Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Carbon Tax Implementation

Pearse Doherty


67. Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the projected additional expenditure that will be committed to climate action measures; the way in which it will be ring-fenced for that purpose from an increased revenue from carbon tax; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39625/19]

Next week's budget, which is being brought forward by the Government and Fianna Fáil, is on course to increase carbon taxes on households. Research has shown that this tax is regressive. I am sure the Minister will not dispute that. Research has shown it will hit families on the lowest incomes hardest without effecting behavioural change. In next week's budget, how much additional expenditure will be earmarked for climate action measures and how will increased revenue from the carbon tax hike be ring-fenced?

The Government's climate action plan sets out ambitious savings targets across all sectors of our economy.

The Departments responsible for the achievement of those targets are incorporating and developing policies and measures required to reach them. As part of the work that is under way, we are evaluating what role carbon tax will play.

In response to the particular questions the Deputy put to me, I understand that a change in carbon pricing does in particular have an effect on lower income families and citizens. This is something we have to take account of in any decision that we make. In response to the Deputy's point regarding how such revenues would be used, my intention, if a move is made on carbon taxation, is that all the revenue raised from it would be used either to reinvest back into changing our economy or to deal with some of the social issues to which the Deputy referred that could be caused by a change in carbon pricing. The balance of expert opinion regarding the role of carbon pricing and carbon taxation is that they can play a valuable role in helping economies, families and businesses adjust to the kind of behaviours that we will need to deal with the risk of climate change. I am well aware of the concerns about this matter. Any change that I propose will be gradual and my intention, if such a change is made, is to reinvest it in order to deal with issues to which the Deputy referred.

I am glad the Minister is aware that the tax he is proposing is regressive. Let us remind ourselves of what the ESRI's June report stated in the context of carbon taxes. The author stated categorically, "Carbon taxation is found to be regressive, with poorer households spending a greater proportion of their income on the tax than more affluent households." The report goes on to state that an increase in carbon tax would disproportionately hit rural households, particularly rural households in the lowest income quartile. Most worryingly, it suggests that single households with children are going to be the most affected by the Government's policy, which is supported by Fianna Fáil. It states that while the tax should be borne by everyone, the cost is greatest for the poorest households, and that households living in older dwellings and low-skilled workers have larger costs. On Wednesday last, at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Climate Action, the Minister's officials categorically confirmed to my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, that this carbon tax proposal is regressive. That is a fact which cannot be disputed. A carbon tax increase will hurt those on the lowest incomes in Irish society and that is backed up in the research. Given that this is the case and given that the Minister said it would be ring-fenced for climate action measures, can he outline how his Department intends to ring-fence this increase? Can he outline whether he plans to ring-fence any of the €400 million in carbon taxes that we bring in every year? Can he outline if he has the necessary statutory instruments in place to ring-fence the moneys that will accrue from the carbon tax increase? What measures will this regressive hike in taxation next year likely fund?

When the Deputy refers to the views of experts, I will quote back to him the Climate Change Advisory Council, which refers to a rise in carbon tax as an essential component of achieving decarbonisation. That was the recommendation and view of the panel whose job it is to advise all of us on the kind of change we need in responding to the challenge of climate change. The Citizens' Assembly reached a similar view. The Deputy made reference to the view of the ESRI. I am well aware of the opinions it has put forward regarding the income effects of carbon tax. Reports from institutions like the ESRI have also contended that a change in the price of carbon is a way in which we will be able to change behaviour and make the kind of long-term changes that are needed for our economy to respond to climate change and for citizens to be protected when that happens. I am aware of the income effects for lower-income citizens. If, therefore, a move on carbon is made, I will be looking at how we can respond to that particular issue. I am committed to this being a ring-fenced fund. I am looking at ways in which I can give confidence to the House and to the people that it will happen if we do make a move on carbon taxation.

If the Minister is talking about ring-fencing this tax, does he have the necessary statutory instruments to allow him to do so? It has not been done before. Hypothecation is not done in the context of the tax code. We have heard the Taoiseach talking about how the money is going to be ring-fenced. Is it going to be ring-fenced? Does the Minister have a statutory instrument to ring-fence this tax for climate change measures?

The Minister knows as well as I that a Government can raise taxes to achieve one of two purposes, namely, raise more revenue, which is completely justifiable, or effect behavioural change. With carbon taxes, it should only be about behavioural change. The reality is that we already have a carbon tax which was introduced in 2015 and brings in €400 million per year. It has not effected behavioural change and the Government has remained a laggard when it comes to climate action. We can see that from the targets that we are missing spectacularly. Behavioural change requires investment. It requires alternatives. The reality is there is no alternative being provided by this Government. It is not investing the necessary resources that we need, for example, in terms of public transport, energy efficiency or retrofitting. People who are going to be hit the worst as a result of this measure, going back to the ESRI research, namely, those on the lowest incomes, families with poor insulation and families in rural communities, need to have the alternatives. This is simply penny-pinching from people's pockets without having due regard to actually creating the alteratives that should be there. Can the Minister answer some of these questions, particularly in respect of whether he has the necessary tools to hypothecate this tax?

Many of the issues that Deputy Pearse Doherty is raising can only be dealt with in the context of the decision that is made on budget day and in the finance Bill that will follow. I am confident that if the House does make a move on carbon taxation, we will be able to give clarity regarding how that is ring-fenced. That is what we would love to do. The Deputy made the point that taxes have two different purposes. I agree with him. If a move was to be made on carbon tax, my intention would be to use the revenue in that area to further drive the change to which he is referring. The other questions that he put to me I will be able to answer in the context of the finance Bill if this decision is made. I wonder in the debate that is under way if the Deputy might offer a view regarding whether he thinks the Climate Change Advisory Council is right or wrong-----

-----in the context of the role that carbon pricing can play.

Carbon pricing can play a very important role but only when the alternative is there for citizens to actually change behaviour. The problem is that someone from west Donegal or Gaoth Dobhair, where the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is from, does not have the alternative of jumping on public transport - either a bus or a train - and travelling to the capital city or other parts of the county. We need serious investment in public transport, retrofitting and the alternatives. That is where the Government is failing spectacularly.

Infrastructure and Capital Investment Programme

Peadar Tóibín


68. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the details of each State infrastructure project that is in development or is due for completion in 2019 and that is in excess of the budget assigned to the project for its current stage to date. [39522/19]

Ireland has rare form when it comes to overspending on infrastructural projects. There was the motorway network, Luas, the HSE personnel, payroll and related systems, PPARS, Dublin Port and now we have a national children's hospital and the national broadband plan coming in at an extreme cost. In 2016, the Taoiseach stated that, short of an asteroid hitting the planet, the national children's hospital would be finished by 2020. He estimated that it would take €670 million in order to complete the project. The figure is now north of €1.7 billion. The Government estimated that the national broadband plan would cost €500 million and now it aims to deliver broadband to a third fewer houses over a period three times longer at six times the 2012 cost. Why are we spending so much on infrastructural projects and how is the Government going to stop overspending?

Just to reiterate some of the points I made earlier, what we are doing is looking at changes that can be made in the public spending code that build on the experiences we have had in respect of the national children's hospital and the national broadband plan. The cost relating to the national children's hospital was got clearly wrong and the length of time involved in delivering a project of that scale was got wrong too.

I have acknowledged this in many debates in this House. In regard to the national broadband plan, the learnings are different. The national broadband plan went through the kind of appraisal and focus that it should do, and the Government made the decision in regard to going ahead with that project conscious of the risks and of the higher costs. We then shared that with the Oireachtas and I believe we are going to have a heightened debate about that in the coming weeks.

In regard to what we are doing to address issues like this in the future, it is why we are revising the public spending code and why we have a capital tracker that lays out where different projects stand. While the Deputy is correct to point out two big projects in which the cost of delivery went wrong and there was significant public concern, we have many different projects across the country, from primary care, to schools, to higher and further education and to roads, which are on time and on budget, and where different agencies are able to deliver big projects on track and in the way the Government expects.

There are two outstanding points with regard to how the general public sees this. The first is that people are shocked at the sheer scale of the financial damage done to the country and shocked at the scale of financial self-harm being wrought by the Government's actions. People see it in their local areas and their local schools that are being threatened with closures. They see the caps for simple services like home help for elderly people, the shutdown of disability services and the four-hour commutes they are making every day. They see that the pleas they make for extensions to rail lines to their towns are being scoffed at by Ministers, who say it is just not possible as money is not available. They see their own children suffering from the lack of mental health services, the 1 million people who are currently on hospital waiting lists and the 100,000 people who were on trolleys last year. They put that massive need in their own lives sitting beside the Government's financial self-harm and they simply cannot get their head around it. It is impossible for people to understand how they can suffer so hard in their own lives to try to get simple services for their families when the Government can be seen to squander such a level of money, and nothing happens as a result of it.

I have already acknowledged and outlined to the House on many occasions how the costs in regard to the national children's hospital and the national broadband plan will not impact on the kind of issues the Deputy is referring to. Deputy Cowen earlier asked how we are going to pay for these projects and I pointed out that, in the period from 2021 onwards, when the costs of these projects materialise, we have added the cost of these projects to the expenditure plans for Government Departments, so they are not affecting the issues the Deputy is raising. The Deputy referred to the commute times that citizens face. Surely the roll-out of the national broadband plan and ensuring that more homes have connectivity to high-speed broadband access is a way in which we can respond to that. The national children's hospital is not about delivering a building. It is about delivering better care and better services and supports to vulnerable children, the kind of citizens the Deputy has just referred to in his question.

The question asks for details of excessive spend on current infrastructure projects or those to be completed in 2019. There is an opportunity cost. If the Government takes money and puts it into one project, it has to come out of another project - it cannot just be developed out of thin air. There is an opportunity cost to the disasters that have happened under the Minister's watch. The Minister says something has gone wrong. If something has gone wrong, somebody needs to be made accountable for it. This is another issue people cannot get their heads around in this country. They cannot understand how a Minister can squander billions of euro of taxpayers' money and get off scot-free. People see in their own lives, in their work and in their clubs and community organisations that they themselves are held responsible on a daily basis yet, at the top of the decision tree in this State, it is an accountability-free zone. The Minister mentioned the public spending code that he has designed for the future. Is there any accountability in that code? If, for example, the disaster happened with the national children's hospital under the Minister's public spending code in the future, would it be the case that the Ministers who are responsible for the disaster are held to account?

Whatever the Oireachtas was across that period, it certainly was not an accountability-free zone.

The Minister was not held to account.

I do not know where the Deputy was across that period. I spent a lot of time in this Chamber, answering questions about the national children's hospital and the national broadband plan, as I should, given I am accountable to the House. I spent a lot of time in front of various Oireachtas committees, at which my role in regard to these projects and the decisions that I made were amply challenged by many Deputies.

In regard to broader accountability and what happened with the national children's hospital-----

With respect, that is not accountability.

Actually, accountability is putting questions to Members of this House and people who are in positions of influence, like myself, and my being held accountable to the House for them, which is what happened.

In regard to the national children's hospital, the Deputy will be aware there was change in regard to individuals who were in positions of responsibility across the period when the debate on the national children's hospital was at its highest. In terms of accountability beyond that, and in particular in regard to the national broadband plan, for those who think there is a cheaper and quicker way of delivering 100% coverage apart from this plan - perhaps the Deputy is one of them - the time is coming when they will need to spell out how that will happen. I can tell him that I spent the best part of a year trying to establish if that could be done and I reached the conclusion that the plan in front of us was, on balance, the best way of making it happen.

Brexit Expenditure

Pearse Doherty


69. Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the additional expenditure that will be committed for sector-specific mitigation measures in the event of a no-deal Brexit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39626/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett


89. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the areas of the budget he is planning to increase in view of the threat of a no-deal Brexit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39608/19]

The recent proposals by the British Government to impose a belt of customs checks on either side of the British border on our island is testament to the disregard it has for the peace process that has been built on this island but it is also probably a sign of its disregard for other matters. It is a wake-up call to businesses, given the impact on the economy and jobs as a result of a no-deal Brexit, if it is to come to pass, and we all know it is now more likely than it was this time last year. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, what expenditure is the Minister committing for mitigation measures in affected sectors and what will they be? I am asking this a week out from the budget because my understanding was that we had moved away from the "big bang" announcement. I am not asking the Minister to detail the measures; I am asking him to give us the fiscal parameters of the Brexit contingency measures which, in all fairness, would usually be in the spring statement and the summer economic statement, but we now have to wait for the "big bang" approach.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 69 and 89 together.

My intention is not to provide a "big bang" announcement. Whatever my last two budgets have been, they cannot be accused of being big bangs in terms of the changes we made from an expenditure, tax and social welfare point of view. The reason I am not in a position to tell the Deputy today what the resources are going to be for dealing with the consequences of a no-deal risk is that I am still working with the Ministers for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Business, Enterprise and Innovation and Transport, Tourism and Sport on it. What I have said is that in the event of a no-deal Brexit taking place, the funding in that regard will need to be additional to the budget framework we have outlined of €2.8 billion, plus any changes that can be made on top of it. I have outlined in the summer economic statement the kind of deficit swings that are possible for our economy to experience if we end up in the position of having to deal with this risk.

I am aware of all that. As I said, I am not asking for the Minister to itemise the measures or to give figures down to the cent. However, surely to God, despite the fact there are negotiations ongoing, the Minister can tell us whether the Brexit contingency fund he proposes to announce this day next week is in the region of €100 million, €200 million, €300 million, €800 million, €1.5 billion or €2 billion. Can the Minister give the House any indication of what scale he is looking at because it is required?

Sinn Féin has made it very clear today that it wants the money that is earmarked for the rainy day fund to be diverted into a Brexit stabilisation fund. This is not new; we have argued for it consistently with the Minister in recent years. It is a €2 billion fund that would be there to be drawn down, if necessary, to deal with the impacts of a potential no-deal Brexit. Can the Minister outline the scale of what is involved? Surely to God the negotiations over the coming weeks will not result in a doubling or quadrupling of the figure with which he is working. I refer to the discussion we had at the Committee on Budgetary Oversight regarding the concerns I raised about the rainy day fund. It cannot be used as per the legislation as drafted. I refer also to my freedom of information request and the response I received, which confirms this in the context of a no-deal Brexit. Is the Minister any closer to making a decision as to whether the €1.5 billion earmarked to be invested in the fund will go into it or whether he will reallocate those resources to deal with potential Brexit mitigation measures?

The Deputy is asking questions on which I have not yet even given the Cabinet a perspective because they are the result of the work we must do to get a budget ready. I will update the Cabinet on all that next week, when I have concluded my work with all other Departments. It is a matter for announcement on budget day. When I am in a position to inform the House of the scale of the fund, I will do so. That will be next week.

I wish to argue in favour of a big bang of increased expenditure and boosting people's incomes in the event of a no-deal Brexit. That might seem like a radical proposal-----

-----but 20 or 30 years ago it would have been considered ABC Keynesian economics. In the face of a possible serious disruption of the economy, whether as a result of Brexit or, for that matter, a looming recession, what Keynes, who was not a socialist, argued is that one should boost people's incomes, boost demand, boost spending power and boost investment in key strategic areas. As the Minister considers his options in the case of a no-deal Brexit, I argue that he should consider this and that Brexit should not become a new excuse for austerity because in the case of the last major disruption post 2008, austerity made a bad situation worse. What we need, if there is to be a serious disruption to our economy as a result of Brexit, is increased expenditure in the vulnerable sectors, protection of jobs through State intervention and the boosting of people's incomes. We should not hold back on supporting vulnerable sectors, and workers should not have their incomes held back when what we need to do is boost their spending power in order to keep the economy afloat against the possible contraction that could result from Brexit.

The Deputy refers to the potential return of what he calls austerity. Let me be clear that my plan for next week, as we conclude our position on the budget, is for continued day-to-day spending on public services to be maintained and that we will continue to spend more to ensure that our public services have the funds they need to hire teachers, to have the right number of nurses and to put in place the money our hospitals need to cope with the rising costs in respect of demographics. That will not change.

Regarding the supports Deputy Boyd Barrett outlined and the Keynesian approach to this, my point of view is that if we end up dealing with a no-deal Brexit, the economy will need an injection of demand and investment to help it deal with the effects that that would have on people's lives and working standards. We are trying to craft a set of supports that will allow families, businesses and farms to respond to that. I hope we do not have to use those supports because the political consequences of a no-deal setting, as Deputy Pearse Doherty noted, and the economic consequences are so serious. However, we need to be in a position that if it comes to that, businesses and citizens will have an understanding of what we will be able to do to respond.

I am a bit taken aback by the Minister's response. As stated, I am not looking for details in respect of the specific measure or the final figure; I am looking for a ballpark idea of his thinking on the level of investment needed for a no-deal Brexit. This would normally be set out in the summer economic statement or the spring economic statement, and the Minister is telling me he has not even discussed it with Cabinet. We are a week out from the budget and possibly within 31 days of a no-deal Brexit and he is indicating that he has not discussed the scale of support that would be required in that context, a context that will take approximately €6 billion off the general Government balance. I am absolutely staggered that none of these discussions are happening at Cabinet level and that none of his Cabinet colleagues is asking him the questions I am asking. I am very surprised by that and also very nervous about it. However, if the Minister cannot give me an answer, he cannot give me an answer. Perhaps he can answer the question about the rainy day fund. The legislation is very clear. His Department officials, in response to my freedom of information request, were very clear as well. The fund cannot be used for Brexit mitigation measures. Can the Minister confirm that the €1.5 billion that is earmarked to go into the fund by the end of the year and the €500 million already factored into budget 2020 will not go into the fund and will instead be redirected or held back in case we need the money in the context of Brexit?

I welcome the Minister's comment to the effect that he will not let Brexit become the new austerity, particularly as that would be absolutely the wrong approach. However, there have been certain signals that, for example, social welfare increases or boosts in workers' incomes might be held back in the event of a no-deal Brexit. I put it to the Minister that that would be a mistake. Even holding things as they are would in effect amount to cuts in real terms. Workers and the least well-off need their incomes increased, particularly in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

I have a suggestion for the Minister. I refer to the Wrightbus company, which is in trouble in the North. Against a background of needing to increase our electric bus fleet and transform and expand our bus fleet for reasons of climate change, if no other, and also in the context of no-deal and the difficulties that could arise, a very good gesture on the part of the Government would be to look at perhaps trying to push some work the way of that bus company in order to get some buses down here and enhance cross-Border trade in a key area while helping to save jobs in the North. It would be a useful gesture and a practical economic measure.

It is up to the National Transport Authority and Bus Éireann to decide where they will buy their buses. They must try to source buses at best value, and hydrogen and mixed-fuel buses are an awful lot more expensive than the buses they have traditionally had in the past. As I said to the Deputy, it is my intention that our day-to-day spending on our public services will continue to increase if we end up dealing with a no-deal Brexit. That is what we are seeking to do.

I have stated that our position on tax and social welfare will be very different from what it was in the past. We should be really careful about finding ourselves in a position in which we must borrow to, for example, cut taxes. If the country finds itself dealing with the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, potentially within weeks, and if we are to borrow, we must borrow to support our economy, help to keep people in work and intervene in particular parts of our country. That is what we will borrow for, and I will take great care to try to ensure that I do not make any further changes which might ultimately prove unaffordable.

Deputy Pearse Doherty knows that what I was referring to was the fact that budget day packages must be agreed by the Cabinet on the morning of the budget. Not a Cabinet meeting goes by without very extensive and lengthy discussions on Brexit. What I specifically said to the Deputy was that I am already engaged in lengthy discussions on no-deal supports with the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Transport, Tourism and Sport and Business, Enterprise and Innovation.

I will bring that to an end on budget day. Likewise, I will deal with the decision regarding the rainy day fund on budget day.

Public Sector Pensions

Bríd Smith


70. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will meet with representatives of retired public and semi-State workers (details supplied) to discuss their grievances about reductions and changes to their pension schemes in previous years which have not been fully restored ahead of the upcoming budget; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39615/19]

Will the Minister meet with representatives of retired public servants and semi-State workers to discuss their grievances about reductions in their pensions and changes to their pension schemes in previous years which have not been fully restored ahead of the forthcoming budget, and will he make a statement on the matter?

My officials and I have engaged with public service pensioners regarding public service pensions issues through meetings with the Alliance of Retired Public Servants, ARPS.

Over the past few years, the interests and concerns of public service pensioners have been regularly articulated in those meetings. Through this process of engagement, I believe that public service pensioners have had, and continue to be afforded, a meaningful and direct means of articulating their concerns on pensions and related issues. The Deputy should note that two of the three bodies mentioned in the details supplied are members of this alliance. It is my intention to make arrangements for further engagement with the alliance in the near future.

A number of developments are in progress that directly address pensioner concerns.

First, there has been a significant further lessening of the public service pension reduction, PSPR, which was imposed on pensions under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest, FEMPI, Acts. When fully in place from January 2020, the PSPR amelioration measures will mean that the vast majority of public service retirees, 97%, will be entirely free from the PSPR.

Second, for the duration of the current wage agreement the Government is committed to a conditions-bound return to the non-statutory pensions increase policy known as pay parity. This means that, in general, individuals who retired after 1 March 2012 will qualify for increases while, as the agreement progresses, a greater proportion of pensioners who retired before that date will also qualify.

The Minister has said publicly on a number of occasions that he would meet representative groups, but he has yet to do so personally. They have been in contact with the Minister recently to seek a meeting prior to the budget. The point, however, is that the right of these groups to be represented should not be based on the grace and favour of the Minister. It is not tea and sympathy they need, but workers' rights and the right to use the industrial relations mechanisms of the State. The protest outside the House today comprised representative groups of teachers, gardaí, fire fighters, local authority workers, workers from the ESB, CIE and so forth, people who served the State for all their adult lives. Some of them were children when they started at 15 or 16 years of age. They have been let down poorly by the Minister. First, they do not have the right to sit at the table when pay negotiations for public servants are taking place. They are often overlooked and sidelined. They are seeking industrial relations rights, recognition that they matter and to be able to explain and negotiate their case at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. Their second requirement is for the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman to recognise them as a collective, not just as individuals who take individual cases. They need that collective bargaining strength. Will the Minister do something about this?

I acknowledge the contribution that retired public servants have made to our country. I also acknowledge the fact that if one is a retired public servant, one does not have the options to increase one's income that somebody who is still active and working in the workforce has. Significant changes have already been made to public pension payments during the lifetime of this agreement. The levy or reduction that caused such frustration to so many pensioners is now in the process of being unwound. Depending on when pensioners retired, we have a policy in place, which is a consequence of the wage agreement, to gradually make payment increases available. I believe we are making progress on this matter.

Regarding whether I will seek to include retired public sector workers in the negotiation of collective agreements, that is not a change I plan to make. If we are dealing with public pay policy, it is only appropriate that we engage and work with those who represent people who are in work. However, when we are making decisions in this regard I always bear in mind the effect they will have on those who have retired.

The Minister talks about the consequences of the wage agreement. Certainly, the consequences of the wage agreement affected existing workers, but those workers will one day be pensioners too and the index with their work and pay has been broken. Has the index with the Minister's pension and his rights and pay been broken or is that just for the fire fighters, council workers, gardaí, ESB workers and those who served the State for many years of their lives? Consider the systemic nature of how pensioners have been treated in both the public and private sectors. In the public sector, in particular, there was an impression that they all had gold-plated pensions. In fact, it is Ministers and former taoisigh who have gold-plated pensions, rather than the ordinary workers. However, they have been consistently scapegoated, with their pensions and pension rights reduced. A number of measures must be taken. The one in which the Minister can have a key role is unlocking that break in the index with current workers, whereby their pensions are severely suffering as a result.

I am not scapegoating anybody.

I am not saying the Minister did. I said they were scapegoated.

Given the view the Deputy articulated regarding pensioners being scapegoated, it is only fair to outline my view on it. I recall that when I was dealing with this issue during the period in which the current wage agreement was being negotiated about two years ago I saw the average pension levels that are available to those who have worked for many decades in our public services. They are a long way from some of the higher value pensions that were the source of public debate and controversy some time ago. I am aware of the issues the Deputy mentioned. I will ensure that my officials meet the alliance in the future when we review where we are with this agreement and what might take its place in the future. I want to hear the views of retired workers with regard to decisions I might make in the future.

Office of Public Works Properties

Maureen O'Sullivan


71. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the relationship between a location (details supplied) and the OPW; his views on the location refusing permission for a group to perform there as part of a cultural event while allowing the group to perform in the past; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39474/19]

My question relates to the Convention Centre Dublin and the relationship between it and the Office of Public Works, OPW. What is the Minister of State's view of the fact that the location has refused permission to a cultural organisation to perform there? It is a cultural organisation that performed there a couple of years ago.

The Convention Centre Dublin, CCD, is a public private partnership, PPP, project developed on a design, build, finance, operate and maintain, DBFOM, model. Construction was completed in 2010 when it opened for business. In return for a monthly unitary charge, an independent company operates the CCD under the provisions of a project agreement that will remain in effect until its expiry in 2035. The primary objective in developing a national convention centre, as set out in that project agreement, is: "... to increase Ireland’s share of the international conference market, thereby increasing import tourism revenues. The main measure of the NCC's success will be the extent to which it succeeds in contributing towards meeting this objective".

The project agreement sets annual targets for international conference delegates. Failure to achieve targets set under the project agreement results in financial penalties for the operators.

The OPW does not have a role in commercial matters relating to bookings or in the day-to-day operation of the CCD. The property is held by the operator under a legal agreement for an operational period of 25 years and, accordingly, any issues relating to the use of the premises are properly dealt with by the facility operator.

In this regard, it is noted that the chairman of the CCD issued a comprehensive response to the group in July 2019 setting out his reasons for not hosting the event.

I do not know if the Minister of State saw that comprehensive response, but I did and I would not call it comprehensive. I will outline the background to this. In either 2014 or 2015 I attended a performance by the Shen Yun Performing Arts in the convention centre. It was there for two years. It was a stunning and spectacular performance of Chinese classical dance with an orchestra and traditional Chinese costumes.

The group applied in March 2018 to have a repeat performance at the convention centre but was turned down. Yet, in February last year the Confucius Institute held a cultural event in the centre and no later than June last year I attended an event there celebrating 20 years of Chinese-Irish diplomatic relations organised by the Chinese embassy. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, was also in attendance. It was a cultural event with Chinese music and dancing, yet Shen Yun has been refused permission to perform in the centre, even though it had performed there on two previous occasions.

A similar scenario arose at the Palais de Congrès in Paris where Shen Yun was initially turned down under pressure, it seems, from the Chinese Communist authorities. However, the Palais de Congrès told the Chinese authorities that everybody was welcome. The conclusion I come to is that this particular group is being discriminated against at the behest of the Chinese embassy and authorities.

The Deputy is correct in saying that the convention centre previously hosted Shen Yung shows in 2014 and 2015. The operator is now focusing on its core business of attracting international associations and corporate entities to host conferences in Dublin in the centre. I am advised that since January 2016, it has only hosted two ticketed public performance arts shows. This is in line with its contractual obligations and it is a matter for the management of the centre to make judgments in this regard.

The centre also plays host to community groups, as the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, who represents the same constituency as me, will know. The centre allows community groups to use its facilities. Management is being very selective in the answer it has provided to the Department. The centre is State funded and has an agreement with the Department but it reflects very badly on the Department if one particular group is being discriminated against. This group has performed in over 150 cities around the world in prestigious venues like the Kennedy Centre in Washington, the Lincoln Centre in New York and the ICC in Birmingham as well as theatres in London, Berlin, Milan, Barcelona and Rotterdam. The convention centre in Dublin is an ideal venue for this group, such is the number of performers involved.

There is another agenda at work here. I hate to say it and I hope I am wrong but I cannot come to any other conclusion. This group performed in this venue on two previous occasions. It is not as if the centre is full 365 days a year with conferences. I live nearby and pass the centre twice every day so I know there are times when it is empty. This particular event would bring a lot of people into the area, as it did previously, and would be good for tourism, hotels and so on. I ask the Minister of State to go back to Mr. Dwyer because his answer was not comprehensive.

I will go back to Mr. Dwyer and seek a more detailed answer.

Public Procurement Regulations

Pearse Doherty


73. Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the extent to which his Department has issued guidance notes or made provision for the exclusion of economic operators in procurement procedures for public contracts in circumstances in which the economic operator has shown significant or persistent deficiencies or failures in the performance of a prior public contract; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39623/19]

Our public procurement system is in need of urgent reform. We need a system that is green, promotes social justice and facilitates local wealth building. We need a procurement model that avoids the spending scandals that we have seen under this Government, most notably in relation to the national children's hospital and the national broadband plan. What provisions has the Department of Finance made, such as guidance notes or systems, to exclude contractors from public contracts if they have shown persistent failures in previous contracts awarded?

Public procurement in Ireland is governed by EU procurement directives and national legislation. Public bodies are obliged to act in accordance with these rules and must respect the general principles of EU law, including non-discrimination, the free movement of goods and services, equal treatment and proportionality and transparency in awarding public contracts. They must also ensure that procurement transactions and decisions are fair and equitable and deliver value for money.

Public procurement procedures require applicants to meet certain standards when applying for public contracts. The criteria upon which contracting authorities may exclude applicants from the award procedure of public contracts are set out in the directives and in corresponding national legislation. In addition, information on the circumstances in which a contracting authority may exclude applicants can be found in Public Procurement Guidelines for Goods and Services published by the Office of Government Procurement. These guidelines were updated in January 2019.

The circumstances that would lead to exclusion on the grounds of poor past performance are significant or persistent deficiencies in a prior public contract. Deficiencies must be material and have led to termination, damages or other comparable sanctions. A contracting authority cannot be merely dissatisfied; it must have taken steps to deal with the poor performance at the point at which it became evident by applying the provisions of the contract, up to and including termination where necessary. Where a contract has been terminated or damages successfully applied, a contractor may be excluded from subsequent tender competitions for up to three years from the date of the termination or the application of damages unless the contractor can demonstrate that it has taken the steps necessary to remedy its performance.

Earlier this year, a construction firm, Western Building Systems, was awarded a contract to deliver a 60-bed modular ward extension at University Hospital Limerick. The same construction firm was found to be responsible for structural defects in many of the 42 new schools that have been built in recent years. In August, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, said that structural flaws had been identified in a further 17 school buildings which would require temporary works to be carried out in the following weeks. All of the funding for this is coming from the pocket of the taxpayer. Asked why this firm won the contract for the ward at University Hospital Limerick, the Minister for Health said that Ministers in Departments do not have a role in the procurement process, which has to be run in accordance with very strict national and EU laws. The Minister for Health does not seem to understand EU regulations or the procurement process because section 56, paragraph 8 of the European Union (Award of Public Contracts) Regulation, which was transposed here in 2016, is very clear. It says that a contracting authority may exclude from participation in a procurement procedure any economic operator "where the economic operator has shown significant or persistent deficiencies in the performance of a substantive requirement under a prior public contract". Given the evidence that we have regarding the widespread defects related to this contractor, why under God did the Government not apply this provision and exclude it from bidding for and being awarded a further public contract to build a modular hospital extension?

The Deputy knows it is not the role of individual Ministers to get involved in determining who gets what work within the State. It is the role of independent authorities to determine the successful applicants in the bidding process and to decide who is best able to carry out the work. If I was determining who gets what work in this State, work that is often very valuable, Deputy Doherty knows it would create a whole other set of challenges and difficulties of which he would be rightly critical. In my answer to Deputy Cowen earlier I said we are examining if it is possible to make a broader assessment of whether work carried out by a company would influence other work it might get in the future. At all times, we must be mindful that companies might have difficulties with one project but might be successful in delivering many others. My recollection of the great difficulties that happened with school projects and school buildings earlier this year is that the Minister for Education and Skills and his Department went to great lengths to ensure the taxpayer was protected in dealing with the issues identified.

This should simply never have happened. We have a company here which was involved in serious deficiencies in building schools where our children are educated. It went on to bid for and was awarded a contract to build a modular extension to University Hospital Limerick. The rules are very clear. I have read them aloud. The European Union (Award of Public Contracts) Regulation, which was transposed here, is clear that we can exclude a company where it has shown "significant or persistent deficiencies" in the performance of a substantive requirement under a prior public contract. A failure to understand a paragraph of the regulation is not an excuse for the Minister failing to implement this. The Government must deal with this promptly. The provisions are there to protect the public purse and to make sure that entities awarded contracts for capital projects can fulfil those contracts and that we learn from past experience.

My party has also tabled the Regulation of Tenderers Bill 2019, which would contribute to this end by excluding abnormally low tenders from the procurement process. This reform was introduced by my party in the North and was updated in 2016. All of this is permissible under European law. As the Minister in charge of this area, will the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, ensure that these provisions, which are allowed under European law, are introduced and robustly implemented?

I referred to this earlier on. I am currently involved in reviewing the public spending code. I am looking at whether a different balance needs to be struck. I assure the Deputy that I am well aware of, and understand, all of the things we need to deliver in procurement policy. While I have acknowledged previously, as I have this afternoon, that which we have got wrong in respect of the national children's hospital and national broadband plan, many other projects across the country are being delivered on time and on budget. We have many examples of our procurement policy working very well. We are reviewing the public spending code in respect of very big projects. When I publish the public spending code in a few weeks' time, I will be in a position to update the House further.

Cúrsaí Oidhreachta

Catherine Connolly


72. D'fhiafraigh Deputy Catherine Connolly den Aire Caiteachais Phoiblí agus Athchóirithe cén dul chun cinn atá déanta ó thaobh réiteach a fháil maidir leis na fadhbanna páirceála atá ann gar d’Ionad Oidhreachta Dhún Aonghasa, Árainn, Contae na Gailllimhe; agus an ndéanfaidh sé ráiteas ina thaobh. [37932/19]

Gabh mo leithscéal as a bheith déanach.

Bhí an Teachta ag teacht isteach an doras.

Tá ceist dhíreach shimplí agam. Cén dul chun cinn atá déanta ó thaobh réiteach a fháil maidir le fadhbanna páirceála gar don suíomh oidhreachta seo? I have ten seconds, so I will say it again in English. It is a very simple question. What progress has been made in respect of the provision of parking facilities beside Dún Aonghasa on the Aran Islands? I am not sure why it is within the Minister of State's remit, perhaps it relates to the Office of Public Works brief, but I would really like an answer.

Tógfaidh mé an cheist seo ar son an Aire Stáit, Teachta Moran. I lár mí Iúil, dhún úinéir na réadmhaoine an limistéar páirceála ag ionad cuairteoirí Dhún Aonghasa ar feadh cúpla lá, mar gheall ar imní árachais, is cosúil. Tar éis roinnt idirbheartaíochta, d’aontaigh Oifig na nOibreacha Poiblí, OPW, téarmaí cheadúnas sealadach leis an úinéar, rud a thug cumas don OPW ceannas a ghlacadh ar an láthair agus é a ath-oscailt le cinntiú go raibh rochtain ag an bpobal le linn tréimhse gnóthach an tsamhraidh déanaigh. Tá sé socraithe freisin ag na buíon go dtabharfaidh siad faoin gceadúnas sealadach seo a aistriú go léas foirmeálta, i ndiadh tuilleadh idirbheartaíochta agus aontú maidir le roinnt ceisteanna áirithe.

Ta sé ar intinn ag an OPW, nuair atá lán-smacht dlíthiúil trí léas fad-téarmach aici, agus le comhaontú an úinéara, oibreacha feabhsúcháin slándála pleanáilte a chur i gcrích laistigh den limistéar páirceála. Tiocfaidh an bóthar isteach, atá i seilbh príobháideach chomh maith - agus áit a bhfuil, dár leis an OPW, roinnt guaiseacha ann faoi láthair - faoi bhráid na n-oibreacha slándála seo chomh maith. Déanfaidh an OPW iarracht, le linn an tógra seo, an imní atá ar roinnt den lucht úsaidte a réiteach agus beartaíonn sí go n-eagrófar comhairliúchán poiblí a thabharfadh deis do chuile pháirtí a dtuaraimí a chur in iúl.

I dtús báire, ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil an t-ábhar seo ardaithe go minic ag mo chomhghleacaí, an Teachta Éamon Ó Cuív, freisin. Níl cóip den fhreagra sin agam ach, de réir mar a thuigim, tá beagáinín dul chun cinn déanta. Is é an rud a chuireann imní orm ná nach gcloisim aon dháta. Beidh tús le próiseas comhairliúcháin agus beidh tús le rudaí eile, ach cén t-am? Tá sé ardaithe agam agus ag mo chomhghleacaí cheana anseo. An bhfuil an tAire Stáit ag rá go soiléir go bhfuil dhá rud i gceist? Tá talamh faoi sheilbh Oifig na nOibreacha Poiblí, agus tá réiteach maidir leis sin, ach is talamh príobháideach é an talamh eile. Tá an Roinn i mbun cainte chun an talamh sin a fháil faoi léas nó é a cheannach. An féidir leis an Aire Stáit soiléiriú a thabhairt dom?

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil an-suim aici agus ag na Teachtaí eile sa dháilcheantar, go háirithe an Teachta Ó Cuív, san ábhar seo. Tá a fhios againn an tábhacht a bhaineann leis an ionad cuairteoirí ag Dún Aonghasa. Táimid ag caint faoin talamh príobháideach a fháil ar léas fad-téarmach. Is é sin atá ráite ag an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Moran. Tá géarghá ann aghaidh a thabhairt ar staid an tsuímh faoi láthair. Tá trapanna capall, coisithe agus rothaithe ar fad ag úsáid an bealach isteach agus an spás páirceála céanna gan aon idirdhealú soiléir idir na dreamanna éagsúla. Tá baol sláinte agus sábhailteachta ag baint leis sin. Caithfear ceansú ceart a chur i bhfeidhm. Sin an fáth go bhfuil an idirbheartaíocht seo leis na páirtithe uilig chun teacht ar réiteach ar an bhfadhb seo ag dul ar aghaidh. Is dul chun cinn suntasach atá fógartha inniu ag an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Moran.

Glacaim leis go bhfuil dul chun cinn déanta agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as sin. Bhí mé ar na hOileáin Árann ar feadh seachtaine i mí Lúnasa. Seo ceann de na hionaid oidhreachta ba mhó tóir air sa domhan. Bhí breis is 130,000 cuairteoirí ann an bhliain seo caite. Tá sé admhaithe ag an Rialtas go bhfuil géarghá ann chun réiteach a fháil. Molaim an tAire Stáit as an dul chun cinn ata déanta ach arís tá easpa spriocdháta ann. Cén uair a bheidh an fhadhb réitithe? Tá an suíomh oidhreachta seo an-tábhachtach. An féidir leis an Aire Stáit dáta a chur leis sin? An mbeidh sé sé mhí eile, nó bliain eile? Cad é an spriocdháta?

Nílim ar an eolas faoin dáta sin. Tá súil agam go mbeidh an tAire Stáit, an Teachta Moran, sásta casadh leis na Teachtaí go léir ón dáilcheantar sin chun an cheist sin a phlé chomh luath agus is féidir. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil an-suim aige san ionad seo. Bhí mé i dteagmháil leis an Teachta agus leis an Teachta Ó Cuív faoi na rudaí seo. Sílim go mbeidh an tAire Stáit sásta cruinniú a eagrú chomh luath agus is féidir chun na rudaí seo a phlé.

Public Services Card

Jonathan O'Brien


74. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the consultancy fees paid to date by his Department for the promotion and roll-out of the public services card in the public service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39593/19]

We move on to the last question, which Deputy Pearse Doherty will ask on behalf of Deputy Jonathan O'Brien. I ask the Deputy to forfeit his initial 20 seconds. The Minister will answer and then the Deputy may ask one question.

As the Deputy is aware, the public services card is a means of assisting the delivery of public services to the people who need them in a safe and efficient manner. It was brought about to ensure personal data is protected and to ensure people get access to public services safely, securely and efficiently.

In January 2017, my Department launched a public communications campaign for both the public services card and MyGovID. The primary objectives of that campaign were: to improve public awareness, to highlight services, and to let people know about the card itself and the detailed information on it. The campaign was delivered on radio, online and through print channels and the cost across the period was €205,440. This included the design and creation of all the creative content, the media strategy and media-buying aspects of the campaign.

In addition, in February this year, a further communications campaign was undertaken in relation to MyGovID. The aim of this campaign was to drive public awareness of the MyGovID online platform and the many benefits associated with it. The campaign was delivered on radio and online channels and the cost of the campaign was €99,669. These campaigns have been successful as the number of verified MyGovID accounts now exceeds 390,000.

The Minister has been a cheerleader for the public services card. He has encouraged people to avail of it as a means of access to other public services in the areas of transport, passports and many others. We have heard of the willingness to spend public money on promoting that idea. The Minister is, however, in a sticky situation. The Data Protection Commissioner has expressed in three of her main findings that there was no legal basis for persons to be required to obtain a public services card in order to transact with a public body other than the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. The commissioner has put the Minister firmly in the dock in that regard. She has also said that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection was in breach of data retention principles by keeping all data indefinitely and that the Department has been insufficiently transparent with the public in respect of the roll-out of the card. On one hand, the Minister is willing to spend taxpayers' money on challenging the Data Protection Commissioner's findings while on the other hand he will end up funding the commissioner to take this case on the other side.

The new national childcare scheme opens for applications on 29 October. No parent can apply for this scheme without a public services card.

This is despite the Data Protection Commissioner's decision that there is no legal basis for this requirement and it being deemed illegal by the commissioner. Parents who do not have a public services card will have no choice but to wait until January when written applications can be made. Why did the Department interject when a secondary method to apply for this scheme was to be provided for parents? At the insistence of the Department, this proposal was dropped by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Will the Minister explain this, given that the Data Protection Commissioner has deemed that there is no legal basis for leaving parents with only one option as regards the form of identification they can use to apply for the scheme?

My good colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, is working on ways to ensure that families and parents will be able to access the national childcare scheme. The Deputy referred to me being in the dock on this matter. I fully understand the views of the Data Protection Commission, an institution which I take seriously. In each of the budgets that I have introduced, I have made more resources available to the commission because it is an important organisation for the management of information, both for the private sector and Government. I have taken a different view on the role of the public services card following legal advice that has been made available to me. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, and I did not take lightly the decision we made to offer a differing view from that of the Data Protection Commissioner. This was done after we obtained legal advice on where we stood, which left me satisfied that the card has robust legal standing and that the appropriate course was to make clear that we take a different view from the commissioner on this issue. I know the commissioner has spoken to the Oireachtas about the issue and indicated the course of action she is likely to take.

Will the Minister outline why his Department insisted that a second form of access to the national childcare scheme be dropped, leaving parents with only the public services card as a means of accessing this scheme?

We believe that we are on solid legal foundations in using the public services card as a way to help citizens to access services efficiently. Encouraging greater use of the public services card over time will lead to more convenient and efficient ways in which families and citizens can access public services.

It is not very convenient for parents.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.