Priority Questions.

Proposed Legislation.

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

102 Mr. O’Dowd asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the legislation he intends to bring forward to address the issue of corruption at local government level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5794/06]

The Local Government Act 2001 provided for a new and comprehensive ethics framework for those involved in local government. This built on long-standing ethics requirements on local authority councillors and staff under planning legislation, which predated other legislation.

Part 15 of the Act was brought into operation from January 2003 and the codes of conduct for councillors and employees were published in June 2004. Part 15 requires an annual declaration of interests by councillors and staff, disclosure of a pecuniary or beneficial interest where a matter arises at a meeting or in course of an employee's work and a public register of interests. The purpose of the codes is to set out standards and principles of conduct and integrity for councillors and staff, to inform the public of the conduct it is entitled to expect and to uphold public confidence in the local government system.

The effectiveness of the operation of the local government ethics legislation is kept under close and active review in the light of experience since its introduction. I will continue to monitor developments in this regard and will bring forward proposals for amendments to the codes, if necessary. In this context, as stated in the reply to Question No. 546 of 7 February, the issue of local government officials accepting outside appointments or consultancies following resignation or retirement has not, up to now, been addressed by the codes of conduct. However, my Department has formulated proposals to amend the codes in this regard and the Standards in Public Office Commission and the Department of Finance are currently being consulted on the drafts. A decision on the proposed amendments will be made as quickly as possible.

In addition, local authority members must comply with a comprehensive regulatory regime with regard to disclosure of political donations, in accordance with the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999, as amended. The Act also provides for offences and penalties where a member fails to meet the statutory requirements.

I thank the Minister for his response. However, Mr. Justice Smith, the Chairman of the Standards in Public Office Commission, commented in the 2004 annual report on the fact that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government did not take on board the views of the commission at that time. He stated that effective whistle-blowers' legislation should be in place to promote integrity and honesty in public life and to prevent corruption. The Minister has not taken on board the recommendation that council employees and councillors who report something illegal, improper, unprofessional or unethical should be protected by legislation under a whistle-blowers' charter. The Standards in Public Office Commission asked the Minister's predecessor to accept that suggestion but it has not been done.

I am aware of the comments made by the SIPO commission. My major concern is the evident lacuna which was demonstrated in this House in a number of contributions in recent months. I will continue to keep my eye on all aspects that touch on the issue of public confidence in the elected or administrative sides of local government. The current arrangements I have with the SIPO commission and which are under review relate to the taking up of consultancies or employment after leaving a local authority.

I do not accept the Minister has taken on board the proposals. A whistle-blowers' charter was called for. We have been talking about it since 1999 and it has not happened yet. The Minister is clearly not committing to it now.

While welcoming the code of ethics for both employees and elected members of local government, in England there is a standards board which examines confidence in local democracy. If anyone feels that a councillor or an official has acted in a way that could potentially damage public confidence in local government, he can complain to the board and the board will investigate fully and properly with the ability to fine or suspend and make a full and comprehensive report. Does the Minister agree that this State lacks such a body and establishing it would give greater confidence to those who have complaints about local government?

The idea has some merit but it came about in a different set of circumstances in Britain where local government operates on a different basis. The executive functions that are the preserve of officials here are sometimes shared by councillors in Britain and this followed a series of extraordinary corruption cases. It is not always necessary to follow the British model slavishly but the point is interesting and I have read a text on it. It is not germane to the specific question but it is an area of interest at the academic level.

This is the Government that has closed down the Freedom of Information Act. Will the Minister think again about closing down transparency and openness in public life in Ireland, which he continues to do?

We can discuss it later. It is a very interesting area of discussion.

The Minister need not bother.

House Prices.

Eamon Gilmore

Question:

103 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the action he intends to take to address the renewed increase in house price inflation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5381/06]

A consistent element of Government policy has been to promote adequate supply of housing to meet demand. Despite strong demand pressures and increased levels of mortgage lending, house price increases have moderated significantly in recent years from rates of around 40% per annum in the late 1990s. This is attributable to the large increase in housing output that has been achieved, including a new record of almost 81,000 completions in 2005, almost two and a half times the 1996 level. The Government will continue to focus on maintaining overall housing supply at a level consistent with the continuing strong demand and maximising the availability of affordable housing.

Our strong economic performance impacted significantly on housing demand in 2005, particularly through substantial increases in employment and immigration. Demand can also be further fuelled by additional factors such as excessive lending. On a number of occasions since mid-2005, I have expressed concern that developments in mortgage lending might impact adversely on the trend of house price moderation. The Department raised this matter with the Central Bank and I communicated on the matter with a number of lending institutions involved.

While it would not be appropriate to focus unduly on price variations over relatively short periods, there have been recent reports of higher rates of house price increase in the latter part of 2005. I would again like to call on all concerned to pursue prudent lending policies, particularly having regard to the already strong demand pressures in the housing market arising from real demographic and economic factors.

Does the Minister agree that while there was some degree of moderation in the level of house price increases, house price inflation appears to be taking off again? That was the general thrust of the ESRI and Permanent TSB report earlier this year. Apart from calling on the lending institutions to curtail their lending activity, is the Minister of State contemplating any measures to address the renewed increase in house price inflation?

Last year was the opposite of the previous year, where from early 2004, on a quarterly basis, the rate of increase declined. This time last year, experts were talking about a 5% or 6% increase. It seemed, however, that another wave of increases took place as the year went on. We do not have our own figures for the fourth quarter but the ESRI figure would have increased 1% on the previous year, where its prediction might have been there would be a drop. The third and fourth quarter saw increases once more, which might be due to extra numbers in employment, more people entering the State and 100% mortgages and other products.

What are we doing about it? Our policy in recent years has been to encourage supply because only by having supply to meet demand can the problem be solved. We are doing everything to maximise supply while putting schemes in place to help those caught in the affordability gap.

I do not understand the Minister of State's emphasis on 100% mortgages, which after all only give a benefit to those at the poorest end of the market who cannot afford to get a mortgage any other way.

Looking at the 80,000 houses built last year, half of them were bought by investors and 15,000 of them were second homes which are hardly reliant on 100% mortgages. Will the Minister of State explain why he places such emphasis on the 100% mortgage which is used by those who are stretched to pay for their first house? If the law of supply and demand means anything, and supply is increasing dramatically with more than 80,000 units built last year, why have house prices continued to rise? Even in a year where the level of supply increased so much, house prices surged again. Has the Minister of State studied this? Something is happening that does not make economic sense.

House prices entered another cycle of increases during the year because of three factors. There are 90,000 extra people working in the economy, 70,000 extra have entered the State and some financial institutions have an overly generous approach. Credit is by definition inflationary. It is not just 100% mortgages; there are interest-only mortgages and terms of 35 and 40 years. Some people are even talking about inter-generational mortgages.

Those types of mortgages are not being taken up by buyers of investment properties.

No, they are being taken up by everybody.

The take-up is not in the investor area.

The issue is fundamentally one of demand. The economy and credit are booming. We are trying to meet strong demand and the only way to do so is to tackle supply. At the same time, we are not losing sight of those who are being squeezed out of the market. I have been invited to attend an open day on the northside of Dublin tomorrow to view affordable houses which are being sold for €165,000. In addition, houses built in Clondalkin and Tallaght as part of a land swap for property on Harcourt Terrace are being sold for €142,000 for a two bedroom property and €172,000 for a three bedroom property. Houses are being provided at affordable prices. The fundamental issue is to meet demand and we are doing everything in our power to encourage developers to increase supply.

Waste Management.

Arthur Morgan

Question:

104 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he will introduce legislation to ban incineration. [5471/06]

The short answer to the Deputy's question is "no", as I do not propose to introduce legislation on the lines suggested in the question. Incineration with energy recovery forms an important part of a modern, integrated and sustainable approach to waste management consistent with the internationally accepted waste hierarchy. Its role is fully recognised within the European Union environmental framework which, moreover, regulates waste incineration in accordance with strict environmental standards. This approach is the world's gold standard.

The Scandinavian countries, Germany and the Netherlands, which are often cited as adhering to the highest environmental standards and providing a model of best practice, use incineration with energy recovery as a key part of their approach to solid waste treatment. They combine this with extremely high levels of waste recycling to minimise the amount of residual waste landfilled. They also count combined heat and power — CHP — as a form of recovery because energy is recovered. This is a model which Ireland should also move towards, attaining the highest possible levels of recycling, incinerating non-recyclable waste with energy recovery in the form of electricity, district heating or both and landfilling only a small proportion of inert waste.

Ireland has significantly increased its recycling levels in recent years. While municipal waste recycling has increased from only 9% in 1998 to a current level of 34%, this alone does not prevent a growing volume of waste going to landfill because the general level of waste is increasing. It is evident that if we are to make further progress in diverting waste away from landfills, we need to focus more on waste minimisation and reduction as well as energy recovery through incineration.

At a minimum, waste to energy plants are subject to stringent emission limits provided for in the EU incineration directive. The certification issued recently by the Environmental Protection Agency imposes even more stringent requirements.

It is worth recalling that, although Ireland has no municipal waste incinerators, ten industrial incinerators are currently licensed by the Environmental Protection Agency. If these were closed down by a ban, significant job losses would follow and foreign direct investment would be adversely affected, outcomes Deputy Morgan and his party would not welcome. The nine such incinerators which operated in 2000 when the agency carried out its inventory of dioxin emissions were estimated to contribute a tiny fraction of such emissions nationally. A 2010 projection, which assumed the operation of a number of large scale municipal waste incinerators, suggested they would account for less than 2% of dioxin emissions to air.

I am confident there are no grounds to impose a blanket ban on incineration. I am also satisfied that incineration with energy recovery operating to modern standards and using best available technology has an important role to play within an integrated waste management approach.

Does the Minister accept that many scientists reject incineration as a flawed process which results in the emission of some of the most dangerous, toxic dioxins known to humankind? Does he agree the incineration industry has been given an easy ride here because the Minister crumbles to its every whim? I asked him a specific question about Indaver Ireland to which he has given permission to import waste to Carranstown from outside the region. This is an example of buckling to the industry.

In light of the Minister's comments, which I understand are on record, that he would not accept incineration in his constituency, how does he expect other communities, for example, in Ringaskiddy, Ringsend and Carranstown, to accept the same proposition?

He has changed his mind on the matter.

Would it not be preferable to take the "reduce, reuse, recycle" approach, which involves educating the wider community to move away from the poisonous incineration process?

Regrettably, there is no zero waste option. While remarkable progress has been made in the area of waste reduction and recycling, this will not solve the waste problem and it is fatuous for the Deputy to suggest otherwise. If Deputies Morgan or McCormack wish to check the record, they will learn that I stated that if I were asked to tolerate a very large landfill or a well run modern incinerator, I would choose the latter.

The Minister got rid of the former.

That is not the statement which has been attributed to the Minister.

Did I say it the wrong way around?

The cat is out of the bag.

I would much prefer to live next door to an incinerator than a dump.

Does that mean the Minister is in favour of an incinerator in County Wicklow?

As I stated, if the choice was between one or the other——

The Minister should leave dumps out of the equation.

Deputy Morgan also asked whether there is scientific opinion to support his hypothesis that a blanket ban on incineration would be a positive development. While that may well be the case, there is also a vast preponderance of scientific evidence to suggest the type of blanket ban the Deputy proposes would be economically untenable, result in the closure of several important industries here and would not solve the long-term problem of our waste stream.

Will the Minister at least accept a moratorium on the development of incinerators, pending a further investigation into the scientific, environmental and health consequences of such a disastrous, poisonous process?

I can think of many disastrous, poisonous processes which might by closer to home in the Deputy's case than incineration.

Such as.

The answer to the Deputy's question is "no".

EU Directives.

Pádraic McCormack

Question:

105 Mr. McCormack asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he is prepared to take on revised advice from Teagasc relating to the nitrates regulations; if he will allow such revised advice to alter the regulations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5795/06]

The need for the regulations arises from the 1991 EU nitrates directive which imposes specific obligations on all member states to protect waters against pollution from agricultural sources. As Deputies are aware, a 2004 judgment of the European Court of Justice held Ireland to be in breach of the directive by failing to implement a nitrates action plan. As a result of this judgment we are open to the risk of daily fines. The new arrangements for the single farm payment are also linked to the implementation of the nitrates action plan. I am sure Deputy McCormack would not wish to place this payment in jeopardy.

In Ireland some 72% of all phosphorus and 83% of all nitrate inputs to waters are attributable to agriculture. It is essential that we address the known environmental problems affecting surface and groundwater quality. This is important to every household which depends on groundwater, in particular, for domestic or farm supply. It is also right, of itself, to take control of a problem we have had for many years.

The regulations provide for fertilisation standards for nitrogen and phosphorus consistent with the environmental standards set by the nitrates directive. These are also in line with good agricultural practice and the agronomic requirements of crops as set out by Teagasc. The application of fertilisers in excess of crop needs is economically wasteful and environmentally damaging.

Subsequent to the making of the regulations, Teagasc indicated it may be possible to review part of its advice on crop nutrient requirements in a way which could improve the effectiveness of the regulations. My Department secured agreement with the European Commission that there is merit in allowing time for this additional advice to be elaborated. To this end, I announced a brief de facto deferral of Part 3 of the regulations. My colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, and I jointly made it clear that if revised phosphate tables were brought forward and supported by robust underlying science, I would make a case to the European Commission for revising the current limits. Any new formulation will need to respect environmental requirements and meet the requirements of the directive.

Regarding nitrogen standards, in agreement with farming representatives and in accordance with the Government's commitment under Sustaining Progress, Ireland is pursuing a derogation from 170 kg to 250 kg organic nitrogen per hectare with the Commission. The derogation is of vital interest in particular to 10,000 dairy farmers. Achievement of the derogation is crucial and nothing should be done to jeopardise the derogation negotiations. Any action that delays or impedes progress on the derogation would do a huge disservice to dairy farmers.

Teagasc has not been specifically requested to review its advice on nitrogen issues. However, to the extent that its revised submission on crop nutrient requirements suggests further beneficial adjustments to the regulatory regime, these will of course be considered. The possibility of such further adjustments will also depend on their respecting the environmental requirements involved and on their acceptance by the European Commission.

I thank the Minister for that extensive information, most of which I did not ask for. Given that the Minister and his officials are on record as stating that they would receive revised advice from Teagasc and that last week the Teagasc representative advised the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government that it was prepared to review the nitrates table if asked to do so, has the Minister asked it for this advice or will he do so? If he asks for such advice, will he give a guarantee to the House to take it on board? Will we see changes to elements of the directive which relate to both phosphorus and nitrates?

I have not yet received advice or proposals from Teagasc for amendments of the regulations. Any advice received by Teagasc would be carefully considered by me and by the Minister for Agriculture and Food. I cannot give any commitments regarding advice which has not yet been formulated or received.

Has the Minister asked for it?

I understand there was a proposal or suggestion that Teagasc might be willing to provide some additional information. As I stated in the reply, anything that is supported by robust science will be examined. However, it must be supported by robust science as otherwise we would be deluding ourselves and doing a grave disservice to Irish agriculture.

What progress has the Minister made in securing a derogation above the 170 kg level? When will this be secured? What is the Minister doing to address all aspects of water pollution, not just those applying to farmers but especially to local authorities? Has the Minister sought advice on discharges from washing machines using washing powders? Has he met washing powder manufacturers to ascertain what can be done to avoid or eliminate the pollution caused by washing machines that feed into septic tanks, which is not the place for such outflows?

I refer the Deputy to my earlier answer. Some 72% of all phosphorus and 83% of all nitrate inputs into water in Ireland come from agriculture. There is no point in slithering around the place and trying to avoid those facts.

Farmers also have washing machines.

I agree with the Deputy that the derogation is the most important point. The derogation deals with the nitrates side of the issue and is the most critical issue. The Commission has agreed to allow me to continue with the negotiations on the derogation. The regulations needed to be signed on Sunday, 11 December, which I did, in order that the following day we could go to the nitrates committee, which is made up of representatives of all member states. That was the only way we could open the derogation negotiations. The Deputy asked when these would be concluded. They will not be concluded until a fully operative nitrates regulation is in place. If Teagasc produces robust scientific input, I will take it to Brussels. However, it will need to be based on robust science to avoid the confusion we have had in recent times. In the derogation negotiations we will need to have very fair and unequivocal material.

Does the Minister disagree with the advice he has received from Teagasc?

Register of Electors.

Eamon Gilmore

Question:

106 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the action he has taken to date in 2006 in respect of the concerns raised in Dáil Éireann regarding the inadequate maintenance of the electoral register; the local authorities which have been consulted to date in 2006 on this matter; the proposals he has drawn up to deal with this problem; when he intends to publish such proposals; when he intends to bring in legislation to correct the problems that the Government has acknowledged exist with the electoral register; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5382/06]

In law, preparation of the register of electors is a matter for each local registration authority. It is their duty to ensure, as far as possible and with the co-operation of the public, the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register. On 28 June 2005, when the House last discussed this issue, I confirmed that I share the concerns that have been expressed on the quality of the register. Since then I have taken a number of steps. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government wrote to registration authorities on 14 July and requested them to take all necessary steps to secure significant improvement in the quality of the register. A national awareness campaign was conducted in November associated with preparation of the register that is about to come into force. In November also, the Department completed work on new and updated guidance for registration authorities on preparing and maintaining the register. The aim of the guidance is to secure significant improvement in the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register by setting out clearly the legal requirements in this complex area and identifying best practice for registration authorities in their work on the register.

The draft guidance has been circulated for comment to all registration authorities and returning officers and to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government, which discussed the guidance in December. Following this consultation process, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is finalising the guidance. However, in view of the importance of securing improvements in the register, registration authorities have also been asked to proceed to implement the draft guidance with immediate effect. I will continue to keep these important issues under close review.

Will the Minister accept that it is not guidance that the local authorities need in many cases, but the resources with which to compile the register, particularly in areas with rapid housing development and population movement? In this regard, why did he refuse Kildare County Council additional resources which it requested because of the difficulties it is having in compiling its electoral register?

Will the Minister consider finding a way to avail of the census of population that will take place later this year? Every house will be visited by a census enumerator and it would represent a reasonable way by which we could end up with an accurate electoral register. We now have an electoral register which contains 20% more entries than people aged more than 18 in the country. Everybody involved in the political process accepts that the electoral register is in a mess. I have asked about the provision of additional resources for local authorities where they need them — some need them more than others for this purpose. I also asked him to consider the opportunity the census provides to tidy up, correct and produce an accurate register of electors.

I will take the second point first. I am not sure if it is possible to use the census of population, which has a very specific focus. It is an interesting thought. I am open to any suggestion that might work. Regarding Kildare, as the Deputy knows, I have allocated a huge increase in the resources of local authorities in the past two years — the Government has been in the fortunate position to do so. For example the general purpose grant this year totalled €875 million, of which Kildare County Council got more than its fair share. This represents an increase significantly higher than inflation. Kildare County Council was the only local authority to make a request of this nature. Like every other local authority, it has a variety of sources, including commercial rates, rents, fees, charges and a variety of other income streams of which it can avail to do this work. The total cost on all local authorities in 2004 for work associated with elections was €6.8 million. It was €4.7 million in 2003 and €3 million in 1994. In the context of local government funding, which this year runs close to €9 billion, that is not a huge imposition.

We are reaching a point where I am reluctant to ask a supplementary question because the Minister takes the opportunity to clap himself on the back. My sole point on resources is that because of the level of development taking place in their areas and the increase in the number of houses, population movement, rental and so on, some local authorities are having more difficulties than others in more settled areas. I am simply asking the Minister to re-examine the needs of those local authorities. It is significant that the only request of this type he has had is from a local authority in whose area that type of increased development is taking place.

Since the Minister responded half positively to the suggestion about the census, will he consider agreeing to allow Government time to consider the Private Members' Bill in my name on the Dáil Order Paper, which addresses the electoral register and proposals whereby information available to State authorities for various purposes could be used in the compilation of an accurate electoral register and to ring-fence that information to ensure it is only used for that purpose? Will he agree to that amending legislation? I am sure the Minster will agree it is unconscionable that we would go into the next general election with an electoral register that is 20% inaccurate.

I would not disagree with the Deputy on the last point because, frankly, some local authorities are not doing a good job, although others are doing an excellent job.

With regard to the reference to Kildare County Council, which features frequently in the affairs of this House more for criticism than anything else, I have made the point about the resources.

With regard to the Private Members' Bill, I leave that matter to the Whips but there is an issue we discussed previously, that is, PPS numbers. I have said previously that I see the value in that but there are significant problems in using them.