Priority Questions

Before I call on the Minister, I remind Members that two minutes are allowed for the Minister's initial reply and four minutes overall for supplementary questions.

Local Government Fund

Barry Cowen

Question:

37Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for the Environment; Community and Local Government the funding originally budgeted for the Local Government Fund in 2012; the total amount estimated to be spent in view of cuts to the grant on the basis of household charge payment rates in each local authority area; the estimated average cut to the Local Government Fund allocation in each local authority area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39116/12]

Brian Stanley

Question:

41Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for the Environment; Community and Local Government in view of the impending financial problems facing local authorities throughout the State, if he will reverse the cuts in the Local Government Fund and restore adequate funding for the provision of council services to our citizens and communities. [39373/12]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 37 and 41 together.

I assume that the questions refer to general purpose grants from the local government fund. The two principal sources of revenue for the local government fund are the proceeds of motor tax and income from the household charge. The Local Government (Household Charge) Act 2011 provides that income from the household charge is to be paid into the local government fund. The proceeds from the household charge are being redistributed on an equalised basis to local authorities within the context of the annual allocations of general purpose grants.

General purpose grants contribute towards meeting the reasonable cost to local authorities of providing services to their customers. Some €651 million in general purpose grants had been allocated to local authorities for 2012. It has been necessary for me to withhold general purpose grant funding to local authorities in the third quarter of this year in light of the level of compliance so far this year with the household charge.

It is estimated that there are some 1.6 million residential properties liable for the household charge. As such, if collected in full, the household charge has the potential to raise €160 million annually. As of 14 of September, some €103 million had been collected nationally. A total of €15,695,292 was withheld from the quarter 3 general purpose grant payment. For county and city councils, this represented a reduction of between 1% and 3% of the total general purpose grant allocation for 2012.

I am keeping the income generated from the household charge under constant review. However, it is up to individual local authorities to address any potential funding shortfalls arising from non-compliance with the legislation and to pursue those who may have a liability and initiate court proceedings where it is considered appropriate. It is a matter for the authorities to use their local knowledge to follow-up on non-compliant households in order to maximise collection of the charge. Data-sharing exercises are also underway centrally in accordance with section 14 of the Local Government (Household Charge) Act 2011 and it is intended that data will be used from sources such as the non-principal private residence charge, NPPR, Property Registration Authority, PRA, Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, ESB networks and other Departments, namely, the Department of Social Protection and Revenue Commissioners, to identify households that may be liable to pay the household charge.

I wish to emphasise that local authorities can progressively recoup their original general purpose grant allocation through improved household charge compliance. The final amount of general purpose grants available for 2012 will be revisited and reviewed in the final quarter of the year to take account of the then financial position, including progress on securing an increased household charge yield. I am confident that the level of general purpose grants, together with other Government grants and subsidies and income raised from local sources, is appropriate to meet the costs of providing a reasonable level of local authority services to communities.

As two questions are being taken together, 12 minutes are allocated for them.

I welcome back the Minister and thank him for his response. It is as if nothing has changed. The environment could be described as a new Angola there are that many landmines exploding throughout the country-----

The Deputy's brother would know all about that.

-----as a result of various actions or inactions by the Government parties on issues such as this.

I am mindful of the situation that has emanated from Clare County Council in the last day or two. It now appears to be the policy of local authorities to seek a tax clearance certificate or a household charge receipt when it comes to education grants. Is that something the Minister has ordered his Department to obtain from councils throughout the country and is it the case that we can expect a request for a receipt to be provided for the household charge in respect of all Government payments to be made into the future?

The Minister knows that councillor colleagues in his party earlier this year provided a budget for their constituents on the basis of central Government funding, which in itself had been decreased, on the basis of rate income, which had decreased, and on the basis of planning and development charges, which had decreased substantially. With great difficulty they saw fit to provide a group of services and facilities on their part as a local authority to the constituents they represent. There was ineptitude on the part of the Minister and his Department in terms of the manner in which the Minister devised a very poor system to collect the household charge-----

Has the Deputy a question?

-----and he is now penalising them for something that is no fault of theirs but is the result of the incoherence of his Government.

To return to the bones of my question-----

-----in light of developments in recent days, is it now policy that local authorities and the Departments which hand out funding to those in need will now seek a receipt for payment of the household charge before payments are made? Is that what we have got in terms of this incoherence? Is that where this will get us to? Has nothing changed? Are we to continue with this myriad of disasters one after another?

I wish to congratulate Deputy Cowen on his elevation to high office as Fianna Fáil spokesman for the environment and I wish him well. I hope what we have just heard will not be the way in which he will continue. He will be aware that the reason we have a household charge and a property tax is that it was negotiated by people, who would be well known to him in the Fianna Fáil Party, in November 2010. If we want to continue to have funding for our essential public services, we are obliged by the troika to meet those requirements of the EU and the IMF.

I thank the people of Ireland who have contributed to the almost 66% compliance in terms of the payment of the household charge in spite of provocation by people on the opposite side of the House and ill-informed people who advocated non-compliance with legislation. These are the people who fully understand that this is an essential part of the budget which was agreed earlier this year to deliver local services.

The reason for this charge is well known. It is an essential part of delivering local services. If one does not have money in terms of the budget, services have to be cut and that is what the councillors in the area have decided to do.

Clare County Council and its county management are doing no more and no less than any other county council or city manager. They are putting in place plans to get in the remaining moneys owed to them in respect of the household charge and any other moneys owed to them. That is what any business would do. Otherwise, they are faced with the difficult situation of cutting services. I have incentivised them to do so by saying to them that if they do not increase the level of compliance in terms of the payment of the household charge, then they cannot expect to provide the level of service. That is a matter for the people in the area and for the management in the county council area. Given that the Act states that this is the care of management of the local authorities, Clare County Council has decided to take on board the gathering of information on higher education grants. I understand it is working closely with the local government management agency on the protocols that allows it to do so.

I look forward to the same level of activity in whatever means is necessary to get an increased level of compliance on the payment of the household charge. Otherwise the people who are against the payment of this charge will have to explain why services are being cut.

Students do not own the houses.

An issue arising out of this is that two of the largest local authorities in the State have passed a motion requesting the Minister to overturn this measure. In the case of Dublin City Council, it was passed unanimously, which means that Government party councillors backed the motion. I bring to the Minister's attention also that when councillors sat down to pass their budgets last year and try to carve out as best they could the moneys available to them they were not notified that the local government grant was conditional on full collection of this payment. The Minister sought to implement it in the third quarter on the day we left this building for the recess. That was a cynical move on his part. It may seem to be a clever move, and many people might smile at it, but it was a cynical move on the day the Dáil went into recess.

I have asked about this matter previously, and I know it will come up under other questions about local government reform, because all we are seeing is services and money being taken away from local authorities. Local authorities are in crisis. The morale of councillors of all parties and none is very low. They cannot see where all of this is going. We have been trying to get information about it from the Minister here without any luck; he continues to give the same answers. The morale of local authority staff also is very low with the situation they are trying to deal with.

The Clare County Council situation has been mentioned. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, stated this morning that he expects other councils will follow suit in the future but that it will be on their own initiative. The question was asked, and I want to ask the Minister directly, if there is an initiative from his Department. Has he advised councils to do this? Has an instruction gone out to local authorities to use the payment of the household charge as a condition for processing third level grant applications or to slow down or speed up those applications? Has the Minister had any discussions with the Local Government Management Services Board on that matter?

It is disgraceful bullying.

I am glad to tell Deputy Stanley that I have not issued any instruction to any local authority in regard to higher education grants, and I understand that moneys have not been withheld at this stage by Clare County Council in respect of higher education grants. I understand Clare County Council is in a position where it asked for a lot of information, not just about higher education, but issues relating to the payment of the non-principal private residence charge, water rates and commercial rates, as appropriate. It gathers information in that way. Clare County Council is doing the same as all local authorities, instructed by me, to ensure we get a higher compliance in terms of the household charge. Otherwise, they will be faced with the consequences of not having the same amount of money in their budget as they had at the earlier part of the year and having to cut their budgets. It is a matter for the local authority members and the management of the local authorities to decide to stay within their budgets. That is what one would expect any good and prudent management of a council to do. Deputy Stanley is the last man who should talk about compliance with an interim property tax like the household charge considering what his party is doing in another jurisdiction on the same island.

The Minister mentioned "as instructed by me" so I take that as a "Yes" to Deputy Stanley's question. Can the Minister tell me if the Data Protection Commissioner has been consulted by his Department on foot of the actions of Clare County Council and, it appears, what we can expect from other councils into the future?

I have instructed all local authorities to collect the amount of money that is outstanding, and he would expect me to do that. He would be very familiar with the charge and the reason we have it. I have asked them to stay within their budget and use whatever means to do that. The Local Government Management Agency is in constant contact, as the agents who are dealing with this charge on behalf of local authorities, with the data protection systems and I am sure it has all of the necessary compliance requirements and protocols in place.

Has the Data Protection Commissioner been consulted?

That is a matter for each local authority under the Act. They will discuss these issues with the Local Government Management Agency-----

Is the Minister aware whether he has been consulted or not?

No, I am not. I do not micro-manage local authorities.

But the Minister is aware that-----

I call Deputy Ellis. We are out of time. Twelve minutes were spent on those two questions.

Pyrite Panel Report Implementation

Dessie Ellis

Question:

38Deputy Dessie Ellis asked the Minister for the Environment; Community and Local Government the position regarding the progress made on the implementation of the recommendations of the Pyrite report and any other work being undertaken to resolve the issue. [39326/12]

The pyrite report, which contains 24 interrelated recommendations covering a wide range of issues, provides a comprehensive framework to enable me and the other stakeholders to make progress towards providing solutions for homeowners. Implementation of many of the recommendations requires the involvement and co-operation of a number of stakeholders and other bodies. My Department and I will be working to achieve progress on implementation of these recommendations as quickly as possible. The report recommends engagement by those stakeholders in processes which will provide solutions for homeowners. My preferred approach to solutions for homeowners is for responsible stakeholders to take ownership of this problem and work with the Department to provide an industry-led solution thereto. I have already begun a consultation process with key stakeholders and have given them until the end of September to come back to me with credible solutions. In the absence of a voluntary approach in this regard, I will have to consider an imposed solution along the lines recommended in the report in relation to the imposition of a levy.

The National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, has begun working on the development of a testing protocol and a method statement for remediation work. I am hopeful this work will be completed quickly. The recently published draft building control amendment regulations provide for the introduction of mandatory certificates of compliance as recommended by the panel. My Department has had discussions with the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, in regard to the establishment of a registration process for builders and contractors.

I thank the Minister. It is nearly three months since the report was issued. It was a good report with many good recommendations, many of which concern levies on the building industry, the insurance bodies and other groups, such as the quarries. The levy would take a long time to build up if it came to fruition. One of the significant issues is the seriousness of the circumstances that obtain. It is estimated in the report that there are 12,000 homes affected. There is probably a lot more. They are generally private homes, not local authority homes and the others in question. There is a considerable number in addition.

I have a number of questions for the Minister on this matter. The CIF, the Irish Concrete Federation, Homebond and other stakeholders have been given until this month to respond. Have any of them done so with any idea on their contributing, helping out or, in some way, bailing out the people who are badly affected? Will legislation be required at any stage in regard to this? Will local authorities that are looking for funding to carry out remedial works be availed of through the fund? Will the money come from the fund or from local government funding? Before there can be further progress, we need central government funding to start the process. Does the Minister intend to put in place a Government fund of some description? It can be taken from the levies if these are imposed.

Deputy Ellis realises that the State is not liable in this matter, and there is case law to show that. I do not know why the Government would be putting money into a system in respect of which it is not liable. We are facilitating a process to help homeowners who, through no fault of their own, have been put in a difficult position arising from the pyrite problem. In the report, it is estimated that 850 dwellings currently have a claim with a guaranteed provider and need remediation immediately. There are approximately 10,300 homes that are potentially exposed according to the panel's estimation. We are developing a test, through the NSAI, to ensure we will be in a position to identify the extent of the problem among the 10,300.

I have given the stakeholders until the end of the month to come back with proposals. I am prepared to wait until the end of the month to determine whether there will be any. However, I assure the Deputy I will be implementing a new set of proposals. If legislation is required, I will bring it forward as quickly as possible to ensure we will have funds from the industry to carry out remediation on the houses that need it urgently.

I thank the Minister for his response. Some 850 houses are significantly damaged. The situation is so serious that urgent attention is necessary. Will the Minister stick to his September deadline and impose on the relevant parts of the industry a mechanism to deal with the issue? If legislation is required, will it be backdated? I am worried that it will be argued that what happened occurred in the past whereas everything will be okay from this point onwards.

If I had wanted to wash my hands of this problem, I would have done so a long time ago, as the State is not liable. Thanks to the panel's expertise, I have developed a set of recommendations that I am anxious to implement on behalf of home owners. I would like to believe that the stakeholders being consulted will be positive in their responses and will table proposals. I assure the Deputy that I am determined to help home owners by imposing a solution if one is not offered voluntarily.

What about legislation?

We will need to consider that matter following the responses from the stakeholders.

Private Rented Accommodation Provision

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

39Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan asked the Minister for the Environment; Community and Local Government the legal obligations for landlords in Dublin City to maintain a high standard quality of their rental accommodation, to prevent overcrowding in their properties, to prevent the dereliction of their rented accommodation internally and externally, to replace and maintain appliances in their properties for their tenants and to manage waste and dumping; the legal avenues that exist for communities and residents in Dublin Central that are having difficulties with landlords who are not addressing these issues; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39327/12]

Minimum standards for rental accommodation are prescribed in the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2008, made under section 18 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992. These regulations were further amended by the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) (Amendment) Regulations 2009, which expanded the definition of "a proper state of structural repair" to allow for all aspects of the internal and external appearance of a dwelling to be taken into account for the purposes of the regulations. All landlords have a legal obligation to ensure that their rented properties comply with these regulations. Responsibility for enforcing the regulations rests with the relevant local authority, supported by a dedicated stream of funding allocated by my Department.

Article 12 of the regulations provides that each house must have access to suitable and adequate pest and vermin-proof refuse storage facilities. In addition, section 12 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, as amended by section 100 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009, requires a landlord of a dwelling to provide receptacles suitable for the storage of refuse outside the dwelling except where the provision of such receptacles is not within the power or control of the landlord, as could arise, for example, where it is a function of a management company to provide such a service.

Following the enactment of the 2009 Act, local authorities have a strengthened, updated legislative and regulatory framework available to them that provides for the issuing of improvement notices and prohibition notices where landlords are in breach of their obligations under the regulations. Fines for continuing non-compliance with the regulations have also been significantly increased.

The issue of overcrowded houses is dealt with in Part IV of the Housing Act 1966. Under that Act, a housing authority may request information from the owner or occupier of a house such as will allow that authority to determine if a house can be deemed to be overcrowded, having regard to section 63 of the Act. The housing authority may serve notice on the owner of a house specifying the maximum number of persons that may occupy a house without causing overcrowding and, where the owner of a house is causing or permitting the house to be overcrowded, may require the owner to desist from causing or permitting such overcrowding within a period not exceeding 21 days. Any person who neglects or refuses to comply with these requirements is guilty of an offence.

I wish to draw a matter to the Minister of State's attention. According to the 2011 census, more than 75% of households in north inner city Dublin were not owner occupied. Of those, approximately 70% were private rental accommodation, a significant number of which were not registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB.

There are responsible landlords. In the space of two months, however, I attended approximately eight community forum meetings in Dublin Central. The common denominator was the other kind of landlord, people who had a complete disregard for the communities in which their rental accommodation was located. They are a plague on the lives of other people living in those communities. There is overcrowding, the rubbish is unbelievable, there is serious anti-social behaviour and some of the houses are substandard.

The legislation requires one thing, but the reality is something different. We have met the local authority and the Garda, but their hands are tied because the legislation is not strong enough. Will the Minister of State's Department be the driving force to determine where the gaps lie and consider how to have joined-up thinking to allow for an interagency approach? The fire section would do one bit, the planning section would do another bit and the local authorities and Garda would do something else.

The landlords in question are disregarding the requests of the local authority and the Garda to meet. It is not working and something stronger is needed. Will the Minister of State address that point?

There are significant powers so local authorities can take action with regard to both the improvement and prohibition notices. There are fines stipulated, with a maximum fine of €5,000 and €400 for each day of a continuing offence. It is probably the case that many local authorities do not take that kind of action but the powers exist.

The Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, also has significant powers. We are aware of the need for some amendments in the area and we have published legislation to amend the law relating to the PRTB. We hope that will come to the Chamber in the near future and we welcome any proposals from Deputy O'Sullivan or others in that regard. I intend to bring some amendments to the published legislation, including one relating to deposit retention. Nevertheless, significant powers already exist, although we recognise the need to strengthen legislation. We will do so.

The existing powers are not strong enough as they are not working on the ground. I acknowledge the work of Dublin City Council, whose representatives would argue that their hands are tied. We can see the consequences at meetings with residents.

I asked that waste could become the responsibility of a landlord, although the Minister of State indicated there would be no legislation introduced in that regard. It is currently impossible to go after 20 individual tenants, whereas if the landlord was responsible for all waste in a premises, it might bring about results. Another proposal might be the provision of a behaviour clause in a tenancy agreement, as there is with local authority tenants. I would like both of these ideas to be considered.

I would be very happy to take on board any suggestions that could strengthen the rights of tenants. There are certain actions that local authorities can take, although I am not sure if there are interventions in every case. We will consider any suggestions coming from any side of the House when we debate the legislation in the near future.

Water Charges

Barry Cowen

Question:

40Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for the Environment; Community and Local Government the current timeframe for the introduction of water metering; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39118/12]

The programme for Government and the memorandum of understanding with the EU, the IMF and the ECB provide for the introduction of domestic water charges and the establishment of a State-owned water utility. The Government considers that charging for water based on usage is the fairest way and it has decided that water meters should be installed in households connected to public water supplies. International evidence has shown that where meters have been installed, significant reductions have been achieved in the level of consumption, and this is also borne out by the water savings achieved with metering in the group water sector.

The Government has also decided that Irish Water, a new State-owned water company to be established as an independent subsidiary within the Bord Gáis Éireann group, will be responsible for the metering programme. The Government has recently approved the preparation of legislation to assign the necessary powers to allow Irish Water to undertake the metering programme. The objective is to have the Bill enacted by the end of this year. Pending the enactment of the legislation, my Department will be working with the local authorities to progress aspects of the metering programme, including the carrying out of surveys of domestic connections, and the Department will also be progressing the tender documentation for elements of the meter infrastructure.

A couple of questions emanate from the Minister's answer. The timeframe seems to have been amended because earlier this year - to great fanfare when the process was announced - the date for the installation of all the water meters was 2014. There was also an indication that 2,000 jobs would be created. Is the timeframe now in tatters? Today, Bord na Móna announced much restructuring and some job losses. I would like to know, in writing in the coming weeks if it is impossible today, why that organisation was overlooked in favour of Bord Gáis for the water metering process. The Minister has moved back from his initial commitment to have this done more quickly. Will he confirm that Bord Gáis is continuing to recruit personnel and how many have been recruited so far? For what purposes is this recruitment taking place? Will the 2,000 jobs be filled when there is nothing to do for half of the personnel?

Over the past number of years, some county councils have from their own resources begun a process of installing water meters not only in private estates, but in public authority estates. It is ironic to think those who showed this forward thinking are to be penalised by virtue of the local government charge in the same fashion as anybody else who did not have the foresight to do this in recent years, irrespective of what agreement or options may have been laid down with the troika with regard to funding being made available to the State.

As the Deputy knows from the troika agreement, water charges are to be introduced in 2014. This is what the previous Government negotiated. Whether or not there are meters there will be water charges in 2014.

We know it is an option.

The Deputy knows it is there. It is not a surprise.

We know you made a commitment to the electorate you would overturn it, re-negotiate it and do everything with it. However, when it suits you it is a problem.

Through the Chair.

We have abandoned our economic sovereignty thanks to the policies pursued by our predecessors and we are doing our best to sort it out. An independent assessment was carried out by PwC on behalf of the Department to establish which semi-State body would be appropriate and would have the necessary skills and expertise and two companies were considered, namely, Bord na Mona and Bord Gáis Éireann. Its independent recommendation, which was subsequently approved by the Government, was that Bord Gáis Éireann had the best synergy to deal with the issues because it was already involved in dealing with utility customers.

Will the Minister publish it?

That is a separate question.

There is a time limit on this question.

In addition to this, procurement documentation is being drawn up and it must be done in a way that is legal and according to EU tendering arrangements. Those who will obtain jobs are fitters, plumbers and people in the construction industry who were abandoned arising from the downturn.

Fix the leaks in the State.

We will do that also.

It would be much better to do this than to waste money on meters.

Perhaps the Minister would reply to the Deputy's question.

I remind Deputies that people already pay water charges. People provide water supplies themselves, as do commercial people, and this is extending the principle to public supplies.

Every citizen pays for water.

We all pay for water through our taxes.

You do not want to pay for anything.

I have a follow-on question on the fact that Bord Gáis-----

You do not want to pay for anything.

When we buy goods in shops we pay for the shopkeepers' water charges also.

I ask the Deputy to please adhere to the rules of the House.

It appears that Bord Gáis is in the process of recruiting fitters and engineers but I have yet to learn when their work might commence and I do not know to what infrastructure they have access. Where stands the expertise in the local authorities to which the Minister so proudly states he can provide funding so they can provide services? He is taking one of the long-standing-----

A question please Deputy.

-----facilities available to the electorate, namely, local authority water services. Where stands this expertise and local knowledge and these engineers in local authorities? How will they be employed in local authorities? Are they being asked to transfer to Bord Gais?

Local authority staff work very closely with Bord Gáis and in the coming seven years they will continue to do so through providing the infrastructure for rolling out the metering programme and in providing the water infrastructure to be laid down in the legislation to come before the House. This legislation will give Bord Gáis the necessary powers with regard to arrangements with the Commission for Energy Regulation and the roll-out of the water metering programme. During these seven years the local authorities and Bord Gáis will work out the systems they must put in place to deliver what is probably one of the largest public utility projects since the establishment of the ESB. The experience in local authorities will be used to good effect with regard to rolling out the programme.

Question No. 41 answered with Question No. 37.