Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 11 Dec 2013

Vol. 824 No. 2

Leaders' Questions

During Private Members' business last week we debated a motion tabled by Fianna Fáil on the need for an independent international assessment of EirGrid's Grid25 proposals in regard to the upgrade and expansion of our national grid using only overground pylons. This matter is causing genuine concern across the country. Thousands of people have turned up at public meetings to voice their anger and concern about a range of issues, from the impact of this project on people's health to the character of our landscape and cultural heritage and on residential housing and amenities.

There is a fundamental problem in terms of the appalling way in which this issue is being handled by EirGrid. The consultation process in terms of addressing people's genuine concerns has not been full or meaningful. In particular, it appears the key decisions, namely, the erection of a single string of mega pylons from Knockraha in County Cork to Dunstown in County Kildare and the ruling out of any underground cabling, were made in advance of that consultation process. The consultation process was, therefore, narrowed to the single process upon which EirGrid had already decided. This has created huge concern across the country.

I am aware that the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, held an in camera session with his councillors at the recent Labour Party conference. I am aware also that during the debate on Fianna Fail's motion last week many Fine Gael and Labour Deputies said they supported the thrust of the Fianna Fáil motion calling for an independent international assessment of the options. We accept the need to modernise our grid but there are other alternatives.

A question please.

In Denmark, which is a country that is very focused on its energy agenda, pylons erected overground have been taken down and a different set of options in terms of its grid and power lines have been adopted.

Will the Taoiseach agree to an independent international assessment and will he confirm whether the Government has ruled out the issue of underground cabling?

The Deputy is himself not very clear in terms of what he is proposing. Debate on this issue has been ongoing for some time. There is always consternation and controversy in the country on issues such as the development of dual carriageways or motorways, the provision of gas lines or wind turbines or, in this case, upgrade and expansion of the electricity grid.

As leader of the Fianna Fáil Party, Deputy Martin understands very well that our country cannot be left bereft of infrastructure for investment purposes. Unfortunately, we have not yet arrived at the point where it is possible to transmit power without cables. The question that then arises is how do we provide physical infrastructure that will have capacity for power which will result in locations being able to attract investment and, as a consequence, jobs. Everybody is aware that a major entity cannot be supplied with an inferior water pipeline and that infrastructure such as is required throughout the country cannot be provided without electricity provision.

The modern communications systems available to us today allow people to access torrents of information on every conceivable aspect of these developments. The Government does not speak for EirGrid. It has no function in determining whether it should recommend a particular, or series, of locations for the erection of pylons. The Deputy will be aware that the previous Government carried out an assessment on the cost of undergrounding a major line in the country from County Meath northwards, which assessment was that doing so would be three times more costly. Given the need for this grid, I am not sure people would be willing to agree to underground it, in respect of which there appear to be technical difficulties, if required to pay three times the cost to do so. There is a need for rational discussion on an issue as important as this. We all agree that the country cannot be left bereft of opportunities for the future. This means we must have infrastructure capable of providing electricity for industry, business and homes throughout the country.

While we have a degree of capacity now owing to the unfortunate circumstances within our economy, a time will come, with Ireland now being recognised by some influential economic entities as being the best country in which to do business, when we will have decide what it is we want to do. I agree with the Deputy that consultations with communities, many of which I have attended down through the years, must be full and real, take on board people's concerns, anxieties, fears and questions and deal with them in as comprehensive a manner as possible. I know that in some cases these consultations have not been as full as I would like. There is a need for a balanced and rational discussion on what we want to do.

I understand that a cable of this magnitude if buried will need to be dug up every so often using converters which are very expensive. I hear the arguments about other countries. In Finland, the 110 kV line was undergrounded and the 400 kV line was not. When visiting Japan, from which I returned only last week, I noted around the areas that I travelled that the pylons and power grids were located overground. This debate is ongoing. I would welcome if it can be conducted in a rational and commonsense fashion. People say they want jobs all over the country. We cannot have them without infrastructure such as water, communications, roads and power. How this infrastructure is provided forms part of that discussion.

The Government is not dictating to EirGrid. There is a process and procedure to be followed which is based on law. There was much protest when construction of the motorway from here to Waterford was proposed and in respect of the construction of other roads. Nobody wants to go back to the situation of not having that facility to allow commerce and business to thrive.

We have not had that comprehensive, full consultation about which the Taoiseach speaks.

The Taoiseach cannot in this case hide behind the regulator. Ultimately, this project will be funded by taxpayers' money. The problem is that EirGrid decided on one particular option and then sought to ram it down people's throats whether or not they liked it.

Fianna Fáil did the same when in power.

That is the problem in terms of this issue.


Order, please.

I am asking for an independent international assessment of the options. Grid25 is a big project. Nobody is questioning the need to modernise our capacity in terms of energy. What is at issue is the manner in which this is being done. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, this morning endorsed Fáilte Ireland's concerns.

Deputy Varadkar, was all over the newspapers today saying that he supports Fáilte Ireland's concerns about the damage and the risk, in its words, that cultural heritage amenities will be at and the risks for scenic landscapes throughout the country. There will be mega pylons across the Commeragh Mountains, for example.

A question please, thank you.

That is the view of the Minister, Deputy Varadkar. I accept that he is entitled to have that view and so am I. It is not only exclusive to Ministers to have concerns.

Could you put your question? Thank you.

This is a mega project. There are 1,300 pylons across the countryside in a straight line as decided by EirGrid. That is the way the company wanted to do it, although there were other options. The public never got any pre-consultation opportunities in respect of the EirGrid proposal, but that is the minimum that is required. It would make sense for genuine consultation to take place for all concerned. The concerns that exist are not figments of the imagination. The Taoiseach knows that and many people know it. It is on a scale that dwarfs anything in respect of roads or any other infrastructure projects that we have had. That is the reality. We can quote international studies. Other countries throughout Europe can do it, including countries that have a far greater record in terms of energy, moving away from fossil fuels and so on. Denmark is one such country. What are we afraid of in terms of a genuine international independent assessment of whether we are doing the right thing?

What was Deputy Martin afraid of when he was in power?

It is not only a question for energy, but whether it is the right thing for tourism, landscape and our cultural heritage, which are important considerations in the long term.

Deputy Martin is not saying what it is that he wants.

I am. An independent assessment.

No. Hold on.

Change the policy.

Deputy Martin says there are other options. I do not know what he is talking about when he says there are other options.

RPS did a series of work and produced a document.

As I understand it, we cannot transmit power without cables. Do we provide the country with capacity to have business and generate power for industry, and, therefore, economic expansion and jobs, or do we not? If we do, what is the way we do this?

I listened to the news this morning of a major case in Wicklow which was turned down by the planning appeals process and which was overturned by the Supreme Court. There was a case in which EirGrid was negligent in adhering to the planning process and the application for the major North-South interconnector was turned down.

As part of the programme for Government, the Minister appointed a panel of international experts which concluded that the cost of undergrounding a grid would be three times the cost of over-grounding it. Are we expecting everyone to have to pay three times the cost for their electricity?

That proves my point.

There is a process and a procedure to be gone through which is very exact.

There is a precedent where some of the grid was put underground.

I would be happy, as part of a full and open consultation in the House, to hear of Deputy Martin's other options, which would be able to provide capacity, power and infrastructure to deal with this matter.

Is the Taoiseach saying he has none?

People say to me that I am the Taoiseach and ask why can I not provide jobs all over the country. People are entitled to their concerns and objections relating to gas lines, wind turbines, pylons, motorway development or whatever.

Get out of the way.

This applies whether it is to supply water for this city for the next 50 years or to supply quality water for major infrastructure projects that need huge quantities of it and so on.

Do we want to deal with these problems or do we want to shove them aside? As far as I am concerned, we must deal with the future. We exit the bailout programme on Sunday. On Monday, we stand as a free member of the eurozone, with all the opportunities, constraints and securities of that.

We must plan for the future in a proper fashion. I am all for full wholesome and open consultations. I have never been a supporter of behind-closed-doors decisions. In this case, the GRID25 plan is not about our generation but the one coming behind us and whether we are in a position to have a system and structure that will deliver for the next generation and allow it to continue to belong among the best countries in the world in which to do business. That requires rational common sense discussion and I am prepared to have that from our point of view and from the Government's point of view. We do not speak for EirGrid. We do not have a role in directing that the company should put a line here or there.

Deputy Martin's proposal for an international assessment has already been addressed by the Minister in respect of the work of the independent international group, which concluded that it would be three times the cost in terms of underground as opposed to overground. If we appointed another, it might conclude it would be two and half times the cost or five times the cost. What is the answer?

That was then. Technology is advancing.

We still must provide power for infrastructure in order that we can have jobs in Donegal, west Kerry, Wexford and everywhere else. We cannot have that unless we have basic infrastructure. To do that, there is a process in law and a planning process that must be adhered to and determined independently. This is not a case of a Government diktat. It is a case of talking about what kind of country we want in the next 20 or 50 years. This is an essential part of it.

I take the validity of the issue Deputy Martin is raising. We need to have an open and accountable process in order that the people and the areas throughout the country get the capacity and the opportunity to benefit from economic expansion in the coming 20 years.

On Monday, the Minister for Health wrote to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children to advise that he would not now be attending tomorrow's scheduled meeting of the committee to discuss the HSE national service plan for 2014, because, as he said, it is still not ready. There is now the real possibility, uniquely, perhaps, that we will not have an opportunity to discuss the HSE service plan for 2014 in advance of the new year and its introduction, a bizarre situation.

The signing off and publication of the plan have already been delayed on several occasions. The Minister granted extensions to the HSE. I have to say that is not surprising because in budget 2014 the Government imposed cuts of at least €666 million on the health budget for the coming year. The Taoiseach knows this is unsustainable. I believe the Taoiseach has given his health Ministers, the Department and the HSE an impossible task. More important, he is imposing on front-line workers and patients within the health services an impossible burden. Can he tell us how it will be possible to maintain health services in 2014 on such a drastically reduced budget? All this, when, only yesterday, we had the publication of a Supplementary Estimate for a further €219 million in order for the Health Service Executive to be able to get to the end of this month. It is time to face the facts. I have it to say that there is grave concern.

It is reported that the director general of the HSE, Tony O'Brien, has written to the Government to state that the figure for medical card cuts in the draft service plan is in fact €133 million and not the €113 million as signalled in the Budget Statement. Moreover, the medical card cuts are against the advice of the HSE and the Department of Health. Can the Taoiseach confirm that letter and the figures it cites?

What I can confirm to Deputy Ó Caoláin is that the process followed here is well known to him. Deputy Ó Caoláin was at the meeting yesterday. He is aware of the Minister's intention to attend the committee once due process has been followed in respect of provision of the HSE service plan. The budget takes place in October. Then there is a Vote given for the health Estimate for 2014. Following that, the Health Service Executive has a requirement to produce its draft plan on how it intends to run the services for 2014 based on that figure. That draft plan is sent to the Minister for Health for his approval or amendment and acceptance of the report. The Minister has until Monday, 16 December to respond to the Health Service Executive following his having received the draft programme. That is the system that operates.

The Minister is currently going through the draft plan as submitted by the Health Service Executive. He has already made clear that for this year he requires a Supplementary Estimate of €199 million. This is not the first time this has happened in the Department of Health.

Clearly, he indicated last September or October that something less than €200 million would be required in respect of 2013. In response to Deputy Ó Caoláin, it is a matter for the committee as to when it wants the Minister to attend. I expect the Minister will comply-----

That also is the way it works in Ukraine.

Deputy Martin is someone to talk about health, is he not?

He has a very poor record.

Deputy Durkan should relax.

As a former Minister, the Deputy has a very poor record.

What were the overruns like in those years?

Thank you. Let us settle down now please.

I believe there were a few major overruns in Deputy Martin's time.

Over the runway.

Will the committee meet on Christmas Day?

The answer to Deputy Ó Caoláin's question is that I expect the Minister will comply with his requirement to respond to the Health Service Executive with his views on the draft plan as submitted-----

Put him in charge.

-----and his recommendation for acceptance or otherwise.

Get him to send a "Dear Tony" letter.

Obviously, he will be quite happy to discuss this matter in public forum with the committee and as he indicated at yesterday's meeting, I am sure he is more than happy to attend. That process now is nearing a conclusion because there is a timeline on it. I expect that next week the Deputy will see the evidence and the conclusion of their deliberations of the Minister.

Perhaps on Friday.

What day is Christmas Day? It is two weeks from today.

There is no intention to try to delay the opportunity for the committee of which the Deputy is a member to discuss these matters and to give out, as the Deputy normally will, about matters that are of concern to him in the system.

The Taoiseach himself was good at it.

Thank you, we are over time.

The Minister's priority is to focus on the delivery of effective services on the front line and, clearly, there are challenges for all Ministers and all Departments in government in meeting these objectives and targets. The Minister, Deputy Reilly, is no different from that point of view.

One would almost draw from the Taoiseach's remarks that it was the committee's fault the Minister has not yet come forward with the service plan for 2014.

Deputy Ó Caoláin should read out the full letter.

Deputy Buttimer is not leader yet.

I assure the Taoiseach-----

Deputy Ó Caoláin should read out the full letter.

Would you stay quiet please?

-----and Deputy Buttimer that the committee-----

Read out the full letter.

-----is quite prepared to engage with the Minister in respect of the national service plan.

Deputy Buttimer, I will not ask you a third time.

One should be clear in this regard. The Minister gave an extension of ten days to the Health Service Executive, HSE, to publish the service plan. Then he gave a further ten days to the HSE to complete its deliberations. I have asked the Taoiseach important questions. I have asked him whether he is aware of a letter from the director general of the HSE in respect of the service plan, quite particularly addressing the issue of the cuts to medical card provision in the coming year and that the figure presented in the Budget Statement last October is an understatement of what actually is to be provided for by €20 million-----

-----and that it is €133 million.

A question, please.

Is the Taoiseach aware of this letter? Is he aware it is indicated strongly and clearly that the HSE and the Department of Health are opposed to the extent of cuts being sought in respect of medical card provision? Is he aware they also make the case that €666 million, which might not be the total sum involved, is impossible to extract from a health budget that has been decimated year-on-year over recent years? In conclusion, can the Taoiseach provide Members with an idea of the numbers of people who now are likely to lose their medical cards at the end of this year and in the coming year on foot of decisions-----

Thank you, Deputy.

-----to not only arrest but significantly reduce the sum being provided. Many who have known the certainty, comfort and assurance of a medical card, be they people in advanced years over 70 or, as in many cases in families across the country, children dealing with issues of grave sickness, now face the prospect of losing their cards.

I ask Members to try to stick to the allocated time. Otherwise, they should change the time allocated but please do not have me interrupting everyone day in and day out.

The Taoiseach has one minute in which to reply.

I do not wish to get into the details of any aspect of the many areas that are involved in the health budget. I am aware that the Health Service Executive wrote to the Minister with its submission of the draft plan for service provision for 2014. I am aware that a number of matters to which reference was made in the letter are being considered by the Government as how best to deal with them. I genuinely am not aware of the specific point the Deputy mentioned. However, I repeat that the Minister for Health has a responsibility to assess the draft plan, as submitted by the Health Service Executive, to provide services for 2014 and to respond to the Health Service Executive with his approval or amendments to the draft plan as he considers. This work now is concluding with the Minister for Health. I believe that next week, Members will see the result of his deliberations here.

The Taoiseach claimed not to be aware. Is it not past time that he made it his business to be aware?

The Minister's focus is on the provision of the excellent front-line services that are being provided. I do not agree with the Deputy's scaremongering tactics in this regard. An unprecedented number of medical cards have been issued and are being issued, with the highest ever numbers covered by the medical card service.

Tell that to the people who are waiting.

No one believes that.

I agree with Deputy Ó Caoláin that quite a number of sensitive cases came to light following the centralisation of the medical card system.

The issue was called before the Cabinet sub-committee and a process was put in place to deal with cases, particularly where discretion was required. In recent weeks, numbers were raised that have brought a requirement for experience to deal with particular kinds of cases and I believe that has been put in place. In response to Deputy Ó Caoláin, next week will see the Minister respond to the Health Service Executive and its draft plan and all these issues will be dealt with in the best way possible-----

Will the committee have a chance to discuss it with the Minister before the Christmas recess?

-----and while maintaining front-line services, to give the most effective and higher standard of medical care to the people.

Forget about the Dáil. No business here.

Will the committee have that chance in the coming week?

Deputy Ó Caoláin agreed this at the committee meeting yesterday.

Is that what will happen?

I call Deputy Healy.

Yes, I do not see-----

I am not asking Deputy Buttimer; I am asking the Taoiseach and the Deputy is not in his seat yet.

The Deputy was at the meeting yesterday.

Deputy Buttimer has a few steps to go yet.

I call Deputy Healy.

The Deputy was at a meeting yesterday. It was a tentative meeting based on-----

Taoiseach, please. I already have called Deputy Healy.

Deputy Ó Caoláin is playing politics.

Deputy Buttimer, would you please stay quiet or else leave the Chamber?

Yes, he is eating into the Technical Group's time.

A Deputy

Throw him out.

Christmas can be a lonely and difficult time of the year for the poor and low-income families, for the elderly, for carers and for long-term social welfare recipients. The Christmas bonus made Christmas for many such families and gave them a little bit of comfort. The official State statistics agency, namely, the Central Statistics Office, has found that almost one quarter of the people do not have the money to afford at least two goods and services that generally are considered the norm for society. This quarter of the population is categorised by the CSO as deprived and that figure has doubled over the past five years. The accepted definition of deprivation means that people cannot afford such basics as heating their homes, buying meat, having a warm coat or buying a gift for a grandchild at Christmas time.

Members know the money is there to pay for a Christmas bonus. Not too long ago, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Costello, told Members in this Chamber that this country is the seventh wealthiest country in the world. In addition, the Central Statistics Office has revealed that gross financial assets of the wealthy are back up to boom levels, at €310 billion. Moreover, the Minister, Deputy Noonan, has informed Members that the top 20,000 earners in this country each earns in excess of €430,000 per annum. A minimal asset or wealth tax or a small increased rate of income tax on such very wealthy individuals would cover the cost of the Christmas bonus many times over. Many civil society organisations, including Age Action, Focus Ireland, OPEN, the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, Barnardos, the National Women's Council, the ICTU president, John Douglas, as well as many more, have called for the restoration of the double social welfare payment at Christmas. In the context of the acknowledged levels of deprivation in Ireland and in the context of such wealth, will the Government show compassion this Christmas and restore the Christmas bonus?

Wonder Woman might bring it back.

The abolition of the Christmas bonus was announced in 2009 and to restore it now would cost €261 million.

The rationale for the abolition of the Christmas bonus back in 2009 was that it was preferable to cutting social welfare rates across the board. In 2010 and 2011, however, the Government of the day reduced primary personal welfare rates for all persons under 66 years by more than €16 per week. In budget 2014 the Government was able to protect the State pension, the carer's allowance, the disability allowance and other core weekly payments in addition to child benefit, while still reducing the overall welfare spend as part of the necessary effort to reduce the deficit. It would be grand to think that one could do these things but it is not possible.

I appreciate the difficulties that many people have had and continue to have as a result of the economic recession of recent years. That said, we have gone from a position where the country lost 250,000 jobs in three years to one where 1,200 net jobs are being created every week and there has been a fall in the numbers on the live register over 18 consecutive months. It is heartening to see the trends of confidence. Interest rates have fallen below 4% and even the construction index is rising. We still face significant challenges and it is not easy to make decisions to reduce public debt, but we have one of the highest deficits in Europe. We have targets and objectives to achieve and the people have made great sacrifices, but I think they see the process leading in the first instance to an exit from the bailout and following through to creating more jobs and achieving our target of having a deficit below 3% by 2015. By growing the economy there will be more opportunity for people to get gainful employment and to benefit from the rise in the economy. The Government has committed to not reducing core welfare rates and not increasing income tax because that is a tax on work. These are always difficult balances.

I am sorry to have to say to Deputy Healy that it is not possible to restore payment of the Christmas bonus as it was previously. The cost would amount to €261 million and we do not have that money. Unfortunately, we cannot return to the situation where there was an assumption that everything was available for nothing. Someone has to pay at the end of the day and balance is required. The budget maintained the State pension, the carer's allowance, the disability allowances, other core weekly payments and child benefit. Despite all the cynics and all those who said we would destroy all the welfare payments, that did not happen.

Considering everything, it has not been possible to restore this year's Christmas bonus at a cost of €261 million.

That is a mean and shameful reply. However, those are not my words. Those are the words of Deputy Eamon Gilmore, leader of the Labour Party, when he addressed a question on Leaders' Questions to a former Taoiseach who had abolished that bonus:

This payment has been made to pensioners every year for 30 years, even in some of the country’s most difficult economic years ... for the first time in 30 years pensioners will not get the small bonus which has been paid to them in years past ... The Taoiseach's reply contrasts sharply with his more sympathetic approach to the golden ten yesterday ... They get all the comfort from the Government but pensioners, who worked hard to make the country what it was ... are told they will not receive the small payment which made Christmas worthwhile for many of them. This is mean and shameful.

Deputy Healy, please put your supplementary question.


I want to ask Deputy Eamon Gilmore and the Labour Party how they can stand over not restoring the Christmas bonus in these circumstances.

The Deputy is not asking Deputy Gilmore at the moment. He must ask the Taoiseach a supplementary question.

I am referring to how wealthy people were comforted by the previous Government. We know that during the course of this Government since Deputy Gilmore and the Taoiseach came to power-----

Please put your supplementary question, Deputy Healy.

-----we know from the Sunday Independent 300 rich list that they have increased their wealth by €9 billion since 2011.

Please put your supplementary question, Deputy Healy.

That is €9,000 million. A very small tax, wealth assets or income tax, on these very wealthy individuals would cover-----

The Deputy is not listening to me. Please put your supplementary question.

I have a question.

You are way over time.


With all respect, the first question took 15 minutes.

With all respect, please put your supplementary question.

As I said, a very small tax-----

Did the Deputy vote for it? Does he remember that?

-----on these very wealthy individuals would cover this Christmas bonus-----

The same as Deputy Brian Hayes, the Minister of State.

Stay quiet, please.

-----numerous times over.


In the context of the obscene wealth-----

The Ceann Comhairle is not protecting the Members.

-----of those 300 richest people in this country-----

Please, Deputy Healy. Put your supplementary question.

-----will the Taoiseach reconsider his decision not to pay the Christmas bonus and at least give some little comfort to people who are deprived this Christmas?

Do not be a Scrooge.

I call the Taoiseach to reply and I ask if he would please stick to one minute. I am getting totally frustrated here. We are now about 12 or 13 minutes over the allocated time. Members either want me to chair this or they do not want me to chair it but do not give me time limits which nobody is prepared to stick to. I do not like interrupting speakers consistently but Members will have to change these time limits if they are not prepared to stick to them, and it is not on.

The Ceann Comhairle should talk to the Government Whip.

I am not referring to you, Taoiseach.

It is not possible to restore the Christmas bonus as Deputy Healy suggests because it would cost €261 million. The entire social welfare system is being reformed.

It is being destroyed every day of the week.

Instead of passive payments, the change will demonstrate that work will pay and activation measures are being put in place. When the Christmas bonus was abolished in 2009 it was followed in 2010 by reductions in all those areas of social welfare. This Government is committed to not reducing core rates, and in budget 2014 it was possible to protect those.

The budget cut core rates.

It would be lovely from a political point of view to say we can pay for this.

There are buckets of money. This is a very wealthy country.

The money is not there.


The system is that those who earn most pay the most. The Government restored the minimum wage, removed 330,000 people from liability to the universal social charge, and maintained core rates in all the areas I mentioned, including carer's allowance, the State pension, disability allowance and child benefit, which is very beneficial for families with children.

Child benefit was cut in the last two budgets. Another promise broken by the Labour Party.