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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 14 Nov 2019

Vol. 989 No. 3

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Estimates Process

Barry Cowen


1. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform when Supplementary Estimates will be brought forward for 2019; the estimated amount required for Supplementary Estimates in 2019; the Departments that will require extra funding; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46823/19]

Deputy Cowen's Priority Questions are being taken by Deputy Calleary.

Since 2012, €6.3 billion has been brought forward in Supplementary Estimates. This is the time of year when such provisions are normally introduced. What is the anticipated figure for Supplementary Estimates for this year and the timeline for introducing those Estimates? In particular, what is the forecasted Supplementary Estimate for the Department of Health?

Expenditure Report 2020 outlined the requirement for Supplementary Estimates for a number of Votes in 2019. These supplementary provisions arise as a result of policy decisions, including the provision of a 100% Christmas bonus, and expenditure pressures, particularly in the health sector. At that point, it was estimated that the aggregate amount required for Supplementary Estimates would be approximately €660 million.

At this week's Government meeting, 11 Supplementary Estimates were agreed. With the agreement of the Business Committee, it is proposed that these Supplementary Estimates will be presented to Dáil Éireann next week for referral to the relevant committees, before returning to the Dáil to be voted on in December. Eight of the 11 are substantive Supplementary Estimates, namely, those relating to the Chief State Solicitor's office, the Department of Finance, An Garda Síochána, the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Army pensions, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The remaining three are technical Supplementary Estimates relating to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. The total amount being sought in these Supplementary Estimates is €204 million.

The expenditure report outlined that there would be a requirement for Supplementary Estimates in health, education and to fund Brexit-related expenditure to ensure the relevant authorities are in a position to carry out necessary compliance checks at ports and at Dublin Airport. The aggregate amount outlined in the report across these three headings is €450 million. It is planned to seek Government agreement for presentation of these Supplementary Estimates next week when the amounts required are finalised. In addition, any further Supplementary Estimates, which would be of a minor or technical nature, will also be finalised for next week.

As set out in the expenditure report, the main driver of the increase in the projected outturn for this year is health expenditure. The budget challenges for that sector relate to demand-led pressures in key service areas, primarily in acute hospitals, in both pay and non-pay areas, in services for older persons and persons with disabilities, and in hi-tech drugs, State claims and pensions budget lines.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He indicated that he has approved 11 Estimates for discussion in committee, including one relating to An Garda Síochána. Can he give a figure for that particular Estimate and indicate whether it will have an operational impact between now and Christmas, with particular reference to Border area policing?

In regard to the Supplementary Estimate for the Department of Health, the figure we have heard is €335 million. Is that sum correct and, if so, does it include the additional €27 million that is being announced today for the so-called winter initiative? There is an effective moratorium on recruitment in the health service at this time. The Government says there is no such moratorium but it is clear from talking to anybody who works in the sector that there is. When only one person has sanction on appointments in the entire service, it is a moratorium by another name. What level of appointments will be made in January to address the serious pressures on waiting lists and services around the country?

To give further context to where we are with the Supplementary Estimates, while they continue to be at a level which I want to see reduced further, they are significantly lower than they were a year ago. I said last year that a number of things which happened from September onwards would not be repeated, and they have not been repeated. Furthermore, the Supplementary Estimates for this year have been brought into our budget-day package for next year, as opposed to on top of it. Those Supplementary Estimates, excluding one or two technical matters, are in line with what I indicated on budget day.

The Supplementary Estimate for An Garda Síochána is €17.5 million. It is a substantive Supplementary Estimate as opposed to a technical one, which is required to meet the Garda overtime costs that accrued from the visits of the United States President and Vice President. It does not have any operational consequence and relates to the costs of an activity that has already happened.

In regard to health, the Supplementary Estimate is in line with what I indicated on budget day. No change beyond that is proposed. There is no moratorium on recruitment in the health service. Posts which must be filled or recruited for are ones that are budgeted for.

The Minister confirmed that the Supplementary Estimate for health will be €335 million. The parroting by the Government of claims of an increase in the health budget is not exactly true because that money will be taken out of next year's health budget.

The Minister says there is no moratorium on recruitment. In the case of an occupational therapist in early intervention services who is going on maternity leave, the Health Service Executive put in writing to me that it does not have the resources to cover that leave. That is a moratorium on recruitment. Maternity leave is something that is planned and envisaged but the health service does not have the resources to cover it.

That then impacts on children who need intervention at the very earliest stages of their lives. That is a moratorium.

The Supplementary Estimate, on which the Deputy's final question touched, includes some funding for the winter initiative plan. I clarify that point because the Deputy put that question to me. We are simply ensuring that the health service is recruiting for posts for which there is a budget. The total funding available to the Department of Health is at the very high level of €17.4 billion. Additional recruitment will take place next year due to the additional funding the health service has received. The Deputy is saying that we are taking the cost of the Supplementary Estimate out of the additional funding we are making available for next year. I am seeking to do a better job next year in order to respond to the charge the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council levied against me. I want to ensure that if extra money is put into the health service for this year, the service will be properly funded for next year.

Capital Expenditure Programme

Pearse Doherty


2. Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the capital projects that are to be delayed or deferred in the years of the National Development Plan as a result of cost overruns such as the national children’s hospital and National Broadband Plan, which the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council calculates could reduce funding for capital projects by as much as €17 billion; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47029/19]

Bríd Smith


4. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if the escalating costs of the national children’s hospital will require changes to his budget projections or to promised capital expenditure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46799/19]

The national development plan set out approximately €116 billion to be invested in capital projects in the ten years from 2018 to 2027. According to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, if the Government continues its trend of allowing major overruns on major Government flagship capital projects, the funding available to other capital projects will be reduced by as much as €2 billion per year. We can already see the impact of this issue with regard to the national broadband plan and the children's hospital. What capital projects, if any, has the Minister's Department identified for delay or deferral on the back of the enormous overruns currently being seen, as the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has indicated that capital projects will be squeezed by €2 billion per annum if this trend continues?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 4 together.

As I have previously indicated, I intend to provide the capital required to fund the additional cost of proceeding with the national broadband project from future revenues.  This will be done, and has been done, in the context of updating the overall capital ceilings set out in Project Ireland 2040.  This means that the decision to approve the appointment of the preferred bidder will have no repercussions for other planned projects within the national development plan, NDP. Additional costs in respect of the national children's hospital have been met this year by reallocating savings made in other sectors, within the overall national capital envelope.

The Deputy went on to refer to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. The council has carried out some analysis of the impact of cost overruns in its latest fiscal assessment report, which draws on domestic and international experience.  It is really important to note that we have not experienced cost overruns of €17 billion, nor is any such scale of overrun in prospect.  What IFAC has prepared is a technical projection of the situation if the very high cost overruns we experienced with regard to the national children's hospital were to be experienced on all major projects.

 As IFAC goes on to point out, Ireland is not alone in facing challenges in managing cost on major projects.  This is why Project Ireland 2040 seeks to reform how public investment is planned and delivered. It sets out a strategic vision for public capital investment and signals a shift to a greater integration of regional investment plans with local planning. It also involves a number of different bodies including a construction sector group, a delivery board, and an investment projects and programmes officer, who will oversee the delivery of the plan.

The Government's approach is extremely worrying. The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has shown that, under the Minister's watch, major capital projects, of which I have mentioned two, are running at 100% to 300% over budget. In respect of the national broadband plan, we are looking at an overrun of 500% for infrastructure which the public will not even own at the end of the day. That is an overrun of €2.5 billion more than was initially budgeted for in respect of this project alone. The overrun on the national children's hospital is close to 100%, double the original cost. That overrun represents nearly €1 billion. We will not know the final cost of that project until later in the year. This funding could be used to resolve the housing crisis, to build primary care centres, or to develop schools or flood defences but the Government seems to be absolutely asleep at the wheel when it comes to managing the public finances when it comes to large projects like this. What plans does the Minister's Department have for controlling cost overruns on major-scale projects in the future?

On the same question, I will particularly focus on the implications of the overrun on the children's hospital on other capital projects within the health service. In May of this year, the then acting director general of the HSE said that she had growing concerns about the capital funding position of the organisation and the emerging impact of the children’s hospital on its overall capital programme. I am particularly concerned about the delivery of the primary healthcare centre for the Drimnagh area that has been promised since 2014. This is an ageing population. We already have an Alzheimer's unit in temporary accommodation. The infrastructure for the service in this area is very poor and has been there for decades. We have been promised a primary healthcare centre since 2014. In the response to a recent parliamentary question to the Minister, I was told that: "It is important to recognise that all capital development proposals must progress through a number of approval stages" and that an application to extend planning permission for the primary care centre in Drimnagh had been made. The building was supposed to start by the end of November but nothing has started. An application has been made to the council to extend the planning permission. This is not good enough. The delivery of services to local populations is crucial.

Deputy Doherty asked me what we are doing to learn from the situation in respect of the national children's hospital, which I have said is unacceptable. We are in the final stages of revising our public spending code to ensure that the delivery of projects of huge scale is managed better than the delivery of the national children's hospital. He made reference to school projects, primary care centres and housing units. Let me tell him where we are in those respects. In 2019, 90 new school buildings were delivered. Some 127 primary care centres have been delivered and a further 11 are due to be delivered, open and looking after local communities and citizens this year. Beyond that, we have plans for a further 70 primary care centres to be delivered in local communities to enrich the healthcare provided. The Deputy referred to where we are in respect of housing. By the end of this year, 6,500 more social homes will be delivered. Things went wrong with the national children's hospital. These were unacceptable and we are addressing them but, as we are doing that, let us also recognise the progress that has been made in the very areas the Deputy called out. I will make the case for that progress in this House.

With regard to Deputy Smith's comments, which related to Drimnagh primary care centre in particular, I am not aware of the status of this project but I know that primary care centres and the facilities they offer make a big difference to local communities. I will find out where the project stands and the Minister for Health or I will write to the Deputy.

The Minister says that lessons have to be learned from past projects and talks about revising the public spending code, an issue to which I will return in a later question. I have outlined two projects, however, that are being funded by taxpayers' money, by fathers and mothers who are out working every hour they can get and paying their taxes. These people expect the Government to ensure that the revenue collected is spent appropriately. In these two projects, the overruns equate to €3.5 billion. There is an overrun of €2.5 billion on broadband and an overrun of €1 billion on the national children's hospital. There is no doubt that if these projects were managed properly that €3.5 billion could be used in areas which are starved of investment, the areas which I talked about. It could enhance the investment already being made in these areas.

The Minister talked about learning lessons. We know that the cost of the national children's hospital increased from €790 million to the current price tag of €1.73 billion. Can the Minister commit to the House that this price tag will not reach the €2 billion mark, as many of us in the House fear and have suggested?

Will the Minister categorically give that commitment to me and, more importantly, to those who pay their taxes and expect him as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to manage revenue appropriately?

I argue that no matter how many times or how I ask this question I do not receive an answer to it. I do not believe I will get one from the Minister either. The Government is attempting to use its ideological commitment to competition, competitive tendering and the free market, until the next general election, to disguise the fact that the way it does things, with its ideological commitment to free market mechanisms, has cost the State and the taxpayer way more and delivered fewer results. I ask this question specifically about the situation in Drimnagh. Why has it taken six years to deliver a primary healthcare centre to take the pressure off local hospitals such as St. James's Hospital and Tallaght Hospital? It will not be delivered because of the cost overruns and overspend on the national children's hospital project, the national broadband plan and so on. The Minister claims to be a good housekeeper and prides himself on his fiscal prudence. I argue that, rather than delivering the services that are required, he is driving nurses out onto the streets to strike. He has a preference for withholding an increase in the national minimum wage and favouring other ideological commitments and has done so. In this case he is depriving an entire community in Dublin 12 of the services they were promised and which they deserve.

The Deputy is running down the time available to her.

Deputy Pearse Doherty referred to hardworking families, hardworking mothers and fathers, the young children who were depending on schools being completed and hospitals being available to them, if needed. They are the very same people for whom we are seeking to deliver projects such as the national children's hospital and the national broadband plan. It is in order that young children can have access to the best surgery and if the sickest children need specialised care, they will have the opportunity to receive it in Ireland. We are looking to deliver the national broadband plan in order that children growing up in towns and villages will have the same opportunities as children living in parts of Dublin. That is why we are undertaking these projects.

The Deputy referred to where things had gone wrong. I want to name the projects we are delivering on time and within budget. They include the new road projects in Longford and the primary care centre projects on which I have touched, as well as the investment in water infrastructure, the kind of investment Deputies say they want to see, but, of course, they were against the way it was proposed to pay for it.

On the Deputy's question about the cost of the national children's hospital, I will not give any further indication of what the final cost will be until I have clear information available to me, but I have always said there is potential for the cost to change, given all that we have been through on the project. I will provide the information for the Deputy and the House when it is available to me, but the Deputy can be confident that we will do all we can to ensure good value for the taxpayer will be delivered, given the importance of the project and all of the lessons we have learned in relation to it.

I said I would try to give Deputy Bríd Smith an answer, but if she does not believe what I am offering, I will leave it to her to pursue the matter in other ways. She referred to ideology and the free market. We are having a debate about a public capital plan of more than €110 billion, under which we are investing the people's money to try to deliver better public projects for it.

Land Development Agency

Barry Cowen


3. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the acreage of State land managed by the OPW that has been transferred to the Land Development Agency for the development of residential units; the number of units that have been delivered; the number of acres that will be transferred to the agency in the near future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46825/19]

Tá an t-am le haghaidh Uimh. 2 agus 4 istigh. Rachaimid ar aghaidh go hUimh. 3 in ainm Teachta Cowen, atá á tógáil ag Teachta Calleary.

On 1 October Deputy Cowen asked a parliamentary question about the transfer of land from the OPW, one of the biggest holders of land in the State, to the Land Development Agency. This is a follow-on question to see what progress has been made since. Has the Minister met the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to discuss the legislation or the Land Development Agency? Given that the supply of housing is so critical and important and in such a mess, I hope there has been some urgency in moving on the issue of actually transferring land from the OPW to the Land Development Agency.

The Commissioners of Public Works are the title holders of the Central Mental Hospital site in Dundrum which is expected to be transferred to the Land Development Agency for residential development. The site covers around 13.35 ha and is currently leased to the HSE for use by the Central Mental Hospital. In August 2019 the OPW facilitated the Land Development Agency by giving formal consent to it to prepare its planning application for the site to be developed for housing purposes. However, the transfer of the site is subject to the legislation underpinning the powers and functions of the Land Development Agency being put in place by my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. In addition, the Land Development Agency is aware that any development on the site will depend on the relocation of the Central Mental Hospital to a new site in Portrane. I understand the HSE is working towards a target date of 2020 for the National Forensic Mental Health Service Hospital which will replace the Central Mental Hospital to become operational in Portrane. The site in Dundrum will have to be vacated by the HSE and the hospital before the Land Development Agency can begin substantial works.

Deputy Calleary said the supply of housing was in a "mess", but, in fairness, in recent years the Government has dealt with a mess it inherited and had to do a lot of work in that regard. While there are people on waiting lists for houses in local authority areas throughout the country, I assure the Deputy that I have met the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister of State, Deputy English, on more than one occasion and that any land available that is at our disposal will, in the first instance, be made available to the local authorities, the HSE and the Department of Education and Skills. In this case we have the site of the Central Mental Hospital which is to be transferred to the Land Development Agency.

I do not doubt the Minister of State's personal drive in that regard, but, word for word, his reply is virtually the exact same as the response given on Tuesday, 1 October. Today is 14 November. We are six weeks on, but nothing has been transferred to the Land Development Agency. I asked if the Minister had met the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to light a fire under him, something that needs to be done in moving to deal with the legislation related to the Land Development Agency. It is obviously a "No". This shows the lack of urgency within the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, especially when it comes to the supply of housing. We are offering a solution. The OPW is one of the biggest controllers of landbanks in the State. The land is very well situated and there is an obvious demand for affordable and social housing, as well as market-led housing, yet nobody within the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government seems to think the matter is urgent enough to put pressure on the Minister of State or the Minister to move on it. What other land is envisaged for transfer from the OPW for the provision of affordable and social housing? Is any progress being made in actually transferring land? As the OPW is one of the biggest landlords in the State, when does the Minister of State envisage that he will be in a position to see housing developed on State land?

The OPW is a huge property owner, but a lot of the land it holds incorporates heritage sites, monuments and castles. The Deputy has asked if we have further land to transfer. As I said, in the first instance, we make land available. It is then up to the local authorities and the HSE to decide whether they wish to acquire it. Some of our land has been transferred to local authorities and we have seen different projects taking place. In the case of other land, there have been no other requests received from any agency or Department because of where the land is located. In the past we have seen sprawling developments outside towns where there was no proper infrastructure or services provided to maintain them. We do not want to go down that road again in the supply of local authority housing. The Deputy will be aware that most of the OPW's land is in the wilds of Ireland and incorporates heritage sites which, in some cases, are not suitable for the housing developments proposed by him. As I said to him, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and I have met on a number of occasions. We have made available to him any land that he has requested us to transfer. I reiterate that some of the OPW's land does not meet the requirements for the supply of housing.

The Minister of State might provide me with a list of the lands that have been transferred from the OPW for housing development. I make the point again, as raised by Deputy Cowen on 1 October, that there is a housing crisis and that the Minister has had no interaction or contact with the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, in six weeks to discuss a solution that would provide a lot of hope and answers for those who who seek housing. It really sums up the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy's attitude to the problem.

I totally disagree with the Deputy. It is not just about transferring a piece of land in Dundrum. It is also about the transfer of a service to another site. There is ongoing dialogue between the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and my Department and with the Land Development Agency and it is not fair to say there is not. I have given the Deputy the dates and nothing has changed in that regard, but work has been taking place and it will happen.

Question No. 4 answered with Question No. 2.

Climate Change Policy

Thomas Pringle


5. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the role of his Department in 2019 and 2020 in the implementation of the Climate Action Plan 2019 for his Department and throughout Departments generally; if estimates of the net cost of the plan are available; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46785/19]

This question relates to the cost of implementation of the climate action plan. What is the Minister's view on it?

My Department has been assigned direct responsibility for the implementation of 18 steps across 12 separate actions under the Government’s climate action plan. These actions are due for completion in 2019 and 2020.

To give the Deputy a flavour of the actions already completed, my Department is looking at reforms to the public spending code that will require a more realistic cost of carbon to be used in all Government investment appraisals. A circular has been issued requiring all public bodies to consider the use of green criteria in how they purchase goods and services. I had a meeting about this yesterday afternoon. Additional carbon tax revenues have been ring-fenced for climate expenditure in 2020.

Before the end of the year, my Department will introduce a carbon offsetting regime for all Government air travel, issue guidance for Departments on the correct application of the public spending code and undertake an examination of the scope for funding climate initiatives through EU Structural Funds. My Department is also listed as a key stakeholder in the delivery of a further 20 steps across 11 actions in the climate action plan.

Regarding the net cost of the plan, the Government has agreed that the cumulative Exchequer costs of the commitments included in the climate action plan will be delivered though multi-annual ceilings and the funding commitments made in the national development plan. It includes more than €30 billion in investment to fund the transition to a low carbon and climate resilient society and initiatives in sustainable mobility. To complement this funding, the revenue raised from the €6 increase in the carbon tax in 2020 will be ring-fenced to fund climate measures next year. It will deliver an additional €90 million.

The Minister's response is interesting. I take it from what he has said that he wants to introduce a more realistic view of the carbon tax and that he does not believe the actual carbon tax is realistic, which is a very interesting Government statement. The reality is that €400 million of carbon tax revenue is not used for climate actions. Only €90 million of carbon tax revenue is actually used for carbon reduction projects, which is very worrying. It shows a lack of commitment on the part of the Government to ensure we will meet climate action targets and be climate resilient. During the week I heard that the Government had recently approved an increase in the PSO levy on gas to offset the cost of refurbishment of Bord na Móna's bogs. This has been approved by the Department and is very worrying because the carbon tax was supposed to do that, but here we have an additional tax on top of it, which is wrong.

I am not sure how the Deputy can make the claim from my answer that I am changing my thinking on the carbon tax. I did not say that in the answer I gave him. What I did say was that we were looking at the role of pricing in the context of the public spending code to ensure, for example, that we would better evaluate road projects against what might be a public transport alternative. In terms of carbon pricing, the approach I outlined on budget day still stands. It is absolutely my approach. The Deputy is making a point about how we will collect the €400 million in the context of carbon pricing and taxation. The Government has spent well in excess of €400 million on many schemes in recent years to respond to climate change and fund public transport and other changes in our society.

To respond to the point made by the Deputy about a recent Government decision to increase the PSO levy, I will have to check the position. I met the workers in Loughrea on Monday afternoon and they are clear - I understand why - that there is a need for funding and investment. We have committed through carbon pricing to help them in the very difficult transition that lies ahead for them.

There is no doubt that the transition will be very difficult for them, but it will also be difficult for citizens throughout the country. By increasing the PSO levy the Minister is targeting the most vulnerable citizens who must pay the levy. We have a carbon tax that is supposed to meet those requirements. There is no doubt that there is a need to fund the cost of the changeover for Bord na Móna staff. We have the mechanism for this with reference to the €490 million paid in carbon tax but now the Minister is introducing an additional PSO levy, although it may not be a new such levy. It may be a reconfiguration of the existing levy, but the fact that we are getting out of a PSO levy on turf burning should help to ease the burden on people and it should not be continued.

I believe - I will confirm it with the Minister, Deputy Bruton - that what we are talking about is making different use of the existing PSO levy. The Deputy sounds very like somebody who believes we need to make a transition to a low carbon economy and that we need to respond to climate change but is denying that there will be costs involved.

There will be costs involved. I do not know whether the format allows me to hear the Deputy's views on an increase in carbon tax, but if he is saying we can make the change to a low carbon economy without it involving changes for many citizens, respectfully, he is wrong. Even through what we have done on carbon pricing, we have put in place additional measures to try to support and protect vulnerable citizens on low incomes.

The rules of engagement are evident in what has happened. I thank the Deputies for their co-operation.