Thursday, 16 December 2021
Appropriation Bill 2021: Second Stage
As ever, it is an honour to be here. The Appropriation Bill 2021 is an essential element of financial housekeeping that must be concluded by both Houses of the Oireachtas before the end of this year. The Bill serves two primary purposes. First, the Appropriation Bill is necessary to authorise in law all of the expenditure that has been undertaken in 2021 on the basis of the Estimates that have been voted on by the Dáil during the year.
Section 1 and Schedule 1 set out the amounts to be appropriated for supply services. These relate to the amounts included in the Revised Estimates for 2021 voted by the Dáil earlier this year, further Revised Estimates and all Supplementary Estimates voted by the Dáil this year. In aggregate, these Estimates amount to nearly €73.1 billion. This represents a significant investment to support the delivery of essential public services and to provide for the necessary infrastructure to support economic, social, environmental and cultural development.
These Estimates also reflect the continued significant expenditure on measures to respond to Covid-19, with almost €13.5 billion in gross expenditure when including expenditure on the Social Insurance Fund and the national training fund, made available to Departments in 2021. This figure has allowed Government to continue critically important expenditure measures introduced in 2020 that were required to support our economy, enterprises and households from the unprecedented shock of Covid-19 and to provide the necessary funding to our health service to respond to the pandemic.
A further key purpose of the Appropriation Bill is to provide a legal basis for spending to continue into 2022. The passage of the Appropriation Bill 2021 allows continued funding, in the period before the 2022 Estimates are approved, of social welfare payments from the social protection Vote, Exchequer pay and pensions and other voted expenditure. If the Bill were not enacted before the end of December, there would be no authority to spend any voted moneys in 2022 from the start of January until approval of the 2022 Estimates, since this authority for 2022, as contained in the Central Fund (Permanent Provisions) Act 1965, is based on the amounts provided for in the Appropriation Bill 2021.
Under the rolling multi-annual capital envelopes introduced in budget 2004, Departments may carry over, from the current year to the following year, unspent capital up to a maximum of 10% of voted capital. The multi-annual system is designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the management by Departments and agencies of capital programmes and projects. It recognises the difficulties inherent in the planning and profiling of capital expenditure and acknowledges that capital projects may be subject to delays. The carryover facility allows for a portion of unspent moneys, which would have been lost to the capital programmes and projects concerned under the annual system of allocating capital, to be made available for spending on programme priorities in the subsequent year.
The Appropriation Act determines, definitively, the capital amounts which may be carried over to the following year. The aggregate amount of proposed capital carryover from 2021 into 2022 is €820.1 million, which represents 7.8% of the total Exchequer capital programme of over €10.5 billion for 2021. This level of capital carryover, as with the carryover to 2021 from 2020, reflects the impact of the construction closures due to Covid-19 which affected the spending plans of Departments.
The proposed amounts to be carried over by Vote are set out in Schedule 2 to the Bill. The 2022 Revised Estimates Volume sets out detailed financial and key performance indicators for Departments and offices. In Part 2 of the Estimates, for each Vote availing of the capital carryover facility, a table is included listing the amounts to be deferred by subhead. In line with last year, section 3 of the Appropriation Bill includes a specific provision to allow for an advance from the Central Fund to the Paymaster General's supply account, with this advance then being repaid to the Central Fund in January. The amount included this year is up to €292 million.
The need for this provision arises as certain Exchequer liabilities and social welfare payments are due for payment by electronic funds transfer on 1 and 4 January 2022. With the banking system closed on 1 January, funding will need to be in place in departmental bank accounts before the end of this year to meet those liabilities on a timely basis. In addition, An Post needs to be pre-funded before the end of the 2021 in order to physically transfer cash to its network of post offices throughout the country. These Exchequer pay and pension and social welfare payments form part of the supply services for 2022 and these costs will come under moneys voted in 2022, in respect of which the usual processes and mechanisms for voted moneys will apply.
The signed Act is required by the Comptroller and Auditor General for clearance of the end-year issues from the Exchequer. Under Article 25.2.1° of the Constitution, the President may not sign a Bill earlier than the fifth day after the date on which the Bill is presented to him. However, there is provision in Article 25.2.2° whereby, at the request of the Government, with the prior concurrence of Seanad Éireann, the President may sign a Bill on an earlier date than the fifth day mentioned. In view of the urgency of this Bill, the provision in Article 25.2.2° is sought, and a motion to this effect is placed before the Seanad. Such an earlier signature motion has also been sought for the Appropriation Bill in previous years.
The Appropriation Bill is an essential element of housekeeping which those of us in both Houses of the Oireachtas are required to undertake. The passing of the Bill will authorise in law all of the expenditure that has been undertaken in 2021 on the basis of the Estimates voted on by the Dáil during the year. Of fundamental importance to those that depend on our essential public services, the passage of the Bill will also ensure that payments funded from voted expenditure in 2021 can continue to be funded in 2022 in the period before the Dáil approves the 2022 Estimates. I commend this Bill to the House.
He is. I re-emphasise what the Minister of State has stated which is the importance of the Bill and its passing with as much speed as possible. We have discussed it at length and there has been quite vigorous conversation and debate here on it on previous occasions. I and my party, Fianna Fáil, are fully behind it and we wish its swift passing through the House today, if possible.
In the limited time available to me, which shows that this is normally seen as more or less a rubber-stamp debate, I will say a couple of things. I am reading some biographies of 18th century English politicians and the whole idea of appropriation was considerably important as the only means their parliament had over their executive, in the form of the king and his ministers. Controlling supply was the huge mechanism of control. Of course, in a constitutional democracy, Dáil Éireann can vote no confidence in a Taoiseach and that is the end of that Administration and the Executive is held in account by that much more democratic means.
I remember, as Minister for justice, that towards the end of any given year, there would be a bit of a rush to get rid of unpaid capital available to the Department on various items rather than hand it back to the Minister for Finance on the basis that the next time round, it would be said the Department had to hand back money last time and it would be asked why it needed so much this time. I am aware of those kinds of conventions and realities.
Holding the Executive to account in a Parliament is very important.We do it through parliamentary questions, if one is a Deputy, and sometimes through Commencement debates in this House in some respects. Fundamentally, however, there is a growing concern in society, which we would be very foolish to ignore, that the Executive is not adequately held to account by the Houses of the Oireachtas in the way that executives in other parliamentary democracies are. In my view, this is no more clearly underlined than in the current Covid crisis. We have the Health Acts and various other statutes that we passed on an emergency basis that give to the Government vast powers to close down sectors of the economy and make decisions of this and that kind about social, economic and ordinary behaviour. No Government in this country has held such powers since that days of the Second World War.
There is an absolutely unanswerable case, and I have said this on a couple of occasions in the House recently, for the establishment of greater Oireachtas scrutiny of the Covid crisis. We are giving huge powers to Ministers to make statutory instruments that are having radical effects on us. Who knows what will happen when the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, next knocks heads with the Government and decides on what else it considers necessary? There is no answer to the legitimate demand that Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann should establish a joint committee, like that chaired by Deputy McNamara in the interregnum before the establishment of the coalition Government, to hold Ministers and senior civil servants and administrators in State agencies fully accountable on a weekly basis and have them explain precisely what is happening. It is not sufficient that we in these Houses learn on television what an RTÉ reporter put to a Minister at a press conference on Lower Baggot Street or what Dr. Tony Holohan or whomever else it may be said by way of response. We cannot have Government by the media; we must have Government by accountability. People who exercise these powers and take huge decisions concerning our collective futures should be accountable on a daily basis. If this is an emergency - and NPHET says that there is an emergency - we, as an Oireachtas, should have emergency scrutiny of the Government and its actions.
It was stated previously that the ordinary sectoral committees would provide an adequate degree of scrutiny over the activities of the HSE, the Government and such. That has proven not to be so. The Joint Committee on Health does not actually hold the Government or the HSE to account. The media do a better job than the sectoral committees.
I ask again - perhaps some time I will take the guerrilla action on this in terms of the business of these Houses - that the Government hears the demand that is being made of it to put together a proper accountability mechanism in Leinster House to supervise the powers it has arrogated to itself to deal with this emergency.
I welcome the Minister of State. We were in the Lower House 12 months ago - the year has passed quickly - for the debate on the Appropriation Bill. The Minister of State might recall that at the time there was a fulsome debate on the issue of councillors pay as part of the appropriations. Thankfully, that issue has been rectified. I acknowledge the work of the Minister of State, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath and my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for grappling with this and putting it to bed. This important issue was left hanging for a considerable period.
The Bill before us will allow for the continued spending of money during the next year. If one goes through the different Votes, one can see the range of responsibilities the Government has to ensure that the country is run appropriately and the amount of spending that is required by the various Departments, including the newest, namely, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The sectoral committees consider a wide range of spending programmes each year. The latter do not include all the different agencies that do work on our behalf as well.
Senator McDowell raised interesting points regarding authority, spending and so forth. As a member of the previous Government, it struck me that during the interregnum between the election and the formation of the current Government, the constitution of this House proved somewhat problematic because there was no Taoiseach elected and, therefore, the 11 Taoiseach's nominees to the Seanad could not be put forward. Matters went to the wire in the context of the formation of a Government by the three parties involved. AT the same time, the renewal of the Offences Against the State Act and the passage of various legislative measures required the approval of both Houses. In order to avoid such issues arising again with regard to legislation that would give rise to the need for constitutional change and as part of a larger package of Seanad reforms, the outgoing Taoiseach's nominees should be allowed continue in position until such a time as a new Taoiseach is put in place. This would mean that we would always have a fully constituted House of 60 Members. Following an election, the new Taoiseach would then have the power to nominate his or her 11 nominees. If the nominees of the previous Taoiseach had remained in place in 2020, we would have avoided the situation that arose. We must recognise, however, that said situation happened and that could happen again in the future.
As we have seen, the Parliament has become fragmented. It is not as quick as it might have been back in the time of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats putting a Government together in a number of weeks. Perhaps those days will return in the future with different parties involved. Who knows? There are many smaller groups and parties, however, and it is taking longer to put Governments together. That was a stumbling block on the most recent occasion. It might be something worth considering for a Government of the future.
I will not delay this important work. I commend the Bill the to House.
The Minister of State is very welcome. As we know, this is an essential piece of financial housekeeping legislation and, of course, we will be supporting it.
I will make a couple of brief points if I may. Neither of us is very comfortable whenever this happens, but I agree with Senator McDowell regarding the point he made on oversight.
It is the reason Sinn Féin opposed the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2021 earlier this week. We made it very clear that we support the public health measures. There is a yawning gap in the context of oversight, however. We are all held responsible when the relevant statutory instruments come into being, and yet we have no effective say in respect of them. Senator McDowell's suggestion of re-establishing the relevant committee has real merit. It would not be a threat to anyone and it would give these Houses a better opportunity to hold the Government to account. Obviously, it would also give the Government a better chance to explain its position as well. We should revisit this issue as a matter of urgency in the new year because, unfortunately, it looks as if we are going to potentially be in a further phase of Covid-19. Who knows for how long that phase will last? Hopefully it will not be too long, but the first few months of next year look like they will certainly be dominated by it. In light of the latter, I support Senator McDowell's suggestion.
The Bill gives me the opportunity to talk about financial accountability in the context of some specific concerns I have. One such concern that springs to mind immediately is the money spent on the regeneration project in Limerick. This was originally supposed to be a €3 billion project but the funding for it was cut back to approximately €360 million in 2008 after Fianna Fáil drove the economy off a cliff. Here is the thing. I believe the actual spend is going to be in the region of €400 million. What happened in that interim? Some 1,300 houses were demolished and 270 new houses were built. In terms of the housing crisis in Limerick and the beleaguered communities of Moyross, St. Mary's Park, Ballinacurra and South Hill, what was promised at the time was not delivered. In fairness, all political parties have now declared regeneration to be a failure.That is a damning indictment of successive Governments. It is a damning indictment of the pledges that were made at the time to finally address the horrific levels of inequality and deprivation that had just been forgotten about. When one speaks to locals, they say they cannot see €400 million in the area. Politicians are genuinely scratching their heads and asking where the money has gone and how it has been spent. There is a complete lack of accountability. It leads to huge frustration locally.
Another local issue is University Hospital Limerick. We all know about the increase in spending. We also know that in Limerick we are seeing the situation getting worse, rather than better, each year. It is getting significantly worse, unfortunately, in the areas of trolley counts and so on and so forth. In the context of the financial spend, one has to wonder why we do not have an MRI scanner in our primary care centres. These are new primary care centres that have no additional staff and no additional capital equipment. As a simple example, if we had an MRI scanner in a primary care centre, we could divert significant numbers away from the accident and emergency department, which is consistently the worst and most overcrowded in the country. Again, we need to revisit accountability and prioritising how money is spent.
The final example is one I have mentioned to the Minister of State before. I have offered it to him as a quick win, particularly for the Green Party. The existing railway line between Limerick and Ballybrophy has 8.5 miles of track to be completed in order that upgraded speeds can be facilitated and we can start to introduce additional services and make it a proper commuter line. At the moment, there are only two services in one direction and three services in the other. The speed is so slow that, frankly, most people just do not use it. It is 30 miles per hour. That is an easy win. The difficulty is that at the minute the multi-annual planning suggests that it will take another four years or so to complete that track. Why not roll up those finances and get it done next year? The Government could shut it down for a few weeks, get it done, get it completed and give the people on my side of Limerick city, as well as those in County Tipperary, a real prospect of a decent, local heavy-rail commuter line that we could use. I have suggested this to the Minister of State before. I commend it to him again today and ask him to take it back to his Department. I will leave it at that today. Obviously we will support the Bill.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This is an important Bill. I welcome this debate, as many Members of the House have done. We should not have shoehorned it into the last day of term, although I know why it was done that way.
I will raise three points, the first of which is a matter that Senator Kyne prompted me to raise. The Minister of State has been a member of local authority, as many of us in the House, including the Acting Chairperson, Senator Horkan, have been. I do not think Senators Gavan and McDowell have been. An issue is being raised by the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and its executive committee around the issue of councillors' gratuity payments. It seems that the arrangements have been altered without proper consultation or engagement with the AILG. I hope that as part of our discussion today, the Minister of State will take this issue back to the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, and the Ministers, Deputies Darragh O'Brien, Donohoe and Michael McGrath. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, will also address this issue. The issue of the gratuity payment arises in the context of how we value and treat our local authority members.
I welcome the allocation of funding in the Appropriation Bill. Senator Horkan and I are members of the transport committee. In that context, I welcome the earmarking by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, of more than €90 million over the next two years to improve journey times on the Cork to Dublin railway line. It is money well spent as part of the overall transport budget by the Minister and by the Government. It will shorten the train journey from Cork to Dublin by eight to ten minutes. Ultimately, this will allow trains to hit speeds of 200 km/h on the track. That is important because if we are to move away from the car and dependency on the car, public transport is critical. The frequency of the service from Cork to Dublin is one point and a second point is the improvement in the customer experience that will result from a reduction in the journey time. I welcome the investment by the Government in the Cork to Dublin railway line.
I did not hear all of Senator McDowell’s contribution. I do not want to strike a discordant note in the last day of term.
I heard him speaking about a lack of accountability and holding Government to account. I ask Senator Gavan, wearing both his trade union hat and his public representative hat, to hold his former president, Gerry Adams, to account. The Senator should ask Mr. Adams to apologise to the people he sullied with his video this week. I say that as a republican and as somebody who wants to have united Ireland that is respectful of all traditions. I ask Senator Gavan to do that.
Senator McDowell's overarching point is one we need to focus on. We all recall that last Christmas, An tUachtarán sent a letter to the Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach about the way successive governments have put Bills before him at the end of the year. Similarly, it would be appropriate that we would do something similar with the Appropriation Bill. We should not have Bills on the very last day and the very last journey. The document containing the Revised Estimates for the public service for 2022 is a tome in itself. I understand and appreciate that select committees deal with the allocation of finances and resources. That is good, appropriate and proper. However, our total gross expenditure is €87,593 million. All of that is our Government spending money on behalf of our citizens. I believe a level of scrutiny is needed by us in this House on matters of financial interest. I know we cannot put a block on a budget - we do not debate the budget - or put a block on a finance Bill, although we can make recommendations. As part of the reform of the Seanad, we can look at that again. I believe that by comparison to other parliaments, we have good scrutiny and accountability in the House. However, we need to look at how we can do it better in a post-Covid way. I share Senator McDowell’s sentiment that we are elected and the Government is elected in Parliament. I will finish on the point that we need to have scrutiny. I know there is time for questions in the Dáil, but we need to have scrutiny. I agree with the fundamental point that Senator McDowell made about NPHET. I think government by media is bad for our country. NPHET and the national immunisation advisory committee are unelected. Although they are experts, we should be included more to give parliamentary oversight, in my opinion.
I thank Senator McDowell for making the ingenious connection between the historic function of the Appropriation Acts in a monarchic parliament, the importance of being able to hold the Executive to account, the functions of the Appropriation Acts in that regard, and how this relates to Covid-19 oversight in our current age. During the interregnum, we had a vacuum of committees and oversight facilities. Something ad hoc was constructed in a hurry. It was much better than nothing. It meant that there was a place. A system was set up whereby Ministers could be questioned, although it was outside the normal procedures. I think it worked. Deputy McNamara was elected as Chairman of that Covid-19 committee. I nominated him. I felt that he was challenging. He certainly acted as an independent Chair. I praise him for the work that he did on that. Senator McDowell threatened guerrilla action if he does not get some changes. He is welcome-----
We are all looking forward to Senator McDowell's guerrilla action. If he wants to bring forward specific proposals on how our systems of oversight can be changed, or if he wants to ask questions about it, I would be happy to indulge him.
Senator Kyne brought up the issue of councillors’ pay. When he mentioned that last year, he asked when the Moorhead report was going to be implemented. It has now been implemented. Senator Buttimer said he is not entirely happy with the pay situation for county councillors. I think he was referring to-----
I would be happy to talk to him about that. Senator Kyne referenced constitutional changes that may be needed. It is a constitutional imperative to pass the Appropriation Bill today. We ran into a constitutional challenge and there was a sense of impending constitutional crisis. Senator McDowell even went to the High Court to establish whether the Seanad was properly constituted and so on. We had other problems. For example, we in the Dáil could not vote remotely and had to move to the convention centre, which hinged on constitutional challenges. Deputy Carroll MacNeill has suggested a constitutional change to allow us to vote remotely. I note that the European Parliament can vote remotely. I believe I am going far off topic, though.
Senator Gavan spoke about regeneration in Limerick and how there had been large sums of money supplied but he could not see where it had been spent. I invite him to submit questions asking for detailed breakdowns of where money has gone in the regeneration of Limerick. We will then go through it. I am sure that my colleague, Deputy Leddin, would be interested as well. As Senator Gavan knows, there is no one against doing that.
The Senator also asked about the Limerick-Ballybrophy line. Is that the one that has Cloughjordan station?
I should not have to ask. My grandfather was the station master in Cloughjordan and many of my supporters probably live there. There is a large expenditure programme for that line. I will find out what progress there has been. The Senator mentioned that it was a four-year project and how he would like it to happen over a shorter period.
I thank Senator Buttimer for welcoming the Cork-Dublin line improvements. It is one of the premier rail lines in the country and it is important that it receive investment. It is something that will make people switch out of cars.
The Senator is right that a considerable amount of money is being spent. While this debate is a formality in some ways, given that the Opposition will not be challenging the Bill, it has to be done. It is a constitutional imperative. Otherwise, we will not be able to spend money. There are very large sums of public money being approved, so we must go through it.
The pandemic has continued to impact on public finances in 2021, with significant supports being put in place by the Government to respond to the impacts of Covid-19. This year, an additional amount of almost €13.5 billion was provided for measures to support the delivery of key public services and to provide supports for workers, businesses and communities impacted by the pandemic. This additional funding has been allocated to a wide range of measures, primarily income and employment support schemes under the Department of Social Protection, additional funding for our health service, support for affected businesses and sectors through grants and the rates waiver, and supports for the education sector and the operation of public transport.
Turning to core expenditure, in addition to the exceptional supports provided to deal with Covid-19, the Government continues to invest in our core public services, with a significant proportion of gross voted current expenditure allocated to health, housing, social protection, education and justice. All of these provide essential front-line public services. This will continue in the coming years, with sustainable increases that are broadly in line with the trend growth rate of the economy planned in core expenditure over the period to 2025, which will see overall core spending grow from just over €70 billion in 2020 to almost €93 billion in 2025.
Our system of social welfare seeks to provide an effective social safety net for the more vulnerable members of society. This support has been particularly important in 2021. The Department of Social Protection has played an important role in supporting our people in these unprecedented times. The 2021 gross voted expenditure allocation for social welfare is more than €30.5 billion across the Department's Vote and the Social Insurance Fund. Approximately €8.8 billion of this funding is in respect of Covid-19 supports introduced to support employees and businesses.
The Department of Health plays a crucial role in our response to the pandemic. At €22.1 billion in 2021, health spending accounts for almost 25% of gross voted expenditure. This support has facilitated the drawing down of funds to the HSE to support maximising capacity within our health system. Providing quality healthcare is a key priority for the Government. The past number of years have seen significant increases in resources for the day-to-day running of our health service. This will remain a priority for the Government. Given the scale of the overall allocation, effective management of health expenditure is crucial.
Including the allocation of €500 million in commercial rates waivers for businesses due to the impact of Covid, the amount allocated to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage was €5.4 billion in 2021. This level of resourcing reflects our commitment to making housing a key priority of this Government.
Expenditure on education at almost €11.5 billion in 2021 between the Departments of Education and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Scienceaccounts for more than 14.5% of gross voted expenditure. The scale and composition of education expenditure has changed over time in response to changing needs and demands, including demographics, special educational needs and skills development.
The pandemic's onset had significant knock-on impacts on infrastructure delivery in 2021 and, thus, on the level of capital expenditure. As detailed by Departments during the end-of-year monitoring of capital expenditure, spending plans were impacted by project interruptions and some sectors have indicated that they will need to use the carry-over function into 2022 to make up for this.
Increased capital investment will be critical as we face new challenges in the years ahead. The revised national development plan, NDP, was published on 4 October, incorporating an investment package of €165 billion over the ten-year period from 2021 to 2030. The revised NDP sets out the ten-year capital ceilings, which will support economic, social, environmental and cultural development across all parts of the country under Project Ireland 2040 in parallel with the national planning framework, which sets the overarching spatial strategy for the next 20 years. Taking into account the total gross voted capital expenditure allocation for 2022 of €11.7 billion as set out in the budget, the addition of capital carry-over of €800 million brings the total available voted capital expenditure for next year to almost €12.5 billion. This increased investment will play an important role in delivering much-needed public infrastructure across Ireland, particularly in sectors such as social housing, higher education, primary healthcare, public transport, water infrastructure, and climate change adaptation and mitigation.
This essential technical legislation authorises in law all of the expenditure that was agreed by way of Estimates during this year. The House will be aware that the passage of the Bill is required to ensure that it is possible to make payments in 2022 in respect of services that were funded from voted expenditure this year, including the jobseeker's allowance, disability allowance, non-contributory State pension, nurses' pay, Garda pay, teachers' pay, all other pay and pensions funded from voted money, and payments to suppliers of goods and services, including SMEs. Of fundamental importance to those who depend on our essential public services, the passage of this Bill will allow the payments required to deliver those services to continue into 2022.