Priority Questions.

Proposed Legislation.

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

74 Mr. O’Dowd asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the reason for the delay in the publication of the strategic national infrastructure Bill; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16643/05]

I thank Deputy O'Dowd for tabling the question. I know he shares with me an anxiety that the Bill be quickly introduced in the House and placed on the Statute Book. There is wide consensus that the regulatory system for major infrastructure projects should help to ensure projects are delivered in the right place at the earliest possible time in a cost effective manner. The system must also be capable of mitigating the impact of any major project on the environment and people and complying with relevant national and international legal requirements.

An Bord Pleanála is the key agency in ensuring the efficient delivery of planning approval relating to infrastructure. Over the past three years, the board has improved its performance in delivering decisions and currently determines more than 85% of all decisions within the statutory objective of 18 weeks set out in the Planning and Development Act 2000. However, certain difficulties with the current process have been identified, which can operate to delay decisions being delivered in an efficient way. Given that many current procedures are deliberately abused to delay decisions, it is important to ensure that the board has sufficient powers available to it to deliver the best possible outcomes in terms of planning and the environment and that this general objective is not hindered by procedural rigidities, of which there are many.

Having examined the problems which have arisen in the area, the Government considers that legislation is desirable to address some issues arising in the approval process. Due to the complexity of the issues involved and the need to consult widely among my colleagues, the preparation of draft legislative proposals has taken some time. I am currently working on the proposals for a strategic infrastructure Bill and intend to bring a memorandum before Cabinet in the near future with a view to publishing the Bill as soon as possible.

Deputies will understand that I am not in a position to elaborate in detail on my proposals in advance of the Government making a decision on them. In general terms, however, it is intended to reduce the time required for obtaining development consent for necessary major public projects and to co-ordinate and streamline the different procedures currently involved, while respecting the requirements of environment and heritage protection and the need for adequate public consultation.

I thank the Minister for his reply. For years, the Government has promised to introduce a strategic national infrastructure Bill and each new list of proposed legislation published at the beginning of every session includes provision for such legislation. The Bill has been delayed because of the Government's inability to resolve its internal crisis on the question of what constitutes significant infrastructure. Different Ministers place different weight on different issues, particularly in the area of incineration. Will the Minister ensure that only major infrastructural projects are covered by the changes he proposes to make to An Bord Pleanála? He once stated that any matter which requires an environmental impact statement would go before special hearings of the board, a proposal which my party believes would clog up the system.

Having gone through due process, certain individuals indicated on television last week that they wish to commence legal proceedings with regard to the route of the M3 motorway near the Hill of Tara, as is their democratic right. Will the Bill provide for the establishment of a special division of the High Court to immediately deal with applications arising on foot of decisions taken on major infrastructural projects? Such a division will be critical if we are to avoid lengthy delays. We cannot allow a dispute over the M3 motorway to last one, two or three years. We have had due process and want the motorway now.

I wish to disabuse the Deputy of the notion that this is because of internal difficulties, specifically——

The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is opposed to an incinerator in Cork, the Minister does not want one in his constituency and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform does not want one on the Poolbeg peninsula.

The Deputy should allow the Minister to reply, please.

Will Deputy O'Dowd allow me to finish? He will be pleasantly surprised when he sees the Bill's provisions on that issue. As to the issue of allowing only projects requiring an environmental impact statement to go before special hearings of An Bord Pleanála, while I am conscious of what must be done in this regard, the Deputy will have to wait until the detail comes through to see it.

I agree with the Deputy and other Deputies who have made similar observations that this is probably the only country in the world in which major infrastructural projects are held up time and again in the courts. While it is the right of every citizen to take a case to court, and the Deputy has not suggested this right should be truncated in any way, the propensity here has been to bring major projects before the courts simply to achieve delay and cost overruns. Striking the right balance is a serious matter.

It will delay the Bill.

The Deputy should allow me to finish. He has suggested the establishment of a special division of the High Court on a number of occasions. As I am less interested in form than results, I want the courts system and every other aspect of the process to deliver results. I regret I cannot provide further detail on the issue but the Deputy will see what has been done when the Bill is published.

There is no point in having a Bill to address major infrastructural deficits if it does not include fast-tracking cases through the courts system. Does the Minister support such provision?

I agree it will be necessary to ensure major infrastructure projects are given better access to and through the courts.

That is not good enough. If we are to fast-track the motorways which need to be built and the major infrastructural developments required in the economy, we must ensure they get through the planning and legal systems. The find at Carrickmines Castle held up the extension of the M50 for God knows how long and the M3 could take a long time to complete. We want the Minister to take action now.

The Deputy will get action from me in this regard. More than any other Deputy in the House, I am aware of the extraordinary delays which can occur in the courts.

Service Charges.

Eamon Gilmore

Question:

75 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he intends to establish a national waiver scheme for low income households to coincide with the increased waste charges expected over the next three years with the implementation of the EU waste management directive; the progress made to date in regard to his discussions with the Department of Social and Family Affairs regarding difficulties faced by those on low incomes in paying service charges, especially in cases in which there is no waiver scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16538/05]

Household waste collection has developed over many years as a locally based service tailored to local needs and circumstances and is, I suspect, the most quintessential local service. The legal framework established by the Oireachtas is evidence that these services are provided locally. Existing approaches to the grant of waivers for household waste services reflect this variety of local conditions and arrangements. The Government does not propose to interfere or conflict with the principle of subsidiarity inherent in these arrangements. It has long been my belief that successive Governments have interfered too much with local government.

The issue of a waiver has been raised in the context of social partnership. As a result, my Department engaged with the Department of Social and Family Affairs to explore the issues involved. These discussions did not identify a role for the social welfare system in providing income support with regard to waste charges. I accept, however, that problems arise for households, particularly those with low incomes, from the need to find substantial lump sums for annual or standing charges and it will be important to address these in the implementation of the new pay-by-use systems. To this end, my Department has asked the relevant local authorities to seek to ensure private sector service providers make available to the households they serve a weekly payment option. This will make the use of a waste collection service for residual waste an affordable option for households which use available recycling facilities and generally act in an environmentally responsible manner.

If, as the Minister says, the waste collection service is a local service, will he amend the provisions of the Protection of the Environment Act 2003 which prescribe the manner in which charging is to be conducted and which, inter alia, removed the making of charges and waivers from the democratically elected members of local authorities?

Will the Minister address the significant costs now faced, particularly by low income families, in respect of waste charges? The likelihood is that if the Protection of the Environment Act 2003 remains in place, those costs will continue to rise. Can he explain why a pensioner can avail of free schemes for electricity, telephones and televisions but there is no corresponding relief for waste services?

Does the Minister agree, whatever he may say about it being a local service, given that two thirds of waste collection services are now in private hands and the legislation governing the waste service is national legislation that prescribes matters nationally that should be determined locally, there should be a national waiver scheme to provide assistance and relief for low income families?

I compliment the Deputy on his ingenious reference to the legislation but disagree with the hypothesis he makes, although that is not to say it is not a valid hypothesis in his mind.

Waste collection is either a local service or it is not.

Rolling back the environmental legislation is not a good way to move forward. From the Waste Management Act 1996 to the Protection of the Environment Act 2003, local authorities can set charges for waste collection services that they provide. This allows for implementation of the polluter pays principle to which we all subscribe and not just in the case of domestic waste.

We differ as to who the polluter is.

That is an issue for debate. Those local authorities that provide waste collection services can provide waivers. A number of other local authorities have looked to see how they can involve some form of arrangement that mitigates the problems and they have been successful in three cases. I agree that we provide many benefit in kind services and supports, particularly for pensioners, but I do not agree that there is a case for an additional one in an area that is quintessentially local.

Is the Minister satisfied with the situation whereby the consumer price index indicates that the average charges for local authority services have increased by 104% since 2002? Does he recognise that the cost of this service is increasing all the time? Given the provisions of the legislation introduced by his Government, county managers are required by law to impose the full cost of the charges. If he will not amend the legislation, can he offer some comfort for pensioners and those on low incomes and with large families who face these charges that are a major burden? They should be provided with some relief against paying them.

I am not happy with the level of inflation in local government charges. There is a responsibility on local authorities to ensure all charges they pass on are kept at the lowest possible level. At a time when local authorities receive more support from central Government than ever, I am not happy with those levels.

On the impact of the standards we are trying to apply nationally, we are paying high rates for waste management because of the legacy of not putting in place a proper infrastructure to handle waste. We are addressing that now. Other than making those two observations, I cannot go any further.

Property Management.

Arthur Morgan

Question:

76 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government his views on whether inadequate legislation in respect of the management of apartment complexes in the private sector, including in the community and voluntary sector, is a serious matter which must be addressed as a matter of urgency in light of the growing number of such developments particularly in the Dublin region. [16537/05]

Apartment complex management companies are generally constituted as companies under the Companies Acts and are required to comply with the provisions of company law, which is a matter for the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The operation of such companies under their relevant memorandum and articles of association, including the employment of any property manager or management entity, is a matter for their members, who are the owners of the properties in the developments to which they relate.

Arising from a commitment in An Agreed Programme for Government, a Law Reform Commission working group is examining the law on the management of apartment complexes and other multi-unit developments. The group's report is being drafted. The Law Reform Commission has already suggested to the company law review group, under the aegis of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, certain modifications in the application of general company law requirements to management companies for multi-unit developments. These or any further proposals for legislative changes in this area arising from the Law Reform Commission review will be a matter for consideration by the Government.

Does the Minister of State agree that regulation of the management of apartment complexes is as necessary as regulation of the private rented sector? If apartment living is to become a viable option for the future, people must be assured that the management companies of such complexes will be accountable and will not be permitted to introduce extortionate management fees, as is the case currently. At a minimum, I ask the Minister of State and the Department to commit to an assessment of the problems related to management companies in complexes so that, irrespective of our views on the significant problems that exist, we can prepare legislation to address them.

We should differentiate between management companies, which are companies set up by different owners in apartments, and the management agency that is brought in by a management company to do basic work around the complex. Sometimes there are problems when a development is under construction and there is a delay in finalising work. The developer may bring in a management agency to look after basic work but once the development is completed, it is the responsibility and duty of the individual owners to get involved. We all meet people in apartment complexes who are owner occupiers who complain about the management agencies but it is up to them to go to the annual general meeting of the management company and exert authority about the level of service they require. If a management agency brought in to do basic work does not perform, they should be simply sacked. The Law Reform Commission is examining issues about the constitution and operation of such companies and its report will be available in the next couple of months. While it is not under my direct control, the work it has done on this issue is advanced. Its report will give an opportunity to examine this area.

Some of what the Minister of State said is correct. I look forward to the report of the working group from the Law Reform Commission. Will the Government implement whatever recommendations the working group makes? Will the Minister of State commence an assessment of these problems?

We must see what the working group recommends as much of it may concern other Departments. While the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will be involved, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform will be involved from a conveyancing viewpoint. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment will be involved from a management company view. We will see what needs to be done when the Law Reform Commission produces its report.

I accept legal procedures were always in place. However, the situation is fast-changing and approximately 20% of new dwelling units in the State are apartments, while in Dublin the figure is 40%. Many problems in this area have to do with transparency. People should know before they move into an apartment of these arrangements. However, I accept some people may be just concerned at getting the keys to a place to live and not think forward. If information is given to people in advance, they will know of their responsibilities and can then work with them.

Local Authority Housing.

Pádraic McCormack

Question:

77 Mr. McCormack asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the action plan he has to increase the output of local authority social and affordable housing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16644/05]

The Government has responded actively to increased levels of housing need by significantly expanding social and affordable housing output. In 2005, the Government allocated record levels of funding to local authorities for their social and affordable housing programmes. Total capital spending on social and affordable housing output in 2005, including non-Exchequer finance, will amount to some €2 billion and will assist in meeting the housing needs of over 13,000 households. In addition it is anticipated that a number of households in private rented accommodation will transfer to the newly introduced rental accommodation scheme.

In recent years the Government has placed a particular emphasis on the delivery of targeted schemes of affordable housing and expects output of approximately 12,000 units from these schemes in the next three years. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has initiated the development by local authorities of new five-year actions plans for social and affordable housing. The preparation of these plans will sharpen the identification of priority needs, helping to ensure a more co-ordinated response across all housing services, including those to be provided by the voluntary and co-operative housing sector. The plans will also help to ensure local authority housing provision will continue to increase on a sustained basis. My Department is giving strong encouragement to local authorities to press ahead with the implementation of these action plans which are being underpinned by substantial levels of Government funding.

I do not accept that the Government has responded adequately to this matter. The Minister of State referred to five-year action plans which are all plans but little action. Will the Minister of State accept that over the last eight years the Government has not only refused to deal with the soaring price of private housing, but it has also failed to put roofs over the heads of the most vulnerable people on low incomes? Will he inform the House of his intentions regarding the Housing Finance Authority which advances funds to local authorities to meet housing targets? The authority's annual report shows that the funding it made available to local authorities fell last year for the second year in a row. Only €494 million was allocated in 2004 compared to €505 million in 2003 and €761 million in 2002. The 2004 allocation would not build half the houses the 2002 allocation built. This drop came at a time when over 100,000 individuals were waiting for council houses, 1,200 alone in Galway city. Why are the local authorities not building more houses?

The Deputy's last comment answered his earlier question. In order to have action, there must be plans. Houses cannot be built from thin air and local authorities need certainty in what they are doing over the next several years.

The Government has been in office for eight years.

The Government has asked local authorities to draw up action plans to bring certainty to the area. The action plans are based on local needs. There is certainty in the funding which is now being provided. With five year capital envelopes, we can tell them how much their funding will be. Last week, €922 million was allocated for social housing in 2005. The local authorities have been told to push ahead because they now know how much funding will be available for this year and the years after. In the past some local authorities were good and some bad. However, even the bad ones would use the excuse of uncertainty regarding funding. This year €2 billion has been allocated.

The Deputy quoted from the Housing Financing Authority's report. While I am not sure in which context, it mainly refers to affordable housing. Until recently, all affordable houses were financed through the local authority system and Housing Finance Authority loans. Now, thankfully, other financial institutions are entering the market. I welcome this as we may not need to borrow so much from the Housing Finance Authority in the future. The €2 billion allocation is an extraordinary figure and we expect construction to begin on 6,000 houses, meeting the needs of 13,000 people on housing waiting lists.

The figures were quoted from the Housing Financial Authority's annual report. If local authorities have agreed to the action plans, why are no more houses being built? The buck stops with the Minister of State. Does he agree the number of private house completions has now peaked? In the coming years there will be possible repercussions for employment and economic activity in this sector. Does the Minister of State see a role for the social housing programme in stemming such a slowdown? Is there a role for private sector construction firms in providing public housing that cannot be met by the public sector? When will the Government's commitment on social and affordable housing in the national development plan be met?

We are ahead of our commitment in the national development plan. Expenditure stands 7% ahead of the commitment, with an allocation of €2 billion for this year. The number of units estimated to be built has not been fully reached, but on money invested, we are 7% ahead.

Local authorities are borrowing less.

The Government has not delivered.

The Minister of State is not doing his job.

The Department simply provides the resources to the local authority. The local authority then constructs the units. When a local authority puts this out to tender, all private developers may apply. I accept that some developers have tendered solely for public jobs. Most local authorities, including Galway City Council, would welcome if those developers traditionally in the private market submitted tenders for public housing. A great deal of money is being spent, not just on new building but on central heating, for example. The local authority in the Deputy's area received a significant amount of money today for a central heating installation. We are providing good money, and the action plans drawn up by the local authorities will be implemented with Government money.

The number of houses being built has fallen.

That is not so.

Register of Electors.

Tony Gregory

Question:

78 Mr. Gregory asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he will consider the introduction of a system of official identification linked, for example, to personal public service numbers which all voters would be required to produce when voting; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16539/05]

Significant measures are already in place with regard to voter identification and the prevention of personation. The returning officer or the presiding officer may, of his or her own volition, or if required by a personation agent, request any person applying for a ballot paper to produce a specified identification document. The range of documents includes a passport, a driving licence, an employee identity card and a student identity card. If a person fails to produce a required document or if the returning officer or the presiding officer is not satisfied that the person is the person to whom the document relates, the person is not permitted to vote.

Returning officers or presiding officers may also, or if requested by a personation agent, put certain questions or administer an oath or affirmation to persons applying for a ballot paper. Electoral law also sets out a range of offences and penalties regarding personation, including a new offence provided for under the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2004 for the unlawful possession or use of a polling information card.

Prevention of personation relies on the deterrent effect of sanctions applicable for committing an offence and on the vigilance of polling staff and personation agents in the polling station. My Department provides on an ongoing basis comprehensive guidance documentation to returning officers and presiding officers which contains detailed advice on countering personation, including a request that at least 25% of voters be asked to produce an identity document.

I am concerned to ensure that the arrangements in place regarding these issues are as flexible as possible while maintaining the security and integrity of the electoral process. I will continue to keep under review current practice, including the scope for further improvements.

I greatly regret that this issue is not being taken seriously. Does the Minister of State accept that to get even a resident's parking permit, one must turn up with photographic ID, insurance certificates and utility bills addressed to one's home because the relevant officials want to be sure the person presenting himself or herself is the person he or she claims to be? People have been elected to this House by a margin of only four votes, yet in electing Deputies there is no obligatory identification requirement unless one is challenged. As the Minister of State said, a minimum of 25% of those voting are challenged, so that up to 75% are not challenged.

Does the Minister of State accept that there are organisations involved in elections in this country which can apparently clean out a bank and get away with it? There are individuals involved in elections in this country who have been involved in large-scale planning corruption. Within the present system, significant organised personation would therefore be child's play to these people.

Hear, hear.

That is the bottom line. I have been asking the same question since I was elected to this House 23 years ago. I have had to report and deal with organised personation in my constituency, not by any of the parties to which I have obliquely referred, but by a more respectable party. I will not go into detail, but the matter received a good deal of coverage at the time.

It happened in Dublin North-Central too. The Minister of State knows well those involved.

This issue deserves to be taken seriously but that is not happening.

It happened with Pat O'Connor.

We should not joke about the matter. This is a serious issue. We elect Governments in this manner. Many individuals are elected by a margin of a handful of votes. This is a significant issue for the future of our democratic process. I have always questioned the reluctance of Fianna Fáil in particular to respond to this issue.

The Deputy is making a statement. He should confine himself to a question.

The Minister of State should visit Dublin North-Central. He can see the situation there at first hand any time. He knows that.

I hope the two questions I asked are dealt with. Why is there a reluctance to grasp this issue? If it is so important and Governments can be elected in this way, why are we still given the same prepared script every year? Why not recognise the importance of this issue and put in place the basic requirements which even a person seeking a residential parking permit must fulfil when claiming to be an individual from a particular address?

We all take this matter seriously. Deputy Gregory should consider the changes brought into effect since 2002. Section 111 of the Electoral Act 1992 has been updated. There has been a change in the electoral amendment regulations of 2004. We do not regard passports, driving licences or employee identity cards as items which can be overlooked by anyone.

Deputy Gregory raised a fundamental issue when he said the system can be subverted. However, it must be asked if there are difficulties pertaining to the PPS system which he suggests be introduced. Northern Ireland operates a PPS identity system similar to ours. One must register and hold a PPS card. Northern Ireland scrapped its electoral register and produced a new register based on the PPS system, but for very good reasons did not introduce it for voting systems.

We must look at the practicalities of our PPS system. I am not saying that we will not look at other avenues to ensure personation does not take place, but if one introduces the PPS system for voting, one must be able to link in to the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

That leads to the next question. What about the Data Protection Act? This is governed by legislation, and to change that, new legislation would have to be introduced into the Dáil. One would then have to talk to the Data Protection Commissioner to see if one was infringing the rights of individuals. One would also have to seek the advice of the Attorney General on all these matters. I am agreeable to examine some of the issues. I cannot foresee a situation whereby one arrives in a polling station and asks someone for PPS identification. The people asking for that would have to have direct access to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, which is not practical.

At one time, only 5% of voters were asked for identification. We have now increased that figure to 25%. A few weeks ago, during the elections for Údarás na Gaeltachta, Deputy McCormack said that a particular agent was demanding identification from almost every second person. The Deputy complained about the queues and delays, and at the end of the day, the bureaucracy gone mad.

I did not.

I commend Deputy Gregory on what he is trying to achieve, but there are substantial practical difficulties in getting around this issue.

The parish priest said that everyone knew him but that no-one knew the presiding officer.

Will the Minister respond to the question that was asked rather than his interpretation of it? Will he consider the introduction of a system of official identification? The example I gave was PPS numbers but it does not have to be those. However, it should be a system that will ensure that every voter who turns up to vote is the person he or she claims to be. Will the Minister consider a new system?

Everybody is concerned about probity in the system. I indicated in my reply that we are examining ways of ensuring it. We are certainly examining the registration. I am not sure what can be done at voting level. That is not to give a commitment that we will change the system because it is only a new system. It was in place for the Údarás elections. However, there will be ongoing review.

If the Minister tries to open a bank account, he will find out what the position is.

That concludes priority questions.