Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 15 Jan 2015

Vol. 863 No. 2

Leaders' Questions

Last month the Water Services Bill 2014 went through the Houses. This year, families will, depending on their circumstances, face bills ranging from €160 to €260. We are all aware of the rebate from the Tánaiste's Department and the costs associated with that. Yesterday we saw from the new legislative programme that the Government intends to publish another water services Bill this session. This Dáil would not be the same without a water services Bill each session. However, nobody seems to know what this particular legislation is about. The Taoiseach certainly did not know yesterday, nor was it mentioned by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, during his many speeches on the issue at the end of last year.

Flat charges will be short-lived and probably changed by 2018, but the Government is not shouting from the rooftops about that. There is no ceiling on the amount of water people can use and householders will receive relief from the Department of Social Protection in an effort by the Government to try to pass the EUROSTAT test in March. If it does pass that test, we are told we will be able to borrow money to invest in infrastructure. This would indeed be welcome given that this Government has invested less in the past four years than its predecessor did in a period before water charges were ever talked about. Despite the political propaganda professed by the Tánaiste and her colleagues, that is the factual situation.

We had reports yesterday that despite the €500 million spent by Irish Water on installing water meters and the €42 million per year that is being paid for this borrowing, the lifespan of these devices is only 15 years. We have never seen the contracts for their installation or the detail in regard to the awarding of those contracts. The management of Irish Water continues to be a secret affair between the Government and the company. As I said, we were informed yesterday that the manufacturer's design life of a water meter is 15 years. However, the devices that have been installed throughout the country will not be utilised until 2019 at the earliest. The Government is spending €500 million installing 1.2 million meters, which works out at €416 per meter. These items will effectively have a lifespan of up to ten years, given that they will not be used for the first five years following their installation. When people are told they will pay €60 for water, they should know that €42 of the bill will be for the water meter. That represents 70% of the bill for a single adult and some 26% of the bill for a family of two or more.

Does the Tánaiste consider this a responsible use of money given that her Government continues to cut services left, right and centre? Does she consider it a responsible use of money when hospital emergency services are under such pressure, community care for the elderly is almost non-existent, home help hours are being slashed, and elderly and disabled people applying for housing adaptation grants are being told they must wait three to five years before their applications can be processed? Meanwhile, back at the ranch, good old Irish Water is spending €500 million on meters that will possibly have a lifespan of only ten years, considering they will be defunct for the first five years. What assurances has the Tánaiste been given and what confidence can she assert in this House that no further moneys will be expended on upgrading these meters? Local authorities which installed water meters less than three or four years ago were subsequently told by these characters in Irish Water that they were obsolete. May we have some clarity once and for all on this issue, or will it continue to be the Government's nemesis this year? Perhaps the Tánaiste will be able to tell us what the story is before the embarrassment of the EUROSTAT test in March.

I begin by wishing everybody a happy new year. It is a bit disappointing to see that Deputy Cowen must not have had a break over Christmas to read up on Irish Water. As he rightly acknowledges, the new charging structure will see a gross charge of €160 for an individual living alone, less the water conservation grant of €100 that the Department of Social Protection will pay. That is a net charge of €60. For a family, the gross charge will be €260, less the €100 water conservation grant. This compares very favourably with the €400 annual water charge that was originally proposed by Fianna Fáil. I suppose it slipped the Deputy's mind, but it is what his party put on the table.

Having given that clarification, I move on to the more important point. Our antiquated water system is not fit for purpose in terms of the needs of every man, woman and child in this country and the need for employment, investment and growth in the economy. As I understand it, Fianna Fáil was once a party that supported public investment in the infrastructure of this country and the employment that creates. When it managed to lose the banks, however, it seemed also to lose its taste for the investment that this country badly needs. At this time there are 42 points in this country at which raw sewage is being pumped into rivers, lakes and beaches. Even if that does not concern Deputy Cowen, it does concern most people in this country, particularly those who have to live near these locations. The water charges that have been set out are reasonable.

In regard to water meters, it feels these days as though Fianna Fáil is basically looking to identify anything and everything it can to denigrate the people who work in water services in this country and the people who are committed to investing in and providing clean water for the population. I am sure the Deputy has had an opportunity to read the newspapers today, in which case he will have seen the views expressed by an expert in one particular article and echoed in all of the media. This expert indicates that it will, in due course, take around five minutes to replace a meter and that it will cost some €50 million to do so for all meters. The expected lifespan of the devices in terms of the guarantee and the work that is being carried out is a minimum of 15 years. In fact, based on the experience in other countries, it is likely to be significantly longer than that. I do not know if the Deputy has ever actually looked at what the water meter set-up is, but the only thing that will have to be changed is the actual meter. As I said, experts indicate that it will take something like five minutes to do so, that it can be done at a very low cost and that many of the meters will go well beyond the indicated guaranteed lifespan of 15 years.

To be honest, what the Deputy is concerned about is a total ball of smoke.

The Tánaiste is a ball of smoke.

His concern ought to be with clean water for the public, and sufficient water to provide for the country's industrial, economic, tourism and agricultural needs. As his party's spokesperson on environmental issues, I am sure Deputy Cowen is aware that the greater Dublin area is living on the edge as regards water supplies. We know what happened some years ago in County Galway and Galway city when one of the key tourism and agricultural regions all but closed down due to the lack of-----

Investment by the Government.

-----clean and safe water to drink. If those in Fianna Fáil are happy to bring people in Ireland back to that era - if that is their objective as we start out in 2015 - they have moved very far from what the party once stood for.

New year, same old story. It is the same lazy and predictable answer we have heard since this sorry debacle began over two years ago. The Tánaiste sat idly by at Cabinet and allowed the wastage of costs associated with this ridiculous project. The Tánaiste and her colleagues sat idly by.

Where was the ball of smoke then?

Some €85 million was spent on consultants that the Tánaiste did not know anything about, yet she sat idly by not knowing what was going around her at the Cabinet table. That is not a ball of smoke. Some €500 million has now been spent on water metering, and that is not a ball of smoke. The almost €50 million a year that is being paid towards servicing the costs of that is not a ball of smoke either. I asked the Tánaiste a question but she failed to answer it. She is good at that, but she will be held accountable whether she likes it or not.

In any contract that I or others in this Chamber have seen, the Tánaiste has no guarantee - none whatsoever - that the installed water meters will last beyond 15 years. She should not try to tell me that they will last 20, 30, 40 or 50 years, because she does not know, no more than I do. That is the ball of smoke she is talking about.

Putting the associated spending to one side, we should also consider the debacle in our hospitals, as well as care for the elderly, community care and our home help situation. Does the Tánaiste think that is money well spent? Can she stand over this while people cannot get the care and assistance they need and want in their homes so that communities can prosper in some shape or form? The Tánaiste has abandoned the commitments she made to rural areas. She should not try to tell me that it is a ball of smoke. I am here on behalf of the constituents I represent, together with those of my colleagues, who wish to tell the Tánaiste for the umpteenth time that this has been a massive debacle which continues unabated. The secrecy associated with it continues too because neither the Tánaiste nor the manufacturer can guarantee that those meters will last a day beyond 15 years. She should not therefore tell me that the €50 million annual expenditure is a ball of smoke when she cannot guarantee that she will not have to spend a further €500 million to replace the meters.

We are over time, Deputy.

That is not the question I asked, however. How does the lack of information sit with the Tánaiste, given that the issue with emergency hospital care is continuing? Where is the value for money?

It is ironic that those in Fianna Fáil would have the nerve to come in here on a morning when the Governor of the Central Bank is downstairs retelling the sad story of how Fianna Fáil chose to expend €34 billion on two failed financial entities, Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide.

Answer the question.

We are used to that part of the answer.

It was €34 billion. If the Deputy is going to throw figures around, let us look at the big figures.


The Tánaiste has the floor, and I want the same respect given to everybody here.

Let me come back to the main point the Deputy is asking about. He is concerned that over their lifetime there will be some replacement of water meters. The purpose of the meters is to do what the Deputy, and everybody across the House, has called for on successive occasions - that is, to stop the situation whereby up to 40% of expensive, treated water in this country goes to waste through leaks.

That is the game changer.

For decades, people on all sides of this House, including the Labour Party and Fine Gael, have asked that the fixing of leaks should be prioritised. It is not possible to find and fix the leaks unless we have a structure to identify them.

Does the Tánaiste believe it is good value?

Second, water meters will provide the mechanism for people to control their use of water and conserve water, which we need to do as a country. The cost of fixing these meters when they come up for renewal - and they are expected to last a minimum of 15 years - will be roughly €5 million per year.

No wonder she sat idly by.

They will take five minutes to fix and will cost up to €50 per unit. That is in line with the best international figures on these matters.

She is lost at sea.

The housing crisis continues to spiral out of control. As the Tánaiste knows, families still present as homeless every single day. Almost 100,000 people are on housing lists across the State, some of them for lengthy periods.

Last December, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, launched a glossy, 90-page social housing strategy. He promised that the Government would deliver 5,384 new social houses in 2015. I want to ask the Tánaiste about those 5,384 new social houses promised for this year. Unfortunately, as with so many glossy Government documents, there was very little detail as to how these units would be delivered. The additional €210 million for social housing in budget 2015 will not cover the cost of these homes. Talk of off-balance-sheet borrowing and public private partnerships is just that - talk.

The Minister, Deputy Kelly, has not even told local authorities what their social housing budget will be for 2015. If and when he does, it will take up to 15 months before any new social housing units are designed, built and tenanted. In light of all this, can the Tánaiste outline exactly how the Government intends to deliver these 5,384 social housing units this year? Where will the money come from and what councils will benefit from them? Can the Tánaiste commit to all of these units being tenanted this year, as the glossy strategy document promises?

In the budget 2015 statement, the Government committed a significant amount of capital financing to a new housing programme, which is one of the biggest ever launched in the history of this country. The Deputy is correct in saying that it is not possible to plan, design, build, fit out and hand keys over for houses within a short period.

Anybody with experience of house building will know that. I am glad the Deputy acknowledges that implementing this extremely ambitious programme will take time.

There were several elements to the Minister's proposals for 2015. The first and most significant was to deal with the scandal that various Deputies in the House have raised from time to time, namely, the boarding up of perfectly good houses and apartments by local authorities when the tenancies were given up, particularly in the Dublin area. These houses were left to languish for up to two years, and even three in some cases, before being refurbished and handed over to new tenants. The first part of the strategy is to bring all available units up to a certain standard and hand them over to tenants, both families and individuals, who are waiting on accommodation.

The second part is to provide finance in this regard, and that is what the budget set out to do. Providing the budget finance is the core part of the strategy. The Deputy spoke as if she disapproved of assisting with the direct financing, through borrowing by the State, through off-balance-sheet borrowing. If the Deputy were to examine the facilitation of this, she might think again. In every country in Europe with a successful house-building programme, a variety of avenues are used, including local authorities, housing agencies, housing organisations and co-operatives. Financing is directly through the state, as in our case and as reflected in the Budget Statement, but it also involves borrowing from other institutions and borrowing through off-balance-sheet mechanisms. I do not believe there is any difficulty with any of that. I wonder why the Deputy sounds so disapproving with regard to obtaining additional finance to build the houses she claims she and her party are committed to building. Unless one has the finance to build the houses, one will not even get to the starting point.

The Minister has been meeting local authority representatives regularly up and down the country. If the Deputy wishes, I will get a detailed response from the Minister on all the meetings he has had. He meets the Dublin local authority officials on a weekly basis to be updated on the figures for Dublin. The Dublin managers have produced quite a detailed map, which the Deputy, as a Dublin Deputy, might have seen. It highlights where additional housing is to be provided, where sites are ready to go, and where sites are zoned and serviced. Also mapped are sites where all that work would have to be done.

Since the programme was launched, the Minister has probably done far more work than has been done by any Minister in recent years to get the greatest housing programme in the State under way and have housing delivered, from this year on, to the people on the housing list who need homes.

The Government's strategy document, launched to much fanfare before Christmas, specifically promises 5,384 new social housing units, to be delivered in 2015. I did not write the document; it is a document of the Tánaiste's Government and of a Labour Party Minister. I asked the Tánaiste to explain to us how she proposes to make good that promise and deliver the units in 2015. If I heard her correctly, she is conceding the point that she has not a chance of delivering the 5,384 new social housing units.

She commended me on commending her, and then she echoed my point that housing units cannot be delivered overnight. She made the promise to provide 5,384 new social housing units in 2015 but she is not going to deliver them, yet the promise was in her document. She might explain this to us.

Irrespective of the meetings the Minister might have had throughout the country, the fact remains that local authorities have not been given their budgetary allocation for social housing for 2015. Riddle me this: the Tánaiste proclaims in her glossy document, and her press releases reiterate, her apparent concern over the housing crisis and for people who need a roof over their heads, yet when it comes to setting out the nuts and bolts of how the homes will actually be delivered, she draws a blank. Is the Tánaiste delivering the 5,384 social housing units? Have I misunderstood her? I understand she is now resiling from that promise.

The Deputy is fantasising.

If that is the case, it is a disgrace. When will local authority budgets be allocated? Does she know? Does she care? I do not need her to run off and ask the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, to release another press statement. It is appropriate that she answer specific questions when they are put to her. I am concerned about the social housing units. Will the Tánaiste please answer my question on them?

Nobody cares but Deputy McDonald. It is insulting.

We would not have made cutbacks of €1.2 billion from 2008 until now.

Here comes the lecture.

Let me repeat for the Deputy the answer I just gave her. I said that in the budget, which was the first part of implementing the strategy, the Government made the largest allocation of Government funding for capital and current purposes to provide families with homes. That is step one. Step two is actually to provide that finance. The Deputy, but not I, quibbled that all the finance was not being provided entirely directly from Government sources and that some was to be off-balance sheet. I suggest she go back to the Sinn Féin advisers and check how one actually builds a housing programme.

Where are the houses?

One must put the finance in place and then one must do the planning.

And keep the promise to provide 5,384 units.

The Deputy seems slightly irritated over the fact that the Minister has met the county managers-----

-----and that he meets them on a weekly basis. That is to the Minister's credit. The Deputy asked what part of the country the problem is in.

I did not ask that; I did ask about the 5,384 units.

The problem is at its most acute in the Dublin area, as she might have known having the honour to represent a Dublin constituency, because the population in the Dublin area is growing because there is so much employment being created there.

So the Tánaiste is not going to answer. Will we see the units in 2015?

I also pointed out to the Deputy that in the Dublin local authority areas, and in those in Cork, Galway and Limerick to a lesser extent, there are properties that were closed up when the tenancies were given up.

Because the Government cut the budget. There was a cut of €1.2 billion from 2008 to now. That is why the local authority houses were boarded up in the first place.

We have funded them so they can be opened up.

There was a cut of €1.2 billion.

Deputy Ellis should note this is Leaders' Questions.

Deputy Ellis should realise we have given them that funding.

After she starved them in the first place.

I hope he instructs his party members on local authorities around the country to enter into dialogue with their managers to see that the latter, who are responsible for opening up the closed houses and apartments, actually do so.

Five thousand, three hundred and eighty four social housing units.


That is the third step. The Deputy should take it from me that we will be delivering on this commitment.

We will be delivering on the largest housing programme in the recent history-----

The Minister should get out her shovel.

-----of this State. I am glad to do that.


Hear, hear.

We know there is a relationship between homelessness and addiction.

Organisations working with people in Dublin say that as many as 72% of those who are homeless are so because of their addiction. We know that the exit from homelessness for them is through tackling the addiction, engaging with services, and having housing plans, care plans and treatment, whether on a residential or day care basis. When discussing this before Christmas, I stressed the need to commit to supported drug-free accommodation for those in recovery in order that they would not have to mix with those who are actively using. One such facility not far from here was described by the 18 persons in recovery there as having been a rock of stability, but because of pressure to take homeless persons off the street, which is very important, there has been a reconfiguration and that accommodation is no longer drug free. The changing of the culture to a mixed one has undermined the recovery journey of those in the facility, especially those who are at the early stages of recovery.

I take no pleasure in saying that what has happened has been disastrous. As a result of that reconfiguration, there is now widespread heroin use. There is dealing and chaotic behaviour. There are multiple relapses. There has been at least one serious overdose and there are debt issues as well. In spite of all of these warnings being brought to the attention of Ministers, Dublin City Council and the HSE, in spite of findings from a report on homelessness and addiction and in spite of recommendations from the users' forum, this went ahead. I consider that a serious breach of duty of care to those in recovery. Were risk assessments done and were there contingency plans in the event of this going wrong? I ask for a firm commitment to the principle of separate accommodation for those in recovery who are drug free and those who are actively using or - the term they now use - "stable", which still means those who are actively using. I also ask that the few who remained on their recovery journey are given proper accommodation in order that they can remain on that recovery journey.

The object of the action plan to address homelessness, which was launched before Christmas, is to end involuntary long-term homelessness before the end of 2016. In the action plan, which was introduced over the Christmas period, a very large number of additional beds were provided. Up to the Christmas period and the end of December, not all of the beds were taken up and used. Subsequently, as we came into January, the beds were used. From my own conversations with the many I know who work in this area, the initiatives, such as the night café, the bus and the transport supports, seem to have helped significantly those who, unfortunately, are out of home and on the streets.

Deputy O'Sullivan correctly identifies drug addiction and substance abuse issues as being at the heart of many of the difficulties with which those in that unfortunate position must contend. I do not know if the Deputy named the institution. I am not aware of exactly where she is referring to, but if she would give me the detail, I will undertake to have a look at the situation.

The Deputy has raised an important point, and it is a very difficult point for those dealing with both homelessness issues and addiction issues. Different organisations in this city and the country have different approaches. For instance, in the Coolmine centre in my constituency and in town where it also supports various facilities, no doubt the approach is for addicts to become substance free and then to enter into an intensive programme of therapy and rehabilitation. There are also other approaches which involve addicts being on a controlled intake, most frequently of methadone. In the context of not knowing exactly the location or the institution of which the Deputy speaks - I would be happy to talk to her about it in private - I am not quite sure what the situation is. However, for quite a lot of homeless persons, having others, some of whom may exhibit difficult behaviour and may have mental health issues, come into their space in a situation where, with difficulty, they are addressing their issues is certainly a difficult issue to address. I understood that the different organisations, under their different remits and mandates, were approaching it in line with their particular philosophies. If Deputy O'Sullivan believes that some group has been impacted on in a negative way by that, I would be happy to ask the organisations and the Departments perhaps to have discussions around it.

On Monday last I visited one of the community employment schemes which assists persons. There are 1,000 ring-fenced community employment places in the Department of Social Protection with which we support, throughout the country but particularly in the larger cities and towns, those who have substance abuse difficulties and who are rehabilitating. Some of those places are entirely drug free. Others have a different policy, for instance, to allow for methadone maintenance along with treatment. It is a very important issue and I thank the Deputy for raising it.

One of the issues in respect of what the Tánaiste said relates to staffing. There has to be properly trained and adequate staffing in these places which are taking in homeless persons who also have addiction issues.

I refer to a couple of points made by somebody who was living in that hostel. He was a heroin addict for a long time and 15 years on methadone. However, two years ago, because of going into a treatment centre, he became drug free, and for the past 20 months he has been alcohol and drug free and living in this hostel. He makes the point that the past month, when all of this reconfiguration was being discussed, has been the most difficult and challenging. He states that the change has left many at great risk and that the timing of the changeover was disastrous, given that it was at Christmas which alone presents a high rate of relapse. His great fear is for his fellow addicts in the house, that someone will lose his or her life through relapse. He states that he has been through many services in his time and has learnt what works and does not work, and the house where he resides is a perfect example of what does not work. He attends 12-step meetings which tell him to avoid persons, places and things connected to drug use, and that has been impossible to do with the reconfiguration that has taken place.

We accept that there are different models for recovery. Harm reduction has a place. Giving the homeless a bed has a place, but they have to be fearless going into a place to take up that bed. However, the harm reduction model cannot be at the expense of the recovery model. I ask that the recovery model is what we aim for. Harm reduction has a place but not at the expense of recovery for addicts.

I very much share Deputy O'Sullivan's view that the best resolution for an individual who has serious addiction problems is to try to get himself or herself completely clean. Given my experience down the years and knowing many who have made that journey as well as many now working in the sector, I agree that such is the best model.

On the organisations which are involved in delivering the services and the decisions they make around how they approach that, something I would like to see developing more strongly is that when addicts are clean, aside from being in hostel accommodation, which should be a transitional phase-----

It is not, and that is the point.

-----the hostel accommodation should recognise the stage that they are at. What should happen then is that we should seek to find homes for such persons. Not only have I been in many centres throughout the country-----


I was in Cork before Christmas-----

The Tánaiste is talking herself into eternity.

-----at the invitation of Simon. Simon in Cork, if I may say so, has an excellent approach to providing long-term homes-----

A Deputy

Does the Tánaiste want to attach it to a vow of silence?

-----for those who have come through a certain treatment situation.

The Tánaiste does not have a clue.

The Tánaiste should stop talking.

What does Deputy Mathews mean, "Stop talking"?

It is meaningless.

I spent last Monday talking to 15 or 16 very fine persons, as good any day as the Deputy or any of his colleagues who sit beside him-----

-----who have substance problems which they are battling to overcome.

I have a brother who is homeless. He is a recovering heroin addict-----

The Deputy should not dare lecture me.

-----who cannot get accommodation because of the cap on rent allowance.

The Tánaiste should be allowed to continue without interruption.

Deputy O'Brien should not dare lecture me.

That is exactly what is happening.

Deputy O'Brien should not dare lecture me.

He has been forced to go back into a hostel where drug taking happens in front of him.

The time is almost up.

I have just said that the approach of getting a home for people and getting people substance free is the correct approach.

I thank the Tánaiste. That concludes Leaders' Questions. We will now move on to the Order of Business.

Why does his good family not take him home?

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, that is completely out of order.

Deputies should have a bit of common decency.

It is completely out of order for Deputy O'Brien to tell another Deputy to shut his mouth.

What would one expect from Sinn Féin?

He should withdraw the remark and apologise.

In the circumstances, Members should have a bit of common decency and cop themselves on. The Deputy is the first one to run to the television. He should cop himself on.

I ask Members please to listen to the Tánaiste outline the Order of Business.