Other Questions.

Flood Relief.

Pat Breen

Question:

45 Deputy Pat Breen asked the Minister for Finance if a work programme for flood alleviation work is in place; the aggregate value of works that make up this programme; and the allocation that will be made towards works in 2010. [11563/10]

The Office of Public Works is the lead agency for flood risk management in Ireland. In carrying out its role, the OPW undertakes a number of work programmes where its responsibilities are delivered directly through its own resources and in some instances in conjunction with other agencies such as local authorities. The key elements of these programmes are: major capital flood defence schemes; minor coastal and non-coastal schemes; strategic flood risk management studies; and arterial drainage maintenance.

In the last five years the OPW has expended approximately €243 million in flood risk management activities in the State. This has enabled the OPW to progress major flood relief schemes in towns such as Clonmel, County Tipperary, Mallow, County Cork, Ennis, County Clare, Fermoy, County Cork and Waterford city. Major areas of Dublin city have also been given standard flood protection through schemes carried out on the rivers Tolka and Dodder in this period. A number of major schemes in other areas have also been advanced through the feasibility process which include such towns as Bray, County Wicklow, Templemore, County Tipperary, Enniscorthy, County Wexford and Arklow, County Wicklow.

In 2009, I initiated a minor flood and coastal protection works programme through which the OPW is providing funding for minor localised flood relief works or studies to be undertaken by local authorities. This programme has continued in 2010 with local authorities being asked to submit applications for cost beneficial projects up to a maximum of €500 million each.

In recent years the OPW has been developing and implementing a strategic flood risk management programme. In this regard the OPW is rolling out a series of flood risk management plans which will allow an integrated approach in the identification and management of significant flood risk. These studies will underpin the development of the OPW's investment and expenditure programme in the medium term.

The OPW also undertakes ongoing maintenance of completed arterial drainage schemes and urban flood relief schemes. Approximately 11,300 km of channels and 675 km of flood defence embankments are maintained under this programme. The Government has allocated approximately €68.3 million towards flood risk management in 2010, including €50 million for capital flood risk activities and approximately €18.3 million for ongoing drainage maintenance and hydrometric activities.

Under the capital allocation in 2010, the OPW will complete the first phases of major flood relief schemes in Mallow, Ennis, Waterford, Clonmel and Fermoy as well as commencing the second phases in each of these areas. Construction works will continue in Mornington, County Meath and on the River Dodder in Dublin. The OPW has also committed to undertaking a full feasibility study of the flooding problem in Bandon, County Cork, and will also progress works identified in the River Lee CFRAM plan. The allocation will also allow work to continue in rolling out the nationwide catchment flood risk plans. An initial allocation of €6 million has also been made for the minor works scheme which will be reviewed when all applications for assistance have been received.

In recognition of the flooding situation countrywide, the OPW has profiled expenditure of approximately €300 million until 2014 with expenditure in excess of €200 million being profiled on capital works alone in this period. I am confident this expenditure under the current work programmes being undertaken by the Office of Public Works will reduce the national level of flood risk to people, businesses, infrastructure and the environment.

I was encouraged by the Minister of State's last comment that he is confident his plans will deal with flooding risk.

Incidents described as 200 year events have happened on more than one occasion in the past two years. Is the planning model for flood relief being followed by the OPW up to standard given the changes that are clearly taking place in climactic conditions? Has he reviewed the priority needed to be given to flood relief in light of the events of the last few years?

A number of Deputies are offering and I would like to facilitate all of them.

A flood in Newcastle West was a 700 year event but work is being done at that location. Obviously, flood defence works cannot provide absolute guarantees against all eventualities. I refer to a situation in the UK in a place called Cockermouth which had one in 100 defences in place. As I understand it, 12 inches of rain fell in eight hours and those defences were overrun. We should bear that in mind. In the Irish context where works have been completed the results have been very satisfactory. I refer to the town of Carrick-on-Suir which is very close to Clonmel. It has not been flooded in recent years but Clonmel has, although one is only a short distance up stream from the other.

Is there a whole of Government approach to this issue? Is there someone, perhaps the Minister of State, who joins up the dots in respect of his colleague in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? While floods were persecuting many families and farms throughout the west and south west, the reality for those in west and north County Dublin was that water tankers were providing water for many weeks because the water was literally dripping away through the pipes.

A brief question, if the Deputy would oblige me.

Does the Minister of State take responsibility for the whole of the river basin? Has the Minister of State been party to any review about the slowness of the relief, especially to families in the Shannon area, from the Red Cross and other agencies, which has been little short of disgraceful?

I welcome the fact that the Minister has put the OPW, Office of Public Works, as the lead agency with regard to works to be co-ordinated and carried out. However, I was absolutely disappointed at the meeting yesterday of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, at which seven or eight agencies made presentations with regard to flooding on the Shannon and how it might be alleviated. Each agency, one after the other, declared on their importance and patch. Unless some real effort is put in by the Minister of State, these agencies will not be willing to relinquish any power they have. In south Galway, a vast area of land is still flooded. Some three months later nothing has happened to indicate progress. Will the Minister of State provide the list of places where the works might be carried out and when this might happen at the earliest possible convenience?

The Office of Public Works is not responsible for water management. We have a co-ordinating and a lead agency role in respect of flood protection and defence. We must work with other agencies. The floods directive will be transposed into law and my senior colleague will take a final look at the matter this week. Other agencies will be required to co-ordinate with the Office of Public Works in terms of their plans and procedures. After that passes into law, it will not be the case that the Office of Public Works will assume dictatorial powers.

It should do so.

We must work with other agencies.

As far as the community welfare officer scheme is concerned there may be different experiences throughout the country. I do not have direct responsibility for that; it is the bailiwick of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. However, it works extraordinarily well in Clonmel and this was the case on two occasions last year as well.

Is the Minister of State or the Government doing anything to offer protection in cases of private householders or commercial enterprises which cannot get insurance cover as a consequence of several incidents with long-term consequences occurring within a very short time? Is the Minister of State taking any measures to offer those people comfort?

I refer to the overall review and the recent floods in the context of my constituency in Limerick. Many of the floods were man made. The Minister of State should examine two elements of the problem that affected various people along the Shannon and the ESB. There is a general view that water could have been released earlier and over a longer period. I refer to very simple measures such as early warning systems to locate all the people in affected areas by mobile phones and so forth.

I refer to insurance cover. Insurance companies are influenced by where flood defence schemes or even minor measures are being carried out. For example, I have been informed that in the case of Ballinasloe if certain simple things are done, insurance would be resumed. When the scheme is complete in Clonmel insurance will be provided, which has not been the case for several years. Deputy O'Donnell has put forward a valid point, which is why the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, in conjunction with me, issued floodplain planning guidelines in December. Some of the problems are man made and the purpose of the guideline is to try to ensure as far as possible that they cease to be made, at least as a result of planning decisions. There will be a CFRAM, catchment flood risk assessment and management, study for the Shannon from the estuary up to the pot.

Some early warning systems are in place already but more need to be put in place and that is part of the plan.

Public Service Reform.

Charles Flanagan

Question:

46 Deputy Charles Flanagan asked the Minister for Finance if he is satisfied with the performance of his Department; and if he plans any restructuring of the Department. [11605/10]

My Department has already changed its organisational structure and its deployment of staff in response to recent events in the economy and the financial system. It has demonstrated considerable flexibility in dealing with these issues. I am satisfied with the performance of my Department, especially in light of the extraordinary demands placed on it in the period since I came to office. The Department has helped me to address some tremendous challenges during this period, as we sought to stabilise the country's finances, restore confidence in its banking system and ensure that the country can re-establish its competitiveness. There is a good deal more work to be done and I expect to be able to call on the resources of the Department and the resourcefulness and dedication of its staff in dealing with the rapidly changing environment. Organisational change and development should be a continuing process and I expect further changes in the organisation of the Department of Finance to take place as the need arises.

I read the high level statement of the Department, which sets its targets. These include a high performing public service, value for money, a regulatory structure that secures public confidence, an effectively functioning banking system and budgetary stability. If anyone sought a comprehensive statement of everything that has gone wrong in the past three or four years, it is available in that list. However, the annual output statement of the Department declares "delivered" beside each of these targets; that is to say, the Department has delivered a reformed public service, a regulatory structure with public confidence, budgetary stability and an effectively functioning banking system. Who is it fooling? These things have not been delivered. We must have a more realistic approach.

It has been widely speculated that a Department of public service reform will be established. Does the Minister support the establishment of such a body in view of the ineffectiveness in his Department in delivering public service reform?

As the Deputy is aware, that is a matter for which the Taoiseach is responsible to the House.

I wish to hear the Minister's view. We have a serious void in respect of public service reform and a serious economic strategy.

Several Deputies are offering to contribute.

I do not accept the existence of the void to which the Deputy referred. The public service reform agenda is central to the work of my Department. The way in which it will be managed in the future has been discussed between the Taoiseach and me, but it is a matter for the Taoiseach, as leader of the Government, to make final decisions on this matter and I will not pre-empt those. I should say though that the current position is public service change management is shared between the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Finance.

On economic strategy——

——I entirely rebut the suggestion that there is no economic strategy in my Department. The consensus of international commentary in recent months demonstrates clearly that there is in operation a very definite strategy that has commanded considerable confidence and support outside this country. What we must do is translate that confidence and support in Ireland that is manifesting itself so strongly outside the country in recent weeks into confidence and faith in ourselves.

How many economists and persons with technical professional qualifications in banking and in accountancy work in the Department? Why has such a large chunk of his Department's responsibilities been effectively outsourced to the NTMA? The NTMA, which has a good record, cannot take responsibility for the entire running of the country.

People feel the performance of the Department of Finance has been underwhelming in the context of the crisis. Is this to do with the type of personnel? How many qualified economists and qualified accountants are there in the Department?

I indicated in my written reply of 19 January last that of the 560.78 whole-time equivalent staff at my Department at the end of 2009, there were 57 officers who held degrees in economics and related disciplines, 44 who hold a master's-graduate qualification in economics and related disciplines, and two who hold a PhD.

Specifically in the banking area, the Department retained two banking experts — one through direct employment and one through an existing private sector exchange arrangement — to supplement on an in-house basis the external expert advisory services retained on my behalf. The Department also has an in-house legal expert on loan from the Office of the Attorney General. These arrangements are important and are kept under review.

I call Deputy O'Donnell.

I do not accept a suggestion that the performance of my Department is underwhelming. I want to put on the record of the House my acknowledgement of the long hours spent by many senior officers of my Department in tackling the problems. Deputy Burton has been given many opportunities to brief herself by my officials on various aspects of our economic problems. As she will be aware, I am not permitted to know the content of any such discussions. Certainly, there have been many official briefings of the Opposition parties on matters which arose.

I call Deputy O'Donnell.

This is a charge against civil servants in the House and I am entitled to deal with it.

The Minister dealt with it rather well. I call Deputy O'Donnell.

The Minister——

I called Deputy O'Donnell.

——did not state whether there was a senior professional accountant in his Department.

On the same matter——

I can get that data for Deputy Burton.

I call Deputy O'Donnell.

There does not seem to be.

Deputies will wait until they are called.

It is fair comment, if one looks back over the past number of years, that the Department's figures have been way off target. If that occurred in the normal business world questions would be asked.

On the same theme, how many new staff with specific master's degrees in economics, accountancy or tax specialties has the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan, taken on since he came into office? Does the Department have the requisite skills within it to deal with the current financial crisis? It is fair comment that last year we received no tax revenue targets until April. This year we are running significantly behind.

Deputy O'Donnell is imparting information rather than seeking it.

First, I must get the information sought by the Deputies. Qualification is an ongoing process in any Department, although I would have doubts about the capacity of the senior persons in the Department of Finance to undergo further qualification and study at present given the volume of business that they must transact. There is ongoing education and training in any Department, and especially in the Department of Finance.

Regarding the NTMA, I wanted to reply to Deputy Burton. I am sure the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will not object to me dealing with it because it is an important question. The deputy secretary general who had charge of the banking crisis became the Secretary General of the Department, as Deputies will be aware, and at that stage I deemed it appropriate that the assistance of the NTMA should be available to the Department in direct negotiations with the financial institutions. I felt it important that this should be done. In fact, the relevant legal documentation has not yet been executed, but in practice there is a protocol and the negotiations with the different guaranteed institutions are conducted by the NTMA with my Department.

May I ask a final supplementary question?

The Minister states that the economic strategy is perfect. Is he stating that the regulatory failures have nothing to do with the Department? Is he stating that the collapse of competitiveness in this economy has nothing to do with the Department? Has the zero progress on public service reform nothing to do with the Department? These matters are core to an effective economic strategy. Against that background, how can the Minister pretend that there is an adequate economic strategy?

A brief final reply.

There has been a great deal of public service reform in the past year and a half, and very difficult decisions had to be taken by the Government on the core issue of remuneration in the public service.

That is the only change, which was a command and control change. It was not reform.

The Government looked after the higher paid.

Let Deputies not anticipate the next question.

It was a fundamental and difficult change. Indeed, it is the change that has excited international approval because it is seen as a Government clearly in command. That is the most important message that Ireland must send out at present.

We are holding an inquiry into banking, and no doubt we will have an inquiry into other matters. The scope of that inquiry will give ample time to look back and see where there were failings in the system. I am not standing up here denying that there were failures in the past, but if there were failures, they were failures of a similar type to those which took place in many other countries as well. What I can speak of is the response that was required by the Department to those failures. The response was swift and the quality of advice I received on an appropriate response to the crisis that emerged was sound.

Pension Provisions.

John Perry

Question:

47 Deputy John Perry asked the Minister for Finance if his decision to alter the public service pay cut for the top earners will mean a discriminatory impact on their pension rights compared to lower paid public servants. [11626/10]

The Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (No. 2) Act 2009 made provision for a reduction in the salaries of public servants with effect from 1 January 2010. Under section 6 of the Act, I varied the application of the pay reductions for the assistant secretary and deputy secretary grades in the Civil Service, and related public service grades, to take account of the reduction in remuneration which had already taken place for these grades arising from the termination of the scheme of performance-related pay.

Section 3 of the Act provides that, for those public servants currently in receipt of a pension or those public servants retiring up to 31 December next, the pay reductions would be disregarded for the purpose of calculating their pension benefits. This provision applies equally to all public servants who are subject to the legislation irrespective of their salary and, accordingly, no discriminatory impacts arise.

Is it not the case that bonuses were non-pensionable and that what the Minister has allowed is that senior public servants would see a cut in a non-pensionable allowance instead of a proposed cut in their pensionable pay, and, therefore, the implications are that their pensions have been protected where every other public service had to see an effect not only on their serving pay, but on their pensions into the distant future? Typically, this is worth €17,000, half of which is a pension of some €8,500 in perpetuity. Is this not another element of unfairness in the way the Minister handled this in respect of pension entitlements?

The error in what Deputy Bruton suggests this afternoon is that there has been no change in pension entitlements. Pensions are linked to the previous rates. There has been no change in the basis of the calculation of pension and, therefore, no question of discrimination can arise. Everyone, for pension purposes, has been treated in the same way as they were treated before the budget, and that remains the case for the duration of this year.

That is nonsense and the Minister knows it.

That is the position and, therefore, there is no question of a discrimination having arisen.

The Minister is like the Red Queen in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland stating that if he says it is, it is.

I welcome Deputy Bruton's interruption. However, no final decision has been taken on how the pension issue will be addressed and, therefore, it is incorrect to suggest that there is any discriminatory effect at this stage.

Has the Minister any appreciation of the fact that the majority of civil servants earn under €50,000 a year? Those civil servants are facing a cut of approximately 5% under the emergency measures. Civil servants, however, at the top of the scale, some 700, in the Minister's Department, the Health Service Executive and other various public bodies are taking a cut of only 3%. If the Minister wanted to make special provisions for senior management and assistant secretaries, why did he not take the honest course and announce it on budget day? Instead, it was done by a sleight of hand which has resulted in disaffection among low-paid civil servants.

The Minister spoke about pensions in his earlier reply to Deputy Bruton. Many low-paid public servants relied on quantities of overtime to top up their salaries but this has been either lost or cut severely. There has been no alteration in the rest of their pay reduction to reflect that they relied on a percentage of overtime. However, the Minister did recognise this for the bonuses of the higher paid.

We dealt with this matter on the last Question Time. Today's question relates to pension provisions. I do not believe there is any profit in going over the same ground again; suffice to say that the former bonus arrangement was treated as remuneration for the purposes of a particular grade that was benchmarked. If the bonus were withdrawn from this grade, it would have had a greater reduction in salary than a grade senior to them. It must be also pointed out that when benchmarked, their salaries were already at an international norm and were not significantly in breach of any of them. The Deputy referred to them being in my Department. They are in many other Departments, as well as local authorities, the Health Service Executive, the Defence Forces and the Garda Síochána.

Does the Minister have any understanding of how many low to middle-income civil servants feel completely shafted by the Government and the Minister's treatment of the assistant secretary grade? Does he understand why they feel sold down the river while assistant secretaries get favourable treatment? Will he admit he made a wrong decision on this matter?

Higher paid civil servants will take a 3% pay cut in 2010 while the low-paid will take a 5% cut.

I do not accept that.

Did the Minister confirm earlier that from 2010 onwards, the pay cuts will have no impact on any public sector pensions?

No I did not. What I indicated today was that we have a period to devise an appropriate solution until the end of the year and that no solution has yet been agreed or decided upon by the Government.

As regards Deputies Morgan and Burton, I understand many people are unemployed as a result of the economic recession. I also understand many people's incomes have come under pressure, not just in the public but in the private sector. Of course I understand these matters. The task of the Government, however, is to ensure it puts the economy on the road to recovery. That requires certain basic decisions be taken and not evaded.

The Minister has chosen to mince his words. He is admitting he has made no final decisions about the impact on pensions. However, has he substituted a non-pensionable pay cut when everyone else suffered a pensionable pay cut? Through this action has he put the foot in the door for discrimination between the low and high paid?

No, as I indicated the period was necessary to, first, prevent a disorderly withdrawal from the public services and, second, to afford a period for reflection on how we devise pension strategy and payments for these grades.