Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014: Report and Final Stages

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan. I remind Members that a Senator may speak only once on Report Stage, except the proposer of an amendment who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. Also, on Report Stage each amendment must be seconded.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 24, between lines 13 and 14, to insert the following:

“Repeal of sections 15 and 16 of Act of 1992

28. The Minister, not later than 60 days following the commencement of this Act, shall lay before both Houses of the Oireachtas a report on the matter of the amendment of the Act of 1992 in Part 1 by the repeal of sections 15 and 16.”.

We have been over this ground in recent days. I remind the House that section 15 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992 provides for the immunity of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, while section 16 provides for the indemnification of the director general, directors and other persons of the EPA. In its in-depth review of 2010, the EPA itself stated that doubts had been expressed about the constitutionality of this immunity and whether it is compatible with obligations arising under the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2011, the then Minister, Mr. Phil Hogan, also said this immunity should be lifted. The Minister of State made a very nice speech about the EPA and I agree that it has been doing super work and is a wonderful agency. Nonetheless, I am here to speak on behalf of many of the other Senators and their constituents throughout the country.

Let me take the Minister of State to Portlaoise for one moment, the country of Senator John Whelan. The infamous plant there is Enva, a hazardous waste facility processing waste oil from around the world under an integrated pollution control licence. Last year in a memo, Enva detailed releasing benzene, a group 1 carcinogen. The local residents had been making complaints for up to 15 years about the disgusting, unbearable smell coming from the plant and about symptoms including wretched headaches, nausea and weakness caused by the emissions. It is so easy for me to make a speech in the House on their behalf. How would it be for all of us Senators if we lived next door to this plant, if our children had to go to school feeling sick, weak or nauseated, or if our family home was next door to this pollution which is not being regulated or controlled?

In 2011, on the orders of the EPA, independent inspectors from WYG carried out an examination of the odours coming from the plant. They found Enva was in breach of its licence. However, in a response to this report, Enva disputed the findings and no action was subsequently taken. Why is the EPA not using its teeth and acting as a watchdog on which citizens can rely? What is the point of the EPA if it is not bringing to heel industrial polluters who are profiteering on the back of citizens' health?

Many Senators have been approached by members of the public from different communities throughout the country. They all have similar sad stories to tell. Their lives are a misery and they are resigned but frightened. In many cases, the EPA has chosen not to believe or address the concerns of these citizens, and labels them as nuisances, moaners or cranks who do not have a clue what they are talking about. Public health should not be compromised. This is a David and Goliath situation in which rural communities with genuine complaints are just not being listened to by the EPA and industrial giants which are causing the pollution.

I ask the Minister of State to picture herself living down by the Shannon Estuary in Askeaton. This unfortunate area should be given the golden globe award for the most polluted valley in Ireland. The ESB's coal-fired station at Moneypoint, County Clare, is one of the 662 most damaging industrial plants across Europe according to a European Environment Agency report. Aughinish Alumina comes in at second place and, at the top of the triangle, we have an incinerator in disguise - a gasification plant planned for the old dump site at Gortadroma.

I am sure the Minister has heard this, but I am very concerned that no financial bond is in place with Aughinish. I know the plant was in place before the EPA was formed in 1992 but the EPA has since failed to put a financial bond in place. What does that mean to us as a country? Anybody from Cork will know well the large-scale environmental disaster that took place at Haulbowline. A very similar situation could develop in Limerick. When the Ispat steel plant in Cork went into liquidation, shortly afterwards an estimated 500,000 tonnes - an elephant-sized amount - of waste was found buried nearby, equating to one of the worst environmental disasters ever to occur in Ireland. The clean-up operation is ongoing, with costs running up to €40 million so far to make the site environmentally safe. Government attempts to force the clean-up costs onto the liquidator failed in the courts; therefore, this money is being paid by the taxpayer. As a safeguard against environmental disasters such as this, companies are required to furnish evidence of financial provision that is adequate to discharge their financial commitments or liabilities.

I have a picture with me which I will leave with the Minister of State later. It shows a 200-acre red lake which is 20 metres from the River Shannon. I have been down there and would recommend to any Member holidaying in the west to go and have a look at this monster. This 200-acre red pond, metres from the River Shannon and beside the Aughinish Alumina plant, is a toxic by-product of alumina production. It is strongly alkaline to the point of being caustic. In 2010, nine people died when a red mud waste pond at a plant in Hungary burst and the resulting pollution destroyed the local river and killed all marine life. Since this picture was taken by the Limerick Leader, a second 195-acre pond has started to be filled at that plant. If Aughinish Alumina decided to leave and decommission its plant, a start-up cost of €40 million to €50 million would be just a small estimate of the cost to the State.

This has been ongoing since the 1980s and it involves many families. The members of one of these families are sitting in the Visitors Gallery today, although I will not name them. They have moved out and no longer live on their farm, and although they started with a large herd of cattle, they are now down to fewer than 20 cattle. That young girl sitting in the Visitors Gallery is 14 years of age and she has suffered ill health, breathing problems, nausea, respiratory problems and brain fog. This family is not the only one in the area, but they had to move out of their farm, which is why I am standing here. We need to give them a voice. I ask the Minister of State to please consider my amendment. I just want a report that the EPA itself states needs to happen. I thank the Minister of State for listening.

I second the amendment. It is with pleasure that I support Senator Mary Ann O'Brien who introduced me to this issue. To my shame, I was not aware of its extent or nature until the Senator gave me a very compelling article from The Sunday Times of 12 July 2015 about this Limerick girl and her family who have suffered serious ill-health that they say is linked with pollution. I would advise everybody to read the article which is by Justine McCarthy. It talks about the health concerns, including constant fatigue, abdominal pains and itchy skin and eyes. It is a hugely difficult issue. Senator Mary Ann O'Brien also shared with me the picture from the Limerick Leader of this toxic substance, which is strongly alkaline to the point of being caustic.

This is a concern for me. I believe the amendment tabled by Senator Mary Ann O'Brien is pragmatic. We need the EPA to be a watchdog. It should not be immune. That is totally unacceptable, given that we need to keep it on its toes. The report being requested here is, I believe, pragmatic, given the serious nature of the concerns outlined by the Senator. This issue is urgent. I would prefer the timeframe to be shorter, but I realise that we have to give the necessary time for the report to take place. We should not have State bodies intervening and preventing citizens from being able to realise their full health and well-being. Citizens should have confidence that the State agencies are there to protect them, to support them, to fight for them and certainly to be that watchdog that we all want them to be. It is a great honour for me to second the amendment proposed by Senator Mary Ann O'Brien.

I support this important amendment. This issue has gone on for far too long. I do not think there is any State agency other than the EPA that enjoys such protection with regard to its immunity from prosecution. I have stated on a number of occasions in this House that the EPA need not be in fear of anything if it is doing the job correctly and that job is to protect the environment and have the issues of human health and animal health as its top priority. I do not know what the EPA fears and why that immunity should be in place because it does not stand to reason that it should be afforded such protection.

As the Minister of State knows, this issue has been raised on a number of occasions, yet there seems to be an abject failure by the Department to deal with it. I was told previously that there was no way to find a correct wording to establish an ombudsman's office to look into complaints against the EPA and that, therefore, the EPA is pretty much a law unto itself. That has to be tackled by the Government if there is to be confidence in the EPA as an environmental watchdog, which is what it should be.

There seems to be, under the current director general of the EPA, a move away from being an environmental watchdog. I realise that in a previous life she was very much a spokesperson and a lobbyist for the incineration industry, which is something that would not inspire confidence in me and would perhaps make me question that particular appointment, although I know it was made before the Minister of State's time. A vetting procedure and a proper interview procedure for appointments to such positions should be held quite openly and candidly and the public should know who are the applicants for such a major position.

If that is the view of the EPA, it is no wonder communities across the country feel as they do. I was present at a very well attended public meeting last Thursday night in Shanagolden which dealt with a proposed new gasification plant that is to be established on a landfill site. I have previously raised my concerns with the Minister of State. Certainly, the people in that hall had no confidence in the EPA, given the experience that people along the Shannon Estuary in Limerick have had with the agency in recent years.

I would like to raise a case in point which will underline why the amendment is important. Aughinish Alumina was mentioned by other speakers. The licensing arrangement granted by the EPA to Aughinish was certainly questionable. As I have raised before, one meeting of the EPA recommended that Aughinish would have to put a bond in place to protect the citizens against potential environmental catastrophe and there is that potential, as outlined by Senators Mary Ann O'Brien and Jillian van Turnhout. At a subsequent meeting of the EPA, however, the clause to have the bond in place to protect us was completely omitted from the licensing arrangement. I cannot understand how that can be allowed to happen and how a State agency can grant a licence to what is a known polluter under European regulations without any bond being in place. Therefore, it is very important that the amendment, if it is not accepted, leads to a commitment from the Minister to State to us today that the Department is serious about taking on the EPA and making it accountable to us, as citizens, and the Minister of State, as a representative of the Government.

She should make the protection and health of citizens the EPA's priority and not make the EPA a big welcome mat for multinationals and conglomerates to come in and walk all over communities that do not welcome them. First and foremost, we must stand up for the people. The EPA should do exactly what it says on the tin, namely, protect the environment. Unfortunately, as has been said a number of times here, this has not been the case. I fully support the amendment.

I support the amendment. I am one of the few people in the room who has worked in Aughinish Alumina, as did my former colleague. We were regularly paid to have our cars washed and polished due to chemical spills that took place within the confines of the island. Let us be under no illusions. On the positive side, Aughinish Alumina is a good employer and provides many jobs for the people of Limerick. On the negative side, the plant would house several Croke Parks, and the red mud ponds to which Senators have referred would house three or four Croke Parks. That is the amount of industrial waste we are talking about.

I worked in the fire and security service there. Part of our job was to put on chemical suits and look after employees when there was a spill. Every 200 metres on the site there is a shower in case a employee is splashed with caustic soda, which is brought in by the truckload every day. If a person is splashed with caustic soda, it will burn right through. Employees had to stand naked under a shower for 20 minutes until they were collected by an ambulance and brought to the medical centre. There were people who lost their eyesight in at least one eye. There have been several spills on the site.

The red mud ponds are highly toxic. The plant is built on a limestone base. If the man in the Visitors Gallery could speak, he would confirm what I am saying. At one stage, we were building a tower on Aughinish and the builders who came to lay foundations found their explosives had no effect on the limestone. When the blast took place, it just filtered out through the limestone cracks. The first mud pond was covered in a rubber lining to stop any leakage. If the lining goes, we have no idea where the toxins from the red mud will go and where in the Aughinish area they will be deposited. It is a large farming area. There is a serious concern, particularly regarding issues such as bonding. I do not want to play down the seriousness of the problem or falsely accuse Aughinish Alumina of any damage, although there are environmental questions that must be answered and that have not been dealt with since the plant opened.

The Senators tabling the amendment are doing so in good faith and the issues must be investigated fully. While I do not want Aughinish Alumina's reputation to be damaged any more than necessary, if it must answer, let us not have another Merck Sharp & Dohme. In that case, a man and his family were ruined and his animals killed before, eventually, somebody stood up and said he was telling the truth. I am not sure how many people are suffering financial damage in the Aughinish area. I have seen photographs of animals that died of God knows what. I remember some geese being brought from Canada and a big advertisement appearing in The Irish Times stating Aughinish Alumina had flown the geese 6,000 miles in order to create 1,000 jobs. Although I may be wrong, as far as I recall, caustic soda burned the feet off the geese and they had to be put down.

The moment one walks through the gate of the plant, one is immediately aware of the fact that one is in a highly dangerous environment. Everything about the day's work is controlled by the knowledge that one is exposed to caustic soda. The process of extracting alumina from bauxite requires thousands of gallons of caustic soda, as well as sulphuric acid, lime, and sodium aluminium fluoride. Between all those substances and the red mud that is going out, there are some serious chemicals lying around in an open area. At one stage, Aughinish Alumina explored the possibility of using the red mud to make concrete blocks, which failed. For years, it has been trying to find something to do with the red mud waste, which will be left there like nuclear waste for generations. I support Senator Mary Ann O'Brien.

I spoke about the issue in its broadest sense on Committee Stage. Today, I express my concerns. The last speaker referred to Merck Sharp & Dohme. I was reared in the valley where Merck Sharp & Dohme still operates. It is an excellent employer in County Tipperary and employs approximately 350 people in high-quality jobs. However, during the almost 20 years of Hanrahan v. Merck Sharp & Dohme, many things happened and many people were affected. One man took on a giant operation and was vindicated in the Supreme Court and it is in the Statute Book forever.

Then along came the EPA. Previously, the local authorities which were self-regulating gave licences to companies such as Aughinish Alumina and Merck Sharp & Dohme and monitored them annually. Then the State decided that we needed an agency to do the monitoring and take it from the local authorities. At the time, I thought it was a very good idea, given that it would remove local personalities, knowledge and friendships from the process and move licensing to a national level. However, I discovered issues such as the tailings ponds outside Nenagh and many other places where waste was allowed to gather. The agency charged with monitoring it was not doing its job.

When I came to Seanad Éireann, I met Senator John Whelan who told me about what was happening in Enva in Laois, Senator Tony Mulcahy who told me what was happening in the same company in Clare and our friends in the Visitors Gallery who told me what was happening in their area. It all pointed in one direction, namely, that the people charged with monitoring, examining and ensuring the proper rules and regulations were complied with did not seem to be doing their jobs. I have had discussions with Senator Mary Ann O'Brien on the issue. The amendment is the culmination of much work and several weeks of discussion inside and outside the House. I have spoken to the Minister of State on a number of occasions and asked her to consider the amendment.

Whether the people making the claims and allegations prove to be correct is not what is entailed in this amendment. It is that the legislation enacted would ensure the proper monitoring of citizens, communities and, in this case, animals was safeguarded. We need to see that in black and white and the report being requested in the amendment to be delivered. I ask the Minister to respond favourably to the amendment because it is in the interests of all the citizens that we get this right. It is something we have not got right for a while.

To reply to the Senators who have spoken passionately on this amendment, immunity from prosecution for the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, arises under section 15 of the Environmental Protection Act of 1992, while section 16 indemnifies the director general, other directors and authorised persons against legal action. Senators may be aware that a review of the EPA conducted by a broadly based group of relevant experts and completed in 2011 examined the performance of the EPA against its mandate and found that the EPA has provided considerable benefit for Ireland's environment and for the health and well-being of its people. Nonetheless, the 2011 review also recommended that the immunity from prosecution as it applies to the EPA, in carrying out its statutory functions, should be reconsidered.

I want to inform Senators that this process is ongoing through a comprehensive analysis of potential impacts on the agency and its ability to effectively discharge its statutory functions in the event of the removal of these sections of the Environmental Protection Agency Act. The analysis may also examine how the issue of immunity is dealt with by other State agencies in Ireland and environmental protection agencies in other jurisdictions.

While I cannot accept the terms of the proposed amendment, I can assure and inform Senator Mary Ann O'Brien that the Minister has confirmed to me that the Department will expedite the completion of the current review and a comprehensive report on this subject will be presented before the Houses of the Oireachtas within 90 days of the commencement of the Bill. Not only does that demonstrate a commitment but a timely commitment, which is more important. On the basis of this commitment I ask that the Senator withdraw her amendment.

I thank the Minister of State. We are delighted with that response and look forward to the 90 days coming to an end. Is it from the commencement of the Bill? Does the Minister of State have any idea when it will happen?

When the Bill has been signed by the President. We are looking towards the end of November.

From the commencement of the Bill.

No, in terms of the figure of 90 days. It will be towards the end of August and then November.

That is super. I thank the Minister of State.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 are related and may be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed?

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 31, between lines 19 and 20, to insert the following:

“(d) the insertion of the following subsection after subsection (3):

“(3A) That the applicant has a contract with a licensed operator for the delivery and safe disposal of collected waste.”.”.

As we had lengthy debates on all of these issues on Committee Stage, I do not intend to have a lengthy debate on Report Stage because we have made the arguments. We resubmitted many of our amendments because we want to restate our position. We may not divide on them, but we will certainly press them.

I remind the Minister of State that these two amendments seek to ensure a person or a company seeking a waste collection licence has proven that they have or will have a contract with a licensed operator who will safely dispose of the waste. This would be one way of tackling the problem of illegal dumping, which is a huge problem across the State. There is a big problem with illegal waste collectors also, some of whom are operating with impunity. Where we can do so, we should tighten up the law. Where we can do so, we should strengthen the provisions of the Bill. Notwithstanding our opposition to the Bill for other reasons we will get to later - we will have a discussion on the reasons in regard to water charges - there are many provisions of the Bill we do support in terms of improving our waste management laws. That was the purpose in tabling these two amendments. We hope the Minister of State is in a position to accept them in the same way she was for the first amendment.

I second the amendment.

I cannot accept the amendment. Waste collection companies are already obliged under the conditions of their permit to ensure waste is disposed of only at appropriate licensed facilities. The amendment would force applicants for waste collection permits to enter into binding commercial contracts with waste disposal operations before they even had a collection permit and when there was no guarantee that their application would be successful. Such an obligation would be anti-competitive and also unfair. What would happen, for example, where such a collector had entered into a commitment with a waste facility operator to deliver a certain amount of waste for a certain price for a set period, whose application for a collection permit must be signed by a facility manager or equivalent appointed persons?

Waste collection companies must also provide details of the method of disposal of all waste collected by way of an annual return submitted to the National Waste Collection Permit Office. Failure to do this is a one strike offence automatically prompting a review of their waste permit by the National Waste Collection Permit Office.

It should also be noted that a waste collection vehicle may be stopped and inspected at any time by a local authority enforcement officer and be required to show proof of the destination for the treatment of the waste it carries. Any waste collector found to be disposing of waste in any unauthorised manner would be subject to a prosecution under the Waste Management Act, which could result in fines of up to €15 million and-or imprisonment of up to ten years. Such a conviction would also lead to the revocation of the waste permit and would result in the collector failing the proper person test being introduced by the Bill. That means that the collector would no longer be permitted to collect waste.

Rigorous enforcement of waste legislation is now sound economic policy and the Government is committed to boosting growth while continuing to protect and improve the environment. The waste provisions in the Bill will make an important contribution to ensuring the regulatory framework is sufficiently robust to ensure there is a level playing field for responsible businesses. The very strong focus on enforcement and driving high standards of compliance and service by collectors of waste will contribute to protecting and enhancing one of our vital assets, namely, our green image, which is essential for the tourism and food industries and attracting inward investment.

Again, I cannot accept the Minister of State's response. I have to press the amendment because her response would be akin to taxi drivers not being properly regulated or operating without a taxi licence. Saying this could have an impact on competition could encourage a race to the bottom. We know that for those responsible people who have licences and operate within the law there are huge associated costs. For example, the cost of the landfill levy for waste disposal has increased. There are huge costs associated with this industry.

Those who operate within the law and regulations, are properly licensed and do all the right things are being undercut by rogue collectors. What the amendments seek to do is the opposite to what the Minister of State said they would do. They make perfect sense. I suspect this will be one of those Bills for which the Minister of State will come back to the House with an amending Bill. She has already made amendments to it that have nothing to do with the Bill. I will let the irony of that pass, but the amendments we have tabled are a genuine attempt to strengthen the Bill and clamp down on illegal operators and illegal dumping. I am disappointed the Minister of State is not in a position to accept the amendments; therefore, we have no choice but to press them when we get the opportunity.

The Bill is designed to drive higher standards in the waste collection industry. The bar has been raised in terms of the standards required to access a waste collection permit, while existing permits will be more regularly reviewed for breaches of permit conditions. The suite of enforcement tools has been expanded and permits will be revoked for infractions of waste legislation. This is being done in the context of the recognition that this is already a heavily regulated sector of Irish business. Legitimate operators also contribute much to the circular economy and the economy generally and must retain the scope to make the most commercially advantageous decisions for their business in what is a very competitive industry.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 37, between lines 31 and 32, to insert the following:

“(d) the local authority is not satisfied that the waste collected is being legally, properly and safely disposed of.”.

I second the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Amendments Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, have been ruled out of order.

I was not informed that they were out of order.

Letters were issued this morning.

I did not recieve any letter. On a point of order, the amendments were resubmitted. We did not receive any notification that they were out of order.

Letters were issued this morning to that effect.

I did not receive a letter. I am not being funny. I did not receive any letter to the effect that the amendments were out of order.

On a point of order, we did receive notification, but for whatever reason the information was circulated late.

The letter may have been issued to Senator Diarmuid Wilson, as his was the first name on the list submitted with the amendments. The amendments have been ruled out of order because they involve-----

How many amendments have been ruled out of order?

Amendments Nos. 4, 5, 6 and 11.

That is fair enough.

They involve a potential charge on the Exchequer.

Really. I would have argued the toss on that one.

Amendment No. 16 has also been ruled out of order.

It is probably easier to say which amendments are in order.

Amendments Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, 11 and 16 have been ruled out of order.

Amendments Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, 11 and 16 are in order. Therefore, amendment No. 4 is in order.

No. Amendment No. 4 has been ruled out of order. Amendments Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, 11 and 16 have been ruled out of order.

That is most unfortunate.

It is. I am sorry about that.

Amendments No. 4 to 6, inclusive, not moved.

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 54, to delete lines 31 to 40, and in page 55, to delete lines 1 to 5.

We will take the amendments as they come. What we seek to do in amendment No. 7 relates to page 54 of the Bill. I have been caught on the hop because I was ready for the other amendments, but I am not ready for this one. Would it be possible for the Minister of State to respond to the amendment? I will take the opportunity to read it in order that I will not detain the House for too long. I will then respond to the Minister of State.

I second the amendment.

The amendment proposes the deletion of section 49. I cannot accept the amendment. The section provides for an amendment to section 5 of the Water Services Act 2014 which deals with payment of the water conservation grant. It is to provide that an approved housing body in receipt of funding under sections 38 and 39 of the Health Act 2004 and responsible for the payment of water charges on a dwelling will be regarded as the occupier of the dwelling for the purpose of determining eligibility for payment of the water conservation grant. This is important to ensure the occupiers of such properties are treated the same as other domestic customers and the water conservation grant is applied where the approved housing body is paying domestic water rates on behalf of its tenants. This measure ensures such an outlay on water services is no greater than it would have been had the tenant registered for the charge with Irish Water and received the grant directly. I will not be accepting the amendment.

I support the amendment. I will not make a big deal out of the amendments that were ruled out of order. That has been done.

There is something outrageous about the Government looking to make landlords tax collectors. That is essentially what it is doing with the Bill. It should not be the responsibility of landlords to have to collect charges or taxes. It is outrageous that the Minister is pursuing such a line.

There is little point in restating the position which we detailed on Second and Committee Stages. We also had lengthy debates on water charges yesterday in the context of the Civil Debt (Procedures) Act. The Government chose to rush those final two Bills through the Seanad at the end of the year, but that is not the way it should have been done. Many landlords have enough to do at this point without having to act as tax collectors for the Government or help compile registers for water charges, including unpaid charges. The Minister has gone the wrong way about it. I will support the amendment. I will speak later on the similar amendments that arise. I express our opposition to what the Minister intends to do in the Bill.

I thank the Minister of State for responding to the amendment. If tenants of a voluntary housing association or housing body such as the housing section of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul do not remit their water charges, I take it that the Government will deduct it from the housing application grant. In effect, housing bodies are being made responsible for collecting the charge. How will they go about this if the tenant will not or cannot pay? The Government is adding another layer of collection for the water charge.

We will push the amendment. It is inappropriate for such housing bodies to be used as a collection agent on behalf of a large semi-state company such as Irish Water. Will the Minister of State clarify the position? If a housing association does not remit the full amount required from the tenant, will it be deducted from its grant in the following year?

I draw the attention of Senators to the fact that this is important in ensuring the occupiers of those properties are treated the same as any other domestic customers and the water conservation grant is applied where the approved housing body is paying domestic water charges on behalf of tenants.

It is €1 per tenant.

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 16; Níl, 22.

  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Heffernan, James.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Donovan, Denis.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Power, Averil.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Zappone, Katherine.

Níl

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Brennan, Terry.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Coghlan, Eamonn.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • D'Arcy, Jim.
  • Gilroy, John.
  • Hayden, Aideen.
  • Kelly, John.
  • Landy, Denis.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mulcahy, Tony.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Naughton, Hildegarde.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O'Neill, Pat.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Whelan, John.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paschal Mooney and Darragh O'Brien; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden.
Amendment declared lost.

Amendments Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, and 12 to 15, inclusive, are related as amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 12 to 15, inclusive, are alternatives to No. 8. Is it agreed that amendments Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, and 12 to 15, inclusive, may be discussed together? Agreed.

Amendment No. 8 not moved.

I move amendment No. 9:

In page 55, to delete lines 13 to 26 and substitute the following:

“(2) The database shall be the property of the Department of Social Protection for the purposes of payment of the grant and be subject to the provisions of data protection legislation.”.

I regret that the Minister of State is taking the flak in the Chamber and the senior Minister is not. I notice he is not at the McGill Summer School either. He has obviously taken flight.

It is absolutely abhorrent that these amendments are stuck on at the tail end of the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014. We are now discussing a database. Whenever I hear the word "database", my hackles rise immediately and I become deeply concerned. Databases contain private and personal information. What is involved here is a database for a water conservation grant. Nobody has explained to me what this grant is for and what one must do to get it, although last week somebody on the Government side was talking about fixtures and fittings that must be fitted. I am not sure what they are and I am still waiting for somebody to tell me. I have also referred the water conservation grant to the European Commission. It is not right, proper or possibly even legal to be given a grant for doing nothing. The crazy situation, as confirmed by Irish Water on "Morning Ireland", is that I can get the €100 grant and never pay my water bills. All I must do is register; I need not pay any fee. I can be quids in by whatever time the Minister starts taking people to the courts to pay their water fees, although I do not know how he will bring 57% of the householders of the country to court. However, the issue is the database. It is being created for the purpose of paying the grant. It is, therefore, the property of the agency that will pay the grant. As the Department of Social Protection will pay the grant, only that Department should have access to the database. The database should be created for the purpose of paying the grant and for no other purpose. The content of the database or the database itself cannot be handed over to Irish Water or to any other agency. It is the property of the Department of Social Protection.

That brings me to another question. Have we discovered yet how much it will cost to administer this database? How many people will be involved? What is the cost of generating the database? Will it be outsourced or will it be developed bespoke within the Department? What is the cost of administering it and of the staffing of this grant section? Has EUROSTAT or the European Union advised where we stand with respect to this grant? I see one or two Senators on the other side of the House looking at me rather strangely, but if any of them can tell me of any grant one can get anywhere in the world for doing nothing, I would love to hear about it.

Set-aside is one.

I am looking forward to receiving the €100. The wife and I will have a party with it, but I will not be paying my water fees. Incidentally, if there is any suggestion I will find myself on a database that is not controlled under data protection legislation, I will have serious difficulty with it. I seek an assurance that the database, if it is created, will be the property of the Department of Social Protection. That should be provided for in the Bill, as amendment No. 9 proposes.

I second the amendment. I will also speak to the amendments tabled by Sinn Féin.

The previous Senator spoke about the madness of this section. It is entitled, "Water conservation grant - database", and is a couple of pages long. It is tagged onto the end of a Bill. I asked the Clerk of the Seanad for a copy of the explanatory note on the Bill and found it to be the original explanatory memorandum, which refers to all of the issues we dealt with previously regarding waste. It does not deal with water at all. Some bright spark in the Department obviously thought this was an opportunity to get all of these provisions into a Bill and have it done and dusted before the summer recess, rather than bring forward a separate Bill that would create problems for the Government. That is the reason for doing this, as we discussed on Second and Committee Stages. However, there is something fundamentally wrong with this water conservation grant. Senator Gerard P. Craughwell alluded to the obvious point that one has to register but one does not have to pay the water charges to get the grant. One need not provide any receipts or any evidence that one has spent a penny on water conservation, yet one is entitled to receive this grant. The reason the water conservation grant was introduced initially is that it was part of the humiliating climb-down by the Government, which had to abandon its previous attempt to get its water services charges through because people were not going to pay the €300 to €400 that was originally provided for by the Government. It had to climb down and introduce amending legislation. However, that was not enough and did not work, so the Government had to return with a third amendment Bill that still did not work. Now we discover that 57% of citizens have not paid their charges and have said repeatedly in opinion polls that they will not do so.

The water conservation grant was to act as some type of inducement to people to pay - if they paid their water charges, they would get the grant. In fact, they do not have to pay but they will still be paid the grant. One of the problems this will cause - I will discuss the database issue - is that we are running the real risk of Irish Water not making any money and potentially running at a loss. That will create real problems for the Government. What it tried to do in setting it up by sleight of hand and off the balance sheet was an effort to get around fiscal compact and state borrowing rules. As doing it that way has backfired, the Government had to introduce the water conservation grant. It will not work. It is already a laughing stock. I have heard many commentators talking about it. They are perplexed that the Government can introduce such a thing and give money to people for doing absolutely nothing. It is just bonkers. On the one hand, it is taking money from some people - not everybody but those who will pay - and giving them back the conservation grant and, on the other, giving it to those who do not pay.

It is worth bearing in mind that water charges were introduced under the guise of the need to invest in water services. That rationale has been lost along the way. The centrepiece of the Government's entire water strategy was that it would raise the funds needed to get the system right. Instead, all the Government has done for the past three years is deal with crisis after crisis, and it still is not out of the woods. Fianna Fáil, in a welcome move, has joined Sinn Féin and other Opposition parties in committing itself to the abolition of water charges. It is possible, therefore, that these provisions will never see the light of day. Whichever parties make up the next Government, it seems likely water charges will be gone.

I share the concerns expressed by the previous speaker regarding the database. We need only look to the Eircode fiasco to see what can go wrong with such mechanisms. We are being told, for example, that parts of south Kilkenny, in the constituency of the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, are now in Waterford. The Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, has established a boundary commission, but no one would have thought it would extend as far as Mullinavat. It is madness what is going on there. I recently received a notification addressed to "Deputy David Cullinane, TD". It seems these people can predict the future, even if they cannot do much else right.

The Government's track record when it comes to databases containing citizens' information is an absolute shambles. I will not support proposals that give the Government power to set up another such database. The information being sought includes details of the water supply to the dwelling, the treatment of the wastewater discharge from the dwelling, the address of the dwelling, the postcode - that will be interesting - the name of the occupier, whether the dwelling is the principal private residence of the occupier, which forces landlords to give information about tenants, a unique reference number assigned in respect of the dwelling to the occupier of the dwelling, and much more besides. I cannot support any of this. I said from day one, when the former Minister, who is now in Brussels with his big salary, came into this House with his proposals to establish Irish Water that they would not work and he would be back with his tail between his legs. Sure enough, the whole thing has been an absolute disaster for the Government. When we told the former Minister it would not work, we were laughed at by Government party Senators. The Government insisted its proposals would be enacted and everything would work out fine. That has not and will not happen.

It is time to stop the madness. Is the Government going to come back with another amendment Bill introducing further changes when people continue to refuse to pay the charges? What is being done here represents sleight of hand on the part of the Government. We do not support the provisions, and the manner in which they were brought forward is not the right way to draft legislation to deal with these very serious issues. For those reasons, we will press our amendments.

I remember very well when the original legislation setting up Irish Water came before the House. As I recall, I was the only Member of either House who raised questions about the proposal to use personal identification numbers. I was assured that the only reason these unique identification numbers were being used was for the purpose of facilitating payment of the conservation grant. I did not press the issue, my rationale being that returning money to taxpayers seemed in principle like a good idea, notwithstanding the broader debate on the merit of water charges. It quickly became obvious, however, despite the assurances given to me, that there were serious question marks in this regard, questions which were raised in due course by the Data Protection Commissioner. As a result, the Government withdrew that particular provision.

The proposals we are discussing are akin to a wolf in sheep's clothing in so far as they seem mainly to be a way of getting around the Data Protection Commissioner's objections and proceeding with the establishment of a database. When one reads the details of the legislation, it is like going around in circles. The Minister will establish a database or, it seems, an agency could be set up to establish it, and that agency and-or the Minister will then hand over the information contained therein to the Minister for Social Protection, who will use it to pay the conservation grant. Why is it necessary to go all around the houses in this way?

Senator Gerard P. Craughwell's amendment cuts to the chase. Unless the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, can offer reasons other than the ones already given for the need for a separate agency to create a database, I cannot understand why it should be done. Of course, the Department of Social Protection needs that information, but does it not already have the means at its disposal to obtain it? What is the need for this legislation? Surely the focus should be on enabling the Department of Social Protection to have access to the information it needs rather than creating yet another agency? As Gerard P. Senator Craughwell eloquently observed, there are unanswered questions around the cost of all of this. If I recall correctly, the Department of Social Protection, from the very beginning, has never quantified the cost to its budget of the dispersal of the €100 grant to households. Perhaps the Minister of State might be able to shed some light in this regard.

The Government offers grants under a variety of schemes. In the case of energy conservation, for example, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland gives incentives to householders who insulate their attic to prevent heat escaping. If householders want to conserve water, the Government will give them a grant to encourage them in that regard. Perhaps we should charge some Senators for a lesson on water conservation, which is a separate issue from water charges. I gave the statistics the previous day showing how close we are to breaking point in Dublin. There are people in this country who will never have to pay for water because they have good quality wells sunk to such a depth that the water is clearer and cleaner than could be provided from any other source.

They are paying €100 for it.

The Senator is opposed to people having to pay €100, but every household in the country with its own supply has been paying for water for years. I am absolutely surprised at the opposition of Senators, some of whom are ex-teachers, to these proposals. One of the main focuses of primary school education should be the importance of conservation and ensuring we preserve our environment for future generations. That is the theory and it should be the practice. It is what the Government is trying to encourage by way of these proposals. Senators opposite, however, are saying we should throw it all away and let what happens happen.

That is what the Government is doing.

No, the Government is trying to put a stop to what has been going on for many years. It is about raising awareness and educating people, something which should have been done years ago.

I would love to know what education is being provided.

Does the Senator want me to tell him again?

I will take him outside and give him a private lesson.

(Interruptions).

I might have to request an immediate adjournment.

(Interruptions).

I have called Senator John Gilroy.

Senator Cáit Keane's last comments notwithstanding, she has summed up the situation well. It is remarkable to discover Opposition Senators are not in favour of giving householders €100 per year to encourage them to conserve water. It is absolutely amazing that Members are saying, "No, you are not getting that money, you do not deserve it."

How will the payment help to conserve one drop of water? We would love to know.

Sometimes people pursue arguments to the nth degree and end up painting themselves into a corner. Members opposite have done exactly that on this occasion. The logic they are presenting is so perverse as to make no sense at all.

The Senator has missed the point entirely.

Has he seen the latest polls showing the Labour Party at 6%?

Senator John Gilroy to continue, without interruption.

On a point of order, this is not about the €100 grant; it is about the database.

That is not a point of order.

We can only respond to what we hear from the Opposition.

The Senator should speak to the amendment.

On the amendment, the Opposition has thrown in the kitchen sink. Opposition Senators have called the introduction of the grant madness, a shambles and a farce. It has been described as everything except what it is. Senator David Cullinane said little, apart from shouting the word "joke", which might describe his own party's policies on the economy and water services. Sinn Féin has a 19 line, 223 word policy paper which states it will abolish Irish Water without referring to what will become of the infrastructure and whether we will revert to having 31 local authorities providing water services. Will Sinn Féin allow raw sewage to continue to pour out of 47 towns? When the Government decided to give €100 to encourage and support people in conserving water, the Opposition claimed it was wrong. If it was not so illogical, it would be farcical. People have to pay their water charges. Any responsible legislator will acknowledge that it is the law of the land and, while we might not like it, it is highly irresponsible of Opposition Members to encourage people to pay only the charges and taxes they choose and to ignore laws they do not like. That does not make sense to me and it is not what I consider to be democracy.

Levels of payment are similar to the payment rates when the property tax was first introduced, but the compliance rate with the property tax is now in the region of 96%. Television licences were introduced in 1961 and the compliance rate is now 85%. The compliance rate with the property tax is considerably better and we are confident that the compliance rates with water charges will be equally good.

I do not think anyone has addressed the actual section in question which outlines the necessity of having a database. Every Department is investigating the potential for cross-referencing and amalgamating information technology systems. Opposition Members are constantly calling for such reforms, but just because it suits their agenda of opposing water charges, this database must be stand-alone. It makes no sense. If we could argue on the merits of the Opposition's logic, I would be happy to engage, but they are making a meaningless argument. They are against water charges and water conservation and will throw in any old argument to muddy the waters.

I do not see anything particularly wrong with the legislation in regard to databases. Complaints have been made in this House that the databases in Departments do not communicate with each other, with the result that the taxpayer loses money. What do Senators Gerard P. Craughwell and David Cullinane have against the people of rural Ireland?

What does that have to do with the amendment?

Senator Michael Mullins was referring a question to the Minister of State.

We are on Report Stage. This is all nonsense. The Senators are grandstanding.

Plese allow Senator Michael Mullins to continue, without interruption.

The people of rural Ireland who have been paying for water for the past 40 years or who have sunk their own wells are entitled to receive the €100 grant.

Why is the Senator asking Senators Gerard P. Craughwell and David Cullinane that? The Minister of State is here to take Report Stage.

I find it strange that Senator David Cullinane is complaining about people getting €100 for nothing when every week he advocates that people should receive services for nothing.

We pay taxes for services.

The Senator is advising people not to pay their water charges. He wants to give everything to everybody for nothing. It is outrageous that Members of this House have said they will not pay their water charges.

We are not living in a fascist state. They can make up their own minds.

They are being paid from the public purse and asked to make a small contribution from their income towards the cost of a vital service. I want to see attachment of earnings orders made immediately in respect of Members of the Oireachtas who are not prepared their water charges.

The Senator would set up a hierarchy of citizens in our republic.

Is that a blue shirt he is wearing?

As we come close to the general election-----

Another amendment to the Bill.

As we approach the general election, advocating non-payment for services is populist and makes good copy, but the very same Members come into the House to call for investment in their communities, jobs in their regions and water they can drink. They think that will happen by magic. There is nothing for nothing anymore. We have to be responsible and that responsibility should start in the Houses of the Oireachtas.

I assume Senator Cáit Keane's contribution does not need a response.

It usually does not.

The Bill provides that the database can be used solely for the purpose of paying a water conservation grant under section 5 of the Water Services Act 2014. It may not be used for any other purpose. A figure of €130 million has been provided in the Department's Estimate for the water conservation grants scheme in 2015. This includes the administration costs for the Department of Social Protection which are estimated at €6 million. The administration costs include one off costs such as website design and development which will not be incurred in future years.

In regard to the measures for which the grant can be used, the website for the water conservation grant provides certain information on options available to households for the sustainable use of water in the home. The €100 grant which is paid to households that have registered with Irish Water can be used to purchase some of the devices available to conserve water such as water butts to recycle water, water displacement devices to reduce water flow in toilets and aerators to reduce water flow from taps. It can also be used towards the cost of repairing household plumbing systems, thereby reducing leakages. That will be welcomed by some households.

I cannot accept amendment No. 9 which proposes to delete section 50 which provides for the establishment of a database of water services to facilitate the payment of the water conservation grant from 2016 onwards. These provisions are essential for the establishment and maintenance of the database which, in turn, will facilitate the payment of the grant by the Department of Social Protection. Section 50 also provides that the establishment and maintenance of the database will be functions of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. The database shall include information on the water services supplied to a dwelling and details of the occupier, including his or her name, address and whether the dwelling is the owner's principal private residence. The management of data will be subject to the provisions of the Data Protection Acts.

The other amendments simply propose the deletion of the section. Without these provisions, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government would have no basis on which to pay the annual €100 grant to households. Accordingly, I cannot accept the amendments.

I am baffled by what I have heard from the Minister of State and Government Senators. I have some expertise in database systems, having taught the subject for the best part of 20 years.

Perhaps I might respond to Senator Cáit Keane's offer to take me outside later but not now. She spoke about insulation grants. Is it not the case if I seek such a grant that I must demonstrate that I have carried out some work? There is no free grant other than this one.

Let us speak about the database.

A database is an extremely dangerous piece of equipment and software. It was used in South Africa during the apartheid era and is used in Israel to track the movements of Palestinians. Databases have huge information available-----

It is used by An Post to deliver letters.

It is used by the ESB.

If Senators do not mind-----

Senator Gerard P. Craughwell to continue, without interruption.

I asked what the database was for. If all the Government wants to do is to pay the €100 grant, all it needs to know is the name and address of the person and whether it is the person's principal private residence. That is all the Government needs to know - nothing else. What is all this other stuff for? Why is the Government looking for this information? Now the Minister of State has told me that the information that is inputted into the database is the property of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. How are we going to transfer the information in that database from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to the Department of Social Protection without breaching data protection provisions? Why are we setting up a database for residents all over the country when we just spent €27 million putting a postcode system in place that gives us the address of every single residence in the country?

Senator Michael Mullins addressed the issue of rural dwellers. I do not begrudge rural dwellers one cent of the €100 grant. Quite a number of my relations are rural dwellers and I hope they all receive the grant. As they all have their private wells and septic tanks, I am sure they will use the €100 grant wisely. In respect of the notion that we might use it for education, what in the name of God is the Government thinking of? Are we going to run classes around the country on what type of fitting to use? In respect of the fittings listed by the Minister of State, where does it state in the legislation that I must use any one of those fittings to get my €100? It is absolute nonsense.

The database is a nonsense and the whole scheme from the day it was conceived is a nonsense. If the Government provided local authorities with the money to develop the system that it is squandering on Irish Water, we would not have the problems we have right now. I believe €850 million is the figure as of last Sunday and we do not even know what interest rate is being paid on the last borrowings. We can be sure of one thing. It is so uncertain that it will have the money to pay it back, the interest rate must be very high, which is why we are not being told. We are talking about a database. If it is to be created, it must be created for the Department of Social Protection. Once it has completed its purpose, it must be destroyed. We have already seen what happened with the PPS numbers. Let us not go down this route again. What is happening here is a nonsense and needs to be stopped.

I do not know what one can say to that.

I do not have anything to add.

Is amendment No. 9 which has already been discussed being pressed?

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 10:

In page 55, to delete lines 13 to 26.

I second the amendment.

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 13; Níl, 23.

  • Barrett, Sean D.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Heffernan, James.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Donovan, Denis.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • White, Mary M.

Níl

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Brennan, Terry.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Coghlan, Eamonn.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Gilroy, John.
  • Hayden, Aideen.
  • Keane, Cáit.
  • Kelly, John.
  • Landy, Denis.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mulcahy, Tony.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Naughton, Hildegarde.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Neill, Pat.
  • Power, Averil.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Whelan, John.
  • Zappone, Katherine.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Gerard P. Craughwell and Trevor Ó Clochartaigh; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden.
Amendment declared lost.

Amendment No. 11 has been ruled out of order.

Amendment No. 11 not moved.

I move amendment No. 12:

In page 56, to delete lines 1 and 2.

I second the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 13:

In page 56, to delete lines 3 to 5.

I second the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 14:

In page 56, to delete lines 6 to 37.

I second the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 15:

In page 56, to delete lines 38 to 43, and in page 57, to delete lines 1 and 2.

I second the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Amendment No. 16 has been ruled out of order.

Amendment No. 16 not moved.
Bill reported without amendment.
Question, "That the Bill be received for final consideration," put and declared carried.
Question put: "That the Bill do now pass."
The Seanad divided: Tá, 20; Níl, 14.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Brennan, Terry.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Coghlan, Eamonn.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Hayden, Aideen.
  • Keane, Cáit.
  • Kelly, John.
  • Landy, Denis.
  • Moran, Mary.
  • Mulcahy, Tony.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Naughton, Hildegarde.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Neill, Pat.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Whelan, John.

Níl

  • Barrett, Sean D.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Heffernan, James.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Power, Averil.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Zappone, Katherine.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden; Níl, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Trevor Ó Clochartaigh.
Question declared carried.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 23 September 2015.

I thank all the Members, the Clerk and the Clerk-Assistant for their co-operation during the year.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 23 September 2015.