Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Public Spending Code

Pearse Doherty

Question:

6. Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform when the reviewed and revised public spending code will be published, in view of repeated overruns in large-scale capital projects; the way in which it will address the deficiencies; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46895/19]

The Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Mr. Robert Watt, recently acknowledged that the State had a problem in delivering large capital projects at a cost of more than €100 million. He said a new public spending code was needed to address cost overruns on projects costing more than €100 million and that it was to be published in the following weeks. He said this two months ago and we still do not have it. What is the status of the code? When will it be published? How will it address the deficiencies we see in the runaway costs of Government projects?

The majority of recent projects have been delivered on time and within budget. There is a high level of professionalism in public investment across the various sectors. Ireland's public investment management systems are not static. They are regularly reviewed. In that context, my Department has been engaged in intensive work to update the public spending code. We have had a consultation process involving more than 150 public officials, a review of international best practice and consultation with the OECD and the European Investment Bank. We have also incorporated lessons learned in Ireland, including on the national children’s hospital project. The Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform was merely reiterating what I had said on many occasions about truly mega projects such as the national children's hospital.

The key changes will look at greater clarity on governance, roles and responsibilities, better decision points for projects above a certain level, a requirement to update the business case for a proposed project after tender and increased transparency through the publication of business cases and evaluation reports. The technical guidance on these central elements will be made available next year. With regard to the timing, I anticipate that I will be able to conclude this work once the Finance Bill is passed in the Dáil next week. This has been my main area of focus for the past month.

The public spending code highlights the need for more structured scrutiny of major public investment projects. My Department is developing a new assurance process for major projects with a cost of more than €100 million, with the aim of having it in place next year.

It is clear that a new public spending code is required. It has been required for a long time, but I am still no clearer on when it will be published. The Minister has said he will give it his attention after the Finance Bill is passed.

Two months ago, its publication was promised in the next number of weeks. I am sure that Mr. Robert Watt knew there would be a budget and a finance Bill.

The Minister told me that I should have confidence in what the Government was doing with large-scale projects, but I have no confidence in what it or, indeed, he is doing. Standing in Dáil Éireann, he cannot give assurances to Deputies and the people that a runaway project, one that has gone from €650 million in 2015 to €1 billion in 2017, €1.5 billion this time last year and €1.7 billion now, will not reach the €2 billion mark. He is out of his depth when it comes to reining in major capital projects, and this is just one example. It is the same with the national broadband plan.

I thank the Deputy. The Minister to respond.

Will the Minister indicate when the public spending code will be published and whether it will in any way, shape or form apply when trying to ensure that the projects under way are not allowed to absorb more taxpayers' money?

The Deputy is eating into the time for his next question.

Let me tell the Deputy about the kinds of project that have been delivered on time and on budget and are making a difference to communities the length and breadth of our country, but about which we will never hear any acknowledgement from him or Sinn Féin more widely - the N11; the Tralee bypass; the Gort-Tuam road; the Belturbet bypass; the infrastructure upgrade of our Luas; the north Dublin sewerage scheme; the Carrigtwohill wastewater treatment plant; and the water investment in Lismore, County Waterford. Such projects all over our country are delivering good value for the taxpayer and making a difference to our citizens' standard of living.

I have acknowledged many times what went wrong with the national children's hospital, but I am not going to give the Deputy an assurance that I am not absolutely confident I can stand over and defend before the House. When I have those figures, I will do that.

I thank the Minister, but we are over time.

Equally, we are resolute in ensuring in the decisions that are still available to us that value is achieved and improvements are made in how the children's hospital is delivered.

I have given the Minister latitude because I gave Deputy Doherty latitude. The Deputy has 30 seconds for his final question.

When will the Minister be able to give us an assurance? When will he have the figures? This has been going on on his watch for four years. The project has increased by more than €1 billion, yet he somehow takes offence at my questioning him about an overrun that is continuing to escalate on his watch. I am entitled and right to ask these questions on behalf of taxpayers. I would not be doing my job if I did not. When will he be able to stand in this Chamber and tell us that the project will not exceed the current estimate of €1.73 billion? When will the public spending code be published and will it apply in any way, shape or form to the major runaway projects that he has overseen, namely the national broadband plan and the national children's hospital?

I assure the Deputy that I do not take any offence at what he says. While finding him professional and on top of all the detail every time I deal with him, that is always mixed with continual rage towards me. I do not take any offence at that because I am focused on trying to ensure that we can learn from what went wrong and make improvements where possible while also laying out in a composed manner the projects that are delivered by the taxpayer, through this Government, that make a difference to the lives of citizens. Given the time the Deputy has put into the Finance Bill, as he can see me doing, he will understand that I want to see it concluded. I anticipate that we will publish the public spending code by the end of this year, which will take effect for all decisions that are yet to be made.

When can the Minister give a commitment that it will not exceed €2 billion?

Níl tú ábalta an cheist sin a chur. Tá an t-ám críochnaithe.

In fairness, I asked the question three times. The Minister will not give us a timeframe for when he can give a commitment that the project will not escalate further.

I am sure the Deputy can submit a further question on another day.

Budget 2020

Barry Cowen

Question:

7. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his views on whether there has been an under-provision for demographics in 2020 in view of the fact the new demographics provision in the, Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service, IGEES, analysis is €511 million; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46824/19]

Is the Minister concerned that there has been an underprovision for demographic changes in 2020, given the new demographics provision in the IGEES analysis? The IGEES estimates that €511 million will be needed to cover demographic changes in 2020.

Each year, there are certain categories of expenditure that are treated as pre-committed for the purposes of the Estimates process. In shaping the allocation of resources in budget 2020, these included demographics, public service pay agreements, the carryover of certain budgetary measures and the capital expenditure increases under the national development plan. For 2020, that figure was €451 million, which was allocated in the pre-budget process.

During the Estimates process, a detailed discussion on all expenditure drivers, including demographics, takes place. The figure for 2021 will be €455 million, as it will be for 2022. These are outlined in an IGEES paper, which the Deputy touched on, that examined what these figures would be up to 2027. That paper was updated as part of the budget 2020 process.

We need to keep this matter under review. One of the issues that I am increasingly aware of is that we traditionally view demographics through the lens of the effect that ageing will have on society, both in terms of the number of births and longer lifespans. Now, however, the consequences of both factors are arising across more areas of Government expenditure than just, for example, social protection and education. That people are living for longer has consequences for health expenditure and the end-of-life supports that are required. When examining these matters, I want the next Dáil to assess those demographic figures in light of my experience in budget 2020.

I thank the Minister for his response. The IGEES report is interesting. I am conscious of the students in the Public Gallery who might be wondering why we are talking about demographics and what is important about them, but the Minister touched on the reason in his response. It is a question of how his Department and the Government are trying to consider the various age groups' impact on how the Government plans to spend its money in the years to come. There are some interesting facts. In 2016, the largest population age cohort was between 35 and 39 years. Pretty much all of them would have been working, fit and well. However, estimates for the 2031 population pyramid set the largest cohort at between 50 and 54 years.

Just six weeks ago when the Minister was preparing for the budget, he did not anticipate that there would be any significant change in his plans as they related to demographics. That change has turned out to be an underestimate of €60 million. He did not anticipate that change.

Did the Deputy say it was €60 million?

It was €75 million, actually. Will the Minister explain how that came about and how he was surprised, given his previous answer a month ago?

Indeed. Turning to the Deputy's point on the impact of demographics, the life expectancy of women in Ireland was 83.3 years in 2015 while it was 79.3 years for men. That was a large and welcome change compared with where we were a number of decades ago, but it all has consequences for the pre-commitments we need to make.

As to how this affects the budgetary process, between early September and early October, I have countless meetings with colleagues in government and the many civil servants who work with them. They make the case that our ability to fund day-to-day services needs to be increased.

In my experience, having done this over a number of years, when these figures are challenged or interrogated, there tends to be an increase in the provision that we need to make but it tends to be an awful lot lower than it is at the start of the budgetary process. It is fair to say that as I worked my way through budget 2020, I noted that the decrease was lower than had been the case in other budgets. We produced a forecast and update on what we believed the impact on demographics will be in the future on budget day and as we move through 2020 we must assess that paper and keep it in mind in the context of the preparation of next year's budget.

I thank the Minister for that response. The issue is that the cost of demographics in the budget was underestimated by €60 million. Where is the Minister going to get that money? How is he going to make it up? To those in the Public Gallery and watching at home, €60 million is not a small chunk of change. Given that it would employ 1,200 primary school teachers or build 240 social houses, it is quite an underestimate. Where is the Minister going to pluck that money from?

That €60 million is then used to hire teachers, to make sure that we have the right number of special needs assistants and so on. It is really important to make clear that money that is used for demographics is not dead money in any way. It is used to make sure, for example, that we have the right amount of money available to meet our commitments to those who are entitled to a State pension this year who did not have one previously. It is going to fund new services or entitlements for citizens who are moving into a different phase of their lives. To make the case that this is money that is not being used in a way that is productive in our economy or good for our society, which is not the case that Deputy Lahart is making, is wrong.

That is not the case I am making.

Of course it is not, which is why I said what I said. The money is being used in ways that are important. Where does the money come from? It comes from, for example, the €3.4 billion package that was announced on budget day, approximately €400 million of which was funded by additional taxation.

Shared Services

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

8. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the estimated expenditure savings in 2019 and 2020 from the operation of the National Shared Services Office, NSSO; his plans in this regard for financial shared services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46786/19]

The National Shared Services Office, NSSO, has been up and running as an independent agency for the last couple of years. We were all very positively disposed to the legislation setting it up as it was piloted by the Minister through the House. I ask the Minister to provide an update on the kinds of savings and efficiencies gained from the establishment of the NSSO. The office is funded through Vote 18. Is its chief executive at Secretary General rank? How many staff are employed by the NSSO and where are they based? Are they mainly in Dublin or are they all over the country?

I will begin by answering the first question posed by Deputy Broughan on the savings achieved. As he said himself, the NSSO provides human resources, pension and payroll services to our Civil Service. I am advised by the office that the estimated savings for 2019 were €8.7 million, of which €7.6 million derives from the shared delivery of human resources services across all parts of our Civil Service and €1.1 million from the shared delivery of payroll services. The target figure for savings in 2020 is €9.7 million.

The Deputy asked about the number of people working in the NSSO. I will have to check if I have the exact figure here but I know that it is many hundreds of people. The NSSO has one office located here in Dublin and another significant office in Tullamore. I have visited both offices, where many hundreds of staff are located, with the greater number located in Dublin. I will have to revert to the Deputy on the rank of the chief executive of the NSSO but my recollection is that it is at least at the level of assistant secretary general.

The last figure that I saw for staff numbers was either 750 or 755 across both offices. I believe it was the 2017 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, as discussed at the Committee of Public Accounts, which detailed approximately €50 million of spending on the establishment of the NSSO. In the context of savings or efficiencies, would that be included as part of the overall budget or is it spread across the Civil Service? The office looks after shared services for approximately 127,000 civil servants. Is there good, up to date information available through the office on basic payroll issues, pension entitlements, sick leave, absenteeism, efficiencies and so on? Does the Minister receive a flow of information from the NSSO on all of that? How does the office perform when benchmarked against longer-established equivalents in the UK and Germany?

I will answer the Deputy's last question first, if I may. We will need to do a benchmarking exercise to compare where we are vis-à-vis other European countries. However, my sense is that we need to wait a little bit longer before doing so. The NSSO is still a relatively new organisation. While much of the work that needs to be done in terms of the movement of staff and so on is complete, the office is still young. That said, we will need to do a benchmarking exercise to compare it with peer organisations in the EU.

The Deputy asked about the data flows that are available to me from the office. The office updates me on where we are and the progress being made. In the area of overpayments, for example, on which we want to make more progress, I note that at the end of 2018 there were 2,458 pay-related overpayment cases. That figure now stands at 2,259 outstanding cases. I am informed that the expectation is that by the end of this year, there will be an 8% reduction in such incidents. I get a full set of figures from the office once a year in the context of the preparation of its annual report.

The list of organisations covered by the NSSO is very impressive and includes all Government Departments, the Road Safety Authority, the Ordnance Survey Office, the Courts Service and so on. One big area where the office does not provide shared services is in health. I am not sure about teaching but it is certainly not involved in the health sector or the provision of shared services to that sector's 120,000 employees. The office is responsible for strategic workforce planning. In that context, would it have an input into the HSE's decisions on the number of workers being recruited this year or in 2020? In actual fact, very few staff were recruited this year because of the embargo in the HSE. Does the NSSO have a real role in strategic workforce planning? What is its role in terms of procurement? We have just heard a debate between the Minister and Deputy Pearse Doherty on procurement and I echo the latter's concerns about the national broadband plan, the national children's hospital and so on. Does the NSSO have any role to play in this area, given that it is handling common procurement for all of the Departments?

The office does not play any significant role in procurement beyond the procurement processes in which it is involved itself. In terms of expansion into the HSE, it will be some time before such a process begins, given the number of people that the HSE employs

Does the Minister anticipate that it will happen?

We have yet to make a decision on it. My hope is that once we ensure that the work of the NSSO is successful and grows, there will be an opportunity to look at that question in the future. However, there are 90,000 to 100,000 people working in the HSE at the moment and it would be a very big decision to replicate what they do, given the huge number of payment systems that are already in place in the HSE. It is something that we will look at but I have not made a final decision on it. Indeed, I have not even seriously looked at the business case for it yet.

To give the Deputy a sense of what is under way, we are now completing the work of replacing 31 different systems with a single finance system for Government. It is a huge project and the NSSO does not play any role in individual recruitment decisions.

Public Expenditure Policy

Bernard Durkan

Question:

9. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the extent to which he remains satisfied that good practice in terms of public expenditure and reform remains in place and capable of dealing with possible overruns throughout the public sector throughout the course of 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46864/19]

This question seeks to ascertain the extent to which reform continues to play a major role in addressing issues of potential overruns or over expenditure.

It continues to play a big role. As we look at the debate on where we are in expenditure and changes that are happening there, I continually hear calls, both inside this House and elsewhere, for additional capital investment and additional spending of money to deliver new homes and better public transport. I understand why those calls are made but we should also acknowledge that from 2016 and as we move to 2020, the level of capital spending in Ireland will move from €4.2 billion per year to just over €8 billion per year. For this year alone, the amount of capital investment in our country will have increased by 22%, which is playing a role in allowing our economy to continue to do well while we are seeing change and the so-called headwinds - a dreadful phrase - of things changing elsewhere or getting more difficult. It is like the idea that risks are always tilted to the down side. Things are shifting elsewhere and we are beginning to see some economies slow down in Europe. So far, our economy continues to perform well. The additional capital investment we are making available for this year is playing a role in that. I have already had an exchange with Deputy Pearse Doherty where I have gone through the kind of reforms we are making. I make the case to Deputy Durkan, which he might be sympathetic towards, that we are doing well in making and delivering many projects across the country but of course things happened with the national children's hospital that should not have happened and that we do not want to repeat. This is why we have the work on the public spending code under way and this is why decisions have been made to put individual capital projects back out to tender to try to get better value for the Irish taxpayer.

I thank the Minister and I acknowledge his response. Taking the children's hospital for instance, I am a member of the Committee on Health and we have gone over that in detail. In some cases are Departments working on old figures that have not been revised? That is how it would appear to me because some of these projects have been on the horizon for a long time. Is the update on costs done on an annual basis or is it forensically tested with a view to ascertaining if the figures being presented at any given time represent a new evaluation of a particular project or if some alternative method is being used?

That question cuts to the heart of a number of the challenges we have. On the question of whether they are using old figures, I would refer to the degree of cost inflation taking place in our economy with all the pressures that are there to deliver more homes while there is huge private sector investment under way. A business case can be put together with figures that are right at a point in time. Those figures can be done with best practice and done professionally but because of how quickly things change within our economy, for some big projects those figures can no longer be reflective of what is happening in the economy quite soon afterwards. That is the reason why we have work under way in the public spending code. In particular for projects above €100 million, we need to work to make sure the business case and the cost of these projects continue to be realistic and accurate.

I again seek to ascertain the degree to which direct curtailment and supervision of costs on the one hand versus reform play a meaningful role in the context of containing expenditure within the projections. Some of the projects we are talking about have been 20 to 40 years old and they would have had to be updated on a regular basis, presumably on an annual basis but I have doubts about that. Is there a tendency in a project that has been in the offing for a long period for figures to be offered up as if they were already established and tested? I would like to be assured whether or not sufficient stringency tests are put in place to challenge this tendency, particularly in long-awaited projects.

The answer is "Yes" but clearly we have to continue to look at our public spending code to make sure it is in line with best practice. I emphasise again that for so many projects across the length and breadth of our country we are able to deliver them in a timely way in line with the costs we have for them. One of the issues I have been grappling with is the situation where we have a major project coming up, for example, and Deputy Durkan and the communities he represents want to see it delivered. An understandable question the Deputy would then ask the Government of the day or the agency charged with the project is how much the project will cost. The Deputy would want to know what the cost of that project would be. An agency or a Government Department would supply that figure to the Deputy in good faith and they would supply it to him because as a Member of the Oireachtas he has a right to know what the figure is. However, the length of time between a project being agreed and then going to tender can be many years. It happens then that a project ends up being evaluated against a figure that was shared in good faith but the economy has changed, which means the tendering process delivers another price. That is the issue we have to grapple with in the public spending code.

Question No. 10 replied to with Written Answers.

Public Procurement Regulations

Denis Naughten

Question:

11. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if the public procurement threshold will be increased from €25,000 in view of the impact same is having on SMEs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46498/19]

We need to facilitate SMEs in participating in public procurement in every way possible. Every minute, the Government spends €16,000 on buying in goods and services and we need to support innovation and greater access to public procurement contracts for SMEs, small business and micro-enterprise across this country.

The Government recognises the importance of the SME sector and continues to enhance the already substantial measures to support SMEs in accessing the public procurement market. Significant work has been undertaken by the Office of Government Procurement to ensure public procurement is accessible by all businesses. A group chaired by the Minister of State at the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy O'Donovan, chairs quarterly meetings of the SME advisory group. The membership of the group consists of officials from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Enterprise Ireland, IBEC Ireland, the Small Firms Association, the Construction Industry Federation, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association and Chambers Ireland. In May 2017, a proposal was put to the group to raise the current threshold of €25,000, exclusive of VAT, for advertising on the eTenders website. The proposal was discussed at meetings of the group from September to December and it was clear at that point the majority of members were against increasing the advertising threshold at that point. The outcome was that the current threshold of €25,000 was maintained. Through the work of this advisory group and through the work the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, is doing, a suite of different changes have been made to try to support SMEs. Contracting authorities have been encouraged to divide public contracts into lots, work has been done to encourage SMEs to come together to put in bids for contracts that are of a scale that are bigger than they might be able to access on their own and public bodies are now required to advertise contracts for goods and services valued above €25,000 on the national eTenders portal. I know the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, is doing a huge amount of work in engaging with SMEs to try to ensure they are aware of the opportunities that are available to them. The most recent figures we have indicate 94% of the €4.7 billion expenditure available for procurement is with firms that have an Irish base.

The majority of the spend is with the SME sector.

The €25,000 threshold has been in place for approximately a decade. As the Minister will be aware, the thresholds are reviewed every two years at EU level and they have increased incrementally. The EU thresholds were last increased at the end of 2018, yet the thresholds here remain stagnant. We need to encourage as many local businesses as possible to avail of public contracts. One way of getting them into the system is by addressing the threshold. Not enough subdividing of contracts is taking place because many public bodies seek the soft option and do not break up the lots.

The Deputy made a fair point that given the focus on SMEs being able to win more tenders and on ensuring they are part of our public procurement process, the threshold should be examined. It is interesting, however, that following an extensive discussion on the issue in the SME advisory group, the decision was made, due to the feedback of the majority of members, that the threshold should not be changed. Nevertheless, we need to keep the decision under review. The Office of Government Procurement, OGP, continues to monitor the issue and engage with the SME sector.

I met those involved in procurement yesterday. One interesting aspect of the discussion, a matter with which the Deputy will be familiar, is the degree to which green issues and climate change matter, and the degree to which procurement policy is now an important lever of Government policy for responding to that. As the team involved in the area get together their work plan and priorities for next year, such green and climate-related measures will be prominent in their work.

On the Minister's final point, we need to examine the whole-of-life impact rather than just ticking a green box. Unfortunately, that is what is happening, and we have previously had a discussion on the matter.

While the OGP is great from the perspective of centralising policy on the matter, it is not responsible for procurement but only for the setting down of the rules in that regard. It may be that turnover requirements have been unnecessarily put in place, that technology-specific solutions are sought that impede innovation, or that specifying the type of industry that can do the work is done in such narrow terms that it excludes businesses. In the interests of SMEs and the public purse, we need to encourage as many people who are capable of doing the work as possible to do it, and not consider purely the price, which may not necessarily in the long term be the best value for money for the Exchequer.

There is no way we can deliver efficiencies and effective procurement policies without price being central. Some have made the case that we need to examine broader factors than price alone. I am sure, therefore, that at a point in time the OGP is no longer able to point to savings, those who argue we need to move away from price will forget that and state the office is not doing a good job.

On the Deputy's point about ticking a green box, from talking yesterday to those involved in the OGP, when efforts intensify, such as in respect of single-use plastics, it will be anything but a box-ticking exercise. I expect that the area in which the tension between price and other priorities will become most evident will be when measures are under way to make more progress on green procurement.

It is not the case that the OGP is not directly involved in procurement. In fact, it is involved for certain kinds of procurement processes, while for others, it puts together a procurement framework within which local authorities are obliged to deliver their procurement.

Public Sector Pay

Bríd Smith

Question:

12. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his position on the pay of senior civil servants and the proposed review of same by the Public Service Pay Commission; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46801/19]

The Public Service Pay Commission recently found it appropriate to conduct a review of the remuneration of senior civil servant posts. It indicated it has difficulty attracting candidates for certain high-level posts due to constraints of pay of up to €200,000 per year. Does the Minister support the review and raising the pay levels of the most senior civil servants?

The pay of senior civil and public servants continues to be framed by the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation. As the Deputy will be aware, the Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017 provides a statutory roadmap for the continued controlled unwinding of the FEMPI legislation as it applies to all public servants, including those in senior positions. FEMPI reductions will be unwound for those on incomes up to €70,000 by October 2020. Sections 19 and 20 of the Act provide the statutory basis for unwinding remaining FEMPI reductions on a phased basis to July 2022.

The Deputy also asked about the recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission. It was asked to examine the extent of our difficulties recruiting and retaining staff in the public service. In its final report, it included findings in respect of senior executive recruitment or retention issues. It noted as a matter of fact that the pay reductions introduced during the fiscal crisis were progressively structured, with greater reductions at more senior levels. The commission also noted that the process of unwinding pay reductions began with low-income workers.

On the question of future pay determination, the commission stated it would consider it appropriate, should it be decided to conduct a review of remuneration of senior level posts, that a body such as the review body on higher remuneration in the public sector be reconstituted, given the complexity and diversity of the posts. The Government has noted the commission's findings, which will be the subject of further consideration before a decision is made.

It is astonishing to say the FEMPI legislation had a significantly greater impact on senior civil servants. If 10% is taken from somebody earning €200,000, €20,000 will be taken, but if the same percentage is taken from somebody earning €40,000, that person will have much less in his or her pocket. It was an extraordinary statement. I did not ask the Minister about FEMPI but I acknowledge that some of the cuts have been reversed, slowly and painfully, but other elements have been kept intact, including poorer pensions, greater pension contributions for new workers and some continued pay apartheid. The same commission produced reports on nurses' pay and on the pay of the Defence Forces in the past 12 months and basically said, "There is not a problem here, there is nothing to see, move on", which is why there has been a major problem with Defence Forces pay and a major strike by the nursing unions. To what extent is the Minister in touch with reality, given what he has stated?

I can assure the Deputy that I am every bit as in touch with reality as she is. She stated the two previous reports from the Public Service Pay Commission found there was no issue-----

I did not mention two reports.

The Deputy did say that. She referred to the two previous reports.

I said the commission had produced reports on nurses and the Defence Forces.

The Minister and the Deputy are only wasting their own time.

The Deputy is discussing semantics. She referred to the reports on the Defence Forces and nursing, which were the two reports prior to the one we are discussing. That is a matter of fact.

It is also a matter of fact that the commission did not state there was no difficulty. Even a cursory reading of either of the reports, which the Deputy may not have taken the time to do, shows that the commission indicated there were some issues. It went on to make proposals to address issues it had acknowledged. To suggest it stated there was no issue is wrong because, otherwise, it would not have made the proposals it did.

There are some parts of our economy in which people are well paid. As employers, we must compete against the private sector, which progressively pays people at the top more.

I find it astonishing that the Minister can say with a straight face that retaining top civil servants because their skills are so precious and finite means they have to be rewarded for their greater intellectual and progressive powers. Is the evidence in the negotiation of the contract around the national children's hospital, the tender for broadband or the housing or trolley crises? Where is the evidence that our top civil servants are so bright that they need to be paid more than €200,000 a year?

The Minister seems to agree with that but on the other hand he refuses to give pensions to retired CE supervisors, a labour court recommendation he consistently denies. He sanctioned a pay rise for semi-State pensioners who have been outside the gates and have not had a pension rise for ten years, yet the pension levy continues to be deducted from their meagre pensions. How does the Minister square that circle? Many of our services which are administered by top civil servants in receipt of €200,000 a year are in a mess, but the Minister refuses to acknowledge a labour court recommendation for retired CE supervisors and continues to penalise public sector pensioners.

I am also the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform who will ensure that by the time we get to next October all of those in receipt of an income at or below €70,000, many of whom have had their incomes restored to some extent, a fact which the Deputy has little interest in hearing or acknowledging, will see their incomes restored to what they were in the pre-crisis period. That is equally my track record in responding to the needs of low and middle income workers in our society who deserve the kind of wages that are necessary to reward and recognise the contribution they have made to our public services and country.

When the Deputy talks about the intelligence of people who are at the top, it is clear that she is in some way doubting their capacity. Along with the difficulties she touched on, I also want to acknowledge the contribution made by civil servants, including senior civil servants, to the recovery in our economy, the efforts we have had to make to respond to the challenge of Brexit and in helping and supporting successive Governments to respond to complex and demanding challenges. More needs to be done and we still face many challenges. I am as aware of those as the Deputy is, but there are also areas in which we have made progress.

Question No. 13 replied to with Written Answers.

Office of Government Procurement

Bríd Smith

Question:

14. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his role in selecting the chief procurement officer; if the CEO of the Office of Government Procurement will have a future role in the management of costs at the proposed new national children’s hospital; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46802/19]

I want to ask the Minister about his role in selecting the chief procurement officer and if the CEO and the Office of Government Procurement will have a future role in the management of the costs at the proposed new national children's hospital. Can he make a statement on the matter?

In 2011, as part of its drive for greater value for money and increased efficiencies in public spending, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform commissioned a review, entitled A Capacity and Capability Review of the Central Procurement Function, to identify the actions required to realise substantial savings in public procurement in the short and medium term. It was published in 2012.

The Office of Government Procurement commenced operations in July 2014 and it is led by the chief procurement officer. He was appointed to the national paediatric hospital development board by the Minister for Health in 2013. He resigned from the board on 19 July 2019. On whether he will have a future role in the management of costs in the proposed new national children's hospital, the answer is that he will not as he has resigned from the board.

He will have no role in the future, but he certainly had a role in the past for which we will pay very dearly, such as the lack of a primary healthcare centre in Drimnagh and other capital expenditure projects over the next period. Will the Minister have a role in selecting his replacement on the board of the national children's hospital?

That is a decision made by the Minister for Health. As we have debated on many occasions, any decisions made in respect of Drimagh will, as we discussed earlier, be completely independent of what is happening with the national children's hospital. I have no doubt that if and when the primary care centre is delivered in Drimnagh, the Deputy will protest against it.

If the Government delivered it on time and soon, I would not protest against it. It is now November and we were promised that it would be built some time ago. An application has been submitted to extend planning permission. If that is granted, I would like an answer from the Minister and HSE as to when building will actually start. We need the primary healthcare centre, not the evasive non-answers I get in response to parliamentary questions and what I have heard today.

In response to an earlier question, Deputy Smith said she would not believe any answer that I gave. That is her view of an answer I have not given. I acknowledge her interest in this matter. The Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, is working very hard on this. Whatever challenges or issues face the primary care centre which the people in Drimnagh want and on which I will get an update, 90 primary care centres have already been delivered and more are due. We must acknowledge the difference they are making. It is good to hear that the Deputy wants a project like this delivered in her community because when it is delivered it will make a significant difference to those who will use it.

I did not say I would not accept an answer from the Minister. Rather, I said I did not believe he would answer my question and I would instead get some obfuscation instead of a "Yes" or "No" answer on whether the centre would be built. That is what I believe. We will see what the answer is when the Minister receives it. If I get an answer telling me that it will or will not be built, I will be delighted and will acknowledge that. However, if I get an answer which is the same type of obfuscation I have received up to now I will be vindicated in what I have said here today.

Question No. 15 replied to with Written Answers.

Office of Public Works Projects

Thomas Byrne

Question:

16. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of improvement works at the Tara Hill complex, County Meath. [45282/19]

I assume that when the Deputy refers to improvement works he is referring to the ongoing repair works to the collapsed graveyard wall at St. Patrick’s Church, Tara. This work commenced in May 2015 and is scheduled to continue for at least another year. The work is being undertaken by the OPW’s direct labour force based in Trim, County Meath, in tandem with other maintenance works and tasks at the site. Though the continuing unfinished appearance of the site is not ideal, I can assure the Deputy that the serious structural problems that gave rise to its collapse have been stabilised. The site is subject to seasonal weather and demands, therefore the work will continue into next year.

Other works at the site, which the Minister of State has visited, are badly needed, including car parking facilities to make sure this is one of our top tourism attractions that can handle the numbers of people who want to visit it.

I can assure the Deputy that my Department has met people in Tara and the local authority in recent days and we are finalising the plans. We hope to finalise the project in the very near future, ideally before Christmas. Other works to which the Deputy referred, such as car parking, footpaths and so on, are all being considered as part of the project.

Flood Relief Schemes Status

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

17. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform when the preferred options for the flood relief works on the Sullane River, Ballyvourney, County Cork will be finalised; the impediments delaying the decision; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46899/19]

The threat of flooding has been a very real concern for many people in Ballyvourney for far too long. Background work has been carried out to prepare flood defences, but it is taking a long time to complete them and we are now facing another winter about which residents have very real concerns. I want to try to establish what kind of progress will be made in the short term and whether the Minister of State can assure people that flood defences for Ballyvourney will be put in place as quickly as possible.

I admit that we are behind with the work.

I can assure the Deputy that we will put this on public display in the first quarter of next year. There were environmental assessment problems and the Deputy is well aware of the situation.

Written answers are published on the Oireachtas website.