Leaders' Questions

Our coastal regions, including towns and cities such as Galway, Limerick, Waterford, Wexford and Cork, as well as many others, have endured significant destruction, damage and disruption affecting people's daily lives. Trade and commerce have also been affected, along with farmlands, as a result of the storms and severe flooding of recent days and weeks.

I commend public service workers in the ESB, city and county councils and other public utilities who have been working extremely hard in difficult circumstances to assist citizens in coping with the consequences of such severe weather. It is clear that climate change is having an impact, with sea levels rising. The severe storms we have experienced are developing into a pattern of increasing frequency. Professor John Sweeney of NUI Maynooth is on record as saying that flooding is likely to get worse because of global warming. However, the Government's response is not urgent enough and flood prevention is not getting the level of priority it requires. There is no national co-ordination going on. What Minister is responsible? Is it the Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Deputy Brian Hayes, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy O'Sullivan, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, if it happens to concern Limerick, or the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan?

Yesterday, the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, essentially put his hands up and said that the €250 million being provided over the next five years for flood relief work would probably not be enough. He went on to say we might have to tax 10% and so on to do what we want to do.

A Deputy


I think he is right.

A question, please.

The sum of €250 million over the next five years is not enough. We know from successful flood prevention schemes in Clonmel, Mallow and Fermoy that they do work. Studies are still ongoing in Cork but I am reliably informed that it will be 2016 or 2017 before any flood prevention works commence. That illustrates a lack of urgency and prioritisation. Does the Taoiseach accept that the figure of €250 million is totally inadequate to meet the requirements? Will he commit to a fundamental reconsideration of that and accelerate funding for flood relief schemes and flood prevention programmes? Will the Taoiseach answer the question as to who is in charge? Does the Government believe that what has occurred is a national emergency requiring a sufficient response? For example, when will flood barriers be installed in cities such as Cork and Limerick?

We offer our congratulations on the brilliant reaction of so many communities, including voluntary groups and ordinary individuals, who worked together with the public services recently to deal with unprecedented heavy rainfall and floods due to a number of natural factors. These included high winds and tidal surges.

We will have to revert to this issue on many occasions. Clearly, the warnings of bad weather are not over yet. Who knows what weather patterns will come in from the Atlantic in the next three or four weeks? I agree with Deputy Martin that recent flooding has not occurred to this extent in living memory. The extent of planning permissions issued on flood plains is coming back to haunt so many people. We should now rue the day because, clearly, a rush to judgment was penny wise and pound foolish.

Coming from Cork, Deputy Martin will know that the outcome was not as bad as people had expected. That is not to say, however, that the situation was in any way acceptable. The line Minister is the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, in whose Department is the unit dealing with emergency response planning. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, has responsibility for the Office of Public Works, which is linked to the Department of Finance. He has been around the country and will visit Cork later this week to see for himself the extent of the damage inflicted by flood waters.

He could come to Kerry too.

The Minister for Social Protection has a central role in dealing with the expenditure of €15 million in humanitarian funds, which, pending an assessment, is an initial amount. The Cork city flood response group met on 3 February to activate the Cork city inter-agency flood emergency response plan. These are well established plans which are led by the city council to bring about a co-ordinated response to flooding in the city. The group includes Cork Fire Brigade, the Garda Síochána, the HSE and the Army. That flood response group agreed on a number of things, including public flood warnings, road closures, co-ordination with the ESB on water management for the River Lee through the Inniscarra Dam, the Lee tunnel closure and critical infrastructure. In addition, adult education facilities in the city centre were to close early and the ESB was requested to check its sub-stations. Vulnerable population areas were to be provided with sandbags and a decision was taken to remove parking facilities from affected areas. Media interface and briefings were also provided.

The group met again on 4 February and was expanded to include Port of Cork officials and naval officers. They agreed that sandbags would be distributed to businesses in the city centre as well as vulnerable areas at Wandesford Quay. In addition, the fire service and Civil Defence were put on standby to provide assistance, along with the Army, Navy and Coast Guard. Council roads, drainage and clean-up crews are also on standby, while diversion warning signage is in place and roads are closed off in affected areas. Electronic motorway signs provide flood alerts, while city centre traffic restrictions are in place between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. Bus Éireann and Irish Rail have been advised of road restrictions, while an evacuation plan is ready if the situation were to deteriorate further than expected. In addition, further public warnings will be issued.

The Deputy asked when we will have defences ready in Cork to deal with this situation, if that is possible. I am informed by the Minister of State that this will cost between €50 million and €100 million and will involve up to 10 km of what might be deemed appropriate wall defences, if it is possible to stop the inexorable rise of tides and consequential water back-up. This is a complex engineering challenge in Cork alone. It is not within the remit of politicians to decide how to deal with it on the basis of engineering challenges. The estimate for Cork is between €50 million and €100 million. Given what has occurred in Galway, Wexford and other locations, this presents a national challenge for the longer term. I agree that climate change is having a serious and unprecedented impact on our country. The OPW has spent €50.6 million in Cork in the past six years. I accept that €250 million for the country will not be adequate. We have an estimated 300 locations with serious flooding and farmers are now getting into difficulties with the usual annual Shannon floods.

In Cork, the warnings were there and the local community and public services responded. It is not easy to deal with such a challenge of nature but we are doing the best we can. Tomorrow morning the Cabinet meeting will hear an update on the situation. Next Tuesday, the Cabinet will receive a full report from the Minister, Deputy Hogan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes. We will then see how to deal with the situation.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. Can he confirm whether the Minister, Deputy Hogan, has visited any of the flooded areas affected by storms? Given that he is the Minister in charge, he should get a first-hand assessment of the situation.

A sum of €50 million a year is nowhere near enough. Some €45 million has been allocated this year. The Taoiseach has identified one scheme. Limerick will need protection and the coastal region in Galway needs far stronger coastal protection. The public capital programme has been underspent in the past three years and local authorities have had €400 million taken from them. It was money they thought they were getting via the local property tax but in November it was siphoned back to the centre.

Another broken promise.

Local authorities are cash-strapped at the moment and do not know where the next euro will come from. There is a lack of urgency and priority on this issue.

Fianna Fáil councillors rezoned those areas.

Cork was founded on a marsh by St. Finbar, not Fianna Fáil. Let us get that right.

We now know why Deputy Martin is confused.

Does Fianna Fáil not take credit for it?

I accept that climate change is having an impact and the response to the impact of climate change is not urgent enough. We are now told that it will be 2016 or 2017 before any work will commence on schemes in Limerick, Cork or Galway. The programme for Government refers to legislating to give relevant line Ministers temporary powers to take charge of the State's actions in response to natural disasters under the aegis of the national response action committee. That is in the programme for Government but it has not happened and it is time it happened.

The Deputy is way over time.

Yesterday, the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, said that it is up to the Cabinet. He said he does not have sufficient money and that it is up to all of us to take part in a national debate. I take his point but what is provided for at the moment does not go anywhere near dealing with the severity of what is happening and what will happen next year and the year after.

I am delighted to know that Cork was founded by St Finbar. I thank Deputy Martin for clearing up the matter as it was a source of discussion over the years as to who founded it. In the past four years, €250 million has been spent on capital works for flood defences in Mallow, Clonmel and Kilkenny. These defences have, by and large, worked successfully. The sum of €50 million for this year is one area of Government expenditure that has not been cut. I accept the figure is inadequate to deal with the scale of what we have to deal with but it is important to understand that there is an interim programme of providing emergency defences, with a programme to follow, requiring complex engineering and much investment to put in place defences that can keep out the Atlantic and deal with the scale of floodwaters based on the weather that comes over the next number of years. No one is able to predict it at this stage. Areas in the country that have not been flooded before and are experiencing this for the first time or areas where the flooding is worse this year give an indication of the scale of what we face. Tomorrow, we will have an update at the Cabinet sub-committee on jobs and on Tuesday we will have a detailed report from the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, and the emergency units and local authorities around the country. We will have a debate in the House after that.

I cannot answer about what places in the country the Minister, Deputy Hogan, will visit but from speaking to him early this morning I understand he will visit a number of locations this week to see for himself. The emergency response committee met on 3 and 4 February and there is a full scale analysis of reports from local authorities in the areas flooded. Some houses are cut off, some roads are washed away and I heard from farmers this morning about flooding in different areas. Our immediate problem is people and the humanitarian assistance to people with houses flooded who have nowhere to stay. We must accommodate them and provide community welfare assistance to them. That is being co-ordinated through the local authorities and local committees community groups with the Department of Social Protection. Payments are being made on this. Hopefully the weather will not be too bad over the weekend and hopefully it will be better than last weekend. We will have an accurate assessment on Tuesday from around the country. Listening to the European spokesperson, the accumulated extent of damage can be taken into account if a European application is to be lodged. We will consider that but I cannot say whether it will be eligible.

In respect of the Government response, let us see the scale of it, the immediate priorities, the interim emergency plan to be deployed and the longer-term analysis of the best thing to do from an engineering perspective. No more planning permissions will be issued for floodplains.

Putting the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, in charge of the response to the flooding crisis will do very little to reassure the communities affected. It is a King Canute gesture by the Government. Yesterday, I raised the plight of the householders who, through no fault of their own, have no insurance cover. For the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, to dismiss this in his usual flippant hyperbolic fashion on cost grounds is not good enough. The communities have responded bravely, as have the front-line services, but many of the families in areas of floods have lived there for generations. Some have already been affected on multiple occasions. There are historic planning debacles but we are talking in the main about the humanitarian plight of ordinary working class communities and small businesses with no major resources of their own. Their property and their belongings are destroyed and they must replace everything from scratch. It is not their fault or responsibility that they cannot get insurance. Surely it is the duty of the State to protect citizens no matter where they live.

There is always money for consultants, bankers and politicians but not enough for citizens in need. Yesterday, the Taoiseach referred to the emergency fund but surely there is a requirement for a specific Government-funded financial aid scheme for those who cannot get emergency insurance cover because of where they live. We do not need to wait for reports. We know the plights of families and small businesses affected. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to provide financial assistance to householders affected by flooding who have no insurance because no insurance company will insure them?

The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, dealt with the issue of mandating insurance companies to provide insurance in areas where there has been repeated flooding over the years. It is not possible to do that. Applications are being received as we speak for assistance in regard to the consequences of flooding. One woman told me that the flood damage to her business is estimated at €250,000. The State has a duty in so far as it can, in respect of communications and the provision of adequate facilities, to deal with uncommon consequences of heavy rain, wind and high tides. In these cases, in Cork, Galway and Wexford, they have brought devastation. The national co-ordination unit is in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister is the lead in that respect. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, has been at pains to visit a number of locations and will do so again this weekend to see how the State can assist.

I recall the landslide that occurred in my county a number of years ago and how the Red Cross was activated in terms of an additional facility or call for assistance, together with local authorities and the measures the State can take. From 1986 to 2013, some €320 million was spent by what was then the board of works on flood defences. Some €20 million related to minor flood works in addition to €50 million spent on programmes such as catchment flood risk assessment and management. If we take the case mentioned by Deputy Martin about the defence of Cork, the estimate for 10 km of defence in the longer term is between €50 million and €100 million. With respect to the intelligence of Members, none of them is in a position to say what we need.

The Deputy speaks of consultants as if they just sit behind desks and tell us what to do. There is an engineering challenge in the defence of Cork city, its inhabitants and business that is very complex, given that there are two rivers, an extent of flood water, the dam and Lough Mahon heading out to the open sea. It is not an easy issue to resolve, as these are complex engineering works. We will have to invest in order to get the right answer to the problem we face.

The local authorities are now required to review their programme every six years where planning permissions are issued with regard to the consequences of bad decisions made over the years. The river splits in Cork, and there are islands; as a consequence there is added complexity, and that does not mean that engineering expertise is not required to point out the best thing to do. It is a case of applications for assistance being received now and we will consider all this on Tuesday at the Cabinet meeting. There will be a discussion in the House afterwards and everybody will pick up new information from the locations they represent about the damage inflicted on people.

I agree with everybody that the response from the communities, together with the emergency services and agencies, has been absolutely first class. There is real commitment evident and people know that when nature wreaks devastation in this fashion, it is very difficult to deal with it. All we can do from a Government perspective is identify the scale of the problem and what we can deal with before doing so as quickly as possible.

The brave response of the communities exposes a lack of strategic response by the Government. I commend all those who have helped their neighbours through this difficult time. My question specifically concerned a Government-funded financial aid scheme for those who could not get insurance cover. The Taoiseach did not answer the question but perhaps we can return to the issue after the Cabinet meeting.

On more strategic issues, we have been arguing for contingency plans to be put in place to deal with the flooding issue and other developments in weather patterns and so on. Many people are angry that measures which might have been put in place before this to offset the worst impact of flooding were not taken. It is reported today that 300 cities, towns and villages in this State are at "significant risk" of flooding in the time ahead. That clearly argues for strategic planning by the State to invest in flood defences. The Taoiseach has cited figures but the figure that jumped into my head is the €64 billion given to banks, which had no problem in being paid. These issues will destroy the livelihood or homes and properties of people and the Government has fumbled in the greasy till.

Will the Deputy put a question please?

With the example of Cork, experts have stated that a tidal weir across the Lee like that which was built across the Lagan would resolve the flooding crisis. Similar solutions are available in other places. Where is the Government's long-term plan to deal with the major differences emerging - and of which we were well warned - that the State and its citizens face? What flood defences will be put in place to protect our cities, villages and towns?

With those comments, we would be in a deeper mess if the Deputy were in charge of this.

Not even the postman in Donegal could have predicted that the tide would be 20 ft. higher than normal at the mouth of the Corrib, with due respect to his experience and analysis of what might be weather patterns.

He said it would be 22 ft. higher.

The Office of Public Works, with the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, is completing a mapping process for the country based on river catchment areas. The Deputy has mentioned a figure of 300 villages, towns and cities, according to newspaper reports, but there are many more that may suffer flooding in the time ahead. We must know what we want to do-----

It is an argument for strategic planning. The Taoiseach is out of his depth.

-----before making plans to deal with the issue.

Deputy Adams is drawing attention to himself.

If the Deputy thinks he can deal with Waterford, Wexford, Cork, Limerick, Ennis, Galway and all the other places which have suffered severe flooding now - not to mention if the same weather patterns would present in Dublin as they did a number of years ago - he must be aware that the scale of the engineering works and capital costs involved will be very extensive. We must know what is to be done before we can plan to do it. In order to do this, there must be an in-depth analysis based on river catchments, patterns of weather changes and what they lead to.

Where is the urgency?

This is not a simple solution. Those Deputies who have been to see the many thousands of acres flooded around the Shannon on an annual or biannual basis know what I am talking about. When water comes into homes and business, it wreaks devastation. In working to prevent this there may be capital defences which may or may not work. In Limerick, as the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, mentioned, there was no breach in the levees, rather they were submerged by rising waters. What height should they be and how can defences be deployed? What emergency planning will be done in the interim? We must consider such questions.

Everybody can have a view on this and we will hear them on Tuesday. The Cabinet will present its report based on the best assessment of what we get by then and over the weekend.

There have been reports for years.

Let us hope the weather is a little kinder than it has been in the past few days.

Go home and forget the studies.

At 9 p.m. this evening the Government will vote down a Bill that could save thousands of companies and tens of thousands of jobs. The Bill would do so without the need to spend a single penny in public money. Every year hundreds of companies in Ireland are shut down that do not need to be because we do not have a functioning examinership process. This is how badly it is broken.

In the past three years, 4,700 companies have declared insolvency in Ireland and of them only 64 have availed of the examinership process. Many of those companies could have been saved and in other countries they would have been; here, they are instead forced into liquidation and all jobs are lost. I have an estimate from somebody who works in examinerships that approximately a quarter of insolvencies could be brought through a proper insolvency process. That means that over the past three years, well over 1,000 viable Irish companies have shut down because they do not have recourse to examinership that is fit for purpose.

The Companies (Amendment) Bill 2014 makes examinership a real option for struggling companies. It makes it cheaper and faster and it cuts legal fees for the examiner by approximately €50,000 while maintaining judicial oversight and authority. The main concern raised last night by the Minister, Deputy Bruton, and several Fine Gael backbenchers is the belief that this Bill would place an unfair burden on creditors. They were speaking in particular about smaller unsecured creditors like suppliers. The Bill would do no such thing. Under the current examinership process, creditors do not often go to court, and if they do, they must choose to go, hire lawyers and pay for them. With this Bill creditors can go to court any time they want and again they would have to hire and pay lawyers. They would go for the same reasons they do now. What would change with this Bill is that the examiner would not have to keep going to court for largely procedural and unnecessary reasons. He or she would not have to keep hiring lawyers. This would leave more money in the company which, critically, would leave more money for creditors.

Companies all over Ireland are screaming for a viable examinership process, which this Bill provides. Creditors want this Bill to pass because it would leave more money in the company and therefore more money for them. The Small Firms Association, which represents companies which would go through examinership and their suppliers, wants this Bill to pass. The only group that does not want the Bill to pass is this Government. Why is that?

The Deputy is wrong. The change in the way we do politics here allows Deputy Donnelly to bring in a Private Members' Bill, which is good-----

It was always there.

That was always the case.

-----as these issues must be discussed and commented upon. It is the Deputy's right. The Deputy had discussions with the Minister, Deputy Bruton, about the Bill and what the Government is doing with this. The Bill does not do what the Deputy says and it is legally unsound and potentially damaging to other creditors.

Who said that? Was it the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter?

The Government will not accept the Bill on that basis. The Government has already changed the rules to allow for small and medium enterprises to go to the Circuit Court-----

Did the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, say that?

-----and not have the costs of the High Court to deal with.

The Government has extended the remit of the Cabinet committee dealing with small and medium enterprises to cover this area also. With regard to the targets and objectives set by the Government for the banks, the evidence now shows that, by the end of this year, the vast majority of small and medium enterprises that have been suffering overhang from the boom will be back in good shape by the end of the year. It is for that reason and because Deputy Donnelly was spoken to courteously by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation that the Government is not accepting his Bill. We regard it as legally unsound and unsure, and unfair to other creditors.

I have had it reviewed by senior counsel and I would love to see the legal advice that claims it is legally unsound. The Bill is not unsound. If there are aspects of it that need to change - undoubtedly there are because we do not have access to the Office of the Attorney General - that is what the legislative process is for.

It must be incredibly frustrating for the owners of businesses that are insolvent and could be rescued to hear this kind of talk. As we know, the SME sector employs seven out of every ten people in the country. According to the Central Bank, approximately half of the loans currently outstanding in the SME sector, amounting to €25 billion, are in trouble. We know from the ECB that it is harder for small firms in Ireland to gain access to credit than it is for such firms in most of the rest of the eurozone. This means that, in the coming weeks, months and years, many more viable Irish companies that are insolvent, largely owing to legacy debt issues, will go to the wall. They do not have to but the Government is sitting on its hands.

My Bill is not a stab in the dark; it was compiled with the help of a solicitor, Mr. Barry Lyons, who has handled over half of the examinerships in the country. It is not based on wishful thinking and there is legal opinion on how sound it is. The Bill could easily be accepted by the Government this evening and changed, as required, by the Minister and the committee. Several members of the Select Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation said last night in the Chamber that they want the Bill to proceed beyond Second Stage. They want to get their teeth into it. The Taoiseach can wait for another report and set up an interdepartmental committee to see what happens but he should note that every single week we wait for a different version of the Bill to come through, viable companies and jobs will be lost. The alternative for the Taoiseach is to seize the opportunity, exploit the momentum, use my Bill as a structure and amend it as required. Why, if creditors, businesses and examiners are all saying we need this legislation to save jobs, will the Taoiseach not use the Bill as a template, allow it to pass this evening and change it as needed to prevent businesses that do not need to shut down from doing so?

It is a great idea that Deputies can bring forward Private Members' Bills. Deputy Donnelly was in conversation with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation in this case. He could have said he understands the Government's point of view and is willing to change his Bill to accommodate the direction of the Government. He was not prepared to do so.

I have already done so.

He is not prepared to do that. It is all very well for the Deputy to come into the House and say this is his Bill and this is how he wants it to be.

He just stated the opposite.

He is not prepared to work with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation in this case. He has the opportunity to put his name to the Bill but it is not going to go through because, as far as the Government is concerned, it is legally unsound and unfair to other creditors. It is not true to say another interdepartmental group is being set up. We already have a specific Cabinet committee dealing with small and medium enterprises and banks. The objectives set for the banks are being achieved.

No, they are not.

By the end of this year, we expect that the vast majority of businesses that were in trouble since the days of a previous Administration will be in good shape.

The CLRG, whose recommendations we are implementing, represented all the business interests involved. Therefore, the position is not as Deputy Donnelly states. The next time he introduces a Private Members' Bill, I will welcome it. If he is prepared to engage with the Government on amending his Bill to deal with what we want to deal with, circumstances will be different from those that now obtain.

He just said he was.

The Government has set targets for the pillar banks in respect of SME credit access. We are working through the Department of Finance with the German credit bank KfW to realise possibilities. There is an increasing trend involving corporates acquiring commercial banking licences to lend, at appropriate rates, to firms that use their own technology and equipment.

Of course, the SME sector is critical to the development of the country. That is why we have made an absolute Government priority of focusing on jobs this year. That is why, for 20 months in a row, the number on the live register has begun to fall. This is why, for the first time in several years, there is increasing confidence in the SME sector regarding where the future lies. That future lies in job creation, increased exports, and being lean and competitive. Access to credit is part of this. If the Deputy had been prepared to change his Bill to accommodate where we want to be, he would probably get a different answer.

It is not a case of just turning down Deputy Donnelly's Bill; it is legally unsound and unfair to other creditors.