Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Flood Relief Schemes

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

90. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the flooding projects to be undertaken by the OPW, in County Cork for 2021; the estimated cost of same; the drainage projects to be undertaken by Cork County Council with financial assistance from the Office of Public Works; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36701/20]

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

109. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform when flood defence construction works will advance in the upper Lee area for Inchigeelagh, Ballingeary and Ballyvourney; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36702/20]

Flooding is a real concern for locals in a wide range of areas in Cork including in Ardcahan, Crookstown, Curraheen, Ballingeary, Ballyvourney and Inchigeelagh. While Cork County Council and the OPW have been advancing different works, there is so much background work that not much has been seen delivered on the ground in many places. People in these areas are worried that they will be facing flooding despite plans being in place for some time. Will the Minister of State outline the plans for advancing defences in these places?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 90 and 109 together.

There is much work going on in Cork in this regard. I spent most of my summer, unfortunately, with flood victims there.

The OPW has undertaken a study of 80% of Ireland’s major sources of flooding across 300 communities in the most comprehensive study of flood risk ever undertaken by the State. The findings from the catchment flood risk assessment and management programme, CFRAM, are set out in a series of flood risk management plans. These plans identify and describe the flood risk assessed in each of 29 river basins and set out the proposed measures to address that flood risk.

The plans were launched in May 2018 and include 119 new flood relief capital works projects. These works will be funded as part of the national development plan which includes a total investment of €940 million. There are currently 11 projects at construction and a further 82 at various stages of design with a further 58 to be progressed in the coming years.

With regard to schemes under way in County Cork, the lower Lee flood relief scheme with an estimated cost of €140 million at exhibition stage will provide protection from fluvial and tidal flooding.

The Blackpool and Glashaboy flood relief schemes, with estimated costs of €20.5 million and €14 million, respectively, have been submitted by the OPW under the provisions of the Arterial Drainage Acts, accompanied by an environmental impact assessment report and a Natura impact statement to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for formal confirmation. The procurement and appointment of a contractor will be progressed for this schemes following formal ministerial confirmation.

The Douglas flood relief scheme, estimated cost of €22.6 million, is being carried out in the following three phases. Phase 2 is complete with phase 1 currently under construction with the tender for phase 3 to issue shortly.

The Clonakilty flood relief scheme which will provide protection from fluvial and tidal flooding with an estimated cost of €27 million is currently under construction. The Midleton flood relief scheme with an estimated cost of €50 million is currently in the final stages and expected to move to the planning stage by the first quarter of 2021. A second public participation day was held on 7 March 2020.

The Ballyvourney and Ballymakeera flood relief scheme is at outline design stage. The preferred options of the scheme are now nearing finalisation. The OPW is aware of the high water quality status of the respective water body in the area around Baile Mhic Íre and Baile Bhúirne. The project team is assessing the potential impact of any proposed flood relief measures in that respect. It is engaging with the project’s environmental consultants in order to ensure that suitable mitigation requirements are implemented, as well as ensuring appropriate processes to comply with statutory provisions are followed. This is obviously an important consideration. Resolving some outstanding issues is taking longer than originally anticipated.

Bantry flood relief scheme - unfortunately the people of Bantry have been inundated again this week - is due to be implemented as part of the first tranche of 60 new schemes that have been prioritised for implementation nationally. Cork County Council has agreed to be the lead authority in the delivery of the scheme. Potential viable flood relief works, at an estimated cost of €6.7 million, to be implemented as appropriate after project-level assessment and planning, will include fluvial flood defences comprising walls and embankments with tidal flood defences comprising sea walls. Tender documentation is currently being finalised for the procurement of engineering consultants.

The proposed schemes for Ballingeary, Inchigeelagh, Inishannon, Castlemartyr, Castletown Bearhaven, Kanturk, Rathcormack, Schull and Youghal are not in the first tranche of projects to be progressed. The OPW and Cork County Council are working closely to ensure that the programme of flood relief projects identified for County Cork is kept under review. They will also work to ensure all projects will be commenced as soon as possible within the ten-year timeframe for the programme of investment. In addition, feasibility reports for proposed schemes at Macroom, Carrigaline and Ballinhassig are under review.

The OPW also manages a minor flood mitigation works scheme to provide funding to local authorities for small for localised schemes. Over €3.9 million has been approved to Cork City Council and Cork County Council under this scheme since it began in 2009.

The above schemes will bring the investment in the city and county areas of Cork to approximately €500 million when completed. Together with the completed operational schemes in Mallow, Fermoy, Bandon and Skibbereen which provide flood protection to over 1,100 properties, the other schemes in the programme will offer flood protection to approximately 4,100 properties when completed.

There is an extensive plan outlined for a wide range of areas across Cork. The Minister of State outlined the back and forth with the Ballyvourney and Ballymakeera plan. Is there a fast-track approach available to advance it through the planning process once the design is finalised? The work in that area is very much needed.

There were hopes to advance works in Ballingeary and Inchigeelagh. It has been moved to a tranche 2 scheme and, in the meantime, some smaller remedial works are being conducted. Will the Minister of State clarify when this will be advanced?

On the specifics of the schemes the Deputy identified, some of them are minor works which could be done by Cork County Council. I will get him more specific times on them.

Deputy Aindrias Moynihan raised this issue in the previous Dáil. There was a long debate in the House last week on flooding with another in the Seanad tomorrow. I would like to be able to tell Deputy Aindrias Moynihan that we can fast-track places that have been flooded. Unfortunately, we cannot. My hands are tied by legislation outside of my control, most of which is environmental and planning in nature, as well as a lot of it which is of European consequence. We are bound by many regulations that, unfortunately, we have to contend with in order to make sure we can bring the schemes to construction.

The Cork city situation has been 16 years in development, with others equally as long.

While there is much prestige and more money involved with the larger schemes, the smaller schemes have huge impact in areas such as Crookstown, Curraheen and Ardcahan Bridge. One of the key roads into west Cork is via Crookstown, the R585. When that floods, it shuts out a significant flow of traffic from west Cork. The council is awaiting approval from the OPW. Will the Minister of State give an indication if the OPW can give the council the go-ahead?

Funding for the Ardcahan Bridge works is available from the Department of Transport but waiting for the OPW to give the go-ahead. Will we get an indication that the works there can proceed?

Works on the Curraheen River in Curraheen village had been progressed by Cork County Council. It was moved into the city and it seems to be now dropped. Is there any indication that the OPW has maintained plans and is advancing them for Curraheen village?

The three projects in question are in discussions between the OPW and Cork County Council. I will revert to the Deputy on each of them individually.

I know the Crookstown one well. I have a brother and sister living in Bandon. Indeed my brother has been flooded on several occasions in Bandon, so I know the value of the flood relief scheme there. I also know the village of Crookstown has often been cut off by flooding.

Flooding is getting worse. It is getting to a situation where many communities are now seeing it not once every five years but once a year. Regardless of the specifics raised by the Deputy, I have asked for the House's co-operation on this. We are going to have to respond to this issue, not case by case or village by village, but on a whole-of-government basis. I hope to bring, with my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, by the end of the year a memorandum to the Government which will detail where we are with the roll-out of CFRAM and where I believe we need to get to.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

91. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the likely impact of the move to level 5 on public expenditure for the rest of 2020. [36663/20]

The pandemic has had a significant impact on people's health and lives. It also has had a significant impact on the economy. Since we have gone to level 5, there are obviously much greater calls upon the resources of the Department. Will the Minister set out the impact of the country moving to level 5 and the impact it will have on public expenditure for 2020 and beyond?

I thank the Deputy. Covid-19 has had a profound effect on our citizens and the Government has taken significant steps to cushion the impact of the crisis on households and businesses. Expenditure Report 2021 outlined the significant additional resources allocated to Departments in response to Covid-19. At that time, gross voted expenditure of €87.1 billion was estimated for 2020. This represents an increase of €16.7 billion relative to the allocation set out in the 2020 Revised Estimates published last December. This was primarily driven by additional expenditure to support our key front-line services in responding to Covid-19 and support workers and businesses devastated by the impact of the virus.

The Government's response has been driven by the overarching need to protect our citizens from the virus and to ensure that our health service can respond effectively to meet demand for services while dealing with the impact of the pandemic. As the Deputy will be aware, the Government introduced the Covid restrictions support scheme, enhanced the employment wage subsidy scheme and reinstated the top rate of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment.

Gross voted social protection measures amounting to just over €30.3 billion were set out in Expenditure Report 2021. Taking account of the impact of the Christmas bonus, this would have brought social protection expenditure to just over €30.7 billion, reflecting the position of the labour market at that time. However, the Further Revised Estimate for 2020, presented to the Dáil on 4 November, set out expenditure of over €31.5 billion, an increase of more than €800 million relative to the position on budget day in October.

This increase from budget day reflects the increase in recipients of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, the reintroduction of the €350 weekly rate, the cash flow impact of the change in the frequency of employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, payments and the increase in the rates of same. Finally, I note that the move from level 3 to level 5 has added approximately €40 million per week to the cost of the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS.

I thank the Minister and commend him on the measures he has introduced. It was very appropriate for the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment to go back up in light of the imposition of level 5 restrictions. The Covid restrictions support scheme is also very appropriate and is much needed. However, this all costs money. There was a question around whether we would move to level 5. It is the most severe level of restrictions and the cost to the State is quite considerable. I do not know whether the Minister can state the cost of moving to level 5. He introduced a very successful and well-received budget, but ten days later, a decision was made to go to level 5. That has obviously had an impact on the country's budgetary outlook. If we move out of level 5 at the end of this month, we must be very careful about going back to it. The amount of money available is limited. We can borrow at present but borrowing may not be as cheap in the future.

I thank the Deputy. Moving to level 5 has had a significant impact on the public finances. The number of people on the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment has increased by more than 100,000 in that period and currently stands at 350,000. The weekly payment rate has gone from approximately €66 million per week at level 3 to €104 million per week under level 5. Some of that is accounted for by the reinstatement of the €350 per week rate, but the move to level 5 and the extra 100,000 recipients have had an impact. That number could increase further because of a time lag, though we certainly hope and expect to be out of level 5 in two weeks.

The cost of the CRSS has increased by €40 million per week because of the move from level 3 to level 5. These are significant sums. They have an impact and, alongside the overarching objective of keeping our people safe, they are a factor in Government decisions.

I thank the Minister. The real effect of level 5 is its significant impact on the domestic economy. An overview of the effects of the restrictions on the economy's performance shows that the multinational sector has performed well. The difficulty is that when we impose level 5 on the country, we effectively close a large part of the domestic economy down. We close non-essential retail outlets, hairdressers and restaurants. It may be a difficult thing to say, but we need to be careful if pressure is put on us to go back into level 5 at some point next year. We have seen that level 3 can be very effective. It had an effect in bringing down the numbers in the last three weeks. When the Government comes under pressure to go to level 5 again, it will be perfectly legitimate for the Minister to express the concern that if we start spending significant amounts again, we may not be able to afford other services.

I thank the Deputy. As he has rightly said, the impact on various sectors of the domestic economy has been acute. A breakdown of the profiles of recipients of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment shows that the largest number of workers comes from the accommodation and food service sector, which accounts for approximately 103,000 people. It is followed by wholesale and retail trade, accounting for approximately 57,000. Other sectors such hairdressers, beauty salons and so on account for approximately 31,000 recipients.

This is not a direct competition between health and the economy. The job of the Government is to weigh up competing considerations. Our first priority has to be helping to keep our people safe and investing in our public health service. We must only impose restrictions where we believe they are absolutely necessary. The Government's response, focused on supporting businesses and incomes and protecting employment where we can, has been noteworthy. The Deputy has been good enough to acknowledge that. A lack of confidence in public health can also impact the economy. We need to get both right.

National Monuments

Cormac Devlin

Question:

92. Deputy Cormac Devlin asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the engagement by the OPW with the Cherrywood strategic development zone, SDZ, and relevant stakeholders since January 2018. [36661/20]

Will the Minister of State provide an update on the engagement between officials in his Department and the OPW and relevant stakeholders on the Cherrywood strategic development zone, SDZ, particularly since January 2018? As he will be aware, I have raised this issue previously. It is very important not only to the constituency of Dún Laoghaire but to the State overall.

The OPW's engagement with the Cherrywood SDZ since the start of 2018 has been primarily focused on the measures to be taken in respect of protecting the Tully church national monument site and its associated crosses.  This engagement has been carried out in close partnership with the former Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, now the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. This is because that Department is the owner of Tully church on behalf of the State and the archaeological protection team within the Department is key to any discussions about the future of the site.

Throughout the past two years, officials from the OPW and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage have maintained regular contact with the developer team at Cherrywood regarding the treatment of the heritage assets in the area that need to be protected. Officials have held a series of discussions with the developers, both formally and in bilateral engagement, on how various aspects of their plans, as outlined in chapter 8 of the Cherrywood SDZ planning scheme, are to be implemented, with particular reference to the monument site.   

The OPW's engagement with the Cherrywood SDZ has been managed by the OPW heritage service's senior conservation architect responsible for the east region, which includes the Dublin area.  The Department's representative has been the corresponding senior archaeologist responsible for that area of the country. The Department has also committed up to two additional archaeologists, who are regularly involved with various aspects of the engagement.

I thank the Minister of State. I raised this issue in July. There was a changeover in the Minister of State's Department at the time. There has been a much clearer response this evening, which I welcome. My main concern is the overall development of the 360 ha SDZ, which is one of the largest in the State. The Minister of State referenced Tully church and the other nearby monuments. Because of the rich history and the artefacts in the area, chapter 8 of the SDZ plan is of paramount importance in the developer's work all around that site. It is important that the Minister of State's Department continues that good dialogue with the developer and with all stakeholders, including Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to safeguard those artefacts and ensure that when the development is complete they are protected as much as possible.

I, again, thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I have been invited to Cherrywood. When the level 5 restrictions are lifted and we are allowed to take the opportunity to visit constituencies, particularly for non-essential work, it is my intention to visit the site. I am sure at that stage I will have a better understanding, along with my officials in the OPW, as to what is at stake in terms of the protection, management and care of the monuments, not only of the church but the crosses as well. I know there has been discussion on how the most appropriate care for those crosses and monuments can be provided into the future. I am sure that if the Deputy has any suggestions in that regard the OPW will be more than anxious to hear them.

I thank the Minister of State. I want to put on record my appreciation for the work of the officials since July. I know that other meetings have taken place, more than likely virtually, but nonetheless there is good engagement on this site. The chairman of the OPW and others appeared before the Committee of Public Accounts last week. I thank them for their engagement. Given the historic nature of the Tully church and its surrounds, it is important that we get this right and that we afford those protections. Going forward, between now and when development is complete, the Minister of State might keep me informed of plans during and post-construction. If there is a site visit, I would be more than willing to participate.

We will, of course, engage with the Deputy in advance of any visit to the site.

Flood Relief Schemes

Dara Calleary

Question:

93. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the position regarding the flood alleviation scheme for Crossmolina, County Mayo. [36650/20]

Five years ago last weekend, the town of Crossmolina suffered a major flooding event. We were told it was a one in 100 year event. Three weeks later, the town was utterly destroyed in the Storm Desmond flooding event. I know a great deal of work has been done on the flood scheme since then but I want to know where it is at and when we can give certainty to the people of Crossmolina.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue relating to the Crossmolina flood relief scheme as I know it is an issue that he has raised previously. I wish to advise that the OPW has submitted the scheme, along with the required environmental assessments, to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for confirmation.

The scheme to be constructed includes a new grass-lined diversion channel; a new reinforced concrete intake structure and spillway on the banks of the River Deel at the upstream end of the channel; a new river flow control structure downstream of the intake structure; an earthen embankment; two new road bridges; and realignment of the Lake Road.

The scheme requires formal confirmation from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to proceed. This is a statutory requirement under the Arterial Drainage Acts, which now, under the recent European Union (Environmental Impact Assessment) (Arterial Drainage) Regulations 2019, also requires the Minister to carry out an environmental impact assessment, EIA, of the proposed scheme, which is separate from the OPW. This will involve, among other things, a formal review by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform of the EIA report, along with a Natura impact statement as part of the formal confirmation process.  

To assist the Minister in making an informed decision to confirm the scheme, the EIA will require, under the 2019 regulations, a public consultation for a period of 30 days, and a detailed independent technical review of the scheme, the EIA and the Natura impact statement, by environmental consultants appointed by the Minister. I am advised that the current position on the confirmation process is that a request for tender of services for environmental consultants is currently being progressed by the Department. The public consultation phase is also due to be commenced by the Department shortly.  The Department will progress the formal confirmation process, having due regard to the detailed requirements of the 2019 regulations.

There is always a possibility that further information and revision of the scheme’s design may be required, as provided for under the confirmation process and, therefore, it is impossible at this stage to give a specific date for the commencement of the works, which I know is a cause of frustration to the Deputy and others. 

The project team has launched a new website where all scheme updates will be posted as they arise. Any further information that I can provide to the Deputy, I will provide in due course.

I thank the Minister of State for the detailed reply. He has added many complications that were not previously advised. We were given timelines. I acknowledge the work of the former Minister of State, Kevin Boxer Moran, to move this project on and also the work of Councillor Michael Loftus from the Crossmolina flood action group. Since 1989, there has been four what were called "one in 100 year flood events." People in Crossmolina will spend from this weekend until next April or May with sleepless nights, watching waterlevel.ie. Every time there is a flood warning, they will worry for their houses, their business, their livelihoods and their health. This scheme has been beset with delays previously, including environmental delays. I also acknowledge the work of the local OPW team based in Ballina, which have moved this on as well. We cannot allow another winter to pass without giving some indication that this scheme will move to construction. This is a €13.5 million scheme in respect of which the OPW is going to carry out the work. I ask the Minister to take on board what the Minister of State said in terms of this being on his desk.

I thank the Deputy. To be fair, I have not added any new complications that were not previously advised. It would not be a fair reflection on the response that has been given either. I share his frustration. We are equally frustrated by the lengthy time that these things take but they have always taken time to address. It is terrible whether it is in Cloonlara or Springfield in County Clare, Bantry, Cork city or any of the towns in Wexford. As I said earlier in response to a previous question, we had a debate in the House last week on where this country needs to get to in respect of flood management, flood delivery and flood mitigation. At the moment, climate change is running faster than the process is changing. We need to have a long adult-like conversation in this country on the timeframe for the delivery of major infrastructural projects of this nature. The difficulties to which the Deputy alluded are nothing compared to the difficulties that will be encountered when we come to coastal erosion and coastal flooding. Any support that the Deputy can give me and my Department in regard to ameliorating those delays would be welcomed.

I am happy to give the Minister of State my support. I do not mean any blight on his response. I am expressing the anger and frustration that will be felt tonight in households across Crossmolina as they look at rising tides and they face into another winter of worry and stress and of not knowing if they will wake up in the morning to feet of water in their houses. We need to move this on. I ask the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, to also push this on in the Department. We need, once and for all, to give the people of Crossmolina a bit of decency and peace as they live their lives.

It goes without saying that the OPW knows the people of Crossmolina very well. They have dealt with them over a lengthy period in terms of the development of this scheme and would know at official level, through the local design team that has been in place, what has been endured by the people of Crossmolina and every other town that has flooded. I am being honest in the House tonight. Whatever has been said in the House previously regarding indicative dates, I will not do that because those dates will not, in many cases, be met and then the Deputy and other Members will be in here looking to lynch me over dates not being met. I will not do that because that is not fair to the people of Crossmolina, Cork, Cloonlara, towns in Wexford, Bantry or any of the other towns that are facing the reality of flooding. As I said, a difficult conversation has to be had in this country fairly soon in regard to the advent of climate change and the impact it is having on our ability as a country to protect people from flooding. The sooner we do that, we will do a greater service to the people of Crossmolina and every other town in the country in danger of flooding.

Budget Process

Gerald Nash

Question:

94. Deputy Ged Nash asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his views on a recent report by the Oireachtas Committee on Budgetary Oversight, which suggests that parliamentary oversight in the budgetary cycle may be suboptimal; his plans and proposed timeframe for reforms of the budgetary process to improve parliamentary oversight in view of increased public expenditure during the Covid-19 crisis; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36582/20]

The Committee on Budgetary Oversight published a report this month entitled An Overview of Comparative Parliamentary Engagement in the Budgetary Cycle. The report notes that despite some improvements that have been made since the previous financial crisis "parliamentary involvement in the budgetary cycle may still be suboptimal", which is code for terrible and it really is terrible. I want to hear from the Minister what plans he has in regard to enhancing the robustness of our parliamentary democracy and our parliamentary oversight in terms of how we allocate resources in this country.

I thank the Deputy for the question.

With a view to increasing the transparency of the budgetary process and to facilitate meaningful dialogue on key elements of the budget, over the past number of years, a range of reforms have been implemented to enhance the budgetary framework and ensure that expenditure is managed in an efficient and effective way. These reforms feed into a year-round budget cycle, which allows for ongoing scrutiny of the budgetary process supported by the provision of useful information.

Adopting a whole-of-year budgetary framework is a key component of this process. It ensures that consideration of budgetary priorities can occur throughout the year and is not confined to focusing on the measures announced on budget day.

The impact of Covid-19 has necessitated very significant additional spending in 2020, with an expenditure response beyond anything that has been seen in Ireland before. I should acknowledge that some of the information documents that we aim to provide to inform budget scrutiny have been impacted during the crisis response. Notably, as the Deputy is aware, the mid-year expenditure report was not produced in July as normal. Instead, my Department produced a pre-budget expenditure update after the summer and in advance of the presentation of the October budget.

Looking forward, from 2021 onwards, the programme for Government commits to continuing reform of the budgetary process.  This includes a commitment to the development of a set of well-being indices to create a well-rounded, holistic view of how society is faring. It is intended that these well-being indicators will be used to highlight inequalities and ensure that policies are driven by a desire to do better by people.

Throughout this process of reform, I and officials in my Department will continue to be available to engage with the Committee on Budgetary Oversight in exploring ways to build on the expenditure reforms that have been put in place and to further enhance the opportunities for the Oireachtas to make a meaningful impact on the budgetary cycle.

Of course, the Committee on Budgetary Oversight is now in place, as is the Parliamentary Budget Office. They are two very important innovations in terms of robust oversight of expenditure and budget planning in terms of the parliamentary process. Those innovations were introduced in response to the previous financial crisis and deficits identified by international organisations in terms of best practice in this country.

To boil it down, a small number of approximately 15 individuals, with the Minister, Deputy McGrath, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, at the top of that tree if I can describe it as such, are responsible for the allocation of resources. That is suboptimal. It is nowhere near best practice. In my view, this Parliament needs to be empowered and provided with the resources, organisational capacity and financial authority to ensure that the allocation of the resources we have are targeted in the best and most democratic way possible. There is much more we can do to make that a reality. We have a lot of work to do in this space. I am only too willing to work with the Minister in that regard. I am pleased to see his commitment around the introduction of well-being indices, which are an important feature of budgetary planning.

I wish to acknowledge the tremendous work of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight. In the previous Dáil, I was a member of the committee and really enjoyed that role. It is a great opportunity to get one's teeth into various issues. I also commend the work of the Parliamentary Budget Office. The quality of material it produces for all Members is very high and that should be acknowledged. If there are any issues around resources and so on, I am sure that is a matter for the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. However, great strides have been made. It was a very important reform for Deputies across the House to have access to that resource.

This was my first budget and I learned a lot. On coming into office, I was immediately into the process of almost a mini-budget in the form of the July stimulus process. I genuinely want to work with the Deputy and other members of the committee to improve budgetary performance and introduce performance and equality budgeting, as well as working with them on the outcome of the spending review process in which my Department is continuously engaged.

I hope the Minister will agree that, constitutionally, the Dáil has a very important function in terms of the allocation of resources. It behoves the Executive to provide a more balanced approach to budget planning and to ensure not just that resources are made available to the Dáil in our consideration of budgets and financial matters, but that the political will is there to provide the House with the ability to do that and to work collectively in terms of targeting resources where they are needed most. That is a job that would greatly enhance our democracy. As I stated, I am glad the Minister has agreed that well-being indices should be a feature of the process going forward. He will be familiar with legislation developed by my colleague, Deputy Howlin, which was published and passed Second Stage in 2017. I will be bringing forward legislation in that space to constructively enhance the function of the Parliament in developing budgets going forward.

On the process in 2020, it has been a truly extraordinary year, the like of which we hope we will never see again. It certainly had a dramatic impact on the budgetary process. I have acknowledged that the mid-year expenditure report was not published at the normal time. In addition, the Oireachtas did not have the normal summer economic statement setting out the overall macroeconomic and fiscal projections. That was certainly missed as well. The truth is that events unfolded extremely quickly through the year. Certainly since I came into office there have been very rapid changes in circumstances and the Government has had to respond in an equally rapid manner. There are improvements that can be made to the process, even to the normal process which we did not have this year. I will engage with the Committee on Budgetary Oversight to bring about further enhancements to the budgetary oversight process because the Oireachtas should have an advanced role in that regard.

If I may comment, insofar as the Oireachtas has a heavy responsibility in this particular area, I was really interested in this question because I took a key and active interest in the establishment of both the Parliamentary Budget Office and the Committee on Budgetary Oversight during the previous Dáil. The question states that parliamentary oversight in the budget cycle may be suboptimal. That suggests to me that we need to be looking into our own hearts, not challenging the Minister. I am no apologist for any Minister. As the Minister, Deputy McGrath, stated, we may need, within the Houses of the Oireachtas, to look at the resources that are available for the committee and its work.

Questions Nos. 95 to 97, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Flood Prevention Measures

Mairéad Farrell

Question:

100. Deputy Mairéad Farrell asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his plans for a flood defence program in Clifden, County Galway; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36714/20]

Mairéad Farrell

Question:

102. Deputy Mairéad Farrell asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if the OPW plans to install river gauges on the Owenglin River, County Galway in locations in which none currently exist. [36716/20]

Mairéad Farrell

Question:

115. Deputy Mairéad Farrell asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform when the trial for the new simulation system for advance warnings will be put in place on the Owenglin River, County Galway. [36715/20]

I know the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, is aware of the flooding in Clifden at the beginning of September and the very serious impact it has had on the people of Clifden. I am seeking a statement on the plans for a flood defence programme in Clifden.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 100, 102 and 115 together. I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue for the people of Clifden and those living along the Owenglin River.

I can confirm that a potential flood relief scheme was recommended for Clifden as part of the national flood risk management plan published in 2018, from which 119 new projects nationwide are to be progressed under the national development plan. Following the launch of the plan, the Office of Public Works, OPW, confirmed to Galway County Council that it would fund the cost of developing and implementing a scheme for the town which has an initial cost estimate of more than €500,000. I am advised that both Galway County Council and the OPW have been working on a design brief for the project.  I am pleased to confirm that the council intends to go to tender shortly for consultants to further develop the scheme for the town.

I visited Clifden in the immediate aftermath of the flooding there in early September and I met residents and business people who were directly affected by the unprecedented event, including residents of the Clifden Glen estate who were evacuated from their homes. I witnessed at first hand the damage to the town and to properties in the Riverside and Low Road areas.  The data collected from that recent flood event will inform the design of a future scheme.

Although it is not possible for me to confirm at this stage when flood relief works will be carried out, I can assure the House that both the council and OPW are committed to ensuring that progress will be made as quickly as possible to bring forward a flood relief scheme for the town in order to prevent a similar flooding event occurring.

The Deputy referred to the possibility of developing an early flood warning system for the town in one of her questions. The development of an early warning system will be a matter for consideration for the consultants designing the scheme. However, I am advised that, in this instance, it would be technically challenging to design such a system due to the small, steep nature of the river catchment and the localised nature of the rainfall. These factors result in very rapid onset of extreme flows, which means there is very little warning time of an impending flood, as witnessed last September. The OPW has advised that there is already one hydrometric gauge in operation on the Owenglin river. While it is envisaged that additional hydrometric river gauges may need be installed on the river, the necessity and location of such gauges, if required, will be identified by the consultants designing the scheme.

I am aware that the Minister of State visited Clifden at the time and took in how difficult it was for the people there. Some 17 houses were flooded and six roads were blocked, so what happened had a significant impact on the people of Clifden. We have heard from previous speakers about the worry and concern families have about flooding. It can have a great impact in terms of insurance and all kinds of things, but its impact on the family home is deeply concerning. The Minister of State said this has gone to procurement stage or the tendering process in the council. Can he advise how long he thinks it will take to be completed?

With regard to the simulation trials, I might have missed an update on those trials for a programme of development through Met Éireann's new national flood forecasting and warning services. I understood that this had been mentioned previously.

I was in Clifden and it was horrific to see the damage. The television pictures often reflect what flooding means to a community, but this was just unbelievable. There were front yards ripped asunder, boulders half as big as where I am sitting were just hurtled onto people's front lawns and houses were devastated. There are houses on the Galway road - the Deputy would be more familiar with them than me - from which people were taken in boats. I had seen the impact of severe flooding in my town of Newcastle West, but this was horrific. The issue was that it was monsoon-type rain. The water level rose as quickly as it went down. By the time I arrived there that evening, aside from a roar from the river, one would not have anticipated that this town had an issue with flooding.

There are a number of outstanding issues between the OPW and Galway County Council. It is a smaller scheme so, ordinarily, it would be carried out by the council. It will be up to the council to do it, but the OPW has committed to guide the council through that because it has the resources in terms of its engineering and technical expertise. If there are issues, we have asked Galway County Council to revert to us. If the Deputy wishes to relay specific issues to me, she can bring them directly to my attention.

I appreciate that, and I appreciate that the Minister of State has outlined how horrendous it was to see. What he outlined was the reality that faced the people of Clifden at that time. As he said, it came and left out of nowhere. It was a massively shocking incident for the people of the area. I appreciate that the OPW will ensure it will work as closely as possible with Galway County Council on any issues the council may have. I hope this will be prioritised by the Government and the council. I gather that the Minister of State fully understands the serious nature of this issue.

I do not wish to bore the Ceann Comhairle. I have already spoken on this matter several times tonight. When one looks at the Question Paper, one can see how relevant an issue this is for the House, given the number of Deputies from all over the country who have raised it. The problem is getting worse. Previously, it was confined to places such as Clonmel, towns on the Suir and low-lying parts of the east of the country. Now it is everywhere. It is happening out of the blue as a result of monsoon-type rain. There are two more storms due between now and the end of the week. I find myself looking at weather alerts every weekend, dreading what will happen to communities that I know, based on mapping, are in serious difficulty. The House will have to do a very serious body of work, and we must depoliticise it. There was no attempt to politicise it tonight, but we will have to grapple with this issue quite rapidly because time is running out for towns and communities across the country. They cannot keep pace with the amount of flooding that is occurring. They need us to change rapidly in order that we can bring the infrastructure they need to them.

Will the Deputy give way to Deputy Doherty for Question No. 98?

Legislative Programme

Pearse Doherty

Question:

98. Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his plans to amend the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36720/20]

Paul Murphy

Question:

114. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if it is planned to review existing lobbying legislation. [36608/20]

I appreciate the Deputy giving way. Due to the Covid-19 restrictions, we have been monitoring proceedings from our offices, and a number of questions before No. 98 were not dealt with so I was not here in time.

This question relates to the Minister's plans for a wider regulation amendment to the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015. There has been discussion about section 22. Earlier today, the Minister brought forward a motion, without debate, which is unprecedented. Debates have occurred in the House about appointments to the Standards in Public Office Commission, but the Minister decided to appoint somebody who was a National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP, lobbyist. Can the Minister tell the House if he was aware that Ms Geraldine Feeney was a lobbyist on behalf of the NAGP when he made the recommendation, and did he inform the Cabinet of it?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 98 and 114 together, although Deputy Paul Murphy is not present.

Section 22 of the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 provides that certain designated public officials are restricted from being engaged in lobbying in certain circumstances for a year after they leave their employment or office, unless they have obtained permission from the Standards in Public Office Commission. In effect, they are subject to a one year cooling-off period.  The general purpose of section 22 is to manage the potential for conflicts of interest between the public and private sectors and to place restrictions on what is often referred to as being a revolving door between the public and private sectors.

The Taoiseach recently outlined to the House that section 22 of the Act should be reviewed by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This review is under way in my Department. The review will include the following: seeking and considering the advice of the Office of the Attorney General on the range of possible enforcement provisions to be applied in respect of section 22; consultation with, and consideration of the views of, the Standards in Public Office Commission; review of recent Bills published on the matter - Deputy Nash has published a Bill on this and Deputy Mairéad Farrell has indicated that Sinn Féin intends to do likewise; reflection on  relevant proposals made in public submissions to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the context of either the first, 2017, or second, 2020, statutory reviews of the Act.

This is a complex matter. Any amendment to section 22 has to factor in issues such as the rights of a person to work and the proportionality of any sanctions that may be imposed. Sufficient time is required to allow for full consideration and deliberation, prior to any decision being made and subsequent actions being taken. The commitment I have given in respect of this Act is that section 22 will be reviewed. That is taking place and I will bring proposals on that issue to the Government.

This Act deals with the regulation of lobbying and the requirements for lobbyists. I am revisiting this issue again because the Minister forced through a vote that did not allow debate on the motion earlier. The Minister brought forward a name for the approval of the House - Ms Geraldine Feeney, with whom I served in the Seanad. Ms Feeney is also a lobbyist and she lobbied on behalf of the NAGP, the organisation that is in the middle of the controversy about the Tánaiste, and then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, leaking a confidential document to his friend. Was the Minister aware that Ms Feeney was a lobbyist and that she only lobbied on behalf of the NAGP? That was the question before he put the proposal to the House. Did the Minister get an opportunity to talk to Ms Feeney about whether she had a role in the lobbying activity that took place in the audiovisual room on 21 March? If she did, was she required to submit a return to the Standards in Public Office Commission? Why did the Minister break precedent and shut down debate on this issue? It is a fundamental issue regarding appointments to the Standards in Public Office Commission, which has been seeking changes to the law for many years and which successive Governments have ignored.

The Deputy is going beyond the terms of the normal level of questioning that takes place here, in bringing up an individual issue that was very well aired this morning and that is not really relevant to the question that he has asked.

The proposed appointment to SIPO is not being made under the Act cited by Deputy Doherty in his question tabled for oral answer. The Deputy is entitled to ask the question. The appointment is being made under the Standards in Public Office Act. The former Senator Geraldine Feeney is a qualified person for that role. As a former Member of the Oireachtas I think she has the skills and the experience necessary to perform the functions to a high standard.

I am aware of the material that is on the lobbying.ie website in terms of her former role lobbying for the NAGP. I have been assured that there has been full compliance with the legislation at all times, including the legislation cited by the Deputy in the question. The returns have been made and published in an open and transparent way, as is the norm in these matters.

Perhaps the Minister would answer why he broke precedent and shut down debate, because there was not a debate. There was an objection-----

That is not relevant to the question the Deputy asked.

With respect-----

In fairness now-----

Let me articulate the question. This is about the register.

Deputy Doherty has articulated it well enough.

I am very familiar with this, and Deputy Mairéad Farrell and I have drafted legislation that is with the Bills Office for seven weeks.

I am very familiar with the questioning process and Deputy Doherty is going beyond his remit. Anyway, go on.

I respect your view in regard to that, a Cheann Comhairle. This relates to the Regulation of Lobbying Act, which is policed, if one likes, by the Standards in Public Office Commission. I do not think it was ever envisaged that somebody who was a registered lobbyist up until three weeks ago would be appointed by these Houses as one of only two of the appointees to the Standards in Public Office Commission. The other four are automatic appointees. There is a serious breach here. The Government has run away from accountability and has shut down debate and we only have an opportunity to raise it under these type of questions with the Minister. Why did the Government avoid the debate on this issue?

Of course I have looked at the returns and I did receive a letter from Deputy Doherty's colleague, Deputy Mairéad Farrell, to which I responded. I read the returns, which are available online, primarily relating to lobbying in the early part of 2017, which is what is defined under the Act. It essentially involved setting up a number of meetings within the Oireachtas. If memory serves me correctly, the last entry I saw online relates to a meeting with the then Minister of State, Finian McGrath, on 1 February 2018, and concerned asking him to speak at a healthcare conference. I do not believe that former Senator Feeney had any involvement whatsoever in the issue that became controversial in recent weeks.

In my view she is qualified and well capable of fulfilling this role. When she served in the Seanad she had a reputation for fairness and decency. She is somebody of integrity and her good name should be protected at all times.

I thank the Minister.

Public Sector Pay

Paul McAuliffe

Question:

99. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his plans to negotiate a new public sector pay deal; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36594/20]

Pearse Doherty

Question:

107. Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the negotiations for a new public service stability agreement, PSSA; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36721/20]

I was in the waiting room with Deputy Doherty so I apologise for being late. I wonder if the Minister could tell the House his plans in regard to negotiating a new public sector pay deal.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 99 and 107 together.

The present system of collective agreements has been in place in the public service since the Croke Park agreement was negotiated in 2010. These collective agreements have helped to ensure that public pay is managed in a sustainable, affordable and orderly manner. These agreements have also enabled significant reform of public services and changes to work practices.

The current public service agreement, the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020, has provided for benefits to different income groups ranging from 6.2% to 7.4% over three years, and up to 10% for new entrant members of the single public service pension scheme. At the end of the agreement, the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, pay reductions were reversed for all public servants earning up to €70,000, which equates to almost 90% of public servants. In addition, an agreement under the framework of the PSSA was reached with ICTU in 2018 to deal with the issue of new entrant pay.

The final pay adjustment of the current agreement was implemented as planned on 1 October last with pay for public servants increased by 2%. Also on 1 October, fixed allowances were increased by between 5% and 8% in accordance with the unwinding of pay reductions set out under the Public Service Pay and Pensions Act 2017. The Government was determined to ensure the current agreement was honoured in full.

As the Deputy is aware, I have instructed my officials to engage in exploratory talks with the public services committee of ICTU to establish if there is a basis for a successor agreement to the public service stability agreement that would ensure pay stability, industrial peace and the delivery of quality public services. These exploratory discussions are ongoing. As the Deputy will appreciate, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the detail of those talks, which should remain confidential to the parties but I do hope that in the weeks ahead it will be possible for an agreement to be reached because there is value for both sides in having a new public service pay deal.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
The Dáil adjourned at 11.16 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 18 November 2020.