Thursday, 27 September 2018
The next matter is in the name of Senator Victor Boyhan. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, who will speak on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. Harbours are not the Minister of State's usual brief.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this matter for discussion on the Commencement. I am delighted to see Senator Horkan, a former member of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, in the Chair. I was also a member of the council and was first elected to it in 1999.More importantly, I served two terms as a director of Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company.
I am conscious that I am in the Houses of the Oireachtas and that I have privilege. I have checked the limitations and possibilities under that privilege and I want to be responsible. It is too easy to come in here and start roaring and shouting without getting very far. I record, however, that I received two days ago from a very large legal firm in Dublin some communication in respect of Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company. I reflected on it, as I do on every item of correspondence crossing my desk, and contacted the firm to say I would facilitate it as best I could.
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, has responsibility in this area. This is a complicated matter and many people may not quite understand that harbours come under the transport portfolio. The Taoiseach was one of the Minister's predecessors and he possesses a lot of knowledge of Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company. It is important to state that because I make a plea today to the Taoiseach, the Minister and the Ministers for Finance and Housing, Planning and Local Government that no order be signed to transfer Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council until they meet all Senators, Deputies and county councillors from the functional area of that local authority and provide an absolute commitment and indemnity to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council's executive and elected members that the local authority will not be saddled with a massive debt. Correspondence I studied late into the night advises me that there is a potential exposure of €43 million which is spread over many areas, including pensions, the deficit and other liabilities. This falls out of part of a due diligence document which I have seen. I am not sure there has been full disclosure in relation to this company. I challenge all of the political masters of the relevant Departments, who I have just named, to plead with the Minister, Deputy Ross, not to keep the pressure on to have this company transferred. It is unfair to place that liability on the local authority.
I single out the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of regard notwithstanding our challenges and difficulties, because he is acutely aware of the issues. He has promoted the idea of spending capital funds from that local authority on Glenalbyn swimming pool, a running track in Marlay Park, arts, culture and sport, a master plan for Marlay Park and the roll-out of phase 2 of the Fernhill Park project. That cannot happen if the local authority's capital funding is to be bled off. I acknowledge that the Minister of State in attendance is not the line manager, but my message is that the Government should not expose the councillors or executive of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to a liability and debt which will ultimately fall on taxpayers. The Minister of State and I know that this is what will happen. There will either be an increase in the local property tax in that local authority area or a clearing out of the capital budget in circumstances where it will be simply impossible to roll out the capital plan. For any Minister to tell me that the local authority has capital or can cash in assets is wrong. It should not have to cash in the assets. It should be given a remuneration package, compensation and an indemnity and it should not be exposed.
I will not be found wanting - from today until the process is closed - in pursuing all of the political people I have mentioned. Common sense must prevail. This should not be inflicted on the local authority. What is the rush? Before I came to the Chamber, I received a call to my office from a member of the Minister's staff to ask if she could be of assistance to me. There is no point coming to me ten minutes before a Commencement matter to offer assistance. Last night, I received another official acting on the Minister's behalf asked for a press statement that I may or may not have issued. I am sorry but I was burning the candle until 1.25 a.m., fielding questions and telephone calls and I was back in here at 7.30 a.m. It is too late. The politicians have left it too late. It is time to row back from exposing this local authority. I appeal to the Taoiseach, who has a great deal of knowledge of this company, to contact the Minister and direct him not to put pressure on or sign off on a transfer until the issues I have raised have been explored in great detail. I thank the Acting Chairman for granting me time and latitude to discuss what is a very important issue.
I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this issue and am glad to have the opportunity to provide him with an update on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and his Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan. The Minister is answering questions in the Dáil at this time and sincerely regrets that he cannot be here.
The national ports policy 2013 provides for the transfer of certain ports to relevant local authorities and sets out the arrangements for giving effect to this aim. In that context, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has sought the agreement of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to the proposed dissolution of Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company and the transfer of the company's harbour to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has an important prudential role with regard to the financial integrity of all local authorities to ensure their finances remain, as far as is practicable, on a sustainable footing. This is a role that the Department must discharge in the context of significant issues affecting the local government system or individual local authorities. The transfer of a harbour company of significance to a local authority, as in the case of Dún Laoghaire, is a substantial issue, as the Senator has said, and its implications must be fully understood. In particular, it is vital that the relevant local authority is not unduly encumbered or exposed to risk by the effective transfer of a commercial body to its control. This principle has been well established in respect of previous port transfers. The Department must, of course, give effect to the Government's policy on ports of regional significance and bring the matter of the transfer of ports more generally to a conclusion. In doing so, however, it must ensure that there is a clear understanding of all of the issues involved.
Government policy regarding local government is very clear that responsibility at central government level in respect of any matters of policy, legislation, resources and accountability relating to functions discharged at local authority level rest with the relevant Department. For example, central government responsibility in relation to the roads functions discharged at local level by local authorities rests with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Similarly, responsibility at national level for the transfer of certain ports to relevant local authorities continues to rest with that Department. That applies to the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company transfer and any other transfer taking place in the future, either as a result of a transfer of shareholding or by dissolution of an existing company, as well as to all regional harbours already transferred to local authorities.
Regarding the Dún Laoghaire harbour transfer specifically, I advise the House that the Minister has now consented to the signing of the necessary statutory instrument. This follows on from a previous consent provided by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. It is now a matter for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to complete the process using his powers under section 28 of the Harbours Act 2015 to dissolve the company and transfer the harbour to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.
Clearly, the Minister has let it be known that this is signed. He knows the ramifications. I do not threaten people at all. I have in sight a letter signed by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, from which I will read. The letter is dated 16 July 2018 and in it the Minister thanks me for my correspondence. I have a lot of correspondence from many people and I intend to put into the public domain in the next few days after I have further legal advice on it. It is substantial. The Minister states:
Matters in relation to the transfer including any transfer of liabilities or costs are currently being discussed between the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and this Department. Unfortunately, I cannot comment further on this matter as it is still under negotiation.
That is fair enough. The Minister has a responsibility also to protect his Department. All I can say at this point is that I appeal to the Taoiseach and the Ministers for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Finance and Transport, Tourism and Sport to meet as soon as they can and to hold back for the moment. It is their call not mine. I am not a Minister and I am not in Cabinet. However, a substantial number of questions will be prepared and they will be up next week or the following week and the Taoiseach will have to answer them. I caution him in that regard and note that there are issues which have not been addressed and which will be placed in the public domain within days. As such, I say "Festina lente".