Sunday 11th December 2016
Irish Water spends a hefty €5m on expert advice
Hefty bill run up in the six months since controversial charges were dropped
Irish Water has spent €5m on outside business strategists, lawyers, computer experts, public relations and finance specialists in the six months after the Government formally suspended the controversial charges.
The revelation that the embattled utility has paid over €826,000 a month on consultants since May 1 – when it was effectively placed in limbo by the Government – will infuriate nearly one million people who have handed over €144m in water charges last year.
Those who paid their bills still have no idea if they will get that money back if charges are ultimately abolished.
Last night Fianna Fail’s environment spokesperson Barry Cowen said legislation was urgently needed to ensure the utility was fully accountable for all money it spent.
The list of lucrative contracts includes an average monthly bill of nearly €3,000 for public relations services at a time when a major question mark hangs over the future funding of the company.
Documents reveal nearly €5m was spent on ‘third-party’ services from May 1 to the end of October this year. This includes €775,141 on ‘business change’ support services.
Ernst & Young was paid €406,268 for its expertise, while official records show accounting and consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers received €123,570.
Efforts to improve customer services supports also came with a hefty price tag, costing €774,848. It is estimated €32,285 is being spent every week to help improve and streamline customer services.
Ernst & Young also emerged a big winner, earning almost €486,000 for its expertise in the area.
Official records also show that hiring in legal expertise remains a major drain on resources – costing on average €56,800 a month.
In total, €340,830 was ring-fenced to cover costs in this area over a six-month period. Dublin-based legal firm McCann Fitzgerald was paid a total of €79,071 since the beginning of May. The next highest earner was Philip Lee, a specialist commercial law firm, who received payment of €71,438. Invoices for the services provided another law firm, Arthur Cox and Company totalled €45,410. Some €55,700 was allocated to covering the fees of a ‘senior counsel’, although records do not specify the reason for the expenditure.
PricewaterhouseCoopers received another separate payment of €68,000 for its “support on specific technical investment and engineering projects”. A further €113,277 was spent to ensure the “highest standards of governance” in areas like business analysis, information security and data protection. And Murray Consultants, one of Ireland’s biggest public relations agencies, was paid €16,866.
The expenditure comes against a backdrop of continuing uncertainty as to what approach will be adopted with customers who have already paid their water bills.
In a statement, Irish Water said it can require technical assistance and third-party support at any given time. Such expertise was not required on a permanent basis and therefore it was considered more “cost effective” to employ third-party specialists “as they are required”.
A spokesperson said the use of third-party external service providers represents just over 1pc of its annual operational costs. A company spokesman said the relevant data covers the period of May 1 to October 31 this year.
This was on the basis the clause facilitating the suspension of water charges was contained in the confidence and supply arrangement – put in place at the beginning of May on formation of the Government.
Fianna Fail’s environment spokesperson Barry Cowen said legislation was urgently needed to ensure the utility was fully accountable for all monies it spent.
He pointed out that the confidence and supply arrangement Fianna Fail has agreed with Fine Gael commits to retaining Irish Water as a national utility in public ownership. He said the agreement meant the company must be answerable to the Dail under a number of headings.
“We would have hoped that process would be complete by now, but it’s obviously not, and it’s something we’ll be taking up with the minister, with a view to bringing forward relevant legislation to give effect to that.”
He believes this would result in greater “transparency” in the operations of the utility.
The commission established to examine its future operations recommended that funding for the country’s water infrastructure should come through general taxation – but that there should be charges for wasteful use.
A special Oireachtas committee will now also decide if those who did not pay previous water charges should be prosecuted.
Deputy Cowen says the party is keeping an “open mind” on whether those who use excessive amounts of water should be liable for some financial payment.
“The main thrust of the recommendation is that it is paid for out of general taxation, and we agreed with that analysis.
“But there are many questions outstanding,” he said.
In a statement, Irish Water said “significant progress” had been made since the suspension of charges.
This includes “continuing the development of a single way of working for Irish Water as a public utility, to allow for a full transformation of services to the utility from local authorities.
“This is an enormous undertaking.
“We have developed new systems for local authorities to report vital information on operations, leakage, water and waste water quality to us electronically and in real time in a standardised and consistent way”.
These and other projects had required “specialist support”, but would have a “lasting significant value” for Irish Water as a utility.
As much as 112,000 additional jobs in construction will be created over the next three years here,
Say construction industry chiefs?
A report on the sector found carpenters and joiners will be in most demand.
Construction chiefs have claimed there will be 112,000 additional jobs in the industry over the next three years. A report on the sector found carpenters and joiners will be in most demand followed by general labourers, operatives and electricians.
The Construction Industry Federation has launched a new website, cifjobs.ie, to target workers who emigrated in the 10 years since the property bubble burst and the economy collapsed.
A report on the future of the sector by DKM consultants revealed the industry is set to grow by 9% a year up to 2020 and said that it can sustain more than 100,000 additional jobs.
It said there will be a need for 30,800 carpenters and joiners, 27,600 general labourers, 18,100 operatives, 15,200 electricians, 13,900 plasterers and tilers, 11,800 plumbers, 9,600 managers, 9,400 painters and decorators and 7,800 bricklayers.
CIF director general Tom Parlon said emigrants should consider coming home. ” There is sufficient work in the pipeline to require about another 112,000 jobs up to 2020 and beyond.
“The CIF is attempting to ensure there are sufficient skilled employees by engaging in several initiatives. We’re working with the Education and Training Boards (ETBs) to upskill those on the live register with construction experience. We’re attracting young people into the industry by highlighting the modern globalised careers available. Finally, we’re trying to get the positive news about the industry and Ireland in general to those in the diaspora to attract them back.”
The website will highlight jobs available in the lobby group’s member companies and allow potential candidates to engage directly with them.
Orkambi makers to meet HSE for CF drug pricing cost talks
Asking price for medicine that acts on lung function €160,000 per patient annually
The HSE has indicted it is willing to pay €75m annually, but not the existing €400m bill across five years.
The Health Service Executive and US makers of cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi, Vertex, are to meet on Wednesday, December 15th, to discuss the cost of the medicine.
Orkambi, which improves lung function and reduces hospitalisation for CF patients, would cost €160,000 per patient annually, or €400 million for the health service over five years, according to its initial price.
The HSE is willing to pay €75 million which would make it the sixth most expensive drug used by the Irish health system.
Minister for Health Simon Harris said he has sought to collaborate with other countries on an agreed approach to negotiations on Orkambi and the HSE has cautioned Vertex it must ask a more affordable price.
The HSE and Vertex said they are committed to finding a definitive solution.
Vertex Pharmaceuticals said this week it will only re-enter price talks on Orkambi if Government representatives with the power to make decisions are at the table.
Vertex asked the HSE to commit to having Mr Harris, HSE director general Tony O’Brien and Department of Health Secretary general Jim Breslin at the talks.
Speaking in the Seanad earlier this week, Mr Harris said this was a “complete misrepresentation”.
“The law of this land, passed by this House and the Dáil in 2013, makes clear that the HSE is the body with statutory responsibility for decisions on pricing and reimbursement of medicines.”
Thousands of people protested outside the Dáil this week about the issue.
The bottom line, says Fitch, is that a monkey’s speech limitations stem from the way its brain is organized.
“As soon as you had a brain that was ready to control the vocal tract,” Fitch says, “the vocal tract of a monkey or nonhuman primate would be perfectly fine for producing lots and lots of words.”
The real issue is that monkeys’ brains do not have direct connections down to the neurons that control the larynx and the tongue, he says. What’s more, monkeys don’t have critical connections within the brain itself, between the auditory cortex and motor cortex, which makes them incapable of imitating what they hear in the way that humans do.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a science fiction movie from 2011, actually has the right idea, notes Fitch. In that film, after a lab chimp named Caesar undergoes brain changes, he eventually is able to speak words such as “No.”
“The new Planet of the Apes is a pretty accurate representation of what we think is going on,” says Fitch.
Irish taxpayers warned to be careful with scam phone calls claiming to be Tax Revenue staff ?????
The Revenue Commissioners is warning against a slick phone scam intended to scare people into paying off a bogus tax collector.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Revenue Commissioners said a “small” number of people had contacted the office after receiving random telephone calls over the past week.
The calls are purportedly from a local tax inspector looking for so-called tax defaulters to make a payment and/or disclose their PPS numbers.
In one case, a taxpayer received a call from “Revenue Ireland” in which an automated recording told him to contact the “Revenue” urgently.
The suspicious taxpayer rang a Dublin number that was answered by a man who did not have an Irish accent claiming to be “Officer Ray Miller of Revenue Ireland”.
The taxpayer’s suspicions were confirmed when he began speaking in Irish and the bogus Revenue official couldn’t understand him or refer him to someone who could speak Irish, so he told ‘Officer Miller’ it was an obvious scam and he hung up.
Revenue spokeswoman Clare O’Melia said she was not aware of anyone being taken in by the scam. But she urged anyone who may have responded to a request for “an immediate payment of a tax bill over the phone” or provided the caller with their PPS number, bank account or credit card information to contact gardaí and their bank.
“Anyone who receives a telephone call purporting to be from Revenue about which they have any doubts, particularly if the call is out of the blue, should contact their local Revenue office or the Collector General’s Division at 1890 20 30 70,” she said.
“It’s Christmas and there are a lot of scams out there.” Gardaí have now also issued a statement.
“An Garda Síochána would like to remind the public to be wary of any contact from an unsolicited source, whether it is by telephone or email.
“Do not under any circumstances give out your credit/debit card, bank account, or PPS Number to anyone who makes contact with you over the phone. An Garda Síochána, Revenue, nor any Financial Institution will ever call you and ask for your PPS number or bank account details.”
Majella O’Donnell hits out at Ireland’s mental health services
Majella O’Donnell has hit out at Ireland’s mental health services, after her friend was denied immediate help despite being severely depressed.
The 56-year-old wife of Donegal crooner Daniel O’Donnell has previously opened up about her own battle with depression, and how she once considered taking her own life.
Taking to Facebook, Majella decided to use her voice and revealed how she felt “angry and disgusted” after her friend with mental health issues was told she wouldn’t be seen to until next year.
“My friend Anne is a young mother who has been feeling anxious, unmotivated, irritated and generally depressed. She is aware of it and has been on antidepressants in the past,” she wrote.
“She is also aware of the fact that it is negatively affecting her relationship with her partner and putting a huge strain on them. She wanted to get to the bottom of why she feels this way. She phoned a psychiatrist to see if she could talk to someone professional and was told that a) She would have to be referred by her GP; b) She wouldn’t be seen until at least February, and c) It would cost her €300 an hour for the psychiatrist.
“What the f*** is that all about? I get so bloody angry at this kind of thing. Here is a young woman realising that she has a problem and trying to do something positive about it and this is what the outcome is! She went back to her GP who once again prescribed antidepressants, a stronger one this time – and that’s it.
“She doesn’t really want to take them as she would like to understand why she feels the way she does but she feels she has no choice,” she said.
Speaking up: Majella has suffered from depression in the past.
Majella then hit out at the outrageous fees psychiatrists are charging patients, as her friend received a quote for €300 per hour.
“I can accept that a GP needs to refer you, but what really p***** me off is the fact that no one could see her until at least February – but that doesn’t really matter because she could never afford the €300 per hour fee that is being charged. €300 per hour! What the f*** is that all about? It is shameful.
“How dare anyone charge that kind of money to help another human being who is in a desperate situation. That sort of fee cannot be justified! We have wonderful support groups around the country – like Pieta House, Aware, Mental Health Ireland, Grow and lots more – doing their best to help people with their mental wellbeing, but when someone tries to help themselves before things have reached the point of no return, this is what happens.
Make a change: Majella is disgusted with Ireland’s mental health services.
“We need, as a country, to sort this problem with accessing psychiatrists and if there is a shortage, then we need to actively start incentivising medical students to look at psychiatry as their speciality.
“Why do we have to wait until a person is so desperate for help that they are considering taking their own lives before we are willing to do something about it,’ she said.
“We need to start being pro-active about mental health instead of being reactive. There, that’s my rant over. I may be a little unreasonable about the whole subject, but it is one that I am so passionate about,” she added.
Graphene Putty could be the future of medical equipment sensors
The internet of things could be about to get a bit more playful as the AMBER centre showcases a new type of graphene sensor made using the kids’ toy, Silly Putty.
As an atom-thick wonder material, graphene has been prophesised for years now as the next big thing in material science.
But now, an interesting breakthrough made by the AMBER centre in Trinity College Dublin could be about to take us into the sillier side of science, or at least Silly Putty.
Led by Prof Jonathan Coleman, a research team within the centre has been looking at how a melding of graphene and the kids’ toy Silly Putty could be a match made in heaven.
Realising graphene’s unique conductive properties and Silly Putty’s ability to mould into almost any shape, the team wanted to see could they be combined to create a mouldable sensor.
Sure enough, Coleman and his team found that that the electrical resistance of putty infused with graphene – that it is calling ‘G-putty’ – was extremely sensitive to the slightest deformation or impact.
Can detect the footprint of the smallest spider
To test its effectiveness, the team mounted the G-putty onto the chest and neck of human subjects and used it to measure breathing, pulse and even blood pressure.
To the team’s amazement, it showed unprecedented sensitivity as a sensor for strain and pressure, hundreds of times more sensitive than normal sensors, offering hope for future use in medical devices.
It could also be used as a precise impact measurement device capable of detecting the footprints of the smallest spiders.
Speaking of its potential, Coleman said: “While a common application has been to add graphene to plastics in order to improve the electrical, mechanical, thermal or barrier properties, the resultant composites have generally performed as expected without any great surprises.
“The behaviour we found with G-putty has not been found in any other composite material. This unique discovery will open up major possibilities in sensor manufacturing worldwide.”