Topical Issue Debate

Social and Affordable Housing Provision

The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, has inherited a dreadful legacy in her social housing portfolio. This is the result of long periods of neglect and under-provision by previous Administrations. Let us take a moment to consider this legacy of neglect. There are 100,000 people on housing lists, long queues on transfer lists and homelessness and hostel figures have reached unprecedented levels. There is also another waiting list of tenants waiting for repairs, new doors, windows, heating and insulation to their homes. While figures are important, they do not fully express, capture or measure the anxiety, helplessness and frustration of families who long for a house to make their home. Despite the scale of the problem facing her, the Minister of State has risen to this challenge and ably secured significant sums for social housing. She has, for example, obtained €15 million for refurbishment and a further €15 million for initial new construction. A successful application has been made to the European Union for a loan of €100 million in EU funds to make ready vacant apartment blocks in three cities. This is a very impressive start to her efforts to tackle a seemingly intractable problem.

On behalf of those on the housing list, many of whom visit my clinics every week, I want to know whether the era of neglect of social housing has come to an end. I also seek a reassurance that the Government takes a different attitude to social housing from its predecessors and has a commitment to it.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. I assure him that the Government is determined to address the problems faced by people waiting for housing. Unfortunately, we inherited an economy that had collapsed, which had a significant effect on capital budgets.

One means of dealing with the housing list is to make available empty houses. Some 3.3% of social housing stock is vacant, out of a total stock of almost 130,000 social housing units. Local authorities are responsible for the management and maintenance of the social housing stock. Rental income is used to support responsive and planned maintenance programmes. However, constraints on local authority revenue funding have resulted in a growing number of properties being left vacant for protracted periods.

The best approach to preventing houses becoming long-term voids is through proactive, planned maintenance programmes by local authorities and taking steps to ensure the quick turnaround of properties as they become vacant. Local authorities are, by and large, doing this, although some problems remain. My Department has a number of capital support measures in place to assist them in refurbishing vacant and boarded up houses.

This year, the Department is providing funding of more than €121 million in capital grants to local authorities for improving the social housing stock. This includes €80 million for the regeneration of run-down estates and flat complexes in Dublin city - Deputy Conaghan will be familiar with some of these - as well as Limerick, Cork and a number of regional centres. Approximately €20 million is being provided for estate wide remedial works and this year the Government approved a new €50 million insulation retrofitting programme which will result in some 25,000 local authorities houses being provided with attic, roof and wall insulation. This will have a significant impact on comfort levels and energy savings and create much needed jobs. Some €10 million of this funding has been made available this year and will be used to retrofit approximately 5,000 properties. A further €25 million will be made available in 2014 when I expect work will be completed on some 12,500 properties. On a visit to Corduff in Fingal yesterday I saw how this programme is being used to make houses more comfortable and energy efficient and to reduce fuel costs for householders.

The Department also applied for funding from the European Union and I hope this application will be successful. This funding will be used specifically to address problems in flat complexes in Dublin, Cork and Limerick.

The Government's housing policy statement published in June 2011 clearly identifies that the priority for Government will be to meet the most acute needs of households applying for social housing support. We must use all the schemes available to us while we await further capital funding. This includes the rental accommodation scheme, securing housing units from the National Asset Management Agency, a process we are seeking to accelerate, and working with approved housing bodies. These bodies have demonstrated a capacity to raise funds additional to those that are allocated from the Department's capital budgets. We are, therefore, working to provide social housing through various means.

This year, the Department announced funding to enable local authority housing construction programmes to commence. This funding is additional to funding provided to address void or vacant housing units. Some local authorities have a large number of void units and we want to ensure they are returned to use. While the sum provided this year is relatively small owing to the ongoing difficulties with capital allocations, we will increase this funding when it becomes possible to do so. I am determined to ensure the social housing programme optimises the delivery of social housing and the return for the resources invested.

I am pleased with what the Minister of State said. I am aware of her long commitment to and compassion for the housing issues in her native city of Limerick, for example, the massive regeneration project to which she is fully committed in that city, and the transformative impact that such a project will have on the lives of the people her native city.

I am also aware, from discussions with people whom she has met in Dublin in places such as St. Teresa's Gardens, and where she has met former residents of St. Michael's Estate, of the praise they have conferred on her due to her conduct of those meetings and her attitude, and her understanding of the issues with which they are confronted. That all augurs well for the lifetime of portfolio. I pass on some of the best wishes of residents in St. Teresa's Gardens and former St. Michael's Estate. When they knew I might be speaking to her today, they asked me to thank her sincerely for having visited and for the length of time she spent, and the understanding and the compassion she brought to bear on the dilemmas that they are facing in their housing issues.

On Dublin, as Deputy Conaghan will be aware, there is still some work to be carried out, this year and next, in Ballymun but it is close to completion, and we really want now to address difficulties in the kind of estates of which he spoke, such as Dolphin House. There is a commitment to funding, at least in the lifetime of this Government, for those projects.

On the application for European Union funding, if we get that funding - I have no guarantee that we will get it but we hope we will get it - it will allow us address 2,000 local authority flats, 1,500 of which are in Dublin with the others in Cork and Limerick. That is a substantial number of units of housing as well. We will be working hard to ensure that we get that funding to address those difficulties.

Dublin Water Shortage

The issue of water was topical last week and into this week here in the capital city because many did not have it throughout the day. The population is the greatest concern, but it was unfortunate that we did not have water coming out of taps during the week of the web summit when we were showing how far advanced we were from a technological point of view. Water is important, both for households and jobs.

Earlier this week the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, stated that it was a matter of poor communication but I fail to see his point. The capacity, in terms of what was coming through the pipe system, was not there. No matter what way one communicates that, communication will not put water in the taps.

The solution on which I will focus is the water project by Bord na Móna, the Shannon Garryhinch-Dublin water project. That project, together with the issue of water conservation, is the key issue here.

There will be a considerable amount of funding spent on the significant programme under way to put meters in place. If one compares the Dublin households with similar comparable households in Wales, the figures shows that they use almost the same amount of water despite the fact that Dublin households were not metered and the ones in Wales were.

The Garryhinch project is a ready-to-go project. Bord na Móna is anxious to proceed with it. If it is done, I am told it will be good for 100 years. It would be in State ownership, under democratic control of the State in a good semi-State company. It is needed for foreign direct investment in the midlands and eastern counties and it would be a significant job creator in counties Laois and Offaly, creating 150 long-term jobs and 1,000 jobs in construction. It is a real winner and I would ask the Minister to seriously look at it.

The water shortages in the capital city over the past ten days are a damning indictment of the Government's water policy. A reliable consistent supply of water to both domestic and industrial users across the country's biggest city is a vital part of a fully functioning economy. Businesses and residents across Dublin have suffered severely from the dramatic impact of 12-hour long water shortages. We are faced with the perverse situation where businesses, which pay high water rates for their supply, have endured damaging cutbacks which have impacted significantly on their revenue. All the while, ordinary residents, who are facing new water bills from 2014, are left to cope with an overstretched supply.

I have consistently called for a comprehensive national audit of the water infrastructure in Ireland. Instead, the Minister has put the cart before the horse. He has ploughed on with establishing Irish Water, allowing for glossy expensive advertisements on newspapers and television, glorifying the corporate identity of Irish Water and, most important, with a system of water charges which, as I stated, is set to be imposed at the end of next year.

This policy has been further compounded by the refusal to subject Irish Water to the Freedom of Information Bill. Without even the detail as to why Bord Gáis was picked over and above Bord na Móna in the first instance, we are establishing an unprecedented quango, without oversight or transparency.

Dublin needs the security of an adequate water supply and a reserve that is capable of facilitating the strains placed on it by the abnormal summer we had. The key questions, that the Minister needs to answer, instead of a response that is bluster about Irish Water, are what specific steps are being taking to ensure Dublin has a sufficient water reserve and sufficient water supply to bear the weight of future strains put on that supply. The residents and businesses of Dublin need a water supply that delivers, not a misguided quango. I look forward to the Minister's response on this issue.

It was difficult to listen to Deputy Cowen talking about the water supply for Dublin given who was in charge for the past 24 years.

It is 24 years now. We were good, not that good.

Water for the greater Dublin area is one of the key issues challenging both Dublin and Leinster. Twenty years ago, it was identified that there was a need for a water supply for the Dublin region. Nothing has happened over those 20 years. It just happens that the previous speaker's party was in government. Ten years ago, the Garryhinch project was first talked about.

At this stage, I welcome that we will have water in the capital city tonight, but let us see what we need now. There is a leak problem in the city and that is being addressed by the water mains rehabilitation service. We need that to continue over the next coming months and years. The metering, it has been shown internationally, will create another 10% in savings within the Dublin area. Therefore, I work out that we have approximately ten years to bring on an alternative water supply for the Leinster area.

The Leinster area is the golden calf. It creates 70% of all tax revenue to the State. We need now to make that investment to right the wrong of the past 20 years and invest in a safe, secure sustainable water supply for the Leinster region from where the vast majority of tax revenue comes to support the State.

I ask the Minister to address urgently this matter and look into setting up a Cabinet task force to address the water supply issue for the Dublin region.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.

I welcome the announcement today by Dublin City Council that the recent nightly restrictions on the supply of water are being lifted. I also welcome the news that production levels at the water treatment plant in Ballymore Eustace have been substantially restored to normal levels. The recent restrictions have, undoubtedly, caused difficulties for people across the Dublin region and a return to normal service will be welcomed by all. I concur with Deputy Kevin Humphreys on the long lead-in time for water projects. Something that was intended to come on stream now would have needed to be planned during the time when Deputy Barry Cowen's party was in charge.

Matters relating to the operation, maintenance and management of the water supply systems in the Dublin region are ones for the relevant water services authorities under the general supervision of the Environmental Protection Agency. In the case of the Ballymore Eustace water treatment plant, Dublin City Council is the responsible authority. Following notification by the council of the problems at the Ballymore Eustace water treatment plant, my Department was in constant contact with the council to see how the problems could be solved as expeditiously as possible to ensure full resumption of water supplies in the Dublin region without undue delay. The Minister received a number of briefings on the matter from the city manager and earlier this week he visited the Ballymore Eustace plant to see at first hand the work that was being carried out to fully restore supplies. Production at the plant stabilised late last week and over last weekend. It has been improving each day since to the point where restrictions can now be lifted. The council has advised that production levels at the plant and storage levels in the region will continue to be closely monitored.

Funding under my Department's water services investment programme has been and continues to be invested in improvements to both the water supply network and treatment capacity within the greater Dublin area. In recent years new well fields in north east Kildare have been brought on stream and the new water treatment works at Srowland, near Athy, has commenced production. Investment is continuing in the upgrade of the Ballymore Eustace plant and at the Leixlip water treatment plant. Work at these plants has brought additional capacity into the system and further additional supplies will be available when work is completed at both locations during 2014. In addition, there is a substantial programme of works in train as part of the Dublin region water mains rehabilitation project. Significant water savings have been made and additional savings are anticipated as this work continues.

My Department's water services investment programme also contains numerous schemes and contracts to upgrade other water supply schemes in Leinster. Water service authorities throughout the province are, like the Dublin authorities, progressing these as expeditiously as possible. When Irish Water becomes responsible for the investment programme in 2014, it will continue the work of improving the infrastructure on an ongoing basis. There will be continuity in the transfer of the investment programme to Irish Water and it will commence an initial two year programme of works covering the period 2014-15. Thereafter, Irish Water will embark on a new cycle of investment programmes of longer duration, having due regard to economic needs and environmental compliance in all areas of the country.

The Minister of State did not mention the Garryhinch project. Consultants are carrying out a study of that project for Dublin City Council, including water flows in the Shannon basin. I understand it will be a two year project. I have noted the brash press releases announcing that the project is about to go to planning, but the studies will need to be completed before the planning stage is reach. However, other preparatory work remains to be done and I urge the Department to consider the project carefully in the context of its potential for job creation not only in the midlands but also in Dublin. If we are going to have another Intel, we will need to have a sufficient supply of water.

I understand the Vartry tunnel supplies up to one third of Dublin's water. It was identified in 2007 as having major problems, because it is approximately 200 years old. If anything happens to the tunnel, Dublin will lose a significant amount of water. I ask the Minister of State to raise this issue with the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, and his officials. I urge the Government to do everything it can to progress the Garryhinch project in parallel with other works.

I understand why Labour Party Members and others would seek to deflect from the job at hand by speaking about how they won the last general election. They will want to win the next election with the same arguments they made in 2011. For the record, €6 billion was spent on upgrading water networks over the 14 years prior to 2011.

As Deputy Brian Stanley noted, the Minister of State did not mention the Garryhinch project. The Critical Infrastructure Act 2006 gives the Government and statutory authorities great scope in progressing projects such as the Garryhinch project. It is irritating to hear the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, and engineers indicate that it could take ten years to complete the project. The workforce and population of Dublin pay 50% of the income tax raised in this country, 62% of VAT receipts and 59% of corporation tax returns. It is only right and proper that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government acquiesce to the request I made when Irish Water was established 18 months ago and supply the House with a detailed analysis and audit that would create a blueprint for the network throughout the country. That would allow us to build a system that would be costed and fit for purpose. Perhaps people might then be happy to pay for a service they could stand over. It is the duty of Government Members to take the reins of government given to them by the people and do what they promised. Rehashing old arguments might have worked at the last general election, but recent opinion polls suggest it will not work the next time the people are asked to adjudicate on their performance.

I do not have to deflect because it is a fact that the investment in preventing leakage was limited in the past 20 years. The level of leakage in Dublin was disgraceful. Dublin never received its fair share because there were no votes in fixing pipes. Dublin needs a champion in the form of a mayor for the greater Dublin area. Deputy Barry Cowen has outlined the tax revenues produced in Dublin. If they are expanded out to include the rest of Leinster, the figure is enormous. The city needs a mayor who could obtain our fair share of investment. We critically need a secure and sustainable water supply. There is to be a plebiscite on a mayor for Dublin at the next local elections, with legislation to follow two years later. If we follow that timeline, Dublin will not have a mayor for another seven years. We need a champion now to articulate the needs of the city. If one considers the amount of taxes paid in the city region, Dublin has consistently failed to receive its fair share of the pie. South Dublin receives the lowest proportion of the local government grant. Dublin city received a miserable €52 million. If we want to continue to attract foreign direct investment in the Dublin region where companies want to establish, we need a water supply. I urge the Minister of State to consult the Cabinet on setting up a task force to supervise the delivery of a safe and secure water supply for the greater Dublin area. That is something the last Administration failed miserably to deliver.

I thank the Deputies for making specific points. I will bring the points that are relevant to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan. There is no doubt that the Dublin region needs a major new source capable of supplying 350 million litres of water per day if it is to meet its medium to long-term needs. There is no dragging of feet on the part of the Government. Dublin City Council recently appointed consultants to progress the planing phase of the Dublin long-term source project. This has to be done step by step, as Deputy Brian Stanley acknowledged. We know it is an important project.

A commitment has been made to address the issue of having a Dublin mayor.

It will be addressed next year at the same time as the local and European elections. At least, the question will be raised. The Deputy is questioning the timeframe of when it will be implemented. Certainly, there is a clear acknowledgement by the Government that there is a need for a proper source of supply of secure water for the Dublin region. There will be no dragging of feet in delivering the project. Obviously, Irish Water will take over responsibility in terms of the practical delivery as soon as it is established but there is no dragging of feet on the part of the Government. We will continue to work on this to ensure an adequate supply water for the Dublin region.

Institutes of Technology

In 2010, a number of lecturers within Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, became concerned about the treatment of allegations and instances of plagiarism and cheating within the institute. These concerns have been expressed in the local and national press. In 2011, an investigation was launched following a series of revelations in the Galway City Tribune about plagiarism at GMIT and discontent about standards among teaching staff. The incident involves a Master's student in the school of business who obtained an instructor's manual that contained model answers to assessment questions. The student used the material to cheat. The instructor manual was legitimately accessible by academic staff only and was protected by a password. It is alleged the password was passed by a lecturer to the student. The student was subsequently found guilty of plagiarism and had some marks docked but not enough to impact on his final year grade and the student later graduated.

Three internal investigations were held, the second of which found that the internal disciplinary committee has acted incorrectly in treating it as a minor incident. The third inquiry found that "there is a prima facie case in respect of misconduct to be answered" with regards to a lecturer who assisted a student to cheat. The governing body subsequently launched an unprecedented external investigation, hiring outside independent experts. The terms of reference of the inquiry included establishing if the matter was "suppressed, concealed or covered up" by staff within the institute. These terms reflect the belief that the allegation of cheating only came to light because of the persistence of a junior, short-term contract lecturer, in the face of opposition from management and staff, to continue raising the issue of standards of education in the institute. The junior lecturer did not, I understand, have her short-term contract renewed.

All of this has been reported in the local and national press. The inquiry was not expected to last this long but is now in its third year. Most of the costs of the inquiry relate to legal advice. The sum now amounts to something short of €400,000 and is still rising. The costs are a concern as the inquiry now appears to be dragging on over three years and potential legal challenges are coming from the parties involved. These costs must be seen in the context of severe cuts to the institution imposed by this and previous Governments while student numbers have increased. In a written response to other Galway Deputies, the Minister indicated his reluctance to intervene in the matter given that it involves an independent institute. The Minister stated these events and allegations are a matter for the institute, its management, for it as an authority and for its academic council. That may be the case but, given the protracted nature of the inquiry and its ever rising costs, the Minister is cognisant of concerns such as the prudential spending of scarce public moneys that must be provided to the institute and, most important, the potential damage to the academic reputation of the institution. It is a vital part of my county and the west's resources as a contributor to the economy and society.

Will the Minister responsible for education use whatever influence he has to press for immediate closure on an investigation that has cost nearly €400,000 to date? Will he use his influence to ensure the institution takes whatever action is necessary to report as quickly as possible? The investigation has gone on for three years. It is time for closure and to improve the reputational damage caused to GMIT.

I would like to thank the Deputy for raising this serious matter. Institutes of technology are autonomous statutory bodies established under the Institutes of Technology Act 2006. An institute's academic council has statutory responsibility to protect, maintain and develop the academic standards of the institute and, subject to the approval of the governing body, for the making of academic regulations of the institute including those governing the conduct of examinations.

Accordingly the investigation of allegations of plagiarism and cheating is a matter for the institute's management authorities and its academic council. GMIT has a published policy for dealing with alleged or suspected plagiarism. The document, which has been approved by the institute's academic council and governing body, provides a definition of plagiarism and outlines the institute's policy and procedures for dealing with alleged or suspected plagiarism. The full document is available on the institute's website.

I understand the issues involved are complex and that the president of GMIT expects the final report to be submitted to him shortly. I take that to mean a matter of weeks. With regard to funding, the Department of Education and Skills allocates recurrent funding to the Higher Education Authority, HEA, for direct disbursement to the HEA institutions, including GMIT. The HEA allocates this grant to institutions for free fees and core grant funding and other specific earmarked initiatives. The HEA uses a recurrent grant allocation model to determine the amount of core funding or grant provided to each institution. It is then a matter for the institution to determine how funding is allocated internally.

All higher education institutions are facing very real challenges to cope with declining State budgets and rising student populations. Institutions must also reduce staff numbers in line with the employment control framework for the sector. Core staff numbers in higher education institutions were reduced by 9% between December 2008 and December 2011 while, during the same period, overall full-time student numbers increased by 12%. Staff numbers have reduced by a further 1.5% at the end of the last academic year and further reductions are required this year. It is a matter for each institution to work within a balanced budget and achieve best value for money.

There are clear accountability and governance procedures in place within institutions, and reporting mechanisms to the HEA, the Minister for Education and Skills and the Oireachtas. Under legislation, the president of the institution is the accountable officer and is answerable to the committees of the Oireachtas with regard to the disposal of moneys. Legislation also provides that the Comptroller and Auditor General undertake annual audits of the accounts and financial statements of the institution. This includes a review of all expenditure, including legal fees, incurred by the institute. The Comptroller and Auditor General regularly reports to the Committee of Public Accounts on these audits and is therefore accountable to the Oireachtas.

I acknowledge the fact that the Minister made himself available today for this query. It is an important issue that the Minister has commented on. We are talking about 20 special needs assistants, 700 medical cards, a number of school extensions or 20 Garda cars. Some €400,000 has been spent investigating what I can only describe as an unacceptable allegation at GMIT. I welcome the statement of the Minister and it is incumbent on me to write immediately to the Committee of Public Accounts to invite the chief governing officer to account for how an investigation has taken over three years and has incurred legal fees of €400,000.

My background is in investigations of workplace allegations, grievances and procedures for that.

I thank Deputy Keaveney for his opening comments regarding my presence here, which I appreciate.

GMIT has an excellent reputation and plays a key role in supporting the development of the western region. It facilitates access to third level education for people from Galway, Mayo and beyond and plays a key role in the development of business and industry in the region. It is proposing to link up with Sligo and Letterkenny Institutes of Technology to strengthen that strategic role.

The institute's reputation and its future contribution, not to mention its past reputation, is of critical importance. I do not wish to comment on the individual details of this case while the process of investigation is ongoing. However, I can understand why the Deputy is concerned. I have deliberately pointed out to him what this House can do with regard to democratically expressing that concern in an appropriate manner and at an appropriate time.

I thank the Minister.

The next matter is in the name of Deputy Paul J. Connaughton to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Under the new Standing Orders of the House, I am seeking to defer this matter to next Tuesday, 12 November 2013. This has been agreed with the relevant Minister.