Priority Questions

Septic Tank Grants

Barry Cowen

Ceist:

1. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if he will commit to extending eligibility for the domestic wastewater treatment systems grants to include septic tanks that are registered but which have not been inspected by a local authority; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29451/15]

Will the Minister commit to extending eligibility for the domestic wastewater treatment system grants to include septic tanks that are registered but which have not been inspected by local authorities? Many people who have contacted me have recognised an issue with their septic tank and are cognisant of the prospect of it contaminating groundwater sources. As a result, they have sought the grant assistance that was portrayed by the Government as being available for those who wished to rectify such a situation. However, it appears one must be lucky enough to win a lottery in the local authority by virtue of the fact that the septic tank must have been tested and failed the test before one can apply for assistance. Will the Minister examine ways and means by which eligibility might be extended?

The Domestic Waste Water Treatment Systems (Financial Assistance) Regulations 2013, a copy of which is available in the Oireachtas Library, brought into operation a grants scheme to assist with the cost of remediation of septic tanks and domestic wastewater treatment systems which were deemed, following inspection under the Environmental Protection Agency’s national inspection plan and the subsequent issue of an advisory notice by the local authority, to require repair or upgrading. The qualification criteria are set out in the legislation and full details of the scheme, including eligibility criteria, are set out in the explanatory leaflet and application form published on my Department’s website.

The grants scheme ensures the limited financial resources available are targeted towards householders, particularly those on lower incomes, who incur expenditure directly as a result of the implementation of the Water Services (Amendment) Act 2012. I have no plans to extend or vary the qualifying criteria of the scheme. However, householders who do not meet the eligibility criteria included in the Domestic Waste Water Treatment Systems (Financial Assistance) Regulations 2013 but who wish to remediate or upgrade their on-site treatment systems may qualify for relief under the home renovation incentive scheme introduced under section 5 of the Finance (No. 2) Act 2013. The scheme covers main residence repairs, renovations and improvements, including the repair or replacement of septic tanks. The scheme is administered by the Revenue Commissioners and full details are published on their website, as the Deputy will be aware.

The Minister talked about the availability of the scheme and funds. The bottom line is that if somebody's septic tank is contaminating a water source and he or she contacts Irish Water or the local authority with a view to rectifying the matter, as he or she does not have the funds available to him or her to do so, despite the perception that funding is available in the form of a grant from the Government or the local authority, that is not the case. Local authorities and Irish Water are putting their hands to their ears, nobody is rectifying the position and the contamination continues. The cost to the taxpayer will be far greater in the future. The Minister says there is a grants system available, but there is not. One needs to have six numbers in the lotto. The local authority must test the septic tank, but there could be 5,000 septic tanks registered in its area. The householder's must be one of the six that are tested and one of the six that fail in order that he or she can qualify for a grant. That is not at all what it says on the tin. The perception does not meet the reality. It is time the reality met the perception and that an effort was made by the Government to adhere to the wishes of those who wish to rectify the problem and ensure there will be no contamination of water sources.

There is a system in place. It had to be put in place as a result of a European Court decision. Under the plan in place and working through the EPA and the local authorities, 1,000 inspections are taking place every year. By and large, local authorities have kept up with the level of inspections they were required to undertake. Incidentally, this is a minimum inspection level. If local authorities wish to increase the level of inspection, they can do so. Some are considering doing this. Regarding the inspections that have taken place, well over half of the septic tanks inspected have been found to be compliant. A considerable number of the rest just need to have normal maintenance carried out such as desludging and so forth. In the case of the remainder, additional work is required. Those who wish to do so apply for the grant that is available, but, given the income thresholds, obviously some will not qualify.

Is the Deputy happy?

I am far from happy. The scheme was portrayed as something it was not. When people who have difficulties with their septic tank go to the local authority to ask if they can access the grant, they are told they cannot. They must be one of the lucky ones to have their septic tank tested in the first instance and it must have failed the test. The Minister says there are thousands of inspections taking place. I will put a question to his Department in the coming weeks to ascertain exactly how many there are because it is minimal. The drawdown of funding is probably minimal also, to say the least. However, when the scheme was introduced, the impression was given that the grant would be available. Some of my constituents have come forward to avail of it, but, unfortunately, they cannot do so. There is no grants system in place for them.

This is all in the public domain. The plan sets out that 1,000 inspections will take place.

By and large local authorities are meeting the target of 1,000 inspections in total across the country. This is what was deemed achievable within the limited resources available at the time this was set out. On top of that, the Deputy must be aware that there is an evidence-based approach to these inspections. The system that has been developed in conjunction with the EPA targets areas where there are perceived to be issues. It is a fairly sophisticated system. There are over 400,000 septic tanks in the country. If the Deputy is asking whether a scheme should be put in place so that every one of those can be delivered on immediately, that is not realistic. There is an alternative, though, through the home renovation scheme, which I have already outlined to the Deputy. This is an option for all other householders if they have brought the matter to the attention of the local authority, have not been inspected and still want to do something about it. However, I would perceive that a household that has an issue with a septic tank and brings it to the attention of the local authority would be one of, as the Deputy calls them, the lucky few.

Water Charges Administration

Brian Stanley

Ceist:

2. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government his views on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions position regarding water charges and a referendum to ensure that water services are not privatised. [29232/15]

What is the Minister's position regarding the position taken by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, recently at its conference regarding water charges and the need for a referendum to ensure that water services are not privatised?

I note the comments of ICTU. The Water Services Act 2013 provided for the establishment of Irish Water as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis Éireann, now Ervia, conforming to the conditions contained in the Act and registered under the Companies Acts.

Section 5 of the Water Services Act 2013, as amended by Section 46 of the Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013, prohibits each of the shareholders of Irish Water – the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, the Minister for Finance and Ervia - from disposing of its shareholding in Irish Water and thus places a statutory prohibition on the privatisation of Irish Water. To further strengthen this protection of the State’s ownership of the company, section 2 of the Water Services Act 2014 provides that in the highly unlikely event of any proposal for legislation being brought forward at any future stage that would involve a change in the State ownership of Irish Water, the matter would have to be put to a plebiscite of the people. Accordingly, an amendment to the Constitution to prevent the privatisation of Irish Water is not necessary.

Section 21 of the Water Services Act (No. 2) 2013 provides that Irish Water is required to charge customers for the provision by it of water services and that customers of Irish Water are required to pay the charges. The charges are subject to the approval of the Commission for Energy Regulation. The Water Services Act 2014 provides that the maximum charge for a household will be €160 for a household with one adult and €260 for other households until the end of 2018. Provision is also made for charges to continue to be capped thereafter. I am satisfied that this charging structure provides a clear, certain and affordable way of ensuring that the necessary investment can be secured for our vital water services infrastructure.

The Minister's reply missed the point. The Minister will be aware that ICTU, the body representing organised labour in this State, took a very strong position in Ennis and called for the abolition of water charges. It also supported the position I put forward in a Bill earlier this year regarding having a referendum to prevent the privatisation of water services unless the people so decided. I accept that it was put in legislation and that this is a step in the right direction, which was taken under huge pressure. However, that can be changed, as the Minister knows. The next Government, if it is so willed, can do that. I would not advise it to do so, but it could. That shows there is broad support from workers who have really taken a hit in the last four or five years-----

Question, please.

-----in terms of the universal social charge and a number of other charges, taxes, extra pension levies and everything else. What they are saying now is that this is an extra taxation. They really want water charges abolished.

In the reply, do we get one minute or two minutes?

I will let the Deputy back in again.

Is it one minute or two minutes?

I note ICTU's comments in Ennis. I also note that there was a broad discussion on it and it was not unanimous. There were many different discussions and different views on it, particularly from many different unions, one of which I am a member of. Under no circumstances will Irish Water ever be privatised. The provisions are in place to ensure that does not happen. As a member of Government, I have to take cognisance of legal advice at all times from the Attorney General. We have put in place enough checks and balances to ensure that in the very unlikely event that somebody else sitting over here proposed to do that, it would not be possible. I believe the people are satisfied with that.

From a political point of view, this must be embarrassing. I heard what the Minister said about being a member of one of the unions. The facts are that here we have organised labour coming out strongly on this matter. Very few decisions are unanimous. Ordinary workers are seeing that they have taken a huge hit and here is another hit. Regarding the battle of hearts and minds, there is a problem here for the Government. Looking at the figures released yesterday, it does not matter how it is dressed up, just over four out of ten have paid.

Please put a question. It is Question Time.

Irish Water has received a large subvention. How can the Minister give a guarantee that Irish Water cannot ever be privatised? All it needs is a change in legislation. Eircom, or Telecom Éireann, as it was then called, was fattened up by public subvention in the same way as Irish Water is now. That is the fear. We should have a referendum.

I have outlined on numerous occasions in this House with the Deputy why the chances of Irish Water being privatised are nil. He can say what he wants. I have heard him numerous times saying that a future Government could just change the legislation. However, it would also have to decide to take away a decision to put it to the will of the people. It would be some Government that would actually do that. When one sits on this side of the House, one has to take legal advice on all occasions on decisions like this. As a Government, we have put in place every possible check and balance to guarantee that this will not happen. I look around both here and in the Seanad and I have not seen many people walk through these doors who would advocate doing what Deputy Stanley just said could happen, privatising Irish Water.

I have seen them.

If they did, I am not sure they know what they are talking about privatising. Is it water in the ground or Irish Water? What is it? That is the baseline from where he is starting. He has to define something. I am not even sure that is possible.

Housing Assistance Payments

Catherine Murphy

Ceist:

3. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if the housing assistance payment will be confined to existing rent cap limits for rent supplement in locations where those rent caps are being routinely negotiated upwards; if so, how they anticipate acquiring houses under the HAP scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29234/15]

This question relates to the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme. We know the market rents are, in most cases, higher, and sometimes significantly higher, than the capped rents, yet the scheme is supposed to be limited to the levels of the current rent caps as it relates to rent assistance.

The implementation of the housing assistance payment is a key Government priority and a major pillar of the Social Housing Strategy 2020. The HAP scheme removes a barrier to employment, by allowing recipients to remain in the scheme if they gain full-time employment, it improves regulation of the rented accommodation being supported and it provides certainty for landlords as regards their rental income.

HAP has been rolled out to all categories of households in 13 local authority areas. There are now over 2,600 households in receipt of HAP and a further cohort of local authorities will commence HAP on an incremental basis later this year. While securing accommodation under HAP can be challenging in areas where there is a shortage of supply, the numbers of households securing accommodation nationally under HAP continue to rise, with an average of 100 new tenancies being registered each week at present.

Regulations prescribe the maximum rent limits that apply in each local authority area where HAP has commenced. The limits are based on the rent supplement limits set out by the Department of Social Protection. In prescribing these limits, household size and prevailing rents in the relevant areas are also taken into consideration. My Department works closely with the Department of Social Protection in this regard and monitors the data gathered by HAP pilot authorities. In this context, I have recognised that South Dublin County Council requires additional flexibility in the operation of HAP given the challenging rental market within its administrative area. Regulations will be signed very shortly to provide for an additional 20% flexibility above the previous maximum rent limits in south Dublin where such flexibility is necessary in order to secure a suitable dwelling for a relevant household. The Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, and I will continue to keep this matter under active review.

The very fact that the Minister of State has selected south Dublin shows that it is the first big urban local authority where there are serious rental pressures significantly above the rent caps. That is exactly the point I am trying to get to. HAP has the advantage of taking that poverty trap out of the system, which I acknowledge, but in fact it could end up being a very costly solution by virtue of the fact that the rent caps are being negotiated up on a case-by-case basis. In my area, the rent cap is €750 but we negotiate on a case-by-case basis every day. If we do not, in the region of 1,200 to 1,300 people will end up homeless. It is significantly above the cap and the 20% the Minister of State is talking about will be very challenging in terms of getting additional properties for the scheme. Obviously, it does not deal with the supply side issue at all. Has the Government costed into the 2020 strategy the actual situation rather than the situation as it would like to find it in terms of the caps and market rents?

This is a matter we keep under continual review and in respect of which we engage closely with the Department of Social Protection and HAP pilot local authorities. South Dublin County Council reported that the successful implementation of the scheme was being hampered due to the shortage of available accommodation for eligible households within the rent limits which apply. We recognised that there was a need for greater discretion and flexibility in that particular case. Currently, we do not have plans to extend the flexibility to other local authorities, but we are continually reviewing and monitoring the situation in those areas. We are committed in government to making HAP work and increasing numbers are joining the scheme. We will keep it under active review as local authorities come forward. If they make the case, the matter will be considered at that stage.

I can tell the Minister of State straight off that he will find it impossible to get houses in my area for anything approaching the rent cap limit, even with 20% flexibility. Fingal, Dublin City Council, Dún Laoghaire, Kildare, Meath and Wicklow are all going to be a huge challenge. Has the Government actually looked at where people are coming into the scheme? Are they coming into the scheme in areas that pose less of a challenge? Is HAP really going to require very significant increases for the areas that are under the kind of rental pressure we see in the major urban centres?

We recognise that there are pressures, particularly in Dublin and the conurbation around it, in terms of all of the housing issues. HAP is one solution to address the housing demand that is there. With regard to rent limits, I have outlined that where the case is made and there is a real need, as in South Dublin County Council's functional area, we have applied the flexibility and discretion. Local authorities will vary in terms of the success of HAP and the demands on it. Substantial gains have been made in the pilot local authority areas in Limerick, Donegal and Kilkenny. A number of new local authorities just joined the scheme on 14 July and are at the very early stages. It is something to which I am committed to keeping under active review. We are committed to having a successful HAP scheme because we depend on it. If the demand arises, we will continue to engage with the Department of Social Protection and its officials and address it in due course.

Leader Programmes Applications

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

4. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the number of companies-entities that have been selected to deliver the Leader programme in various areas around the country; the number of areas where there will be an open tender to select the entity to deliver this programme; when it is hoped to have the selection of entities to deliver the programme completed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29233/15]

The next day for priority questions to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is likely to be the first week of November. At maximum, we have three parliamentary questions days left in this Dáil. We are really coming to the end game here. As such, I seek a comprehensive update from the Department on the roll-out of the Leader programme. When can we expect to see it rolled out and operational nationally?

I thank the Deputy for raising the question as it allows me to set out that we are making progress in this area. The Leader element of the Rural Development Programme 2014–20 will provide €250 million in financial resources to support the development of rural communities. Under stage one of the selection process for the new programme, any entity wishing to be considered as a local action group was invited to submit an expression of interest. For the purposes of the new programme, there are 28 sub-regional areas in Ireland and 45 separate expressions of interest were received. A single expression of interest was received in 19 of the 28 areas and at least two expressions of interest were received in the remaining nine areas.

As the Deputy will be aware, I established an independent evaluation committee to evaluate the expressions of interest received. The evaluation committee recently met and the following is the current position. Of the 45 expressions of interest received, one was formally withdrawn before assessment. Of the remaining 44, 42 met the minimum criteria and the evaluation committee decided that these should proceed to the next stage of the process, which is the preparation of local development strategies for their areas. Those who were successful in this process have been notified and invited to attend workshops and presentations in Tullamore, County Offaly, this morning. The purpose of the event is to set out in detail what is expected in terms of the content and quality of local development strategies. A minimum of six months will be allowed for the preparation of local development strategies, but I expect that not all areas will require the full six months to prepare them. As such, I am hopeful that many areas will have their strategies approved and be in a position to begin delivery on the ground by autumn 2015.

In areas where a single strategy is submitted, the evaluation committee will review and evaluate these strategies with a view to ensuring that they meet the required standard. In areas where entities do not come to an agreement and multiple strategies are submitted, it will be a matter for the evaluation committee to make a decision on which local development strategy best meets the needs of a particular community. In this situation, the evaluation committee will not make a decision on the successful strategy until all strategies for that sub-regional area have been submitted for assessment.

I thank the Minister of State for the information. I think it was a minor error when the Minister referred to "a minimum of six months". I take it that it is a maximum of six months that is allowed to prepare a strategy.

It is a minimum.

Is the Minister of State saying there is a minimum of six months to prepare a strategy? If I take six months from now, I am into next year. I presume it is a maximum period.

I am going to presume it is a maximum too and that there was a typo in the script.

As such, it could be anything from two months to six months. That means that where we have one strategy, it could be ready for appraisal at the end of September. Allowing in reality for six to eight weeks for evaluation and getting a strategy to the Minister of State for her approval, we are talking about having the early starters at the end of November. My experience tells me that is realistically the kind of timeframe in which we are working.

If there are two strategies the slower of the two could take up to six months and everything will wait until it is submitted. Must a plan for the total area rather than a sub-area be submitted?

It will take six months in some cases to develop a local development strategy and this is what is allowed. Entities successful at stage one have been invited to go to stage two, which is the local development strategy development phase. All entities invited to submit a local development strategy will be provided with a comprehensive template to assist in the development process. We are working very hard. More than €12 million has been allotted to County Galway. Those working on this are very pragmatic people and, like me, they will want to get their hands on the money. It will be in their interest not to slow down the process but to get the prize at the end of the development strategy. The quicker they have a development strategy the quicker we will draw down the money. Most communities would want to see this happen. It is not in anybody's interest to slow down anything in these areas deliberately.

I would not accuse anybody of deliberately slowing it down, but if one begins from a standing start it could take six months to develop a plan. If this happens, they will have to wait. The Minister of State mentioned County Galway and I did not, but I will take her up on it. If there were two bidders in County Galway each would have to submit a plan for the entirety of County Galway and they could not submit a plan for part of County Galway. There would be two or three plans for the whole area. Each bid must cover the whole declared area, such as all of County Leitrim or all of County Galway. A plan cannot be submitted for a sub-area. Will the Minister of State confirm this because it is important? In any area with competing bids, the slowest bid will determine the timescale up to six months. This seems to indicate that by the time contracts are signed and all the formalities are done, it will be next year. I take it the single bid counties could be three months faster.

It is a fair assessment that the slower strategy will perhaps take up to six months. I draw the Deputy's attention to the fact communities want this money drawn down. The faster the local development strategy is submitted the better. The independent evaluation committee will make its decision on the strategies and we will leave it to its expert view as to how local development strategies meet the criteria. It will be the local development strategy that best serves the needs of the community which will be chosen. The local development committees are working very hard on the strategies and we are looking forward to see what they will come forward with.

Is it correct that they must cover the entire area?

They must cover the sub-regional area.

Irish Water Administration

Brian Stanley

Ceist:

5. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the current position; when he expects a EUROSTAT report on Irish Water's finances to be completed; and if he is satisfied that Irish Water will pass the criteria given that projected income from domestic water charges will fall well short of the running costs of Irish Water until at least 2018. [29236/15]

When does the Minister expect EUROSTAT's report and determination on the finances of Irish Water to be completed? Does the Minister believe it will pass given the projected income and particularly yesterday's figures?

A key component of the strategy to establish Irish Water is that the utility will be classified as a market corporation under EUROSTAT rules and as a result will not, other than in relation to Government support, be included in the calculation of the general government balance. The Central Statistics Office is responsible for all engagement with EUROSTAT on such matters, and the Department has engaged with this office and has provided the necessary information to facilitate this work. As the Deputy is well aware, because we have discussed it numerous times in the Chamber, they are independent bodies which do their work independently of Departments. The CSO has confirmed it has submitted a classification proposal on Irish Water to EUROSTAT and that the proposal envisages Irish Water being classified outside the general government sector. The CSO has further stated this is a closed process and that it is awaiting the final adjudication by EUROSTAT. When EUROSTAT will announce its decision is a matter for EUROSTAT.

The Government is confident the underlying funding model for Irish Water supports increased investment in the water sector through an off-balance sheet classification of the utility, while at the same time providing for water charges which are affordable, clear and certain. The substance and timing of the decision on the classification of Irish Water will be made by EUROSTAT alone. It is not for me to state when it will do so. I expect it will not be too long into the future.

As the Deputy is well aware, Irish Water's first quarterly billing cycle has been completed. The utility has indicated it is satisfied with the rate of revenue collection to date and a very significant level of engagement with customers is continuing.

The Minister's reply does not tell me much. Several months ago he stated we would know in June, then I heard September mentioned and now we do not know. The big justification for establishing Uisce Éireann was that it would be off-balance sheet. Given that four out of ten people are paying domestic water charges, it shows there will be an awful lot on balance sheet. A total of €30.5 million has been received but €32.5 million has been budgeted to go out through the water conservation grant. It does not matter how these figures are juggled or what accountancy tricks are done, the €130 million water conservation grant may help the Minister to get it over the line as might the write-off of €59 million in rates, which will fall back on the public purse, and a number of other accountancy tricks which are being worked-----

The Deputy should put his question.

Does the Minister seriously believe he will be able to comply with this? More importantly, does he seriously believe he will be able to keep the finances of Irish Water off-balance sheet?

I thank the Deputy. I also have to be open and straight with the House. This is a matter for EUROSTAT. I expect it will be imminent but I cannot dictate or decide when it will make its decision. We have already stated quite publicly what has been put forward to it, but it is an independent process with regard to its decision and when it announces that decision. I have no control whatsoever over this and I hope the Deputy appreciates this. I do not know whether he is shaking his head because he agrees or disagrees with me, but I have no control over it. I expect it will come forward with a decision. I am very confident it will decide it is off-balance sheet. For the Deputy's information, I am very satisfied, as I said through numerous media yesterday, with the response in the first billing period from customers of Irish Water.

Here we are seven months into the billing period and we do not know when EUROSTAT will rule on it. We know what is coming in is one tenth of what were projected to be the costs this time last year, which was €300 million. If the Minister remembers, just before the Government pushed the Commission for Energy Regulation out of the way, it was stated €300 million was to be brought in this year through domestic water charges. There is massive subvention, with €339 million in operating costs, €222 million in capital costs, €59 million in offsetting of rates, and €130 million in the water conservation grant. Does the Minister realise what he has put onto the balance sheet from Irish Water? A total of €810 million is all on the balance sheet. It is Alice in Wonderland economics. Is it not the case the only way Irish Water will ever be able to cover the cost is either through massive subsidy, such as the €810 million going to it this year, or by increasing the cost massively on the far side of the general election?

The Minister has given an assurance that costs will not increase until the end of 2018. How will Irish Water get from here to the end of 2018, given the figures released yesterday?

Very simply, people will pay their bills. That is how Irish Water will get there. It is a straight question and a straight answer.

The figure is €810 million.

The Deputy asked a question and I ask him to do me the courtesy of allowing me to give him the answer. People will pay their bills. That is how Irish Water will get there and how the model will work. I have no plans to increase anything post the general election, now that the Deputy has raised the issue, considering that I have put this model in place. The Deputy does not like the information, but the billing period for which statistics were released yesterday covered April, May and June. In some cases, people only received their bills a few weeks ago. The average period of time in which people pay their bills is three to four months. I know that does not suit the Deputy's theory and thinking, but the idea that everyone should pay his or her bills immediately to suit his belief system is unrealistic.