann dóibh. Nuair a lorgaítear eolas, ní thagaim ar an eolas sin. Nuair a chuirim ceist sa Dáil bíonn sí curtha as eagar.

This is an old chestnut of mine. Since 2011, Vote 15 has fallen under the remit of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Deputy Michael McGrath is the Minister in charge. The Expenditure Report 2022 refers to the “Head under which this Vote will be accounted for by the Office of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform”, yet I cannot get any answer at all. It is not a huge sum, at €2 million, but it still has to be accounted for, like every cent and euro the State spends. I do not know whether the full sum was spent this year but I do know an Supplementary Estimate was not applied for, so we can assume it was not spent and that we might find out at some stage whether there is anything left over from that €2 million.

Vote 15, for those who are not aware, is the Vote for the secret service, which, I am told every year does not exist, yet there is no hint of that in this document. In chapter 16, the Minister's Department explains all its other Votes. Votes 11 to 14, inclusive, 17, 18, 39 and 43 are all described and there are little graphs and so on to help us make head or tail of them and to account for the spending. For Vote 15, however, that explanation disappears.

If we dig a little further and go to page 189 in the document, all of a sudden it appears: Vote 15 - Secret Service amounts to €2 million, under the title “Summary of Supply Services”. That is for capital and current expenditure. Two pages later, the summary of voted capital is stated as zero; it does not exist. On the next page, it states that expenditure on pay and pensions does not exist. In that case, what the hell is the service and who supplies it? It is not for pay or pensions and we know it is not for capital expenditure. We know it is not supplied by An Garda Síochána, the Defence Forces, Revenue, the Department of Social Protection, or even the OPW or the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, OGCIO, which most people might not be aware of. It might be appropriate under that heading but we do not know because we know nothing about it. Each of those bodies has its own budget line and Vote, so we know it has nothing to do with them.

Maybe, like many other public services, it is contracted out. Perhaps we have subcontractors out there and perhaps bogus self-employment exists in this case. Maybe, God forbid, it is a foreign company or foreign agency, with a foreign secret service carrying out a function about which the only gem of information I have, other than the magical number I mentioned and the fact it comes under the Minister's Department, is information I got in 2009 from the then Government Chief Whip who stated the purpose of the secret service Vote was "to obtain information which is necessary for the security for the country".

The Minister, therefore, is the M of the Irish secret service. I do not think he is the C - C the head of MI6 in the UK, who is Richard Moore, not Roger Moore - or at least I hope he is not. Maybe he is; it is all secret. I do not see why we cannot be honest and say what it is. I have not been able to have that confirmed by any Minister since 2009. All the questions I table are ruled out of order because the Minister has no responsibility to the Dáil on the matter, yet his own document, the expenditure report, states he is accountable to the Dáil on this matter. When we ask a question, all we get is a response stating the figure was €2 million last year. In fact, when I received that information, in 2009, the figure was €200,000. There has been a tenfold increase, therefore, since 2009. What the hell is this secret service for and what information are we paying for? What hush-hush, top-secret information have we got?

The Minister should end this merry dance we have every year and stick it into the Vote for the Departments of Justice, Foreign Affairs or Defence, or An Garda Síochána. I do not really care, but it should fit somewhere in order that some Minister can stand up and say he or she can genuinely account for the money having been properly spent on information that was useful, if that is what it is for, or on informants, data or whatever. If it is for data, it obviously did not work this year, given the cyberattack on the country. We did not have that information, although I hope this was one of the ways we got the information to rescue our computers.

This is the end of the year and we are supposed to account for money having been properly spent. It relates to last year's budget and this year's funding. It will be the same again next year unless this Vote is shifted. It was not always under the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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Deputy Ó Snodaigh has been asking these legitimate questions for a number of years and always attracts a bit of media attention when he poses them, although they have been posed in this House for much longer than Deputy Ó Snodaigh has been here. The Minister will recall that when we were debating the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill last week, I told him I used to work in these Houses for then Labour Party spokesperson on finance, Derek McDowell, in 1998 and 1999.

He was asking those questions at that time. As the Minister remembers, back in 1998 and 1999, there certainly was a good reason for having a strong secret service to protect the security of the State. Members opposite will be familiar with that reason. We can call the Minister "M" now, apparently, which is a new one on me. I am grateful for Deputy Ó Snodaigh's contribution in that regard.

I am pleased to contribute to the debate on this important Bill. Its passage is constitutionally required to enable the State to expend the resources allocated to the Executive by the Dáil. This is a very onerous responsibility that is placed on us all but, surprisingly, it attracts little attention outside the House. There is a constitutional obligation on us to pass the legislation but, sadly, there is not a queue of speakers lining up outside the Chamber. If Deputies had known they could mention various projects in their constituencies, the debate might have seemed a different prospect. I was going to say I do not expect to use the entire 20 minutes allocated to me but, given the lack of speakers, which seems to have been a trend over the past three years, I might use most of the time. We will see how we proceed.

The Labour Party will support the Bill on the basis that it provides the resources and moneys that are required to run the public services on which we all depend. It is usually a fairly straightforward matter of business in the House. I note that the appropriation of sums voted for supply of services under section 1 of the Bill amounts to just over €73 billion, compared with a net amount voted by the Dáil last year of €69.7 billion. Gross expenditure this year will, of course, be well ahead of that €73 billion, coming in at just under €89 billion. Some of those moneys relate to the exceptional demands on services and the exceptional expenditures the House was asked to resource the Government to allocate arising from the impact of the pandemic. However, significant amounts are now in the base, especially in regard to the health services. These moneys are needed to fund better health services into the future. It took a pandemic for the scales to be knocked away from some people's eyes and the extent to which many of our public services were in trouble to be revealed for all to see.

Before the Covid crisis, we had the lowest levels of general government expenditure in the EU. We are playing catch-up with our peers in terms of investment in housing, health, education, skills development and so on. We need to ramp that expenditure up and, crucially, it needs to be targeted and managed properly. I am grateful to Deputy Clarke for mentioning the hospice projects, which she was right to do. There are two separate but related projects in terms of hospice-related interventions, one in Tullamore and the other in my home town of Drogheda. The latter is proceeding slowly and has received resources, which were announced last Friday by the Department of Health. I know that when the time is right, the local hospice organisations will be very much involved in the delivery and planning of those services. I work with those organisations all the time to support their important work.

An issue that certainly is relevant to this legislation is the latest set of Exchequer returns published last week, which show an underspend of €2.6 billion at this point in the year. Spending is 3.4% behind target, with €1.5 billion of the underspend, according to the figures, on the capital side, with the remainder relating to current spending. The worst offenders are the Department of Health, incorporating the HSE, and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. It takes some explaining as to why the expected outturn for the Department of Health at this stage in the year is €896 million below what was expected. Will the Minister explain why this is the case? Earlier this year, the HSE planned to recruit an additional 14,000 staff but the latest figures I have had sight of suggest the headcount has increased by only some 7,000. Members of the Government have said, rightly so, that they want to see the deployment of more vaccinators across the country to support the Covid-19 booster vaccination programme. That campaign has been sluggish, including in my area, and people, unfortunately, are paying the price for that. It needs to be upgraded and expedited. I am told by HSE personnel in my region and nationally that one of the reasons we do not have a Covid-19 vaccination centre or testing facility in Drogheda, which is the largest town in the country, is that there are difficulties in finding nurses and pharmacists to administer the vaccines and operate the centres. That needs attention. The HSE is way behind its expected expenditure in the middle of a pandemic and there are clearly issues with recruiting and retaining staff. Does that explain the significant underspend at this point in the year by the executive and the Department of Health?

On the capital side, the recent figures show an underspend of €415 million by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. That is extremely frustrating, not just for me as a public representative dealing with people who are on housing lists, want to buy their own home or are at risk of homelessness but, more importantly, it is even more frustrating for those who are waiting to be allocated public housing, waiting for an affordable house or waiting and saving responsibly for a deposit on a home that is beyond their reach. Will the Minister confirm what he expects the underspend in the Department to be for 2021 and how many public and affordable homes it expects to be built by year's end?

There is a real divergence between the latest figures and those predicted by what I call the crystal ball gazers in the Department of Finance. Once again, they got their forecasts incredibly wrong. I acknowledge that forecasting the performance of the economy in the context of the disruptive effect of Covid-19 has been particularly difficult, but they were €5.4 billion wide of the mark. It is a good problem to have. I am long enough in these Houses to remember a period when that was the type of problem a Minister for Finance and a government would like to have. I am not claiming it is not a good problem to have. Corporation tax is running well ahead of forecasts, VAT receipts are €1 billion ahead and income tax receipts are €1 billion more than forecast. These are signs of an economy that is working really well. They show that the performance is improving and there are more people back at work. Nevertheless, how could the Department of Finance get it so badly wrong? It is a job for the finance committee and the budgetary oversight committee, of which I am a member, to interrogate this issue in order to understand better the kind of modelling the Department is using. If it continues to get it so badly wrong, it will affect the ability of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, his officials and his colleagues in the Department of Finance to manage the public finances properly and in an informed fashion. It will make it incredibly difficult to plan on a multi-annual basis. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that.

7:00 pm

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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First, I wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the staff and everyone in Leinster House a happy and safe Christmas and new year. I may not have another opportunity to say that before the recess. I also want to convey my warm appreciation of all those working in the addiction sector over the past 12 months, many of whom will be working over the Christmas period trying to protect vulnerable people. The work they do every day, and have done throughout the Covid crisis, has saved countless lives. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I thank them for their efforts. However, for the 14th budget in a row, local and community groups, particularly task forces, have felt completely unheard.

Their calls for additional funding and resources have fallen on deaf ears once again. Two months after the budget we are still none the wiser on how the community budget allocations will even be distributed. The drug and alcohol task forces need to be fully consulted. It is even more disappointing that we still do not have the details of some of the measures that were announced in the budget. Family support networks are still waiting on details of funding that was promised to them. In recent weeks with the publication of the national drugs strategy mid-term review, we have seen a worrying move by the Department to weaken the voice of the community and voluntary sector at a national level.

I want to send a clear message to the Minister present, as well as to the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, and the Minister for Health that Sinn Féin will stand on the side of the community and voluntary addiction sector. We will not stand by and allow their powers to be stripped. Task forces and advocacy groups are the experts on the ground and policy needs to come from the people on the ground. A Sinn Féin government, as we proposed in budget 2020, would resource the community and addiction sector to give them back their autonomy. We would ensure that task forces could identify localised issues and tackle them before they got out of control and went into crisis.

We would work with the family support groups and give them back their national voice. We would recognise that those working on the ground are the experts. A Sinn Féin government would listen to experts on the ground. The budget failed to provide enough resources and funding for local and voluntary groups and for the task forces. It was a missed opportunity. I plead that these groups be recognised for the valuable work they have done and be resourced properly.

7:10 pm

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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The Social Democrats are not opposing this Bill which is the annual housekeeping Bill. This year and last year were very exceptional years, obviously. Because it was so exceptional, it is very hard to do any comparisons or to talk about controls to any great extent. Nonetheless, some of the figures warrant some commentary.

There are some stand-out areas, particularly health and social protection. Obviously, last year the country found itself in an extreme emergency and decisions needed to be taken very quickly. In the main, the decisions that were taken in the early months of the pandemic were correct. Substantial spending was needed in the health area. The Government needed to step in regarding creating a single-tier health service. It needed to step in to provide income support for many people who lost their jobs and to provide support for businesses. That was all the right thing to do and we had no choice at the time. However, it happened at some cost to the public purse. In the health area, for example, we had the issue with very expensive ventilators that were never used and nobody knows exactly where they are. There was also an issue about a large quantity of personal protective equipment, PPE, which was delivered but found to be substandard and could not be used.

The Comptroller and Auditor General produced a report on the ventilators. Is the Minister proposing any kind of formal look-back into decisions on some of that enormous spending? It was done to a certain extent in the UK. Some of the findings relating to people who got business out of it were very damaging to the government there. There was considerable internal lobbying and insider dealing, as it were, relating to some of those contracts. Hopefully, at some point in the new year things will settle down. It would be good practice to do a look-back and see what lessons can be learned from those decisions. It is not all about laying blame for mistakes that were made; we need to understand the exceptional circumstances at the time. We need to learn lessons from that to ensure proper procedures are followed and good controls are in place. I ask the Minister to consider that.

In looking at some of the figures in Schedule 1, other points that come to mind are, for example, the Courts Service where appropriations-in-aid amount to in excess of 25% of the figure for the supply grants. Why is that the case? Was there a major problem with the original Estimates? Why is that figure so high? The same comment would apply to the Probation Service where the appropriations-in-aid amount to in excess of 20%. Do these figures indicate particular problems in the Department of Justice? Is there an underestimation of the spending required? Why did that Department have substantial additional spending?

There is not a substantial additional spend in the Office of Government Procurement, which should ring some alarm bells. I drew attention to this in my comments on last year's Appropriation Bill. We all share a concern about weaknesses in our procurement system. That principally relates to the lack of strong expertise in that office even though a special office was set up for Government procurement. Where there have been particularly egregious overspends, there is a certain shrugging of shoulders with people saying that is the way it is and maybe we were not careful enough. The amounts of money involved in a weak procurement system have enormous repercussions for the public purse.

The stand-out ones are obviously the children's hospital and the broadband plan, for example. When it comes to public procurement, why can we not learn the lessons from the private sector, particularly in the case of the children's hospital? It has been known that the right way to do procurement is to have a very clear overall specification in the beginning before going to tender and to have all the detail nailed down. If the tender document is vague, inevitably there will be substantial changes as the project goes on and each change costs very dearly. We have not got that right in many areas of Government procurement.

It is often said that we have done better with public private partnerships, PPPs. While ostensibly we may have, the initial test of an estimate for the cost of a major public project is to benchmark against how it would be costed in a private sector model. When a PPP project gets the go-ahead, very often we need to subsequently increase the allocation. For example, substantial additional subvention had to be made to a company operating a motorway because an error was made in calculating the level of traffic and therefore the receipts from tolls.

There is huge room for improvement in public procurement. I would have liked to have seen that office beefed up a lot more. When things settle down, maybe the Minister will pay more attention to that area so that there are much tighter controls of spending on major capital projects.

The OPW is being allocated €13 million in appropriations-in-aid. Under that heading, I wish to raise the chestnut I have been pursuing for the past few years, which is the error the OPW made in the rent payable for the Miesian Plaza, the headquarters for the Departments of Health and of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. The OPW admitted it made a mistake in measuring the floor area of that facility to the extent that there is an underpayment of rent to the tune of approximately €10 million over the course of the lease. I have been asking about this issue for the past couple of years and there does not seem to have been any progress on it. We are spending approximately €344,000 extra per annum. That is an awful lot of money and there is a need to progress this matter. I raise this issue every six months or so and I am told that the Department hopes to meet the landlord to discuss it and negotiate, but no progress has been made. While the Minister of State has answered for this in the past, there does not seem to have been much progress. Resolving that should be a priority, as should ensuring the public purse is not taken to the cleaners to the extent that it would be if something is not done about drawing back that additional €10 million.

Under the heading of deferred surrender relating to capital services, there are a few standout issues. Obviously, the impact of Covid on construction and so on must be borne on mind, but almost €58 million is to be deferred by the office of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. In the context of addressing the issue of climate change and the need for substantial spending on the area of retrofitting, that is a significant deferral of capital. The Department of Transport is deferring €161 million when there is demand for additional capacity in the area of transport. While there may have been some reason for delays in major construction works, there is a need for substantial numbers of additional buses. I am concerned about the amount being handed back and deferred to the coming year's budget.

On the approach to spending, we need to learn lessons from what happened in recent years when the weaknesses in our public services were very much exposed, particularly last year but also this year. In health service, there was substantial undercapacity in a general sense with regard to beds, staff, and high-dependency and ICU beds. That resulted in the need for a substantial additional spend due to bringing in private hospitals. In the area of housing, there were issues with high rents and homelessness, and a substantial additional sum was spent on those kinds of emergency services. This again exposed the fact that our services were inadequate in the first place. The State had to step in in childcare. There were so many areas where the State had to step in, which was an indication that the State's role had not been adequate in the provision of key public services. Lessons must be learned from that. There must be an approach that is about investing in key, high-quality public services that impact people's lives.

It is disappointing to hear the Minister for Finance making promises of tax cuts in the coming years. This, coincidentally, followed on from poor poll results for the two main Government parties. People are not fooled by promises of tax cuts. Several polls have shown that people do not want to be bribed. They want high-quality public services they can depend on and a strong social contract whereby they pay taxes according to their means and, in return, they get decent good-quality universal public services. That is the formula by which successful societies and economies operate. We need to learn those lessons. The other point of doing this is that not only does it ensure better quality of life for people and access to public services that are free at the point of use, but it also means wage demands are dampened. Due to housing being in crisis for many years, the cost of housing, be it buying or renting, is a major driver in wage demands as is, to a lesser extent, the cost of access to health services. Many people feel they have to fork out for expensive private health insurance. There are significant out-of-pocket expenses for seeing a GP or a consultant and diagnostic tests irrespective of whether they have insurance. This is a big contributor to a high-cost of living and fuels wage demands, as is the high cost of childcare, though I recognise the start and progress made in next year's budget. However, they are all the lessons we should learn from.

Going forward, spending should be guided by the principle of spending to save. In housing, there are many areas where that principle should be followed. The Government should spend money on social housing to save itself from the crazy expensive long-term leases that it enters into and to save itself from the high cost of the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme. The long-term leases are absolutely the worst such as the 25-year leases whereby the State pays the equivalent of a high mortgage for an apartment and after 25 years it has to refurbish it and hand it back. That makes no financial sense whatsoever. The approach has to be spend to save. The Government should invest in co-operative housing and social housing. The cost of housing can be driven down where the State owns public land, and there is plenty of public land for that purpose. That approach must be taken thereby not leaving it all to the market.

On health, investment in Sláintecare is about investing to save. It is about a lower cost model of care in which most healthcare is provided locally at community level, where it is most effective and the most cost-effective, and local services such as local primary care centres and so on are invested in. The heat is taken out of the cost of healthcare. Healthcare is provided at the least complex level locally in communities, thereby reducing the pressure on the expensive hospital sector.

They need to be accepted as guiding principles. There are lessons to be learned from the past two difficult years. Hopefully, next year will not be as hard, although it is an unknown quality at this stage. We have to learn lessons from the experience of the past two years.

7:30 pm

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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This is a very important Bill. It allows for the four-fifths rule, thereby allowing Departments to spend money next year. This rule means that Departments can spend up to four fifths of the previous year's voted expenditure before a vote must take place on the spending of extra money. If this Bill was not passed, there would have to be votes in January to allow Departments to spend. Since the Finance Act 2004, these Bills have also allowed for the capital carryover. Departments can carry 10% of their allocations over to the following year. The purpose of the Appropriation Bill is to give statutory authority for expenditure by the various Departments of the amounts voted for by the Dáil during the year.

Under Schedule 1 of the Bill, there are 45 headings under which spending will be approved. I would like to focus on Vote 38, which relates to spending by the Department of Health. Almost €22 billion is being spent on a health service that is still not fit for purpose. Ireland spends one fifth more per capitaon our health service than the EU average and we are not getting value for money. Sláintecare is in limbo. The boat is going to crash and everyone is jumping overboard instead of trying to steady it. It needs urgent intervention to get it back on course. The Minister knows this. So do I and so does everyone else.

We need root-and-branch reform of our health service. We need to use the expertise we have to develop a world-class system that is based on medical need rather than on ability to pay and that is free at the point of delivery so that we can end the scandals of elderly patients waiting on trolleys and long waiting lists for those who cannot afford health insurance. Many people cannot. They are then caught. If they do not have a medical card or insurance, they fall into limbo. Sinn Féin in government will build an all-Ireland health service we can be proud of. I ask the Minister to look at this matter.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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There is a lot to discuss when talking about €88 billion in expenditure in a year but I will first raise things that I consider urgent for people who have endured a particularly difficult time, or who are likely to as we face into Christmas. Obviously, a considerable amount of the additional money spent on Covid income supports relates to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and all of that. I was trying to get this point across to the Taoiseach and I will now try to get it across to the Minister for the sake of the thousands of mostly self-employed people who are musicians, entertainers, performers and taxi drivers and those who are normally employees in the night-time hospitality sector. I really want to get this message across to the Minister in the hope that he will pass it on in the coming days because whether the Government acts will determine whether people who have had a very hard time over the last two years are going to have a miserable Christmas, or no Christmas, or whether they are going to get a bit of support from the Government.

As we speak, people in those categories, including musicians, entertainers and performers, who are applying for the PUP are receiving letters telling them they will not get it. They are told they are not eligible and will not get the payment. Others are being told they must come in for an interview to determine whether they are entitled to it. Over recent days, I have been inundated with messages from people explaining this to me. Surely it is self-evident and absolutely blindingly obvious to the Department of Social Protection that, given the public health measures, musicians, entertainers and performers have nothing to prove. There will be no work for them for the next four or five weeks at a time when they would have expected to make most of their money for the year. Why on earth are we making these people jump through hoops? Why are they being asked stupid questions such as whether they had four weekly PRSI contributions in the week before the measures came in? Even if they had been working, they would not have these contributions because they pay their PRSI at the end of the year. This is stupid stuff.

People are being refused and are being made to jump through hoops. They face significant anxiety and worry in the run-in to Christmas. These are the people who have been hit repeatedly. Everybody has been affected by this pandemic but who are the people who were worst hit? It was these people. It is self-evident that those who are dependent on the night-time economy, tourism and people going out and about and socialising have been hit repeatedly and are now being hit again. They have been hit the worst and the longest. Frankly, the Department of Social Protection is just making work for itself, work which the people in the Department could probably do without, by making people jump through these hoops a week before Christmas. I appeal to the Minister to pass this upstairs.

The Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland, MEAI, which represents musicians and entertainers and which also works with a cross-party committee on which every party is represented, wrote to Deputy Catherine Martin on 22 November to appeal for a meeting to discuss all of these issues. All of these issues have become even more problematic as we run into Christmas but there has still been no meeting. While some of the supports it is giving out are simple enough because they are being given to standing employers in the funded area of the arts sector or to venues that have set employees, the Government must get it into its head that the vast majority of musicians, entertainers and performers in this country are self-employed individuals. These people's work is gone. They do not have a standing relationship to a particular employer. We should do what was done at the outset with PUP. The default position should be that anybody, particularly people in those categories, who applies for PUP should be given it unless there is a very good reason for imagining a person is not entitled to it. How could they not be entitled to it? Seriously, it is ridiculous.

Another anomaly is that those who were on the scheme under which you could earn up to €960 while still remaining eligible for the PUP are now not able to get the full level of PUP that people who were not on that scheme get. If you were not on that scheme, after 7 December you could apply and get the €350. However, for those who were on the scheme and trying to do a bit of work - it must be remembered there was a bit of work before all of the public health measures hit - possibly to earn a bit on top of the payment, that work has now collapsed. It is not fair to discriminate against that cohort because things have changed. Musicians, entertainers and performers should be entitled to the full level of PUP.

There is another group of people who are continuing to try to work. Some taxi drivers do not want to go out and work because they are, for example, sick, old or vulnerable. I was talking to a woman today whose husband had got Covid. He will not be going out to work in the current climate because of Omicron and so on. There are others who are going out to get a bit of work but there is very little work out there for them. Those people should be able to earn up to that €960 and get PUP. The Department needs to use a bit of commonsense on not holding back on giving people support, whether to people whose work has completely collapsed because of the impact of public health measures and what the public is doing to respond positively to the Government's public health advice, or whether they are people whose work has reduced significantly.

In case it needs to be explained to people, while you might walk out onto the street at the moment and see people milling around town and a few taxis picking people up, the Government has advised office workers not to go to work. This means that tens of thousands of office workers who would normally be in town and using taxis are not doing so. There are far fewer people going through Dublin Airport. The night-time economy has disappeared or been reduced very significantly. People should not be under the illusion that there is somehow loads of work out there for taxi drivers because there is not. There is some work but the level has reduced very substantially. For some, it is not worth it and others who are older or vulnerable are not willing to risk it. The Government should give them support and stop getting the Department of Social Protection to hold out on them.

It is completely unfair so close to Christmas.

Some other groups need to be considered urgently as well. I do not know when the household benefits package was last increased. Elderly people, aged over 70, on this package need heating as we face winter. They are not entitled to the fuel allowance, but they have seen no increase in the household benefits package for several years. Those people need such an increase to help them with their bills in the months to come and, therefore, I ask the Government to please address this matter urgently.

Turning to student nurses and midwives, it is bad enough that it is more than a year since People Before Profit tabled a motion asking for them to be paid when they are on placement and working on the front line. The Government refused, and is still refusing, to pay them for their work on placement, which is deplorable. It is also so short-sighted when we are wondering why we cannot increase the capacity of our ICUs to the level recommended some ten years ago. The answer we are given is that it is not possible to get the staff and that it takes time to train them. It is difficult to train staff because 70% to 80% of student nurses leave this country after they qualify as a result of being treated so badly as student nurses and midwives. We will not, however, pay them while they are on placement to encourage them to stay. If that is not bad enough, the miserable €100 promised to student nurses and midwives was not paid. The miserable concession by the Government was not paid to many student nurses and midwives. For example, we have a major shortage of neurological nurse specialists. The Neurological Alliance of Ireland has been campaigning for an extra 100 posts in this area for some time. Having these neurological nurse specialists available would significantly impact the dire outpatient waiting lists. St. Vincent’s University Hospital should have 22 of these nurses, but only has four. This is where the Government should allocate money.

We must also remember that we do not put the required investment into many areas of our health service nor do we facilitate the decent pay and conditions for the staff we desperately need to build up the required capacity in our health service. We end up paying more in this regard in the long term because we must outsource our needs to the private sector, which then makes money out of that. We pay for this, so we must invest now in the public system in those areas where we need new posts. The area I gave a shout out to is just one in need of extra posts, but the same is true in many areas across the health service.

I have mentioned the need for psychologists on many occasions. It is difficult for people to qualify for doctorates in psychology at a time we have lengthy waiting lists in this area. We need trained psychologists to address them. We are charging students in this area exceptionally large fees. As a result, it is extraordinarily difficult for people to qualify in this area. It is particularly the case for people from working-class and less well-off backgrounds who cannot afford the fees and to sustain themselves during their postgraduate degrees. The result is a shortage of the psychologists who are needed in many spheres of our health service and education system to address the waiting lists. Yet, the Government does not put the required investment in.

Turning to local government, people should know certain things about this area. The average proportion of national income spent by European local authorities is 28%. In Ireland, it is 8%. The money given to local authorities here to provide local services is a fraction of the funding in the rest of Europe. In addition, let us remind ourselves of the big lie about the local property tax. It is a regressive form of funding of local government that we were told at the time would significantly increase the resources available for local authorities to improve local services. Did any of that happen? Absolutely not. Not a cent has been seen. In fact, things are getting worse at local government level.

For example, in my area a fantastic literature festival that was organised by the local authority every year, the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival, has been cancelled next year because of a lack of money. There is also no new money for books for the public libraries. Less money is being provided for housing maintenance, despite extensive problems in that regard in the social housing stock. In addition, no new trees have been planted and the pruning service has been reduced, and the money available for street cleaning and local repairs to roads has also decreased. These are just a few of the examples of the situation in our area. People, therefore, end up paying a more regressive form of taxation than they would in the context of central government taxation, which is based on a more progressive income-related tax. Does the LPT produce more money for the local authorities and extra services? Not at all, and things are actually getting worse in that regard.

Another urgent issue concerns Accessible Community Transport Southside, ACTS, Limited in my area. It provides door-to-door transport services for people in wheelchairs or those who have significant and severe mobility issues. It is a fantastic service. Essentially, it is run by a voluntary group of people with disabilities or who are advocates for people with disabilities. By the way, the service is modelled on what the government of Canada does in providing door-to-door transport for people with significant mobility problems, such as those who are older or who have dementia, for instance, because the public transport system will not work for them. This service in my area provides for approximately 6,000 people with such mobility issues. This service is now facing a massive funding crisis because it essentially self-generates its revenue. Some government money is provided, but the group generates some of its own revenue by charging a small fare to the people using the services. The service should not have to do that. People with disabilities and who are in wheelchairs get free travel on public transport, and they should also be facilitated with free travel when using a service such as this. The users of this service do not get that free travel, but they are not even complaining about this aspect. The voluntary group is just saying that it does not now have that revenue stream and, as a result, its service is going to close for the lack, in the immediate term, of €50,000. There is also a need to replace the service's fleet of buses, but the group does not have the money to do that either.

Relatively small amounts are involved here and I have been asking about this issue because it would be a disaster if this service were to cease. We are talking about a group of volunteers delivering a service which, frankly, this State should provide. The sums lacking to maintain this service are really buttons. For want of those funds, this service, which provides transport for these vulnerable people with disabilities and which is organised by their supporters and advocates, who are doing the State's job for it, could be gone unless the State intervenes and allocates a relatively small amount. Again, I appeal to the Minister regarding this issue.

Moving on to inflation and pay, generally, a sort of ideological left-right debate goes on in academic economic circles that suggests the reason we have inflation is workers were always asking for pay rises. Have we not had in recent years in this country, however, confirmation beyond question that this was a load of nonsense? I say that because workers have been held back and received only small pay increases. Indeed, they suffered pay cuts after the economic collapse in 2008, which was not their fault. Those small pay increases amounted to approximately 1%, or whatever, and yet inflation is now galloping past that rate. Inflation has now reached in excess of 5% and that does not even adequately consider the impact of the rising costs of accommodation. As we all know, those are off the Richter scale and are contributing to a major crisis for working people who simply cannot afford rents and the cost of housing, which have gone through the roof. In addition, we now have price hikes in the cost of energy. None of that is a result of workers asking for increased pay.

Are they not now justified in actually demanding that pay? I would say they are. In effect, workers are suffering pay cuts now. If inflation is running at over 5% but people are held back to a 1% pay increase, with the cost of living going through the roof they are in effect seeing their pay cut.

Let us remember that this is all happening while corporate profits have gone through the roof in this country over the same period. Certain people in Irish society have done very well when we look at the Central Bank's household wealth figures. Those are absolutely through the roof as well. It is clearly not trickling down to the vast majority of workers. Somebody is getting very rich in this country and has done over the past ten years. Profits are up and the household wealth of the richest in our country has gone up. Yet the Government will not try to find the funds we need for the sort of things I have mentioned here by imposing a little bit of extra tax on those people to fund the expenditure to ensure workers' pay at least keeps pace with inflation and to ensure we can attract the qualified staff we need in areas like health, education and a whole number of sectors where there is a big shortage of skilled people.

There are not shortages because people are on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. I have heard this narrative coming out of the Government over the past while, that they are all living it up on the PUP. That is nonsense. We should give the PUP to the people who are unemployed as a result of public health measures, but if we want to address the shortage of labour in a whole number of areas such as health, education, construction and so on, we should pay people properly and bring down the cost of living and accommodation by investing in those things instead of lining the pockets of people who are profiting out of the shortages in housing and healthcare capacity.

7:50 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Boyd Barrett is bringing down the curtain. I call Deputy Ward.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I did not think I was going to get in today. Deputy Boyd Barrett has covered everything on the spectrum, fair play to him. I would like to have a debate on one of the funding streams announced in budget 2022 in October, which was €10 million in one-off funding model for mental health. This was a once-off initiative which had to be realised by the end of 2021, meaning it was a three-month period to spend €10 million.

I have been putting pressure on the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Deputy Butler, to announce when this money will be spent and what on. Time-bound once-off funding can lead to panic spending with resources not necessarily going where they are needed. This is exactly what is after happening. On Monday, the Minister of State announced that €1.8 million of the €10 million for mental health will be spent on a fleet of green or hybrid vehicles for the HSE. Tackling the climate emergency is extremely important but so too is tackling the mental health emergency. Funds for green initiatives should come from operational budgets and not from mental health budgets. Funding for climate actions should not be at the deficit of other portfolios. The Minister needs to explain how this will improve the experience of people who are trying to access mental health supports from the HSE. Almost one fifth of this €10 million was used to buy a fleet of vehicles. I want to know the purpose of this fleet. How will it improve the outcomes of people suffering with mental health issues?

I will put this in a little bit of context. Yesterday during Questions on Promised Legislation the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, spoke about funding for eating disorders. She said she reinstated €3.9 million for eating disorders. In layman's terms reinstating means putting back money that was not spent for the past four years. It is not new money. There are only three adult eating disorder beds in the State. The new eating disorder facility in Mount Carmel that was meant to be open by the end of this year is now delayed and will not open until June 2022 at the earliest. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler went on to say she has provided €1.5 million to put in place three eating disorder teams next year. While this is welcome, I want to put it into the context of the €1.8 million spent on cars for the HSE. This money could have been spent a lot better. There is a complete lack of eating disorder services across the State, both inpatient and vital aftercare services. Eating disorder patients in my area are currently being admitted to generic psychiatric wards. They are there until their body mass index increases to a safe level. They are then released back into the community without specialist care and they end up back in the generic psychiatric ward again. It is a vicious circle. This was meant to be one-off funding for mental health. I ask the Minster to put the brakes on these cars if he can and make sure the money goes where it was originally intended for.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I hope they have brakes on them if they are new.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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Looking at the figures contained in the Appropriation Bill 2021 in isolation, it really does tell us what areas are prioritised in public spending. The biggest areas of spending are education at almost €12 billion, social protection at almost €18 billion and health at almost €22 billion. Fourth on the list is housing, which is being allocated just over €5 billion. The overall amount of money we are being asked to approve here is just €73 billion.

I understand the current challenges to public spending which have presented themselves over the past 21 months or so and I understand our public spending had to be increased for a variety of reasons. I am making more of an observation here than a major criticism. However, it is very hard to deny that our public spending is like a runaway train. The level of public spending we currently have is unsustainable and almost out of control. The key question is what we have to show for it.

The big capital investment projects in recent years have been shambolic. The children's hospital, when it is eventually completed, is on course to be twice or three times as expensive per bed as the next most expensive hospital ever built in the history of mankind. How many people have been held to account for this failure or removed from their positions? If a private company were to propose a project costing €650 million to be completed in 2022 that actually cost €2 billion and counting and was completed two to three years later, heads would roll. We have contractors with the Minister's own admission trying to screw the taxpayer with overinflated prices and extra bills. The Minister, Deputy McGrath, said himself a few weeks ago before the Oireachtas finance committee that the vast majority of contractors' claims had been deemed overinflated by the development board overseeing the project and that, where we believe as a State they are unwarranted and unjustified, then we are defending the State's position but this will take some time to work its way through the system and, might I add, a lot of money.

I see a problem here. It is related to points Deputy Fitzmaurice mentioned in his speech on the sea fisheries report last week. The tendering process we use and the criteria which need to be met for a business to be eligible to tender for projects is skewed in favour of the big monopolies. Certain contractors responsible for the likes of roads, hospitals and other big infrastructure projects seem to know how to work the system. They know there are only a small number of operators with turnover large enough to qualify to do the job. They then put in a low enough bid to get the job. Once the point of no return is passed, they look for more money. Our system seems to be open to this problem occurring. I welcome the fact the Minister, Deputy McGrath has, acknowledged the problem, but the key thing is what will be done to prevent it.

That brings me on to the next area where the issue seems to be causing problems, the national broadband plan. It is a mess. I welcome the decision of the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, to review the plan. A review is badly needed. The taxpayer is certainly not getting value for money. The initial target was to have 115,000 homes and businesses able to connect by the end of January. It looks as though we will be lucky to reach even a quarter of that. How many people have been held to account for this failure? This plan has been so badly implemented that a termination of the contract on the grounds of non-performance should be an option on the table. Either way, at the rate the programme is being rolled out there is fear it will be obsolete by the time it is completed. We do not want an expensive white elephant nor can we afford it. We see MetroLink and DART+, both proposed initially about 15 years ago and likely not to be completed for another ten to 15 years. Put simply, if Ireland was looked at from a business case perspective, the outlook would not be too promising. The performance evaluation on major projects would not make for good reading.

While I was gathering my thoughts on this subject, I decided to have a look at previous Appropriation Bills to compare the level of spending for the past five years.

The amounts for health in the previous Appropriation Bills were as follows: 2016, €13.6 billion; 2017, €14.3 billion; 2018, €15.5 billion; 2019, €17 billion; 2020, €20.4 billion; and 2021, €21.7 billion. At the rate of increase from 2016 to 2019, it looks as though health expenditure would have been very close to €20 billion this year without Covid. An increase from €13.6 million to €20 billion in the space of five years is astronomical. What do we have to show for it? In the health service, we have longer waiting lists and a crisis in the GP sector. Dentists are no longer taking new medical card holders. This is not because the health service is underfunded. It is more than adequately funded. It is a question of whether the funding is being used to achieve the best outcomes.

The front of today's Wexford Peoplenewspaper in County Wexford states, "ICU bed shortage issue is laid bare". Not one extra bed has been allocated in Wexford General Hospital since Covid began despite all the talk, but €85 million was spent by the HSE on ventilators, most of which never arrived. Of the 465 ventilators that did arrive, we gifted 365 to India because they could not be used here. We store the remaining 100 because no one has been trained to use them in our system. That is what I am told by medics. Who is being held accountable for this? Has it been adequately addressed? How much of the €85 million was recouped beyond credit notes?

I remind the Government that funding 5 million extra home support hours when we have no carers to deliver the care is spin. This money must be redirected to address the problem that results in our inability to recruit carers, namely, poor terms and conditions and the poor pay on offer to them. There is no use in increasing health expenditure every year if it means we only increase the amount of waste we see.

It jumped out at me when examining figures for previous years that expenditure in the Department of the Taoiseach has increased markedly. In 2016, the expenditure was €29 million, while this year's Appropriation Bill has a figure of over €50 million. This is a 72% increase in expenditure over five years.

The other remarkable comparison is with the budget of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. In 2016 the allocation was €1.3 billion, and in 2021 the allocation is €5.2 billion, representing a 300% increase in the housing budget. We need to see this increased investment bearing fruit for the many thousands of people who are simply unable to afford a home. The deposit requirements, lending rules and lack of supply are all conspiring to keep people out of the housing market until they are well into their 30s and 40s. I am sure most of us in the House could estimate how many families in our local communities moved into their forever home in their early 20s by comparison with previous generations. It is simply unattainable for the vast majority in the current housing climate.

The solution to our housing crisis is building housing of all types, but it is also about ensuring the small building contractor can build a house without onerous regulations or costs imposed by the Government. We do not need the big monopoly or big government to do it all; the small builder should have a major role to play. There is a major need to make it easier to build houses rather than put up barriers at every opportunity. In the UK a new build is VAT free.

It is a matter of ensuring people can see a future in living and rearing a family in rural Ireland. Over the past decade or so, there has been a trend in officialdom to want everyone to live in a suburb or town dwelling. As an Independent Deputy from rural Ireland, I will push back against the trend and extol the virtues and benefits of rural Ireland. This can be achieved by addressing the way in which housing and planning policy are designed. At the most basic level, our planning policy needs a serious review. I hope the funding increase will go towards the continuing professional development of the directors of services of planning and planning officials in our county councils so they can be educated as to what is law and what are guidelines and be given the wisdom to know the difference, thereby preventing a slew of unnecessary court cases in the future.

We need to acknowledge the massive financial cost the Government has imposed on the people via the climate action plan, which is estimated to cost €20 billion per year, roughly the same as what we spend on the entire health service. I voted against the placing of this financial millstone around the necks of the people, and I will continue to campaign for sensible, feasible and affordable climate protection measures.

8:00 pm

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for remaining in the House to listen to the debate on the Appropriation Bill. He has highlighted that the purpose of the Bill is to give statutory authority to the amounts voted by the Dáil during the year and provide for the definitive capital carry-over from 2021 to 2022. In aggregate, the Estimates amount to €73.1 billion. The comparable amount in the Appropriation Act 2020 was €69.7 billion. Therefore, we must appropriate this year €3.4 billion, or just under 5% of last year's net voted expenditure. As the Minister has outlined, this represents a substantial support to households, businesses and public services. Indeed, it continues to support many of these sectors.

The Minister has also outlined the exceptional and much-needed funding that has been provided in business supports to our key sector — the SME sector — and public services. I thank the Minister for the extension of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, supports, which are critical as restrictions continue.

The second purpose of the Bill is to provide funding, on a legal basis, for expenditure into 2022 prior to voting on the 2022 Estimates. This money is needed, in effect, to keep the lights on in Ireland and our public services financed, including in respect of the regulated payments of social protection.

In the Minister's speech he mentioned the revised national development plan, which sets out capital allocations for the next decade amounting to €165 billion. He also mentioned that this funding is predicted to generate, in the construction sector alone, more than 80,000 direct and indirect jobs, which would be most welcome. I am not sure whether the Minister was in the House earlier today to hear a speaker predict in excess of 40,000 job losses in the SME sector in the coming year due to indebtedness and falling business margins. I am not aligning myself with those comments but contend there is significant pressure on the SME sector in Ireland at present, as the Minister knows. We have spoken in the House many times about many of the problems that arise, but the Minister will have to consider extending some supports to key business sectors that are affected.

Referring to the shiny stars listed within the national development plan, the Minister mentioned the upgrade of the M4 to Sligo, the runway project for Dublin Airport and the completion, on time and on budget, of the Cork runway. These are significant investments in aviation and transport. Could I highlight to the Minister the withdrawal of €350,000 in annual support for Waterford Airport pending planning approval for a runway extension? This airport is excluded from a recent aviation package of €126 million to support regional airports. It is hard to understand this thinking, particularly in light of the carry-over in the budget. Waterford airport is the home of Rescue 117. That airport and the activity in the region around it are needed to support that service.

There is no mention in the national development plan of the N25 or N24 road upgrades. They are not prioritised in the plan. The Dunkettle interchange is included, for sure, along with the proposed motorway development linking Cork and Limerick. There is nothing announced beyond an analysis of linking the south-east and mid-west transport corridors, which could do so much to activate economic activity across southern Ireland.

The Minister mentioned the carrying over of €800 million into next year. The campus of Waterford Institute of Technology has not seen a new building or capital investment in teaching space in more than 14 years.

The present commitment to build a new engineering building under a public private partnership, PPP, arrangement looks unlikely to proceed until probably 2023 or 2024 at the earliest.

I have raised in the House a number of times the issue of how capital is appropriated and directed in this country. I am cognisant that no capital budget has been announced for the proposed new technological university of the south east. It is the only third level sector driver in the south east and we are still waiting to hear of the breadth of Government ambition more than a year after the amalgamation process has begun.

I am also aware that a business case to fund 24 whole-time equivalents for the cardiology suite at University Hospital Waterford remains dormant and still has not been acted on, despite the Government's significant promises. I remind the Minister that University Hospital Waterford is one of nine model 4 hospitals in the country and has the lowest number of staff per bed in the country, over 700 fewer than its nearest peer, yet is about the third busiest hospital in the country.

The Government has not yet decided or indicated how it will support future wind development either. In recent days the Regional Group brought before the Dáil a maritime energy Bill, which the Government kindly accepted. In that debate, however, there was nothing to suggest when the Government will make a decision about funding of ports to enhance offshore opportunity, particularly at Rosslare Europort and the Port of Waterford, which lie on the east cost, where the next ten years of activity will happen. I question the ability of the system to treat regions equally and to try to develop individual regions on an equal and sustainable basis. The south east is in the programme for Government. Waterford is at the heart of driving the south-east region, yet we are still waiting for the capital commitments to show us that that endeavour is clear and accurate within the programme.

How will we challenge the climate crisis? We have certainly brought in and enhanced spending and initiated taxation, but where is the planning for sustainable and renewable energy? What we spend is important; how we spend it is even more important.

In the programme for Government the Government has highlighted that the housebuilding programme is a cornerstone of Government policy, yet I think the Minister is aware - if he is not, I am sure many of his Department officials are - of the increasing obstacles to construction in this country. I spoke recently to a large developer in Waterford who has stopped building houses for the coming year or 18 months simply because he cannot make any money out of it. We have to look at our regulation and taxes; otherwise, the housebuilding programme the Government envisages will not happen.

8:10 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I have to interrupt you there, Deputy Shanahan. I am sorry. Will you propose the adjournment of the debate? When we resume it, you will have the floor.

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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I will. I would welcome better procurement and better policy and I would love to see better oversight of appropriation.

Debate adjourned.