Leaders' Questions

The ongoing revelations concerning the establishment of Irish Water are making many people angry out in the community. People have been extremely surprised by the drip-feed of revelations over recent days. It is fair to say that, since the Government set up Irish Water, it has until recent days been run like a secret service, with very little information being given to anybody, particularly to Members of Dáil Éireann and the public. If one is to judge by the ministerial reaction of colleagues of the Minister, Deputy Hogan, they seem to be as surprised as everybody else about some of the revelations. While we do not know if that is fair, the Tánaiste said last week that with regard to the €50 million that was spent on consultants, value for money would have to be shown.

Despite the past two days, we still do not have full details in terms of all of the spend in regard to Irish Water. The Minister, Deputy Hogan's arrogant attitude of "It's none of my business" has annoyed people and made them especially angry. I also put it to the Tánaiste that people are particularly worried that families with young children could be facing a second tier of charges, given the proposals the regulator may have, and they will be particularly vulnerable to excessive water charges.

The way it was established as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis has led to a convoluted quagmire. That is why, for example, it was revealed yesterday that bonuses will be paid to the staff of Irish Water, despite the Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, saying that would be astonishing, and despite the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, saying two days ago that it was a public relations disaster and yesterday that paying bonuses would not be justified. The Taoiseach's spokesman said the same yesterday, namely, that no bonuses would be paid. We learned last evening that bonuses will be paid, that the Government approved the payment of bonuses, and that the Economic Management Council approved the structure of the establishment of Irish Water as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis, resulting in the reality of bonuses being paid.

I accept, in fairness to the Tánaiste, that the establishment of Irish Water was a Fine Gael policy, with its origins in the NewERA document. However, that does not explain everything. I ask the Tánaiste to explain to me why the Government agreed to pay bonuses to the staff of Irish Water, and agreed this would be part of the regime in Irish Water, despite everything we have heard from Ministers.

Thank you, Deputy.

Second, will the Tánaiste indicate how the Government is going to intervene to protect families with young children from excessive charges of €400 plus, given the role of the regulator and also given his own stated position that he was against water charges? He said: "I’m against water charging. ... [They are] essential services [that] should be delivered as a public service." That was the Tánaiste's statement on this issue. I ask him to answer those two questions.

There are quite a number of things I have to correct in Deputy Martin's statement. First, Irish Water is being established to modernise the way in which the water services of this country are delivered into the future. I said, and the Labour Party has said for quite some time, that the delivery of water in this country needed to be done on a national basis. Nobody, for example, would now consider it desirable to deliver electricity on a county-by-county basis, and it is not sustainable that water services are delivered on a county-by-county basis.

EirGrid will do it.

It needs to be done on a national basis, which is why Irish Water was established. There are establishment costs associated with Irish Water, and they run to about 1% of the total cost of water service delivery over the next decade. The amounts of money are very large - of course they are. That is why it is essential there is value for money for any money that is spent in the establishment of Irish Water, as there would be in the establishment of any company.

It is essential there is transparency for that, which is why the chief executive and the management of Irish Water were before two Dáil committees this week to provide the information about how that money is spent. It is also why the Government is applying the Freedom of Information Act to Irish Water in order that the public can have full information about what is spent.

It is also important there is accountability in Irish Water, as in any public body, for the way in which it does its business. The chief executive of Irish Water was before two committees this week. If any issues arise, it is the job of Members who are elected to this House and who are members of the relevant committees, in this case, Deputy McCarthy's committee and the Committee of Public Accounts, to establish the facts and ask for any information they want. If any issues surface in that process, the Government will certainly be very happy to address them.

Deputy McCarthy is not happy about it.

The story this morning that there is some kind of a second tier of charging for families with children has no basis. No decision has been made in regard to the levels of charges that will be applied and how they are going to be applied, other than the policy the Government has taken, which is that the charging for water will be on the basis of a metered regime and there will be a free allowance for households, with charging to be above and beyond that. The process which has to be followed for that to be established is that the regulator must set out what kind of charging on an economic basis is to be pursued, and then, based on what the regulator has said, the Government will make a decision as to what the level of the free water allowance will be and what the charging above and beyond that will be. That is the approach we are going to take.

Has the Tánaiste a view on that?

Will he micro-manage it?

The Tánaiste deliberately avoided answering the question about the bonuses.

A Deputy

He did not.

I asked him why the Government approved the bonuses. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, approved it and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, approved it, as did the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, although he is now passing the buck to the Minister, Deputy Howlin, as per his comments yesterday.

Will the Tánaiste please answer the question? Why did the Government approve the payment of bonuses and why do we have to listen to all the hypocritical rhetoric from the Minister, Deputy Burton, who said she was going to take it up with the Tánaiste and the rest of the Cabinet?

(Interruptions).

Was she kept in the dark? That is the problem. Nobody knows what to believe. It is incredible. It is insulting to people to say that all of this information is available. The only reason Irish Water is before committees this week is because Seán O'Rourke asked that question.

Dáil Éireann was kept in the dark for 12 months. Freedom of information explicitly excluded Irish Water. It was not included.

A question, please.

Prior to Christmas, Dáil debate was shut down.

The tap was turned off.

I think I know the reason for that. The reason was to keep this thing under the radar until after the local elections in May. That is why people are sceptical and angry. The first charge would happen in the last quarter of 2014.

A question, please. You are over time.

The regulator will be a powerful force in terms of levying those charges. I do not accept-----

This is supplementary questions.

We need far greater clarity and certainty for families with younger children in particular. Will the Tánaiste answer the question on the bonuses in the first instance? There are many more questions we can ask but, given the time limits we have, we will have to wait. None the less, we would like to have straight answers. Why were bonuses approved and what will the power of the regulator be vis-à-vis the Government in terms of levying charges?

First, Deputy Martin knows very well that pay in the commercial semi-State sector is a matter for the companies themselves. There is-----

That is not what the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, said.

Hold on a minute. If the Deputy asks a question, he should listen to the answer. He might not like it but he should listen to it.

We got the answer yesterday from the Minister of State.

There is a clear Government decision that reduced the pay of chief executives of commercial semi-State companies and ensured that no bonuses would be paid to them.

Deputy Martin spoke about hypocrisy. He of all people is in no position to come in here and talk about spending in any State agencies. He commissioned 145 consultancy reports when he was Minister for Health at a cost of €30 million and spent €220 million on the PPARS project which never saw the light of day.

(Interruptions).

Meanwhile, his Government presided over a neglect of water services in this country to the point where people in Galway could not drink the water because it was contaminated. It brushed it under the carpet. For the money it wasted on consultants' reports, it would have established Irish Water three times over.

(Interruptions).

Would Members please allow Deputy Mac Lochlainn to speak? The rules of this House apply to everybody on all sides and I will apply them as long as I am in this Chair. I call Deputy Mac Lochlainn and I expect Members to have the courtesy to allow him to speak.

As the Tánaiste knows, Letterkenny General Hospital was devastated by a flood last July. A total of 40% of the floor space of the hospital was contaminated by flood water. The response from the staff and management as those flood waters were coming into the accident and emergency department and the rest of the hospital was nothing short of heroic. The heroism shown by the staff and management has continued since then with the extra hours they have had to work and the establishment of temporary departments.

Prior to the flood, Deputy Pearse Doherty and I revealed that, based on the number of inpatients going through the hospital per year, Letterkenny General Hospital had the lowest hospital budget in the State and the lowest number of allocations of medical staff. Again and again, patients had suffered in Donegal because of this injustice. As I speak, there is once again a crisis at the hospital's accident and emergency department. Such is the extent of that crisis that the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has said they are the worst conditions it has seen in 15 years. Patients across the county are being diverted to Sligo Regional Hospital.

I ask the Tánaiste to state whether the Government will remove the moratorium and allow the management of Letterkenny General Hospital to allocate the necessary nurses and medical staff to run the hospital effectively. Will it meet the heroism of the staff who have worked unbelievable hours in unbelievable conditions to keep that hospital going halfway and give them an additional allocation of staff to help them to do their jobs?

I recall the flooding that happened at Letterkenny General Hospital. First of all, I agree with Deputy Mac Lochlainn about the heroic work by the staff at the hospital. They have worked in very difficult circumstances and deliver a very fine service to the people of the catchment area. I had the privilege of visiting Letterkenny General Hospital some time ago and seeing that work for myself.

The funding for and staffing of the hospital are matters to be pursued with the HSE. The Government is committed to maintaining the maximum amount of health funding possible in profoundly difficult economic circumstances, as we all know. This year, the HSE will have over €13 billion available to spend. The amount that is available to the health service this year is greater than that budgeted at the start of last year. The Government has met supplementary requests from the HSE to meet its requirements each year so far in the context of the overall management of the public finances. The Revised Estimates have now been published and it is the responsibility of every Department and agency to live within the allocation. In the context of the Revised Estimates, we were able to find an extra €47 million to give the health service - extra money to manage the delivery of health services.

The issue raised by Deputy Mac Lochlainn relating to staffing must be dealt with in the context of the Haddington Road agreement. There are procedures provided for in the agreement that address the issue of staffing and the requirements of individual hospitals. That is something that must be worked out between the hospital and the HSE within the framework that was agreed in the Haddington Road agreement.

Yesterday, the daughter of Máire Uí Dhomhnaill, an elderly cancer patient, told her mother's story. She was brought to that hospital at 5 p.m. last Monday evening and waited in the accident and emergency department for 14 hours in unbelievable conditions until 7 a.m. the following morning. Another woman who attended the accident and emergency department with her husband said:

The whole unit was swarming and heaving with people, patients, bodies and staff. Our hospital was completely overwhelmed. There were no beds available in the hospital, the emergency unit was stacked to bursting.

They are just two stories. Both families praised the nurses and doctors to the nth degree. They were certainly not the ones who failed those families and so many others. The Government's cutbacks and moratorium have led to this debacle. The Tánaiste knows that, I know that and every Deputy in this House knows that. When is the Government going to remove the moratorium on vital front-line staff to prevent scenarios like those described by these families? The dignity of their loved ones was taken away. That is no way to deliver a health service. The Tánaiste knows the reasons so I implore him to act. Everybody who knows about that hospital knows that the heroism was remarkable in keeping the hospital going. A total of 40% of its floor space was contaminated, which is an unprecedented crisis for a hospital. In light of the hours they worked and the fact that they did what they could, they cannot continue to be failed. They are literally at breaking point not just in terms of the accident and emergency department, but other departments. Will the Tánaiste stand up now, remove the moratorium and stand by the staff and management of that hospital?

Obviously, I do not know the particular circumstances of the case raised by the Deputy but I will make inquiries about that because everybody in the country is entitled to good quality attention and service when they attend a hospital. I know that hospital staff in Letterkenny and other hospitals are extremely attentive to patients when they present and do an outstanding job. The public rightly is in their debt for that.

The staffing arrangements in hospitals were addressed in the Haddington Road agreement which provided for changes to be made in rostering, overtime and staffing arrangements. Some of that has to be worked through at individual hospital level and with the HSE. There is something in the order of about five million hours overall nationally that must be worked through in discussions at hospital level and with the HSE. These arrangements have been agreed by all of the unions.

It is now a matter of working those through, ensuring that members of the public gets the attention they deserve when they attend hospitals and ensuring that hospital staff get the support they need and deserve.

I wish to raise the issue of the latest cut to affect people with disabilities. Without any prior warning, a circular issued on New Year's Eve from a Labour Party Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government announced cuts in the housing adaptation and mobility aid grants with immediate effect for all new applicants. These changes in the income bands will have a serious impact. For example, if a household's income is €41,000, which is not a significant amount for two or three people working, it will now need to pay 50% of the adaptation costs. Previously, it only needed to pay 30%. This is a decrease in the grant from €21,000 to €15,000. The further decision to include the entire household will also impede people's ability to apply.

These grants cover a range of adaptations, including stair lifts, wheelchair ramps, bathrooms for persons with disabilities, ground floor toilets, etc. These can make the difference between living at home in the community and being put into institutional care. The claim that the Government has increased the amount available is a joke. While it increased from €35 million to €38 million this year, the reality is a €56 million cut since 2010, some two thirds overall. This has led to significant waiting lists for the grants.

Since 2008, people with disabilities have suffered a cut of more than 8% to means-tested welfare payments, a cut to respite care supports and a 14% cut to essential health services. Does the Tánaiste agree that these cuts amount to an all-out assault on the hard fought for rights of people with disabilities to independent living? Does he agree that this matter is a further onslaught on their fundamental human rights?

The allocation for these grant schemes in 2014 has been increased. The allocation in 2013 was €34.2 million. The allocation for 2014 is €38.4 million, which has been reflected in the allocations made to individual local authorities in recent days. The Deputy is right in that, in many cases, applications for these grants took a long time to process. For this reason, when making allocations last February, the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, announced her intention to review the operation of these schemes so as to ensure that they were targeted at those most in need. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government requested the Housing Agency to establish a review group of local authority officials to review the grant schemes. The terms of reference were to examine the current housing grants and to make recommendations as to how the grants could become more focused and targeted at those most in need. Members of the review group included representatives from the County and City Managers Association, CCMA, and the National Housing Practitioner Network, departmental officials and Housing Agency representatives. Consultations took place with organisations representing older people and people with disabilities.

This year's allocation has been increased. Savings in the housing capital budget identified mid-year enabled the Minister of State to make additional funding of €2.2 million available in 2013. It is her intention to apply the same rigour to her budget in 2014 and to use savings in other areas to make additional allocations later this year.

Every local authority will receive additional funding this year. Expenditure will be closely monitored. Any saving arising will be re-allocated to areas where the need is greatest.

There have been no changes to the mobility aids grant in terms of its maximum amount, which is €6,000, or the means testing for same. The maximum grant to cover 100% of the cost of works will be available to those with gross annual household incomes of up to €30,000. There has been no change to the maximum grant available for the housing adaptation grant for people with a disability, that being, €30,000.

In the case of housing aid for older people, the maximum grant has been reduced from €10,500 to €8,000. It should be noted, however, that the average grant payment in the past three years has been approximately €4,000, well below the maximum available.

Why did the Government cut it then?

In terms of the housing adaptation grant for people with disabilities and the housing aid for older people, the amount of income over which these are payable has been reduced from €65,000 to €60,000. While the age limit for eligibility for housing aid for older people has increased from 60 years to 66 years in line with the majority of supports for older people, a lower age limit can apply in certain circumstances at the discretion of the local authority. This may happen in certain hardship cases or where guidance is provided by medical professionals.

That was a classic case of talking down the clock.

Since 2010, the €100 million in grant allocations for people with disabilities was reduced to €35 million last year. There are big waiting lists. This is a cut. The criteria being tightened represents a further cut. No one applies for a disability grant if he or she does not need it. Everything is assessed through the HSE. Amnesty International has stated that any cut in disability supports is an attack on the human rights of the disabled person. The Tánaiste is standing over that attack with his answer.

Following this cut, the Disability Federation of Ireland stated:

A whole series of public policy documents and statements promise that people with disabilities would be supported to live in their own homes in the community. The draconian cuts in the funds for housing adaptations and the further restrictions issued in the Department of the Environments circular on New Year's Eve belie that promise; by these measures, the Department is failing to deliver on the Government policies of mainstreaming and community living. We strongly urge Government to immediately prioritise the adequate funding of adaptation grants...

The Tánaiste has stood over this position for the past three years. Before the election and in his party's general election manifesto, he and the Taoiseach stated that they would make this a priority. However, the Government is continuing to cut supports for the most vulnerable in society, people who need this care. It is attacking their human rights. No amount of waffle will cover it.

Or the medical cards.

There is no cut to the maximum amount that is paid for people with disabilities or mobility-----

Some €10,000 to €8,000.

That is for older people.

The amount of money that is being provided this year for these grants is an increase - it is not a reduction - on what was provided last year.

It was €100 million in 2010.

The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, has made it clear that in addition to the money provided for last year, she was able to find savings in grants that were not paid, which she then invested in these schemes last year. She has made it clear that if she is able to find additional savings this year, she will provide further money later in the year.

Let us be clear about this. As we start 2014, we can say with confidence that more people who are applying for these grants will get them than got them in 2013.

No matter how one twists and spins the story-----

(Interruptions).

-----more money represents an increase and more grants represents more people with these issues being addressed. The Minister of State was right to introduce changes to the operation of these schemes so that, first, they could be targeted at those most in need of them and, second, the inordinately long waiting times for these grants that many applicants needed to endure because of the complexity of the schemes will be reduced due to her streamlining of criteria. We are looking at additional money for these schemes, more people qualifying for them and a shorter length of time waiting to have applications processed.

That is a disgraceful response.