Leaders' Questions (Resumed)

Almost one year ago to the day, citizens went to the polls and voted in a general election. The majority of Deputies elected to this Dáil were elected clearly and comprehensively to end punitive water charging. That was the decision of the people. The Fianna Fáil Party, despite its ever shifting policy positions, also made this commitment. The expert commission on water services was dreamt up as a fig leaf to get Fianna Fáil off the hook of its commitments and secure its support for the Government. Since then, Fianna Fáil has tried everything to change its stance but the resolve of those involved in Right2Water has forced it to a point where it either puts up or shuts up.

I listened this morning to Deputy Willie O'Dea refusing to rule out water charges by the back door and peddling the myth surrounding excessive use for which there is absolutely no evidence. It remains to be seen what the Fianna Fáil position will be. Sinn Féin, on the other hand, has been clear all along - no water charges-----

(Interruptions).

Deputies

Since the Dublin South-West by-election.

Order, please.

-----by the front door or the back door. That is now the emerging view of the Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, which was set up to produce recommendations on this issue. The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, established that process, which is drawing to a conclusion. At the time, the Minister stated he wanted to take the heat out of the water charges debate and let the Oireachtas have its say.

The Government is losing the argument. Yesterday evening, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, intervened in a most inappropriate manner in an attempt to influence the committee's work before it concludes. Essentially, he is trying to shoehorn the committee with exaggerated claims of the supposed illegality of the abolition of water charges. The Minister should stop interfering in the work of this committee immediately. He should adhere to the process he set up and respect the outcome of it. One wonders whether the Minister's new tough guy stance has more to do with the leadership battle within Fine Gael than anything else.

Deputy McDonald would know plenty about that.

The coalition agreement of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, a copy of which I have here, states that the Government will legislate for the abolition of water charges if that is the position of the Oireachtas but the Minister, Deputy Coveney, it seems, has set his face against this. He said that he will breach the process he established and he will not - I emphasise he will not - legislate to scrap the water charges. Is that the Taoiseach's position also? Does he also refuse to accept the will of the Oireachtas and to legislate to abolish water charges?

Well done Deputy Paul Murphy.

We did a lot while Deputy Durkan was away temporarily.

The Fine Gael Party is a democratic party. We are not in the position of being able to anoint or appoint people who we choose to be leaders.

The Deputy should bear that in mind. The Oireachtas established a special Oireachtas committee to deliberate on the recommendations of an expert commission on water. That is what the committee is doing. Essentially, it is considering the abolition of general water charges. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, set out a number of principles which reflect the Fine Gael Party's view and position on this issue, including that we should have a water metering capacity, a generous allowance and a charge for wilful and excessive use and waste of water. They are important principles. What is provided for in the Fine Gael Party agreement with Fianna Fáil is that the Oireachtas committee would consider the recommendations of the expert commission and make recommendations to the Oireachtas, following which the Oireachtas would consider those recommendations and vote on the matter within one month of the conclusion of the deliberations.

I know that the Chairman circulated a paper yesterday. The committee continues is deliberations and will meet this afternoon to consider that paper. I am sure that even Deputy McDonald will understand that in this country it is not proper to allow the wilful wastage of water for which the taxpayer pays. The 2007 Act does not cover that, in my view. As stated by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, the committee is entitled to continue its deliberations on the recommendations of the expert commission and to bring forward its conclusions to the Oireachtas. We await its conclusions, on which we will have a discussion in the Oireachtas and then vote on the matter. The Minister was entitled to set out a number of principles yesterday.

The wilful waste of water is the fault of the infrastructure and successive Governments, of which the Taoiseach's party and his partners, the Fianna Fáil Party, have been lead exponents, and not, as suggested by the Taoiseach, the result of the population with wild abandon wilfully wasting water. This matter was settled last year at the ballot box. The democratic view of the people was that water charges be abolished, not suspended. That is the considered view of the people. It is also a view mirrored in the Oireachtas. A commitment was given to respect that democratic view.

Now it seems, however, that the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, knows better than the Oireachtas and the people who voted. In fact, he does not. It is imperative that the Minister and the Taoiseach respect the wishes of the people, as democratically expressed. I want an answer to the question I asked earlier and which I will repeat. Is the Taoiseach prepared to legislate for the abolition of water charges? Will he give a "Yes" or a "No" answer to indicate his position?

We have said in the agreement we have with the main Opposition party-----

(Interruptions).

-----that the Government will facilitate the legislation that is necessary following the deliberations of the Oireachtas arising from the report of the expert group. That is what we have agreed to do and what we will follow. As I said, the committee is considering the views of the commission. Clearly, a compromise is available and where we are is considering the issue of the wilful wastage of water. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, has at his disposal legal advice that is very strong and clear. I realise the Deputy and her party colleagues have their eyes on power down here. I am sure that if she ever sits on these benches as Minister for whatever - although perhaps I cannot guarantee it in her party's case - she will not be putting through legislation where she has very strong legal advice that it is illegal to do so.

Is that a "Yes" or a "No"? It sounds like a "No".

We set up an arrangement for an Oireachtas committee to deliberate on these matters. The committee is meeting again this afternoon to continue its work.

Will the Taoiseach answer "Yes" or "No"?

I have a strong aversion, like most people in the country, to a situation where there can be wilful wastage of water and an expectation that the general taxpayer will pay for it.

The Government does not even know how many private swimming pools there are.

They are all in Dún Laoghaire.

(Interruptions).

Order, please.

Does the Taoiseach have any idea of how anxious the hundreds of thousands people are around the country who depend on public transport? The Government seems to be marching blindly over the cliff edge on this matter. For weeks we have been listening to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, saying it has nothing to do with him, but the fact is that Bus Éireann is fully owned by the Government on behalf of the people of Ireland, with ownership of the company being vested in the Minister. We have heard that Bus Éireann is facing possible insolvency and we know that its staff are standing on the brink of an all-out strike. Such a strike would make the already perilous financial position of the company even more acute. This has come about because management reneged on its existing deal with workers. We hear through the media that even some of the Taoiseach's colleagues are growing tired of the Minister abdicating his responsibility in the matter. He is a man with a title who will not take on the job he was given. I have asked repeatedly the Taoiseach to do something about this. We all know that these issues can be resolved but only through intervention and dialogue. I have asked the Taoiseach several times to ensure the Minister and the National Transport Authority, NTA, sit down with management and the trade unions in Bus Éireann to begin formulating a solution. Standing back is patently making matters worse and all the more difficult to reach the solution that has to be found.

The situation at Bus Éireann is another example of the Government's cack-handed approach to industrial relations. Nobody is saying a Minister should be involved in every meeting or intervene immediately in every industrial relations dispute. However, when matters are escalating, it is often the wise thing to do and has been the practice for decades. During the term of the last Government there were plenty of occasions when I, as Minister, was directly involved in meeting trade union representatives to defuse potentially damaging situations.

It was about listening, hearing and responding - in a word, managing. The same was true of other Ministers.

The involvement of a Minister does not always bring matters to a conclusion, and certainly not straight away, but it helps to move matters in the proper direction. We now have a Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport who simply will not engage. Apparently, he is waiting for a solution to fall from the sky. That will not happen. Will the Taoiseach direct the Minister to sit down with the NTA, Bus Éireann and the trade unions before this matter reaches the point of no return and significant damage is done not only to a valuable State company, but also to the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on Bus Éireann and other public transport companies to get to work and carry out their lives in a normal fashion?

I thank the Deputy. It is true that the Deputy met unions on many occasions and he had some serious matters to discuss in terms of public pay and the issues that the country had to face in an even more challenging time than now.

Nobody wants to see this strike go ahead. The Minister, Deputy Ross, gave a full and thorough briefing to the Cabinet yesterday on the situation here. Clearly, today's media coverage carries a number of the issues that the NTA has come forward with in terms of its analysis of the services currently provided on a number of the routes that are suggested to be changed, with further facilities and access on one of those routes in the west.

It is true that a solution will not drop out of the sky. The Deputy is absolutely correct, but the Minister, Deputy Ross, has been very strongly in support of a situation where unions and management sit down together at the WRC and work out a solution for the nub of the issue where there is a loss of income to the company on a daily basis. I think an intervention by the Minister directly is not what is required now. There is still an opportunity for unions and management to get together. The Minister has been in touch with the Minister in the Department of Social Protection both in respect of the access and the assessment of the free travel scheme, about which there was a perception that it was going to be taken away, which is not true. Obviously, the NTA itself has spoken out and guaranteed connectivity for areas in rural Ireland that would be affected by any change in the Expressway service.

I appeal to unions and management to use the facility available to them now, with the full support of the Minister and the Government, to work out a solution and an outcome in respect of the issue here. Nobody wants to see this happen. Unemployment is down to 6.6%. Our country is facing a number of challenges both internationally and in respect of Brexit. We do not want to see hundreds of thousands of people discommoded next week. As I said yesterday, 81% of people who travel on the Bus Éireann services do so where the service is professional, competent and carried out by very dedicated workers.

There is an issue, in that the State cannot, as the Deputy knows, directly subsidise the commercial arm of Bus Éireann, and that is an issue that can be dealt with, and will be dealt with, through the industrial machinery of the State, provided that people take up that option. The Government is fully supportive of the public service transport entity. We want to see that continue. This is an issue that needs to be dealt with and that is the place to deal with it. The Minister, Deputy Ross, has the full support of Government in setting out the opportunities for a conclusion to this particular serious dispute.

Change can be brought about, but not by standing away from the issues. It is for Ministers who own the company in the people's interest not to stand back and allow it to collapse. It is time for an intervention. If the Minister will not intervene, I will briefly raise the issue of funding. The Taoiseach will recall that, in the last budget while we were in office, we increased funding for the free travel scheme by €3 million. In this Government's budget in October, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, failed to provide any increase in funding for the scheme. An increase would indirectly assist the company.

The Department of Social Protection will make savings from the point that the Taoiseach just made, namely, the thankfully declining unemployment rate. Will the Government deploy a modest part of those savings to increase the subvention to the free travel scheme so as to increase it to something like the actual cost of provision?

That would ease the problem somewhat. If the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport will not do anything, will the rest of the Government try to assist in averting the destruction of an important company?

That is a valid point. The subvention, through the PSO, has been increased. This year it increased by 11% and last year it was 13%. Bus Éireann itself benefited from a 21% increase in the subvention in 2016. As Deputy Howlin is aware, that is provided for PSO services only and not for commercial services.

In relation to the free travel issue Deputy Howlin mentioned, the Minister, Deputy Ross, has had discussions and has written formally to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar. They have both instructed their officials to report back very quickly on their examination of the funding levels of that particular scheme. This is a very short, focused and prioritised piece of work and it is progressing very well. I understand that as soon as the officials report back, the Ministers expect to have discussions to resolve that particular issue satisfactorily. As I said yesterday, no amount of ministerial intervention will sort this out without the two sides having direct dialogue and the opportunity to do that lies with the WRC.

I am happy to note that the NTA has backed up what it said it would do in terms of assessing the connectivity and the requirements that might arise if the Expressway service is altered in any way. The PSO funding to Bus Éireann has been 24% for the rural transport programme. It is increasing. I am pleased the NTA has said we can cover connectivity for those areas that might be so affected. I appeal this morning to unions and management to get together, through the WRC, and see whether a solution can be reached. That will have the full support of Government. In respect to the analysis of the free travel scheme, both Ministers are working hard on the issue.

This day next week, 8 March, is International Women's Day. This year will be different because women all over the world will participate in co-ordinated actions against sexism and for reproductive rights. For the first time in history there has been a call for a global strike on International Women's Day. Participants are asked to strike, to either take a day off work or wear black, as I am doing today, and to assemble to demand rights that are being denied. There will be a huge focus on this country because the strike will centre on the need for repeal of one of the cruelest abortion bans in the world.

Three events will take place next week. On Monday, the Bus 4 Repeal will travel, providing access to safe medical abortion pills that are banned in this country but are considered essential medicine by the WHO. On Wednesday, the Strike 4 Repeal will assemble at 12.30 p.m. on O'Connell Bridge and a march for repeal will take place at 5.30 p.m., which is organised by the Coalition to Repeal the Eight Amendment. The coalition is made up of a huge number of groups, including the National Women's Council and others.

The Taoiseach's failure to hold a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment has been raised with him many times. It does not look like we will get anything different from his two potential replacements because there has been generational change in attitudes on abortion and while there will be generational change in the Fine Gael leadership it does not look like there will be generational change on abortion. The Taoiseach's two apprentices are old heads on young shoulders. They are still stuck in the past on this issue and neither of them believe in women's bodily autonomy, which means they are very divorced from the generation they represent. In Ireland, the movement's hashtag is "#wewontwait". The mantra from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and now the Independents is that women should just dutifully wait for the Citizens' Assembly to give its verdict but in the real world crisis pregnancies continue. Does the Taoiseach have advice for a young woman who sent a message to my Facebook page yesterday?

Please help me with advice if u can. I'm in a really really bad situation. I can't sleep at night with worry... I've taken so much time off work because all I do is cry... every day... It's destroying me and I feel so trapped... I'm at a dead end with this pregnancy. My partner was so violent and he's completely abandoned me.

What is the Taoiseach's advice to that woman? Is it to suck it up and wait for the Citizens' Assembly? Women and young people are not prepared to wait any longer for bishops to pontificate at the Citizens' Assembly, as they will next week. Young people who will march next week will not be told and tone policed. Why did it take only two and half years for the so-called pro-life amendment campaign to get a referendum that nobody wanted and that was sectarian and mediaeval but five years after the death of Savita Halappanavar in October 2012, we still do not have a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment? Can the Taoiseach tell us why that is?

The Deputy has given a long news broadcast about events taking place and she is entitled to do that. She seems to know something I do not know about numbers contesting some vacancy at some time in the future. She seems to have more detail than I do.

In regard to the young woman the Deputy said wrote to her, there is no reason for that young woman not to have assistance made available to her in respect of domestic violence, something she mentioned in her letter to the Deputy. She can have that assistance and support today and the Deputy should advise her that this is immediately available to her. She should not have to live in a situation where her partner is violent in the way described by the Deputy.

The Citizens' Assembly continues to meet and it has received 13,000 submissions in respect of the issues it must consider. Ms Justice Laffoy will report before the end of June. That has been and is a very worthwhile exercise. Clearly, it is a sensitive issue. The Deputy has her point of view. Many others may have a different point of view. It is only right and proper that the Citizens' Assembly, which the House approved, is entitled to consider its work and make its presentation to us here. In due course, the Oireachtas will deliberate on that and vote on whether or not there should be a referendum and if so, what that should mean.

The woman does not want to be pregnant and is looking for access to an abortion. She is not entitled to do that in this country. I want to make that clear. That is her decision - not the Taoiseach's decision or the decision of any of the lads beside him. The Citizens' Assembly is proving itself to be a very conservative talking shop from which anybody with a view is eliminated and is not even discussing the central issue of health as cornerstone and basis for any change on abortion in this country. It has not even got around to discussing it, which is incredible five years on from the death of Savita Halappanavar. The other issue about the Citizens' Assembly is that next Monday, a load of people, including bishops, will line up to tell women how they should feel about what is really a personal decision. International Women's Day will be very different. It is good that it is returning to the tradition on which it was founded, namely, struggle and working-class and ordinary people demanding their rights. It is very clear that things are going backwards for women under capitalism. Look at Donald Trump, etc. The women who took the contraception train - the Taoiseach was 20 at the time so he should know something about it - were also told that they were being shrill. They were told to tone it down and that their tactics were deplorable. Who would say now that they did not make a historic change? That is what will happen with the women and young people who will be marching next Wednesday.

I hope that the global events that will take place on International Women's Day will be significant in their own way. The agenda for the Citizens' Assembly is set by Ms Justice Laffoy together with the group. Obviously, it has taken into account a range of views. Those who appeared before the Citizens' Assembly have been invited to do so. People with different views have spoken and will speak to the assembly. I am quite sure it will discuss the question of health for women, which is so important, before it finishes its work. The Deputy indicated that the young woman who wrote to her cried every evening and night because of a domestic violence situation.

In her second comment, the Deputy made the point that the young woman wants to end her pregnancy. Abortion is illegal in this country, except in very specific circumstances. I do not have the details and it is not my remit to adjudicate on that. There is a very precise issue there in the law.

I look forward to the conclusions of the Citizens' Assembly. The House will deliberate on those in due course and Members will vote according to their conscience.