This motion is tabled in response to the ongoing failure of the Government to be accountable about Irish Water, its failure to be open and transparent, and its absolute and deliberate shrouding in secrecy of the spiralling and out-of-control costs and spending in the establishment of Irish Water. Let there be doubt that if it were not for John Tierney’s slip-up on Sean O’Rourke’s radio programme last week, the public, the taxpayers and every Member of the Oireachtas would remain in the dark about the tsunami of spending endemic in Irish Water.
The setting up of Irish Water was a concept of the Fine Gael Party when it was in the Opposition; I believe it is on page 10 of the NewERA document which was produced in 2010. In Government, Fine Gael and the Labour Party proceeded to put this super quango in place as quickly as possible. They appointed Bord Gáis, seemingly due to all its internal expertise, central billing system, customer care base and customer base throughout the country. These major internal components were seemingly far superior to what might now be termed the “duked” Bord na Móna. Bord Gáis was used as the launch pad, against the advice of the PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC, report sought by the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, which advised the opposite. The Minister was well able to micromanage that report, which cost €180,000, into the bin in his office.
What has ensued could be described as grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. We are in GUBU territory here. This body was handed €11 billion worth of taxpayers’ assets on 1 January. Preceding that, it was handed €1.1 billion in taxpayers’ cash. There was €500 million for water metering, €180 million for set up costs and €400 million was supposedly committed by Deputy Phil Hogan to the local authorities, but it was taken from them at the end of last year when the rug was pulled from under them. Then one wonders why Donegal was faced with such a dilemma last week in trying to strike a rate and set a budget to provide the type of services, commitments and goods that a local authority is expected to provide to those whom it serves.
The Minister, Deputy Hogan, says he should not be expected to micromanage €180 million. It is not as if we asking Phil the price of the new gym in the headquarters of Irish Water. We are talking about €85 million, almost 50% of the set up cost of €180 million. The Minister and his Government want us to believe that he asked only one question, “How much do you want lads?” When they said, “Can we have €180 million?” he replied, “Sure you can. Collect it on the way out.”
Then we are led to believe that he went to the Cabinet to agree a budget for 2014. There were some heavy hitters facing him there, including Deputies Noonan, Howlin, Coveney, Varadkar, Burton and Bruton. They had only one question to ask of him, “Have you enough in €180 million, Phil?” Last week on Carlow radio, Phil feigned surprise at the €50 million figure, saying it was excessive, high and should not be the case. He said he would check it out and call in the people concerned to find out what was happening. The other Ministers, Deputies Coveney, Varadkar, Burton and Bruton also feigned surprise, because they remembered they did not ask any questions when it was before the Cabinet. The Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, said, “Oh, that is a very high price. That is a lot of money. We will have to check that out.” He was not thinking that when Phil came to the Cabinet seeking €180 million to set up the biggest super quango we ever had.
If the Minister says now that he knew and did not tell us, that is bad enough. If the Cabinet and the Taoiseach knew and did not tell us and the Taoiseach did not answer questions, that is also bad enough. However, if they did not know and did not ask any questions, that is twice as bad. It is not only twice as bad for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, but it is twice as bad for everybody who sits at the Cabinet table with him.
There has been a litany of unanswered questions since the Taoiseach announced this government decision. All the questions remained unanswered because the Government made sure there was a freedom of information ban in place in regard to this project. Unanswered questions lead to bad decisions, which are compounded further as time passes. The bad decisions in this case by Deputy Phil Hogan, the Cabinet, Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Bord Gáis and Irish Water have contributed to what is undoubtedly a runaway train.
The Government, despite its promise of a democratic revolution, has allowed the train that is Irish Water to career towards what will be a calamitous crash, and the carnage that will ensue will be borne by none other than the taxpayer when the first bills start to arrive next January. There has been one delay in the rush to get this quango in place, and that is the delay in charging. The Government had to make sure it happened after the local elections, like the guidelines on wind energy and the pylons decision. The attitude is to ensure they are after the local elections. The Government will take the hit, whatever it may be, in the meantime, because others might be associated with it too.
Of course, one hears the Minister, Deputy Hogan, and others, and even the Taoiseach earlier today say there will be a saving of €1.1 billion over the next seven years as a result of what is being done here. They tried to console us with a figure of €2 billion earlier in the week. Yesterday, when we met Irish Water executives, we heard the €2 billion figure as well. That bluster is nothing short of a graduation cap from the David Drumm school of economics. I fear and shudder to think of from where the figures are plucked.
Next January, taxpayers will not be paying for facilities, networks and systems that have been repaired, for replaced water mains in Dublin, whose water supply is and has been in crisis, or for a network that has upgraded mains or new supply. They will be paying the exorbitant costs of metering, the exorbitant cost setting up Irish Water, the exorbitant cost of procurement in Irish Water, the exorbitant cost of IT in Irish Water, the exorbitant cost of the central billing system we heard so much about in Irish Water, the exorbitant cost of customer care and, of course, the unnecessary and unmicromanaged consultancy fees in Irish Water. Fat chance that they will be paying for a system that is fit for purpose or that at least has a detailed, costed and funded roadmap towards a system that will be fit for purpose and for which people will feel obliged to pay, safe in the knowledge that work or advancement is being carried out where it is necessary.
I have a question for Members and for those who are in their offices and did not bother to come to the House. What does the Minister for Finance have to say about this tsunami of spending? Before the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, and his colleagues in the Labour Party and Fine Gael voted for this guillotined legislation in December, the Minister said that the ban on freedom of information would be lifted when it was practicable, which would be when this entity becomes a commercial entity and is charging Members and the taxpayer for what they are getting.
Did one ever hear the like of it? He said there could be commercial sensitivities concerning the release of information about a State company, even though it has no competitors. He has come to some reason in recent days when he said it is to be done in this session.
The Taoiseach said today that it will be done soon. It could be done next week if the Government wished to do so. A Bill accompanying this motion seeks to lift the freedom of information ban. It would also give the Comptroller and Auditor General authority to examine the books and spending that has become synonymous with Irish Water.
I have asked questions in this House on numerous occasions, as the Minister of State well knows. Questions have been asked during Leaders’ Questions, Priority Questions and other parliamentary questions. The Taoiseach spoke earlier about the openness and transparency that exists, but where was he when questions were asked of him and his Cabinet on this issue? He did say he believed that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has apologised for not answering questions and not dealing with taxpayers’ fears and concerns. We asked questions on behalf of those taxpayers but I have received no communication from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to that effect and neither have my colleagues who asked similar questions.
I got no communication from the CEO or anybody else associated with Irish Water, although the Department said they would be in touch with me and others to address the very issues that are now in the public domain because of a slip up last Thursday. It is incumbent on somebody to take control of this matter and be accountable for it. They should explain what happens when a question is put by a Member of this House for the taxpayers who allowed that person the privilege of putting that question on their behalf.
The kernel of this matter is the abdication of responsibility by this Government and its representatives. It is not good enough for the Taoiseach to almost give the impression that nothing has gone wrong in this process. I hold him and his Cabinet colleagues as culpable for this sorry mess as the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan. He asked one question: “How much do you want?” They asked of him: “Is it enough, Phil?” That is what we are supposed to believe, but I do not buy it and neither do the taxpayers. The Government went down this road at a pace and with a disregard for everybody who saw fit to ask a few questions. The Government now finds that Irish Water is an entity holding €11 billion worth of assets belonging to the taxpayer, but the taxpayer has lost confidence in that system. The taxpayer has also lost confidence in Irish Water’s ability to carry out its duties due to the Government’s lack of leadership.
There is no need for the Minister of State’s colleagues to show surprise, as they did over the last week, about €50 million having been spent since last March. Not alone were they silent and complicit in that decision at Cabinet, they also marched their colleagues through the lobbies three times under the Whip with separate pieces of legislation pertaining to Irish Water. On the third occasion, the Government showed the worst contempt by rushing through legislation to satisfy the Minister, Deputy Hogan, Irish Water and anybody else associated with it. A commitment was made to hand over those assets on 1 January, but those are the people’s assets.
In the heads of the Bill published last year there were at least some safeguards for the public. This model is similar to what happened in England where public water utilities were put together for privatisation down the road. Where were those safeguards when the legislation arrived here at the end of the last sitting just before Christmas? It came on the back of the Government’s decision regarding the troika, which was billed as a victory. Where was the Government then? The Government marched its people through, hoodwinked them and duped them. They are the ones now shedding crocodile tears, and saying “This is wrong. It’s not right.” I have heard that from Deputy Humphreys, Deputy McNamara and Deputy Charles Flanagan in my constituency, but it is not on because they were all complicit in that bloody process. They will have to admit it quickly.
If they really mean what they have been saying with the tears they have been shedding since the cat got out of the bag last week, they should support this motion. They should also support the freedom of information Bill, which will give authority to the Comptroller and Auditor General to question on behalf of the taxpayer every cent that is being spent by Irish Water. Maybe then the Government can begin the process of winning back public trust for this project.