Dáil debates

Wednesday, 29 November 2023

Capital Supply Service and Purpose Report Bill 2023: Second Stage (Resumed) [Private Members]


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

10:10 am

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I sincerely thank the Deputies for tabling what is a constructive Bill.

This is not something they are moving for effect. The legislation actually contains some good proposals. I am happy to discuss the Bill; it is worthy of debate.

To Deputy Shanahan, I must say that I love County Waterford. This is partly because it was the location of my childhood holidays in Dunmore East. When I go down there, I can see that Waterford city is flourishing with capital investment. I go down to the North Quays project and I see the construction under way there. Walking into the city, the public realm projects are incredible. I refer to the Waterford Walls project, the beautiful streets and the medieval buildings that we can only dream of having in Dublin city. It is fantastic.

My Department has had the pleasure of contributing €5 million to the quantum research endeavours under way in the South East Technological University, SETU. I do not know if the Deputy is aware that Waterford is at the forefront of quantum research. Some €5 million in funding for this project came from the EU and another €5 million from the Government. These moneys are being used to run the quantum research project at the university, which relates to the future of cryptography. I am delighted to see this happening. I am happy that the much-longed-for second cath lab is in place in the hospital in Waterford as well, and the Government is also looking forward to receiving an application for an airport in Waterford. Overall, then, all kinds of things are happening in County Waterford. I am looking forward to seeing a greenway running down to Tramore, adding to the existing greenways.

This is a shining example of what happens when we have good capital investment. Some €12 billion went into capital investment this year, and there will be more next year. We have one of the highest proportions of capital investment in the EU for the size of our economy. We need this level of capital investment for our climate action endeavours to enable us to deliver new forms of energy, new ways of heating our homes and new forms of transport. These are immense transformational changes that require enormous amounts of capital. This capital investment will replace the money we spent on fossil fuels in the past. We spend €1 million every hour on imported fossil fuels. As we move away from using these fossil fuels, we are replacing this spending with extensive, upfront capital investment. In the case of an offshore wind farm, for example, we do not pay for any fuel, but it is necessary to spend a lot of money, typically €2 billion for one wind farm, and we are looking at building 35 of them here over the next 17 years.

The Government notes the publication of this Capital Supply Service and Purpose Report Bill 2023 by Deputy Shanahan during Private Members' business on behalf of the Regional Group. The Bill provides for the requirement for each Minister:

...with responsibility for a Department of State, to periodically prepare a capital supply service and purpose report to provide certain information on the assets that were allocated money from the vote for such Department in a relevant financial year and to provide for related matters.

As the House may be aware, substantial information is already available which reflects the purposes behind this proposed legislation. Additionally, enhancements are due to come into effect in 2024 and these will improve the reporting of capital spending in the appropriation accounts. In the annual appropriation accounts of Departments, details of all major capital projects and public-private partnership projects, where the project value exceeds €10 million, are separately disclosed. Where the reported commitment level or projected project cost has varied by more than €500,000 compared with the previous year, the reason for the movement must also be explained.

Currently, there is extensive reporting of capital projects in the financial statements of Departments and offices, as well as in the annual reports and financial statements of bodies under their aegis. All Departments and offices, as well as nearly all bodies under their aegis, report their capital assets, property, plant and equipment, as well as intangible assets, in the context of the statement of financial position balance sheet, along with extensive disclosure notes. Bodies under the aegis in this regard and local authorities report under the accounting framework FRS 102. From 2024, Departments will be reporting using central government accounting standards based on international public sector accounting standards.

The Government is also committed to detailing progress on the delivery of the national development plan, NDP, at regular intervals to allow for full transparency concerning the implementation of Project Ireland 2040. This is achieved through regular updates of the Project Ireland 2040 capital investment tracker and the myProjectIreland interactive map viewer, as well as through the publication of annual reports and regional reports highlighting Project Ireland 2040 achievements and giving a detailed overview of the public investment being made throughout the country.

The capital investment tracker and the interactive map viewer are key tools in overseeing the progress of Project Ireland 2040. Their purpose is to facilitate the communication, monitoring and planning of investments to inform citizens of the variety of projects currently in the planning and construction phase in their local regions and throughout the country. They provide an aid to industry by giving a greater overview to the construction and infrastructure sectors of the Government's investment commitments and further opportunities for these sectors.

The latest editions of the Project Ireland 2040 capital investment tracker and the interactive map viewer were published on the gov.ie/2040website in February 2023. The tracker lists 320 large-scale projects and 140 programmes being implemented by various Departments and bodies, while the myProjectIreland interactive map viewer details 1,240 individual projects. The investment tracker and the map viewer databases contain project updates, detailing a considerable amount of information. For example, if we were to look at the capital investment tracker, it would be possible to see a brief outline of each project; the Department or body responsible for delivering it; its location and region; the type of investment that links it to specific sectors; its alignment with the national planning framework's ten national strategic outcomes; its current status; its construction commencement date; its completion, or anticipated completion, date; its current stage in its life-cycle, as per the public spending code; and information on its cost range.

In September 2023, the Minister for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform published the Prospects 2023/2024 report, which highlighted 50 of the largest individual projects making up Project Ireland 2040. This report provides further visibility on the sequencing of Ireland's priority infrastructure projects over the coming years, thereby facilitating firms to plan commercial bids for these major infrastructural projects.

In 2022, we saw clear progress being made in the delivery of major capital projects. The Minister published the Project Ireland 2040 annual report for 2022 in October. This report highlights the delivery of publicly funded capital projects throughout the country last year. Accompanying the 2022 annual report were three regional reports. Each of these regional reports provides a detailed synopsis of the public investments made in the regional assembly areas, namely, the Eastern and Midlands, the Northern and Western and the Southern. The publication highlights the delivery in 2022 of 7,433 social housing new builds, 180 completed school building projects and 16 new primary care centres and the National Forensic Mental Health Hospital, in Portrane, becoming operational.

I am responsible for the largest capital project happening in the State now, namely, the national broadband plan. The updates on this project are published every two weeks on nbi.ie. It is possible to see how many houses have been surveyed, how many have been connected, etc. We are at a point now where more than one-third of all homes, farms and businesses in the non-commercial area of rural Ireland now have access to high-speed fibre broadband to the door of their premises. In the course of next year, the 50% mark will be passed. By the end of 2026, which is the project deadline, 100% of all homes, farms and businesses in rural Ireland will have fibre-optic broadband running into their own premises. This will help with regional development.

It will mean that when people are living in a location outside the capital city or away from any city, it will be possible for them to work from home, bring jobs back to their home villages, study from home and get government services online. It is incredibly valuable to have high-speed, low-latency Internet available to people remote from urban centres. This is part of balanced regional development, but it is not everything. There are times when transport is necessary. It must be borne in mind, however, that 50% of the workforce is now doing some working from home. This is facilitating a large proportion of the population not to have to commute long distances, which I know brings misery.

For example, I regularly speak to third level students and they tell me transport is a major concern for them. This is linked with shortages in housing. Students must live further away from their colleges because they cannot get housing close by. In this context, it was critical that we cut the price of public transport fares for young people by 50%. These reduced fares are available to everybody up to their 26th birthday. Everyone in this category gets half off the cost of public transport, no matter where they live in Ireland, and this has transformed the finances of young people who are not able to live close to where they are studying and must travel long distances. Regional development, therefore, is critical. The way to measure this undertaking and to ensure we are on track in this area is to ascertain we have all the available information. Again, I sincerely thank the Deputies for tabling what is a constructive and thought-through Bill.

10:20 am

Photo of Noel GrealishNoel Grealish (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank Deputy Shanahan for putting this Bill together, as well as Cáit in our office for the help she gave him. I also thank the Government for accepting this Bill. If passed into law, I hope one of its effects would be to contribute towards ensuring a fairer share-out of Exchequer funding for the various regions of Ireland. Hopefully, it will help to show exactly where our money is going and whether this is to the advantage of everybody in the country, and not just to those in the more affluent parts.

Let us take as an example the ring road in Galway city, which the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will know very well.

That has been on the go for 24 years. In October 1999, the first application was made for that ring road to possibly be built in Galway. We are now in 2023 going into 2024, with more than €50 million spent, and we still do not even have planning permission for this ring road. If that road was proposed for Cork or Dublin, it would be built now. Galway and the west always seem to be put on the never-never. We need a decision on that as soon as possible.

Take, for instance, the amount of money that has been spent on Dublin over the last decades with €750 million on the Port Tunnel, €728 on the red and green Luas lines, €368 million on the Luas cross-city and upwards of €5 billion earmarked for the Metro North. All Galway got in that period of time was the Gort-Tuam motorway and €300 million.

Sport is close to everybody's heart in this House. Over the years, Croke Park received €103 million, Aviva Stadium got €191 million and other grounds, such as Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Thomond Park, Semple Stadium, the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick and Irish Independent Park in Cork, also got massive State funding. In the west, we eventually got €20 million after a long battle to redevelop the sports ground for Connacht Rugby in Galway. I want to compliment Deputy Ring who did much work on that with Connacht Rugby. He was a great supporter of Connacht Rugby and that needs to be acknowledged as well.

Whatever metric one goes by, there is a yawning gap between the way the northern and western region is treated compared with the two other regions and particularly compared with the eastern and midland regions. For instance, the Central Statistics Office's, CSO's, latest survey for income and living conditions for 2022 showed a massive difference in average household incomes depending on where a person lives. Households in the eastern and midland regions had a median household disposable income of more than €53,000 compared with less then €39,000 in the northern and western region and less than €43,000 in the southern region. That is a massive 38% difference between the income of the average family along the western seaboard and that of their counterparts in Dublin and the east.

According the International Monetary Fund, IMF, Ireland comes second in the world in its list of countries with the highest GDP per capitain 2023. Eurostat information also placed it second only to Luxembourg among EU countries last year. GDP per capitais a popular metric for the average prosperity and well-being of a country of the region. There is a whole library of statistics showing how it is also the region of Ireland where people are at most of risk of poverty and social exclusion. There is less work available and there is greater material and social deprivation.

In terms of health, the west and north-west of the country suffer from the highest mortality rates from cancer. There are 12 minor injuries units built around the country. There are three in Cork and there is none in Galway, which is nearly the same size as Cork. It just shows what is happening in this country wherein the west is always lagging behind the other parts of the country.

Earlier this year, Professor Michael Kerin, a leading cancer expert, described University Hospital Galway as "One of the busiest Model 4 Hospitals in the country, and undoubtedly the one with the poorest infrastructure." He pointed out that hospital was built in the 1950s and many of the wards that were built in the 1950s are still in use today. The cancer patients are in a queue or competition with the emergency patients to actually get access to care. With proper infrastructure, the northern and western region will continue to lag behind in terms of its ability to attract investment and create jobs. It is said that a rising tide lifts boats, but there is definitely a hole below the water line in the western and northern region that needs to be fixed before it will take full advantage of any future improvements in the national economy. I know this Bill will not change anything overnight, but it might lead to a greater overview of where our money is actually going and ensure there is a fairer distribution of it.

10:30 am

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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I want to add my voice to thank Deputy Shanahan for doing all the leg work and Ms Cáit Nic Amhlaoibh, our group administrator, for doing all the heavy lifting in getting this very important Bill before the House this morning. I am glad the Minister of State actually picked up on the constructive nature of the Bill as well. That is precisely the intended purpose. It is meant to be constructive, positive and optimistic and there is a reason for that. It was not the pessimists who built this country. It was the optimists who built it. They were the ones who poured the concrete in Ardnacrusha that gave us a century of renewable energy and who laid the tarmacadam in Dublin Airport. They were the ones who dragged this country out of the colonial poverty we were in, so it is completely appropriate that the tone and tenor of this Bill be constructive, positive and optimistic.

I attended a State commemoration earlier this year where I was chatting to a few EU ambassadors. We were chatting about social media, and I mentioned that perception is reality. I was immediately corrected by one ambassador, who said that perception is not reality - perception is even more important than reality. She was completely right. There is a perception on this island that regions outside the M50 are not getting their fair share. It is true that it is a perception but what we do not know is whether it is a reality. This Bill provides the evidence base, and a data set in order that we can push back against that narrative, where it is appropriate, or confirm that narrative, where it is appropriate. I would definitely back up what Deputy Canney said about this need for positive discrimination in certain regions around the country. Yes, absolutely, certain regions do need preferential treatment and preferential allocation of resources. It is not a threat to Dublin in any shape or form. It is actually in Dublin's interest that there would be balanced regional development. The Minister of State is a Dublin TD. He knows about the gridlock from a traffic point of view. He knows what the pressures on public services are in Dublin. Empowering the regions, therefore, makes perfect sense. It is what we should be looking for.

I will mention the importance of a major capital project, or even a minor capital project, in a small town or village around Ireland. It has a hugely positive effect. The Minister of State mentioned the broadband plan. That roll-out is going well. Obviously, we would prefer it to be done today, but it will not be. However, it is progress, for sure. He mentioned the rail network. Obviously, we mentioned the motorways as well. There are wonderful spines of networks and structures around the country that we need to take full advantage of, but we are not really.

The Government sometimes comes up with a new agency or authority. We really need a new refugee agency in this country to deal with the influx at the moment. However, whenever we are setting up this new office, authority or agency somewhere, the Minister of State should bear in mind that it does not have to be in Dublin. We should be using this excellent infrastructure that has been created. We are not exploiting this new infrastructure. We are actually using that infrastructure for its intended purpose. If there is going to be a new State agency or entity developed in the next few years, we should consider locating it outside the M50. It would make a big difference.

I want to double down on what the Minister of State said about offshore energy. We are totally on board with that. Coastal Ireland, in particular, has suffered a lot as a result of the decimation of the fishing industry. Being able to provide renewable energy to this country into coastal communities would be a hugely important step forward. We are totally on board with that.

The last thing I want to do is float an idea. When I was growing up, the Industrial Development Authority, IDA, used to construct advance factories, if I can describe them that way. It used to buy a site, build a generic premises and make the premises available to multinational companies from leasing, renting or purchase. Many multinational companies are turned off from rural Ireland. They are afraid to locate there because the planning process is completely paralysed. They want to be good neighbours and contribute to the community, but they are afraid there are going to be a massive number of objections. It is turning multinational companies against locating in rural Ireland. The suggestion is that the Minister of State might perhaps raise with his Cabinet colleague, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, that the IDA could resuscitate that initiative from the past whereby these turnkey premises are there, and individual companies can come in and customise then for their own individual needs.

In summary, I very much welcome this Bill. It is an excellent idea and like all good ideas, it is very simple. It is completely free, it provides great transparency and accountability and it can provide the basis for the further development of this country into the future.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. The next slot is Sinn Féin. Deputy Conway-Walsh has ten minutes and Deputies Ó Murchú and Brown have five minutes each.

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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I would first like to thank Deputy Shanahan and the Regional Group for developing and bringing forward this Bill. This is a vitally important area to which this House needs to give more attention.

Delivering capital projects is vital as it affects our ability to provide housing, healthcare, transport, connectivity and almost every aspect of the State. It can be the difference between a region developing and a region being left behind or lagging. It can be the difference between someone lying on a trolley or getting a hospital bed.

The Bill, as has been outlined, provides that each Minister shall report annually on large capital expenditures in their Department five years after the expenditure has occurred. Sinn Féin and I will support the Bill because providing basic detail on historical capital spending strengthens Oireachtas oversight of long-term capital spending trends. Whether the specific approach outlined in the Bill is the most appropriate means should be debated and discussed further. We support the general aim and intention of the Bill and believe this would be best assessed on Committee Stage.

Budget 2024 approved €12.6 billion for capital spending under the €165 billion National Development Plan 2021-2030, NDP. This needs to increase once an overdue review of the NDP is completed next year.

A common feature of major capital projects in the State is that initial budgets tend to escalate over time. This leads to overruns that can put pressure on the public finances and weaken the oversight of this House on budget and expenditure. In worst cases, it can require governments to resort to in-year cuts in spending areas or even the sudden delay or abandonment of certain investment projects. These challenges are not unique to Ireland and are a common feature internationally. If the State is to avoid further overruns and poor value-for-money outcomes in future, it will need to improve how public investment spending is governed. We need to mainstream reference class forecasting. It should also be noted that large capital projects do not usually go wrong but start wrong. Bad planning or a lack of planning mean that certain things were predetermined to go wrong from the beginning. In these cases, oversight, accountability and cost controls will have limited effect. We need to get planning right from the beginning. That does not mean endless reports. It means sincere and detailed planning that is examined and tested. Once a large capital project commences, every day until completion is expensive. Past recommendations from the International Monetary Fund, IMF, and Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, suggested that the Department of public expenditure needs to take on more responsibility, particularly in the planning phases. We have seen the opposite under this Government.

This year, the Government announced reform of the public spending code that saw the Department remove some of the reforms that were only implemented in 2019 on the back of a review into the national children's hospital. The public spending code, which came into effect on 1 January 2020, was a step forward. It was the first time there was a systematic approach to project assurance, cost forecast, risk and procurement. In March this year, just over three years since the implementation of the spending code, the Minister announced the new reform plans. A core part of the reform proposal is to remove the public sector spending code and replace it with infrastructure guidelines. These guidelines have still not been published.

Under the 2019 spending code, the Department of public expenditure was required to undertake technical reviews of any major capital projects at three stages: the strategic assessment report, the preliminary business case and the final business case. The Department led technical reviews of both the preliminary and final business case. These were replaced in 2022 by a private consultant-led external assurance process. This year's reforms removed from the Department the last technical review of major capital projects at the strategic assessment phase. This means the Department will no longer be providing any technical reviews of major capital projects. The move towards an external assurance process represents the outsourcing of the assurance process previously conducted by the Government. It seems that the recommendation to outsource technical reviews to the private sector was recommended by private consultants in a 2021 report. Think about that. Private consultants are making recommendations from which other private consultants are going to benefit.

Reforms that were brought in because of the disaster of the national children's hospital have been dismantled before construction of the hospital has even been completed. The national investment office needs to be transformed into a real hub of expertise when it comes to large-scale capital projects. We also need to start building and to never stop. Austerity lost us years of development and a huge amount of institutional experience and expertise. We are paying the price for that now. Sometimes when I hear that the banks paid back whatever they paid back without real analysis of what has happened to this country because we nationalised the private debt of the banks, it really makes me angry on a ground level because we lost community development projects and other projects that were making good advances in tackling poverty and other issues. Those projects were all left to fall and we lost expertise within the Departments and all of that. The consequences of austerity have not been realised. We see the outrun of it in the different things that are now happening in our society which those projects and other things had been tackling in a good way. That was cut short because of the recklessness of the banks and the decisions made in that regard.

The reason we can still build roads and schools reasonably well is that we are always building them. We should never stop building social and affordable housing developments, rail lines, Luas lines and green infrastructure. That is how to drive down costs and speed up delivery.

I know from my county of Mayo how desperately we need capital investment. With the underfunding of both capital and health, I am concerned about two long-awaited projects in Mayo, which are the 75 community nursing beds in the Ballina district hospital and the 50 beds in the Belmullet Community Hospital announced as recently as September. The project in Ballina has been scheduled to move to design stage in 2024 and the project in Belmullet is scheduled to move to business case development. These projects cannot be cast into doubt by the Government's most recent budget announcements. The people of Mayo need reassurance that neither of these projects will be delayed.

As my colleagues have said, of the 234 regions across the EU, the north west of Ireland ranks 218th for infrastructure. That places the region in the bottom 7%, alongside some of the poorest regions in the EU. This Government has no plan or vision for the west and north west. This is evidenced by its unwillingness to commit to road and rail investment and by the lack of ambition for grid infrastructure and green energy. The region urgently needs road and rail infrastructure, including the N17 and the western rail corridor. For how much longer are we going to talk about the western rail corridor? We are in a climate crisis. We do not have the connectivity or transport required and yet there is dilly-dally and delay in respect of the western rail corridor. When I say the western rail corridor, I am talking about from Athenry to Claremorris and Claremorris to Collooney. That has to be started as quickly as possible. We need a grid capable of maximising the opportunities presented for renewable offshore energy along the western seaboard. We have the expertise, determination and local leadership to deliver on the promise of the Atlantic economic corridor. To do this, the west and north west need an infrastructure stimulus package. What is good for the north west is good for the State as a whole. Pressure needs to be taken off the urban areas.

This Bill has the potential to strengthen the role of this House, which is welcome. We need to take back responsibility. The Department of public expenditure needs to take back responsibility and do what is needed. We cannot have a situation whereby we continually contract everything out and abdicate responsibility. We have done that at local authority level, where we have the housing assistance payment, HAP, and the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. Those schemes are fine and serve a purpose. However, we have stopped building. We must stand still at some point and say we are responsible, the Government is responsible and elected representatives have a responsibility to make housing work for people here, not as a vehicle for people who are motivated by profit maximisation and making lots of money. There are things that can be done differently. This Bill contributes towards that and Sinn Féin and I support it. I look forward to Committee Stage where we can make this Bill even better to deliver for the whole country, the regions and the people in County Mayo.

10:40 am

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I also welcome the opportunity to discuss the Bill and thank Deputy Shanahan and the Regional Group for bringing it the House. It deals with transparency and how public money is used, what funding is distributed for capital projects and how that funding is used. It includes a requirement that each Minister will report annually on large capital expenditure in his or her Department five years after the expenditure has occurred.

There is an onus on the House to ensure that public money is spent wisely and, if distributed, is spent in accordance with its initial purpose and that it is accounted for. This is particularly relevant considering that initial budgets tend to escalate over time. This leads to overruns that can put pressure on public finances which can also result in imposing cuts in other spending areas becoming necessary. There are many infrastructural projects such as the N24 in my own county that no one wants to see fall because of issues in other spending areas such as the children’s hospital. Yet communities will always remain worried about the impact of cost overruns that may scupper plans for projects that are of such importance to those communities.

As we have seen recently, bad planning can result in projects going wrong. In these cases oversight, accountability and cost controls will have limited effect particularly if the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform does not take more responsibility in the planning phases, as the IMF and IFAC have suggested in the past.

The Bill refers to the 2016 OECD review of budget oversight by the Irish Parliament. It has been noted that some studies place Ireland lowest among OECD countries for effective parliamentary engagement in budgeting and recommended enhanced information to support parliamentary engagement. This cannot be overlooked. On the contrary, it is something that must be attended to and I welcome any attempt to do so.

In particular, the OECD report noted that our budget oversight is underdeveloped by international standards. It notes a fractured approach to budgetary approval. This is an analysis that led some stakeholders to question whether the budget scrutiny of the Houses of the Oireachtas and its committees are meaningful or impactful. As the introduction to the Bill pointed out, the simple act of seeing where the money goes will improve the quality of our debate on how to spend public money. Faith in the work of the Oireachtas should be predicated on the transparency we provide on taxpayers' money and where it goes. This is a concern to everyone both inside and outside of this House. Bearing that in mind, the Bill seeks to address one important factor, namely reporting back, rather than the focus on Members being issued with material on what is going out. We need to have more oversight from and more engagement with the Department on the planning of projects because, ultimately, we are all put here to represent the people who elect us and to ensure that, so far as possible, we can provide an account of the work this House does and how it spends people’s hard-earned tax money.

We only need to look at the significant overruns in the Dublin Port Tunnel which was 160% of its original budget. The Luas line’s first construction phase resulted in a 289% overrun in budgeted costs. Then, of course, there is the national children’s hospital, which is a consistent source of concern, which is running at an over run of 135%.

While we will support this Bill, we should note that the gap between approval and reporting may still persist. This is something I look forward to seeing addressed and analysed on Committee Stage. All avenues must be pursued when it comes to ensuring the proper spending of public money. I thank the Deputy again for bringing the Bill before the House.

10:50 am

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Regional Group and Deputy Shanahan. This is worthwhile legislation. We all get the idea behind it. We know we do not have the due diligence on budgetary oversight that we would like to see and we know we need to make sure that we introduce that. The idea is there would be reporting from each Department, an element of accountability on where capital spends were meant to be to ensure we actually had a fair allocation of resources and that we deliver what we need and want, while anticipating that at times there will be need for flexibility, which would be taken into account.

Deputy Conway-Walsh spoke of how there has to be a means of the Department of Public Expenditure, NDP Delivery and Reform taking back responsibility. We have seen across the State the idea of subcontracting out almost everything. We see it at local authority level. We have even seen, and it probably has political benefits at times, where Members of the Government do not have to attack the Government but can attack the local authority, Irish Water or many other agencies. That can result in an element of farce in politics.

The fact is we need to have capacity to carry out the due diligence and beyond that we need to make sure we can deliver on the infrastructure that we all require. We know the issues that arose during the period of what is called austerity. Deputy Conway-Walsh spoke of how we committed the crime of socialising and nationalising the debt and the lost opportunities at that point. We need to make sure we get our i's dotted and our t's crossed and have the system that is actually fit for purpose.

When we are looking at infrastructure and major infrastructure projects, it goes without saying we will look at the mistakes made in the tendering process, whether that is the high costs that arose in Dublin Port Tunnel, the Luas or even the national broadband plan, but in particular we will look at the national children’s hospital. We know there may need to be further conversations with the European Commission because we cannot be reliant on a system of lowest-cost tenders. It does not make any sense whatever, particularly when there are the likes of BAM which make the determination that it gets the lowest cost in while never intending to maintain that cost. That is a particular problem. Mistakes were definitely made. Percentages can be allowed for companies or operations that are actually fit to deliver. Then there are other circumstances, and this is something that may happen with certain wind power projects, where a community dividend and other necessary parts will be taken into account. That has to be built in to what we are talking about because we know that we do not have the capacity as a State at this time to deliver on the housing issues that are impacting on all our people. I do not think it is okay that we have not ramped up in any way, shape or form in relation to where we need to be regarding delivery of social or affordable housing, cost rental and all those parts. While accepting they will not all be delivered by the State - we are also talking about approved housing bodies and others - we really need to ensure the State can do the heavy lifting when required.

We have had flooding incidents in north County Louth recently. This happened in other parts of Louth as well but it particularly in the Cooley Peninsula. Dundalk, my own town, was very close to being flooded on the basis that we cannot deal with heavy rains. We have a combined waste water system which deals with sewage and also storm waters. There are huge parts of Dundalk where, if there is any level of heavy rain, that will have water that stays on the streets in estates such as Bay Estate and Cluan Enda. We have a drainage system that cannot deal with the new estates that have been added or the new factories. All these things are particularly welcome but it looks like we do not have the capacity. The only good news I have had in the last while is the fact that there is a drainage area plan. I am engaging with Irish Water at the moment but we need to see that this is dealt with. I can talk about the difficulties around the N2. That is another road project that seems to have run into the ground. Sometimes I wonder when the Minster, Deputy Eamon Ryan, talks about a competitive planning process because we have seen a hell of a lot of very necessary planning projects that have fallen by the wayside. With the drainage area plan, we need to make sure we assess and review. We will obviously have to do work on mitigations in storm protection. We know the local authority is doing this. Myself and Councillor Antóin Watters met the director of service recently. In fairness, they are addressing a lot of the flooding issues and there is a crossover with the CFRAM protections. However, we need to make sure that a specific piece of work is done around assessing whether we have the capacity to deal with wastewater and to deliver the clean water we need. That is what need to be done across the board. The problem is one is dealing with Irish Water, which will also have plants that are being operated by private companies. Again, there is the issue of subcontracting. We need to make sure we have a means of checking how we spend the money and where it is spent and beyond that we need to assess the infrastructure we require across the board to deliver for our people.

11:00 am

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I commend Deputy Shanahan on bringing this important Bill forward. Its principles have considerable merit. As a party that believes in transparency in all aspects of public life, including and especially the expenditure of public money, the Labour Party fully supports the Bill. As was said, what it seeks to achieve is simple and quite straightforward. The Government might argue about the mechanics of the Bill and how its provisions can be implemented in practice but, in some respects, that is an argument for another day. The Government is not opposing the Bill but that is not the same as actively supporting it. I hope the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials will work actively and on a practical and pragmatic basis with Deputy Shanahan to enhance and finesse the Bill to allow it to go to Committee Stage or, at least, to a form of pre-legislative scrutiny in the next few months.

Even with my experience as a Member of the Oireachtas for 13 years, having served at Cabinet level and on committees that are accountable to the Dáil, having spent a period as a member of the public accounts committee, and now as an Opposition spokesperson on public expenditure and finance, it can still be a challenge to access in a timely fashion the kind of information and material we require on spending on capital assets and capital expenditure. This is even though we might know where to go. The Bill addresses many of those shortcomings. We have the public spending code, the data bank, the Department of public expenditure and reform capital tracker, and the Where Your Money Goes website, but we do not have a regular and, importantly, standardised way in which information on spending on climate investment, roads, rail, housing, health, education and other significant spending on capital assets is received and presented in the timely fashion that we require. Any information produced in respect of expenditure on capital assets and updates and so on should be done and presented in an accessible and user-friendly fashion. The Bill aims for such information to be presented in a standardised way and that an obligation be placed on line Ministers to publish updates and this data regularly and in a more granular way. That is an important point.

It is also important that the Bill gives space to Ministers to prescribe how this ought to happen. The Bill is not necessarily overly prescriptive in the way it prescribes how this ought to be done. That is only right and proper and should help this Bill to move to the next Stage. It is also important that Ministers are given some space to determine what might be commercially sensitive, but this should not be defined in a liberal way or used to avoid the transparency and reporting obligations the Bill would place on Ministers. To do that would undermine the principles and objectives of the Bill and what Deputy Shanahan and his colleagues are trying to achieve.

I have heard it said previously that more transparency on what has been paid for projects over the years can run the risk of giving too much away when it comes to the public procurement and tendering process. I hope the House will agree that is perverse. I say it is in fact the opposite. More transparency and more accountability along the way, taken alongside the sheer scale of Government investment and what that means for the State's capacity to shape the market and outcomes, is better for the process all round. It is better for value for money, it will help with regular reviews of how we tender and procure, and it will help prevent lowballing and the need for mediation for contract disputes that causes delays and overruns, the cost of which can often far exceed what had been budgeted for initially. Good cost control is good and responsible government and governance.

It is far too often the case that the first time we might learn of a significant project overrun, or at least the first time it might come to significant political and public attention, or we might hear of poor cost control and other failures, which cost us money and, importantly, cost our society and economy in the long run, is when the Comptroller and Auditor General undertakes a special report or when a Secretary General is before the public accounts committee on an annual chapter review. Surely, we should be doing all we can to avoid these all too frequent and often fractious encounters.

It has been said by Deputy Shanahan and others that there are serious shortcomings in how we do our business in this Legislature in respect of budgeting more generally. It is not just me saying that. The OECD said it a number of years ago. We have introduced some innovations to ensure there is better parliamentary oversight in respect of the budget process but, quite frankly, we need to go much further. Constitutionally, the passing of budgets is a matter for the Legislature but we know that, in effect, it is the Executive that exerts most of the control. The budgetary process has become nothing short of a rubber-stamping exercise. That is bad for democracy and parliamentary oversight and is something that needs to be kept under constant review.

There is much in the Bill that could, for example, be introduced in the context of an expected update to the Department of public expenditure and reform circular issued in March. I understand that circular is expected to be updated shortly. This might be a gesture and something the Minister of State could consider as another step in the right direction as regards improved transparency in spending and reporting on capital projects.

There is a lot to recommend the Bill. It is quite timely. The Labour Party is happy to support it.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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I very much welcome this legislation from Deputy Shanahan and his colleagues. I also welcome the opportunity to discuss capital cost overruns. When it comes to capital spending, as we know, questions are repeatedly asked after the fact but the answers are hard to find. Paper trails run out and memories falter. Transparency is all too absent with our Government and political system having not fully embraced a culture of open decision-making. Along with undermining trust in the system, this lack of accountability also leads to massive amounts of public resources being wasted. These are, of course, resources that are very badly needed in other areas.

The most obvious example of this is, as we know, the national children's hospital. It is fair to say this badly needed project has become a runaway train with, it seems, no one in the Government capable of taking hold. This hospital is set to become the most expensive healthcare facility in the world with a final cost of well over €2 billion, which far outstrips the initial capital allocation of €1.4 billion. As of 30 September, only €71 million was left in the overall budget, even though the project will not be substantially completed until at least the end of October next year or welcome patients until the summer of 2025, which is the best-case scenario, although adherence to that timeline also appears quite unlikely now. Significant claims still need to be settled that substantially surpass the remaining allocation. One is to the tune of €100 million with a further 17 such claims amounting to more than €600 million.

Lessons have to be learned from the spending and oversight of this major project. It cannot simply be consigned to the history books like so many other projects that cost far more than was initially expected, for example, the €120 million overspend on the abandoned HSE payroll system, the €600 million overrun on the Luas or the €11 billion over-budget motorway project scheme. I could go on and on.

In particular, spending on major transport infrastructure projects must be further scrutinised and evaluated. A case in point is the long-running saga of MetroLink. Successive transport Ministers' failure to deliver this critical piece of infrastructure has made communities, such as the ones I represent in Dublin North-West, understandably sceptical that this project will ever be delivered. This project was first proposed in 2000, with a 2010 target for delivery.

In October 2011, a year after it was supposed to be operational, An Bord Pleanála granted the railway order. However, a month later the then Minister for Transport, Leo Varadkar, suspended the plan with €200 million already spent. The plan was resurrected in 2015 with services due to commence in 2026. Three years out from that target, we are still waiting on a decision from An Bord Pleanála, over a year after the application was submitted. We are now told it will be 2034 before MetroLink is operational. That is 23 years after the first iteration of the metro was granted planning permission. We talk about the importance of a link to the airport and that is critical, as we are one of a small number of countries in Europe that does not have an airport link, but there is also all the communities in between the airport and the city centre that have been let down badly by the failure to progress this project.

This litany of false starts has not only eroded public confidence in the project but has also squandered huge amounts of public money. In July, the PAC published a report on transport expenditure and found that a total of €300 million had already been spent on the various iterations of the metro, including €99 million on the abandoned metro north and €18.7 million on metro west. The NTA estimates that each further year of delay would add an additional cost of between €100 million and €300 million to the entire project. The most credible capital cost for the MetroLink now ranges between €7 billion and €12 billion. However, an April 2023 letter from the Secretary General of the Department of Transport to the PAC includes an estimate as high as €21.5 billion. The scale of the increase in this project, a project that is 23 years overdue, is truly eye-watering. Every effort must be made to ensure this project does not reach those heights or breach the €9.5 billion mark, as called for by the PAC. After all, even a price tag of €9.5 billion would make it one of the most expensive underground rail projects in the world.

To control costs and provide for greater scrutiny of major infrastructure projects, our State agencies must be more transparent. Recently, the PAC highlighted that the NTA's financial statement did not say whether major projects kept within budget. Nor did it provide any rationale for where they had not. The same was true of TII. For example, the expected cost of the Luas green line capacity enhancement project increased from €88.8 million in 2019 to €95.7 million just a year later. This lack of transparency from the bodies leading the MetroLink project is very concerning and must be urgently addressed. A project of this scale cannot be veiled in secrecy.

On the Bill and its provisions, there is a very strong case for retrospective reporting on capital spending, although a much broader suite of measures and safeguards is required to break the pattern of overspending on capital projects. Not least of those issues is the lack of State expertise on procurement and the principles of cost control. I very much agree with the principles underpinning this Bill. I have some concerns about the proposed €500,000 threshold for reporting. In contrast, the public spending code only applies to projects over €20 million. That is too big. There is a happy medium there somewhere. In its current form, the provisions in the Bill relating to scale need to be revisited but that can of course be done on Committee Stage. Therefore, the Social Democrats will be supporting this Bill on Second Stage to allow for further examination, amendment and progression of the principles underpinning this legislation and the approach taken by Deputy Shanahan. I commend him and commend the Bill.

11:10 am

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom mo chomhghairdeas a ghabháil leis an Teachta Shanahan ó Phort Láirge. I commend and congratulate Deputy Shanahan from my neighbouring constituency on this very insightful, thoughtful and necessary legislation. Our group is wholeheartedly supporting it. We have a litany of issues. It is probably repetitive at this stage. We have lost the competency to develop major projects. When I look back at the inception of the State, we had the great late TK Whitaker and visionaries like him who were able to develop projects with little resources. Take the electrification of rural Ireland or issues like that, or building our railways. We had a railway system we inherited from the British and it has been mainly dismantled since.

Our Departments have gotten so big and cumbersome, with Secretaries General on huge wages and a plethora of staff, secretaries, undersecretaries and senior officials and they have no clue what is going on. I could say worse but I do not believe they have. We built the M8 motorway and all of us here use it going home on the weekends and coming to Dublin. It is a fabulous project. God be with Pat Mulcair, a Limerick man. That project was on time and under budget. It was on time or ahead of time. We saw that work. Why can other projects not be done like that? What about the children's hospital? Nobody was held accountable for the HSE computers or the voting machine scandal. The children's hospital is on the Government's head but none of them are here now. We brought in the people who knew how to build hospitals and told the Government that was the wrong site and they all came and listened but then they came in here and voted for it. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and all the other smaller parties on the left voted to go ahead on this site. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. It is the wrong site in the wrong place. Imagine being told sick children could come on the Luas. On your heads be it, and many other projects as well. The M24 Limerick-Waterford project is languishing and there is no sign of it. Other overruns are costing us money.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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First, I thank Deputy Shanahan and the Regional Independent Group for championing this Bill, which aims to enhance transparency in capital spending. The Bill requires all Ministers to submit detailed annual reports and capital allocations covering projects exceeding €500,000 from four years prior. This timeframe avoids interference with procurement and commercial agreements. What sets this Bill apart is its ability to shed light on where and how funds are allocated, and whether such spending addresses regional disparities and fosters balanced development. It establishes a standard reporting system for capital expenditure, promoting simplicity and consistency. The Bill addresses a crucial gap in oversight, responding to recommendations from the 2006 OECD review, which called for increased parliamentary engagement on budgets. We have to look at the ability to shed light on where and how funds are allocated. My constituency in south-west Cork is one we should be discussing here on a more detailed basis. The Arup report showed that the council was one of the lowest funded councils in the country for decades. That is an outrageous scandal and has left west Cork in a situation where four bypass projects have been lying idle for the past 20 years - two in Bandon, one in Innishannon and one in Bantry - under successive Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil governments. There has been absolutely no spending. Roads are in an atrocious condition. There are potholes almost everywhere you look and we have no railway. The nearest railway to me is two and a half hours away. There are other areas where we need to have a more focused look, like the rural regeneration fund. I am very angry about a fund that was meant to come to Schull a number of years ago and it failed to get there. Another senior Minister seemed to get that funding even though a junior Minister from Fine Gael had brought the committee up a number of days previously to pat them on the back and tell them they got it. All this has to be looked at and investigated properly. Fairness is what we need here in order that there is transparency in the funding that is dished out.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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First, I want to thank Deputy Shanahan very sincerely for bringing forward this very important Bill because of the simple fact that oversight is so important when dealing with large sums of money. There seems to be a trend in Ireland in the last ten years that if a project is of a certain size, no notice in the world is taken of overruns and overspends. Take for instance the national children's hospital. It does not really matter if it is less than €1 billion, €0.5 billion, €1 billion, €1.5 billion, €2 billion or €2.5 billion.

There is no end because of the simple fact it is like a blank cheque. That is the fault of the Government and of the lack of oversight. I think of the MetroLink project, the concerns about that and the overruns. It is like it is the Exchequer's money so we can spend whatever we like. That is not right or proper.

I want to highlight prudence and good governance in a case where the right contractor was in place. I was glad to see the Macroom-Baile Bhuirne bypass opened recently. That job came in on budget with no messing or nonsense. If anything, it was ahead of time. We got a massive piece of infrastructure for great value for money. How many times can we honestly say a big project was great value for money? Deputy McGrath is right that we said the children's hospital was going in the wrong place. It went on the most expensive site it could ever be put on and it is a blank cheque. It will be held up forever as being madness.

11:20 am

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I thank the Regional Group for bringing this Bill forward. The Bill provides that each Minister shall report annually on large capital expenditure in his or her Department five years after the expenditure has occurred. Infrastructure Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil promised not only five years ago, but decades ago, still has not been done. Reporting on something not done after five years is one thing, but another thing is reporting on something not done after decades of promises from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, failure of infrastructure projects and spending money on basic set-up of projects and then letting the project go. First they spend millions on setting up projects and doing all the analysis on it, then they do not fund it afterwards. How much taxpayer's money is wasted by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on projects?

I have mentioned here before infrastructure in Limerick that has been promised for decades, including sewerage and water systems, that has never been fulfilled by the Government. Askeaton sewerage system was promised 43 years ago. Now raw sewage goes into the Shannon, and the Government is talking about water quality. All infrastructure projects the Government promised when it came to Dublin and the Cabinet were covered by people who forgot about anyone outside of Dublin. What has the Government done? It has destroyed Dublin as well because people in Dublin and their children cannot come home because it made it too expensive by never investing in infrastructure outside of Dublin.

Photo of Jennifer Carroll MacNeillJennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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How is broadband in Limerick these days?

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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Broadband is going to save an awful lot of people, is it? “Broadband” - that is your answer.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I thank Deputy Shanahan and the Regional Group for bringing forward this important Bill. I am more than happy to support it. The Bill above all will provide an enhanced and hugely necessary level of transparency to ensure the details of capital spending by each Department are prepared and laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas five or four years after the financial year concerned. Those details will include the amount of each capital supply service and public allocation expended by or on behalf of a relevant Department and the local government administrative area or areas in which each asset is located.

In simple language, the Bill will allow us to follow the money. That level of transparency on capital spending is badly needed, particularly when it comes to spending in the regions. Up to now, we have largely had to rely on the excellent research of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly to highlight the imbalance in spending between the regions. I commend its competence and dedication but if this Bill becomes legislation, that information would be laid before the Dáil and Seanad and, crucially, individual Ministers and Departments could be called to account for their spending or non-spending from many perspectives, including a regional perspective. Such transparency is a necessary prelude to fairness and, while it will not guarantee fairness, it will make individual Ministers and Departments more accountable for their spending decisions. I wish that level of transparency existed right now and had been in place ten, 20 and 30 years ago. It could have made such a difference in helping to ensure a fair share of spending to all regions, particularly the northern and western region.

Time and again, I have quoted damning statistics around economic indicators and spending in the northern and western region but, time and again, I am ignored in this House. I have quoted the fact the European Commission has downgraded the region to a lagging region. I have quoted the fact we do not have our fair share of high-end jobs. I have quoted the fact that when it comes to third level spending for capital projects, we are way below the national average from 2012 to 2022. I am blue in the face quoting it but if this legislation was passed it would ensure no hiding place for the continuation of unfair and inequitable spending in the region. Crucially, it would track spending in all regions. That is what balanced regional development is about. I will advocate for the northern and western region; other Deputies will advocate for their regions. Nobody is looking for more than their fair share but when regions consistently do not get it and economic gaps open because of that, then legislation like this would make individual Ministers and governments accountable for that.

That is why I welcome this legislation. I believe the Government is not challenging it and I hope it will be passed as speedily as possible. You know what they say, better late than never.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Like the previous speaker, I congratulate the Regional Group on this important legislation, particularly Deputy Shanahan for all the work he has done on it. It is driven by an awareness that the south east has been one of the areas which has suffered. I am from the mid-west and luckily the mid-west was represented at Cabinet relatively recently by Michael Noonan. Unfortunately, that is how politics works in Ireland but fortunately for the mid-west it was represented relatively recently by Michael Noonan. There is nobody at Cabinet now and you can see it. You can see where money is being spent in the country and it accords with where there is a bum on a seat in Cabinet. It should not be that basic but it is.

Go down and look at the Dunkettle roundabout and look at how much Cork has benefited from a presence at Cabinet. Dublin, obviously, is the capital city but even in Dublin there is a disparity in areas depending on representation. I do not know whether politics should be that base or maybe all politics is local and there is no getting away from it. It would be wrong of me to drag the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach, Deputy Ring, into the debate as he cannot contribute to it but I presume he has experience of that as a former Cabinet Minister.

Undoubtedly, there is regional disparity. We look at Dublin growing and growing beyond its capabilities to grow. That is creating huge pressures on people already in Dublin or coming to Dublin. Finding a job here is the easy part. Finding a place to live, a school, a GP and so on is much more difficult. There are other areas in Ireland where there is still much scope for development and where development could be carried out more easily but, partly, or perhaps largely, because they do not have a representative in the Cabinet, it is not considered. It should not be like that.

The same disparity applies even when there are natural limits, such as the lack of water in Dublin. We are planning to pipe water to Dublin from the mid-west - the environmental effects of carrying out this multibillion euro project are very dubious indeed - instead of looking at moving some developments to the mid-west.

I could make the same point with regard to housing in my own constituency. Undoubtedly, the State has a duty under international law to accept people who have been granted temporary protection or asylum, and to provide accommodation to those who are seeking asylum. The regional disparity in where that accommodation is provided is stark. The Minister gave a very impassioned speech yesterday about the difficulties she encountered in her constituency last summer. However, it is fair to point out - it would be unfair not to point it out - the massive disparity between the number of people housed in her constituency, in the context of the population of her constituency, and the number of people housed in constituencies like Clare and Kerry, or indeed along the whole western seaboard. All of these areas depend heavily on seasonal tourism, but they cannot get income from seasonal tourism now because the hotel beds are filled with people. I am not saying that these people do not need a place to stay - they clearly do - but it is interfering with the local economy in a way that is not happening in the Minister's constituency or any of the constituencies in Dublin or the east of the country. That is simply not fair. Something that is not fair is not sustainable for a very long period of time before we start to see resentment on the part of people who want to see equity and fairness in how the Government is spreading the burdens of the State and how it is spreading the services that should accompany that. The Government is not doing that at all. It is just saying "Out of sight, out of mind; go west." "To hell or to Connacht" is almost the attitude.

I very much commend this Bill. It is long overdue. I very much hope the Government will go further than not resisting it and actually make sure it is enacted. I was a backbencher for most of my time in the Dáil. Occasionally, I was not a Government backbencher as I lost the Whip. The Government will accept some Bills and have them wither on the vine. It will kill those Bills by making sure they do not get a committee hearing because it does not want the embarrassment of opposing them. I hope that is not the approach the Government will take to this legislation. I hope this Bill will get to Committee Stage quickly and will be adopted in the lifetime of this Dáil. It is a very worthwhile Bill and I congratulate the Regional Group and Deputy Shanahan on it. I thank the Acting Chair for his latitude.

11:30 am

Photo of Jennifer Carroll MacNeillJennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Shanahan for bringing this legislation forward. It is an enormous amount of work to bring forward a Private Members' Bill. I am well aware of that. The level of dedication, commitment and work with the parliamentary legal advisers and the drafting team is some amount of work for a Deputy and his or her team. I thank him and acknowledge that. It is important that we have this debate. I thank Deputies for their contributions on the Second Stage of this Bill.

I would like to make a number of points. As a Dublin Deputy, I remind the House that a Fine Gael Government introduced the national planning framework on a statutory basis in 2018. It was the first time a government put in place a spatial planning plan on a statutory basis so that it could not be interfered with. The whole purpose of that planning framework was to stop the growth of Dublin and to try to drive development to the west and to the other cities so that they would develop by at least 50%. We wanted to have contained cities so that people would not need to come to Dublin for something unless they wanted to come to Dublin. The idea was that population and investment growth would be pushed to those cities. The specific purpose of the planning framework introduced by a Fine Gael Government and put on a statutory basis was to drive investment, in particular to the west and to south. I do not know why any Deputies would have heard me talk about wind energy and development, but if they have heard me do so, they will know that all I talk about is the opportunity off the west coast, the south coast and the north-west coast to develop floating wind energy and to be able to have-----

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Talk to Eamon Ryan.

Photo of Jennifer Carroll MacNeillJennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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-----sustainable technician jobs 12 months per year. These high-value jobs would sustain the industry there and would give this island an opportunity, as its population continues to grow, to be rebalanced in terms of spatial planning, in terms of the economy and in terms of being rebalanced away from Dublin. As a Dublin TD it is strategically in my interests to limit the growth of a city on a coast and to make sure that balanced regional development happens elsewhere.

The single most important investment that has been made over the past five years has been investment in the national broadband plan, which was opposed by absolutely everybody as I recall. It was the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and a Fine Gael Government that pushed it through. It was very fortunate it did so in the context of Covid-19, remote working and the opportunity to work differently. In 2023 more than €12 billion will be made available from the Exchequer for investment in public capital projects which will provide more schools, homes, hospitals and other vital infrastructure. That level of expenditure will be pivotal in consolidating the progress already made and, most importantly, in delivering the necessary infrastructure to support our future climate change obligations as well as our social and economic requirements. Nobody is in any doubt about the need to ensure timely project delivery must be an essential part of that. There is no point in having the money unless it is delivered to meet the challenges of our time, particularly in housing, health and climate change.

The renaming of the Department of Public Expenditure, NDP Delivery and Reform has brought about a greater focus within the Department. This is led by the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and has a mandate for the delivery of the national development plan, NDP. In light of this new role, a review of support structures and levers available across the Government to maximise delivery of projects was undertaken. There is a much stronger role for the Department in making sure things are done. As a result, a series of actions and reforms have been identified as priorities to improve delivery of NDP projects, including reducing the administrative burden on Departments charged with infrastructure delivery. Earlier this year, the Government approved six priority actions which are significant changes to reduce the administrative burden in delivering major capital projects through measures to streamline the public spending code to become the infrastructure guidelines. The Minister for Public Expenditure, NDP Delivery and Reform is taking a direct role in overseeing delivery of the NDP through chairing the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board. Capacity reviews of Departments and agencies with significant delivery programmes are to be carried out, where appropriate, to ensure adequate resources for project delivery are in place. There will be additional reforms to the capital works management framework, which sets out the contracts used for public capital projects. There will be direct reporting to the Government of NDP delivery on a quarterly basis throughout 2023 and 2024, and an independent evaluation of NDP priorities and capacity. That package is a fresh approach and a necessary approach to securing the delivery of the NDP, which is of course our capital investment programme.

The Minister with responsibility for the NDP is confident that the combination of the six priority actions will boost delivery of the critical infrastructure needed to support the growing economy and higher living standards for those living here. As mentioned earlier by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, the Government is committed to detailing progress on the delivery of the NDP at regular intervals into the future to allow for the transparency of the implementation of Project Ireland 2040 across an extensive range of capital projects and programmes, all of which benefit different parts of Ireland. It is essential that they are delivered in a timely way. The Project Ireland 2040 capital investment tracker and interactive map will continue to be updated on a regular basis and will detail the outline of the project, the Department or body responsible for delivering it, and the location and region of the project. In line with the material detailed in this Private Members' Bill, the tracker and map may also detail the construction commencement date of the project, the completion or anticipated project completion date, the current stage of the project life cycle as per the public spending code, and information on the project cost range. It is essential that when the Government sets aside money for capital development infrastructure, it creates a balanced regional development programme and the projects are in fact delivered. It is clear that there needs to be oversight and transparency of this kind. I hope it will give Deputies confidence that projects are being developed in their areas, their regions and their constituencies, that they can clearly see the expectations set, and that they can hold the relevant Departments and agencies to account on the delivery of the relevant projects.

As also set out earlier by the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, the Minister for Public Expenditure, NDP Delivery and Reform will continue to publish the Project Ireland 2040 annual reports in the years ahead. These reports highlight the delivery of publicly funded capital projects throughout the country each year. Further to the annual reports, three regional reports for the eastern and midlands region, the northern and western region, and the southern region will also be published. I thank Deputy Shanahan for his focus on delivery for all of the regions. There has been significant capital investment in this State over the past number of years. We are in the fortunate position of being able to do that after a period when no capital investment projects were able to be supported because of the downturn in public finances. We have the public finances to be able to deliver capital infrastructure. We are a very significantly growing economy. We are unique in Europe in many respects as regards having the budget surpluses to be able to invest in capital projects. It is essential that notwithstanding construction unemployment of approximately 2% and the challenges that raises, we are able to deliver infrastructure projects for the benefit of our citizens. Notwithstanding the supply chain and construction unemployment constraints, we cannot allow the delivery of projects to be delayed because of administrative burdens or inefficiencies. The Minister is absolutely squarely focused on making sure that does not happen. He is accountable to the House for that, but he is also accountable through various enhanced transparency measures, which I hope will be of assistance to Deputies. I thank Deputy Shanahan for his work on this.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Deputies Shanahan and Fitzpatrick will reply to the debate on behalf of the Regional Group.

11:40 am

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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I thank Deputy Shanahan for a fantastic job getting this Bill to the House. Budget 2024 set out an approach centred on balanced budgetary policies, which allows for sustainable investment in our public services and extra supports to respond to external challenges, where needed. The figure of €91.2 billion in core expenditure for the normal spending and everyday business of Government sets a clear vision for continuous improvement of public services, living standards and infrastructure. The aim of the increased investment over the past decade is to deliver improved services for a more equitable and inclusive society, to support productivity and economic growth and to future-proof public services and infrastructure. This increasing level of investment has taken place against a backdrop of significant population increase and, more recently, elevated inflation levels. However, the issue of overspend and underspend indicates that adequate project proposals are either not submitted or provided for.

With the Exchequer awash with cash, many Departments have struggled to roll out projects that account for the totality of their capital budgets. Earlier this year, it transpired that the Department of housing failed to spend more than €1 billion earmarked for housing over the past three years, in the midst of an unprecedented housing crisis. On the other hand, there are problems of chronic overspending, or, some would say, underfunding. For example, the HSE reported a deficit to the end of March of €178 million. The HSE's allocation for the period was €5.33 billion but spending was more than €5.5 billion, primarily due to spending in the early months of 2023 in acute hospitals. Due to its overspend and the perceived underfunding of health within budget 2024, service delivery within our health system is likely to be affected negatively. Already, there is a freezing of administrative posts and industrial action taking place. While the Minister for public expenditure ensured increased supports and additional funding for mental health services, social inclusion services, older people and health and well-being initiatives, there is a growing sense of apprehension about the future of mental health funding. Increasing demand for mental health supports and services is evident. Mental Health Reform, the national coalition of groups working on mental health, estimated that an additional €115 million for mental health funding in budget 2024 was essential to improve access to timely and effective mental healthcare. What percentage of the health budget will go to mental health? It is likely to remain stagnant at between 5% and 6%.

The purpose of this Bill is to deliver a fair allocation of Exchequer funding across Departments and regions, along with the associated capital infrastructural development to promote economic and social development in the future. The Government’s aim is to deliver sustainable investment, which supports better public services and infrastructure for our growing and changing population, while facilitating a suitable response to externally driven challenges. To deliver this objective, a responsive fiscal policy supported by a credible approach to managing spending in the medium term is required. However, to obtain adequacy in terms of demand versus supply per Department and per region, there needs to be a measure of accountability and governance whereby project and regional needs are considered before allocation of funding and continuous accountability is held throughout the project timeframe to ensure timely and efficient project completion.

It is not only distribution between Departments but distribution between regions that needs to be adequately measured and controlled. Balanced regional development is a key priority of this Government, which is at the heart of Project Ireland 2040. I acknowledge that there was record capital spending. A fair share of Exchequer spending should be pro rataper citizen. However, the majority of funding followed Cabinet power to the constituencies of Dublin and Cork. For example, the Dublin metropolitan population is circa 27% of the national population and receives between 48% and 64% of total national capital spend. In contrast, census 2022 revealed that County Louth’s population stood at 138,703. Ireland’s smallest county has the two largest towns in the State - Drogheda, with 44,135 people, and Dundalk, with 43,112. Yet, average pro ratacapital delivery of Exchequer funding is assessed to be significantly less. How can that be justified? The bottom line is that nothing will change until a transparent, accountable reporting standard is implemented at both Department and Government level. The Capital Supply Service and Purpose Report Bill 2023 seeks to implement such a reporting standard, delivering some accountability for Departmental decision-making in State capital investment and achieves transparency and fairness for constituents.

I back this Bill, which calls on each Minister with responsibility for a Department to prepare, on an annual basis, a capital supply service and purpose report for the relevant financial year.

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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I thank the Ministers of State for their contributions. I note, as highlighted by the Minister of State, Deputy Carroll MacNeill, that the Government does not oppose this Bill. That is to be welcomed, but it would be better if the Government said it would support this Bill. Perhaps we will get to that stage. It is important to highlight the value of debate. This is probably one of the more interesting debates I have heard in this House since I came here, not because I am involved in it but because it is relevant to every Deputy and elected official. It is about the fair and transparent allocation of State resources and fairness in per capita spending. Several points were highlighted by other Deputies, of which I will share a few.

Deputy Harkin made the point that no one is looking for more than their fair share. It is an important principle that we should all acknowledge.

Deputy Fitzpatrick highlighted the problems of Drogheda and Dundalk being so close to Dublin yet not getting a fair allocation of housing resources or flood defence moneys.

My Regional Group colleagues Deputies Canney and Grealish spoke at length about the problems in Galway and the mid-west, particularly the ring roads needed, transport infrastructure and the lack of equitable spending in the western region.

Deputy Shortall brought up the issue of MetroLink in Dublin. We can all agree that as a modern, cosmopolitan city, Dublin should have a MetroLink to the airport. The shocking scandal of a project 23 years in development, on which €300 million has been spent at this stage - a large amount of it wasted - should not be lost on anybody. While all that money was being contributed and circulated, was anybody aware of how it was being spent?

Deputy McGrath and others spoke about the national children's hospital. I do not want to criticise the project because it is ongoing but how we ended up, in a country of 5 million people, building the most expensive health infrastructure anywhere in the world is beyond belief. It points to a complete and utter failing in procurement, oversight and governance, especially by the Minister regarding accountability.

There has been a lot of hot air about the strategic infrastructure to which we aspire since I came to this Chamber. Yet, Deputy Tóibín highlighted that only seven turbines have been delivered offshore in the past 20 years. Three and a half years into the lifetime of this Dáil, we are still on the cusp of developing the State agency, MARA, to oversee planning and development of our foreshore and offshore asset allocations. This Bill speaks to all of those matters.

Deputy Berry and other colleague in the Regional Group pointed out the need, as was the case previously, for IDA Ireland advance factories to be built in the regions in order to set them up for FDI. Those projects have stalled. I am lucky to say that County Waterford received an IDA Ireland advance factory in the past number of years but we need more. If I went around all Deputies, they would say the same thing.

This Bill speaks to what Deputy Ó Murchú, I think, captured well. It speaks to due diligence, budgetary oversight, accountability and a fair allocation of resources. That captures it exactly. I highlight Deputy Conway-Walsh's comments regarding the public spending code, which were very salient. She outlined that no Department technical reviews have been possible because it is to be farmed out to the private sector. This might come up in further debate on this Bill on Committee Stage.

I refer to my background as to why I feel this Bill is important.

People have highlighted the allocation of resources throughout the country, but particularly the deficits that occur in the south east, the midlands, the Border counties and the north west. This is historic. I remember a capital tracker in 2014 when the State allocation was €3 billion. When I looked at that capital tracker to try to understand where the south-east region was, €90 million of that €3 billion was allocated to it. Of that, approximately €24 million was allocated to a large water treatment plant in County Waterford. I would be first to agree that clean water is absolutely a part of strategic infrastructure and is something that helps economic development, but €90 million from a spend of €3 billion for what is now 11% of the population is not fair or equitable. That cycle unfortunately gets repeated year on year. That is what has led to my frustration and that of those around me in trying to see a Bill crafted that would speak to trying to change that narrative.

The OECD report was also mentioned. It highlighted some time ago how poorly Ireland was doing in the context of parliamentary oversight of State budgetary analysis. This Bill also speaks to that matter. It speaks to handing back some small remnant of power to individual elected Members in order that they may question the Government. It is unfortunate that the look back period is five years. However, the stringent legal advice I received at the time was to the effect that any less would be opposed by the Government. I will say that if I were able to look at data from five, six or seven years ago I would quickly see a trail of where moneys have been allocated. Deputy McNamara highlighted that his constituency did well while it had a sitting Minister. It is true that the preponderance of moneys being spent at the moment, more than €14 billion this year, will be allocated largely to the regions of Dublin and Cork. That reflects the political patronage enjoyed at Cabinet, which is something that also needs to change.

The Minister of State also mentioned the Government's stance on providing new oversight. In 2020, the tracker she highlighted, the Where Your Money Goes website and so on showed just €31 million of spending in Waterford from a budget of €5.2 billion visible in the pipeline. I brought these issues to the Taoiseach's attention in the Dáil some weeks ago. I told him that we were not getting a fair share in the south east region. He said two things that I thought were important. He said that nobody is entitled to any money, as such, in this State; it is all based on projects. That speaks to those State resources that are applied to project development. There are some local councils and Departments in this country that are good at having off-the-shelf projects ready to go and that seem to fall into place just when money becomes available. By the same token, there are some that are not. I will highlight to the Minister of State a single, simple spend for her to analyse. In July this year, the State decided to give an exceptional capital grant of €650 million to the nine model 4 hospitals in this country. That was a fair chunk of money. University Hospital Waterford, the most efficient hospital in the country, was amazingly excluded from that €650 million. It has had no capital projects outside of one building, which was largely financed by the private sector and the public in Waterford. I questioned the HSE about it. I was told that despite management telling me and other Waterford representatives the year before that all of the paperwork was in place, and the projects were approved, that the Department came back and said paperwork had not been submitted in time to be allocated money. To me, that is totally unethical and lacks transparency. That is a simple example of what this Bill seeks to push back against.

We can talk long, hard and fast in this State and Parliament-----

11:50 am

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I have been lenient with the Deputy, but will he please conclude? I will give him one more minute.

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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I welcome the support of the House in progressing this Bill towards becoming law. As I have said, Private Members' Bills can be killed off quietly as they proceed. I hope that in not opposing this Bill, the Government will see that it is substantially accepted because there is a major problem with transparency over public capital investment - not fixing a known and urgent problem. With projected capital spending of €165 billion, it would be a disgrace if this Bill were not to pass.

I thank all of those in the Chamber who contributed. I hope they will continue supporting this Bill to see it enacted into law.

Question put and declared carried.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 11.56 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar mhéan lae.

Sitting suspended at 11.56 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.