Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Capital Expenditure Programme

Mairéad Farrell

Question:

94. Deputy Mairéad Farrell asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the way in which the emergency measures in budget 2021 will increase capital expenditure in 2021 to €9.1 billion as per the July stimulus; and the way in which this differs from the Revised Estimates for Public Services published in December 2019, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, which had already laid out capital funding of €9.1 billion in 2021. [26634/20]

The July stimulus includes an emergency measure to increase capital expenditure by some €1 billion to €9.1 billion, which is claimed as an increase of approximately 12%. However, the Revised Estimates for Public Services published in December 2019 already laid out Exchequer capital funding of €9.1 billion for 2021. As such, I fail to see any additionality in what is indicated in the July stimulus. Will the Minister outline how the emergency measures in the budget will increase capital expenditure in 2021 to €9.1 billion and how that differs from what was signalled in the Revised Estimates published in December 2019?

I thank the Deputy for her question. As she points out, the capital expenditure levels for 2021, as originally set out in the Revised Estimates Volume of December 2019, amounted to €9.1 billion. This figure, which was set out in advance of the Covid-19 pandemic, was almost €1 billion, or 12%, higher than the corresponding 2020 allocation.

As part of the July stimulus, the Government decided that rather than scaling back on planned capital investment in 2021 in response to budgetary pressures elsewhere, we would commit to preserving and maintaining this unprecedented level of capital investment. It is a commitment I will carry through fully in budget 2021. Of course, the precise configuration and prioritisation of the overall increased 2021 capital allocation of €9.1 billion, including the remaining unallocated reserve and any potential for enhancement to those allocations, will be specified further and more comprehensively in the context of budget 2021.  

The national development plan, NDP, sets out five-year expenditure allocations by Department for the period 2018 to 2022. These multi-annual allocations are devised to give Departments a degree of certainty for future planning. In direct response to Covid-19, however, the Government made necessary and large-scale revisions to capital allocations for 2020. The capital expenditure allocations for 2020 were increased by in the region of an additional €1.5 billion, bringing total capital investment for 2020 to above €9.7 billion. This is the highest ever investment in capital projects and programmes in the history of the State.

In line with programme for Government commitments and in my capacity as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, I am bringing proposals to the Government regarding the launch of a structured, in-depth review of the NDP in order to advance the priorities identified in the programme for Government, including climate change, housing policy, transport policy, implementation of Sláintecare and balanced regional development, aligned with the associated multi-annual resourcing requirements. The revised NDP, to be published next year, will assess the balance of resourcing between sectors in light of the programme for Government and will consider if there is a need for any strategic changes in allocations beyond 2021.

The figure of €9.1 billion was mentioned in the Revised Estimates for Public Services. Prior to the pandemic, we saw voted capital expenditure of that sum for 2021. It is my understanding, therefore, that there is no additionality in what is currently proposed and we are left exactly where we started. Capital expenditure was always planned to be at around the €9.1 billion mark. That was the plan before the onset of the Covid crisis and it is the plan now.

Capital expenditure has a large positive multiplier effect in terms of employment and as a means of tackling the crisis in comparison to the likes of the services industry. The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, has demonstrated that fiscal policy can have positive and significant initial impacts on Irish output. According to EUROSTAT, in terms of investment as measured by gross fixed capital formation, we are currently the worst-performing economy in the EU. Yet the Minister is saying that the allocation for capital investment is the same as initially stated, before the current crisis.

First, we should not understate the significance of the State committing to a capital investment programme of more than €9 billion at a time when we are forecasting a deficit in the current year of somewhere in the region of €25 billion to €30 billion. Ten years ago, in very different times and when different circumstances applied, capital expenditure was slashed by some 60%. What we are doing now is in marked contrast to what happened in the past. We are going to maintain, and have the ambition to increase, capital investment.

The within-year increase in capital expenditure this year was for exceptional measures. These include the measures in the July stimulus programme, under which some €500 million was added. There is approximately €900 million extra in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation Vote, much of it to do with the enterprise grants, restart grants and so on which were brought forward as an exceptional measure this year. The Deputy should reserve final judgment until she sees the actual allocation on budget day. On a no-policy-change basis, we are saying that it is €9.1 billion. That does not mean things are set in stone with regard to budget day.

It seems that the current indicated allocation is the same €9.1 billion that was indicated before the crisis. I have also heard rumours circulating that the Government plans to keep capital expenditure at around the €9 billion mark for the duration of this crisis. That greatly concerns me because we do not know how long that will be. All indications are that the crisis will last for some time. If we assume that it continues for a two- to three-year period, then this provision represents a real cut per capita when factoring in inflation and population growth. It is austerity by stealth, under the table or through the back the door. Call it whatever one wants but we have seen it before.

The Minister said that this Government is taking a different approach to this crisis from what was done previously. We saw during the last crisis, especially after 2014, that despite the announcements that austerity was over, it did, in fact, continue, albeit in a sneakier fashion. A recent report from the Halle Institute for Economic Research on the impact of Brexit estimates that more than 700,000 jobs will be at risk in the EU, with Ireland set to lose more than 35,000. We are facing a crisis on two fronts and the State needs to be willing to step in with the types of large-scale capital projects that can offset the decline in private sector investment. If that is not done, people will feel the hit in their pockets. People are not naive.

I strongly support investment in capital expenditure projects. Now is the right time to make that investment because we can borrow at historically low levels of interests. There are many unmet infrastructure needs throughout the country. We have an opportunity now that should be taken and it falls to me to be the advocate within Government for doing so. To be fair, the prioritisation given to capital investment within the programme for Government is very clear. The context within which we are maintaining more than €9 billion of capital investment next year has changed dramatically in the past six months. The reality is that we will probably get a lot more done with the same amount of money, given the changes we have inevitably seen so far and are likely to continue to see within the construction industry. There is already evidence of better value for money coming into the process of tendering for projects.

I ask the Deputy to reserve her judgment. To be clear, there has been no decision within Government simply to maintain capital investment at this level through the unknown duration of the crisis. The NDP review will happen in the coming months and it will set out a capital expenditure envelope for the next decade.

Ministerial Advisers

Gerald Nash

Question:

95. Deputy Ged Nash asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his views on the appointment of ten special advisers for Ministers of State; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26735/20]

Ahead of the announcement of the July stimulus, the Government decided to appoint teams of special advisers to the offices of the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I described it at the time as the Government parties' very own job creation initiative, or a July stimulus for Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. In the week that the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, is being cut, the Government, with the sanction of the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, as the Minister in charge of spending, gave the go-ahead to appoint ten new special advisers to Ministers of State. Does the Minister believe this is the right thing to do? Will he, as Minister responsible for reform, establish criteria for such appointments? Can he inform the House as to the total annual cost of the 64 advisers appointed to date? Finally, will he confirm that he will not sign off on the appointment of any additional ministerial advisers during the term of the Government?

The appointment of special advisers by Government to assist Ministers and Ministers of State is provided for under section 11 of the Public Service Management Act 1997.  

Special adviser appointments were initially considered by my Cabinet colleagues and me at the Government meeting of 4 August last. At that meeting, the Government approved the proposed guidelines setting out the process for the appointment of special advisers to Ministers and Ministers of State of the Thirty-third Dáil, as well as the terms and conditions applying to those appointments. The guidelines were published by my Department on the gov.ie website and are broadly consistent with those applying under the Thirty-second Dáil, both in terms of the number of appointments and the terms and conditions on appointment.

The appointment of special advisers to the Ministers of State in question, which the Deputy refers to, was considered by the Government meeting of 22 September last. These appointments are being made in accordance with the existing guidelines that I mentioned.

In considering proposals to appoint special advisers, my Cabinet colleagues and I had specific regard to the scale and complexity of the portfolio, the budgetary responsibility and programme for Government commitments.

I reassure the Deputy and the House that my colleagues and I in the Government are fully committed to transparency for all such appointments. As with the previous Government, once the formal appointment of all special advisers is concluded in the coming weeks, my Department will publish a list of special advisers to the Thirty-third Dáil. This list will include their names, the Departments to which they are assigned and their respective rates of pay. Additionally, as the Deputy will be aware, a copy of each special adviser’s signed contract of employment must also be laid before the Oireachtas by Ministers within 60 days of each special adviser’s formal appointment by Government.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I assure the Minister that I am not throwing cheap, political potshots at the Minister and his Government colleagues on the appointment of a raft of special advisers for junior Ministers. I do not believe it is in my nature to do so and the Minister may know this. The Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Ossian Smyth, correctly pointed out on "The Week in Politics" this week that I enjoyed the support of two special advisers during my own short spell as a super junior Minister. I am old enough to remember when Government only merited one super junior Minister at the Cabinet table, and the two special advisers that the super junior Minister is entitled to have. This time around we have three. The only reason we have three super junior Ministers is not because of any particular policy focus in Government that would require the support of three particular voices at Cabinet with specific expertise, it is to keep the three Government parties sweet. This is what it is all about, nothing more and nothing less. I am not convinced or persuaded at all of the merits of appointing almost double the number of special advisers that the 2011-16 Government merited. That was a Government that was in the mire and in battle to try to save Ireland's economy, as this Government is doing. I am not persuaded by the Minister's response and I am not persuaded of the merits of appointing a raft of special advisers to junior Ministers. I am not persuaded whatsoever.

I should point out that special advisers are appointed under section 11 of the Act. It would be helpful to set out what the functions are. The Act provides that a special adviser shall assist the relevant Minister by providing advice and by "monitoring, facilitating and securing the achievement of Government objectives that relate to the Department" and "performing such other functions as may be directed by the Minister" provided this does not involve the exercise of any specific powers conferred on the Minister or any other officeholder under the Act.

The Deputy's question related to the special advisers appointed to the Ministers of State. For the information of the House, special advisers to those Ministers of State who do not regularly attend Cabinet are to be placed on the assistant principal officer standard scale, which is currently a number of points between €67,659 and €78,816. That is the cost of that particular decision.

Will the Minister clarify for the record that he does not have any plans to sanction the approval of or appoint any additional advisers? I believe that 64 is more than enough. During the 2011-16 Government the country was in the mire and battling for its very survival and it had 30-plus advisers. For a country with 15 Cabinet Ministers, a Chief Whip, a super junior Minister and probably the largest majority we have ever seen in the history of the State, I am open to be persuaded but remain to be convinced of the merits of appointing this number of special advisers.

I am a fan of good government and good governance, and anything required to deliver that should be supported. While I do not want to individualise this in any way, given the raft of cock ups we have seen over the last few months and weeks since this Government has come into office, all of the evidence so far suggests that the support being provided by special advisers may leave a little bit to be desired. This is not about seamless Government and delivering better outcomes. It is about keeping the parties in Government happy. It is as simple as that.

Ultimately the Government will be judged by its performance on the key issues: managing the pandemic; ultimately bringing about economic recovery; and on addressing the pre-Covid challenges. Those challenges are still very much there and will become even more acute if we do not address them. They include the housing crisis, the long-term structural reforms needed in our health service and the existential challenge of climate action. That is ultimately how we will be judged. I am the first to acknowledge that the appointment of special advisers is a sensitive issue. As Deputy Nash has acknowledged, he has benefitted from the services of special advisers-----

As a Minister of State, not as a super junior Minister.

Yes, absolutely. The Deputy has put that on the record and acknowledged that fact. I assume they provided a good service and were valuable to the Deputy.

I shall now turn to the numbers. Once the process has been completed - and it has not been completed at this point, even on the numbers the Deputy has speculated on - all details will be published in an open and transparent way.

Public Sector Pay

Mairéad Farrell

Question:

96. Deputy Mairéad Farrell asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if a commitment will be given to remove FEMPI legislation. [26636/20]

The current public sector pay agreement expires on 31 December this year. There is no doubt that the Minister will be sitting down with representatives of ICTU's public service pay committee. I am concerned that with the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act, the FEMPI legislation, still in place the Government will hold a big stick over the heads of the public service unions. Does the Minister plan on committing to remove the FEMPI legislation before entering into negotiations with ICTU's public service pay committee?

The Public Service Pay and Pension Act 2017 provides for the restoration of reductions made to public service pay and pensions by the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Acts 2010 to 2013. That process of restoration began on 1 January 2018 and is due to conclude by 1 July 2022.

In that regard, on 1 October 2020, public servants will receive a 2% pay increase by way of restoration. This will complete the pay restoration for public servants earning up to €70,000 per annum. Also on 1 October, reductions of between 5% and 8% made to certain allowances in 2010 will cease.

The Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017 provides that by end 2020, an order is made to restore, at a date to be decided, reductions made to certain public service pensions. In addition, section 20 of the Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017 provides explicitly that for certain public servants, pay restoration cannot be completed before 2 October 2021.

Under section 12 of the FEMPI Act 2013 the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is obliged, before 30 June each year, to submit a written report of the operation, effectiveness and impact of the FEMPI Acts of 2009, No. 2 of 2009, 2010 and 2013 to the Oireachtas. As part of that report, consideration must be given to whether or not any of the provisions of the relevant Acts continue to be necessary having regard to the purposes of those Acts, the revenues of the State and State commitments in respect of public service pay and pensions. Key considerations include the economic circumstances of the State, the budgetary outlook, debt, returns from taxation, Brexit and preparedness for other economic shocks.

The 2020 report that was laid before this House last June concluded, on the basis of the prevailing economic and fiscal outlook, that the timetable for pay and pensions restoration up to July 2022 continued to be appropriate and necessary. I assure the Deputy that the Government will continue to take the most appropriate course of action in this key policy area into the future.

We should not forget that the FEMPI legislation was emergency legislation introduced to tackle the onset of the financial crisis of 2008, when we saw the first permanent cut in public service pay rates in the history of the State. Here we are almost 13 years on and the legislation is still in place. Today we face a crisis of a very different kind and the emergency measures that were introduced to tackle a very different crisis cannot be used to tackle this one. Is the Minister planning to slowly unwind the legislation in the future and remove the more draconian parts of it while keeping other parts he considers necessary? Will the Minister tell us prior to that, which parts will be removed and which retained, and what is the rationale behind such decisions? I would urge the Minister to do so.

To be clear, if we were to repeal the suite of FEMPI legislation tomorrow then certain former public servants on quite high pensions would have the pension reductions that were imposed on them reversed immediately. In addition, all very senior public and civil servants, including politicians, would have the cuts that were imposed reversed overnight. We need to deal with this issue in a managed and phased way.

To return to the point made by the Deputy earlier, it is my objective to negotiate a new public service pay deal. It is in the interests of the State, the trade unions and the workers that they represent to have the certainty and stability of a new public service pay agreement. We are in difficult circumstances and it will not be easy to negotiate a successor agreement. We are in exploratory discussions at the moment with the trade unions and will see where that goes in the weeks ahead. As the Deputy said, the current deal runs up to the end of the year. We are seeing that deal through and part of that involves paying the 2% increase which, on balance, is the right thing to do.

We need a new collective pay agreement and I think I am correct in saying that the Minister will be the first in the history of this State not to have such an agreement in place. It is extremely important to ensure that an agreement is reached with the unions which brings about real pay equality in our public services. We need to have good public service wages. We have been quick to clap in this Chamber. I have been here when we clapped front-line public sector workers since the onset of this crisis but applause do not put bread on the table for these families or keep a roof over their heads, which is extremely difficult to do in the current housing crisis. This Government regularly says that we are indebted to our public sector workers but it is time to put its money where its mouth is and reach a fair deal that recognises the pain they have suffered since 2008 as well as the heroics they have performed since the onset of Covid-19.

I have put on the record on a number of occasions as Minister my admiration for the work of our public servants. We now have approximately 340,000

public servants, over one third of whom work in our health service. The work they have put in over the last number of months has been immense, against huge adversity. We are doing the right thing as a Government in honouring the agreement that was entered into, even though it was entered into in much better times. We have had an enormous economic shock as a result of Covid-19 but honouring that agreement and paying the 2%, albeit at a significant cost, is justified in the circumstances.

I want to negotiate a new agreement and my officials are in initial, exploratory discussions at the moment and we will see where that goes in the next number of weeks. I hope a deal can be agreed but there is no certainty about anything. We have had periods in the past where we have not had an agreement in place. There is real value in a collective agreement and it is the Government's objective to secure one but it cannot be at any price.

Public Sector Pay

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

97. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if the forgoing of the pay rise for all public representatives as part of a Covid-19 solidarity measure will be agreed to; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26939/20]

On what planet is it okay for politicians earning extraordinarily high salaries - €96,000 in the case of Deputies - to get a pay increase when hundreds of thousands of workers have seen their incomes decimated or jobs completely eliminated as a result of Covid-19 and the measures the Government has imposed, and when the Government has cut the pandemic unemployment payments of many thousands? How can the Minister possibly justify a pay rise for politicians when huge numbers of working people are seeing their incomes savaged?

I thank the Deputy for his question. The first point to note is that the 1 October adjustments to pay in the public service form part of the broader ongoing process of unwinding FEMPI reductions which was negotiated with public service trade unions and delivered through successive collective agreements, from the Lansdowne Road agreement to the current public service stability agreement.

The remuneration of Members of the Oireachtas, including Ministers and other officeholders, has been examined a number of times by the former review body on higher remuneration in the public sector. In its 38th report in September 2000, it recommended that the rate of salary for a Deputy should be linked to the grade of principal officer in the Civil Service. The recommendation, which was accepted by Government at the time, was based on independent and expert consideration of the level of responsibilities and the commensurate level of pay. Accordingly, the pay of Dáil Deputies has been linked for 20 years to the prevailing pay of principal officers in the Civil Service, including through the significant pay cuts of the FEMPI legislation and now through the pay restoration measures involved in the phased unwinding of that legislation agreed with public service unions and set out in public service agreements. This process of unwinding FEMPI reductions, including the forthcoming pay increase on 1 October, is also provided for in legislation enacted by the Oireachtas under the FEMPI Act 2015 and the Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017.

As the Deputy is aware it remains open to all Members of the Oireachtas to forego pay increases on a voluntary basis and I understand that many have been doing so. For its part, the Government has already decided that Ministers and Ministers of State, in addition to taking a 10% pay cut, will also forgo the 2% pay increase when it becomes due in October. This decision was taken in light of the Covid-19 emergency and the challenging economic and fiscal situation the country faces.

The Covid emergency did not stop the Minister from giving a €16,000 increase to the super junior Ministers, which is absolutely outrageous. The ordinary public servants who were robbed to pay for the bailout of the banks should get their pay restored. Indeed, it should have been restored long before now but the idea that politicians on extraordinarily handsome salaries of €96,000 should get a pay rise at the very same time that the Government is cutting the PUP for people who have lost their jobs and seen their incomes hammered as a result of measures imposed by the Government is sickening.

The increase that Deputies will receive is around €45 per week on top of an already very handsome salary. That is just a little less than the amount the Government has taken off PUP recipients. These are people who were, in most cases, on much lower incomes in the first place. Their income fell to €350 per week because of pandemic measures imposed by the Government and now their incomes are being hammered down by another €50 or €100. Does the Minister not think that is sickening and unacceptable in the current climate?

In essence what the Deputy is proposing is that the link between the pay of a Deputy and the principal officer grade in the Civil Service be broken. I am not sure what alternative system the Deputy is proposing to carve out the pay of politicians. It is up to each individual to make whatever decision he or she wishes to make. I am forgoing the increase because it is the right thing to do. I assume Deputy Boyd Barrett is doing the same. I am not sure in what manner the Deputy forgoes his increase. Does he sign a gift back to the State or does he put it into a fund, the details of which he publishes? Is there transparency in terms of how that money is used? I do not know the details of how Deputy Boyd Barrett does it but I know that those of us in the Government who are doing it are gifting it back directly to the Exchequer so that the cost to the State is reduced as a result. I ask the Deputy to explain the alternative system he wants for politicians to set their own pay but I do not believe we should be going down that road. We have a system in place whereby we are linked to a certain grade in the Civil Service, whether that rate of pay is going up or down. It is up to each individual then to make a decision based on his or her own circumstances. People have different circumstances and we should all acknowledge that too.

Within People Before Profit our policy is that politicians should be paid the average industrial wage and that is what happens internally. That means we are in the same position as the people we represent and have a vested interest in representing the collective and not just looking after ourselves. That is our policy.

In the case of the 2%, we will be handing it back to the Exchequer because we think it is unconscionable in the current situation to take any pay rise, although, frankly, it hurts me to think we are handing it back to a Government that will then give it on to some other pampered group rather than give it to the people who actually need it.

The Minister has not really answered my central question. Does he think it is okay, that it looks very good or that it is not simply sickening for people who have lost their jobs and income, who are on the PUP and have just had their payments cut by the Government, to see the politicians who are doing that getting a pay rise? Does he not think that looks awful, is unacceptable and is a kick in the stomach to people who are already down?

What the Deputy is saying is that politicians should decide their own pay. I do not believe that is a good system. I do not believe that, in any other walk of life, people get to decide their own pay. There is a pay increase that people can decide to either accept or reject. Apart from the 2% increase, which the Deputy says he is gifting back to the State, what I hear him say, in essence, is that he is accepting the full salary from the State but that he is deciding what to do with it. This means he has already accepted a number of rounds of restoration of previous FEMPI pay cuts. Politicians within People Before Profit are accepting that and they are then putting that into some fund, apparently, which they presumably then make a decision on how to distribute, and in respect of which the State has no role whatsoever. Apart from this 2%, what I hear the Deputy saying is that he is accepting the full salary from the State. What we are doing is open and transparent. The Deputy is preaching over there while, at the same time, he has been taking the full salary from the State but not telling everybody what the balance is, in net terms, that he says he does not take. Is it gross or is it net? Where does that money go?

We are saying we should cut the pay of politicians. What we are doing with the 2% is that we are not taking it, but we do not think it should be a choice for the politicians to take it. In terms of the average industrial wage, we use that money as we pledged in our election manifesto in a very clear way. We pledged that we would take the average industrial wage, so I have not benefited one cent personally from any pay increase that other politicians have all benefited from in the context of their already high salaries, We use that money to fund constituency services, campaigns, groups and organisations that campaign for social justice and for equality. That is what we use it for, as we promised. We would much rather do that than give it to you lot to then give to bankers or give further pay increases to politicians. It is a far more admirable strategy. If the Minister was really concerned about this, and was concerned about the things he is implying he is concerned about, he would cut the pay of politicians and certainly would not increase it.

I call the Minister.

We have had the full round of questions but I am happy to come back in.

We can move on.

Deputy Boyd Barrett got an extra round so, to be fair, I will take a further moment. I assume he is suggesting that legislation would be introduced to set politicians' pay, and then we would be the only body I am aware of that would have the power to, in essence, set its own pay. I hear the Deputy talk about a fund that his party uses to distribute to worthy causes, and I have no doubt they are worthy, although I have not seen the operation of that fund or how transparent it is. I assume that is fully published for everyone to see. The Deputy talks about the average industrial wage. Is that gross or net? I do not know. The truth is he is taking the full money from the State and then he makes a decision, as he sees fit, on what to do with it. He should be honest and upfront with people that this is what he is proposing.

Politicians should not set their own pay. We have a system in place which goes back 20 years. If individuals do not wish to accept the increase, they are perfectly open to doing that, as I am doing myself.

We move on to Question No. 98.

It is the same question.

Then I suppose the Deputy does not need to say anything.

Public Sector Pay

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

98. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if the foregoing of the pay rise for all public representatives will be agreed to as part of a Covid-19 solidarity measure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26722/20]

If the question is whether we should have a democratic discussion in this House about politicians' pay, where the public can listen in and, indeed, exercise influence on us about what the pay levels should be, then, yes, I think that would be preferable. If the public had a say in it, they would say that we are paid far too much and that it would be much better if our pay was linked to the average pay of working people because then we would be representing everybody, not just the well paid.

That is a view the Deputy is perfectly entitled to hold and, as a Member of this House, he is perfectly entitled to bring forward whatever legislation he thinks is appropriate to empower the Dáil to set its own rates of pay. I do not think that would be a better system. The system we have is completely independent and beyond our direct control. We are linked to a certain grade within the Civil Service and I think that settles the issue. We are linked to that grade, irrespective of whether the rate of pay is going up or going down.

The Deputy has spoken about the 2% and said he is not going to take it. Some Deputies may take it and other Deputies will not. It is a matter for each individual to make that decision and I am not going to lecture or advise anyone as to what he or she should do. I am telling the Deputy what I am doing personally, as a member of Government, and that is the equivalent of an annualised cut in pay of 12% ,which is the right thing to do because we are in a hugely privileged position to serve in government and to represent the people of this country, as well as our constituencies. It is a matter for the Deputy if he has a proposal to make. Let him make it to the House - in this democratic forum - in the normal way.

The Minister does not seem to get the point. I was on the picket line with Debenhams workers the other day. They were sickened at the thought that people in this House were going to get a pay increase when their pandemic unemployment payments were going to be cut by those very people. Does the Minister understand why they would be sickened about a situation where they have been abandoned, where the Government has let them down and where people who have worked for decades have just been dumped on the scrapheap? The Government sits by and gives them tea and sympathy but does nothing to help them, and they are literally dumped by a ruthless company and a Government that washes its hands of their fate. Then, they see that politicians are giving themselves a pay rise. Does the Minister not get how angry that would make them? I can tell him it was not me prompting them. When I hear that kind of stuff, I think we have to respond to that and we have to say it is not just a matter of individual choice. Fair play to the Minister for making that choice, and we have made that choice that we will not take the pay increase, but, against that background, I do not believe any politician in this House should receive an increase in respect of an already high salary.

The Deputy has characterised this once again as politicians giving themselves a pay rise. That is misleading and he knows it is misleading. It is stoking up the anger that is undoubtedly there. The reality is that the system which is in place takes it out of the hands of politicians, in essence, and I think that is the right thing to do. The Deputy might think it would be a great thing to bring in legislation that reduces politicians' pay but if we give that power to the House, it might make a different decision at another point with which he would completely disagree. Is it not far better that we have a system where we do not have direct control?

The Deputy has singled out politicians, as is his right and as is his form, but there are many others in the public service earning far more than politicians and he has not singled them out. He wants very special treatment for politicians to not be paid the 2%. As I have said, I am not taking it and the members of the Government are not taking it, but I think it is only proper that we allow each individual to make that decision. The Deputy is throwing all of this out there, but I do not hear an alternative proposal as to what to do. If he has one, he should bring it forward.

I have already put forward a proposal, as have others.

It is to link the pay of people in here to average industrial earnings. That is our proposal, that is our policy and that is what we campaigned for.

I agree with the Minister on higher paid civil servants. That would also nauseate people. Low and middle-income earners, the vast bulk of public servants, were savaged with FEMPI but those cuts did not mean the same for the super-well-paid civil servants at the very top of the Civil Service, and that nauseated people too. We have a policy for that and we have put it across many times in this House.

That policy is that nobody who is paid out of the public purse should be getting more than €100,000 and that higher bands of tax should apply to anybody earning in excess of that amount, whether in the public or private sector, so that an end can be brought to the shocking differentials between the earnings of people on low and average incomes, who work just as hard as anybody in here, and the earnings of individuals who are on multiples of those salaries.

I thank the Deputy. He made some additional points. He wants every Deputy to be paid the average industrial wage and he is perfectly entitled to hold that policy. I do not know if he would also apply that policy to all other public servants earning as much as or more than Deputies. Perhaps that is his policy; I simply do not know. We have a system whereby we do not set our own pay and under which our pay is linked to that of a certain grade within the Civil Service. This takes our level of pay out of our direct control. Of course it grates with many people who are in extremely tough circumstances to see anyone on good pay getting an increase. That is why some Members of the House have decided not to take it but it is open to others to accept it. I am not going to pass judgment on or lecture anyone as to what they should do in their own lives and individual circumstances, about which we cannot always know.

Public Sector Pay

Bernard Durkan

Question:

99. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the extent to which he expects to be in a position to continue with outstanding issues relating to the FEMPI legislation in the course of 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26668/20]

I hesitate to go down the route of this question but it must be asked. I seek to ascertain the progress to date and intentions with regard to restoration of cuts made under the FEMPI legislation given that vast swathes of public servants, including doctors, nurses and many others at the coalface whom we aspire to support, had to take severe cuts during the economic recession.

As the Deputy is aware, section 12 of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2013 obliges me to submit a written report on the operation, effectiveness and impact of FEMPI legislation to the Oireachtas before 30 June each year.  As part of those reports, I consider whether or not any of the provisions of the relevant Acts continue to be necessary having regard to the purposes of those Acts, the revenues of the State and State commitments in respect of public service pay and pensions.

My report was submitted in June of this year and highlights: the economic circumstances of the State, the budgetary outlook, the debt position, returns from taxation, Brexit and preparedness for other economic shocks. It concluded that, on the basis of the prevailing economic and fiscal outlook, the timetable for pay and pensions restoration up to July 2022 continued to be appropriate and necessary.

The report references the Public Service Pay and Pension Act 2017. This Act provides for the restoration of reductions made to public service pay and pensions by the FEMPI Acts. In that regard and as the Deputy knows, on 1 October 2020, public servants will receive a 2% pay increase. This will complete pay restoration for public servants earning up to €70,000 per annum. Also on 1 October, reductions of between 5% and 8% made to certain allowances in 2010 will cease.

In addition to pay, the Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017 provides that, by the end of this year, an order shall be made to restore, at a date to be decided, reductions made to certain public service pensions.

Taking what I have just said into account, very substantial progress will be made in completing the FEMPI restoration process by the end of this year. I highlight that the elements I have set out relate to the thousands of public servants who have been at the front line in delivering key services during the current pandemic. These services are critical and range across the areas of health, education, justice, welfare and business supports to name but a few. They have ensured that this Government continues to deliver a comprehensive national response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Given the pivotal nature of the services provided by public servants generally, during the current Covid crisis and during the previous crisis, does the Minister remain satisfied that it will be possible to proceed along the lines anticipated heretofore into 2021 and 2022 without interruption, having particular regard to the disquiet among some in the public sector and what they see as the unfairness of the cuts which were, understandably, imposed upon them?

I thank the Deputy. It is fair to point out that the emphasis of the restoration process to date has been on low and middle-income earners within the public service. By 1 October, people earning up to €70,000 will have had their pay fully restored. That is a significant milestone. There are further measures in the FEMPI Acts, to which I have alluded. A process is set out in the legislation with regard to the unwinding of the remainder of the FEMPI provisions. These will be considered in due course. As I have highlighted, under the current Act, by the end of this year I have to signal a date by which the public service pension reductions will be reversed. There is also a schedule in place so that, by July 2021 and July 2022, restoration will be complete for higher-earning public servants. All of those matters remain under consideration but for now the priority is to see out the current public pay deal and, it is hoped, to negotiate a new one.

The Minister obviously remains satisfied in the ability of the Exchequer to deal with the situations outstanding, particularly those situations in which it was felt there was an unfairness regarding the way cuts were distributed in that they impacted more upon one sector than another. The reply the Minister has given correctly states that those earning up to €70,000 will have had their pay restored but, in the meantime, they would possibly have reached a higher bracket had they not these severe cuts imposed. I am not suggesting for one moment that the cuts could have been avoided at the time. They want right across the board and affected everybody. Everyone was hit very severely. Many people in those income brackets lost their homes for a variety of reasons including having entered financial commitments with which they could not continue. The Minister has confirmed that we will continue with the restoration of cuts made under FEMPI legislation to the best of his ability.

In overall terms, it is very important that we manage the public service pay and pensions bill, which is of the order of €20 billion and which represents approximately one third of the State's overall current expenditure. This needs to be managed in an affordable and responsible manner. That will inform and guide my approach with what remains to be done with regard to the FEMPI legislation. Cabinet gave approval today for the drafting of legislation to remove what has become known as the FEMPI handcuffs. That is another important step along the journey. The 2% pay restoration to be implemented on 1 October will have a full-year cost of €264 million. On balance, it is the right thing to do to honour the agreement in full. I hope it will create a better and more positive environment within which it might be possible to negotiate a new deal with the public service unions, albeit in very changed and difficult circumstances.

Garda Stations

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

100. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the extent of his engagement over the past year with other State agencies regarding the new Garda station for Macroom, County Cork; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26376/20]

The Garda station in Macroom is very much showing its age. The need to upgrade and to replace the station has been very well established over a number of years. That is why it was included in the capital programme for the period from 2016 to 2021. Even though the land was bought some five years ago, very little progress, if any, seems to have been made in advancing the project. The Department of Justice and Equality was to confirm that it was a priority project. Can that now be confirmed? Is it a priority project? Is advancing through a public private partnership? What is the up-to-date position on getting the new station for Macroom?

I will answer the Deputy's question about Macroom Garda station on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, who cannot be here in the Chamber. Since the Garda Commissioner’s announcement of a major reorganisation of An Garda Síochána’s structures and the decision to change the new Macroom station from a district station to a regional and divisional headquarters in late 2019, the Office of Public Works has undertaken intensive engagement with the key relevant State agencies.

The Office of Public Works, OPW, has been liaising with An Garda Síochána in respect of the brief and the design of the scheme since the Garda Commissioner announced the station in Macroom was to operate as a regional and divisional headquarters. The design is well advanced and is currently with An Garda Síochána for approval of the plans.

From an early stage in the project, there has been ongoing engagement with the local authority, Cork County Council, with which the OPW jointly acquired a greenfield site off the N22 for dual use. There has been ongoing technical consultation with the local authority, which will deliver the shared access road as part of a fire station development. It is understood this aspect of the development has been tendered by the local authority and completion of this part of the work is critical to a public private partnership contractor being able to commence work on the Garda station site. Meetings have taken place between OPW and the local authority with regard to the planning application and site infrastructure for the development, including water supply, drainage and road junctions. The relevant pre-connection inquiries have been made to Irish Water.

Considerable energy has been added to the project since it was promoted to a new divisional headquarters. The divisional headquarters will serve the entire county of Cork, one eighth of the entire island. The Minister of State can well imagine the additional demand on the station. I imagine he will well understand the frustration locally, having seen little progress on this project for several years. It is good that new energy is coming to it at this stage and I thank him for that. Can he clarify who the different stakeholders are? Who has been engaged at this stage? The National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, was to advance the public private partnership aspect of the project. The agency was waiting for the Department of Justice and Equality to identify the project as a priority. Is the project continuing as a PPP? Has the NDFA engaged with the OPW? Is the agency in a position to advance the project?

The idea that the fire station project would in some way impede this project does not stand up; it is actually the other way around. Cork County Council was able to advance the project, despite the fact that the council had to wait to get updates on the shared entrance. Who are the different agencies involved? Has the NDFA been given the go-ahead to drive on full tilt as a public private partnership?

The Deputy has asked who the stakeholders are. The OPW has had meetings with the NDFA, An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice and Equality, which is funding the project on a regular basis to progress it as part of a PPP. Other agencies are involved as well. There were long negotiations with Cork County Council regarding the shared access road. Irish Water has concerns about the capacity required.

An Garda Síochána upgraded this project significantly last year. It is a completely different project, more than twice the size of what was originally intended. We have multiple agencies involved and there is liaison with the county council over a road and the fire station. We have a changing specification as well. There are numerous complications. The fact that the project only changed last year indicates that it will take some time.

There has been engagement with the county council in respect of the planning, preparation and design. Will the Minister of State clarify whether it will be a county council application? Will it be an OPW Part 9 fast-track process? Can such a fast-track process be used? We have seen so much lost time on the project over several years. Could the fast-track process be used to move this along? How soon will we be able to see the much-needed Garda station project advance to planning and tender? Can the Minister of State clarify that, please?

An Garda Síochána has not yet signed off on the design. The project cannot be sent for planning permission until An Garda Síochána signs off on it.

The Deputy asked about the form of planning application, who will lodge it and whether we will use a traditional planning application or a fast-track process. I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, to contact him directly on the matter. I apologise as I do not have that information to hand.

Public Sector Staff

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

101. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will consider the call from trade unions and civil society for a four-day week across the public sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26724/20]

Deputy Boyd Barrett has been lucky in the lottery.

I have a little luck for a change.

You should buy a ticket tomorrow night, Deputy.

The Fórsa trade union has launched a campaign to introduce a four-day week. It is something that people on the left, including trade unionists and socialists, have argued for a long time would be a good measure. It is even more appropriate now that we should consider introducing a four-day week given the pandemic and the vast numbers of people who have lost their jobs. I am keen to hear the Minster's response to the proposal.

I am aware of the FourDayWeek campaign led by Fórsa, ICTU and other civil society groups. Many of the implications of this proposal need to be carefully considered for the entire labour force and not simply in the public service. Indeed, any movement by the public service in isolation could have serious consequences for small and medium-sized businesses struggling in the face of Covid-19.

I will deal with the public services as the Deputy has asked. However, I would first like to make the point that the State is already a good employer that offers staff considerable flexibility through the availability of, among other things, work sharing, flexible working hours, shorter working years, career breaks and now remote working.

In my role as Minister, I have to ensure that quality public services are delivered to the people in a manner that delivers value for money to the taxpayer. There are two core issues associated with any transition to a four-day week for the public service. The first is the cost to the taxpayer and the second is ensuring continuity of services to the public. Estimating the full Exchequer cost of the proposal would be highly complex as it would encompass more than 342,000 public servants across almost 200 organisations. At a very high level, paying people for four days but providing services to the citizen over five, and in some cases seven, days would add at least one fifth to the current pay bill of approximately €20 billion. That equates to an extra €4 billion, which would have to be found to deliver the same level of services. In reality, an extra €4 billion is probably a conservative estimate as gaps would likely be filled though overtime payments and additional cover from agency staffing, both of which come at a considerable premium. It is unclear how increased productivity alone could offset the cost in the context of keeping essential services open. Practical issues will arise for the Garda, members of the fire brigade, nurses in hospitals and so on operating a four-day week. I can go into that in a moment.

I am unsure whether people remember this but when I was studying geography in school, amazingly, the geography book said that by the time we got to around now, the 2020s, the biggest problem society would have would be that because of technological advance, we would all be working a three-day week and we would be trying to figure out things to do in all our leisure time.

How wrong they were.

The suggestion was that technology would confer great benefits in respect of labour saving and increased productivity. We got all the increased productivity. However, instead of this improving the quality of life of workers, the opposite has happened. We even had, as part of the austerity programme, the infamous Lansdowne Road hours, adding hours rather than reducing them.

I do not accept that we would see a fall-off in services. In fact, countries that have shorter working weeks have higher levels of productivity. A happier workforce, one with a better quality of life, is a more productive workforce. I believe the Minster is wrong in his argument.

Is the Deputy advocating that for politicians as well?

We are only working three days in here.

Deputy Boyd Barrett may speak for himself.

I am unsure whether the Deputy is advocating that people would work for four days and be paid for five days or would work for four days and be paid for four days. In any event, there are real consequences for key parts of our public services. Let us consider teachers for example. Is Deputy Boyd Barrett suggesting that schools would only open for four days per week and not for five? We need to think about the implications this would create for families, childcare issues and so on. Other front-line services, including gardaí, members of the fire service, nurses and doctors would be affected. I am not at all clear on exactly how it would work in practice.

There should be acknowledgement that the State is a good employer. I have offered some examples, including the shorter working year, work sharing, flexitime, career breaks and, increasingly, remote working, which is a feature that is here to stay. There is an ambition in the programme for Government to deliver that.

Many public servants are earning less now than they were ten years ago during austerity. They have not had their pay restored and they are working longer hours. Let us think about our nurses.

They are overrun and underpaid and there is pay apartheid. The same is true for our teachers, and there is pay apartheid even for the service officers and ushers here in the House, who are paid different rates depending on when they came into the place. I would not, therefore, laud the treatment of public servants. Some, perhaps, are very well paid and well treated, but others not so.

That is a somewhat separate argument, and, of course, there are complexities and nuances to a four-day week, but it is about establishing the basic principle. Once upon a time, the weekend was considered impossible and there was no such thing. We then got a weekend because people fought for it, and society and the economy were better for it. The very same principle can apply to the four-day week,s and it is not about cutting people's pay.

I would not like to accuse the Deputy of trying to cut people's pay. He put the question in the context of the public service only but this issue has to be examined in the round, for the private sector as well. I am sure he is not suggesting one treatment for public servants while people working in shops, factories and offices would continue to work a five-day week-----

The question would have been moved if I had mentioned everybody else.

We would still have taken the question. The Deputy said there were nuances and complexities, and there are very real ones, such as the example I gave of schools. Does he suggest they should open for only four days a week? This is an issue that would benefit from social dialogue. We need to put a new structure in place to facilitate a full dialogue involving civic society, with employers, the public service, unions and other important stakeholders.

Deputy Carroll MacNeill is not present to ask her question.

Question No. 102 replied to with Written Answers.

Garda Stations

Brendan Smith

Question:

103. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the progress to date in carrying out refurbishment works at the Garda station in Bawnboy, County Cavan, to enable it to reopen as announced by the Department of Justice and Equality some time ago; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26729/20]

The acting Garda Commissioner in November 2017, in a report to the Department of Justice and Equality, outlined that An Garda Síochána had decided to reopen six Garda stations that had been closed some years previously. He outlined to the Department that he had been in touch with the OPW with regard to the necessary modernisation or upgrading of any of the Garda stations so chosen. The Garda station in Bawnboy, my home village, was one of the six that it was decided to reopen and we were told work would commence in a relatively short time. The station has been modernised and upgraded. What progress has there been to date?

The programme for Government provided for a pilot programme of station reopenings throughout the country, including Bawnboy Garda station. The OPW undertook technical surveys on the building and issued a report to Garda estate management on the works required, the indicative costs involved and a proposed layout. The deliberative process between An Garda Síochána and the OPW to finalise proposals is ongoing. On final Garda sign-off, the office will prepare, submit and publicise the necessary Part 9 planning application and progress the procurement of works required to reopen the station, which is expected to take place in 2020. In the interim, the OPW is arranging enabling works that are necessary prior to the removal of asbestos.

The same wording used in that reply was used in a reply to a parliamentary question I asked in 2018 or 2019 about this deliberative process between the OPW and An Garda Síochána. This is not a massive development; it is a relatively small-scale project.

The former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, was very supportive of reopening Bawnboy Garda station when I put questions to him in the House on this issue in the past. I think it was early in 2019 that, in response to a parliamentary question, he indicated that the station would reopen before the end of 2019. Subsequently, in September 2019, the then Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Kevin Boxer Moran, indicated that the station would reopen by mid-2020.

What progress has been made in this deliberative process in regard to getting plans finalised and construction commenced?

One of the problems faced in this project was obtaining approval, due to universal access requirements for building compliance, which, as the Deputy will understand, is necessary. There was also a question about whether these stations should have married quarters attached to them when operational, and An Garda Síochána has yet to decide whether such accommodation is to be part of the functions of the reopened station.

A fast-track application is being prepared under Part 9 and that is expected to happen this year.

I would like the Minister of State to insist with the OPW that it stick to the timeframe this time, which I would greatly appreciate. It was only last week that the Garda Commissioner joined us at a meeting of the Cavan joint policing committee, where we spoke about the difficulties in policing a long land border with a different jurisdiction. Bawnboy is a small village in west County Cavan with a rural community and it is a long way to the next Garda station. At the time it was closed, I argued, along with the local community, for it to be reinstated and was very glad when the then Garda Commissioner announced it was one of the stations that would reopen. The local community is anxious that the station be reinstated as soon as possible.

What was brought home to very clearly during the recent Covid-19 pandemic was the value of community policing and the presence of members of An Garda Síochána in our communities. It is a comfort for communities when they know of the local Garda presence, which a local Garda station facilitates. I ask the Minister of State to relay the message to officials at the OPW that we want movement on this as rapidly as possible.

I appreciate the Deputy's concerns about security, particularly around the Border area. Six stations were identified for reopening as part of the pilot programme, four of which have thus far reopened, with Bawnboy and Leighlinbridge the two that remain. There has been progress on this but I appreciate the Deputy's point on the concerns of local people about having community policing in place. I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, to revert to him on the topic.

Public Sector Reform Review

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

104. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his plans for a new drive for public service reform as mentioned in the programme for Government; if this will not include a slowdown in recruitment or an undermining of staffing levels; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26723/20]

To follow on from our earlier discussion, the way in which services can be maintained on a four-day week, whether in schools, local authorities, hospitals or anywhere else in the public service, while keeping those services, is by recruiting more people, such as more teachers, nurses, local authority workers or youth and community workers. I want to know that we are going to go in the direction of recruitment to provide high-quality public services, rather than the cuts and understaffing that plague our public services.

I acknowledge the extraordinary response of our public servants and their organisations to the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. We can all be proud of the great work that is under way during this unprecedented public health emergency.

A number of reforms that have been introduced under the Government’s public service reform agenda, such as the build-to-share ICT infrastructure, the progressive digitalisation of services, a streamlined and centralised Government procurement system, shared services and centralised strategic HR capability, have greatly facilitated our civil and public services in responding rapidly to the challenges emerging from the pandemic. The current framework for public service reform and innovation, Our Public Service 2020, launched at the end of 2017, builds on earlier programmes of reform while expanding their scope to accelerate the digital delivery of public services, deliver better services to customers, drive innovation and develop our people and organisations. The Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, who has responsibility in this area, is very keen to continue and develop further that ambitious programme.

Our Department has begun consultations on developing a successor framework to Our Public Service 2020 and similar work is well advanced in framing a renewal plan for the Civil Service. The vision and strategy underpinning this will focus on large-scale, ambitious transformation to support greatly enhanced digital service delivery, developing our data infrastructure and building the workforce and workplace of the future following the extraordinary changes that have taken place during the pandemic.

On staffing levels, as the Deputy will be aware, significant increases in Government expenditure have allowed for the recruitment of additional staff across the public service since 2015. Over the past four years alone, the number in the public service has increased by more than 30,000.

When the Fine Gael and Labour Party Government came to power in 2011, it coined its infamous slogan that it would get more for less. As that Government swung the austerity axe, the result was not more for less but a hell of a lot less at every level in our public services, to the point that we have nearly 1 million people waiting for procedures in hospitals, the lowest rate of ICU beds anywhere in Europe in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, the most overcrowded classrooms and waiting lists for housing maintenance, adaptations and developing Part 8 projects because of chronic understaffing. All of the procurement policies and technological streamlining in the world do not substitute for the people who are needed to deliver services. We are not being aggressive enough in recruiting the nurses, teachers, local authority workers and community and youth workers we need to deliver public services.

I have a question on this matter, although we might not get to it this evening. I asked for confirmation on some issues relating to the e-Government strategy which was meant to be updated. I would like to get a timeline for that because it has become much more important in the time of Covid-19. People are interacting more with Government services online because they have to and we need to make sure the strategy is up-to-date.

The plan is that the strategy will be updated in quarter 1 of next year.

At this point, our public service has never been larger. The Deputy is right that there were major cuts to numbers at the bottom or in the trough. These left us with approximately 292,000 public servants and we now have about 343,000. Recruitment in recent years has been essential to keep pace with demographic changes and undo some of the cuts that were imposed during those years. We face great challenges and we are determined to continue with a programme of recruitment. In the overall context, this has to be done in an affordable way. As a result of decisions the Government has made since coming into office, we have seen the initiation of additional recruitment in key areas of the public service in recent months. That will continue.

The facts on the ground speak for themselves. To allude to our earlier discussion, they suggest that there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Too much of the money is going to the chiefs and not enough is going to pay the people who deliver the front-line services. Our ICU situation, for example, is terrifying. It is not about beds because we have the beds and ventilators. We do not have the staff because we have not recruited them or created the posts. We are not creating the posts in nursing and we are not aiming to recruit enough teachers to reduce our class sizes to the level of those in Denmark, as opposed to having three times the ratio in Denmark. We are desperately lacking outdoor workers in local authorities to do maintenance work, work in communities, fix the roads and do all of that kind of stuff. There is a clear and obvious shortage of front-line public sector workers in the area of key service delivery and we need to respond to that.

I acknowledge that over the past six months, in particular, some public services have been under huge pressure and some have simply not been able to operate because of the extraordinary circumstances we are all living through. The numbers speak for themselves, however. The number of public servants has increased significantly and across the board, including in our health service, where we have well over 120,000 people working. The winter plan we unveiled will involve additional recruitment. This year alone, we are spending an extra €3 billion on health because we have to do so and it is the right thing to do. We are determined to ensure that we fund our health service properly for next year, not just to deal with the pandemic but also to deal once and for all with the deep-rooted structural problems in the health service and ensure it has the capacity, both in physical infrastructure, such as beds, and in the people needed to run the services. We are determined to do that.

Flood Prevention Measures

Tagaimid anois go dtí Ceist Uimh. 105 ón Teachta Griffin. Deputy Griffin received an honourable mention earlier today.

Brendan Griffin

Question:

105. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the implementation of necessary flood prevention works in Kenmare and Sneem, County Kerry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26340/20]

It is rare that I get such a mention in this House so I will have to mark the date in the calendar. I raise the issue of recurring flooding in Kenmare and Sneem, County Kerry. Most recently, at the end of July, we had serious flooding in Kenmare and Sneem. While we also had flooding in other parts of south Kerry, it particularly affected those two locations. I want to keep this matter high on the agenda. I seek an update on progress on measures to alleviate flooding in these areas.

The Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, has informed me that he has personally visited all of the areas that suffered from flooding and he would like to thank the Deputy for raising this issue. A steering group, comprising of representatives from the Office of Public Works and Kerry County Council, is already in place to progress a number of schemes in County Kerry, including the Kenmare flood relief scheme. Earlier this year, Kerry County Council appointed three additional technical and administrative staff to support the progression of these schemes. These posts are being funded by the OPW to progress the schemes proposed for County Kerry under the flood risk management plans.

Kenmare's scheme is due to be implemented as part of the first tranche of 60 new schemes that have been prioritised for implementation nationally, following the launch of the flood risk management plans by the Minister of State's office in May 2018, and the announcement of a €1 billion investment in flood risk over the coming decade. Potentially viable flood relief works for Kenmare, to be implemented as appropriate after project level assessment and planning, or exhibition and confirmation, would include fluvial flood defences comprising of walls and embankments on the Finnihy and Kealnagower rivers, and tidal flood defences comprising of walls, embankments and removable barriers. The measures proposed also include the removal of the existing pipe under Finnihy Bridge. Kerry County Council is on schedule to issue the request for tenders for engineering design consultants and environmental consultants, from the Office of Public Works framework of consultants, in October 2020.

 In the meantime, the steering group has also proposed interim works that will involve the clearance of vegetation along a 600 m stretch of the Kealnagower river from the bridge at Aldi to where the Kealnagower river meets the Finnihy river, and a 600 m stretch of the Finnihy river from behind St. Claire’s Convent to the footbridge downstream of Cornwell’s Bridge. This vegetation will need to be cleared to allow various surveys, site investigations and examinations of environmental baselines and so on to take place. This will also involve the removal of debris that poses an immediate risk in a flood event of leading to blockages in bridges as was seen in the recent flooding event in Kenmare where a number of properties were flooded. Subject to approval, this work will be completed before the end of the year.

I thank the Minister of State for the response and I acknowledge the visit of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, to the south Kerry area following my request after the flooding in July. I also acknowledge the financial supports that were put in place for affected parties in the locality following the request I made in early August. That is very important but it is critical that the tenders issue in October and we see consultants appointed. I understand that the design phase will take up to 18 months before planning will be sought and the works commenced. The fear in the areas of Kenmare and Sneem is that there will be a recurrence of serious flooding.

I ask that the tender process be prioritised and there is no undue delay. In respect of Sneem, I ask that similar priority be given to having the matter addressed as soon as possible.

On the appointment of consultants by tender, it is scheduled to issue a request for tenders to the engineering and environmental framework in October, with the appointment of a consultant in the first quarter of 2021.

On the completion of the Kenmare flood relief scheme, following the appointment of a consultant in early 2021, the programme for delivering a flood relief scheme for Kenmare will take a number of years, contingent on planning approval. Once planning is in place, the construction of the flood relief scheme for Kenmare will likely take between 18 and 24 months.

Civil Service

Pa Daly

Question:

106. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the additional budgetary amounts that have been assigned to facilitate working from home or flexible working hours across the Civil Service. [26341/20]

Given that we will be dealing Covid-19 on an ongoing basis, what additional budgetary amounts have been assigned to facilitate working from home or flexible working hours across the Civil Service?

The Deputy has waited patiently to contribute. The response to the Covid-19 crisis was swift, with many civil and public servants transitioning to working from home at very short notice. This was an unprecedented action but it was entirely necessary to ensure the health and well-being of staff across the system was protected as best we could.

Most Departments and offices, including my Department, would have had remote access solutions or systems in place and issued mobile devices such as laptops and tablets before the pandemic. In my Department, approximately 97% of staff are enabled to work from home, with most of the other client organisations of the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer at between 80% to 95% staff remote working coverage.

No additional expenditure allocations have been provided to Departments to facilitate working from home arrangements or flexible working hours across the Civil Service in response to Covid-19. Any additional funding incurred by Departments, including in respect of information technology resources required, is to be met from within existing resources, and they have done so. The management of resources in this regard is a matter for each individual Department and Minister.

With regard to my Department specifically, the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, which is an office of the Department, has spent €267,000 to date on capital equipment for the Department, including for itself, from its Vote. The vast majority of this expenditure relates to facilitating staff to work remotely through the purchase of information technology equipment. This cost is being met internally through existing capital budgets by reprioritising expenditure. My Department has also spent €22,000 on remote working equipment from its own Vote to date.

I thank the Minister for the reply. Coming from a rural county, I am excited by the possibilities afforded by remote working to a place like Kerry. As I said, we will be dealing with Covid-19 for a long time.

I have a concern about contacting some Departments, although none of these is the Minister's Department. There is a difficulty in our office getting through to some Departments. When we got through to one we were told it was like a ghost town and when calls were transferred, nobody answered the phone. There is nothing on the websites to indicate that phones are not being answered and that only emails will be responded to. I wonder if extra facilities or staffing can be put in place to ensure the same level of service is maintained across all Departments. For example, staff in a school in Kerry contacted the Department to try to find out what was happening with broadband and were advised to contact their local representative. The staff did that somewhat reluctantly, unfortunately.

I thank the Deputy and agree with his initial point. Remote working brings certain opportunities for the regions and for individuals it may open career opportunities that people thought may not be possible. A degree of remote working is here to stay and we must think about what is the right balance both for the employer, the public servant and the public services being provided. There is also the issue of cities if large numbers of people are not based in or working in them.

I will take up the matter of maintaining public services as we must ensure, insofar as it is possible, that services are maintained even in the extraordinary circumstances in which we work. If phone calls are systematically not being answered, I will look into the matter.

Question No. 107 is in the name of Deputy Pearse Doherty but we do not appear to have a request to transfer the question to Deputy Farrell. On that basis, I reluctantly must pass over the question.

Question No. 107 replied to with Written Answers.

Flood Relief Schemes

Kieran O'Donnell

Question:

108. Deputy Kieran O'Donnell asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of flood relief schemes in Limerick city and environs, including Coonagh, King's Island and Castleconnell; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26359/20]

I specifically seek an update on the flood relief projects in Limerick city and its environs, including Coonagh, King's Island, Castleconnell, Montpelier, Annacotty village and the Mountshannon Road. The Minister of State has visited these areas and people's lives are being affected there. Houses in Coonagh were flooded and residents are now getting back into their homes. The people of King's Island are waiting on a large project to get under way. Funding has been allocated to Castleconnell village, which has been repeatedly flooded over a number of years. This extends down to the Mountshannon Road and into Annacotty village. Montpelier is also affected.

As the Deputy notes, the Minister of State has visited Limerick city and other areas where flooding has occurred. I thank him for raising the question of the status of flood relief schemes in Limerick city and its environs, including Coonagh, King's Island and Castleconnell. As the Deputy knows, the Minister of State is very familiar with the areas in question. On 15 September, in the company of officials from Limerick City and County Council and the Office of Public Works, he visited Coonagh to view the area where the embankments were breached. From there he visited King's Island and received updates on these projects.

The evidence provided by the catchment flood risk and assessment and management, CFRAM, programme, which was launched by the Office of Public Works in May 2018, supports the Government’s €1 billion planned investment to complete 151 flood relief schemes through the national development plan up to 2027 as part of Project 2040. Since May 2018, the number of flood relief schemes under design and construction by the OPW in partnership with local authorities has increased to approximately 90. These include schemes in King's Island, Limerick city and its environs and Castleconnell. Together with the 46 schemes already completed or substantially completed, including a number of localised schemes within Limerick city, this means that the OPW and local authorities have completed or are now actively working on projects to protect 80% of those properties to be protected in this decade.

There is currently in place a joint Limerick City and County Council and OPW steering group for delivery of schemes in County Limerick. The OPW has agreed to fund two engineering resources and a senior staff officer in Limerick to work on delivery of the schemes. The senior executive engineer and senior staff officer are now in place and the executive engineer post is to be filled. A project brief for the procurement of engineering and environmental consultants to develop a flood relief scheme for Limerick city was advertised on the e-tenders platform in July 2020. It is intended to appoint consultants in December 2020. Once consultants are appointed to progress the flood relief scheme, consultation with statutory and non-statutory bodies, as well as the public, will take place at the appropriate stages to ensure that all parties have the opportunity to input into the development of the scheme.

I thank the Minister of State for the update. I accompanied the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, on his tour of Limerick and the flood relief projects in Coonagh and King's Island that have been mentioned. He is also very familiar with Castleconnell, the Mountshannon Road, Annacotty and Montpelier, as well as the projects throughout Limerick city.

I welcome that additional staff are to be appointed. I ask that the appointment of design teams be expedited, although I know the design team is already in place for Castleconnell. These matters must be rectified as quickly as possible and I welcome the Minister of State's commitment in the House today.

Is Deputy Ó Murchú spreading his tentacles to Limerick?

Not to waste a question or answer on CFRAM, as a colleague from another constituency has put down a question, I assume the Minister of State has an answer to my question on flood protection.

The Deputy is testing my patience.

I refer to such measures in Dundalk, Drogheda and across County Louth. Will the Minister of State very quickly synopsise the timeline for those flood defences?

I apologise as I am replying on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, who has good reasons for not being here. I am really not qualified to answer the Deputy's question so I will need to revert to him directly if that is all right.

I thank the Minister of State for his honesty.

eGovernment Services

Eoghan Murphy

Question:

109. Deputy Eoghan Murphy asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the eGovernment strategy. [26680/20]

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the latitude he afforded earlier. I was worried that we would not get to the question. We will not get enough time to discuss it. The Minister of State has already answered the question by saying the new strategy will be updated in the first quarter of next year. I know it might not seem like a very important matter, but so many of my constituents are now dealing with Government services and local authorities via electronic means such as email. When it does not work out for them it gets very difficult. We as Deputies should not have to be the middlemen between our constituents and Government services. A great strategy was in place for this important area. I had some involvement in it years ago.

The private sector is adopting a lot of new technologies which open multiple pathways of communication. One feature of private sector practice which I do not like is the use of algorithms or bots to answer questions so that a customer does not actually deal with a real person. I do not think public services should go down that road because it will not be to the satisfaction of the people involved.

We are not quite at the point of bringing in bots to answer questions here.

Hopefully not, but it is happening in the private sector. I have only found it to be a frustrating experience. When people interact with public services and public bodies they should interact with an individual where possible, including through the use of email and phones. That new strategy is very important. It is great to see a new Minister of State who is able to take charge and drive that strategy, because in small ways it has a big impact on lots of people throughout the country.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.05 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 30 September 2020.