Leaders' Questions

Last weekend the Taoiseach said that the Government and Irish Water would provide greater clarity on charges for the public after the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. On Monday, there was an apology from the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, and Mr. Tierney of Irish Water accepted that mistakes had been made. On Tuesday, the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, got stuck in and took the entire press pack to a sewage treatment plant in Ringsend, a fitting backdrop for where the Government has landed itself on this issue. He agreed that the legislation establishing Irish Water was rushed and that it was wrong not to debate it in the House. He pointedly reminded us that he was not a member of the Cabinet when the decision was taken. The Tánaiste clearly was a member, as was the Taoiseach.

Also on Tuesday, we were given confirmation by the Tánaiste that a family of two adults and two adult children could expect to pay water charges of no more than €200 per year. At last it appeared that a breakthrough was emerging regarding what citizens would pay for water. However, that was thrown on its head yesterday when the Taoiseach told the House, while the Tánaiste was holding a press conference elsewhere, that when the Tánaiste was speaking in the House in her capacity as Minister for Social Protection she was in fact expressing a personal opinion. It is amazing that the Taoiseach would say that the Tánaiste, when answering questions in the House as Minister, can somehow take off the cloak of Tánaiste and the heaviness of the office of Minister for Social Protection and speak in a personal capacity. What is really mind-boggling, however, is that the Government, in developing the concept of Irish Water, which was promised by Fine Gael in 2009 and accepted by this Government in 2011, has effectively ignored the concerns raised in this House and the concerns of the citizens of Ireland and has rammed it down people's throats. Since September, the Government has been asking people to fill out forms and provide their PPS numbers, which the Tánaiste sneakily slotted in as an amendment in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act, but as we approach the middle of November nobody can confirm what people will pay for water, notwithstanding that charging commenced on 1 October.

Will the Deputy put his question?

Now we have the farcical situation in which the Economic Management Council is meeting in secret to discuss the situation while ignoring this House and the mandate given to Members on this side and to the Government backbenchers. Indeed, Deputies Griffin and Stagg have been reminding the Government about the difficulties in that regard.

Does the Tánaiste consider it acceptable that the public will have to wait another two weeks before clarity is brought to the charging structure for a service that began on 1 October? Does the Tánaiste still believe, or is it now her professional view, that €200 will be the charge for a family of two adults and two adult children?

The Deputy is way over time.

More importantly, will she pause this runaway train and allow a proper debate in this House to ensure that Members, who have a mandate and a contribution to make, can assist in resolving this mess once and for all?

I am happy to tell the House that very good and solid progress has been made with Irish Water. The objective of the Labour Party, Fine Gael and the Government is to have an Irish Water charging regime that is affordable, that offers clarity and certainty, and that is capped so that if people, on the evidence of the meters, are using less water than the standard charges would indicate, they will be in a position to get a rebate.

I was delighted to appoint Deputy Alan Kelly as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, and he has embarked on addressing the issues relating to Irish Water with his usual energy and gusto. As a fellow Tipperary man, I am sure Deputy Mattie McGrath is only delighted, and we expect him to reflect that.

I am delighted to see him swimming in the water.

John Tierney is from Tipperary too.

Tipperary people are usually proud of each other, particularly when they are on the national stage. I assume that is what I was hearing from that quarter.

The objective here is that Ireland will have clean, safe and healthy drinking water for ourselves and future generations. That is important. This country gets a large amount of rain and there is no shortage of water, thankfully. However, treating water for human and public consumption is a costly business. There is a cost in getting it to a person's house and in taking the wastewater away. That is what we are discussing.

I am delighted that solid progress is being made. Did the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, hold Fianna Fáil Government meetings and Cabinet sub-committee meetings in public? I must have missed those. It is certainly a development when the Fianna Fáil spokesperson, and he can correct me if I misunderstood, is complaining about Cabinet sub-committees, including the Economic Management Council, meeting in private. That is the practice, and it has been for a long time.

There were a few leaks from the Cabinet over the years, particularly when the Tánaiste was not the Tánaiste.

All I can say is that I am happy that very solid progress is being made. I am very anxious to have affordable charges that will provide us with clean, reliable and healthy drinking water. In addition, we have an ambitious programme for the next ten years to invest approximately €10 billion in Irish Water. The Deputy mentioned that the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, went to Ringsend a few days ago. When that project was under the control of the local authorities, its estimated cost was a ballpark figure of €350 million. Since Irish Water took over, the estimated cost has been revised downward-----

It is a different project.

-----to between €170 million and €180 million.

The Tánaiste must conclude.

If that is what one Tipperary man can do in four months in office as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government-----

What would two of them do?

It is a good performance from the Tipp stars.

I never thought I would hear the Tánaiste say she would take something from the Charles Haughey school of politics to assist her in performing her duties. I am sure he must be turning in his grave at the thought of it.

Tell us when Fianna Fáil met in public.

The Tánaiste indicated her confidence in the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, and the gusto with which he has approached his job. That is interesting. It is a kick in the shin for the Taoiseach for his comments yesterday.

It was more than a thinly veiled criticism of the European Commissioner, Mr. Phil Hogan, and one on which I ask the Tánaiste to ponder because the former Minister, Mr. Hogan, deserves the support of everyone in the House.

No one has a problem with the notion that there are costs associated with treating water and sewage - that is a given. My concern is that the economic management council is using a patchwork approach to a problem that has spiralled out of control.

The Deputy's time has concluded.

Will the Tánaiste provide time to give an opportunity to backbench Deputies from both Government parties and on this side to have the debate on this legislation that was denied them in December when the Bill on water charges was rammed through the House and down the throats of Irish people. It is not too late to pause the charging structure for a number of months, allow a comprehensive debate and produce a plan that will meet citizens' needs and take account of their ability to pay. If the Tánaiste believes that four Ministers closeted in a room-----

The Deputy has made his point.

-----can take cover in the approach taken by Charlie Haughey 30 years ago, she fails to realise where Irish people are and what they expect from us. This is certainly not the type of transparency the Labour Party suggested it would bring to citizens when it signed the programme for Government in 2011.

The Fianna Fáil Party signed up to water charges in 2007.

On the transparency front, what Irish people want is clean, clear and healthy water.

We need clean, clear government.

When Deputy Dooley's party left government its legacy was that people in County Roscommon had been unable to drink their water for almost 12 years. After Christmas and in the new year, the people of Roscommon will be able to drink their water. I would have expected the Deputy to take a positive view of that.

We have an ambitious programme of investment in Irish Water amounting to more than €10 billion over the next ten years. If the Fianna Fáil Party is suggesting that all of this finance should come directly via taxpayers, particularly through income tax, I suggest their approach would result in us failing to use a resource, namely, off-balance sheet funding mechanisms-----

Who is being asked to pay water charges? Is there some type of magic casino involved?

-----which, in the history of that party in government, were used by the ESB and Bord Gáis, as publicly owned utilities, to bring forward desperately needed investment in the country's infrastructure. We are using the same model.

Consumers paid for that investment in their bills. The Tánaiste should stop digging.

This approach makes business and economic sense and in terms of the recovery in which all of us are interested, it allows us to provide key investment in a resource that is incredibly important in the daily lives of everyone in this country, not to speak of its importance for agriculture, tourism, the pharmaceutical industry, international investment and local businesses.

What caused the Tánaiste to change her view on this issue in the past four years?

On Tuesday, when the Tánaiste stated that a family of two adults and two children should pay less than €200 each year for water, Government sources immediately rubbished her figures.

Welcome back Mary Lou.

Despite the positive spin from the Tánaiste and Taoiseach after this morning's meeting of the economic management council, it is clear that they have not yet resolved their issues. The Tánaiste stated again that she is satisfied with progress and more work remains to be done. The only progress report people want to hear is that the Government is abolishing domestic water charges. What is required is a simple abolition of water charges, with no ifs, buts, bribes or threats. That would provide clarity.

Last night, the Tánaiste's party colleagues in the Seanad supported the proposal to hold a referendum on Irish Water. The Labour Party Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, to whom the Tánaiste referred, also stated he would not rule out a referendum. The Taoiseach has also rubbished that idea.

The people spoke last weekend when they demanded that their human right to water be protected and stated in the Constitution. They want a referendum, with no ifs, buts, delays or spin. That is clarity. Will the Government respect the will of the people by abolishing domestic water charges and by giving people the referendum they desire?

That is a U-turn.

A few weeks ago, if I recall our encounters correctly, Deputy McDonald and many members of her party were in favour of and indicated they would pay the water charges if they were in a household that was billed for them. Subsequently, as indicated by the Sinn Féin leader, Deputy Gerry Adams, in an RTE interview, the party obviously changed its mind.

The Labour Party also changed its mind.

The Labour Party changed its mind after it ran its Tesco advertisement.

Quiet, please.

To return to first principles, we want clean, healthy water. As Deputy McDonald will be aware, at this time last year, pubs, restaurants and hotels in Dublin, which the Deputy and I have the honour to represent, were in danger of being closed down because the region had reached its maximum usage of water. These facilities play an important part in the city and country's economy. To overcome this problem we must invest in a serious capital programme over the next ten years. In the next three years, €1.7 billion will be invested in water infrastructure to get the type of water system people deserve and need, with subsequent investment set to run at approximately €1 billion per annum. Sinn Féin suggests that this be done out of general taxation, as its party leader made clear yesterday morning when he showed only the faintest understanding of the business of dealing with the economy. He then flew off to New York - I do not know in what class he travelled - to eat a dinner costing €500 per head.

The Tánaiste should call him on her iPhone and ask him in what class he travelled.

The figure of €500 is interesting because it is significantly higher than the water charge for a family. Deputy Adams is travelling to the United States, a country where water charges are the norm and where he receives medical attention instead of using the Irish health system. To some extent, some of the Sinn Féin Deputies are living between two continents, as it were. They live here for the purposes of ordinary life and for the purposes of high life, they jet off around the world to eat dinners in luxury hotels that cost more than what will be the average water charge, potentially for a couple of years. I am not aware of what will be the total cost of the dinner, only the indicative prices.

The main issue is that the Government has made very solid progress. I stated again in discussions a couple of weeks ago that my view is that the Irish Water project was rushed. I accept that people are very concerned and I am very anxious to set out a clear, affordable structure that produces clean water to meet our economic and social needs, delivers investment that will result in thousands of jobs in the economy, with which we could do, and provides us with the system we need.

I ask the Tánaiste to respect the Chair, please. Standing Orders provide for a time limit on contributions. I do not want to repeatedly point out this. Yesterday, the House ran seven or eight minutes over each question and speakers ignored the Chair. If Members wish to ignore the Chair, they should get another Ceann Comhairle because they will not ignore Sean Barrett. I am serious about that.

The only thing the Tánaiste is very anxious to do is to make a pretty lame attempt to distract attention from the central issue.

Is that the women in Northern Ireland?

Be quiet, please.

To give her some constructive feedback, if she believes her comedic effort at a world tour cuts ice with people watching these proceedings, she is very much mistaken. In the real world, people do not have €200 or €100 to pay for their water. The Tánaiste is correct that I am not in that position and I do not claim to be in that position.

She should pay the charge in that case.

Stay quiet, please.

However, I represent countless people who are in that position. They are people on small or fixed incomes, pensioners and those struggling to pay their rent or to meet their mortgage payments.

There are people for whom it is a trauma to get money to buy a pair of shoes for their children. That is who I represent. They have told me categorically that they do not have any money to pay for domestic water. Not alone that, they have told the Government, in their tens and hundreds of thousands, that they cannot pay.

Thank you. Resume your seat, Deputy.

The Tánaiste's job is to go back to the drawing board. Let us reopen the debate around how we fund infrastructure.

Deputy, you did not hear me. Resume your seat, please.

It is her job to back off from those families and slagging me or anybody else is a pathetic attempt to divert attention that is fooling absolutely nobody.

Deputy, resume your set please. You are over your time. Thank you.

That is the real world. If she has any sense of what the real world looks like she will abolish those charges.

One minute please, Tánaiste. Thank you.

I do now know whether Deputy McDonald will get an opportunity to go on the trip; that was not clear.

All I said was that I saw that the indicative cost of the dinner was €500. In anybody's language that is a lot of money.

The situation regarding pensioners, those on low incomes or those dependent on social welfare income was a cornerstone of the budget for the first time in a series of budgets. The past six years have been a period of great difficulty for this country which the people of the country have bourne with enormous fortitude. I agree with the Deputy that it is has been difficult for them, but I am happy to say that for the first time in the budget there are cuts to the lower rates of USC, 80,000 people have been taken out of the USC system and we have a social welfare package which, in a month or so, will see the partial restoration of the Christmas bonus, something which was, rightly, much beloved of the people-----

Thank you very much, Tánaiste. I ask you to adhere to the Chair.

-----the Deputy represents.

The people I represent cannot pay.

We have also made provision for a water conservation payment of €100 for each household.

That is not enough. It does not work.

Tánaiste, you are over your time. Please respect the Chair. Thank you.

Can I just say-----

Well then change the rules.

The people to whom the Deputy referred are precisely those about whom I am concerned.

Above all else, I want them, their children and the people whom all of us here have the honour to represent to have a chance to get a job in this country and prosper. That does not seem to feature in Sinn Féin's plans for country. That is the tragedy.

You will be looking for a job yourself soon.

The Minister, Deputy Noonan, spoke on "Morning Ireland" today and told us the Trichet letter was released today because the banking inquiry was up and running. That is not true. No motion has been put before the Dáil and will not be for weeks. The cynical timing is about one thing, namely, knocking Irish Water off the headlines and out of the front pages of the newspapers.

There is a relationship between both. It seems as though the ECB wants it every way. It flooded the European banks with cash, then when things went belly-up it broke its own rules and allowed this country to write IOUs for Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide. The Trichet letter clearly shows that the ECB bullied this country into a bailout on its own terms. Some €30.6 billion was pumped into two non-solvent banks, Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide. The loan losses were then converted into sovereign debt by this Government, leaving us with a €25 billion debt to pay before interest is added. This money does not need to be repaid to bondholders, banks and pension funds. Essentially, Patrick Honohan has told us this needs to be extinguished and taken out of circulation.

This year €500 million will be taken out of circulation, a sum of money which would fix a lot of leaky pipes. The same amount will have to be paid every year until 2018, then €1,000 million will be paid every year until 2023 and then €2,000 million until it is all gone. Meanwhile, the Irish people are left carrying the burden, which manifests itself in the universal social charge, reduced public services and Irish Water.

A question, please. Thank you.

That is the connection between the debt burden and the austerity demands.

Some 43% of the banking crisis was shouldered by just one country, that is, Ireland, and the Government never asked for that debt to be written down.

Will it ask Europe to write that debt off now? Did the Government have sight of the letter when the Government formed or did it have to wait to see the information until it was elevated to the Economic Management Council? Does it change the negotiation strategy?

I am glad that the letters, I understand, are to be published formally this afternoon. I note they were in the media this morning.

There may be more about preventing haircuts.

The letters concern my former constituency colleague, Brian Lenihan, and are very poignant in that context. People may remember that period. It was a very snowy winter and Brian, as we are all aware, was unfortunately ill with an illness to which he would succumb. It is very poignant to see the letter released.

From a political perspective, all of this arose from a fatally flawed decision to have a blanket bank guarantee. I, along with the Labour Party, opposed it, but most of the other parties here did not. I do now know about the Independent Deputies at the time. Those who were in the House at the time supported the guarantee.

You implemented it in government. What are you asking about? You had no policy at the time.

The Governor of the Central Bank, Patrick Honohan, went on "Morning Ireland" the morning before and told the nation what was going to happen. I welcome the publication of the Trichet letter.

The reference to the banking inquiry was that it is in the process of being established. Deputy Lynch is the chairperson and work is ongoing which he and other members are taking extremely seriously. They will be doing important work on behalf of the State. I hope the publication of the material today will free up quite a number of the people whom the committee may wish to interview and allow them to speak more freely. In regard to the previous Government, we all remember that two senior Ministers at the time, Noel Dempsey and Dermot Ahern, were not in the loop about the extraordinary developments. The source of what happened in the Trichet letter was the disastrous blanket bank guarantee.

Why did you continue it?

On the other hand, in terms of where-----

(Interruptions).

Sorry, will you stay quiet please?

You supported it.

(Interruptions).

Stay quiet, please. Thank you.

In terms of where the country is now, yesterday the CSO published independent data on the live register which has fallen to 11%, a level which is still too high. We have just had a budget which provides for the cuts and reductions in USC to which the Deputy referred. USC has been of major concern to most people and the budget is the beginning of the reform. It has also provided for expansion of the tax bands and a reduction in the top rate of income tax to concentrate the reliefs on people earning between €30,000 and €70,000.

In addition, as Minister for Social Protection, I am pleased to say the budget has provided for a modest expansion of social welfare payments such as the Christmas bonus, an increase of €5 in child benefit from January and an increase of €9 in the living alone allowance and for people with a disability. In a recovery the people of Ireland deserve to have these modest steps taken.

The Minister for Finance said the banking inquiry was up and running. It is not and it is not true to say it is.

The Tánaiste talks about affordability, but she is talking about affordability for 200,000 people who have been sucked dry. I have been knocking on doors and people have been saying to me that it may look like they have a nice house and a car that will get them from A to B, but that I should come in and look in their fridge and at their bills. They have no money left to pay for food or bills. Part of the reason they have no money left is the unaffordability of this debt.

The Tánaiste did not answer my questions.

She did not understand them.

Is the Government going to change its negotiating strategy with the ECB? Did the Tánaiste see the letter while in Cabinet but not on the Economic Management Council? The people are not fools. They know the reason they are being burdened with all of this debt; they are being burdened with something that was not of their making. What is the Government going to do about it? That is my question, not what others did to create it. What are the Tánaiste and the Government going to do about it?

It is regrettable - I am surprised the Deputy does not express regret - that at the time all of the Independents voted for the fatal bank guarantee; that is their responsibility.

The Government extended it.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Finian McGrath can tell the Deputy all about it. That was the source of the problem.

On the current position, the country is in recovery. The issue faced by the family about whom the Deputy spoke, a family with a legacy of debt, is serious. That debt was probably taken on in the good times and the income of that family has probably been reduced or they may rely on social welfare payments. The CSO figures released yesterday show increased numbers are returning to work, almost all of them to full-time jobs. That is progress.

The Tánaiste obviously did not see the figures for poverty or poverty-related issues. Did she see them?

On what the European Union owes Ireland, I have said many times that under the previous Government, Ireland took a hit in terms of the eurozone. What direction is the country now taking? We are seeing an enormous amount of international investment in the country, an expansion of job creation and have the development of the ESM. From June 2012, we have had an indication from the Heads of Government that they recognise the special position of Ireland.

We have moved on from what we might have wished to see happen at the time Mr. Trichet wrote his letter and will continue to negotiate the maximum position and recovery for Ireland. Last week, for instance, I was in Farmleigh to meet the head of the European Investment Bank to announce the development of the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, which in the next period will invest significant resources in the development of the country, thereby putting people back to work and bringing prosperity back to the family the Deputy rightly says has had a very hard time. I agree fully with her that we must get them back to work and on the path to prosperity

They are in work.

Therefore, we must create a situation, as we did in the budget, where their USC and tax burdens will reduce. These burdens have begun to reduce for the first time since the fatally flawed bank guarantee was entered into by Fianna Fáil.

For the information of the House, Members went over time by five minutes the time allowed for this question. They must not think I am going to keep interrupting them to tell them their time is up. In future, if Members do not want to listen to the Chair and have no respect for it, they can go ahead and take as much time as they want.

The Tánaiste went over time every time.

I did not ask the Deputy to comment. I did not say who had gone over time. If Members do not listen, it shows total disregard and disrespect for the Chair.

On a point of order, is it possible to have the clock-timer turned on for Leaders' Questions?

We do not have that facility. It has not been agreed to.

Other Deputies must adhere to time limits. Perhaps it could be turned on for the leaders also.

We can refer the matter to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges; it is not one to be decided here. If Members can get the members of the committee to support the proposal, I will have no problem with it.

Why are the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste always allowed to waffle on all the time?

(Interruptions).

We will move to the Order of Business. Please show some respect for yourselves, never mind anybody else.