Thursday, 20 June 2019

Questions (1)

Barry Cowen

Question:

1. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the way in which the national broadband plan will be paid for between 2020 and 2023; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25799/19]

View answer

Oral answers (29 contributions) (Question to Public)

The total cost of the broadband plan between 2020 and 2043 will now be almost €3 billion. That includes €1.5 billion of additional funding over and above the amount already allocated in the development plan between 2020 and 2027. Of that amount, €782 million will be required between now and 2023.

On "Six-One" some weeks ago and in answer to a parliamentary question that I asked, the Minister said categorically that no project or development plan would be cancelled, delayed or impacted by the decision to proceed with the broadband plan. Will he explain in detail how the broadband plan will be delivered? He says it will be funded by increased revenue in the future but the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, states that is not credible. The Secretary General of the Department has indicated that funding will come from future capital expenditure projects while the Minister states that is not credible. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, stated this morning that taxes might have to be raised. I believe the money will come either from borrowing or cuts in expenditure. Will the Minister enlighten the House as to how the plan will proceed?

As the Deputy is aware, I am responsible for setting the overall multi-annual capital expenditure ceilings and for allocating these resources across Departments. My Department is also subsequently responsible for monitoring expenditure, on a monthly basis, at a departmental level against these agreed ceilings. In this context, the precise schedule of multi-year funding of the national broadband plan will be set out in full in the context of the budgetary process for 2020.

Beyond that, I should explain, as I have on a number of occasions, that the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is the sponsoring agent and the Government is the final sanctioning authority. It is the responsibility of the sponsoring agency for the national broadband plan, although I will be working closely with that Department, to comply with the provisions of the public spending code.

Where the Government is the sanctioning authority, the public spending code makes it clear that the day-to-day oversight functions of a sanctioning authority revert to the relevant line Department which is the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The Government is then involved at the major decision points.

My Department has engaged with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment throughout the process on the economic appraisal of the national broadband plan. In addition, there was also ongoing engagement between the Department of Communications Climate Action and Environment and my Department on the cost and affordability of the project, in particular once it emerged that the cost of the project was not capable of being funded within the allocation that had originally been made for the project in the national development plan.

In monetary terms, the impact of the project on the overall fiscal position will necessitate an additional requirement of approximately €200 million in 2021 and 2022 and approximately €300 million in 2023, which will result in a depreciation in the general Government balance of approximately 0.1% of both GDP and GNI* on an annual basis. I will lay out in budget 2020 and in the run-up thereto how I plan to accommodate that.

I ask the Minister to clarify the comments he made previously, especially those he made on "Six-One" and subsequently. He said categorically that no project within the national development plan would be cancelled, delayed or impacted by the decision to proceed with the national broadband plan, even though it is to cost an extra €1.5 billion. The Minister says the project will require an additional €500 million between now and 2023 but we are also awaiting details of the outstanding €400 million overspend on the children's hospital. In the short term, that amounts to almost €1 billion. Will he indicate where that amount will come from during the budget process? IFAC states it is not credible that it will come from future revenue. The ESRI states it will possibly come from taxation. The Secretary General of the Minister's Department says that projects will be forgone, although the Minister disagreed with that statement and said it was not credible. These organisations and individuals have laid their cards on the table quite categorically and it is incumbent on the Minister to do likewise on behalf of those we all represent.

As part of the budgetary process for 2020 and beyond, I will engage with Deputies Cowen and Michael McGrath on the matter, as I am required to do.

I repeat that it is my intention that no other projects will be affected as a result of the decision to move ahead with the national broadband plan. There are other reasons beyond any decision on the national broadband plan that projects can be delayed. A project can proceed in a different way than anticipated due to the planning process, decisions taken by Departments or the time required for the tendering process. All those factors can and do arise. I reiterate that it is not my intention to change other projects as a result of going ahead with this decision on the broadband plan.

The Deputy asked me to put my cards on the table. At a certain point in time, Fianna Fáil will need to do the same on the national broadband plan. The issue I have grappled with is that, if one is committed to 100% coverage and the use of fibre optic technology, and wants it to happen on time, this is, on balance, the only way of doing so. If the Deputy feels differently, as is his right, he will need to explain what his alternative is at a certain point in time.

The beauty of the Minister's position is that he is in government and has responsibilities. He has to decide priorities on behalf of this Dáil because he has the majority to do so. Playing games with me about what I would or would not do is not up for discussion here. I need to know what is available in the public finances to deliver a development plan to which this Dáil has agreed. The Minister is not being straight with people when he does not enlighten them in this regard. I ask him to be conscious of that and of the fact that, as I said, others who are independently appraising the national broadband plan have said his position is not credible. It is worrying that he has not sought to clarify his previous comments on his commitment that no project will be affected. He is now saying projects may be affected but he will not enlighten us as to how they will be affected. He said that projects will be delayed. Some €99 million worth of projects have been delayed because this year's commitments in the national broadband plan have not been acceded to and the costs overrun for the national children's hospital.

The Minister has yet to inform us of another €400 million in addition to the €500 million between now and 2023 that he mentioned in his initial reply. What exactly will be delayed? How long will it be delayed ? Will it be delayed for long enough to cause people to forget about the commitments that were made on road trips last year?

I do not need the Deputy to remind me of my responsibilities. I am well aware of them. The Deputy is not without responsibility.

My responsibility is to hold the Minister to account.

If the Deputy feels we have made the wrong decision in the case of the national broadband plan, it is incumbent on him to say at some point what he would do differently. It is clear that he has formed the view that we have made the wrong decision, as he is entitled to do. As already stated, if he believes we are doing the wrong thing, he will have to grapple with the issues with which I have grappled. I reiterate that the decision in this regard will not affect other projects. As we know, every year things happen with other projects that do not result from policy decisions made by me. The original view of the Deputy's party was that Ireland 2040 did not exist and was not going to deliver a material benefit to communities and citizens.

When did I say that?

His party now holds the view that it is of such high value and can make such a difference to people that it is very eager to ensure that it is not affected at all.

When did I say that?

I ask the Minister to correct the record. When did he hear me say anything like that? I respect the commitments made in the development plan. I acknowledge that it can be a success and can bring benefits, especially in the regions.

I need to know whether the money is there to meet the demands relating to the promises the Minister is making. He is not being straight with the people when he tells them that the money will come from future revenues. He is expecting to have magic money at his disposal.

I have to move on to Question No. 2 in the name of Deputy Jonathan O'Brien.

As I have stated previously, the Minister is the Freddie Mercury of politics, exercising his kind of magic. It is time he came clean to the public on this issue.

No, I take exception to the point the Minister is making. He is here because we have the good grace to allow him to be in government and in a position to give stability to this country. He is riding roughshod over us, and it is a mistake he will regret if he keeps going with this answer.

We are not being fair to other Members. At the outset, I asked everybody to stay in order. I will give the Minister 30 seconds to make some brief remarks.

I have publicly acknowledged on a number of occasions the role Fianna Fáil has played in maintaining stability at a point of difficulty. I stand by the point to the effect that I heard this plan being dismissed as one of spin even though it is one of substance.

Money is needed to match it.

I will be outlining how this plan will be funded. The money is there to make Project Ireland 2040 a reality. That is the truth.

We have gone way over time.

The Minister has stated that projects in health and other areas will be foregone because of the overspend, but he is not showing the same conscience when it comes to this issue.

I have called Deputy O'Brien. I ask Members to allow him put his question.

I am quite happy to let them argue, to be honest.

When Deputies' time is up, they should allow the next person to put his or her question.