Leaders' Questions

Last Saturday, more than 150,000 people marched in opposition to the Taoiseach’s Irish Water project. It is clear they are angry at his arrogance, at the detached nature of the Government and at its inability to listen, to be clear about anything and to simply understand that many people are not in a position to pay water charges. The former Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O’Dowd, is on the record as stating that Irish Water has been an unmitigated disaster. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, has gone further, blaming the Taoiseach for the mess, as well as the former Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, all members of the famous Economic Management Council, EMC, which railroaded Irish Water through the Cabinet and the Oireachtas, and his current party leader, the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, who ultimately had to sign into law the provision allowing Irish Water to request people's PPS numbers.

The Minister said very clearly that he was not part of the former Cabinet and that he would ensure this Cabinet got it right. He also said this was the first time someone in his position had accepted that serious errors were made in the establishment of Irish Water and that this needed to be conveyed clearly to the people. The Minister need not worry on that score. If there is one matter the people are clear on, it is the complete mess that has been made around the establishment of Irish Water. He also criticised strongly the way the legislation to establish Irish Water was rushed through the Dáil, and castigated the bonus culture in the company as well as the complete lack of clarity on many key issues.

He should be in the Opposition.

The Taoiseach and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government should consult the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, who actually came up with the idea of establishing the utility which he named Irish Water in his NewERA document in 2009. I know he was well advised at the time. If one reads it, one will note how he was super-confident that this was going to be a great runaway success with great potential and capacity.

Is the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, right when he blames the Taoiseach, the former Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, the former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, now European Commissioner, Phil Hogan, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, for getting this so wrong? Is it time to step down Irish Water? We are reading about climb-downs all over the place. Is it time to step down the company before this debacle gets worse? What level of actual revenue does the Government need to pass the so-called market test regarding off-balance-sheet accounting? Is it €300 million, €400 million or €500 million? Is there essentially a fundamental irreconcilability between the Government’s utility model and affordability?

I thank the Deputy for his comments. He asked if it was time for Irish Water to step down. It is time, actually, for Irish Water to step up.

It is more like giddy-up.

The purpose of the policy decision to establish Irish Water was to deal with a situation that had been neglected for years.

It was neglected for years by successive Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour Party Governments.

I already pointed this out to the Deputy, but he disputed my figures. Government is about making decisions. One does not get it right all the time by any means.

Obviously, there are times when one has to look at how decisions can be improved upon. This is one of them.

I do not accept the Deputy’s comments about my being arrogant, having an inability to listen or not recognising that people have difficulties in many ways with a change like this where a new contribution cost is introduced.

It is about understanding.

However, he should recall that the mandate given to the Government was to sort out the catastrophic mess of an economic position that his party left behind. I know very well the challenges and the difficulties for so many people arising from negative equity, unemployment and so on. Fianna Fáil had its own proposition for a system of water charges too. I am not prepared to allow a situation in which we continue to pump raw sewage into the seas and rivers.

He is off again.

I am not prepared to allow 40% of treated water in Dublin city to leak away or a position in which one third of treatment works are inferior.

The Government gave an additional €200 million to Irish Water.

We pride ourselves now on being the fastest growing economy in Europe, with a strengthening of foreign direct investment. Every decision on foreign direct investment requires the construction sector to measure up in terms of apartments, buildings, houses, office blocks and water supply.

It is a case of recognising that people have expressed legitimate concerns and anxieties. It is a case for the Government which set out the policy to ensure it is implemented in a fair and affordable way, as well as ensuring people have clarity about what it is they are being asked to contribute to. While people pay their general taxes - figures today show the tax yield to be ahead of profile - the fact of the matter is that for the extra infrastructure that is needed to fix the water and wastewater systems, we need a system of fair contributions. Some people do not want to pay anything and some have an ideological view about it, while others are quite willing to contribute to the upkeep of the water infrastructure. People need to know with certainty and clarity what it is they are being asked to contribute to and what it is for. As the Minister in question pointed out, there are several issues around Dublin water treatment plants such as those in Ringsend and Ballymore Eustace. Now, for the first time in years, investment is being made by Irish Water in fixing problems that have been long neglected.

I recognise, as do the Government parties, that this could have been handled better. It is time not just to listen to the people but to act on their calls. I hope in the next several weeks that the Government will make its decision, that it will be clear-----

-----and that it will deal with the problems expressed by people as to what they are expected to pay, what it is for and the programme of investment by Irish Water. In other words, people must know their money is going towards what it is intended for and not into a black hole of some perceived private company or something like that, which was never contemplated and is not in fact the law of the land.

The Taoiseach takes the people for idiots. They are not.

The Taoiseach did not answer my basic question. He can ignore what I say if he wishes. That is fine; that is politics.

I answered the Deputy’s question.

I asked whether he agreed with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. Two Ministers, one former and one current, have essentially said Irish Water is a mess. The former Minister of State said it was an unmitigated disaster. The current Minister said there were serious errors in the company’s establishment - essentially a mess - and that he was not a member of the former Cabinet, even though he was a Minister of State then, but that this one must get it right.

He is blaming the Taoiseach. I asked him if he was correct in blaming the Taoiseach and the former Minister, Mr. Phil Hogan, now an EU Commissioner. From 2000 onwards, €5 billion was spent on water infrastructure. I am a former Minister with responsibility for enterprise and the one thing we were never questioned about was our capacity to supply water. We have attracted some of the most complex bio-pharmaceutical plants to the country and pharmaceutical clients. One only has to go to Ringaskiddy or visit the medical devices cluster in Galway to see this. I know that the system needs improvement and advances, but it is not quite the feudal or mediaeval structure the Taoiseach likes to portray it as from time to time. If it was, we would never have attracted these industries in the first instance. I know that we beat other countries because of the superiority of our utilities, be it energy or water. The Taoiseach needs to have a balanced perspective on that issue also instead of frightening the life out of people.

There was not even €1 billion spent by them.

The meters are ticking and people still do not know what they will pay. We are now being told that the Government may go back to a flat rate system. Overall capital expenditure in the next two years only shows an increase of €100 million, with all the talk of off-balance-sheet funding. There is no timeline for expansion because there was no debate in this House at any stage. No one knows what the Taoiseach's plans are.

I am sorry, Deputy, but I have to call the Taoiseach to reply.

The danger with off-balance sheet accounting is that the Government spent €650 million without any discussion here or with the general public. There has been a complete lack of transparency. Will the Taoiseach facilitate a two or three hour debate in the House in order that the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, can answer questions? He should outline his ideas concerning Irish Water and the Government's future plans. There has been a complete absence of any debate from the get-go.

I call the Taoiseach to respond.

Not one question could be asked here about that expenditure, as the Taoiseach knows.

I recognise that there is a great deal of misinformation about this issue.

(Interruptions).

People are being told by those who want to tell them that the contribution they will make for water is going to some private company.

I did not say that at all.

The Deputy knows from the law of the land that was passed here that Irish Water is never going to be privatised.

I never said that.

It is not going to be privatised by this party, the Labour Party, the Fianna Fáil Party, the Sinn Féin Party or the Independent group.

(Interruptions).

If anyone here believes Irish Water should be privatised, he or she will have an opportunity to say his or her piece.

A Deputy

The Taoiseach is making an act of contrition.

Will the Deputy, please, stay quiet?

The Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, will come before the Dáil and we will have a debate on this issue when the Government announces its decisions. I am not going to tie him or the Government to announcing it on a particular day.

Why not listen to people before you make another bags of it?

We are over time.

I have listened carefully to the hundreds of people who have contacted me - some of them in not very kind terms I might add, but that is to be expected in politics. Many of those who have expressed a view say they are quite willing to make a contribution for water, but they want to know what the charge is and what it is for.

(Interruptions).

As we are way over time, I ask the Taoisech for his co-operation.

I will finish now. In County Roscommon, where Deputy Fitzpatrick - gabh mo leithscéal - Deputy Fitzmaurice was elected, chas mé ar an leoraí i dTuilsce an lá cheana agus mé ag dul síos. Thank you, Michael. As Deputy Fitzmaurice will tell us, there are six treatment plants being completed in County Roscommon. The Deputy was going to leave the people concerned with their boil water notices for the next decade. There is the Ballymore Eustace treatment plant which was closed down this time last year when the digital web summit was held here. It is to bring the plant up to full capacity. In addition, there is the Oberstown wastewater treatment plant, the Galway wastewater treatment plant and the Ringsend plant in Dublin.

A Deputy

Answer the question.

It seems Deputy Micheál Martin does not want to recognise the invalidity of his own case made the other day. The point is that if this work is not done and one has to raise €850 million for a programme of investment in extra water infrastructure and facilities, how will it be raised? I am not going to go down the road of increasing taxes or pulling services.

The Taoiseach is - the water charge is a tax.

That is what the Deputy wants to do. In fact, the Government went the other way and reduced income tax for the first time. It will do so again next year and the following year when returned to government.

Who is raving? We are seven minutes over time on this question. I am trying to be fair to everybody. Will Deputies, please, cut out the shouting and allow Deputy Gerry Adams to speak?

It is very clear from the Taoiseach's waffle that he totally underestimates the widespread public anger at the imposition of water charges. They were - let us be fair about it - a Fianna Fáil idea in the first instance, but the Taoiseach has underestimated the determination of people in every house, on every street, in every sráidbhaile and county across the State. He said: "Some people do not want to pay. Some people have an ideological position on this issue." What about those who cannot afford to pay? He is ignoring them completely.

I must confess that, at times, I find it difficult to understand the Taoiseach's attitude. Then I am reminded of the deferential approach he takes to the elites in the European Union, the banking fraternity and big business and his attitude to those to whom he refers as ordinary citizens. These ordinary citizens were on the march last Saturday and I am proud to say I was there with them. They are sick to the teeth of relentless austerity and the endless list of taxes, charges and cuts the Taoiseach has brought in, aimed at low and middle income families. For many, this water tax is the last straw. From the Taoiseach's remarks today and his other remarks, he has dismissed these concerns.

From the very beginning the establishment of Uisce Éireann-Irish Water has been marked by one debacle after another. It is replete with a bonus culture and reeks of cronyism. The Taoiseach if now frantically briefing the media that he will introduce measures to alleviate the burden of water charges and that all of this will be straightened out. He did it again today. Let me tell him that talk of flat charges, changes to the board of Irish Water and improving his communications strategy ignores the main point. What citizens want from him is a clear statement that he has listened to them, heard what they are saying and that he will send a message from here that he will scrap the water charges. That is my question for him today. Has he listened to the people? Has he heard what they are saying? As they cannot afford to pay them, will he scrap the water charges?

It is obvious that the Deputy listened to some people because he has changed his tune again. A fortnight ago he said: "Of course, I will pay the water charges because they are the law of the land." We know that he is a very law-abiding citizen. When he sees movement on the streets, however, he changes his tune and says: "Oh no, I will not pay in the case of my holiday home in Donegal. I am not going to pay water charges there." If he wants to run with the-----

-----tide of people who say, "Okay, I am not going to pay these water charges," obviously he has gone down the road of utter populism, but it is not the first time he has changed his mind or his tune either. I will answer his question. I have listened to the people.

A Deputy

Belatedly.

The Government is engaging with the people, Irish Water and the board of Ervia. I have heard what they have said. What they have said is that they want clarity, certainty and fairness.

(Interruptions).

I want Deputy Gerry Adams to understand this Government is not going to go down the road of having to raise €850 million in extra tax increases or cutting other services.

But the Taoiseach is threatening to do so.

What we need is the capacity to have an independent, commercial public body to borrow money off balance sheet and invest in the infrastructure that is necessary. An example is that Dublin City Council proposed to spend €350 million on upgrading the treatment works at Ringsend. The Minister has just come back from there and, because Irish Water is a public utility, it is able to do the work for €170 million, thereby saving the taxpayer €170 million and having that sum for further investment in other schemes. The Deputy has often spoken about environmental issues. In a number of towns raw sewage is being pumped into rivers, lakes and the sea. We cannot go on like this and we will not. The answer to the question is that the Government will not drop water contribution charges. It will, having listened to the people, introduce a regime that is clear, fair and affordable. When we make a decision on these matters, people will understand clearly that the contribution they will make will go to help fellow citizens in other places around the country who do not have the quality water supply in this city, Cork or other areas. I am sure the Deputy agrees with me that the €170 million saved today by the decision of Irish Water to invest in Ringsend will allow Irish Water to address the 20,000 houses in the country in which there are lead service pipes. We need to change this and must have a timescale within which to take out the pipes and restore them properly in order that people will understand that what was left to them for years has been removed and that they have a safe piping and water system of high standard.

Get the lead out.

That is what the investment is about. Let us all understand we want the country to measure up in terms of our environmental responsibilities and high quality water systems and not leaving hundreds of thousands with an inferior system. From that point of view, we will not be dropping the charges, but we will make them as fair as we can in everyone's interests.

The Taoiseach knows all about changing his tune. His manifesto, the basis on which he was elected, and the mandate he was given were torn up as soon as he got his bum on that seat. He ignored the people and gave us lofty rhetoric about the democratic revolution, but he would not let us discuss the issue in the Chamber because of the imposition of guillotine after guillotine. It was unprecedented that all of the opposition parties and Deputies walked out in protest at the way the Government was imposing this unfair tax on citizens. The Taoiseach's words are without substance. I am disappointed with what he said because he said he would ignore the grouping of people I had identified, which he must know in his constituency, who just could not pay. These people, including elderly persons on their own who do not like to be in debt, are afraid, waiting for the bill and do not know how to pay it. Sinn Féin has proposed a Bill tabled by its environmental spokesperson, Deputy Brian Stanley. It is a constitutional amendment Bill to allow for a referendum to retain control of water services in public ownership. The Taoiseach protests that there is no privatisation subtext or agenda. Having said he will ignore the people on the issue of unfair water charges, will he say the Government will facilitate and support Sinn Féin's Bill and allow it through the Houses of the Oireachtas speedily to allow the people a say in a referendum on the issue as quickly as possible?

I do not accept the proposition. The Deputy has said the Government did not listen to the people once it was elected. I challenge that assertion. I was in houses with people who had put together mortgages and then found buildings were disintegrating with pyrite. I met the residents in the unfortunate case at Priory Hall. I met the Magdalen laundries people here and in England and we dealt with them. We have put in place a compensation scheme for those who had to deal with symphisiotomy. We listened to the medical cards issues raised by many Deputies. It is not a case of ignoring people's voices; rather, it is about listening to people and making decisions that can bring these things to a conclusion. In the case of water services, we have made two policy decisions and given directions to the regulator, that water for children is free and that there is a 30,000 litre allocation for households.

I accept that the current structure of the regime proposed for contributions is confusing. Having listened to the people and the anxiety of those who say they cannot afford to pay, have difficulties and are in particular categories-----

What about a referendum?

-----we will attempt to address the issue in the fairest way. Those who live alone will have 40% of their water needs provided for by the allowance, which works out at 50 cent a day. The Government is considering how best to help that category, the same as everybody else. Genuinely, we want to put in place a regime that will allow borrowing off the Government balance sheet to deal with the big issues around the country. In that respect, we ask people to make a fair and modest contribution for the domestic water supply, with allowances built-in and, in return, they will have a high quality water system.

Will the Taoiseach support Sinn Féin's Bill?

No, I will not support Sinn Féin's Bill. Obviously, we will have a full-scale debate in the House with the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, when the Government announces its decision which I hope will be in the next two weeks.

Why can we not have the debate before the Taoiseach makes a decision?

I call Deputy Joan Collins.

The Taoiseach should just abolish them, although that will not save his colleagues.

Will the Deputy listen to his leader?

I am no leader, I am an activist.

I have listened to the Taoiseach’s reply and have to raise the issue again. The Minister sitting beside the Taoiseach has clearly stated huge mistakes were made in setting up Irish Water. He also confirmed that rushing the legislation through the Dáil was inappropriate. I do not know what Phil Hogan is doing in his cushy number in Europe, but he obviously does not give a toss about the situation here anymore. Does the buck not stop with the Taoiseach for this fiasco? He is head of a Government which has completely lost the trust of the people. That is the message that was sent loud and clear from the mass protests held last Saturday, the biggest mass mobilisation of people in the country for at least 30 years. They have come out loud and clear on this matter. The Government came to power with a pledge to burn the bondholders and not to give them one red cent, as the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, said. It then listened to the troika, the ECB and the European Commission and did a 180 degree turn. Why will it not listen to the people? People are not asking the Taoiseach to fiddle around at the edges or for an extra €100 off here or there but for the charges to be stopped now. Mickey Mouse concessions will not make a difference to the mass movement of people who will not disappear. They will be back on the streets on 10 December to demand that Irish Water and water taxes go. The Taoiseach should accept the reality that the tax will not stick. It should be abolished. This is his poll tax. He has a choice to abolish the charges or go down with them, as Mrs. Thatcher did with the poll tax.

In the spring of 2016 Deputy Joan Collins will be involved in a general election campaign - it is not that far away. The people will make up their minds as to who they want to elect. That will be their choice and that is how it should be in a democracy. They will ask whether the Government fulfilled its mandate in fixing the public finances and whether it put the country back to work.

There was a mess left behind by the party whose Members are sitting in front of Deputy Joan Collins. We had to deal with the promissory note business with the European Central Bank. The Deputy will recall the number of times in this House that I was asked if we were going to borrow €3 billion per year to pay the interest on Anglo Irish Bank debt. I am not hearing about that now.

That is not interest, it is capital.

We were left with €18 billion from the International Monetary Fund, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, and the Government have been able to buy out substantial elements of that at a much lower interest rate, with authorisation forthcoming from our European colleagues, with the exception of Sweden, as it recently held an election. We hope it will deal with the matter by 21 November. That will amount to a saving for the taxpayer.

When a decision is made on such issues, it brings confidence, as occurred with the announcement last Friday that the strategic investment bank will soon have €800 million for small and medium enterprises. That was signed with the co-operation of the German Finance Minister. We expect to have a return to full employment by 2020 and our deficit eliminated by 2018, with the rate reduced to 2.7% of GDP next year. We hope to have 100,000 jobs created by the end of next year.

On such a point, we can validly stand and argue that the Government has fulfilled its mandate. I accept it has been difficult for people. It is the same all over the country. When a new charge is introduced, it clearly creates difficulty for people.

They cannot afford it.

We should remember that in the most recent budget, income tax was reduced and the lower tax band was increased. The two lower levels of the universal social charge were eased for people, with many taken from that net. A couple with young children will see a benefit of up to €1,200 paid back to them early next year because of changes to child allowances and income tax changes. These are issues on which people will decide in spring 2016. The Deputy will campaign against these, despite the fact she will see the benefit before her eyes.

What we want is a contribution from people that is fair and affordable. It should be pointed out what this is for, as the money will not go to some bondholder black hole or a private company.

What about the rest of it?

It is a black hole.

It will go towards fixing the sewerage problems in Arklow and Ringsend. It will help fix the treatment works in many places around the country where the facilities are inferior. Deputy Joan Collins does not live in a place like Roscommon, where people have had to boil water for ten years.

The Taoiseach forgot to mention Ballymore Eustace this time.

It seems that some people want that to continue. I do not want it to continue and the Government will not allow that. We ask for the assistance of people in that regard. The Government will make its decision in the next two weeks and I hope it will be seen to be very clear, fair and affordable.

I hope the changes with the unitary board of Ervia and Irish Water will bring about a position where the mechanics of explaining their programme can go before the people.

Is there any room for Mr. McNulty on that?

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, was in Ringsend today and has evidence of €170 million being saved for the taxpayer, and that can be invested in other schemes-----

He is a magician now.

-----where there are inferior facilities.

The problem is that promises are made but they are broken. This has been referred to by Members on the other side of the House, particularly a former Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, when he indicated that statements are made before being elected but after the election, the opposite is done.

He did not say that.

He did say it.

The Deputy should ask her supplementary question.

There is absolutely no doubt the people will hold the Government to account.

Has the Deputy paid her bin charges?

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, indicated in 2011 that the Government would not install water meters when there were still leaks in the system but it did. The water must be paid for and nobody is stupid; the Taoiseach should not treat people as if they are stupid. The water has been paid for to date and we need it to be paid for through a progressive tax system. The proposed charges are a major burden on families and they cannot pay what they are being asked to pay. There could be a 1% wealth tax on shares; land, excluding farms; and property, excluding the family home, valued in excess of €1 million. The Department of Finance has indicated that this would bring in €500 million, so the Taoiseach can start there.

Some 2% of VAT and 4% of motor tax has brought in €1.2 billion per year for investment in water facilities but that was not used for that purpose. Those local authorities over the past 20 years were dominated by Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and Fine Gael but they did not deal with issues of investment in water. I ask the Taoiseach to abolish the water tax. If he does not, the Government will be held to account by the people. It will have to go before the electorate.

I do not agree with the Deputy's claim at all. She seems to think we can continue as we have done for years. I am not prepared to do that and neither is the Government. We must provide our people all over the country - consumers, householders, businesses and everybody else - with a proper infrastructure to supply quality water.

We need to get back to the drawing board. This is not working.

It is not fair that some towns are pumping raw sewage into lakes and rivers.

The Taoiseach does not know the meaning of the word.

What is proposed is immoral.

It is not fair that we are pumping wastewater to the sea when we are way beyond our environmental limits. It is not right that people in Deputy Fitzmaurice's constituency are still boiling water ten years later. Four major treatment works will be finished by the middle of next year. I hope people will not have to do that any more.

Will meters cure the problem of having to boil water?

The Deputy mentioned a progressive tax system but we have one of the most progressive tax systems in the world in Ireland.

Check the budget figures.

The Deputy should be clear with the people. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, has written to the finance committee to point out that if it is not done this way-----

He did not. It was a private letter to a colleague.

If there is not an independent commercial body - owned publicly - that can borrow off the Government balance sheet, there would be expectation of raising €850 million next year and every year, rising to €1.2 billion, to meet the programme for dealing with the problems out there. This is the way to do it. We are not going to increase income tax or cut services further.

Why spend €500,000 installing water meters?

If the Deputy wants to put a tax on jobs and unemployment, she will make it more difficult for people. I do not accept her assertions or claims. Over the weekend we have listened to the voices of people. Some have said they do not want to pay for anything.

Nobody said that. Nobody would say that except tax exiles.

Others have clearly stated they are willing to make a contribution for water but the process should be made clear, fair and affordable. They have said they will assist the country as they are as Irish as anybody else. That is what the Government will decide upon, and the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, will make his presentation to the Government and the House, I hope, in approximately two weeks.