Leaders' Questions

In November 2009 the Fine Gael Party published the NewERA document and the then Deputy Simon Coveney was responsible for developing the policy framework. Many people worked with him and the document was especially relevant to the establishment of Irish Water because it said Fine Gael would bring all of Ireland's water assets under the ownership of one State company. Even in 2009 that company was named as Irish Water and local authorities were to be its agents. Before the troika, this was a clear policy of Fine Gael's.

Deputy Fergus O'Dowd was the Minister of State responsible for the legislation that introduced Irish Water on a statutory basis and he said today that the company is an unmitigated disaster, that it has abjectly failed and that it is arrogant and uncaring. He said low income groups are paying too much, that bands should be widened and that ability to pay should be a factor. In particular, he said unemployed people are being crucified by the charge. He said people are angry and intimidated by the sign-up packs that have been distributed and by requests for PPS numbers. He said there is an intense dislike for the process. The Taoiseach is quite good at understatement and he interpreted all of this as Deputy O'Dowd merely making a point that there is a need for better communications and more engagement with the community. I suggest that the Deputy said far more than that and got to the heart of the issue. Does the Taoiseach agree with what Deputy O'Dowd said regarding Irish Water? Does he feel it has been an unmitigated disaster and an abject failure? Does the Taoiseach consider that an ability to pay concept should be central to the water charges regime implemented by Irish Water?

Will the Taoiseach take steps to ensure the poverty analysis referenced by Deputy O'Dowd this morning on "Morning Ireland" to determine the impact of all this on low-income groups will be published in order that we can all read it?

The Taoiseach is sorry now he appointed him.

He is sorry he dropped him.

I do not agree with Deputy O'Dowd's comment that Irish Water is an unmitigated disaster. I agree Irish Water certainly had teething problems during the course of its being set up. I also agree Irish Water is here to stay. It is a fundamental concept and it is an entity to deal with the situation which was allowed to develop over many years whereby we pay €1.2 billion to produce water, 40% of which leaks away, where many dozens of treatment plans are inferior, where many kilometres of pipe work are not fit for purpose, and where 20,000 people must live regularly with boil water notices. Deputy Martin is well aware this can only be achieved by having an entity that can borrow money to invest in this off the State payroll, as it were, to provide for the future, business, people and consumers.

Water is a very precious commodity. Given our geography and location we are blessed with an abundant supply of water. The situation which had pertained for so many years could not continue. I am the first to say that Irish Water had teething problems when it was being set up, and everyone understands that. There is always a need for clearer communication about the issues involved, who pays what and how one can pay. The Government has set out a number of policy directions to the regulator, which include the average metered water charge, the allowance per household and the allowance per child. This has been followed by other announcements in respect of facilities and further contributions for those who receive the household package and those who have particular medical ailments who might require a lot of water whereby the charge is capped. I do not accept the Deputy's assertion.

There are a lot of them.

Irish Water is here to stay. It is a fundamentally important State agency held in public ownership for the development for the good of the country, unlike the situation, I might add, whereby Deputy Martin supported the Irish Water concept but had an average charge of €400 with no allowances.

This is your charge.

In other words, the Deputy is a little bit like St. Augustine in that he wants it but not just now.

The Taoiseach is digging.

It is a bit like the Taoiseach with McNulty. He wanted him now but not yet.

Irish Water is here to stay. The Government will move on a number of other proposals for the amalgamation of Bord Gáis and Irish Water into Ervia, with appropriate competency to run what is one of the largest entities since the foundation of the State, the fundamentally important issue of water for personal, social and economic reasons and the development of our nation as a place fit to invest in and fit to live in by having quality water at its core.

It will be the Taoiseach's Waterloo but he cannot see it.

That is why the Government had a Waterford councillor on the board.

I ask Deputy Martin to ask his friend beside him to stay quiet and let Deputy Martin get on with his question. I cannot control him but perhaps Deputy Martin can.

Welcome back, a Cheann Comhairle.

I love the Taoiseach's sense of the English language. When a former Minister of State says something is an unmitigated disaster and abject failure and uses phrases such as "intense dislike of the whole process" and states people feel angry and intimidated, the Taoiseach says yes, it had teething problems. These are not teething problems. There is utter confusion about health. People with all sorts of ailments simply do not know where they stand now with regard to water. I respectfully suggest to the Taoiseach that families with two or three adult children, as they are termed, namely, those who are over 18 and in full-time education or unemployed, face bills of between €500 and €590 with no mitigation and nothing to alleviate the impact.

This is excessive by any stretch of the imagination on a particular type of family.

A question, please.

Deputy O'Dowd correctly pointed to the unemployed and low-paid workers. The household benefits package does not cover any of these. The charges are excessive and he is correct in his analysis. He stated a poverty analysis was done in the Department but we have not seen it.

I ask Deputy Martin to put his question.

Everybody knows consumption taxes such as these are regressive and will disproportionately hit people on low incomes. I have put this question to the Tánaiste, Deputy Burton, but it was water off a duck's back and did not have any impact. I thought it might have had. The bottom line is there are fundamental issues which have gone wrong. At least Deputy O'Dowd is honest now that he has left office. He now states what he believes and perhaps he felt he could not say it when he was in office. The Taoiseach should take heed of it and he should not dismiss it as lightly as he does.

Will Deputy Martin support the boycott?

I am not dismissing it. I have admitted that obviously there were teething problems in the setting up of Irish water. The former Deputy O'Dowd was the Minister of State who dealt with setting it up.

He is still a Deputy.

He dealt with NewERA and piloted the Bill through the House. Perhaps if some of these issues had been brought to his attention then-----

It looks like he brought them to everybody else's attention at the time but no one listened.

-----he might have been able to change them before it went through. The water regulator has determined the average bill will be less than €240 per year.

When did he determine this?

At the Cabinet meeting this morning?

He further confirmed that 80% of all bills will be less than €24 per month.

The Taoiseach is digging.

We also welcome the fact the regulator has adhered to the Government direction that there be a free allowance of 30,000 litres per household for water usage and an allowance for every child under 18. I have said to the Deputy before that a person living alone will have approximately 40% of his or her water needs provided by the allowance and will pay approximately €138 per annum or less than 50 cent per day. All 411,000 recipients of the household benefits package, who are pensioners, carers and disability recipients, will receive an additional €100 per year to assist with water costs. Charges will be capped for people with particular medical ailments. People on boil water notices will not have to pay for their water supply after 24 hours until the notices are lifted.

These reforms are essential for future provision of quality water services following the debacle that went on for years.

In respect of the pay situation, the regulator has ordered and instructed Irish Water to reduce its cost base by €170 million, or 8%, by 2016 which includes a substantial element of the pay situation.

Not the bonuses.

The Taoiseach is making it up as he goes along.

The former Minister of State the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, established Uisce Éireann on behalf of the Government. These are his words and not mine or those of an Teachta Martin. Deputy O'Dowd pointed out it has become "another cosseted quango with a bonus culture". This is what he said. An cuma atá ar an scéal seo anois ná go bhfuil uisce faoi thalamh agus nach bhfuil cúrsaí soiléir agus oscailte. He stated he simply could not believe when he heard last January that bonuses were to be paid to Uisce Éireann staff, and he recommended they be scrapped. He stated he made the point at every high-level meeting that disadvantaged groups should not suffer an unfair burden. He stated he was ignored. He also stated he raised these issues with the Taoiseach. He stated the exemptions are not wide enough and appealed to the Taoiseach to look again at the support services available. These remarks are not those of the leader of Sinn Féin nor of a Teachta Dála ó Shinn Féin. Seo iar-Aire Stáit ag caint, an fear a chur an dlí os comhair na Dála. It is an example of dysfunctionality at the heart of the Government.

I have a number of ceisteanna. Does the Taoiseach agree with former Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, on these specific questions? Does he accept that Irish Water-Uisce Éireann is not working? Will he scrap the bonuses? Will he acknowledge that many households simply cannot afford to pay the Government's water tax? Will he abolish this water charge as the former Minister of State indicated?

I thought Deputy Adams was coming here to tell us why he did not submit his budget proposition today. I thought he was coming here to explain to the nation why Sinn Féin suddenly decided water charges for residential households should be scrapped.

The one thing the Deputy forgot with all his information was that by so doing in the way he proposes, it goes back on to the public pay bill at a cost of an extra €850 million. I would like to know how he proposes to raise this money in addition to all the-----

These are Leaders' Questions.

-----extra money with the scrapping of-----

The general election has not happened yet.

I know it is very easy to-----

The Taoiseach needs his head examined; he does not know where he is.

Would you settle down?

-----knock on the doors and say, "We're opposed to water charges". This is the usual Sinn Féin stock; it is also opposed to property charges. In respect of water, it had better revise its budget submissions because it will cost an extra €850 million. What will it do for USC, income tax, PRSI and so on?

No bonuses have been paid to anyone in Irish Water and the chief executive will not be paid a bonus. Irish Water does not have a policy of pay increments and has a pay freeze until 2016.

Performance-related pay.

As I said to Deputy Martin, the regulator has instructed that it reduce its costs by €170 million, some 8%, between now and 2016.

I do not share Deputy O'Dowd's view about Irish Water. I have to admit there certainly were teething problems, both in respect of the perception of the spend on this and the breakdown of that detail, and the inability in many cases to communicate the message very clearly in the beginning. That is all changing. Government will continue to roll out proposals to make Irish Water a really important fundamental State entity, held in public ownership, to deal with the inadequacy of the water infrastructure we have had for many years.

Deputy Adams knows this. Does he want the people in this city and its greater region to be on a knife's edge from day to day in respect of water supply and water facilities? The Deputy saw what happened when we had the virus at Ballymore Eustice and hundreds of thousands of people with an inadequate water supply had to turn off the taps at night because of that situation. The Deputy is now saying they do not have to pay for anything, it is only a cost of €850 million-----

No, we have paid already. We are paying every day.

-----and they will find it from the rich or something like that.

How does the Taoiseach think we have water at home?

I am disappointed that the Deputy did not come in with his party's budget today and I am even further disappointed that there is no mention that there is a charge of €850 million involved in that.

No bonuses were paid, and no bonus will be paid to the chief executive. There is a pay freeze until 2016 and the regulator has requested a €179 million reduction in its cost base, which includes a substantial element of the pay involved.

And no jobs for the boys.

Would the Deputy mind allowing Deputy Adams to ask a supplementary question?

It is very important to have a sense of humour when coming in here to ask questions. Flann O'Brien could not have written the script the Taoiseach articulates from day to day. I do not think he gets it at all. There are people who just cannot afford an additional tax on top of all the other taxes the Government has imposed on them.

He just cannot come in here and say he disagrees with an Teachta O'Dowd; the Taoiseach appointed him to the job. He made these points not in an off-the-cuff interview, but in a scripted article, so I presume he considered what he was saying. He made a series of criticisms of how Uisce Éireann is being operated. More importantly, he said that he raised these questions with the Taoiseach. Is this again what we have seen with the Minister, Deputy Reilly, and the former Minister, Deputy Shatter? Is this the way the Government does its business?

I will put, if I may, the questions to the Taoiseach again. I am very mindful, by the way, that this was a Fianna Fáil proposition, but the Government is going ahead with it. Does the Taoiseach acknowledge that many households simply cannot afford to pay the water tax? I seek a simple "Yes" or "No". Will the Government give struggling families and hard-pressed citizens a break by abolishing the tax? Will it turn off this water tax for the sake of citizens?

I will ensure that the Taoiseach has an off-the-top-of-the-press copy of Sinn Féin's budget.

A Deputy

Off the top of the HP.

I commend it to the Taoiseach.

I thank the Deputy.

A Deputy

Aengus is into the printing again.

(Interruptions).

It has a word in it that is writ large through every single line and that word is "equality", a word that is alien to the Taoiseach and his backbenchers. I ask the Taoiseach to turn off the water tax.

I point out to the Deputy that we are all the same across the country. People in rural areas have been paying water charges for years. Many people pay privately for pumps, chemicals and treatment for their own water supplies. Those on thousands of group water schemes have contributed every year for water and they never ask the question because they know it is important. The Deputy comes along and says that people should not have to pay and he does so for particular political purposes - specifically because there are a couple of by-elections.

I never mentioned by-elections.

The Government wants to be fair, equitable and affordable. The Government, of course, recognises that any charge has to be an imposition on people, but this charge is a necessary contribution as we set out to develop a proper water infrastructure for the country. That is why the Government has set policy directions for the regulator in terms of the average metered water charge, the household allowance, the child allowance and the knowledge that people have particular medical ailments that require lots of water. That is why there is an extra €100 for the household benefit for disabled people, carers and those who live alone as pensioners. The intention is to have everybody enabled to make a contribution that is fair, affordable and equitable.

We are paying for it already. What is wrong with the Taoiseach?

All of that means that many hundreds of thousands of people will benefit as a consequence of having better water and not having to live under boil-water notices. Businesses will know that the water supply they have is not on a 98% knife-edge all the time. It will allow us to be a country that can continue to be attractive for investment, attractive for the location of industry and jobs throughout the country. Consumers, ordinary people, businesses and big industry will be able to have a proper supply of high quality and high volume water for its needs. That is why Irish Water is being set up. That is why it is an important entity and why the Government supports it and will continue to bring in proposals, including competencies, on the new Ervia entity to run Irish Water which is one of the largest infrastructure developmental projects since the foundation of the State.

The former Minister for Justice and Equality, the former Garda Commissioner and former Secretary General are gone, but little else seems to have changed. The old guard is still in place. Complaints of Garda misbehaviour continue to flood into our offices. The Taoiseach has talked a lot about political reform in the Garda area and made a lot of promises, but we have not seen much action.

The Taoiseach talks about strengthening the Garda Síochana Ombudsman Commission. The organisation is still seriously underfunded. It still bears all the hallmarks of an organisation that was designed to fail. The Taoiseach talked about giving GSOC power to investigate the Commissioner and then the Government introduced a veto for the Minister for Justice and Equality. Why did the Taoiseach tolerate his backbencher and former Minister for Justice and Equality coming in here and rubbishing the GSOC commissioners?

The Taoiseach placed himself on the Cabinet sub-committee to oversee Garda reform so I would like to think he has a personal involvement in it at this stage. Why have the terms of reference that were promised after the Guerin report not been delivered even though the Taoiseach promised that they would come in before the summer recess?

The Government appointed seven barristers without advertising the jobs to the review mechanism. Does the Taoiseach not think that Government jobs should be advertised? Does he want to keep it in house so that it is nice and cosy and he is in control of it? With regard to the review mechanism, the families and complainants have no right to interview and no right of appeal. It does not smack of a very good system and the chances of it getting to the truth do not look great.

The Government promised that the Garda authority would be up and running in 2014. Why is it not on the Government's list of legislation for this year? The Minister for Justice and Equality said that the Garda Commissioner would not be selected until the Garda authority was in place. While I might be wrong, if the Government is to appoint the new Garda Commissioner before the police authority is in place, we will get a 100% total political appointment once again. Why has the Government not given the priority to this area that it promised?

I expect the Garda authority will be set up before the end of the year. The person who is appointed chairman will also be in a position to contribute in respect of the advertisements that have been placed for the appointment of a new Garda Commissioner. I understand Deputy Wallace was invited to Farmleigh to discuss the concept of the police authority but was unable to attend on the day. It would have been an opportunity for him to make his contribution at that point.

The barristers appointed by the Minister for Justice and Equality were to assess a range of claims and allegations which came both to my Department and the Department of Justice and Equality and were made following publicity on this issue. All of these claims, as I understand, have been sent to GSOC for analysis. I still get claims coming in from people, whom I advise to report directly to GSOC for an analysis. The budget to be presented next week will include the conclusion of the allocation of the Vote for the Department of Justice and Equality covering this issue.

Work is ongoing in regard to the terms of reference for the commission of investigation following Guerin, and will be brought before the House in due course. As I said, I expect the new authority to be set up by the end of the year. Just because the legislation is not on the A list does not mean there is not a great deal of work happening. If there are individual issues the Deputy wishes to raise, I will come back to him on them.

I am not entirely familiar with the procedures in this place, but if the Garda authority is to be in place by the end of the year, I do not understand why the relevant Bill is not on the Government's legislative programme. Unless we have an independent police authority that is free of Government control and interference and can undertake constant monitoring and oversight of how the Garda Commissioner and his or her force operate, there will not be accountability for citizens. The degree of independence and power afforded to the new authority will be a litmus test for how interested this Government really is in reform.

In regard to the political appointment of the new Garda Commissioner, I welcome the Taoiseach's indication that he will wait until the police authority is in place. Will he make public the names contained on the short list that will be presented to him by the review group that is examining the applications? Will he indicate which members of Government will be involved in the selection process and the criteria that will be used? Three people are gone from the ranks of Garda management, but the whole hierarchy is still in place and nothing has really changed on the ground. If there is to be real change, we must change that hierarchy. The notion of choosing the new Commissioner from the existing hierarchy is outrageous.

I do not disagree with the principle of what the Deputy is saying. The decision by the Government to set up an independent police authority is a radical change from what has applied since the foundation of the State. It is a change we intend to follow through, and it will be a litmus test in many ways for the independence and authority of the new body.

The advertisements have been placed for the appointment of a new Garda Commissioner. It is not just a national but an international competition and I do not have any direction over it. Those who wish to be considered for the post will apply and there will be a strict set of criteria and assessment set out for the selection of the appointee. The reason for having an independent Garda authority is to ensure there is transparency and accountability in respect of the fundamentally important entity that is the Garda Síochána. That work is proceeding, both in terms of the advertising for the appointment of a new Commissioner and the establishment of the independent police authority.

Regarding the assessment of claims and allegations, they all, as I explained, have gone from my Department and the Department of Justice and Equality to GSOC. That work is under way. The Minister for Justice and Equality is very focused on doing this right and in such a way that it will be a litmus test of how serious we are about completely changing the direction of what applied before. As I understand it, the interim Commissioner has appointed a civilian person to deal with the HR issues in the Garda Síochána, which is a first.