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Estimates for Public Services 2020 (Continued)

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 995 No. 5
Unrevised

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Ged Nash: Information on Ged Nash Zoom on Ged Nash] This approach is absolutely tone-deaf to the day-to-day needs of families across the country.

They say a good start is half the battle but most people are watching the first few weeks of this Government's tenure and observing its behaviour from behind their hands and behind the couch, it is such a car crash. Much of what is in this document is actually historic. In many ways, going through these Revised Estimates is almost pointless. This is no way to present the Estimates. They are quite opaque and lacking in detail. We have no real idea or granular detail regarding how much of this money has been spent, nor do we have sufficient time to forensically examine expenditure, which is unfortunate to say the least. Today we will get the first glimpse of the economic trajectory and philosophy of this Government. Unfortunately, I get a sense from newspapers and media reports in recent days that in many respects it is going to be a case of "Meet the new Government, same as the old Government" only with a small change of emphasis.

What lessons have been learned from the overspend on the children's hospital debacle? The capital works management framework has been established. This is an important body charged with managing an enormous amount of public expenditure over the next number of years in the context of Project Ireland 2040. We need to ensure that we get value for money and that cost overruns are managed properly, transparently and accountably.

Can the Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW advise which of the office's sites have been most impacted in terms of the fall-off in admission revenue this year? Clearly, the figures there are very concerning. In terms of subhead B.5, could the Minister of State also comment on what sites and buildings the OPW intends to purchase this year? Are any current leases being reviewed given the number of public and civil servants who are working from home? That should be the new normal. They should be supported to do that and the public service should lead by example. Are any expensive leases being reviewed in terms of cost-saving measures for the State?

In response to our Sinn Féin colleague's question about the comparatively high increase of 60% in the expenditure on the allocation to the Secret Service, it was stated that there is a convention in this House that this is passed on the nod. Clearly, that is a secret and we have to accept it.

On the Special EU Programmes Body, has any progress been made in respect of the Narrow Water bridge initiative involving north County Louth and south County Down?

There is a programme for Government commitment on transitioning the national minimum wage to a real living wage. A good place to start would be for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to take responsibility for ensuring that all public and civil servants receive the hourly rate of the minimum wage in terms of their salaries. There are several thousand who do not and I would like the Ministers of State to elaborate on plans that the Department may have to progress this initiative across the public service. The State must lead by example.

One of the Ministers of State might outline the Department's commitments and those of the new group of Ministers in terms of the reform agenda, particularly around political reform. That agenda has been let slide since 2016, which is a concern. Government must happen transparently and accountably. There are things that we need to do that we are not doing. Some of the behaviour over recent days in terms of the reduction in the number of people who can be members of committees, issues in respect of speaking time and so on constitutes a flagrant abuse of this House and of our rights as Deputies. Those rights need to be protected. I want to hear from the Ministers of State regarding the political reform agenda.

There has been a long-running open sore in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of the pension rights of community employment supervisors. There was a 2007 Labour Court recommendation and a forum was established by the former Minister, Deputy Howlin. That has essentially been ignored and bypassed by the Department over the last couple of years. Can the Ministers give any clarity on the provision of pensions and redundancy payments, if the need arises, for community employment supervisors in the future?

Deputy Ossian Smyth: Information on Ossian Smyth Zoom on Ossian Smyth Deputy Nash asked about any new financial controls or reforms that may have been put in place. He referred to the national children's hospital. He is absolutely right to ask that question. There was a gross overspend in respect of the national children's hospital. We have a substantial number of large capital projects planned, by which I mean those valued at more than €100 million, under the national development plan. I have no wish to see a second national children's hospital-style event take place. With that in mind, there was a report by PwC last year on what went wrong with the project. That report contained specific recommendations about reforms to be made. Included in those was that governance had to be improved, risk-sharing had to be improved and there had to be better analysis. Specifically, PwC also pointed out that the system whereby the contracting body was also the body that monitored projects was not good enough. Whoever commissions a huge project costing more than €100 million cannot also be responsible for monitoring whether that project is on track. There has to be some independent external review all the way through of the cost of these projects. That unit is the investment projects and programmes office, IPPO, which is within the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It will be reviewing and providing ongoing control of costs on major capital projects.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Mattie McGrath): Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath Just to make it clear, one of the Sinn Féin Deputies did not get in. There are only 20 minutes available. Deputy Pearse Doherty wanted a question-and-answer session. It was not my fault. The Minister only had a minute and a half to reply to all the questions. I cannot be criticised for how Deputies divide time among themselves.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall Zoom on Róisín Shortall I have a number of questions about and comments on the Estimates. I join others in saying that it is disappointing that the senior Minister has not seen fit to turn up for this debate in order to account for spending within his Department. This session has been scheduled for some time. It is disrespectful to the House and to Opposition spokespersons that he is not present for the scheduled debate.

I want to raise an issue that has come to the fore recently, namely, the role of the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of the health budget oversight group. Questions have been asked of the Secretary General about spending for the purposes of testing and tracing but he was reluctant, and in fact refused, to answer questions on that matter. I find it quite difficult to understand why that was the case. Perhaps one of the Ministers of State could explain. There are questions about the overall budget for the testing and tracing regime. A figure of €206 million was sanctioned. To date, €47 million has been spent. There is an estimated total spend this year of €414 million. Given that we are into the seventh month of the year, maybe somebody could explain why there is such wide variation in those figures and why the Secretary General has not responded to questions on the matter.

On the decision to appoint three super junior Ministers and the additional Estimate that is required to top up their salaries, can either of the Ministers of State provide a justification for that top-up? It is very hard to understand. There might be an argument in a three-party coalition for somebody from each party to attend Cabinet. What is the rationale or justification, though, for a top-up on what is already quite a generous salary?

The overall 2020 budget allocation was 22% less than last year's Estimate because of the establishment of the OGCIO.


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