Tuesday, 30 May 2017
Mid-term Capital Review and Public Service Pay Commission Report: Statements
I thank the House for the opportunity to set out the Government's priorities in respect of two major areas of expenditure, namely, capital infrastructure and where we stand now on public sector pay. It is particularly appropriate that these are being considered together, as choices in one area will inevitably shape demands in the other, while also impacting on the total amount of resources available. While resources are fixed and finite, demands and choices are not only limited to pay and capital expenditure because there are other demands such as social support payments, health care demands and educational supports.
What are the linkages between our capital spending and pay expenditure? First and foremost, public services are delivered by public servants and, therefore, if we build a new hospital or a new school, it will be staffed by public servants. These new facilities, however, will have the most modern equipment and this combination of advanced technology and human capital drives productivity in public services, which, in turn, is a fundamental goal of organisational or business endeavour.Ultimately, productivity gains justify increases in salaries in the public and private sectors.
As we get into these negotiations, it is important to recognise that while some would try to drive a wedge between the public and private sectors - pitting one against the other - each sector makes its own important contribution to economic and social life. Neither sector can perform in the absence of the other. Business cannot flourish without well-educated employees, the necessary infrastructure to get goods and services to market and the creation of level playing fields through appropriate regulation of markets. A society cannot provide increasing standards of living and good public services without a strong economy and a healthy enterprise base. While we look at remuneration in a public service context, we have to take account of what is happening with wage developments in the private sector. The public sector should not lead the private sector nor should it be left behind because we have to be able to compete for talented skilled workers in may key sectors. We cannot run a country with two economies, one composed of lawyers, shopkeepers and technologists, and the other made up of social workers, civil servants and doctors. We must acknowledge our mutual interdependence.
This is one of the reasons I established the Public Service Pay Commission. I thank everybody who has worked on the commission for their efforts. The commission generated findings that have a general relevance that is not focused on or confined solely to the public sector. For example, let us consider what the commission found in respect of pay and pensions. On pay, it found that the pay premium that used to favour public service workers declined over the period 2007 to 2014 and is now approaching parity. Statistical comparisons on public and private pay are important but they do not explain why these disparities exist or why they should exist. The commission also found that lower-paid public servants still enjoy a pay premium of 15% compared with their equivalent counterparts in the private sector . Does this mean that the public sector overpays in respect of lower-paid employment or that the private sector underpays? Does the finding that women are paid better in the public service mean that we overpay women or that the private sector has to do more to ensure gender balance? Similarly, the commission found that a person at the top in the private sector is earning nearly seven times more than someone at the bottom. The equivalent figure in the public sector is about half that. This gives rise to further questions. Does the finding mean that the public service is underpaying senior management or that remuneration in certain areas of the private sector has become more inequitable?
I am proud that the public service is a good employer, that public servants are treated with respect and dignity, have pension entitlements, flexible working arrangements and decent pay. The real challenge is to ensure that this model of good employer-employee relations is not limited to public servants but is accessible to all. Another clear finding of the Public Service Pay Commission is that there are valuable pension arrangements in the public service. In the commission's opinion, having looked at all of the information provided, the additional value of a standard public service pension for those who joined the service prior to 2013 is within a range of 12% to 18%.Of course, this statistical comparison is based against a subset of the private sector that actually has pensions which can be compared with. Most in the private sector do not have an occupational pension at all; in fact, only 35% of private sector workers have an occupational pension. As we know, the demographic structure of society is changing, with those in the old age cohort growing by an additional 20,000 every year. Therefore, yes, the value of public service pensions should be considered as part of total remuneration, but we also have to do something about the level of pension coverage and provision more broadly. These considerations are central to the negotiations and discussions that are happening under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission.
Moving on to the issue of capital investment, I want to pick up on a theme I have just referred to in regard to pay, which is the concept of demographic change and what this means. First, it means there are an increasing number of elderly citizens, which in turn has implications for our approach to medium-term capital spending. We are fortunate, as a country, to possess many of the elements required for a strong infrastructure base. This can be seen in our extensive motorway network, our international airports and ports and our high-quality energy network. However, there are also challenges in terms of meeting the high level of pent-up demand for further infrastructure investment following many years of budgetary consolidation.
The Government is strongly committed to increasing public funding for capital investment in Ireland over the coming years in order to meet those demands. As outlined in our most recent budget, Exchequer capital expenditure will increase by almost 75% between 2016 and 2021. While the Department of Finance continues to liaise with the European Commission in regard to the fiscal rules, we of course must make our decisions on the basis of existing rules. The Government is, therefore, making use of continued economic growth to increase capital expenditure over the coming period without the need to raise taxes, but alternative means of funding infrastructure investment continue to be explored by the Government.
The Minister, Deputy Noonan, and I recently met the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg to explore such opportunities. This organisation supports crucial investment across the country and has funded many projects. For example, the Luas cross-city project, which is in the final stages of construction, received significant funding from the European Investment Bank, as is the case with the Gort-Tuam road and will be the case with the Grangegorman project on the northside of Dublin, and the expansion of our national road network in the south west. Again, these are all expansion projects that happened due to European Investment Bank support. I believe this kind of co-operation can continue in the future. The existing capital plan has laid out priorities in regard to initiatives such as Luas cross-city, metro north, the Dunkettle interchange, the new national children’s hospital and housing projects. We are committed to identifying new ways of delivering such projects while being mindful of all of the pressures I have just identified.
With regard to how we will do this, the Government made a commitment to a mid-term review of the capital plan. Within existing resources, we indicated we would increase such investment by an additional €5 billion over the coming years. Now, due to commitments we have already made in the area of public housing, there is approximately €2.6 billion in uncommitted additional capital expenditure up to 2021. The review is now under way. I have invited submissions from the public in regard to choices the Government can make. It is my intention to bring this process to a conclusion in the second half of the year and to confirm where we are with regard to the availability of resources and how they might relate to either existing or new projects.
As part of all of this, we are continuing to work closely with the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to ensure there is close alignment between these capital choices and the new national planning framework which will be published later this year.We will assess the submissions received from Departments and use this to inform final decisions on capital allocations, to be announced in completing budget 2018 and feeding that into the new national planning framework being led by the Minister, Deputy Coveney. It is also our intention to assess and report on the framework required to underpin a longer-term ten-year analysis of our infrastructure planning needs.
We must have a long-term plan to provide greater certainty to businesses and society at large which depend on our infrastructure. It will also provide certainty to those involved in the delivery of infrastructure on what construction is in the pipeline and enable the industry to plan accordingly to ensure capacity is available to deliver projects.
At the outset I stated that pay and capital are two different priority areas but one will influence the other. Choices in one area will have an effect on choices we make elsewhere. I look forward to discussing these choices and the framework I mentioned. I also forward to hearing contributions from Senators.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House at this, no doubt, busy time in his schedule. It will be a busy couple of days in the life of his party.
As the Minister alluded to, we are talking about two different, but interrelated, topics this afternoon: the mid-term capital review and the report of the Public Service Pay Commission. The capital plan was announced with significant fanfare in late 2015 by the previous Fine Gael-Labour Government. Unfortunately, this fanfare did not really match the substance of the plan. It lacked what we really need for the economy, namely, a level of ambition to address our capital deficit, including broadband connectivity, health care and transport.
Capital expenditure has suffered extensively from what would be known as the austerity years. Only last year did capital expenditure exceed the level of 2000 and 2001. Meanwhile our secondary and minor road network is at breaking point and our national broadband roll-out is faltering. As everyone has acknowledged, we have an immense housing supply crisis both in the social housing sphere and the private sector even where people are able to access funds to purchase themselves.
There has been a two-tier recovery and while the recovery is welcome where it has happened, it is vital that the national planning framework and the capital plan reflect this and help drive development in regional areas. As the Minister knows, Senators are elected by people from all over the country but I was a councillor in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council for 12.5 years. We welcome growth in Dublin but would like to see growth in other parts of the country. That has been acknowledged by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and across Cabinet. It is important that the regions also grow because the increasing pressure put on Dublin drives up prices, congestion and other things. All of us in Dublin would love to see Cork Airport or Shannon Airport doing more business than they are doing now. It is great that Dublin does well, but Dublin Airport does not necessarily need to be more than ten times larger than the next biggest airport in the country.
Brexit is the most significant political challenge Ireland has faced in many decades. Rural areas, particularly in the Border and midland regions, face very real threats as a result of a hard Brexit, which we all hope will not happen, but it is certainly not yet clear how that will pan out. The national planning framework and the capital plan must have a balanced regional perspective, which means trying to spread economic development throughout the country. Brexit will significantly threaten the agrifood sector. Along with Senators Kieran O'Donnell and Paddy Burke, I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. At the moment, that committee is meeting to discuss the impact of Brexit on the financial sector. We have also heard that agricultural tariffs could be between 30% and 50%, which is a very significant challenge. The areas least capable of weathering Brexit are probably the areas that will have to weather it most. The positives, if there are any, from Brexit are more likely to be in the areas that are doing relatively well as it is.
Fianna Fáil certainly believes that urban areas should not be pitched against rural areas. A balance must be found whereby investment in one does not take away from the other. As we know, capital investment since 2008 has been suboptimal - the kindest work I can use - and it has not met our demographic needs or demands. In coming decades, our population is expected to reach unprecedented levels, with some predicting a population of more than 8 million by 2040. Fianna Fáil believes that the national planning framework and the capital plan must be integrated in order to meet the country's needs.
Within a tight fiscal standpoint, it is vital that we explore other forms of investment. We must look more closely and proactively at public private partnerships. While occasionally they have not done themselves any service, there is certainly scope for greater use of that method of financing. They are currently restricted and we might need to examine that. Equally we need to avail of the Juncker plan and the European Investment Bank, which, as the Minister mentioned, now has a base in Ireland. We also need to look for uses for the proceeds from the AIB share floatation and any positive returns we get from NAMA. The European fiscal rules need to be adjusted for capital expenditure and we should probably be much more proactive on that front in order to allow for further capital investment in the State.
Ireland faces great challenges to its competitiveness and the disparity between the urban and more rural areas will be even more obvious with the onset of Brexit. Our capital expenditure lags far behind our neighbours and we need to step up to the mark on competitiveness. The mid-term capital plan must address this if Ireland is to remain an attractive and desirable place to live. I am conscious that we have only eight minutes to discuss two topics. However, Fianna Fáil made a very detailed submission to the mid-term capital review and I urge the Minister to take on board as much of it as possible in the context, as we all acknowledge, of scarce and limited resources.
The Public Service Pay Commission report, published on 9 May, will form the basis of the forthcoming negotiations between the Government and the public sector unions and staff representative associations. The Public Service Pay Commission is clear that any future pay rises need to be based within the fiscal rules and the limits of the State's resources, as the Minister mentioned. Fianna Fáil hopes that we will reach an agreement that will focus on strong, financially sustainable public services. I acknowledge the great work that many public sector workers do, including civil servants, gardaí, nurses, teachers, and those working in universities and local authorities. They form a very important part of the fabric of our society.
The establishment of the Public Service Pay Commission was a key achievement of Fianna Fáil in the confidence and supply agreement negotiated with Fine Gael in advance of the formation of the Government. It was set up to facilitate agreement on a successor to the Lansdowne Road agreement. Unwinding FEMPI on a fiscally sustainable basis has always been a core policy objective for Fianna Fáil. Following the crisis in 2008, FEMPI legislation was enacted in 2009 and again in 2010, 2011 and 2013. As part of the gradual unwinding of FEMPI, the Haddington Road agreement and the Lansdowne Road agreement were negotiated.
While Fianna Fáil is clearly not part of the current negotiations, we believe it is in the interest of the country to reach an agreement that is sustainable and fair, particularly for low and medium-paid workers. It must also allow for more public services to be provided, particularly in health and education to undo some of the cutbacks in the austerity years and to meet the needs of our growing population which, of course, is welcome.
The future pay talks should be sustainable, service-led and should deal with sectoral shortages. They also should assist low and middle-income workers more. It is vital that public sector workers and the public who rely on their services benefit from economic growth on a sustainable basis in coming years and hopefully the Public Service Pay Commission report will achieve that goal. The Government needs to move swiftly to initiating talks with the unions with the firm goal of achieving a sustainable basis for a strong public service. The public who use services such as health and education, as well as the diligent staff who work in them, deserve a financially viable agreement. Continued progress in these services, evidence-based pay changes and setting out a strong foundation for future financing should be the shared goal of all parties going into the negotiations.
Personally and on behalf of my party, I wish the Minister well in the negotiations and in implementing the recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission. It is vital that everyone gets an outcome that is fair to those involved and fair to the State.I say that as someone who had four grandparents who worked in various parts of the public service and two parents who did the same, so I am not someone who feels that it is a good idea to pitch private against public. We are all in this together, we are looking for the future of the country to be better, and I wish the Minister well in his endeavours.
I welcome the Minister here to the House today. There are a few items I want to address. First, like the previous speaker, I wish the Minister well in his public service pay negotiations. It is not an occasion for confrontation and it is not necessary to divide the country into a pointless conflict between the public and the private sector. On the other hand, it is an occasion on which we can choose either to loosen the purse strings without a strategy or decide to be careful with what we do.
Let us look, for instance, at the number of people in competitions who want to become members of An Garda Síochána. While I fully accept the proposition that ideally there should be one pay rate for every occupation and there should not be grade A and grade B gardaí, doctors, nurses or anyone else, it does occur to me that the package is attractive. If we ever came to the point where there was a dearth of people applying to be members of An Garda Síochána, that would be a different matter, but it should be borne in mind that where positions in the public service are offered, there seem to be a lot of people interested in taking them up. We should draw some conclusions from that as to whether they are more attractive in their entirety compared with positions outside the public service.
My second point concerns the question of public sector capital investment. There has been a lot of comment one way or the other on this issue recently, but it occurs to me that we need a well-thought through plan to improve the infrastructure in this country. One of my pet issues is the N4 and N3 to integrate the north west into the economic life of the country, in particular to provide a high-quality dual carriageway, if not full motorway, to Sligo, Letterkenny and Omagh, connecting up to the M1 in Northern Ireland. Now is the time to get on and plan that. The Brexit negotiations offer an opportunity to the Government to raise at European level the importance of the cross-Border roadway network, not just on the Dublin-Belfast corridor but on the Dublin-north west axis to Letterkenny, Derry, Omagh and other places. Now is the time to factor that into the negotiations which will take place in the context of the United Kingdom's decision to depart.
On housing, it is undoubtedly the case that in decades long gone by, the State, confronted with the tenement crisis in Dublin, was able to organise a housing drive which was very significant. While it was not perfect in that there was an element of ghettoisation attendant on building vast housing schemes which were all social housing, and while that had some effects on the city of Limerick which were ill-thought-out, now is the time for different approaches to be taken to ensure there are more houses.
When I say this, I hope people do not think this is some kind of right-wing ideology. I have been watching a bit of British television about the buy-to-rent sector there, and I really believe that we are now in danger of seeing in this decade the emergence of a new trend whereby the great majority of people going through their lives are going to be tenants. That has implications for cohesion in society, especially when the landlords are increasingly not going to be one-off or three-off landlords but rather effectively investment funds, real estate investment trusts, REITs, and the like investing in housing for letting. It has implications in the long run for the kind of society we have.
This is not a bourgeois preoccupation. On the contrary, the idea that the great majority of Irish people could aspire to a degree of ownership in terms of capital assets within a country is a good one and we should not lose sight of that. Owner-occupation is not a bad thing. The propagation of owner-occupancy is a good thing and it is simply not enough to talk about units coming on the market, although I can well appreciate that in the middle of a crisis, that view applies. On the other hand, we have to look around a few corners to see what kind of society we are creating. I can certainly see, looking at the younger generation now, that the great majority of them have very little prospect of being owner-occupiers unless there is a radical change in our housing market. Government policy has to address that issue.
When I was Attorney General and was privileged to represent the Government in the Supreme Court when Part V of the Planning and Development Act came up for discussion, the principle of that was that there was to be no ghettoisation and that there was to be a mix of housing throughout the country. Again, from an ideological point of view, it is hugely important that those who are on the bottom of the ladder, so to speak, are not confined to large areas of social housing from which those who are owner-occupiers are effectively excluded. It was a matter of regret to me that that policy, no sooner was it legislated for, was diluted to the point where it just became an economic transaction with no real teeth. We should be mindful of that as well.
Looking around Dublin, the city that I live in, it occurs to me that Dublin City Council is averse to purchasing land compulsorily for the purpose of providing housing. We need something like a regeneration commission which could look at land, assemble sites, have a plan for streets and localities in neighbourhoods and operate, on a semi-commercial basis, the whole idea of land acquisition. This is not a radical idea at all because in the 18th and 19th centuries the Dublin Wide Streets Commissioners did precisely that and all the best parts of the inner city were rebuilt by the commissioners to achieve that aim. I have seen, however, the fright of public servants, particularly in local government, when anyone has suggested they might acquire anything compulsorily. There is a great amount of toing and froing with the Custom House, years go by and the disastrous implications of it going wrong or the implications of all the effort and legal risks attached to it slow everything down. We have to take new and imaginative steps to deal with that issue.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House and I wish him well with the public sector pay talks. I have always held the view that we must have an integrated model where both public and private are respected. Looking back at public sector pay talks over the past four or five years, people need to be paid a fair wage for a fair day's work. It is extremely important that we look at the structures within the public sector where people can advance.One of the problems particularly affects the lower end. The majority of public servants are actually not that well paid. The problem is how to put the structures in place to allow people to advance and to allow talent to flourish. We have all met people in the public sector, many of whom are at a very low-ranking stage, and although they have huge ability, the opportunities do not come their way. When the Minister is looking at the overall pay aspect, that should be a key feature. He should look at innovation. The Revenue On-Line Service, ROS, was brought in by the Revenue Commissioners, and the restructuring of the public sector within Revenue has been highly successful. Other Departments have done fantastic work. Some have not. I do not wish to single out any Department but we know ourselves from our dealings with them. Apart from pay, we have to look at whether the public sector as it exists is fit for purpose in a modern age. That is what I am looking at.
Before I move on to capital spending, I will touch on a couple of points Senator McDowell made which I thought were very informative. Part V never worked. In my experience, having been an elected councillor, virtually all the Part V initiatives were bought out. They did not work. Part V was supposed to ensure 10% social housing and 10% affordable housing. There was absolute certainty for people. If they bought a house in an estate privately, they knew that 10% of the other houses were going to be social and 10% would be affordable in order that people who could not afford to buy privately could buy. Everyone knew the model and how it worked. It is almost a throwback to the old model in which there were clusters of local authority housing alongside private homes in a town or city. It worked and it was a good social model. Instead, the Part V initiatives were bought out and suddenly people were paying exorbitant prices. The houses were being sold on the basis that there would be no local authority housing within the estate. It created enormous confusion. The council then was required to come back in and purchase houses. It made things difficult on both sides. If we bring in a law, it should be implemented without fear or favour. Part V was a failure. It has come back in again. People need certainty.
The Minister referred to dereliction orders. Dereliction orders per sedo not really work. All they do is put a levy on the building, which racks up every year. It is a charge. It does not deal with the building itself. It does not bring it back into useful purpose. It is something we need to look at. It is slightly outside the box and I know it is being looked at.
I will move on to the capital spending. I want to be specific. I represent Limerick and the Minister will be well aware of how strongly I feel about the M20 project. I am glad to see that it has now taken centre stage politically at Government, national and local level across parties. Everyone in Limerick in particular is talking about it. I am glad. It is something for which I have campaigned for a long time. I feel very strongly about it. I held a public meeting in Limerick on the issue of the M20 and I encouraged people to make submissions under the mid-term capital review. I expect a good number of people and business interests will. I think it is always important to take the good with the bad at public meetings, and one thing that came up was issues with landowners and other people. This was when the M20 project was under way previously and before it was discontinued for financial reasons back in 2011. The process must be looked at once again to make sure it is fit for purpose.
For me it is very simple. The M20 stands on its own merits. The two major cities outside of Dublin are not linked by a motorway. If we are looking at balanced regional development as a country, a key concern is that it would be terrible if our economy's sustainability was jeopardised because our infrastructure lagged behind. The M20 is the key road infrastructure that needs to be dealt with now. On safety grounds, there was an accident on the existing N20 today. There have been a multitude of accidents. It is unsafe. Anyone who has travelled the existing N20 from Limerick to Cork at commuter time will know what it is like going though Charleville and Buttevant. It is tortuous. We must link the two cities to cut down commuter times. We should be able to get from Limerick to Cork in an hour. It is currently about an hour and a half. Shortly, we will be able to get from Limerick to Galway in an hour. There should be no reason a person cannot get from Cork to Galway in two hours, obviously coming through the capital of the mid-west and west, Limerick. We are exceptionally well located strategically as a city, but the M20 itself is hugely important.
I welcome the fact the Minister, Deputy Ross, ran with my proposal to extend €1 million to allow the pre-planning process to get under way. I find it astounding that people misjudged and misunderstood what I was attempting to do. I was attempting to get the M20 off the ground again. There are two aspects to any projects. There is the aspect of momentum and not losing time, and there is the funding aspect. Funding does not, however, need to be in place overnight for the entire project. A project is made up of pre-planning within Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, design, route selection and a multitude of things. They take time. If they do not get under way, time is lost. TII, formerly the National Roads Authority, is now looking at setting up for pre-planning to allow design consultants to be appointed and to allow the project effectively to get under way. No more time is being lost. The clock was stopped up to a short time ago. We now have the M20 project rolling again. People missed the point. It is not about having all the funding in place. It is about ensuring it is on the agenda again and that it is active again, which it is.
I have a few very quick questions for the Minister. When does he anticipate concluding the review of the submissions on the mid-term capital plan, more especially on the M20? Will the submissions be made public? When does he anticipate making an announcement? I want to see us looking at how robust the costing of €1 billion is and whether savings can effectively be made. If we allow that it is approved as a project and comes back into the capital plan, will we allow consultants to begin designing and allow this project to progress? It will make such a difference to Limerick, the mid-west, Cork, Galway and Ireland Inc. I feel passionately about this. I want to see it in the capital plan and funded and built as quickly as possible.
I welcome the Minister. The mid-term capital review is, in Sinn Féin's view, a complete misnomer, as it implies that there was a plan to review in the first place. There was not. In 2015, the Government simply cobbled together several projects already under way and repackaged them as a five-year plan. Now, two years later, the Government is scrambling to make it look like it is actually doing something in terms of investment in our social and economic infrastructure, and once again it is clear it has no intention of doing anything unless it benefits private interests.
It is accepted universally outside the Dáil and Seanad that the best way to address the housing crisis is for the State to start building homes again and for the State to purchase homes, as per the Sinn Féin plan. Capital funding is needed to enable local authorities to buy houses and build homes to increase capacity in the system, and in our alternative budget last year we were able to provide for this. Such a programme would have the added advantage of driving down rents in Cork, Dublin, Waterford and other major cities, as well as in rural areas.
Sinn Féin, in its alternative budget, proposed an additional 7,000 units through acquisitions and new builds as part of our capital plan. What we have got from the Government, however, on this issue has been taken straight from the Fianna Fáil playbook when it was unable to solve any of the big problems, namely, the introduction of tax breaks. We had the so-called first-time buyer's scheme, which was half-baked, with no real detail and which had not been properly teased out.
We know that housing is the big issue, with people unnecessarily being in emergency accommodation, sleeping in their parents' and friends' front rooms and without a roof over their heads. This is the time to deal with these issues and put our money where our mouths are, as it were. Fianna Fáil had the chance to do so, but, of course, it did nothing, as usual. The Government of Fine Gael and the Independents had its chance, but it did nothing either.Here we go again, with no real solution to the housing crisis.
It is not just in housing that we see the lack of vision from the Government. There are capacity problems in health and education and our roads network is in need of up to €1.5 billion in investment just to get the roads back to a safe level. None of this is of interest to Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, unless, of course, there are contracts to be doled out to private interests. That is the ideology driving current and past Government planning and it is at the core of why we are in the continued mess we are in. When we invest in our public services, we are investing in our communities, in our children and in the future. It is not simply a cost but an investment that will provide us with great returns.
I want to address the issue of the M20. One of the great failures of Fine Gael in the past six years is the abandonment of the M20 project. The fact a Minister for Finance based in Limerick would make such a decision is, frankly, shameful. I know friends and colleagues commuting each day to Cork and it is nothing less than a nightmare. Unfortunately, I am old enough to remember when Ed Walsh first put forward the idea of an Atlantic corridor - it must be back in the 1980s - yet here we still are, waiting to see whether the Government will commit to an M20 project. I have to put it very directly - to date, the Government has let the people of Limerick down. There is nothing else to be said. It should have been a key priority and the fact it was not is, frankly, shameful. How are we ever to have proper regional balance if the Government continues to fail to link the key cities on the western seaboard? It is a huge failure.
To be fair, we have been calling for this for years. It is embarrassing for Senator Kieran O'Donnell to have to admit that six years into a Government he supports, there is still no commitment for the M20 project. A senior businessperson in Limerick told me that if we get approval later this year, it will be ten years - a decade - before that road is in place. That is the record and I have to say it is a record of failure on behalf of Fine Gael. There should be no excuses for that. Yes, of course, we call for the M20 project, as I think everyone in Limerick does. However, the fact of the matter is that Limerick was forgotten for the last six years.
In regard the Public Service Pay Commission, although it was set up as a delaying tactic, it nonetheless threw up some interesting statistics. Local authority employment fell by 21% from 2008 to 2013 and has barely grown since. This is a staggering drop for any sector but this one is concentrated on providing the type of shared services that make communities work. The shortfall has been filled through agency and contract workers. This means that the Government is actually paying more in wages now than it was in 2008 but this is hidden as the wages now come from two different budgets - direct employment and so-called procurement and emergency spend. The trade unions, in particular my own union, SIPTU, have been campaigning for years to get proper employment back into our local authorities but, again, without success to date. I hope the Minister will begin to listen to the trade unions.
In terms of health, more than half of all student nurses leave the system on graduation. Some 7,500 graduate nurses have gone to Britain in the past six years and there are 3,200 fewer nurses working in Ireland today than in 2008. That is the record of this Government. There is a similar turnover in the Defence Forces, while tensions within schools between pre-2011 and post-2011 teachers have spilled over into industrial action. The same issue led to the threat of the first national strike of An Garda Síochána in the history of the State, one that was only called off at the last minute.
The inability of the Government to provide a viable career path to our young people entering public service - be it in nursing, in teaching or in uniform - is an absolute scandal. My party recognises the importance of this issue and that is why we have made equal pay for equal work a red-line issue. Previous Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael-led Governments took an axe to public sector pay. They created and sustained a two-tier pay structure and reduced pay and terms and conditions of employment for public sector workers. Sinn Féin has long argued for a socially just and economically sustainable unwinding of FEMPI cuts. The core of any new pay agreement has to be to restore the public sector to a single-tier pay structure and re-establish the principle of equal pay for equal work.
In conclusion, Sinn Féin believes that a fresh agreement needs to prioritise pay restoration for those earning less than €65,000, with pay increases for the low paid. The days of unfair agreements that widen the pay gap and create pay inequality must come to an end.
I thank the Minister for attending. It is my first opportunity to engage with him. The Minister's presentation referred to public sector and private sector. While those two sectors certainly do exist, I believe there is a bit more nuance to it. One of two issues I particularly want to address today arises in the context of the current pay negotiations, in that a number of section 38-funded organisations funded through the Health Acts in the health sector are effectively in those negotiations. There are also other civil society organisations, pretty much all charities, which are by definition public or community benefit organisations. As I would put it, they are first cousins of the public services in that they are not private for-profit entities but rather are there to provide a public benefit or public service. Those organisations funded under section 39 are, however, outside of this arrangement. Nonetheless, they are both in the same labour market, which is currently tight in respect of the supply of many of the skill sets that are needed. That is simply a matter of fact, in particular in regard to occupational therapists, physiotherapists and those with backgrounds in social services, disability and so on. Therefore, of two organisations working in the same area, one is designated under section 38 and will rise as though it is in a marina with whatever comes out of these negotiations, while the other is bolted down at the low-water mark. However, the second organisation still has the same pressures, the same trade unions and the same staff interests who will point to what is happening to their colleagues while they are stuck.
I am not here to do the work of staff representatives or trade unions. They are well capable of doing that and must be heard by the employers. I am here to make the point that those people are only employed because there is a public service to be provided, whether it is provided by one kind of organisation or another or by the HSE itself. There is a conundrum here. My understanding is the HSE is telling the section 39 organisations that this is their issue and that they have to go through all the industrial relations drill to see what comes out of it. However, if somebody starts their career in a section 39 organisation and there are better pay and conditions across the road, they will migrate. The people being served and supported in one organisation will find themselves in an area where there is more churning of staff, where staff are coming in and then making a commonsensical, practical decision for themselves and rightly so. The butt end of that is not so much the organisation but the infrastructure of services they need. I cannot too strongly say to the Minister that this needs to be dealt with in a timely fashion, now rather than later.
I will give one example. More than 1,000 young people with disabilities have gone into nursing homes in recent years and that number has increased given there is the draw of the statutorily-underpinned fair deal scheme. Other community-based services, such as personal assistants, home support and so on, do not have the protection of having statutory underpinning as they are provided on an administrative basis. That is causing a push. The first thing a trainee doctor is taught is, for God's sake, do no harm. The way things are structured publicly is causing a bias that is doing harm and making the services that some organisations provide more unsustainable, which is unfair to the people supported by them.
I will leave the point at that as I do not believe I can say it any more clearly but that is an important unintended consequence of the current work in which the Minister is involved. I do not suggest we should turn them all into section 38 organisations.I am not making the case for that, but something has to be done even if it involves appointing more staff. Action must be taken to ensure there is a level playing field for people with disabilities.
I consider the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to be in a position that no other Department is in. It has an influence over how the funding that goes out to a range of other Departments is prioritised and focused. There is more than €14 billion going into health, €1.7 billion of which is allocated in respect of disability, although that excludes the mental health side. Ireland has very poor outcomes for disabled people in terms of their getting into employment or returning to employment. We see this every year in the context of school leavers as we ask what we should do with them. What tends to happen is they go to day programmes and they remain in them. Adults who become disabled and who already have a range of employment and community skills are also finding it very difficult to obtain employment. If a lot of public money is being spent on the health side in respect of social programmes and if people are bottled up in that area because the pathways back to employment or into employment are not being opened up, this is bad value for public investment. It is a poor outcome and a very bad return on investment. The key to unlocking that is to consider what is happening across Departments. An example of this is people with disabilities - be they blind, deaf or physically impaired - being able to use public transport. This would apply especially to transport in rural areas because public transport in urban areas has improved quite a lot. These factors are all enablers to allow people to be out and about and able to access further education, return to training and use the different modules. I ask the Minister to monitor what is happening across Departments. We need all the investment that is allocated to health, but an awful lot more could achieved as a result of it if complementary things happen in other Departments.
With the Leas-Chathaoirleach's indulgence, I have one final thing to say. The budget comes up every year and that is the context in which to look at this. There is also more than €50 billion in the base. How could this be used differently? The commitment to the UN convention and the public sector duty are two strong drivers. I have indulged and I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach.
I welcome the Minister. I have no doubt that he could have a very senior financial portfolio in the next couple of weeks and I wish him well in that regard. I congratulate the Minister on the work he has done in recent years.
I wish to discuss a few matters relating to the mid-term review. I welcome the review and I congratulate the Minister on bringing it forward. It is only right and proper that we should have an opportunity to have our say on and an input into it, and that the public should also have its say.
It was interesting to listen to Senator McDowell's comments on public sector pay and the amount of applicants for positions in An Garda Síochána and the Army. They have great confidence in the sector and they would like to work in the public sector. I have great time for public sector officials and it is only right that they should be well looked after. It is also only right that we should have the best and the brightest in our public sector. We have some very bright people in the public sector and, as is the case with industry, why should the sector not have the brightest and the best? The public sector is a huge employer and provides many services to the public, namely, those relating to transport - including, until recently, our national airline - health, policing and the Army. State and semi-State bodies have provided great services to the nation over the past 100 years. We should have the brightest and the best people in the public sector. We should ensure that they are looked after and well paid.
There should be a bonus system in the public sector. This is a matter to which the Minister should give consideration. There are some companies that reward their staff for coming up with new ideas and the public sector should look at that. Why should public sector staff not bring forward ideas that may streamline processes or bring huge savings to both the sector and the State? People who do this and come up with ideas should be rewarded. The Minister should examine this matter.
As the Minister said, we are really only talking about the €2.6 billion that remains to be allocated on the basis of the outcome of the mid-term review. We are looking at housing and infrastructure. On the €2.2 billion for housing, there is no doubt that there is a huge shortage of houses throughout the country. We have not yet considered the cost of building houses and I am of the view that the Government must do so. Builders tell me that they are not building houses because it is costs too much to do so. They cannot get back the money it costs to build houses. Why, therefore, should they build houses only to lose money? In the context of a house that costs between €200,000 and €250,000, the VAT can be anywhere from €30,000 to €40,000. The Government is not getting that money because the houses are not being built. The Government should, particularly in the context of new builds, examine the position regarding VAT. There have been major implications for builders in recent years regarding various regulations - such as those relating to insulation standards, etc. - put in place in respect of the building of houses. Builders tell us that it costs in the region of €178,000 to construct a new house and that is without taking the cost of the site into consideration. This presents a huge conundrum because the vast majority of people have to obtain loans of €200,000 to €250,000 in order to purchase homes. In most cases, it would mean that the two loan applicants would need to be working. We have no choice but to examine the possibility of reducing the costs relating to building new houses. Perhaps the Minister could look at this aspect in the next couple of weeks or months.
I shall now turn to the issue of infrastructure. Senator Gavan referred to the Cork-to-Limerick road and Senator McDowell mentioned the roads from Dublin to the west, Sligo and Letterkenny. I would like to pitch in my tuppence ha'penny worth regarding the N5. At present, a new section of the latter is being planned in respect of the route between Westport and Castlebar. This area was neglected during the boom. All major Irish cities were linked in the boom times. For example, Dublin was linked to Galway, Limerick, Cork and Waterford by means of various motorways. However, the area north of the Dublin-Galway route has been neglected. We talk of regional development and bringing regional balance to the country but the entire area to which I refer has been neglected. I ask the Minister to look at the area in question in the context of extending the motorway from Mullingar to the west, with a network of link roads to Castlebar, Sligo and Letterkenny. Senator McDowell is correct in that we should take a long-term view in respect of this matter and see how it might be possible to achieve what I am suggesting by means of a single motorway as opposed to several motorways.
Today the Taoiseach and Cabinet announced strategic development zone, SDZ, status for Ireland West Airport Knock.I welcome that announcement, which I hope will be backed up with some tax incentives. Knock international airport is one of the drivers of regional development in the west. The special development zone for the area around the airport must be supported through tax incentives or grants to ensure proper regional development takes place. More than 700,000 passengers use the airport each year and flights depart for various parts of the UK daily. It is a driving force in the local economy. Unlike Cork, Limerick, Rosslare and Dublin, County Mayo does not have a port, nor does it have a fast train service and, as previous speakers noted, it does not have a motorway either. I ask the Minister to consider extending tax designation to the SDZ around Knock international airport.
Senator Paddy Burke may be looking for divine inspiration. I welcome the Minister to the House and I am pleased to have an opportunity to discuss with him these two pressing matters for the State. As he knows only too well, from 2007 until the middle of this decade, the focus of the State was very much on the immediate viability of the country, economic recovery, getting people back to work and using the limited resources available to us to protect and promote public services to the best of our ability. The Minister will agree that all those who made the recovery possible, from businesses and the trade unions to the Administration in which he and I both served and the people of Ireland, deserve credit. The challenge we now face is to make choices on how best to use the resources available to us to expand the economy and create opportunities and invest in better and more public projects and services. These choices and challenges are much more appetising than those that faced any Administration in recent times.
The review of the capital programme and the Public Service Pay Commission report which forms the basis of the ongoing negotiations on a successor to the Lansdowne Road agreement will help to dictate the future direction of the country and the extent to which economic recovery can be felt in an equitable fashion across the country. The review is welcome. The 2016 to 2021 programme, Building on Recovery, set about the task of helping Ireland to recover from what many described as a lost decade of infrastructural investment. As the Minister noted, the programme involved a total backed capital investment of approximately €42 billion if we include the projects identified by semi-State bodies and public private partnerships.
There is now a consensus that the correct course of action is to do more by investing in projects that society and the economy need and to do so while market conditions are not only benign but very propitious. I can identify many such projects in my local area, as previous speakers did in their home areas. One with which the Minister will be familiar from a previous visit he made to Drogheda Port Company some years ago when he was Minister with responsibility for transport, is the Drogheda Port northern access route. This project is critical to the ongoing development of Drogheda which is, by some measure, the largest town in the country. This important infrastructural project is needed to relieve traffic from the medieval town centre and facilitate the swift movement of traffic from the port to the M1. While much of it will be funded by development contributions to allow residential and commercial development to take place in the northern environs of Drogheda, some State investment is also required.
The often neglected town of Ardee in mid-County Louth also requires investment for the N2 bypass. Anyone who has travelled through the town on a busy Friday evening will agree that it is one of the most difficult bottlenecks in the country. It is on the N2 national route and requires investment in a bypass to allow it to develop to its full potential.
More money would be available and we would be having a very different conversation today if the Government were to postpone the sale of part of the State shareholding in AIB. I am not prone to hyperbole - there is enough exaggeration and mock indignation in this House and the Lower House to last us all a lifetime - but the decision to dispose of approximately €3 billion worth of AIB shares owned by the Irish people for the purpose of making a very minor dent in our national debt is bizarre.
The Government has much explaining to do on this issue. I am not convinced as to the rationale for the disposal of these shares at this time. After everything the country has experienced and after all the pain caused by the bank rescue and related economic problems, it is incredible that the final act in office of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, will be to deliver a barrel load of cash to our creditors to deal with an entirely manageable national debt and to do so when people need homes and health services above all else. There is no demand for this sale and I am not convinced that it needs to take place now. I cannot understand the reason the Government is so determined to carry on regardless and give the two fingers to the will of the Dáil, as expressed in a motion proposed by the Labour Party several weeks ago.
There is every chance that the fiscal rules will change as leaders across the European Union recognise that we need to return to the idea of a social Europe and move away from a Europe that appears to be focused solely on managing economies and reducing debt at all costs. Public sector trade unions are engaging with the Minister's officials in an effort to reach an accommodation and identify if a successor agreement to the Lansdowne Road agreement can be found. The wrong decision taken on the AIB shares and some comments made by the Minister who appears to be the Taoiseach in waiting on the management of public sector industrial relations in future have not helped the mood music. The best thing politicians can do is stay out of these negotiations and allow the public sector trade unions and the Minister and his officials to continue to do the job they have been asked to do. I hope the Fine Gael Party can break its duck and do something it has not managed to do previously, namely, successfully negotiate a public sector deal on its own. I genuinely wish the Minister every success in that undertaking because the country needs an agreement. I will await developments with interest.
My party is proud of the role it played in stabilising the public finances and ensuring, during the difficult period covered by the Haddington Road and Lansdowne Road agreements, that there were no compulsory redundancies in the public sector. We are also proud of the protections we introduced in the area of outsourcing and the prevention of mass privatisation of public services and State companies. When resources became available the Labour Party, with its partner in government from 2011 to 2016, ensured it was those on lower and middle incomes who benefitted most from the resources that became available, in particular, in the context of the Lansdowne Road agreement. I hope this principle is retained in the context of the negotiations being undertaken by the Minister's officials.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for agreeing to come to the House for this discussion.I wish all those involved in the public sector pay talks every success. As the Minister said, the Public Service Pay Commission is the backdrop and the beginning. It is important that we see this matter resolved. It is also important that other unions such as my own union, the ASTI, reconsider how they have approached public sector talks on behalf of their members. We must give some hope to members of the public sector in respect of pay restoration. They have had to endure a horrendous time in the past decade. I say that as a proud public servant who spent many years teaching and who recognises the importance of the public sector to our society and country. The public sector unions have made changes in terms of flexibility, hours of work and how the sector does its business. The issue of pensions is contentious and has vexed the minds of many more salubrious people than I. It is important that we see reform in the public sector but also that we offer hope for pay restoration to the men and women who work in it. Reflecting on what has happened in terms of outputs and outcomes, we recognise the need to bring people further on the journey.
My main focus tonight, if the Minister will allow me, is infrastructure development. Like Senator Kieran O'Donnell, I wish to extol the importance of the Cork-Limerick route. While I recognise the huge cost that the State would incur, it is a road artery that needs to be developed. Like many others, I travelled to Ballinasloe last Saturday night. It was a horrendous journey-----
The M20 is a very important route that we need to see prioritised by the Government. When we discuss regions, it is really about access to Cork, Galway and Limerick as a counterfoil to Dublin. The people of Cork, Limerick, Galway and Clare deserve to have that motorway. It will allow us to promote jobs and industry in those areas.
I am aware that the Minister has been lobbied extensively on the events centre in Cork. It is a flagship project that we must see come to fruition. There has been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on this project. The Minister's Cabinet colleague, Deputy Coveney ,has been working very hard on the issue. It is an extremely important project for the city of Cork. There will be a request to Government, if one has not already been made, regarding future funding. I would hope that in analysing this, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, will recognise that the project is central to the promotion of Cork as a location for business, industry, the hospitality sector and the whole concert and conference business. We have seen the growth of Cork Airport and the emergence of transatlantic routes out of it. The Minister has always been supportive of Cork Airport. To his credit, he came to Cork and engaged with the airport and stuck with the project at a time when it was not popular. I will always remember that.
The N28 project is slightly out of the remit of the Minister but is linked to him in terms of capital funding. That is the project of most concern and contention in our area. I ask the Leas-Chathaoirleach to bear with me for one minute. There has been a commitment to develop the project. However, it needs to be revisited by Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, which has not engaged meaningfully with residents in Rochestown, Carr's Hill or Douglas. It has vexed the minds of people. We are investing State money in a very important road. We all understand that the Port of Cork is moving to Ringaskiddy, which most of us welcome, although some may not. If we do not see change in the emerging route as proposed by TII, it will create absolute mayhem for the local communities. This is not nimbyism. It is about local communities being totally discommoded and adversely affected by a project that can be advanced better by working in partnership.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House tonight. I wish him, his Department and all involved in the public sector pay talks well. Those talks are very important. In respect of the mid-term review of the capital plan, I believe the Minister will hear from all of us in this House about the need to see investment in capital infrastructure.
I am the Green Party Senator and a member of the Civil Engagement group. I have not met the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, before. I welcome him to the House.
Currently, the capital plan equates sustainability with fiscal sustainability. The reality is that Ireland is not a profit-maximising enterprise but a society of shared lives reliant on natural ecosystems. Ecological and social sustainability must be mainstreamed across all aspects of Government policy. Our long-term prosperity, which relies on social and ecological factors, must be prioritised over short-term gain. We must rely on indicators other than GDP to reflect how well our society is prospering. These could include the sustainable development goals, the index of sustainable economic welfare and the human development index. A range of economic shifts will be required to make the transition. These include moving taxation from economic activity to pollution and resource use, decoupling economic security and full employment and ensuring the stability of the monetary and banking systems in a stable economy. This transition requires long-term thinking and a greater role for public investment to create and maintain solid, long-lasting fiscal, social and environmental assets. Investment is a fundamental aspect of the new green economy as prosperity today means little if it undermines prosperity tomorrow.
The revised capital plan is widening its analysis beyond fiscal sustainability. This can make a lasting contribution to Ireland's future by setting us on a pathway to a low-carbon economy. The capital plan should be in line with the low-carbon transition goal of 100% decarbonisation by 2050 as required by the Paris agreement. The capital plan must set out the investment required for the transition, securing the long-term cross-party investment required. One has to remember that what economists view as costs in analysing carbon abatement are for the most part investments in new capital stock. The building of that capital stock creates prosperity.
It will be impossible to meet our Paris Agreement commitments without immediate reductions in transport emissions. The target of merely holding to 2005 emissions is not enough yet we are not even achieving that. Immediate investment in walking, cycling and public transport is essential and to comply with the smarter travel goals, specific funding commitments are required, that is, at least 20% of transport funding must be allocated to walking and cycling, as recommended by the United Nations Environment Programme, and at least 50% of transport funding must be allocated to public transport.
The current capital plan essentially adopts the strategic investment framework for land transport. As identified by many of the submissions to the draft framework, its handling of climate change was inadequate. On foot of the enactment of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, continuation of the approach taken in the capital plan and the strategic investment framework on which it was based is not a lawful option. Transport investments need to be fundamentally rethought from the original plan, which prioritised investment for motor vehicles. Walking and cycling should be prioritised. The plan should provide for the full implementation of the greater Dublin area cycle network, implementation of similar cycle networks for other urban areas such as Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Galway and implementation of a nationwide greenway network such as that recently opened in Waterford.A full investment strategy is needed for the improvement and expansion of the rail network as the core of an integrated public transport network, comprising rail and bus. Investment in roads should be restricted to investments which can be demonstrated to lead to reductions rather than increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Aviation is responsible for 5% of global warming, but far from contracting as all major emissions sources must, it is one of the fastest growing sectors. It is the most carbon intensive means of travel. The European Union has included aviation in the emissions trading scheme and the International Civil Aviation Organisation is working to create an international framework for controlling emissions. Dublin Airport's expansion plans are based on predicted demand which ignores climate change. The only potential future in which the proposal for a third runway is justified is one in which no measures are taken to limit aviation emissions. If the countries of the world, including Ireland and the European Union, live up to their commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change, the third runway will be a white elephant.
Climate change is acknowledged by the Government as the greatest national and global crisis. We must do everything in our power to recognise that in the capital plan and ensure modes of transport and every aspect of society supports the positive climate and decarbonisation method.
I thank all Senators for the contributions they have made. I have made notes on the points made by each Member and I will comment on each of the individual contributions. However, I will comment also on a number of broad themes that relate to the points made.
First, I want to comment on the concept of progress. It is important as we ground our contributions that we do so with an appreciation of progress made and what we have, not just what we need to do. In making this point, I am very conscious of the social needs that exist across all the groups that Members represent, across all communities and towns in the country. Of course, I represent a constituency in which these social needs are particularly acute. Recognising those needs should not be at the expense of progress we have made in the issues we have touched on here this afternoon.
It is important to acknowledge the deficiencies we have in our infrastructure. It is important to acknowledge the improvements we need to make. I will comment on that in a moment. Let us do that in the spirit of acknowledging that we have a national road network that in many parts of our country meets the needs of those who need to commute on it. Let us acknowledge that for a country of our size, notwithstanding the concerns that were articulated by Senator Grace O'Sullivan, we have a very well-developed national, local and regional airport network. Let us acknowledge that our port network from Dublin to Cork, to Shannon-Foynes and the regional ports has proven well capable of bringing in the goods and services that our State needs and exporting them in turn. We have a gas network that is capable of meeting the needs of our State and all the businesses that depend on it. Notwithstanding the work we need to do in regard to the interconnector for our island, we have an electricity network that is capable of meeting many of the needs of the businesses and communities on whom it depends.
While of course I acknowledge the infrastructure deficits we have, to which Members referred, if we do not begin these discussions with an appreciation of where we are, we will fall victim to the kind of hollow populism that is articulated by Sinn Féin and others on the far left who seek to focus only on the difficulties we have, and I acknowledge there are great difficulties, but give no recognition whatever to the progress that has been achieved. The only objective those kind of contributions have is generating an air of permanent crisis where all they want to focus on is what has not been done or not been delivered. There is never ever any reference or recognition of the progress that has been made-----
-----and what is being delivered by our national infrastructure network.
The same point stands in respect of where we are with public services. Of course let us acknowledge the difficulties and needs we have, but let us also acknowledge that a small open economy and society located on the edge of Europe had a standard of living 40 years ago that was considerably below the European average and now has a standard of living - for many, though not all, and we always have to acknowledge what remains to be done and what we have a duty to do - that is now ahead of the European average.
There are many reasons for that achievement, but two that are especially important for the discussion we are having here is that we have a network of enterprise, both domestic and international, that has flourished as the economy has looked abroad. The economy moved away from being inward looking to an economy that was capable of competing with a global economy as it deepened its own integration. The other foundation of that achievement has been the excellence of our public servants, whether this has been what our teachers have delivered in classrooms or in higher education, the ability of our civil servants, the independence of our Judiciary or what our nurses and doctors do in our hospitals and primary care centres, while of course acknowledging the challenges we have which are the subject of negotiations that are under way.
Let us also do it in the spirit of acknowledging that the interrelationship that I described earlier of public and private sectors working together more often than not has achieved results and delivered prospects for our State that, despite our scale and where we are located, are achievements that would have been unimaginable even as recently as 2009, 2010 and 2011. With those points made, I wish to address some of the specific issues that were raised by individual Senators.
Senator Horkan made the point about the need to take advantage of investment that may be available from the European Union and its institutions. I agree with him. This is the reason the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, and I visited the European Investment Bank last week. One of the points he made, which is a common rejoinder to the issues that have been raised by Senators in the debate, is that we must integrate those investment choices into a planning framework that we will make work. While we have more resources, we have a resource available in the future that, if we make the right choices, is capable of making a big difference to people's standards of living and to the climate change needs and obligations we have to meet. We have to embed all this in a planning framework that recognises that Ireland has an extraordinary demographic gift, which is the prospect of having a million more people living on our island at a time when many other countries in the European Union will be experiencing unchanged birth rates or unchanged populations. We have to be able to plan for that in a way we have not in the past.
Senator McDowell made the very fair point in respect of recruitment.I am also very much aware of where we are within the State from a recruitment and retention of staff point of view. Again, people will point to the difficulties. Let us look at some of the figures on the numbers of people who applied for roles. In January 2016, as many as 15,901 people applied for posts in An Garda Síochána. In September 2016, as many as 5,102 people applied for roles in An Garda Síochána. Across both of those periods we recruited 350 and 650 gardaí, respectively. We are in a situation where the number of people who apply for posts is considerably ahead of the number of posts we seek to recruit.
One can make the point that we should recruit more people. The same point has been made about many areas of public service. In nearly all areas of recruitment we can bring people in and, in many cases, we are capable of retaining them. Let me give a completely different example of another form of recruitment to illustrate my point. Let us consider the campaigns that we ran in February of this year for senior executive engineers. We appointed 71 individuals to posts and 869 people applied for the posts. From a remuneration point of view, leaving aside my obligations in terms of FEMPI, we do not have a generalised recruitment issue at the moment.
Senator McDowell made a point about cross-Border investment. I made a particular reference to regional needs in the capital plan review. The north west was included because I am particularly sensitive to some of those needs in light of what is happening with Brexit.
Senator Kieran O'Donnell called for an integrated model for private and public pay, which I believe in very strongly as somebody who has worked in both sectors for many years. He asked me whether we have a public service that is fit for purpose and I would say that, by and large, we do. Of course there will always be improvements or changes that can be made. Of course the focus is always going to be on difficulties. Of course I am aware of the challenges in our hospitals. One should consider the care that patients receive, the research and innovation that is under way in our universities and the ability of Irish diplomats and the progress that they have made in terms of Brexit. While acknowledging the many challenges and difficulties, I contend that we have civil and public servants and services that achieve more than is commonly given credit for. If we do not begin with an appreciation of what has been achieved then we will get ourselves into a place where it will be more difficult to sustain the political equilibrium and support that is needed to support this kind of approach in the future.
Senator Kieran O'Donnell made a point about the M20 project. I am very much aware of his long-standing interest in the project. As a former Member of the Dáil and now a Member of the Seanad, he has stressed this matter to me on a number of occasions. As he will know, we aim to consider the project in the context of the capital review. As he has acknowledged, he is well aware of the decision that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, has made to move the project forward from the pre-planning stage.
I agree with very little that Senator Gavan has said. His comments are an example of the empty populism that has damaged our ability to have rational discussions and make choices about issues faced by this country. He contended, without a shred of evidence, that the decisions I will make and that this and the previous Government have made were based on private interest. The only motivation that I have in any decision that I make is the common good. I must make a decision in the context of not having all of the resources that are available to me to make all of the decisions that everybody in this House would want. The reason for such a stance is because I only have the prospect of being able to spend once any euro that is available to me. I am continually aware of one group that has not been mentioned at all this evening - perhaps that is a consequence of the theme of this evening's debate - the taxpayer. I must make sure that the decisions that we make are consistent with the ability of the taxpayer in Ireland to fund them and the ability of our tax system to be competitive, which is a point the Minister for Finance continually makes. Needs are growing and while we will be able to meet many of them, we will always need to make choices about the available resources.
Senator Gavan made a surreal contention that there was no capital plan, let alone a review of a capital plan. There clearly is a capital plan and I shall give an example. My constituency is not short of Sinn Féin councillors turning up to welcome housing projects that have been funded by the capital plan that he denies exists.
The project was acknowledged and welcomed by local Sinn Féin representatives.
I can assure Senator Dolan that I am well aware of the tension between section 38 and section 39 organisations. I understand the difference between them. I understand that this is a particularly live issue among organisations that provide services to citizens with disabilities and special needs. I will anchor this matter into current negotiations through the concept of affordability. It will be a tough task to reach an agreement on public pay but I will approach it in good faith and with a desire to reach an agreement. I am aware that our decisions about the rate of public pay must be affordable in two ways. First, in our ability to pay for same and second, the impact the rate of pay will have on other parts of our economy. While that would be traditionally understood in terms of the private sector and the relationship between public and private sector pay, which I think has profoundly changed in the past decade, I am aware that the decision that we make about public service pay will have consequences for other organisations that are not of the public service but provide public services. I take the point Senator Dolan made about this aspect.
Senator Dolan also made a point about the role of the health service and the cost of €14.1 billion. He also mentioned the consideration other Departments that spend money must give to take account of the people who have disabilities and needs when it comes to accessing public services. I agree with the Senator. Today, the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, in Cabinet brought forward a strategy on this very area. Earlier he identified transport as an example. He stated that when making capital choices in the future on buses and trains, we must be conscious of the needs of all who travel on them.
The Senator made a point about disabled people who are in work or want to return to work, a point also made by the Ministers for Health and Social Protection. I know both Ministers launched an initiative on this matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath. The initiative seeks to make clear to people who have a disability or who are in the workplace that needs which are being met at the moment by the availability of a medical card will continue to be met for a long time until they enter the workplace. The Minister of State has highlighted this point a lot.
Senator Paddy Burke made a point about the cost of building a home and how we need to interrogate this matter even further.I entirely agree with the Senator but, as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, I want to ensure that if we have difficulties in the private housing market - which we do at the moment - we do not allow the solution to rest entirely with the taxpayer. We are looking at the differential between providing a house or apartment in Ireland and doing so in other jurisdictions, and why there is such a differential, and I expect this work to be completed by June.
Senator Nash is not in the House but I will take up the points he made. For many years, the fact that the Irish taxpayer had to bear the cost of supporting our entire banking system was a cause of great and legitimate anger and, now that we have the prospect of unwinding it, I am at a loss as to why it is being opposed by the same people who were against the taxpayer taking on the cost at the time. If the Minister, Deputy Noonan, believes this is in the interest of the taxpayer it will commence but there is a broader rationale for considering it. If we want to reduce the systemic risk facing the Irish economy, there should be more owners of our pillar banks than the taxpayer.
I touched on some of the points made by Senator Buttimer, particularly the Cork-Limerick road. I agree with much of what Senator Grace O'Sullivan said. The decisions we make in the capital review may not meet many of the needs to which she referred because she may have different priorities from mine, but we did put terms of reference for climate change into the review. I will not prejudge the review but public and sustainable transport has to be a significant beneficiary of the process. We will not be able to make progress on standard of living and all the needs correctly identified by the Senator unless we make a lot more progress on high-capacity and high-speed public transport in the parts of the country where the population merits it.