Dáil Eireann

03/Mar/2005

Prelude

Visit of Canadian Delegation.

Requests to move Adjournment of Dáil under Standing Order 31.

Order of Business.

Health (Amendment) Bill 2005: Second Stage (Resumed).

Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).

Priority Questions.

Pension Provisions.

Financial Services Regulation.

PEACE II Programme.

Tax Code.

Fiscal Policy.

Other Questions.

Banking Sector Regulation.

Tax Yield.

Capital Projects.

State Properties.

Benchmarking Awards.

Adjournment Debate Matters.

Adjournment Debate.

Fisheries Protection.

Industrial Development.

Relocation of Institute.

Written Answers.

Departmental Agencies.

Special Savings Incentive Scheme.

Tax Code.

Decentralisation Programme.

Stability and Growth Pact.

Tax Code.

Expenditure Review Initiative.

Termination of Employment.

Flood Alleviation Measures.

Financial Services Regulation.

Pension Provisions.

Tax Compliance.

Disabled Drivers.

National Pensions Reserve Fund.

Revenue Disclosures.

Revenue Investigations.

Decentralisation Programme.

Proposed Legislation.

Departmental Appointments.

Tax Code.

Pension Provisions.

House Prices.

Basic Income Scheme.

Tax Code.

Banking Sector Regulation.

Tax Collection.

House Prices.

Special Savings Incentive Scheme.

Tax Code.

Banking Sector Regulation.

Tax Code.

National Minimum Wage.

Tax Code.

Non-Resident Accounts.

Banking Sector Regulation.

Special Savings Incentive Scheme.

Public Private Partnerships.

Financial Services Regulation.

Decentralisation Programme.

Tax Collection.

Budgetary Process Reform.

Garda Stations.

Public Capital Programmes.

House Prices.

Tax Code.

Decentralisation Programme.

National Development Plan.

Fiscal Policy.

Tax Code.

National Pensions Reserve Fund.

Public Private Partnerships.

State Property.

Decentralisation Programme.

Nursing Home Subventions.

Health Service Allowances.

Crisis Pregnancy Information Services.

Hospital Staff.

Health Services.

Cancer Screening Programme.

Health Services.

Official Engagements.

Health Services.

Medical Aids and Appliances.

Hospital Services.

Departmental Correspondence.

Consultancy Contracts.

Schools Refurbishment.

Garda Stations.

Tax Code.

Decentralisation Programme.

Consumer Debt.

Flood Relief.

Security Enhancement.

National Debt.

Departmental Expenditure.

Public Private Partnerships.

Decentralisation Programme.

Banking Sector Security.

Disabled Drivers.

Mobile Telephony.

Telecommunications Services.

Consultancy Contracts.

Economic Partnership Agreements.

Consultancy Contracts.

Sports Capital Programme.

Swimming Pool Projects.

Sports Capital Programme.

Consultancy Contracts.

Departmental Staff.

Labour Inspectorate.

Consultancy Contracts.

Free Travel Scheme.

Social Welfare Appeals.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Consultancy Contracts.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Rail Network.

Consultancy Contracts.

Irish Language.

Consultancy Contracts.

Grant Payments.

Consultancy Contracts.

Grant Payments.

Crime Prevention.

Citizenship Applications.

Child Care Facilities.

Registration of Title.

Deportation Orders.

Asylum Applications.

Foreign Passports.

Death Certificates.

Garda Operations.

Citizenship Applications.

Visa Applications.

Garda Stations.

Garda Deployment.

Departmental Programmes.

Prisoner Transfers.

Prison Accommodation.

Child Care Services.

Irish Prison Service.

Prison Staff.

Prison Committals.

Prison Accommodation.

Prisons Building Programme.

Prison Accommodation.

Citizenship Applications.

Consultancy Contracts.

Visa Applications.

Refugee Status.

Garda Deployment.

School Transport.

Special Educational Needs.

Schools Refurbishment.

Schools Building Projects.

Pupil-Teacher Ratio.

Schools Building Projects.

School Accommodation.

Schools Building Projects.

Site Acquisitions.

Schools Recognition.

Schools Refurbishment.

School Placement.

Departmental Planning.

Coeducational Schools.

School Inspections.

Special Educational Needs.

Primary School Ownership.

Schools Building Projects.

Consultancy Contracts.

Defence Forces Training.

Consultancy Contracts.

Defence Forces Personnel.

Road Network.

Local Authority Funding.

Water and Sewerage Schemes.

Archaeological Sites.

Architectural Heritage.

Departmental Expenditure.

Traveller Accommodation.

Planning Issues.

Chuaigh an Ceann Comhairle i gceannas ar 10.30 a.m.

Paidir.
Prayer.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Before proceeding with the Order of Business, I wish on my own behalf and on behalf of the Members of Dáil Éireann to offer a céad míle fáilte, a most sincere welcome, to a delegation of members from the Canadian Parliament who join us in the Distinguished Visitors Gallery.

I express the hope that you will find your visit enjoyable, successful and that it will be to our mutual benefit.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Before coming to the Order of Business I propose to deal with a number of notices under Standing Order 31. I will call Deputies in the order in which they submitted their notices to my office.

Mr. Connolly:  I propose the adjournment of Dáil Éireann under Standing Order 31 to discuss the following matter of urgent public and national concern, namely, the necessity for a multi-phase contingency plan for the management of an influenza pandemic said by the World Health Organ[2]isation to be inevitable, the need to prepare to mitigate the direct medical and economic effects of such a pandemic by ensuring that adequate measures are taken before a pandemic occurs so that essential services are maintained, and the provision of a surveillance network for human and animal influenza in view of the danger of their joint mutation with appalling consequences for the world’s population.

Mr. Healy:  I seek the adjournment of the Dáil under Standing Order 31 to raise a matter of urgent importance, namely, the immediate necessity for the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children to approve funding for the opening of completed medical units at Our Lady’s Hospital, Cashel, to approve the 20-bed GP assessment unit at the hospital, in addition to giving approval to fund the completion and opening of the 23-bed acute medical unit at South Tipperary General Hospital, Clonmel, in order to provide a quality health service for the people of south Tipperary and to implement the terms of the High Court settlement for the development of hospital services in south Tipperary, and to allow the Minister to make a statement on the matter.

[3]Mr. Gogarty:  I seek the adjournment of the House under Standing Order 31 to debate an issue of national importance, namely, the need for the Government to tackle the issue of class size in primary schools as a matter of priority, given that our class sizes are among the largest in the European Union and that international research points to smaller class sizes having a noticeable improvement on a child’s educational development.

Mr. J. Higgins:  I seek the adjournment of the Dáil under Standing Order 31 to discuss a matter of crucial importance in the context of the hospital construction programme, namely, the urgent need to fund the building of a new hospital in Daingean Uí Chúis in Dingle, County Kerry, while an offer of land at no cost to the State remains on the table.

Mr. Deenihan:  I seek the adjournment of the Dáil under Standing Order 31 to discuss the following matter of national importance, namely, the apparent lack of progress in re-opening the National Aquatic Centre following storm damage to the roof on 1 January and the considerable inconvenience this is causing its 4,000 membership and other users of the centre, including many of our elite swimmers.

Mr. Gormley:  I seek the adjournment of the Dáil under Standing Order 31 to discuss an issue of urgent public importance, namely, the decision by the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, to allow a mobile phone base station to be installed on Ardee House in Rathmines beside St. Mary’s College and junior school and close to St. Louis’ school, given that the Stewart report in Britain has stated categorically that such an installation should not be placed near to schools, and the need for the Minister, Deputy McDowell, whose area this is, to ensure that his Progressive Democrats colleague, Deputy Parlon, would reconsider this irresponsible decision which poses a threat to children in the Dublin South-East constituency.

A Deputy:  Hear, hear.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Having considered the matters raised, they are not in order under Standing Order 31.

The Tánaiste:  It is proposed to take No. 3, Health (Amendment) Bill 2005 — Second Stage (resumed); No. 17, Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill 2004 — Second Stage (resumed); and No. 18, Land Bill 2004 [Seanad] — Second Stage (resumed).

It is proposed notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders that the proceedings on the resumed Second Stage of No. 3 shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 1.30 p.m.

[4]An Ceann Comhairle:  Is the proposal for dealing with No. 3, Health (Amendment) Bill 2005, agreed to?

Mr. Kenny:  No Sir, it is not. It is refreshing to be opposed by the three Marys. This is unique in the annals of this Parliament.

Mary Coughlan:  This is what I call a front bench.

Mr. Deasy:  The holy trinity.

Mr. Kenny:  I have already made the case on numerous occasions of being opposed to guillotines of Bills on Second Stage and I do so now. This is an important Bill and it deserves more time.

Mr. Rabbitte:  I agree with that. I have a further reason for opposing the guillotine in addition to what Deputy Kenny stated. The Tánaiste was unable to come to the House yesterday to contribute to the Bill and given the remarks she made about systemic maladministration in her Department, irrespective of the Travers report, she ought to be enabled to inform the House as to why she made such an unprecedented remark. I am not taking sides on it. The Tánaiste may be very well informed as to the necessity for making such remarks but she ought to be provided with the opportunity to address the House on the issues concerned.

Mr. Gormley:  I am opposed to the guillotining of this Bill. We have witnessed a debacle when legislation was guillotined. The Tánaiste should have learned the lesson of rushing legislation through this House but she obviously has not. She appears to be behaving like a headless chicken in respect of health services in the State. There has been an accident and emergency crisis, MRSA is rampant and now the Tánaiste’s colleague is proposing a mobile telephone mast for my constituency, which will pose a threat to the children in Dublin South-East.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Deputy, we are going way off the motion before the House.

Mr. Gormley:  I ask the Tánaiste to reconsider this irresponsible decision. It is disgraceful that the Government is proceeding in this manner. It is arrogant and totally undemocratic.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  The guillotining of this Bill will significantly curtail the opportunity of Members to participate in important legislation in respect of the two key focuses, namely, the GP-only medical card proposal and the reintroduction of fees for nursing home patients. On Second Stage last night, I questioned the marriage of these two separate matters in the one Bill and that the measure is being rushed when we still have not seen the Government’s proposals for the reimbursement of the illegal charges which were [5]applied to long-stay residents in nursing homes over many years. The reimbursement plan must be expedited.

While Deputy Rabbitte has highlighted the Tánaiste’s absence from the House, none of her Ministers of State attended for the greater part of the debate last evening. The Government presence in the House was a Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food. What does that say about the Department in respect of this legislation when neither the Tánaiste and Minster for Health and Children nor her Ministers of State attended the House over the period?

Ms Burton:  The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Tim O’Malley, was here.

Mr. T. O’Malley:  Yes, I was in the House.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  It is absolutely outrageous. I strongly oppose the imposition of a guillotine on this legislation. It is wholly and absolutely inappropriate.

Mr. Rabbitte:  There might be a vacancy in the Department. The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, might yet get a promotion.

The Tánaiste:  I was absent from the House yesterday because I was on official business in Cork which had been planned for a considerable time.

Mr. Allen:  There was a nice shot of the Tánaiste on television.

Ms McManus:  In which case why was the Bill taken yesterday?

The Tánaiste:  The Opposition was keen to have an entire day yesterday for the debate. I had originally hoped to move the Bill on Tuesday evening but Members felt they wanted more time. In any event, Second Stage was moved by the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Seán Power, who has responsibility in this area and he was here for a [6]considerable part of yesterday morning. It is not traditional that the line Department necessarily sits through the entire Second Stage proceedings of a Bill.

The aspects of the Bill which relate to charging for shelter and maintenance for long-term care were the subject of considerable debate in this House and had been cleared by the Supreme Court, as Deputies know. We are losing €2.5 million for every week that we cannot collect this particular charge. Deputies opposite were screaming at me for weeks about the GP-only medical cards. We want to issue them in April, which is why it is important we proceed with the legislation.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  Where are the plans to reimburse people?

Mr. Connaughton:  Why are the two issues linked in the Bill?

The Tánaiste:  I will speak on the Bill in the House this morning. I stand over the comments I made because I stated in the House two weeks ago that I had understood, as had the Taoiseach, that these charges——

Mr. Allen:  It was maladministration by Ministers.

The Tánaiste:  Maladministration does not just affect public officials. When we stated that these charges were levied, we thought it was on the basis of good faith and that no one knew that what we were doing was wrong. That was not the case. It became very clear over recent weeks that it had been known for a considerable time that we were acting illegally. That is why I stated what I did. The Travers report will deal with this issue. I hope to have it to hand tomorrow, bring it before the Cabinet on Tuesday and publish it that day. I assure the House that there is no question of my sitting on it because of the by-elections.

Question put: “That the proposal for dealing with No. 3 be agreed.”

[5]The Dáil divided: Tá, 63; Níl 47.

 Ahern, Noel.  Ardagh, Seán.
 Blaney, Niall.  Brady, Martin.
 Brennan, Seamus.  Browne, John.
 Callanan, Joe.  Carey, Pat.
 Carty, John.  Collins, Michael.
 Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.  Coughlan, Mary.
 Cowen, Brian.  Cregan, John.
 Curran, John.  de Valera, Síle.
 Dempsey, Tony.  Dennehy, John.
 Devins, Jimmy.  Fitzpatrick, Dermot.
 Fleming, Seán.  Glennon, Jim.
 Grealish, Noel.  Hanafin, Mary.
 Harney, Mary.  Haughey, Seán.
 Healy-Rae, Jackie.  Hoctor, Máire.
 Keaveney, Cecilia.  Kelleher, Billy.
 Kelly, Peter.  Kirk, Seamus.
 Kitt, Tom.  Lenihan, Brian.
 [7]McDowell, Michael.  McEllistrim, Thomas.
 McGuinness, John.  Martin, Micheál.
 Moloney, John.  Moynihan, Michael.
 Mulcahy, Michael.  Nolan, M. J.
 Ó Cuív, Éamon.  O’Connor, Charlie.
 O’Donnell, Liz.  O’Donoghue, John.
 O’Donovan, Denis.  O’Flynn, Noel.
 O’Keeffe, Batt.  O’Malley, Fiona.
 O’Malley, Tim.  Parlon, Tom.
 Power, Peter.  Power, Seán.
 Sexton, Mae.  Smith, Brendan.
 Smith, Michael.  Treacy, Noel.
 Wallace, Dan.  Walsh, Joe.
 Wilkinson, Ollie.  Woods, Michael.
 Wright, G. V.  


[7]Níl
 Allen, Bernard.  Boyle, Dan.
 Breen, James.  Breen, Pat.
 Broughan, Thomas P.  Bruton, Richard.
 Burton, Joan.  Connaughton, Paul.
 Connolly, Paudge.  Coveney, Simon.
 Crowe, Seán.  Deasy, John.
 Deenihan, Jimmy.  Enright, Olwyn.
 Gogarty, Paul.  Gormley, John.
 Harkin, Marian.  Healy, Seamus.
 Higgins, Joe.  Howlin, Brendan.
 Kehoe, Paul.  Kenny, Enda.
 Lynch, Kathleen.  McCormack, Padraic.
 McGinley, Dinny.  McGrath, Finian.
 McGrath, Paul.  McHugh, Paddy.
 McManus, Liz.  Mitchell, Olivia.
 Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.  Murphy, Gerard.
 Neville, Dan.  Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
 Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.  O’Keeffe, Jim.
 O’Shea, Brian.  O’Sullivan, Jan.
 Pattison, Seamus.  Perry, John.
 Rabbitte, Pat.  Ring, Michael.
 Ryan, Seán.  Sherlock, Joe.
 Shortall, Róisín.  Timmins, Billy.
 Upton, Mary.  

[7]Tellers: Tá, Deputies Kitt and Kelleher; Níl, Deputies Kehoe and Broughan.

[7]Question declared carried.

Mr. Kenny:  The Tánaiste made an announcement that the Health and Safety Authority will examine accident and emergency units in hospitals throughout the country. In view of the concern that has legitimately been expressed about a number of these units, would it not be more appropriate that the Health and Safety Authority call to these units at a normal working time rather than conduct a pre-arranged visit?

An Ceann Comhairle:  That does not arise on the Order of Business.

Mr. Kenny:  It does under the Health (Amendment) Bill.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Deputies can only ask about the legislation. They cannot discuss the content of the Health (Amendment) Bill at this stage.

Mr. Kenny:  The Health and Safety Authority would get a clear view and understanding of what happens in accident and emergency units.

[8]An Ceann Comhairle:  It does not arise now. The Deputy will have an opportunity to discuss it when the Bill is before the House.

Mr. Kenny:  The Ceann Comhairle has been trying to knock me for the past three or four days.

Mr. Allen:  It is just another gimmick.

  11 o’clock

Mr. Howlin:  The Tánaiste is well positioned to realise the importance of my question. Will the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment make a statement to the House today on the decision of the Government to withdraw its support package to Intel on foot of resistance to it by the European Commission? Will he explain the background to the decision and answer questions on the matter?

An Ceann Comhairle:  Are statements promised?

The Tánaiste:  We have not factored in statements on the Order of Business agreed earlier. However, perhaps there will be Private Notice Questions or an Adjournment debate. I am sure [9]the Minister would be more than happy to deal with the matter in the House.

Mr. Howlin:  I have tabled a Private Notice Question. On foot of the Tánaiste’s response, will it be favourably considered?

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Chair will consider it and communicate with the Deputy.

Mr. Gormley:  With regard to the electronic communications (miscellaneous provisions) Bill, will the State take responsibility for the health effects of mobile telephone masts, one of which is situated in my constituency of Dublin South-East?

An Ceann Comhairle:  We cannot discuss the content of legislation on the Order of Business.

Mr. Gormley:  Will the Tánaiste take action on the health effects of mobile telephone masts?

The Tánaiste:  I understand that even the Deputy has a mobile telephone. We will have the legislation this year. Does the Deputy have a mobile telephone?

Mr. Gormley:  The Tánaiste is very observant. Why can she not do something about the mast in Rathmines which is beside children? She has done nothing.

Ms O. Mitchell:  Today’s newspapers reported that Mr. John Lynch has been reappointed as chairman of CIE for a further three years. Does this indicate the legislation for the break-up of CIE is being abandoned? Does it mean the Government is abandoning bus competition, which was predicated on the break-up of CIE by three successive Ministers?

The Tánaiste:  The Government’s reform programme for transport has not been abandoned. We do not need specific legislation to reappoint Mr. Lynch to the board of CIE.

Ms O. Mitchell:  I asked about the break-up of CIE on which legislation has been promised for close on seven years.

The Tánaiste:  The legislation will come forward.

Mr. Gormley:  Ask Ivor.

The Tánaiste:  He is not around this morning. I do not see him in the Chamber.

Ms O. Mitchell:  The Tánaiste is stuck for an answer when he is not here.

The Tánaiste:  We will have the legislation this year.

[10]Mr. Sherlock:  As there appears to be a difference of opinion between the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Defence in the matter of troops serving overseas, when will the defence (amendment) Bill, which will deal with certain aspects of the Act, be dealt with?

The Tánaiste:  It is not possible to give a precise date but the heads of the Bill are due this year.

Mr. Boyle:  Without wishing to pre-empt any decision the Ceann Comhairle might make later on a Private Notice Question, will time be made available in the House in the near future for a debate on the recommendations of the enterprise strategy group which is meant to deal with the area of research and development, and the question of supporting indigenous industry and becoming less reliant--——

An Ceann Comhairle:  Is a debate promised?

The Tánaiste:  No.

An Ceann Comhairle:  If a debate has not been promised, it is a matter for the Whips.

Mr. Boyle:  It has been referred to in the House and has been requested. Has the request been acceded to.

An Ceann Comhairle:  A request is not sufficient. It must be promised in the House and appropriate to the Order of Business or every Deputy would be in a position to ask about any issue. We would be here all day and would not get through the Health (Amendment) Bill.

Mr. Boyle:  It was requested at a Whips meeting. I ask for an opinion.

Mr. Stanton:  Last night, a Government representative stated that 30% of the Disability Bill should be rewritten. Does this mean it is being withdrawn and we will have a new disability Bill? Has the Government made a decision on this?

The Tánaiste:  No, the Disability Bill is proceeding. It has not been withdrawn.

Mr. Stanton:  A representative spoke on behalf of the Government last night.

The Tánaiste:  Who was that?

Mr. Stanton:  It was said that 30% would be withdrawn.

A Deputy:  Was it Vincent Browne?

Mr. Broughan:  Does the Government intend to redraft the Postal (Miscellaneous Provisions)Bill 2001 in the context of current discussions at the Labour Court? Will it be taken off the Order Paper? In the marine sector, is it intended to [11]remove the Law of the Sea (Repression of Piracy) Bill 2001 from the Order Paper?

The Tánaiste:  The first Bill will be taken this session. Did the Deputy ask on marine services?

Mr. Broughan:  There was an indication from the Chief Whip that the Postal (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2001 would be taken off the Order Paper.

The Tánaiste:  The Chief Whip disagrees. He tells me that Order for Second Stage is proceeding. My note tells me the Law of the Sea (Repression of Piracy) Bill 2001 was published in 2001 and is awaiting Second Stage.

Mr. Cowen:  The Deputy should run up the Jolly Roger.

Mr. Ring:  When will the Freedom of Information Act be extended to include vocational education committees? Is it only in place to protect officials? This relates to the Local Government (No. 2) Act 2003 whereby new managers and assistant managers were appointed. When I tabled a recent question to find out what bonuses they received, I was told I could not get that information. Does the legislation only cover information on Oireachtas Members’ expenses?

A serious question arises in regard to the Údarás na Gaeltachta Bill. What is the Government’s view on the dual mandate? Councillors are members of Údarás while serving on local councils.

An Ceann Comhairle:  It does not arise on the Order of Business.

Mr. Ring:  Of course it arises on the Order of Business. It refers to promised legislation. I want to know the Government view. Councillors can serve on Údarás and Deputies can serve in Europe but I cannot serve on a council and in the Dáil at the same time. Is this not hypocrisy at its worst?

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy is out of order.

Mr. Cowen:  Tá siad dá-theangach.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Tánaiste should answer on the Freedom of Information Act.

The Tánaiste:  The extension of freedom of information provisions to other bodies is a matter for the Minister for Finance. I will consult with the Minister and come back to the Deputy. He needs to time to reflect and consider the Deputy’s point.

Mr. Ring:  We need the Minister for Finance.

[12]Mr. Cowen:  I could tell Members about their expenses.

The Tánaiste:  The heads of the Údarás na Gaeltachta Bill will be produced this year.

Mr. J. Higgins:  In view of the court decision yesterday on a case in which a couple were seriously injured, through no fault of their own, but Bus Éireann was also judged not to be responsible, which leaves a very unfair situation, will amending legislation be considered to ensure just compensation for those in circumstances such as this?

The Tánaiste:  No legislation is required. We have a fair and impartial courts system and I will not interfere with a court decision.

Mr. Gormley:  You put Deputy Joe Higgins in jail for that.

Mr. J. Higgins:  I am not asking the Tánaiste to interfere with the court. However, the judge stated it was up to the Oireachtas to introduce amending legislation to cover a situation where people injured through no fault of their own would get just compensation.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I suggest the Deputy submit a question to the appropriate line Minister.

The Tánaiste:  I am sure the line Minister will study the judgment.

Mr. J. Higgins:  Who is the line Minister?

The Tánaiste:  The Minister for Transport.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy should submit a question to the Minister.

Mr. J. Higgins:  He might still be stuck on the Blanchardstown bypass for all I know.

A Deputy:  Or in an ivory tower.

Ms Burton:  Or on a trolley, he is so sick.

Mr. Coveney:  The European Commission recently introduced an air transport directive which provides for compensation for passengers if their flights are delayed or cancelled, among other matters. It also requires individual Governments to introduce complaints procedures for passengers and to set up a board to do this. Does the Government intend to do this? Will it require legislation? If so, when will we see it?

The Tánaiste:  That will probably be a matter for the Director of Consumer Affairs or the Minister for Transport. However, I am sure the matter will be considered.

[13]Mr. Coveney:  The directive has already been introduced.

The Tánaiste:  Is the Deputy a frequent traveller?

Mr. Coveney:  I am.

An Ceann Comhairle:  A question on European legislation can be answered later. It does not have to be answered on the day under Standing Order 26.

Mr. Rabbitte:  This morning, newspapers and radio reported on the harrowing circumstances of one family with four autistic children, which highlights the appallingly bad services in place, particularly for autistic children, throughout the country. As Minister for Health and Children, is there anything the Tánaiste can do to intervene to alleviate the burden on this particular——

An Ceann Comhairle:  That does not arise on the Order of Business. I suggest the Deputy uses another way of raising the matter in the House. I call Deputy McManus.

Mr. Rabbitte:  To be in order, when the Tánaiste introduces the Supplementary Estimate already promised, will she include an allocation specifically-——

An Ceann Comhairle:  We cannot discuss the content of the Supplementary Estimate. I suggest the Deputy uses the proper structures of the House to submit a question.

Mr. Rabbitte:  I will not discuss the content of it. Can the Tánaiste make some provision to enable the former health boards to provide services?

An Ceann Comhairle:  That does not arise on the Order of Business. I call Deputy McManus.

Mr. Rabbitte:  A Cheann Comhairle, you are being unreasonable. The Tánaiste-——

An Ceann Comhairle:  That is the Deputy’s point of view. The Standing Order is quite specific. I do not want to take up the time of the House reading it again. However, the Deputy knows the rules of the House and the Standing Orders. The Deputy knows there are ample opportunities for him, today if he wishes, to raise the matter in another way in this House.

Mr. Rabbitte:  This is a harrowing human situation and with the Minister for Health and Children in the House we have an opportunity——

An Ceann Comhairle:  I appreciate that but the Chair has ruled out other Deputies on similar questions in accordance with Standing Orders. [14]The Chair is obliged to obey Standing Orders just like everyone else.

Ms McManus:  The Tánaiste has promised a compensation scheme to pay back to the elderly people money illegally taken from them by the State. Will the Tánaiste say when details of that scheme will be published? When will the Supplementary Estimate come before the House, so that people can get their money back?

The Tánaiste:  I have indicated that a Cabinet sub-committee is looking at this matter and we certainly cannot proceed with the scheme until we have the Travers report. As soon as we can after that we will make clear the Government’s intentions in this respect. We want to do things as quickly as possible, but this is a mammoth task involving more than 200,000 people — perhaps as many as 300,000 — so the logistical issues as to how this might be handled must also be examined. We have indicated that we want a scheme which will be as simple as possible for those affected to access what they are entitled to, and the Government is approaching the matter with that in mind.

Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Cecilia Keaveney:  I acknowledge the importance of the doctor-only medical card but in the context of the broader modernisation agenda which the Minister spoke of yesterday we might consider the concept of, for example, ten free doctor visits and ten free prescriptions, or five of each, for those at different levels of income so that there is a broader modernisation agenda than just having the medical card or having nothing.

I am glad the Tánaiste is here this morning as I wish to raise the issue of the medical card being used for prevention rather than just for treatment. It is important that screening programmes, for example, cervical smear tests, and BreastCheck are extended to the north west and nationally. The point made by the Irish Cancer Society that the medical card is not available for prevention and for screening needs to be addressed.

While the Tánaiste is here, I again ask her to consider the need for beds in Letterkenny General Hospital. The situation there should not be one of “bed-blocking”. There has been a substantial population increase of 42% in the area, accompanied by a demography of aging people, so that these beds are a necessity and in no sense a luxury for the people of the north west. Since the Executive is unlikely to be up and running and the North-South Ministerial Council will not meet in the near future, I ask the Tánaiste what we can do in the meantime to ensure that North-[15]South co-operation will continue between Letterkenny and Derry. Without the North-South Ministerial Council and the Executive, many of the health issues which can be dealt with at a cross-Border level are not being given sufficient priority.

There is a critical mass between Derry and Donegal which means that services missing in Derry can be provided in Donegal and vice versa. For example, there is a very good breast screening programme up and running in Derry and cervical smears undertaken on people in Donegal are being examined in Derry. Is there anything the Tánaiste can do to ensure that, in the absence of the Executive and the North-South Ministerial Council, the health issues in the north west which are dealt with in Northern Ireland will be addressed. There is a very good track record of Altnagelvin Hospital and Letterkenny General Hospital working together. We need BreastCheck and all the other services, as well as beds for Letterkenny General Hospital. I welcome the concept of the doctor-only medical cards.

Mr. Neville:  I am glad of the opportunity to discuss the Bill. I welcome the Tánaiste to the House and I look forward to her contribution.

The Bill deals with the Supreme Court decision on charges made to the elderly and doctor-only medical cards. Had it not been for the work of the Fine Gael leader, Deputy Kenny, and Deputy Perry, the issue of the illegality of charging elderly people in nursing homes would never have been raised. The Government has argued that the illegality goes back to 1976. The Supreme Court decision suggests that the illegality became much clearer after the passage of the 2001 Act, which was brought in as part of the Government’s pre-election spree and the implications of which were not fully thought out. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report of 2001 revealed that the decision on the over-70s medical card was taken by the Department of Finance in the days before the 2001 budget with little or no consultation with the Department of Health and Children.

There is evidence that following enactment of the 2001 Act, the Southern Health Board provided the Department of Health and Children with legal advice it had received on long-stay care. The then Minister, Deputy Martin, referred to this legal document in an interview, claiming he did not read it, while the Tánaiste referred to it in the Dáil.

The issue of the over-70s medical card and charges in public nursing homes was raised at a high level meeting attended in December 2003 by the then Minister, Deputy Martin, the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, who at the time had responsibility for the elderly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O’Malley. The minutes of that meeting show that long-stay charges for the over-70s were discussed. This is clear evidence that the Health Act 2001 which introduced the over-70s [16]medical card was considered a problem in terms of long-stay charges. The then Minister, Deputy Martin, claimed to have left the meeting when the issue was being discussed, but the two Ministers of State at the Department remained. We are aware of what has been discussed in the Dáil on several occasions regarding the information received by the Ministers of State, if the Minister was not there. That information and the minutes of the meeting, which were only two pages long, were put on the record of the House by the Tánaiste.

People on non-contributory pensions will receive repayment and their means will be assessed against those pensions. In other words, old age non-contributory pensioners in public nursing homes will be penalised because Health Service Executive will refund the moneys perhaps to their bank accounts and if the income of pensioners goes over the threshold of €20,000 as a result, their pensions will be reduced. The Department of Social and Family Affairs will claw back the moneys which the State has refunded to those pensioners.

In a response to Deputy Stanton, the Department pointed out that it has collected €5.4 million from pensioners’ wills in 2004 and the same amount in 2003. That is an aside, but the point is that pensioners with no other income or assets above the means threshold who choose to save their pensions and the moneys they will now receive will be penalised when they go above the threshold. The Department of Social and Family Affairs will interpret the refund as means, treating it similar to assets from property and inheritance when assessing means. Elderly people are legally obliged to inform the Department of Social and Family if their means change so that their pensions can be reviewed. They sign up to this when they apply for non-contributory pensions. The upcoming refunds should not be included as assets in the assessment of the means of those in receipt of the non-contributory pension or other payments such as the disability allowance. What is the position of people with intellectual disabilities or those in similar categories? Will they be means tested if they receive a refund? I ask the Minister to take that issue on board

A number of years ago, I dealt with the case of a medical card holder who needed incontinence wear. The person was admitted to a private nursing home and the refund for incontinence wear was withdrawn. The issue was taken up with the health board at the time, which refused to make a refund or to recognise that there was an anomaly. The anomaly was that incontinence pads were not covered where medical card holders were admitted to private nursing homes. However, prior to admission, they were covered. Following numerous representations to, and pressure on, the Department and the Mid-Western Health Board, the position changed in April 2003.

[17]Medical card holders charged for incontinence wear in private nursing homes prior to April 2003 should be refunded. It is discriminatory to refund medical card holders availing of public beds. One of the criteria for not refunding the cost of incontinence wear in private nursing homes is entitlement to nursing home subvention. If an elderly person is in receipt of nursing home subvention, he or she is entitled to a refund. The position is contradictory and unfair. If this issue was examined as thoroughly as the issue of illegal charging, it would also be found to be illegal. Will the Minister comment on this in her reply?

Earlier the Irish Wheelchair Association made a submission to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. Its representatives raised an important issue relating to medical cards for people with disabilities. They pointed out that wheelchair users, in particular, and others with limited mobility face additional costs associated with specialist products such as mobility and communications aid and additional expenditure on specialist transport, heating and so on. Despite the additional costs, their medical card threshold is the same as that for non-disabled people. This leads to people with disabilities not attending doctors when ill, resulting in late diagnosis of their conditions. Will the new medical card address this issue, given the new guidelines regarding what can be considered in individual cases other than means?

The association’s representatives also referred to the benefit trap faced by people with disabilities. They are dissuaded from taking up employment but they made a number of recommendations. The income limit for medical card eligibility should be increased significantly for people with physical disabilities while, under the back to work initiative, medical card entitlement should be extended to five years for people with disabilities. The transfer of entitlement to aids and appliances to a cost of disability payment should not be affected by employment.

I have raised other issues relating to the elderly on a number of occasions. I refer to the Minister’s examination of the housing aid for the elderly scheme and her discussions with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. This issue raises its head regularly in our constituency clinics. Elderly people wait for years for simple work to be done to their houses to enable them to live in comfort when they have needs due to their age. The disabled person’s grant scheme is operated by local authorises but that has been brought into disrepute recently, although my experiences with Limerick County Council have been positive.

However, the same cannot be said of the housing aid for the elderly scheme and its objectives. When the Bill was introduced to abolish the health boards, the Minister was emphatic that the issue of representations by public representatives would be recognised as part of the change from health boards to the Health Service Executive. I made a representation on behalf of an elderly [18]person living alone on 4 March 2003 and I outlined the reasons he needed work done to his house. This need was recognised by the health board and the community welfare officer who examined the case. However, following two years of frustration I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister to find out when the work would be done. The question was passed on to the Health Service Executive and I received a reply, which stated, “I wish to confirm that an application for housing aid is at present with the housing aid department in Limerick and they are awaiting final input into the process from the relevant services”. For the past two years the case has been with the Limerick health services but I want to know what action is planned. Having not obtained the information locally, the Minister directed the question to the Health Service Executive. I am now told it is with the housing aid department in Limerick, something that I have known for two years. Surely the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children must accept that it flies in the face of her commitment to the House, especially on Committee Stage of the previous health Bill regarding the abolition of the health boards.

Regarding the elderly and nursing homes, there is obviously growing pressure because of the needs of our aging population. There are inadequate resources in the public sector to deal with the demand for nursing home services from people with limited means. The area needs considerable examination to ensure people who are elderly and need inpatient or nursing home care are treated with dignity and respect in examining their situation.

There are a few matters that I wish to raise, the first being the subvention, which has not been examined for the best part of four years. It is an obvious statement, but it is worth saying that the cost of nursing homes has increased dramatically, having more than doubled in the past four years. The nursing home subvention element has not increased to match it, and that is putting enormous pressure on families and especially the residents themselves. We now have people in need of nursing homes whose families are considering social housing for them because of the pressures. There must be a review of the nursing home subvention payment which, as we were informed this week, averages €150 per week. In the context of nursing homes costing more than €600 per week, that is inadequate.

I also wish to raise the issue of the enhanced, top-up nursing home subvention. The disparity between areas in that regard is totally unacceptable. It is approximately €50 in the mid-west, while in the former Eastern Health Board area it is €650. How can one justify such a disparity in the enhanced nursing home subvention payment? It is paid after all aspects of a person’s circumstances have been examined and it becomes quite obvious that there is a serious financial issue involved which determines that an enhanced [19]nursing home subvention should be paid by the regional health executive.

We must introduce clarity and equality to the area. If the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children says to me that in certain areas of the country nursing homes are much more expensive than in others, that is a fair argument. We need transparent information to show why the rates should be different, but there is no such information or analysis. It is done on an ad hoc basis in each health board area. If, as it now transpires, the disparity between nursing home costs is not as pronounced as some years ago, with prices for many nursing homes across the country reaching the levels found in the former Eastern Health Board area, there is a need for a full and comprehensive examination of subventions and payments for the different categories, including the basic and enhanced payments.

I would like to raise the repayments of moneys to those illegally charged in nursing homes. I will deal with one area for the purpose of illustration and leave those who are psychiatrically ill and perhaps long-term in-patients. I understand — I hope the Minister will correct me if I am wrong — that a person must claim for the repayment that he or she is owed by filling in and signing forms. Some might not be aware of that or competent to do so. The State has an onus and legal responsibility to repay the moneys owed to everyone. If I have moneys and owe someone, I have a restitutive responsibility to repay him or her.

I would appreciate the Tánaiste explaining the procedure for making the payments. If it is a form-filling exercise, those more informed and able will be in a position to avail themselves of their rights, but those whom I have mentioned, who have a disability, including an intellectual one, or are in long-term psychiatric care, will be less likely to claim and receive their entitlements.

I would also like to quote from Age and Opportunity regarding how we approach age, ageism and the elderly:

Focusing on aging as representing a constellation of problems that require interventions ignores older people’s own resilience in the face of difficulties and their own capacity with proper resources for organising themselves and devising their own solutions at the individual and collective level.

We miss out on that where the dignity of elderly people is interfered with. Someone is ill in a hospital and there is a decision to make because he or she can no longer live in the community and must go to a public or private nursing or welfare home. There is a debate between the consultants, the family and the hospital ward, but the elderly person is not often consulted. The quotation concerns the need to ensure the elderly are consulted and recognised rather than disregarded as an adjunct to a problem; that should not happen.

[20]Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  I am pleased to commend this short Bill to the House. It has two purposes, to put reasonable charges for long-stay care on a legal basis and to provide hundreds of thousands of people on low incomes with the opportunity to visit their GPs without worrying about the cost.

Both purposes are guided by the single key principle that there should be legal clarity regarding public services and charges. Members of the public, patients and their families deserve no less. It is not tolerable that people, particularly vulnerable people and those suffering from ill health, should be uncertain of whether they qualify for a service, or whether and how much they should have to contribute towards the cost. People working in our health services can do a professional public service job if they operate in an environment of legal clarity.

In an increasingly litigious society, legal uncertainty is tested and exploited in many ways that are, to say the least, not always in the public interest. The cost to the public and taxpayer of achieving legal clarity is highest when it comes from protracted and repeated litigation. The cost is lowest when it comes from coherent policy, meticulous law-making and professional public administration.

That is why the Government welcomed the clarity provided by the recent decision of the Supreme Court about past charges for public long-stay places. I do not intend to dwell on the points I made when the House debated that decision two weeks ago. I will just say that this Bill stems from the Government’s determination to provide legal clarity in the interests of patients, their families, taxpayers and better public administration.

On the repayment of past charges, the Government is working on a scheme of repayments that will be efficient, user-friendly and as automatic as possible. There are many practical and legal issues to be worked out in handling the repayments. It is important that people keep firmly in mind that the Supreme Court has found that repayments should be made and that the Government fully accepts that. The Supreme Court has decided there is no need now for people to go to another court. I assure Deputies that persons who were being charged need not employ a solicitor to get what they are owed. I look forward to bringing details of the repayment scheme to the House as soon as possible.

We could all agree that the full context for the repayments issue will only be known when the report by Mr. John Travers is available. It makes little sense to debate that report in advance of it being completed, let alone published. I expect to receive the report tomorrow and I will bring it quickly to the Government next Tuesday and to the House, as I have already indicated.

On some of the points made by Deputy Neville, the intention is that where we can identify people we will pay them their moneys. It will not be a question of making applications and so [21]on. In the case of deceased persons, somebody will have to prove that they were the representative of that person. For those who are alive but of unsound mind, and as I have already indicated publicly, the Statute of Limitations cannot be applied to people of unsound mind. My view would be that we would identify those persons and repay their moneys.

This is a mammoth task for the State. We have never engaged in an exercise of this kind before in terms of the scale. We will need some outside expertise, perhaps even from outside the country, to help us with the task because in other jurisdictions people have handled mass claims in the past and they would have a good deal of experience. That could be of invaluable assistance to the Government. When the Travers report is to hand, hopefully tomorrow, we will be in a better position to indicate the nature of any scheme we will introduce, the timeframes and so on.

My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, opened the debate with a detailed description of the main provisions of the Bill. I would like to concentrate on the policies behind it. There is close to all-party consensus in the House that it is reasonable that people in public long-term stay places should make some contribution, where possible, to living costs or shelter and maintenance. That policy has been in place here for almost 50 years. That consensus is clear, given that the policy was implemented by successive Governments and Ministers for Health, albeit on a legally flawed basis, for the past 29 years. It is also clear from public debate and debates in this House in the past three months that most people accept it is fair to require a reasonable amount to be contributed, considering especially that older people living at home must meet their living expenses from their pensions.

I was pleased that the constitutionality of legislating for these charges going forward was fully tested in the Supreme Court and was found by the court to be constitutional. For example, the court stated: “In authorising the Minister to impose charges on the specified category of person, the Oireachtas clearly intended that the resources of the Health Boards would benefit so as to better enable them to provide the services in question while at the same time seeking to avoid doing so in a manner which would cause undue hardship.”

The court further stated:

The level at which charges can be fixed by the Minister is narrow in scope ranging from a nominal charge to 80% of the pension ... It was clearly the intention of the Oireachtas that any charges would not cause undue hardship generally or in individual cases and no doubt that is why it fixed the maximum charge at 80% of the pension.

It was useful that the court recognised the importance of this source of funding for health services, which is in the order of €2 million to €2.5 million per week. I have heard suggestions from the [22]Opposition, however, that section 1 of the Bill may be unconstitutional. I am obliged to accept the advice of the Attorney General’s office on this legislation, and we believe the Bill is constitutional. Ultimately, Bills are tested in the Supreme Court, perhaps under an Article 26 reference, which is what happened with the Bill we passed before Christmas, or in particular circumstances.

Section 1 refers to the Health Service Executive taking into account a person’s overall financial situation, including the means of a spouse, in making a decision on eligibility for a medical card. Yesterday, the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, set out the reasons for this provision in the Bill. It reflects existing law, policy and practice and is based on long-standing constitutional principles that recognise the obligation of one spouse to support another. It is not unconstitutional.

Again, for the purposes of clarity I inform the House that I intend to bring forward an amendment in the Bill on Committee Stage to repeal section 140 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 1993. This is to prevent anomalous charges being raised through other legislation which are not in line with the exemptions provided for in the Bill now before the House. This will secure the exemption from charges of those persons involuntarily detained in mental hospitals and it is necessary to ensure consistency in this regard in future.

The provisions of the Bill on long-term stay charges are clear and unambiguous. The Bill is being brought forward in the light of the positive decision of the Supreme Court on exactly similar provisions in the 2004 Bill.

I am pleased also to use this Bill to propose to the House section 4 providing for new medical cards to make general practitioner services free for many thousands of people. This is an innovation for social justice and for the effective use of public resources. For many years, we all shared a concern that people on very low income should not be deterred from visiting their GP on cost grounds. In particular, we have agreed that parents should not be deterred on cost grounds from bringing their children to their GP. The Government is now acting to address those concerns.

The traditional medial card will continue to be held by 85% of medical card holders but with this policy, the same budget allows us to provide four times as many people with free access to their GP than with the traditional medical card. There are no industrial relations, administrative or legal barriers to doing that once we have passed this legislation. All we need is this short legislation amending primary legislation to establish a legal basis for doing so. If, as I hope, the legislation is approved by the Oireachtas this month, the Health Service Executive will be in a position to issue the new medical cards in April.

The policy of the Government is clear. We are providing the resources to fund these new cards. [23]We are bringing forward the legislation to underpin the new cards. We want to see people taking up the new cards. We want people to visit their doctor and bring their children to the doctor as often as needed.

I intend to monitor closely the uptake of the new cards to ensure that the many thousands of people to whom we wish to give cards apply for and receive them. As Deputies will be aware, income guidelines are set for the Health Service Executive for eligibility for medical cards of both categories. These income guidelines are set on the basis of the best and latest information available on incomes and expenditure in the population. The income guidelines for new medical cards are 25% higher than for the traditional medical card.

It remains difficult, however, to set any income guidelines based on historic data to achieve an exact number of people to be covered prospectively. If we find significantly fewer people than expected take up the new cards because incomes are growing faster than we anticipate, we will revise the guidelines.

We are providing the budget, the administration and now the legislation so there is no barrier to the policy being implemented. The Government wants to make it easy for people to apply for these cards and to use them. I know the HSE will do all it can to ensure that happens, including constructive discussions with the Irish Medical Organisation on implementation.

Providing GP cover to many thousands more people in this way is effective social justice. We are providing graduated benefits according to income. It is much better that State benefits are not “all or nothing”. We know from our experience of reducing unemployment how important it is, for social justice reasons as much as anything else, to avoid poverty traps. Graduated benefits are a fair and effective way to help people at different levels of income.

We are using scarce public resources to help those who need help, not those who can ably provide for themselves. The alternative to channelling resources to people most in need is “one for everyone in the audience”. I do not agree with that. To give everybody a medical card, at an average of approximately €1,000 a year, would cost an extra €3 billion over and above the current position. I have not heard any party openly propose tax increases of €3 billion to pay for medical cards for all, and I doubt I will ever hear it from parties who are serious about being in Government.

The policy of the Government is based on a coherent and integrated view of economic and social progress. The new medical card is one innovation within the strategy and I hope it will stand the test of time for many thousands of people in the years ahead.

Deputy Neville raised a number of matters in connection with the Health Service Executive. The executive has only been in existence for two months and does not yet have its full cohort of [24]staff. It is intended that it will have a fully resourced public affairs division to deal with public representatives. I have spoken to the acting CEO and the chairman and they are anxious to establish the division as soon as possible. It is hoped it will be up and running, if not before the summer then shortly thereafter. As regards a role for public representatives at regional level, we will progress that matter as soon as possible.

I intend to pursue many of the issues — incontinence pads etc. — to which Deputy Neville referred. I will reflect on what were people’s entitlements and communicate further with the Deputy. We cannot have a situation where, in respect of people who require institutional care, particularly in the private sector, families will not be given support to allow them to care for elderly relatives at home. If a mistake was made in the past it was that too many of the resources went towards the institutional side and too few towards home or community support.

I hope the Government will be able to finalise its views and policy perspectives in respect of long-term care later in the year. Currently, 12,000 people reach the age of 65 and 1,500 reach the age of 80 every year. There will be major demographic issues for society going forward in terms of how it funds care of the elderly. Greater emphasis must be placed on community and family support because we could not afford, as a society, to fund institutional care for everyone. We must, therefore, have institutional care where it is necessary and unavoidable which will be supported but we must also give serious consideration to how we might support further activity in the community. Currently, the home care and home help systems are in place. The new home care package, which forms part of the overall A&E package, is a start in terms of trying to help people to remain at home with their families. That is when people do best in medical terms and are happiest. If they wish to remain at home, people deserve to be able to do so.

Mr. S. Ryan:  I propose to share time with Deputy Upton.

This Bill is typical of the careless and possibly even negligent approach the Department of Health and Children takes in respect of people’s rights and entitlements to health care. It deals with two issues, namely, entitlement to a “mini” or “yellow pack” medical card and the way in which long-stay charges will operate in future. As we know from the shocking saga that unfolded in recent months, these two issues are closely linked.

I wish to deal first with the matter of long-stay charges. The Tánaiste is basically proposing to reintroduce those aspects of the ill-fated Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2004 which the Supreme Court found were not unconstitutional. That Bill was put through the House in a disgracefully short time. There is no reason for a similar approach to be taken in respect of the legislation before us. There is also no reason to simply reintroduce the same provisions. We have [25]an opportunity, of which we should avail, to improve on them. The main proposal is that people entering long-stay care should be charged a maximum of 80% of their old age pension. We cannot decide if this is fair and equitable until we know who is entitled to such care.

The proposed arrangements for charging will mean an old person whose only income is a social welfare pension will pay the same as someone who has another source of income or possesses private means. The majority of people who enter public long-stay care only have their basic pension. However, the right to avail of public long-stay care is, in theory at least, available to everyone. There are not nearly enough places to cater for this need. There is no legal provision for a means test to obtain access to such care. The assessment is supposed to be on the basis of need of care. As is usual in the health service, the conditions regarding entitlement are not at all clear and the health boards, even though they are obliged to do so under the Freedom of Information Acts, have failed to publish information about the conditions attached.

Before we can decide what is a fair and equitable regime for charging people for care, we should know who is entitled to avail of that care. The Bill should deal with that entitlement and then proceed to deal with charging. The Government is refusing to deal with the basic entitlement because to do so would mean it would be obliged to acknowledge what we all know, namely, that the only people entitled to public long-stay care are those on very low incomes. Not even all of those to whom I refer are in a position to access this care. The failure to clarify entitlements led to the current difficulties arising. The continuing failure to do so can only lead to further problems in the future.

On the specific issue of how charges are to be assessed, it is not acceptable to grant an older person access to only 20% of their old age pension. An older person in care should be able to buy items such as clothing, a few drinks, cigarettes, sweets or presents for their grandchildren. Is this too much for them to expect? They should be able to access at least 25% of their pensions for this purpose.

There are older people in need of long-term care in public facilities in areas of Dublin who are facing a waiting period of up to 12.5 years. That is a ridiculous situation and it should not be allowed to continue. Many elderly people are being forced to remain at home and rely on family support at a time when community care and home help services are being cut back. In addition, hundreds of acute hospital beds are being occupied by elderly people who do not require that level of care and this means that those who need a hospital bed are forced to wait even longer. This is happening at a time when beds are available in private nursing homes. The Tánaiste has made some progress on this matter. However, the level of that progress has not been sufficient. I accept that older people would prefer [26]to live in their home environments. In circumstances, however, where they must enter care, it is totally unacceptable that they should be obliged to wait up to 12.5 years to do so. The waiting period to which I refer is a fact; not a figment of my imagination.

  12 o’clock

The charging arrangements will not only apply to older people, they will also apply to those with intellectual disabilities in long-stay care and to those with mental illnesses who are voluntary patients in such care. Many of these will be receiving disability allowance which is considerably less than the old age pension. Recipients of disability allowance could be left with about €18 if the maximum charge is applied. This is totally unacceptable. Some disability allowance recipients are only in care for five days a week. How are they expected to survive for the other two days?

The Tánaiste will probably say this is the maximum, but the legislation should ensure that everyone affected can retain at least 25% of his or her payment. The Tánaiste will probably say she intends to do that by regulation, but these guidelines should be included in the primary legislation. We have had enough trouble over regulations in this area in the past. Unless the entitlement to retain a minimum income is in the primary legislation, the people concerned will be dependent on the discretion of the Health Service Executive not to apply the maximum charge. That is totally unacceptable. Certain matters ought not to be subject to the discretion of the Government or its agencies and one of these is the right to a basic level of income. While the exercise of discretion may be appropriate in some cases, the record of the health boards in applying discretionary provisions was abysmal, to say the least. They effectively avoided exercising their statutory discretion in the awarding of medical cards and allowed the Department of Health and Children to decide who should get them. Perhaps the HSE will take a different view, but somehow I doubt it.

There are other problems which this legislation does not address. The practice of taking pension books from long-stay residents should stop immediately. The residents should have control over their money and pay the charges which are levied in the same way as every other service user does. The legislation does not deal with the difficult issues which arise in the case of people who are unable to manage their own money. The arrangements by the Department of Social and Family Affairs for agents to deal with pensions are just not good enough. They do not respect the dignity and autonomy of individual older people and the agents are not subject to any form of supervision as regards how they use that money. This is a major concern.

The Bill proposes some minor changes to entitlements to a medical card — the “real” medical card. The legislation does not address the problems which have been identified in several reports on this matter. It was interesting to hear [27]the Tánaiste in her contribution make reference to the fact that nobody in this House was expounding the right of medical cards for all. She was trying to wash her hands as regards the commitment given by this Fianna Fáil-PD Government prior to the last general election when it promised to extend medical card eligibility to an additional 200,000 on low incomes. The reality is that medical card cover has fallen by 100,000 since the general election.

Mr. Browne:  Unlike the Deputy’s Government.

Mr. S. Ryan:  I am not pulling the figures out of the air. This is according to figures given through parliamentary questions.

Mr. Browne:  It is because so many people are working.

Mr. S. Ryan:  The Minister will say, of course, that people are becoming wealthier and that their incomes are increasing, putting them above the qualification threshold. This is utter balderdash.

Mr. Stanton:  It is balderdash.

Mr. S. Ryan:  Average industrial earnings are up 50% since 1997, while the income threshold for medical cards is up by 27%.

Mr. Browne:  Balderdash.

Mr. S. Ryan:  The medical card qualifying threshold is not even keeping pace with earnings, which is part of the problem. These so-called “yellow packs” or doctor-only cards are a cop-out. They will only entitle people on low incomes to have free access to a general practitioner. They have little to offer the person who will be left with the cost of prescription drugs, a public hospital bed, out-patient services and other charges. The Government has promised 30,000 of these “yellow pack” cards, but not one has materialised so far. The legislation providing for them was only introduced in the Dáil this week.

The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Seán Power, in his introduction said the “yellow pack” card quota would be increased for people who were 25% over the medical card income guideline. For a couple under the age of 66 the medical card income guideline is €222. Another 25% on that does not even reach the minimum wage level and there is no commitment to try to keep that in line with any of the guidelines being referred to, whether it is the increase in health costs, in the average industrial wage or basic social welfare payments. As matters stand, more and more people will be taken out of the medical card system. There is a perception that this is the first step towards doing away with what we would call the free medical card system. In this context, it is interesting to note the drop in medical card cover [28]between 1997 and 2005 in all counties — Dublin, Wicklow, Laois, Longford, Offaly, Westmeath, Clare, Limerick, Tipperary North——

Mr. Browne:  What about Wexford?

Mr. S. Ryan:  ——Cavan, Louth, Meath——

Mr. Browne:  The Deputy is on a tour of the country.

Mr. S. Ryan:  Indeed, the constituents of Meath will be made very well aware of the neglect and broken promises by this Government as regards medical cards. Monaghan, Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo, Carlow, Kilkenny, Waterford, Wexford, Cork, Kerry, Galway, Mayo and Roscommon all have seen a massive reduction in the number of medical card recipients in the period between 1997 and 2005. This is a cop-out and the Minister of State knows it. This legislation does not go far enough. I would like more time to deal with this matter.

Ms Upton:  I thank Deputy Ryan for sharing time.

I want to concentrate on one issue that arises from the consequence of the lack of suitable and affordable care for elderly people, either at home or in nursing homes. The Minister will be aware of the Pollack report on cystic fibrosis, which was published recently. It was quite damning of the services and facilities that are provided for such patients. In particular, I would like to refer to a letter sent to me by a young man named Simon. He is 23 years old and he refers in his letter to Saint Vincent’s hospital:

The ward which has been allocated to us is now being used for older men and women who are awaiting beds in old folks’ homes and hospitals. Because of this, cystic fibrosis patients are suffering as we cannot get beds. At the moment, there are three six bed rooms for women and one six bed and one three bed room for men. Of these 27 beds, the majority are taken up by older men and women who do not suffer with cystic fibrosis, which is a life threatening illness. Some of these older patients can be on this ward for up to one year. Complaints have been made to our specialist team and we are told it is down to bed management and overcrowding at the hospitals, yet no one seems to be doing anything to alleviate this hardship being placed on cystic fibrosis patients. This problem has been going on for years at this hospital.

He goes on to refer to another ward, which he names:

I could not open a window due to the fact that I was put in with five elderly male patients and the heat was suffocating. This does not help me as a sufferer with an illness which is life threatening.

[29]I quoted specifically from this letter because it refers to the fact that acute beds are being allocated, of necessity, to older people who should be in another environment, either at home, in the community or in a suitable nursing home. It is not fair either to those older people, who should be in a different environment. It is certainly not fair to the medical and nursing staff in that ward who are stretched to the absolute limit to deliver a quality service to all of the patients with very different needs. Most definitely, it is wrong that young patients suffering with cystic fibrosis are compromised and are susceptible to cross infections. Their lives are literally being put at risk due in part to being placed in inappropriate wards. This is because beds are taken up by older people who should be in a completely different environment.

In that hospital, a new wing has been built. I do not know the purpose of that new wing but it has been vacant for months and probably longer than that. Why is that part of the hospital unoccupied? If it were made available, there could be some rearrangement, relocation and alternative management that would allow a structure to be put in place to alleviate the situation. Older people could be moved to a different environment and beds freed up for acute patients which are urgently needed. It is not the fault of the elderly patients that they are taking up beds in these acute wards. The facilities available are so inappropriate and so undersubscribed for keeping people in the community and in their own homes that it is impossible for families to manage that. It is impossible for many elderly people to deal with the bureaucracy that surrounds accessing those facilities. While it is good that this issue is raised in the Bill, the Tánaiste should look very carefully at those facilities provided in the community, or the lack of them. There is a lack of home help and a shortage of grants for disabled persons and elderly people to allow them live in comfort in their own homes. This could free up facilities that should be available for acute patients.

Mr. Nolan:  I wish to share time with Deputy Callanan.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation. It is the second time we have seen legislation of this type come before the House in the past few months. It is unfortunate that we now must have a second debate on this issue. The Bill sets down the legal framework for the payment for inpatient stay in publicly funded long-term residential care. Any fair minded person would see nothing wrong with the contribution being made by individuals or their families for the cost of the first class care that older people are getting in our long-stay residential care units. An unfortunate situation has arisen as the Supreme Court has struck down the previous legislation, which means we are debating this Bill for a second time.

[30]Most Deputies who have spoken on this legislation agree with the need for it. Payment towards the cost of shelter and maintenance in long-stay institutions is something on which all parties agree. One aspect of this particular payment has not been highlighted enough. While charges will be made from now on to individuals who are in the position to pay, the State will pick up the vast bulk of the cost for patients who are staying in long-term residential centres. A recent report stated that the State is picking up around 90% of the cost. The Supreme Court has confirmed that it is in order for the Minister to legislate for charging patients.

The second part of this Bill deals with the introduction of medical cards for doctor visits only. This is a commitment which has been given by the Government and which was announced last November. A total of 200,000 individuals will benefit as a result of the introduction of this scheme. Previously I have spoken about income limits for qualification for medical cards. Previous speakers outlined the fact that the number of medical cards issued over the last few years has decreased. This is due to the relative wealth of the population nowadays. Having said that, there are cases of hardship in families where individuals might be marginally over the income limits for a medical card. While the health board has a discretion on individual applications, it would be better if there was a greater increase in the income limits for medical card qualifications. The Minister has stated that the new income limits for the doctor only card will be 25% higher than the qualification limit for existing full medical cards. I know of families who are marginally over the limit and have to pay €40 to €50 to visit the doctor. They also have the cost of medication on top of that. Many of the 200,000 recipients of the new cards may only go to the doctor and may not need medication following the visit. However, there is certainly a case to be made to look again at the income limits.

The Minister hopes that 30,000 additional people will obtain the standard medical card during the current year. Ministers in their statements will have acknowledged that people should not be discouraged from visiting their family doctors on grounds of cost. The introduction of the 200,000 cards will increase the number of people who avail of the opportunity to visit a doctor.

In the context of the inclusion in the Bill of inpatient-stay payments, we should acknowledge the work done by voluntary organisations in caring for the elderly. As the numbers in religious orders fall, we should recognise the role they have played over the years. In their place are a number of new voluntary organisations the members of which are carrying out a great deal of fine work. They are being provided with practical support by the Ministers for Health and Children, Social and Family Affairs and Finance, the last of whom provides much needed funding to the bodies in question.

[31]I was glad to hear the Tánaiste state on the behalf of the Government the intention to make it as easy as possible for people who were overcharged for nursing home care to obtain refunds. I am concerned, however, to ensure that we do not see a repeat of the scenario of Army deafness claims. While individuals claimed and received compensation to which they were entitled for deafness resulting from Army service, much of the funding made available by the State was paid to the legal profession. I would not like to see unscrupulous members of the profession getting their hands on the funding being made available as the acknowledged due of the people affected in this instance.

The Tánaiste has established a body to review the medical card system under a number of headings. The management and control of the GMS register is one of the matters under consideration. We have seen press reports in recent months that individuals who were long since deceased remained on the GMS register. It is a subject which must be examined given the potential savings to the Department. The administrative process and standards are also being considered by the review body. While I can speak only about the former South Eastern Health Board area, it appears that the processing and administration of the medical cards system are efficiently and properly carried out by officials. An area in which there seems to be a problem, however, involves a lack of resources to deal with the backlog of appeals. It is unfortunate that congestion exists which leaves families on the medical card waiting list for months.

I wish the Tánaiste success in processing the legislation through the House. I hope she develops a simple formula which can be applied by individuals who wish to claim repayments as a result of last week’s Supreme Court judgment.

Mr. Callanan:  I support the Bill which provides for the introduction of doctor-only medical cards and the making of small deductions from the old age pensions of people in welfare homes.

I congratulate the Tánaiste on the introduction of doctor-only medical cards for people on incomes above the full medical card thresholds. The cards will facilitate free doctor visits for a significant number of families on low to medium incomes. The families will also be able to obtain free drugs above the €85 per month, or approximately €21 per week, threshold of the drugs refund scheme. Doctor-only medical cards are an aspect of a great scheme which is demonstrative of the way the Government looks after the less well-off who find it difficult to meet the cost of doctor visits.

I welcome the increase in the income thresholds for ordinary medical cards which will extend eligibility to a greater number of people. I ask the Tánaiste to examine the possibility of providing medical cards to all students. As she knows, students do not have much money in their [32]pockets and doctor visits may prove costly for them. The former provision of medical cards to all students was discontinued by a Labour Party Minister.

I compliment the welfare homes in my area of east Galway on the excellent care they provide to patients. The Tánaiste visited St. Brendan’s Home in Loughrea where she saw at first hand the quality of care provided. She witnessed the home’s problematic upstairs accommodation and promised to give a high priority to the provision at the home of the very necessary 60-bed unit to relieve the dangerous conditions for parents who must stay at the building. The 60-bed unit and the community welfare home at Ballinasloe formed part of the national development plan and the plan for the former Western Health Board area. Ballinasloe has been promised a community welfare home for 20 years. Will the Tánaiste approve the projects to proceed? There is strong demand in Tuam for the provision of a community hospital. I recognise that the Tánaiste is considering various ways to provide it as a step-down facility to relieve the great pressure on Galway’s two city hospitals.

A few night’s ago, I attended a meeting of nursing home owners concerned at the level of subvention paid in the HSE’s western area as against the level paid in the east coast area. A subvention of only €228 is paid in the west as opposed to €520 on the east coast. It is unfair as there is little difference between costs in each area. Will the Tánaiste consider the matter as some of the smaller nursing homes in the west find it very difficult to survive? I am strongly of the opinion that home-based subventions should be introduced to give elderly people the choice to remain in their homes for as long as possible. Given the choice, most elderly people would prefer to be cared for at home.

While I accept that changes in income disregards for carer’s allowance have been of great help and I thank the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, for them, many elderly people are not connected to a person eligible for the allowance to care for them. If such elderly persons were provided with home-based subvention, they could pay for the care to allow them to remain at home for as long as possible.

Social services do great work in caring for the elderly which is not properly recognised. In most cases, it is the work of social services which allows elderly people to remain at home through the provision of meals on wheels to remote areas and transport to centres for the elderly at which people can enjoy a hot meal and the company of friends in a social setting. Much of the work is carried out voluntarily. I acknowledge the work that is done for the elderly and call on the Tánaiste to provide as much funding as possible to social services. Last year, the then Minister, Deputy Martin, provided a new minibus for Portumna social services to transport older people from remote areas to centres for the elderly. It was a great addition to system. Under the direc[33]tion of Sr. Alacoque, Ballinasloe social services make a significant contribution in my local area. I acknowledge also the great work being carried out by public health nurses who must provide services of all sorts when they visit patients. They are well able to do their jobs.

I ask the Tánaiste to clarify the position on refunds of charges for nursing home care for pensioners with medical cards who are or were in private nursing homes. Are they entitled to a refund? I take the opportunity to acknowledge the work of the previous Minister, Deputy Martin, for the health service. I voice my support for the Tánaiste in her efforts to provide quality health services for young and old. While it is a difficult task, a good woman, born in Ballinasloe, is well able for the challenge.

Mr. Crowe:  I wish to share time with Deputies Finian McGrath, McHugh and Gormley.

Through this Bill, the Government is acting swiftly to ensure that long-stay patients in residential care who can be charged in the wake of the Supreme Court judgment will now be charged without further delay. The Government states it has lost €2 million per week in payments since the charges were found to be illegal and it has been very quick to clear up this part of the equation, but we are still in the dark regarding many other matters. What about the money lost to people who were wrongly charged? How will they be reimbursed?

My office has been inundated with queries from families with elderly relatives in nursing homes. The common denominators are words such as “hardship”, “difficulty” and “small income”. It might be a small amount but it represents a huge difference in quality of life for people in nursing homes. These families want to know what their position is now and what they must do to receive their entitlements. The helpline established by the Health Service Executive seems constantly engaged. The Government must do much more to inform people and must make hard decisions as soon as possible about how people will be repaid the money that was taken from them illegally.

The Dáil has not been given the information by the Government. The Minister for Health and Children said the Government got legal advice as far back as 1978 stating that the legal basis of the charges was not sound. This is an amazing admission and a damning indictment of successive Governments. The Minister should publish the advice from 1978 given to her predecessors, as well as the 80-page legal opinion sent by the South Eastern Health Board to the Department in 2002. Why did her predecessors, since 1978, including the Minister, Deputy Martin, not act? The Oireachtas and, more importantly, the public and relatives of the elderly have a right to know.

The second part of the Bill implements the Government decision to introduce the GP-only medical card. This was announced in November and, with the Estimates and budget, flagged as [34]one of the great initiatives of the new caring, sharing coalition. I welcome the extension of the entitlement to free GP services to more people. Sinn Féin has called and campaigned for this, a fact about which my constituency colleague, Deputy O’Connor, should have no doubt. However, I question the attempt to present this as a fulfilment of the promise made by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats before the 2002 general election.

It does not fulfil that promise for two reasons. First, these are second-class medical cards which have been described as “yellow pack” and not the real thing and certainly not of the same quality. They only cover GP visits and represent a quarter of the value of the real medical card. Second, the Government is once again playing a numbers game in an effort to con the public. More than 100,000 people have lost their medical card since this coalition first took office in 1997. Almost 65,000 people have lost their medical cards since 2002. If the Government is claiming to stick by its word, the figures do not add up.

More important than figures are the real people who need access to health services. They are all our constituents. Their income is above the very low level of the medical card income guidelines and they cannot afford private health insurance. Many of them may now qualify for the GP-only card, but they must still pay the cost of medicines up to the value of €85 per month after yet another increase imposed by the Government. They must still pay hospital charges.

Yesterday a Deputy pointed out that the number of medical card holders with full entitlements will possibly decrease and will be gradually replaced by those entitled to GP-only cards. This would represent a significant cutting back in public health services, a situation which must be fought tooth and nail.

There is no consistency in the Government’s health policy. A few years ago it granted the medical card to all those over the age of 70 regardless of their circumstances. That is fine because in doing so it recognised the principle of equal access to health services for all. However, this only applied to those over the age of 70. A very wealthy retired person on a large pension is entitled to free medical care, whereas a family with young children, struggling to survive week to week, must be almost destitute before qualifying for free medicine and medical care. It does not make sense.

A 2003 survey showed that 33% of men and 45% of women identified financial problems as the greatest factor preventing them from improving their health. This sums up the inequality at the heart of the health service and this Bill will do nothing to challenge that.

Mr. F. McGrath:  I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this extremely important legislation. It is about the charging of residents of public nursing homes up to 80% of their pensions for long-term care and provides for the introduc[35]tion of doctor-only medical cards for 200,000 on low incomes. This issue was a fiasco from the start, and all major political parties must take responsibility as it happened on their watch. It is a disgrace and now we have rushed legislation to dock 80% of the old age pension. Most people do not mind making a contribution, but 80% is a scandal and a rip-off of the elderly who have served this nation well over the years. It is cheapskate politics and lacks compassion and care for the elderly.

I challenge the role of the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, regarding the issue. He was present at the crucial meeting in December 2003 when the issue of illegal health charges was discussed. He was Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children with responsibility for the elderly at that time. Why did he stay silent? What did he know? What did he do about it? What illegal advice was he given? It happened under his watch as Minister of State. If he has a few minutes, after being down in the Port tunnel, which has caused damage to 185 homes under his new watch, perhaps he will explain why he turned his back on the elderly over the past 12 months.

Let us look at the Minister of State’s record on the elderly while he was in office. During his reign, approximately 440,000, or 11% of the State’s population, were over 65 years of age. Of these, approximately 266,000 were over the age of 70 and one third of these lived on their own. Some 25,000 elderly people were in long-stay beds or nursing homes and a further 13,000 needed high to maximum dependency care and continued to live at home.

It is the wish of the majority of elderly people to receive care at home or in the community, a concept which I support. Many families of the elderly make sacrifices to provide the best possible care. The inadequacy of the nursing home subvention causes great hardship for many families, as do the cuts in home help carried out under the Minister of State’s term in office. The failure to abolish the means test for the carer’s allowance is a further attack on the most vulnerable in our society. Day care centres serving the elderly and disadvantaged communities were grossly under-resourced under the Minister of State’s watch.

The Government must immediately put in place adequate resources and a comprehensive infrastructure for care of the elderly. This is the Minister of State’s record, and he is at it again. This is not a personal attack, it is a political attack. He should get the boot for his record and he should bring the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, with him.

I support Deputy Connolly’s position on a moratorium on the withdrawal of the medical card for existing card holders. We must also look at marginal cases who will get the doctor-only card and clarify the legal position regarding medical card holders in private nursing homes. In terms of money owed, £1 in 1976 is now worth [36]€9.36. That is the reality and the Government must not to be stingy to our elderly. It is pay-back time, and time to give our elderly maximum care and support.

Mr. McHugh:  I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which is relatively small but very relevant following the recent Supreme Court decision. We owe a debt of gratitude to President McAleese for initiating the referral to the Supreme Court of the most recent legislation dealing with nursing home charges. That action undoubtedly saved many people much angst if they felt a compulsion to have the legislation tested in the courts. At least we now know that when this legislation is passed, as I presume it will be, the future basis for nursing home charges will be put on a firm foundation. One of the peculiarities of this House is the irrelevance of the contributions made at times when discussing legislation. This occasion is no exception. The Bill is specific and deals with only two issues: long-term stay charges and doctor-only medical cards. As regards charges, the issue is whether people who can afford to should pay a contribution. If that principle is accepted, and it is one that I support, then we should go ahead and implement it. The blame game for the fiasco that was first discovered 11 Governments ago will have another airing when the Travers report is published. Recriminations should be left to another day because while we squabble here, the taxpayer must foot the bill to the tune of approximately €2.5 million per week.

There has been an attempt to lay the blame for this fiasco at the Tánaiste’s door merely because she is the current Minister for Health and Children. That is disingenuous to say the least; dishonest would be a more accurate description. We should not lose sight of the fact that Deputy Harney was the only Minister who acted when the matter was brought to her attention. This, however, is a discussion for another time, after the publication of the Travers report. So also is the issue of repayments of what we now know were illegal charges.

There is a question concerning those who had to go to private nursing homes because they could not be accommodated in public nursing homes. The position of such people needs to be clarified in the interest of fairness.

The legislation also deals with doctor-only medical cards. While any action that helps people on low incomes deal with their daily bills is welcome, it is regrettable that the cards will not cover the cost of prescriptions. Doctor-only medical cards will certainly not fulfil the commitment made to provide an additional 200,000 medical cards. That commitment related to full medical cards, not half ones.

While attempting to focus my comments specifically on the legislation, I cannot allow the occasion to pass without agreeing with my constituency colleague, Deputy Callanan, about the need for progress to made on the issues of the [37]Loughrea nursing home and promised hospital for Tuam.

Mr. Gormley:  When the previous legislation on this matter was introduced, it ended in a debacle. At the time, we warned the Tánaiste that the legislation was unconstitutional and infringed people’s property rights but she took no heed and ploughed on regardless. The previous legislation simply legalised theft. We were stealing from the most vulnerable in society. Following the recent Supreme Court decision, the Tánaiste sought to spread the blame to others. She talked about maladministration, which not just implicates former Ministers in the 11 previous Governments but also senior civil servants.

I hope the Travers report will focus on the warning given to the Government in 2001, which it failed to heed, and the 80-page legal document submitted by the health board in 2003, which the Government also ignored. We need to know what the former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, knew at the time and what other Ministers knew. It is not simply a case of pointing a finger at the Tánaiste; we are clearly pointing a finger at this Administration.

The previous speaker referred to home-based subvention, which is an important issue because the solution should not be based on nursing homes. We must examine this matter. Constituents have told me that they are prepared to look after their elderly parents who have been in hospital for up to six weeks, taking up valuable beds. We may wonder why we have an accident and emergency crisis but here is a solution. I am glad to see the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O’Malley, nodding in agreement. We need to examine this matter thoroughly and give that subvention to those prepared to avail of it. We would save a great deal of money, free up many beds and have a much better health service if that were done.

I agree with the Government backbencher, Deputy Nolan, who quite rightly said we need to increase the income limits. We all know of many deserving cases. I am glad such people are no longer afraid to visit their doctors but I am sure they are afraid that when the doctor makes a diagnosis, be it an ulcer or other complaint, they will have to fork out a great deal of money. A patient with an ulcer, for example, may have to pay €100 per month for medication. How can someone on a low income afford to pay that? That they must pay out such amounts will cause even more stress, which will exacerbate their illness.

The doctor-only medical card represents a miserly half-measure. It does not fulfil the promise made by the Government at the last general election. Many people will still be afraid to visit their doctors because, depending on the diagnosis, they may have to pay a great deal for prescribed medication.

We are told that to lead a healthy life, one should choose one’s parents carefully and be [38]wealthy. All the indicators show that the less well-off have the worst health problems. The State should examine ways of evening up the situation so that we will have a truly equal society, but it has not happened yet. Under Britain’s much maligned national health service, one can get an appointment with a doctor and obtain medication free of charge but it does not happen here. Such facilities should form a fundamental part of primary health care, yet our primary health care strategy is in tatters.

The publication of the Government document is welcome but its recommendations are not being implemented. The Government document states that over 90% of illnesses can be dealt with at primary care level and I agree with that. The idea of primary care is to examine prevention, thus nipping illnesses in the bud. However, given the introduction of the “yellow pack” medical card, we can see that the Minister does not fully adopt that approach. We need to examine the root causes of illness. We know, for example, that 80% of cancers are environmentally linked. Therefore, prevention comes down to the basic ingredients of our lives, such as clean air and water.

There have been many scares recently concerning radon gas. We need to look at air pollution and what we are putting into our water supply. Do people have a genetic predisposition to some of the ingredients in drinking water and will they affect them adversely? I raised the question of microwave radiation with the Minister of State two days ago on the Adjournment debate. I do not understand the Government’s schizophrenic approach to health care. On the one hand, it states that it wants to invest more money in health care, and is doing so, but on the other hand it is making society more unhealthy by investing more in roads instead of public transport and by locating mobile phone masts close to schools.

Next Sunday, in my own constituency, such a mast will be put in place at Ardee House, Rathmines, which is close to St. Mary’s School. It is the first public building so affected under the new licensing rules. I regret very much that my constituency colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, did not act to prevent this from happening. It is going ahead on Sunday. Meanwhile, the UK’s independent expert group has referred to the precautionary principle and how such masts should not be located close to schools because it would raise radiation levels thus adversely affecting children. How can the Minister of State justify putting a mast of that sort near a school? He will wonder later on why it is that people have cancer. I just do not understand the logic.

In his reply, the Minister of State suggested that normal planning regulations will apply. We know the 2001 planning and development regulations exempt such developments from the normal planning process. Therefore, neither the public nor the city council have an input. There are no rules so we do not have a proper examin[39]ation of the pros and cons of this development. That is most regrettable. The reply that is trotted out all the time is that this is normal planning, but it is not normal planning. This matter, which I have raised a number of times today, is causing me much grief. It should have gone through normal planning. I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O’Malley, who is a member of the Progressive Democrats and whose colleague is putting through this measure, to please ensure the installation of the phone mast on Ardee House in Rathmines is reconsidered.

Mr. Ring:  I wish to share time with Deputy Crawford.

Acting Chairman (Mr. Ardagh):  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Ring:  I agree with what Deputy Gormley said about cancer. The recent food scare will be the next big issue to hit the country. I did not realise people put colouring into food. I always knew people put colouring into their hair but thanks be to God I never did that myself to the bit I have. With respect, that is not relevant to the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O’Malley.

Mr. T. O’Malley:  Deputy Ring is fairly sharp.

Mr. Ring:  On a more serious note, this matter will become a big issue. It is already a big issue in Great Britain and it will also develop here. I have been saying for years that the additives being put into food are poisoning us. It is unnatural to see how long bread, milk and other foodstuffs last. It is not right. It is no wonder so many people are sick and dying from cancer.

In terms of the Bill, I wish to speak about medical cards and nursing homes. I will not repeat what I already said in the House in regard to nursing homes. What happened was a disgrace and should not have happened. I was junior spokesman on health in 2001 with Deputy Gay Mitchell when the Ombudsman clarified the rules and regulations on nursing home care. I raised the matter on many occasions. According to the Ombudsman, people were entitled to a State bed as long as they were aged over 70 and had a medical card. I used his ruling on every occasion when constituents came to me seeking a full-time bed in a nursing home in County Mayo. When doctors or health boards tried to put people out of hospitals I told them they had no right and I would take legal action against them if they did so. They never once removed anyone from a hospital because they knew the law and that they would not win in court. They knew they were obliged to find a bed for such people. That is a fact and it is on the record of the joint committee.

We had a great health board system but the only people it was good for were the people who worked for it. Another scandal is coming down the line in regard to people on pensions. The [40]Minister of State may not be able to reply on the matter today but I intend to raise on the Adjournment shortly the new ruling by officials in the ambulance service. A woman from Ballycroy recently came to my clinic. She is over 70 years of age and is in very bad health. She needed a hospital appointment in Galway. She lives on about €165 a week. She could not get the health board to provide a service to bring her from Ballycroy to Galway, a 150 mile round trip. She could not afford a taxi and there was no family to help out. That is an abuse of the elderly. If the State wants her to stay in her own home to save it money, it should provide the few necessary services she needs, including home help and transport for her hospital appointments.

Why does the State have to make a big thing about nothing? I often wonder from where the people who make these decisions come. Perhaps they come from Russia in the bad old days. They have no conscience or understanding of the lives of elderly people. The Department should investigate why elderly people in Mayo whom I represent cannot be brought to badly needed hospital appointments. These people are prepared to stay in their own homes.

Reference has been made to home care and home help. Another issue, which I intend to raise first in a private capacity, is in respect of a family where an 18 year old is left looking after four children. I thought the State was there to provide services. I do not understand how the State or social workers could allow a young girl of 18 years of age to look after four children following the recent sudden death of her mother. I am investigating the case and intend to bring it to the attention of the health board and the media. It is not right and should not happen. The family gets one hour of home help every day. We would be better off providing home help and back-up for the family instead of having a social worker making a report once a week and then going home, which does not deal with the problems.

The courts recently made a decision that a young man would be sentenced to 18 months imprisonment. That person was advised by a professional that the best thing he could do at 16 years of age would be to pack his bags and go to England. It is sad if that is the kind of society in which we live. We have gone down the American road which is not a very good road to go down.

I intend asking the party spokesman to table two amendments in regard to medical cards. Health board chief executives always had discretion on this matter, and to be fair they used their discretion well. They must be allowed to have discretion to award a full medical card. If somebody has a medical card on medical grounds they should not be told from April on that they are not entitled to a full medical card, that they will be entitled to a GP-only medical card.

Yesterday, the Minister of State referred to the fact that local HSE areas will have an appeal mechanism. In my local health board area we had an independent appeal mechanism up to about [41]two years ago. A barrister was employed by the health board as an independent assessor. I had many a row with him but in all fairness to him, 50% of appeals were successful. When he went into private practice and up to the Four Courts his replacement was a health board official who had worked with every single one of the community welfare officers. It would be impossible for such a person to make an independent judgment against his colleagues. I appeal to the Minister to change that aspect of the Bill. An independent person should fill that role, not somebody who worked for the health board for 25 years. Such a person would ring his or her colleagues to ask about the case and then say it is fine. I do not exaggerate when I say that 80% of appeals were unsuccessful as opposed to 50% when an independent appeals officer was in place.

I will ask the Fine Gael spokesman to table two amendments and ensure they are discussed and accepted. It makes sense that there would be an independent appeals officer and that people awarded medical cards on medical grounds or due to other circumstances would not just get the yellow pack type of medical card, but a full medical card. I ask the officials to take note of this to ensure it is brought to the attention of the Minister. It would be wrong if that happened.

The Minister referred to expanding the guidelines for medical cards. As they stand, the guidelines are ridiculous. A single person living alone in receipt of €153 does not qualify for a medical card according to the guidelines dated 1 January 2005. The threshold for a married couple is €222. If the couple have two dependent children under 16 years of age they get an allowance of €31 each for them. A family living on €280 or €290 is not entitled to a medical card. Even if one adds
25%, it is still not enough.

I welcome any expansion of the entitlement criteria for medical cards, even GP-only medical cards. I have met parents who cannot bring their children to the doctor because it costs them €50. A consequent visit to the chemist could cost them €75. If there is a number of children in a house, nine times out of ten, sickness such as flu or another virus will spread to them all. I have seen many parents without medical cards who could not bring their children to the doctor because they could not afford to do so. Every person in this House knows the guidelines are wrong. The people who adjudicated on the guidelines for the past 20 years were the chief executives of health boards. How would they know, no more than some politicians, because they do not understand how this affects people? They were on big salaries and did not understand how the system worked.

  1 o’clock

I can table a parliamentary question to get information but I am sure the officials will have it. If one looks back over the past ten years at how the guidelines on income were increased, one will see that they did not even keep pace with inflation, which was low in recent years. It was wrong but it happened. They targeted the most vulnerable [42]in society and took away their medical cards. This time next year when we return to the House, we will find that fewer people have medical cards than at present. With the minimum wage continually increasing, more people will fall outside the guidelines.

It is important to ensure community welfare officers or superintendents have the right of appeal and the right to grant full medical cards. I appeal to the Tánaiste and her Department to examine the proposal for an independent person to hear appeals rather than someone who worked for a health board for 20 years.

Mr. Crawford:  I thank Deputy Ring for sharing time. Like other Deputies, I question why no explanatory memorandum was included with this important Bill. The previous Bill was rushed through the House without proper consultation and we are all aware of what happened. I pay tribute to the President because she saw sense in the issues we raised. I was one of those who raised questions about the Bill’s legality at the time and we were proved correct, for which I am thankful. I also thank my colleague, Deputy Perry, and our party leader, Deputy Kenny, for raising the issue of the illegal charging of nursing home residents.

The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Tim O’Malley, who is in the House, along with his colleagues, Deputy Callely and the former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, were all present at the meeting in 2003 when this issue was discussed and yet nothing was done about it. This issue is extremely serious and it seems to have been ignored. If it had not been for the tenacity of our party leader, Deputy Kenny, in continuing to raise the matter in this House on a weekly basis, I am not sure it would have ever seen the light of day.

The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Seán Power, stated yesterday that this Bill is intended to establish a sound legal basis for the policy to charge residents a contribution towards their shelter and maintenance in long-term institutions. That may be possible. I hope for everyone’s sake that the legal position is correct. However, I am worried about the lack of information available regarding how the means test will be applied to those requiring subvention in private nursing homes because of the shortage of places in State run nursing homes.

For example, at the time of the last election, 254 people in Cavan-Monaghan were in receipt of subvention but when the election was over, an effort was made to reduce this number to 150 or 170. Eventually, we achieved agreement on 214 and, thankfully, we have now achieved a level of 234 people in receipt of subvention. The trauma which many families have to endure in order to get this subvention is unreal. On Tuesday I sat with an aged man who is in respite care in St. Mary’s nursing home but is being turfed out [43]because there is no room for him. Although he owns his own house, he has had great difficulty finding ways and means of support. This man had paid his way all his life and this is a traumatic situation for a man without a single family member closer than second or third cousin, with whom to discuss the issue. We must have a more caring and realistic approach.

The trauma endured by a patient from Monaghan in a west of Ireland nursing home in order to receive subvention was nothing ordinary. Furthermore, the subvention was not even paid from the time of the patient’s arrival. The personnel in charge of the nursing home stated they had never come across the like of it before. There is a major difference in how the elderly are treated in different areas and I hope that under the new health structure this issue will be sorted out once and for all. Every patient, no matter where he or she lives, should have similar access to accommodation and receive similar treatment.

Before the laws changed in Northern Ireland in the early 1990s, many people from Cavan and Monaghan were sent across the Border because they could receive full care there for free. Moreover, the health boards encouraged this practice. This leaves the constituency with a seemingly low base from which to judge the situation. However, we must remember that the former North Eastern Health Board area has experienced the single biggest increase in population anywhere in the nation and the numbers of people over 85 years are also increasing. Therefore, we have a bigger problem than anywhere else, which cannot be ignored.

I am dealing with the case of an elderly man who received legal advice from a solicitor that he should retain 20 acres of his small farm holding. However, the man’s son needs every inch of the farm in order to make a living without having to pay his father. This is accepted and acknowledged but the father is in a nursing home and the family must pay €350 per week along with the man’s pension in order to keep him there. The family has only in recent weeks received a small subvention but the situation is crazy because the man’s wife is still alive. Does she have no rights? It is impossible to understand.

In another case, a mother in a nursing home had owned her own house and when she married her husband bought all the land around it. Their son is now the only person living in the house and he farms the land. The house is being used as collateral as far as the health board is concerned. This must be examined. I am pleased with the Tánaiste’s comment this morning that the repayments of money to those who are entitled to it will be simplified and dealt with without legal complications. It is a serious problem because it will be a complicated process but I accept the Tánaiste’s commitment and hope it works.

This Bill provides that 80% of patient’s pensions must be paid for maintenance and so on, which will leave €30 or €35 depending on the pen[44]sion. However, there must be some flexibility in this regard. I would not like to see the situation in which a relatively fit person who enjoys taking a drink or a cigarette or having his or her hair done would be tied to such an amount. If the person wants to buy birthday presents for grandchildren, €35 will not go very far. I want to see that situation made reasonable and respectable.

More than 100,000 medical cards have been removed from the system because of the failure to increase the limit for the means test. This issue has already been addressed by many Deputies on both sides of the House. However, I have a major question to ask about how eligibility is evaluated in different areas. From January 1997 to September 2004, County Cavan lost 3,630 out of 22,000 medical cards, County Monaghan lost 6,000 out of 22,000 and the four former North Eastern Health Board counties together lost 28,000 out of 113,000 medical cards. However, in County Cork, the home of the former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, out of 139,000 cards available in January 1997, only 8,097 were removed by September 2004. One must ask how this came about and why there was such a difference. This difference is more than 20,000 when one takes everything into account. There is talk about 300,000 new medical cards being issued, but we have already lost 100,000. Where are we going? Reference has also been made to 200,000 new doctor-only cards. My colleague, Deputy Twomey, proposed such cards as a means of dealing with the problem. As a member of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, I had the privilege of touring a number of hospitals in Wick in the north of Scotland, Wales and other places. It was clear that where proper, free primary care was available it removed enormous pressure from the accident and emergency services. That area of services must be improved dramatically but the Minister’s proposal does not go far enough.

The Tánaiste said that the traditional medical card would continue to be held by 85% of medical card holders. Does that mean that some of the 200,000 doctor-only cards will replace the medical cards or will there be 200,000 doctor-only cards as well as 30,000 extra medical cards? That must be clarified. The 200,000 doctor-only cards, the 30,000 extra medical cards and the existing 100,000 medical cards must remain in place to ensure people have proper access to primary care. It will remove many of them from the accident and emergency departments and alleviate much of the pressure.

I am grateful that Monaghan General Hospital is back on call for medical purposes. However, the Minister should ensure that something is done about the surgical service.

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. T. O’Malley):  I thank Deputies for their contributions to this debate. The Government brought forward this Bill to establish a sound legal basis for the policy of requiring some contri[45]bution towards shelter and maintenance of people with full eligibility in long-term stay institutions. The Supreme Court has confirmed that it is constitutionally sound for the Oireachtas to legislate for this policy. The issue is being put beyond legal doubt after nearly 29 years.

The other matter addressed in the Bill, the introduction of a doctor visit medical card, is a major step forward in ensuring that people on low incomes have access to general practitioner services and advice. The Health Service Executive, as the body established to administer the health services on a national basis, will be in a position to commence the introduction of these cards as soon as the Bill has been enacted.

It is a long-standing feature of our system, and one which has been policy under Governments of all the major parties over the past 30 years, that most people in publicly funded long-term care should make some contribution to the cost of this care. Quality care is expensive and, even with a contribution from those receiving this care, the bulk of the cost of providing a high standard of quality care must be borne by the Exchequer. The charges to be imposed on those in public nursing homes under the provisions of this Bill represent approximately 10% of the overall cost of care.

The income foregone by the Health Service Executive for as long as these charges cannot be raised is estimated in the region of €2 million per week. A statutory framework that puts the long-standing policy on a sound legal footing and safeguards the income generated from this source is vital. The provisions of the Health (Amendment) Bill 2005 will secure this source of income, which has been an essential element of the funding of our health services in the past and must remain so in the future.

The introduction of a doctor visit medical card is the most efficient way to help a significant additional number of people to access primary care. It is in line with the commitment contained in the health strategy to ensure that the allocation of medical cards is on the basis of prioritising groups most in need of those services and is intended to benefit approximately 200,000 people.

I will take this opportunity to respond to some of the points made by speakers during the debate. With regard to the provision in the Bill referring to 80% of the maximum old age non-contributory pension, it must be remembered that this is the maximum weekly charge that can be levied. If this is taken together with the provision in the Bill to allow the Health Service Executive to reduce or waive the charge imposed on a person to avoid undue financial hardship, 80% of the maximum non-contributory old age pension is a reasonable upper limit to set for the charge.

A number of Deputies expressed concern that the percentage of the population covered by a medical card has declined over recent years. However, they neglected to mention that this is attributable in large measure to the economic success we have enjoyed, which has reduced many people’s need for State support to meet health care and other living costs.

[46]Furthermore, the Government’s objective is to ensure that people most in need can have a medical card rather than simply to achieve coverage of a certain percentage of the population or to issue a specific number of medical cards. It is to give effect to this targeted approach, and many Deputies in the past have sought such a targeted approach, that, at the request of the Tánaiste, changes to the income guidelines have recently been introduced by the Health Service Executive and are intended to ensure that an additional 30,000 medical cards can be issued in the current year. This is in addition to the doctor visit cards which will be introduced subsequent to the passage of this Bill.

There is no question of the Government seeking over time to reduce the number of standard medical cards in favour of issuing increased numbers of doctor visit cards. Several Deputies were worried about this. This initiative is intended to complement the existing medical card arrangements which have been in force for many years.

The Department of Health and Children has recently written to the interim chief officer of the Health Service Executive to indicate formally that the Government’s objective in bringing forward this initiative was to enable approximately 200,000 medical cards to be issued in respect of general practitioner services and that the Tánaiste wishes to have the necessary administrative arrangements in place to enable the new cards to be issued from April. Deputy Twomey and other speakers welcomed the introduction of the doctor visit cards. It has also been welcomed by many groups in the community. It is recognised that for many people, particularly mothers of small children, visits to the doctor were a problem. This applied to people whose incomes are just above the medical card threshold. They were afraid to visit the doctor because of the cost involved. That will no longer arise because with the doctor visit cards they will be able to visit the doctor free of charge.

The Health Service Executive has been requested to have the necessary preparatory steps taken and operational guidelines developed such as will enable applications for doctor visit medical cards to be accepted as soon as possible after the enactment of the relevant legislation and the cards subsequently issued to persons who meet the relevant criteria. With the establishment of the Health Service Executive, the administrative arrangements for this card will be operated on a standardised basis throughout the country.

While the Health Service Executive intends initially to set the income threshold for the doctor visit cards at 25% higher than applies for the standard medical card, this threshold will, if necessary, be reviewed in light of experience to ensure the desired number of cards are issued to those intended to benefit under the scheme. Therefore, if there are not sufficient applications for the cards, the thresholds will be raised until the level of 200,000 cards is reached.

[47]The Bill will bring clarity to the issue of charges for long-stay care where it is clear there has not been a sound basis for the practice going back nearly 30 years. The legislation will also ensure the income flow from charges imposed to date is secured and that it will continue to support the provision of quality services for those in long-term care. I am pleased to note that none of the major parties has registered any difficulty with the principle involved here. The introduction of a doctor visit medical card is a supplementary initiative which will enable 200,000 people from lower income households to attend a doctor free of charge. This will help to overcome barriers to assessing GP services for many individuals and families who are above the standard medical card income guidelines.

Many Opposition Members referred to the imminent Travers report. I do not wish to comment on the report because it will not be released for a few days and I have not seen it. Obviously, there will be further debate in the House on the report. As one of the Ministers who attended a certain meeting, I presumed legal advice would be obtained and this is what I told anyone who asked me about the matter.

Mr. Neville:  Did the Minister of State inform the senior Minister of what happened?

Acting Chairman:  Deputy, this is not a question and answer session.

Mr. T. O’Malley:  As I stated, there will be a debate in the House.

[48]Mr. Neville:  It is a simple question. Did the Minister of State inform the senior Minister of what happened when the Minister of State was outside the door?

Mr. T. O’Malley:  I am not aware who was inside or outside the door.

Mr. Neville:  The Minister of State, Deputy Tim O’Malley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, as the Tánaiste stated-——

Mr. T. O’Malley:  The Deputy may not have heard what I said. I am sure there will be a debate on the Travers report in this House.

Mr. Neville:  The Minister of State should answer “yes” or “no”.

Mr. T. O’Malley:  I was never asked to inform anybody.

Mr. Neville:  Surely, with such an important——

Mr. T. O’Malley:  The Deputy asked me a question. Will he wait for the reply? If he read the minutes of the meeting, he would know that the recommendation of the meeting was that legal advice would be sought in regard to the question. It was my presumption that this would be done. That is all I wish to state on the matter.

Mr. Neville:  The Minister of State did not inform the Minister.

Question put.

[47]The Dáil divided: Tá, 67; Níl, 35.

 Ahern, Noel.  Ardagh, Seán.
 Blaney, Niall.  Brady, Martin.
 Breen, James.  Brennan, Seamus.
 Browne, John.  Callanan, Joe.
 Carey, Pat.  Carty, John.
 Collins, Michael.  Connolly, Paudge.
 Coughlan, Mary.  Cowen, Brian.
 Cregan, John.  Cullen, Martin.
 Curran, John.  de Valera, Síle.
 Dempsey, Tony.  Dennehy, John.
 Devins, Jimmy.  Finneran, Michael.
 Fitzpatrick, Dermot.  Fleming, Seán.
 Gallagher, Pat The Cope.  Glennon, Jim.
 Grealish, Noel.  Hanafin, Mary.
 Harney, Mary.  Haughey, Seán.
 Hoctor, Máire.  Jacob, Joe.
 Kelleher, Billy.  Kelly, Peter.
 Kirk, Seamus.  Kitt, Tom.
 Lenihan, Brian.  McDowell, Michael.
 McEllistrim, Thomas.  McGuinness, John.
 McHugh, Paddy.  Martin, Micheál.
 Moloney, John.  Moynihan, Michael.
 Mulcahy, Michael.  Nolan, M. J.
 Ó Cuív, Éamon.  O’Connor, Charlie.
 O’Donnell, Liz.  O’Donoghue, John.
 O’Flynn, Noel.  O’Keeffe, Batt.
 O’Keeffe, Ned.  O’Malley, Fiona.
 O’Malley, Tim.  Parlon, Tom.
 Power, Seán.  Roche, Dick.
 Sexton, Mae.  Smith, Brendan.
 [49]Smith, Michael.  Treacy, Noel.
 Wallace, Dan.  Walsh, Joe.
 Wilkinson, Ollie.  Woods, Michael.
 Wright, G. V.  


[49]Níl
 Boyle, Dan.  Breen, Pat.
 Broughan, Thomas P.  Burton, Joan.
 Coveney, Simon.  Crawford, Seymour.
 Cuffe, Ciarán.  Deasy, John.
 Gogarty, Paul.  Gormley, John.
 Gregory, Tony.  Harkin, Marian.
 Healy, Seamus.  Higgins, Joe.
 Howlin, Brendan.  Lynch, Kathleen.
 McCormack, Padraic.  McGrath, Finian.
 McGrath, Paul.  McManus, Liz.
 Mitchell, Gay.  Mitchell, Olivia.
 Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.  Murphy, Gerard.
 Neville, Dan.  O’Shea, Brian.
 O’Sullivan, Jan.  Pattison, Seamus.
 Rabbitte, Pat.  Ring, Michael.
 Ryan, Eamon.  Ryan, Seán.
 Sargent, Trevor.  Shortall, Róisín.
 Upton, Mary.  

[49]Tellers: Tá, Deputies Kitt and Kelleher; Níl, Deputies Neville and Boyle.

[49]Question declared carried.

Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen):  As I have only three minutes left to contribute to this debate, I will not have an opportunity to read the remainder of the speech I commenced on 14 October last, a copy of which I have again circulated to Deputies. The remainder of my speech deals largely with a summary of sections 10 to 35 of the Bill. I see the establishment of the Driver Testing and Standards Authority as a crucial step in improving the delivery of the driver testing service in the face of a continuing and unprecedented high level of demand for the service.

The authority will be established outside normal Civil Service structures and should be in a position to deliver a more focused and flexible service that will be able to respond more readily to customer needs and future demand. In the light of the authority’s particular duty to raise driving standards, I envisage such a body having the necessary flexibility to take an innovative approach to driving standards that will have long-term benefits for road safety in future. Such benefits will not be as immediate as those resulting from the targeting of the offences of speeding, seat belt wearing and drink driving but it is important that we foster the development of driving standards to underpin the overall strategy for road safety.

[50]The establishment of a separate public sector body to deliver the driver testing service and take responsibility for other functions relating to the testing and control of drivers, driving instructors and vehicles that would be more appropriate to an executive agency than to a Department is also an opportunity for other functions relating to road safety in general to be assigned to the authority. Those that may be assigned to it will ensure that the authority will play an important part in improving road safety in general. In this context I am considering what additional functions might be assigned to the authority in the long term to enable it to fulfil its role more effectively. As part of this process, I propose to bring forward appropriate amendments on Committee Stage.

The process of recruiting a chief executive officer for the DTSA is at an advanced stage and I expect the post to be filled at an early date. It will be based in Ballina and will be at a level equivalent to the assistant secretary grade in the Civil Service. I commend the Bill to the House.

Ms O. Mitchell:  I welcome the opportunity to respond to the Minister’s contribution. Before I took up this brief, the significant waiting lists for driver testing defied explanation. I still wonder in this economy of limitless resources and capabilities and technological prowess why the Government cannot organise something as fundamental and simple as a driving test. I acknowledge the problem did not arise during the tenure of this Government. I vaguely recall an amnesty introduced by a former colleague of mine 30 years ago. However, this problem was foreseeable and there has been no excuse in recent years for the waiting lists given that it was [51]recognised that the problem would get worse. Our GDP has increased and car sales since the mid-1990s have increased. Our demographics should have acted as an early warning system to highlight the demand for driving tests and to acknowledge that waiting lists would expand unless something was done to ease the problem.

One can hold a driving licence at 17 years. The State, therefore, has 17 years notice that people will require driving licences. The demographics should give the Government the opportunity to organise this simple process, given that it does not involve rocket science. Resources have never been a problem. While driver testing is not entirely self-financing, a few adjustments could make it self-financing. It is difficult to work out what has been the problem.

I welcome the introduction of the legislation because that, in itself, acknowledges there is a problem but, unfortunately, it does not contain proposals to resolve it. Responsibility will be given to a new body to address the issues but that is as far as it goes. The legislation implicitly acknowledges that what went before failed and that a single focused agency whose primary function is to deliver a driver testing system and issue certificates of competency could potentially do a better job.

I am a little sceptical because this will be the third home of the driver testing system in as many years. It languished for years in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government before being hived off to the Department of Transport where it was expected to get more attention. The system has only been under the Department’s aegis for two years but it is being reborn under a new arm’s length agency. I cannot help feeling that, similar to the health service, new structures are assumed to equate with reform.

I broadly subscribe to the Bill’s objectives, which are to deliver a driver testing system and to promote and develop an improvement in driving standards, which is urgently required. Nobody will deny driving standards in Ireland are absolutely woeful. However, I am perplexed and sceptical because the legislation does not outline how an improvement will be made. The new body’s brief is vague and open-ended and I do not know how it will do better than what went before. How will waiting times and the numbers of untested drivers be reduced?

Approximately, 117,000 applicants are waiting for a driving test while 367,000 people are driving with a provisional licence. How will that be addressed so that these drivers can take a test and be issued with a certificate of competency? It is an absolute outrage that 367,000, a significant proportion of the population, are driving without a qualification, some illegally.

The Minister stated there was no evidence to suggest drivers who had failed the test were less competent than fully licensed drivers. Perhaps he is correct because such evidence is not even col[52]lected. We do not know when road accidents and fatalities occur whether the victims were driving with provisional licences or had done the test and failed it. Such information is not available. However, this gives the completely wrong signal about road safety and it undermines everybody’s respect for the law.

Every day in the House we pass legislation designed to further control, limit and manipulate behaviour and we intrude into ever more obscure areas of human activity through various fines, rules, regulations and penalties to regulate behaviour. However, while regulation of driving behaviour is the norm worldwide, the Government has made it impossible for people to comply with the law. When they do a test and fail, they may continue to drive indefinitely. That sends the wrong signal to the population.

How will the legislation change this? Will a change in structure be confused with a change in the system? Structural change was undertaken by health boards and local authorities, but it is never a solution on its own and it hides the lack of solutions. For instance, the establishment of a traffic corps was announced with great fanfare prior to Christmas. The people in the corps are doing the same work they always did and nothing has changed. No budget, strategy or plan has been put in place.

This is a large Bill, given that its aspirations are extremely modest, as it comprises 37 sections. It provides for all eventualities. The new authority can be given a wide range of additional functions by the Minister. It is enabled by powers conferred on it to engage in a wide range of activities in pursuit of its specific and general objectives, according to the explanatory memorandum. The authority’s remit is potentially so wide and vague that nobody involved in the drafting of the legislation had the slightest idea how it will undertake its duties and effect an improvement. The authority is an all-singing, all-dancing body empowered to do virtually everything. It can buy and hive off resources, borrow, outsource and set up subsidiaries. While these powers are worthy, they reflect a lack of understanding of what the authority should do. The range of possible solutions often masks the absence of a solution.

The appalling waiting lists, which have been in existence for years, are a national joke. The authority’s first task should be to address the backlog of applicants for driving tests and then introduce a system to prevent the recurrence of backlogs. Perhaps it is a simplistic approach but that can only happen if more testers are appointed. Will more testers be recruited? How will their appointments be funded, given that no allocation was provided for the authority in the budget? How will the individuals be trained and tested? What qualifications will they require?

One of the new authority’s tasks is to agree service agreements and standards of performance with the Minister. What benchmark will be used? According to the Minister’s reply to a recent parliamentary question, the number of driver [53]testers has remained the same since 2001, at approximately 120. However, the number on contract has increased. Is it significant in light of the Minister’s intentions for the new authority that testing itself should be outsourced? It is hard to see how they might do a worse job than currently. I would like to know about that. I have raised concerns about the privatisation of aspects of the justice area. When something is connected with enforcing the law, one needs specific safeguards before one allows it to be privatised. It is among the matters to which I seek responses before this Bill is passed into law. Those are the kinds of fundamental questions that we need answered.

It is simply not acceptable to force onto long and expensive waiting lists people who want to sit a test. I saw a figure that the profits of insurance companies were up by approximately €4 million to €5 million annually as a result of charging people who had not got a full driving licence because they awaited a test. No one expects people to be able to ring up and get a test tomorrow, but there must be a reasonable timeframe and a guarantee that, once one has applied for a test, one will be given one within a given period, be it a week, ten days or even a month. In some cases it is over a year and it has been even longer. That is unacceptable.

Quite apart from people waiting, what I also find unacceptable and a glaring omission is the absence of a penalty for failing one’s test. If the purpose of testing is to establish that a person is a competent driver and someone persistently fails, it is a reasonable conclusion that he or she is not competent. After all, the certificate one receives when one fails says that one is not competent and has not passed. If one passes, one receives a competency test certificate, and if one fails, an incompetency certificate. Despite this, we let those who have failed their test straight out onto the roads again with no penalty. We let them in charge of a potentially lethal weapon.

Why are they allowed out again? Why are there no consequences other than perhaps slightly higher insurance premia? Even those are reduced over the years if one does not have an accident. There is no incentive even to try to pass the test. I realise it is not like that for the majority of people who want to pass their tests quickly and get on with their lives. However, some people do not give a hoot, and why should they? That must change. At the very least, there should be an obligation to take lessons from validly qualified and recognised instructors. That is another story that needs to be regulated and examined, and I will return to it.

The number of tests that people may sit should be regulated. I am not saying that people should not be allowed sit their driving test three times, but to go on doing so and make a lifetime’s work of it is utterly ridiculous. They should be limited in where and how they can drive. They should not be allowed on motorways or to drive faster than 30 mph. After a certain number of failures, there is no doubt that the fee should be increased. [54]Why should we continue to allow such people create backlogs and clog up the list? There must be some cut-off point. That may seem harsh, and I accept that, but this is about road safety and they are putting other people’s lives at risk. There are others to consider. If one has consistently proven oneself to be incompetent, it is reasonable to say at some point that enough is enough and that one may not drive on the road.

I know a small group of people exists who cannot sit tests because they apparently get very nervous about sitting exams and so on. Perhaps an alternative test might be devised for them. I am sure it is not beyond human ingenuity to devise such a test for someone who genuinely says that he or she gets very nervous. I am sure that such cases are particularly obvious to testers. However, that does not detract from the principle that there must be a penalty. If one fails consistently, one should eventually be put off the road. Otherwise, the purpose of the test is negated and it makes no sense to have one.

I also heard the Minister say that the backlog of driving tests was partly due to people not bothering to turn up. That is related. Why would one bother turning up? Why would one bother cancelling? There is no real incentive or penalty. What is another year on the driving testing list and the provisional licence? If the State does not respect the requirement that one have a driving licence, why should the public? The unacceptable consequence of this rule is that, to add to the problem, a person must resit the test each year after the first two-year provisional licence. The perpetual failures constantly add to the numbers who fail each year. I understand that, incredibly, there are 1,300 each week, accounting for almost 50% of all tests. I do not know if many of them are repeat tests since that figure is not available. However, if there is a failure rate of almost
47%, something is seriously wrong with the test.

As I say, I do not know how many are habitual failures adding to the backlog, but large numbers are added to it each week. They will stay in the system as long as they are allowed and there are no consequences for them, although there should be. The system must be graduated since one should not bring down the guillotine straight away. However, they must know that, ultimately, if they do not perform, they will be put off the road.

It is self-evident that we must have more testers. Equally important is the quality of the training and education of people on the road. We have introduced the theory test, and my Fine Gael colleague, Deputy Naughten, has developed a policy programme on how better training and testing might be introduced, something I recommend to the Minister since a great deal of sound work has gone into that. I do not want to go into the details of it now, but if 50% of applicants fail, either the test or the preparation for it is wrong. Probably it is a combination of the two.

The test itself must be updated and modernised to be more applicable to contemporary driving [55]conditions. In many cases, conditions on the road — certainly, since I did my own test — have changed. There are now road conditions and markings that simply did not exist then. We now have motorways, and I am not even sure that we had roundabouts when I sat my test. I believe that there was one dual carriageway in the country. Those are all new conditions that are not part of the training or testing.

Mr. Cullen:  As a matter of interest, the Deputy is right about the high failure rate, but it is in line with the average in every other country. The problem is not a uniquely Irish phenomenon, although I am not excusing it.

Ms O. Mitchell:  Perhaps what is unique is the fact that we let them back on the list.

Ms Shortall:  And on the road.

Ms O. Mitchell:  That is what I mean. There are no consequences. That is the real objection. I do not object to their sitting the test, rather that, by virtue of the certificate we give them, they represent a danger to everyone else.

Experiences such as night-time journeys, emergency braking and so on are not part of the test, yet they are part of everyday driving and should inform both training and testing. The preparation for the test is a vast, uncharted landscape. I know we have all had communications from instructors. However, the truth is that anyone can set up as an instructor at the moment. Bizarrely, one need not even have a full driving licence to set oneself up as a driving instructor. It is mad that someone with a provisional driving licence, who may have failed the test several times, can do that.

At the behest of the Department some years ago, a voluntary register of driving instructors was set up by the industry which required a minimum level and standard of performance. The industry has itself gone to considerable trouble and expense to clean up its act. Will the Minister ensure that the authority capitalises on what work has been done by the existing instructors who set up that register in addition to the extra standards that the authority may require to be observed by driving instructors? Obviously, it is not comprehensive but it is a beginning and we must recognise the efforts of those driving instructors who take an interest in the industry and are in it for the long haul rather than the fly-by-night operators.

  2 o’clock

I want to refer to the danger of motorcycles, about which I feel strongly. Every mother feels strongly about the number of deaths from motorcycle accidents, and I am sure we all think, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”. The number of deaths from motorcycle accidents is unacceptable. The road safety strategy up to 2004 promised to introduce mandatory training for motorcyclists prior to their being allowed on the road, but that did [56]not happen. I understand it is in the new strategy, but mandatory training is still not in place. I stress the importance of that training. I have no doubt that the number of deaths from motorcycle accidents is largely due to poor training or, in many cases, no training, which is in turn compounded by poor testing. The problem of poor training and poor testing must be tackled.

Many motorcyclists are young drivers. They regard a motorcycle as a cheap alternative to a car. Young people are attracted to speed and the ease of transport a motorcycle appears to offer. That is the reason the testing and training must be rigorous. This problem must be tackled. It will require additional resources. The testing alone — I am sure the Minister is familiar with the problem — involves a different set of skills from those needed for car driving and testing, but there is nothing in the budget to indicate that something will be done immediately in this area. There is no escaping the urgency of this matter and the unacceptable number of deaths.

Every weekend we hear of another young lad killed in a motorcycle accident. The figures up to last weekend indicate that 69 people were killed on our roads this year, 32 of whom were car drivers and ten motorcyclists. In two months, ten motorcyclists were killed. This appears to be an uninsurable activity, which is unfortunate because the many enthusiasts involved in motorcycling are extremely good drivers who do special training, abroad in many cases. This activity attracts people who have an interest in the sport and who are very skilful drivers, but they are being penalised because there is not a proper system in place to ensure the necessary skills are made available to young people and that they are tested thoroughly. We must stop reckless young men driving on our roads who are a danger to themselves and others because of a failure to inculcate in them the seriousness of what they are doing when they take a motorcycle on to the road.

I would like to think this measure will make a difference to road safety but the proposal is so vague and open to interpretation and so market-oriented that it is impossible for me to predict how this authority will operate or what it will try to achieve. I support market freedom in all circumstances but when it comes to road safety and enforcing the licensing system, an area inextricably linked with the justice system, it is not an area for unbridled commercialism of the kind that appears to be permitted in the Bill.

It would be wrong if the testing system structures were to be administered or arranged in such a way as to be influenced by revenue raising circumstances. We discussed this issue previously in the context of speed cameras but for the system to have credibility and the confidence of the public, it must be transparent and have nothing to do with potential profit for an outside body. That is very important. I do not know if that is what is envisaged but it is permitted under the Bill. Revenue raising considerations should not supersede the purpose of the legislation.

[57]Whether the legislation will work remains to be seen but what is certain is that another quango is being set up, apparently at arm’s length from the Minister and, therefore, from the Dáil. This body will not be answerable to the Dáil through the Minister. Questions are tabled to the Minister every day about the driver testing system and he answers those questions. Will the Minister answer such questions in future or will we be told they are matters for the new body which will contact us in the fullness of time? That would not be acceptable. The fact that so many questions are tabled is a reflection of the inadequacy of the system but at least the Minister of the day is accountable for this body and must explain why the system does not work and respond to all queries. That accountability cannot be taken away. Too much accountability to this House has been given away. I support this legislation but I ask the Minister to give a guarantee that he will remain accountable to the Dáil for the activities of this new body.

Ms Shortall:  I welcome the Bill. It arises as a result of a review carried out by the Comptroller and Auditor General of the mess that has become the driver testing system. The review recommended that the area of driver testing should be established under a public sector agency. That makes some sense but I share the concerns of Deputy Olivia Mitchell that this initiative may be used by the Minister as an attempt to hive off his responsibility in terms of setting policy in the driver testing and licensing area and accounting to the Dáil for what is happening in that area. I hope that under the terms of this legislation the new agency will be accountable to the Minister and that the Minister, in turn, will be accountable to the Dáil for the performance of that agency. If that is not provided for clearly in the legislation, we will seek to amend it to provide for that because it is a critical aspect of the road safety plan and it is not acceptable for the Minister to attempt to off-load his responsibility to a separate agency. We have seen that happen in regard to many aspects of public life where different agencies and quangos were set up and the Minister concerned could keep them at arm’s length and not be accountable to the Dáil for performance in that area.

This initiative is long overdue and has been promised for many years. In 2002, the Taoiseach was asked about it on the Order of Business and he promised that the legislation would be available in mid-2003. It was not until July 2004 that the Bill was published and now, in March 2005, we are debating Second Stage. It is clear there has been considerable slippage in terms of undertakings given in the area of driver testing. That is as a result of a lack of priority given to this area by the Minister and his predecessor.

The issue of driver testing and licensing is fundamentally about road safety. When we consider what has happened in regard to road safety in recent years, following the initial positive effects [58]of the penalty points system, we see now that road deaths and serious accidents are again increasing significantly. That indicates a failure on the part of the Government to give adequate attention to the issue of road safety.

The road safety strategy was published in late 2004, over a year late. It replaces the 1998-2002 strategy but throughout 2003 and for most of 2004, a current road safety strategy was not in place. It appears the previous Minister, Deputy Brennan, was too busy meddling in semi-State companies and issuing meaningless press statements to give attention to this area, and we have had to deal with the consequences of that neglect. The number of deaths and serious injuries caused on our roads continues to rise and no serious initiative has been taken in the past two years to tackle that problem.

Unfortunately and inexplicably, the review of the road strategy 1998-2002 did not consider the impact of inexperienced and unlicensed drivers on road accident figures. That is extraordinary and I wonder if it was because it might have been too embarrassing for the Minister or his predecessor to tackle this problem. No serious work appears to have been done in preparation for the current road safety strategy, particularly in terms of reviewing its predecessor.

As regards speeding, the review of the previous road safety strategy shows that an initial target was set in terms of reducing the incidence of excessive speeding by 50%. That seems a reasonable target. It is regrettable, however, that during the course of the strategy, it was refined and became an objective merely to reduce the number of vehicles exceeding the 60 mph speed limit on single carriageway roads from 51% to 40%. In my view it was pathetic to aim to have a situation where only 40% of drivers were exceeding the limit to which I refer. It was, however, indicative of the extent to which people completely disregard road safety legislation and speed limits. It also provided evidence of the scale of the turnaround that needs to be achieved in terms of road safety. In that context, it is unacceptable and unforgivable that the Minister and his predecessor have paid so little attention to the area of road safety.

The fact that the Second Stage debate on this legislation commenced last October and that we are only returning to it today is again indicative of the lack of priority the Minister is giving to this area. In October, the Minister suggested, incredibly, that there is no correlation between unlicensed drivers and road accidents. One wonders on what planet he lives. I accept that data relating to this matter do not exist. Questions must be asked as to why this is the case and why this area has not been examined. The Minister’s statement that there is no correlation because there are no data is meaningless. It stands to reason that if there are large numbers of inexperienced and unlicensed people driving on our roads, they will contribute to the accident rate. Any attempt by the Minister to negate that corre[59]lation is disingenuous. There is no basis, other than the fact that these specific data are not collected by any agency, for the Minister to make such a contention. Inexperienced drivers, particularly those who have failed their driving tests, represent a hazard on the road and are much more likely than others to be involved in accidents.

I discovered some interesting data which appears to deny the contention the Minister made in October. The National Safety Council produced data in 2003 which seem to indicate that there is a relationship between unlicensed or provisionally licensed drivers and road accident rates. The council found that 66% of accidents involving fatal and serious injury are due to driver action. It also discovered that speed is the single largest cause of such accidents. The NSC considered this matter in greater detail and it emerged that 78% of speed related accidents are caused by people under the age of 34. It is, therefore, perfectly reasonable and logical to draw the conclusion that a significant number of those driving on provisional licences — these people are, by their nature, young and inexperienced — fall into the category of people who cause serious accidents which result in death or serious injury. If the Minister is determined to deal with the area of road safety, he must ensure that data relating to serious accidents and the driving status of the people who cause them should be collected either by the Garda or the National Safety Council. Action in that regard should be taken immediately.

The existing driver testing system can only be described as a shambles. There are 380,000 drivers on provisional licences. Of these, 178,000 are on their first licence, 107,000 are on their second licence and 95,000 are on their third or subsequent licence. It is clear, therefore, that more than half these people — 202,000 — can legally drive alone. I do not know how the Minister can justify this. I am not aware of any other country where a person can obtain a provisional licence when they turn 17, never drive a car and subsequently obtain a second provisional licence and legally drive alone. We have set a dangerous precedent in terms of people who have had two provisional licences and who fail their driving tests because these individuals can legally drive alone for a further two years. That is an intolerable situation and there is no way the Minister can stand over it, particularly if he has any interest in the area of road safety.

This situation has developed because of a complete lack of responsibility on the part of the Minister and his predecessors to tackle seriously the areas of driving, driver safety and driver testing. The system has been brought into serious disrepute. Many young drivers no longer even bother to obtain provisional licences and a large number of other individuals drive on such licences indefinitely. A car is the equivalent of a lethal weapon. For that reason, it is incumbent on [60]the Minister of Transport to ensure that respect for good driving is cultivated among young people. Little has been done in this regard in recent years.

The failure of the Minister and, in particular, his predecessor, Deputy Brennan, to address the area of driver testing and put in place a system that works has led to widespread disregard for good driving standards and the consequent unacceptable levels of death and serious injury on our roads. The obvious dangers associated with allowing unqualified drivers to drive alone was recognised by the Minister’s predecessor, Deputy Brennan, in late 2003 when he announced his intention to end the practice of those on provisional licences being allowed to drive unaccompanied.

In December 2003, Deputy Brennan said:

I have made it quite clear that this practice of driving unaccompanied has to finish. The legislation is being finalised and very soon it will be compulsory to pass a test in order to drive on our roads.

Applications for driving tests had increased dramatically during 2003, following a number of statements by the Minister off the top of his head about his intentions to sort out the mess. These statements, like so many others from the former Minister for Transport, came to absolutely nothing. As the Minister responsible he said:

The waiting lists have been swelling up big time. The average wait is now 42 weeks and a year ago it was only half that.

The same Minister did not appear to realise that he had any role or responsibility in creating that mess. He went on to say that despite the problems the backlog in applications had caused, he was glad to have “flushed out” the thousands of people who had no intention of ever taking a driving test.

He created chaos and there was a mad rush by people to do their driving test. Unfortunately, the same Minister who had responsibility for dealing with this area, did nothing whatsoever in terms of putting in place a modern system that could deal with the demand that exists for driving tests. That report, following the Minister’s comments, went on to say: “A driver testing agency, run as a semi-State agency, would be established in March, Mr. Brennan said, to run the system with a more professional commercial approach.” He was so interested and hung-up on making every aspect of transport commercial that he did not do any groundwork in terms of setting up the agency.

I have some sympathy with the current Minister because he has inherited a mess as regards driver testing as well as so many other aspects of transport policy because of the complete and utter negligence of his predecessor in office, Deputy Brennan. It was all about spin and hype and daily press statements that caused chaos. There was little or no follow-up. He was saying that the legislation would be in place by March [61]2004, and 12 months later we are only on Second Stage of that debate.

I requested figures recently from the Minister’s Department. They show that there is only one driving tester for every 1,000 applicants waiting to sit the driving test. The data shows there are currently almost 120,000 people on waiting lists, but there are only 116 testers available at the various test centres around the country. That is completely inadequate. More interestingly, in spite of all the comments made by the current Minister and his predecessor, and the spiralling numbers of road deaths, a year ago there were 130 examiners at the 48 test centres around the country compared to 116 today. Incredibly, as the waiting lists expand the number of personnel available to deal with them decreases. I ask the Minister, again, to explain how that could be possible. Is it not indicative of serious negligence on the part of both the Minister and his predecessor, Deputy Brennan, that this has been allowed to get to crisis point along with the fact that the number of personnel required to deal with the problem has been decreasing over the past year? Furthermore, the average waiting time for a driving test at many test centres is extremely long. In Thurles, for example, the average waiting time is 43 weeks and in Nenagh and Carlow, 42 weeks. The national average is over 30 weeks.

It seems the Minister and his predecessor have reiterated time and again their desire to see the number of provisional licence holders on our roads reduced dramatically. However, the personnel have not been put in place to deal with this backlog. It would seem that in spite of the road fatalities and serious injuries arising, and despite the many press statements and promises, nothing whatsoever has been done to sort out the chaos in the driver testing system.

I am sure the Minister, like other Deputies, has had a good deal of correspondence from driving instructors who are quite concerned about the implications for them of this legislation. It is important for the Minister to clarify that. I welcome the fact that there is a move to sort out the system as regards instructors. As Deputy Olivia Mitchell said, it is intolerable that anybody may set up a driving school, regardless of whether he or she is a licensed driver. That area needs to be sorted out urgently. From the viewpoint of people learning to drive and consumer rights, clear safeguards should be in place to ensure adequate quality standards and to guarantee that if someone signs up with the local driving school, it is a reputable operation. The person giving the instruction must be fully licensed, initially as a driver, and also qualified to be an instructor. Currently, no such system is in place and I urge the Minister to urgently introduce a licensing system in this regard.

The Minister also needs to clarify the position of people already in the industry who have taken steps to reach a quality standard, which is relatively high at present, because they are quite concerned. Another predecessor of the Minister, [62]Deputy Bobby Molloy, indicated earlier to them that they would be included in the system if they signed up to the voluntary register. They find themselves in a limbo at the moment and do not know where they stand. It is important the Minister recognises the standards they meet at present and clarifies the position as regards future eligibility or qualifying criteria.

I am concerned with a number of other areas with regard to how the existing test system operates and the perception among the public that it is a mess. Why, for example, is there such variation in pass rates in the different test centres? We talked about the average pass rate and I accept the Minister’s word that this is around the European average. However, there is quite a variation between the test centres, from a high pass rate of 66.4% in Shannon to a low of 47.3%. Again, the Minister needs to find out why that is the case. Is it a case of different standards being applied within driving schools or in the catchment areas for those centres? Why is there such a wide variation? It is unacceptable for people who come along for tests in good faith, if their chances of passing depend on the actual test centre they go to. This needs to be clarified and sorted out.

Another area of urgent concern is the rules of the road. Two years ago, in March 2003, the Minister’s predecessor, Deputy Brennan, was asked a question about the rules of the road handbook and when it would be updated.

Mr. Cullen:  There are even older handbooks around, going back to the time of previous Ministers for Transport.

Ms Shortall:  That handbook is now so old that the Minister on the cover is Deputy Howlin. It is a 1995 publication.

Mr. Cullen:  I found that out. I agree with the Deputy.

Ms Shortall:  The Minister, Deputy Brennan, was asked when the book would be updated. He said he was very conscious of the fact that it needed to be updated, he had set up a review group and he expected that the consultative process he had established would report shortly and that the new handbook would be produced. That was two years ago and is another indication of complete disregard for this whole area. I have a copy of the Rules of the Road booklet that is on sale today from the Government Publications Office and available in all book shops. It is ten years old. It makes no reference at all to the considerable amount of road safety legislation which has been passed by this House in the meantime. Neither does it make any reference to metric speed limits.

Mr. Cullen:  I have asked them to produce a new one.

Ms Shortall:  That is not good enough. The Minister’s predecessor said, two years ago, that [63]he was dealing with this as a matter of urgency and now Deputy Cullen is saying he has asked them to produce an updated one.

Mr. Cullen:  I have only just become aware of it.

Ms Shortall:  It is not good enough. The only available handbook on the rules of the road for learner drivers is ten years old, which is not acceptable. If the Minister had any interest at all in road safety, he would have dealt with this as a matter of urgency. It is not acceptable to have ten year old booklets available.

In most cases, less than two weeks' notice is given to a candidate for a driving test. There are cases where people are on holidays or where they find it difficult to get time off work or other responsibilities. Some indication should be given to people so that they can have an idea of when the test is to take place. The people who have access to the website can find that, which is fair enough. However, not everybody is in that situation. I have come across people who have only had about one week’s notice. That causes much difficulty so I ask the Minister to look at it.

Another area deals with the extension of the test to cover certain minor mechanical aspects of the operation of a car. In September 2003, the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, spoke about these mechanical tests and stated that the radical new regulations were being introduced within weeks to bring Ireland into line with European requirements. The current Minister made a lot of this in his speech as it was embarrassing when the EU decided to take action against Ireland for its failure to comply. He made a lot of it in his speech, but he played it down. Yet in September 2003, his predecessor stated that it was an urgent matter and would have to be done in a matter of weeks. Like so many aspects of the work that the former Minister supposedly carried out in the Department, nothing further was heard of it.

Mr. Cullen:  It is in now. The Deputy should know that.

Ms Shortall:  I know it is in now, but it is in very belatedly.

Mr. Cullen:  I can only do what I can do.

Ms Shortall:  He only did so after the EU drew his attention to it and threatened to take action against him. It is inexplicable that the Minister has dropped the requirement for people undergoing a test to have a valid tax disc. There is no sense in that at all. We are trying to get compliance on licences, tax and insurance. This is one area where learner drivers could undergo some screening process as they must have an up-to-date tax disc. I cannot understand why the Minister has removed that requirement and it should be reinstated.

Another area deals with gender balance among testers. I am sure that due to equality legislation, [64]those posts are available to females as well as males. I have not yet heard of anyone that has been tested by a female driving tester. I would like the Minister to provide the House with the figures on that when he is summing up. He should take positive steps to ensure that we have got to a stage where there was an equality of male and female testers within the services. That is important.

Mr. Cullen:  There is a general shortage of testers.

Ms Shortall:  Many women undergoing the test would prefer to be tested by a female. We should have the same balance among the testers as there is among those sitting the test.

The Minister intends to bring the operation of the NCT under this new agency. I welcome that because there is much concern among the public about the standards of the NCT. There is also a lack of accountability because it is privately operated. Some newspaper investigations have uncovered practices that are not acceptable. I am glad that the new agency will take responsibility for that. I hope that there will be greater responsibility and clarity on the pass rates and the various hurdles through which people have to go to get their car passed.

It is all very well to set up a new agency and I welcome that. Unless the Minister provides the resources necessary for that agency to increase significantly the number of driving testers and to put in place acceptable standards for driving licensing, no improvement will be made. The Minister’s predecessor made a complete dog’s dinner of driver testing. It is far worse than it was when he came to office.

The figures for serious accidents on our roads are worse than they were two years ago. It is not rocket science to draw a relationship between those two facts. The Minister must ensure that this new agency is in a position to put in place a modern driver testing system that is adequately resourced and staffed. This must be done to meet the great demand that is out there, which will continue over the next few years. We need forward planning from someone who can secure the resources from the Minister for Finance to ensure that we have a modern driving tester system. The current situation is inexcusable and it is highly irresponsible of the Minister and his predecessor to have allowed this situation to develop. The Minister must show his mettle to get the resources for the new agency. Unless they are provided, we will be back to square one and there will be no improvement in the existing system.

Mr. J. Breen:  My first comment on the Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill 2004 is about the ridiculous backlog of people waiting to sit their test. Current pass rates at national level are approximately 55%. Not only does almost every second person fail, but candidates have to wait six months for the privilege of doing so. [65]Waiting times for driving tests are up to 42 weeks. A temporary visitor to Ireland may legally drive here providing he or she holds a valid licence or an international driving permit, issued in his or her country of residence. That period is for six months for those residing here or 12 months for visitors. If someone happens to be one of the unlucky candidates who cannot simply exchange his or her licence, that person must join the lengthy queues in Ireland and pass a driving test before an Irish licence can be granted.

The only positive aspect to the Irish system is that before undergoing this test, a provisional licence may be obtained from the appropriate regional licensing authority.

Let us hope that the new driver testing and standards authority will accelerate delivery of an enhanced and customer focused driver testing service to the public. It should bring a new focus and a wider flexibility to driver testing with the initial emphasis on reducing the waiting time for driving tests.

I call on the Minister to provide for the recruitment of additional testers and to give testing priority to individuals who can produce documentary evidence of their urgent need to have a driving licence for health or work reasons. The high volume of applications is unacceptable and more has to be done to reduce waiting lists. With the new standards authority in place, I hope that we can look forward to more people attending a driving test appointment and that people will comply with the requirements, considering that the majority are legal requirements. If we do not place strong emphasis on these requirements, some people may feel that they can continue to drive with a provisional licence. That is a key priority to road safety and should reduce the long-term reliance on provisional licences. The authority must cut the waiting time for driving tests and lay down strict targets in areas such as the length of waiting times, the number of tests carried out annually and the improvement of both driving testers and instructors.

Why is there a waiting time of 12 months for a driving test? Why are 300,000 people in Ireland still on a provisional licence? We cannot expect to feel safe on our roads with such a high number operating on provisional licences. We think we live in a modern society, yet we are failing to make any real impact in reforming one of Ireland’s most important systems, to move with the times and get rid of provisional licences that are a problem and a hindrance to motorists.

The standards authority should have a standardised system for all instructors and testers to avoid the embarrassing variations in driving test pass rates among different counties throughout Ireland. The Minister must immediately provide for more testers and instructors with a standardised qualification. This must be done to avoid the inevitability of people speeding, driving through stop signs and yield signs and improperly overtaking. We continue to point the finger at alcohol for most accidents on our roads, but [66]surely driving errors are also a contributory factor. Given a penalty points system which is clearly falling into disrepute and failing to deliver positive results as people continue to die on the roads, it is time the standards authority delivered on its promise to implement the real changes we deserve.

Ireland’s dysfunctional driver licensing system has made the roads more dangerous as people who fail their tests continue to drive unsupervised on provisional licences. The practice dates back to a slower paced rural Ireland in which cars were luxuries and roads were quiet. In today’s urbanised and traffic-clogged country, provisional drivers compete for space with qualified drivers while State-run licensing centres are unable to keep up with demand. Will the Minister reduce waiting lists immediately by providing extra instructors and testers? He must ensure that private driving instructors and testers comply with a standardised education system in addressing the problem.

If the Minister were a resident of Carrigaholt with a provisional licence who had to travel to work in Galway or Ennis, he would find it very difficult to have a qualified driver with him at all times. It is a 70 mile round trip to Ennis which places an unfair burden on people in the area who must wait months on end for a test. They are well qualified to drive but cannot get the piece of paper which allows them to do so alone. Will the Minister consider the backward areas of the west whose people cannot afford to wait and wait for driving tests? Some people are losing employment as a result of their lack of a full licence.

Mr. Eamon Ryan:  The Minister for Finance came to the Chamber and then slipped out again. I presume he was under the impression that his questions were coming up. Can I assume there is no obstacle to continuing through our slot?

An Ceann Comhairle:  Questions are not scheduled until 3.30 p.m.

Mr. Eamon Ryan:  I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and to make a number of points. There is a need to question the process involved in the delivery of services by the State which involves the separation of functions among the Civil Service and publicly owned agencies. We must ask whether the process necessarily guarantees improved service delivery. The main objective of the Bill appears to be a mere restructuring of the process rather than the introduction of innovative new approaches to driver training, safety and instruction.

It has been fortuitous for the Government that the strategic thinking which directed the State over the last 50 years has brought great benefits and economic success. While the thinking which began with T.K. Whitaker and our investment in education have helped to bring us significant success, the current Government in particular has failed to deliver services locally. The Civil Service has been unable to deliver services effectively for [67]which incredible failure at a time of economic plenty the Government receives and deserves a great deal of appropriate criticism. Driver testing is a prime example of the anarchical circumstances which have developed. There are extremely long waiting times for tests as a result of our inability to organise our simple affairs.

I acknowledge a certain justification for the maintenance of the central Civil Service Departments as the strategic planning element of State services coupled with what might be termed “delivery agencies”. I am seriously concerned, however, that there is a risk Parkinson’s law will apply whereby the creation of agencies leads simply to the creation of extensive bureaucracies which are expensive to run and duplicate services and resources. Such agencies are not necessarily more efficient or better at providing services than existing systems.

A board is to be established through the legislation before the House. As a Deputy who has considered the operations of various boards, I identify the creation of boards as the area in which we have been least effective. Politically appointed boards in Aer Lingus, An Post and a range of other State agencies with which I am familiar have failed to recognise and anticipate problems. The board of An Post failed to involve itself in any real strategic thinking within the company. When I see the establishment of a plethora of further boards, I must ask whether they constitute an extension of the Fianna Fáil machine and apparatus. For what gain will the 11 members of the board of the proposed driver-testing authority be provided with compensation for expenses and whatever other financial provision is made?

The Minister said the strategic planning function will remain within the Department, which I agree is appropriate. If the civil servant at assistant secretary level appointed to run the proposed agency must report to the Minister every year, what will the board do? If the Department can provide strategic planning, what will be the function of the board? What does the Minister believe the 11 members of the board will provide that cannot be provided from within the Department or which will not represent a duplication of Civil Service expertise? The initial sections of the Bill provide for the elaborate establishment of boards which I fear will constitute simply another jobs-for-the-boys arrangement within the Fianna Fáil Administration.

I could not agree more with Deputy Shortall’s analysis that we face a crisis of delivery which was created or at least exacerbated by the previous Minister. The wording the current Minister used to describe the way circumstances arose was quite sweet. He indicated that the waiting list problem emerged in 2003 as a result of concerns about stiffer regulations due to reports in the media as if those reports emerged out of thin air. He implied that the media made a sudden decision that there would be stiffer regulation which had [68]nothing to do with the previous Minister who was well known to air his thoughts on Sundays on the national airwaves if he felt for whatever reason that it was too quiet in RTE or the constituency of Dublin South. Deputy Shortall was correct to identify the mess we are trying to sort out as a politically created one.

In sorting out the mess, I urge the Minister to go a great deal further than he proposes. I noted in his contribution that he intends to introduce on Committee Stage wider provisions on the remit of the authority in the area of road safety. I encourage him to do so. It is difficult on Second Stage to debate a Bill when we do not know what further provisions will be included. I encourage the Minister to add a number of further provisions as I wish the Bill had been more radical in the first place.

Systems are in place in other countries which we should examine. Rather than provide for a simple system in which an L plate leads to a full licence, we should consider introducing a system in which one must sit a test before receiving a licence which allows one to drive. The initial test should entitle one to an L plate licence and, after due instruction and testing, one should obtain a provisional or P licence which would apply for two years. In such a system, specific rules would apply to a provisionally licensed driver during the first two years on the road. Many accidents involve people who have recently passed their tests and driven away from the testing centre like Michael Schumacher under the impression that they were kings of the road.

Under an alternative system, a person driving away from the test centre would do so with a P plate on his or her car to indicate that he or she is only newly tested and approved as a driver. If speeding or other penalty-point offences were committed in the first two years of driving, especially stringent punishments would be applied. After two years as a provisional driver, a person would be entitled to a full licence. To introduce such a system would have been to make a radical and appropriate change. I regret very much that the opportunity provided by the Bill was not used to review innovatively the driver-testing system.

If we are to establish a bureaucracy with a board of directors which incurs expenses driving to Ballina, we should provide it with a slightly wider remit. The Minister referred to safety and penalty points issues, but the authority could also be involved in the introduction of electronic tolling which requires a national approach. Given the amount of toll roads being introduced around the country, they should be free flow and variable in order to manage traffic demand in addition to raising revenue, the function for which the Minister has designed them. There should be a transponder in every car so that it can be operated electronically wherever one goes. This will help stop ridiculous delays at toll booths and the costs involved in their construction. The authority could also examine electronic tolling on the West [69]Link and other roads. Otherwise, what will the board do?

I wish to address the important and frustrating issue of democratic accountability specifically to the Ceann Comhairle, with whom I am in more regular correspondence than with the Minister. No matter how many appropriate questions I ask regarding road or rail policy I never hear back from the Minister. I hear instead from the Ceann Comhairle telling me it is not a matter for the Minister but the NRA. This has been the most frustrating experience in my time as a Member of the House. It does not strengthen or prove the quality of our democracy, rather it is one of its biggest threats. We are increasingly restricted. Members on both sides of the House have a valuable and useful role in overseeing and checking the effectiveness of our expenditure and delivery. The inability of this House to question organisations such as the NRA, as well as this new institution given the similar manner in which it has been established, is a profound reversal of our democratic institutions. Will the Minister consider this and respond to the question on Second Stage?

I look forward to Committee Stage when we will perhaps look to expand, improve and add to the provisions of this Bill, which currently represent a very limited and poor response to the chaos left behind by the previous Minister.

Mr. Crowe:  We must welcome any measure which helps to standardise and bring driving tests under one uniform regulatory body. It is also welcome if it helps address some of the more common complaints relating to the test. The Irish driving test is internationally regarded as one of the most difficult, as proven by the large number of people, currently 54%, who fail on their first attempt. The issue of differences between various centres could also be examined. It might be anecdotal evidence but people who sit the test always talk in terms of which days are worse. Is it down to the quality of the test and the people sitting it? There is a belief that testers must fail a certain amount of people per week.

It is good that drivers must prove themselves competent before receiving a full licence. Statistics relating to road deaths prove that too many accidents and deaths are caused by fault on the part of one or more drivers. However, most of these are probably unrelated to the standards required to pass the test, especially when people are driving at high speed or have consumed too much alcohol. The solution to this lies mainly outside the scope of the test.

Many complaints regarding the test concern what people believe to be technical demands which drivers are unlikely to meet in real life. Perhaps, as part of this review of how the system works, we could take another look at the content of the test to ensure it relates more closely to the basic necessities of driving. If somebody is competent in those skills it is unfair that they should fail because they are unable to execute a more [70]difficult manoeuvre to the satisfaction of the tester.

Other Deputies referred to the NCT. One need only go to an NCT centre to see people who are worried sick in case their car does not pass. People do not talk to each other and there is not a happy atmosphere. The driving test can be very nerve racking. Deputy Shortall mentioned the issue of gender, and it can be more worrying for a woman to get into a car with a strange man. There is also the issue of the driver asking the tester to clarify something and the tester being reluctant to answer because he or she is not supposed to get involved in a discussion. The atmosphere surrounding the test is an issue which could be considered.

There is a regular complaint regarding the long period of time it takes to get a test. The current average waiting time is eight months, and in some cases much longer. It depends on the area in which one lives. I have heard of some people who were given an initial indication that their test would be in three months, only to be later informed they would have to wait a further three or four months. There are big differences in the time one must wait depending on the part of the country in which one lives. This relates to the number of testers available. According to the Department’s statistics supplied in a recent reply to a parliamentary question, there are currently 114 testers compared to 97 at the beginning of 2000. Some areas with high demand have not experienced an increase which is reflected in longer waiting times. This is a particular problem in the south west where Limerick and Killarney have one less tester and Tralee still has two. Perhaps the authority or Minister could examine this when looking at resources.

What powers will the authority have with regard to those engaged in commercial teaching of drivers to prepare them for the test? Will it devise a standard teaching system which requires that driving instructors are subject to an acceptable standard? The issue of standardisation for driving teachers has been raised and there is a need for clarity. The authority could also examine the conditions under which some instructors are employed. While some of this is more properly a matter for the Department responsible for working conditions, safety issues are involved. A driving instructor in my area told me he was working up to 11 hours per day. That would not be acceptable for any driver in a commercial concern, and it is doubly unacceptable when a person instructing another is suffering from the effects of long hours. They are out on a public highway and will not be able to competently show anybody the rules of the road. They are possibly half asleep. It is not acceptable and there is a need for regulation.

The changes to the test in line with EU regulation, as recently announced by the Minister, appear straightforward and require a minimum basic understanding on the part of the driver regarding how to check oil levels, the working of [71]indicators and so on. The more familiar a person is with his or her vehicle the more competent he or she will be and it will contribute to safety.

The introduction of speed limits in kilometres rather than miles has caused some controversy. It is similar to the introduction of the euro when people experienced something of a culture shock. However, the adjustment to kilometres will be a central part of both driving lessons and tests.

With regard to the Bill, perhaps the Minister could clarify a number of issues regarding the appointment of the board and the chief executive of the authority. Section 12(iv) cites the criteria for membership which includes a broad and comprehensive range of experience in areas related to all aspects for which the authority is responsible. However, it does not make clear the procedure with which the Minister will select members. I listened to Deputy Eamon Ryan’s points regarding the boards. When we have a problem we set up a board or an agency to sort it out. Will the positions be advertised so as to allow open competition and public scrutiny? How will the board be appointed?

  3 o’clock

Clarification is required with regard to the issue of driving instructors. We need more testers, and figures suggest that numbers have not significantly increased in recent years. There is a crisis and the waiting list, which was at 230,000, is increasing. In particular, it is affecting young people who are awaiting driving tests. Many young people who do not have access to public transport face crazy car insurance costs. The only way to shorten the waiting time for driving tests is to hire additional testers.

A previous speaker referred to people who drive to the testing centre, fail their test and then drive away. It is a crazy system which makes nonsense of the law and represents one of the low points of the testing system since people can drive away with a failure notice.

The quality standards are currently unacceptable and must be improved. I welcome the proposed establishment of the driver testing and standards authority but its narrow remit will have to be widened. The number of learner drivers on the roads is unacceptable but we cannot reduce the numbers until we have more testers.

Mr. Dennehy:  I am grateful for the opportunity to comment on the Bill. I have listened to the last four speakers with interest. Like Deputy Crowe, I am concerned that the 54% of drivers who fail their tests are allowed to drive away. However, if the Minister introduced a regulation forcing such people to leave their cars at the testing centre and take a taxi home, would Sinn Féin support that change? The problem needs to be examined but such a measure would require widespread support.

Everything that has been attempted to deal with this problem has attracted sneering and sniggering. In such cases, people are happy to have a [72]go at the Minister but not in a helpful fashion. Deputy Crowe mentioned the issue of people awaiting their NCT test and suffering a culture shock when their vehicles fail. I assure the House, however, that it is a far bigger shock when a car hits your vehicle on the road at 70 mph. I had that experience as a back-seat passenger. The accident put me and my two colleagues off the road for five or six months. It is a far greater shock than that suffered by people who are waiting for their NCT tests.

If I drive to Cork this evening after dark I will meet at least ten cars on the road with only one headlight working, despite the fact that there are fewer old cars on the road. The idea of the NCT test was to remove dangerous vehicles from the roads. People may argue that the NCT test is depriving them of their vehicles, but that is the difficulty — the béal bocht excuse is used against every change that is introduced. The sneering and sniggering that has gone on concerning the driving test and the NCT test is unhelpful.

Deputy Shortall and other Opposition speakers said the Minister was wrong and there was almost an element of gloating in their comments. The bottom line, however, is that we are losing 400 people a year in road accidents and the Minister is trying to do something about it. Every time the Government tries to do something there is opposition to it. Everyone in opposition has a view as to what should be done but when the Government tries to do something it is opposed. Deputies should be helpful and supportive instead.

The common thread in the last four contributions to this debate was that everyone bar the driver is at fault. According to previous contributors, the national testing authority, the testers, the Minister, his predecessor and everybody else was at fault except the drivers who are causing the accidents.

In the past, I heard the same arguments used against safety helmets and reinforced boots in dangerous situations. Every possible reason was used as to why people could not wear such safety gear. Approximately eight or nine years ago, I participated in a seat belt initiative with the local Garda chief superintendent in Cork. At first, I did not believe the Garda statistics that 54% of people did not wear seat belts. I felt that the figures could not be correct. I was fascinated later, however, at the number of friends and colleagues who told me why they could not wear seat belts. The answer is the same in both cases: if one cannot carry out the required safety procedures, one should not be able to drive or work in an unsafe environment. Let us get real about this. Testers are not causing road crashes and neither is the Minister for Transport. I am sure that his driver keeps within the speed limit most of the time.

Those of us who have been involved in road accidents or near accidents know what it is like. I recall seeing another driver approaching me at approximately 70 mph on the wrong side of a nar[73]row country road in County Waterford. It was a harrowing experience.

Two days ago, I was driving towards a bend in County Laois when an articulated truck came towards me on the wrong side of the road. The driver was on a bend and had to cross a continuous white line to pass another articulated truck. It was on top of a hill near a bend where there were signs warning drivers not to overtake. If Laois County Council had not put hard shoulders on that road during the past 18 months, I could have been killed on Tuesday morning. That is a fact, and it has nothing to do with driving testers, it concerns drivers.

Deputy Pat Breen was correct in saying that we have a problem with the waiting list and we must deal with it. The purpose of the Bill is to establish the driver testing and standards authority.

Deputy Eamon Ryan said we were setting up a Fianna Fáil grouping but I do not know whether all the driving testers are in Fianna Fáil. Such cynical and gloating remarks have led us to a situation where we have the worst record in Europe, way ahead of anybody else. Such sneering and sniggering may be grand for Deputy Eamon Ryan on his bike, but the rest of us who decide to drive are entitled to a safe journey. I will not tolerate that kind of commentary. We are demanding that something be done about road safety and the Minister is tackling it. He is establishing the new authority to co-ordinate testing and safety standards.

At yesterday’s meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts I asked the Secretary General of the Department of Transport about the €2.7 million funding for the National Safety Authority. I noted that it was a small amount of money considering the level of road fatalities and the value of one life, let alone 400. The Secretary General explained that a further €45 million went to the National Roads Authority to deal with safety and that other funding is scattered around also. It is time we had a body such as the proposed driver testing and standards authority that will be able to take the initiative on safety as well as other issues.

A previous speaker referred to the role of the Garda Síochána, but its role is not to prevent road fatalities, although hopefully that is a by-product of its job. The Garda Síochána’s job is to enforce the rules of the road, but individual gardaí cannot police every single driver. We need to get real about the problem of poor driving standards, which annoys me. Most of all, I am annoyed that every time we discuss road accidents, people say they are caused by everyone but the drivers concerned. I am a responsible driver and know that I must drive within the speed limits, although it may not happen all the time. For instance, I would not drive while watching the speedometer to check if I am one or two kilometres per hour over the limit, but I am always within range of the limit and try to drive safely. The issues of drink driving or using defective vehicles are the responsibility of drivers and these [74]matters must be enforced. It is annoying that people shy away from their responsibilities. It is always somebody else who is at fault. Accident levels are bad but we are not getting the point across. It is always somebody else’s job to ensure accident prevention. Everyone must look at what he or she can do in this regard.

It is incredible that 54% of people do not accept the need to wear seat belts in cars. That is just one aspect of the problem. People still drive at reckless speeds. Last Thursday, I witnessed four incidents of dangerous driving within two miles of the Red Cow roundabout. The first took place at Newlands Cross where a young female driver crossed the Naas Road at least two or three seconds after the green light had come on for traffic on the main Dublin-Cork road. She took a chance to cross that road at full speed. A man turning right, again across the Naas Road, caused the second incident. He went into the median strip without any indication. This resulted in everyone having to jam on their brakes.

These are the kinds of incidents which are causing fatalities and they must be dealt with. Driving instruction has a big part to play in this matter. People are talking about the 54% driving test failure rate as if it were due to the testers. Deputy Crowe said the failure rate was due to bad Mondays, bad Fridays or bad testers. How stupid can we get? The reason is that people were not properly prepared for their tests or had not been properly trained. It is not the case that testers were wrong. That is typical of the general approach to road safety and it will have to change. As public representatives we will have to change as we are supposed to be leaders in the community. If a person comes whingeing to us about failing their test we should ask them the reason. We should ask what they did wrong and how many driving lessons they had before taking their test.

Another speaker referred to the need for a licence to drive a car. If one went to buy a gun or another dangerous weapon there would be all sorts of conditions attached to it. The difference with a car is that it is many times bigger and in most cases it is more lethal and more dangerous. A greater number of cars than ever before are on the roads. More cars were sold in the previous two months than ever before in an equivalent period, in spite of the claim by vehicle distributors last year that sales would fall dramatically because of our tax regime and that they would all go bankrupt. Lo and behold, we have seen the highest sales figures ever for January and February. We will have to provide a road network to cope with this increased capacity. We can all help by driving within the speed limits, avoiding drink driving, ensuring our cars are roadworthy and so on.

Insufficient lighting on cars is a particular problem. People ask how that can be the case with the stringent level of testing that is in place. Unfortunately, a car driver may not be aware that his or her headlight is gone. This is a crazy situation. They used to be called one-eyed monsters in the [75]days when we had bad cars but we should be able to do better nowadays.

Observation of the rules of the road and generally showing courtesy are crucial. Unfortunately, manners on the road have disimproved significantly. People tend not to stop at orange lights. It is a stupid cliché to say that accidents will happen — they do not just happen; they have a cause. I respectfully suggest that in most cases the driver is at fault.

A TCD academic has made the case that up to 10% of fatalities could be as a result of suicide. I do not know and I do not have the expertise to comment on the matter. However, every fatality should be forensically analysed to discover the cause, in so far as that is possible. Where drink is involved this should be made known, albeit tragic for a family when a son or daughter is killed. In this way we can try to prevent it happening in future.

We are not dealing with the matter seriously enough at present. It took 3,636 deaths in Northern Ireland before people really knuckled down and became serious about preventing more deaths there. How many more people must be killed on the roads before we do something about it? I do not refer to the Minister and the Secretary General of his Department who are facing up to their significant responsibility in this regard; it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure something is done. Everyone who drives is equally responsible for ensuring we do not have crashes resulting in serious injury or fatalities.

Perhaps we could frighten people more, as was the case in Northern Ireland where the financial cost of fatalities and serious accidents was pointed out, let alone the personal hardship. We must remember that in all cases accidents are caused. At some stage all drivers have probably thanked God they got away with something, be it overtaking carelessly or whatever. Driving is not getting any easier as the road network increases. I ask Deputy Eamon Ryan to take note of a point I made yesterday to the Secretary General of the Department that drivers are much safer on a dual carriageway or motorway than on a secondary road. I am entitled to have money spent to ensure my safety.

If one or two people were killed due to an environmental problem such as a poisoned water supply or whatever, an inquiry would be set up and we would take immediate action. We would work in a unified manner to prevent others being affected. Why cannot we do the same to prevent further road deaths? We must look seriously at the matter. I do not care what anyone says, we have not been taking the matter seriously enough.

The Minister sensibly introduced changes to the driving test to the effect that a driver should know something about the mechanical aspects of cars. Mr. Walsh from the Irish School of Motoring, which is one of the top driving schools, stated that the ability to change a wheel should also be [76]included in the driving test. I accept this and I hope the Minister will alter the test in this regard in due course. It is probably the most common cause of stoppages for motor vehicles.

Let me refer to the response of some party spokespersons on this issue. Senator Morrissey stated that the changes were cosmetic and farcical. Deputy Olivia Mitchell stated the changes were farcical and amounted to tinkering at the edges. It is plain stupid to take that approach when somebody tries to improve matters. If only one life were saved as a result of people knowing more then it would be worthwhile.

The analogy with a gun can also be applied in this context. A person would be taken through all the dangers before buying such a weapon, yet if a person has enough money, he or she can buy a car without difficulty. That has to change and I urge the Minister to do something about it. He has a common sense approach to things. I hope he will do something about it.

The issue of people failing their test and driving away on their own is important. It was the case that one needed to have a fully qualified driver in the car. If a person fails the test, by implication he or she is incapable of driving safely on the road. This issue must be dealt with.

According to statistics, at least 10% of those killed on the roads hold provisional licences. The indication that cars are being driven by holders of provisional licences is the display of L-plates, back and front. The Minister for Transport has given us a good run on the motorways and so on so that one can now drive at 62.5 mph in one area and 73 mph in another. However, it is daunting to be overtaken by a car displaying L-plates travelling at 90 mph or 95 mph. This issue must be examined because the credibility of the signs has gone.

Most drivers treat L-plates with respect so that, when they encounter a car with L-plates trying to cross a junction, they tend to give them due courtesy and recognition for the fact that they are learning — a position they might remember themselves. However, when one is passed on the Dublin to Cork or any other road at that speed, the learner driver is exceeding the speed limit or the plates are being misused and should be removed from the car. This is an issue which the Minister must examine in the context of safety.

In 2002, of the 346 people who were killed in fatal crashes, 313 had full licences and 33 had provisional licences. This represents more than
10%. I am concerned about the plethora of groups dealing with safety issues. I have a particular hobby horse which I have raised on three occasions with the National Roads Authority which concerns pedestrian islands. Most of them feature a bollard which is erected for traffic calming purposes. I guess that 50% of these bollards — the blue boxes one can see on the roads — are levelled, which indicates that something is wrong. The problem is that people do not see the islands because the lighting in the area is usually bad. However, the NRA has refused point blank to fix [77]reflective studs in the base of these islands. I raised this issue in the debate on the previous roads Bill so perhaps the Minister would examine the matter.

This is a topic which deserves everyone’s attention. The Minister is correct that the new body will be more focused and flexible in taking initiatives because some change is needed. I wish the Minister well in his endeavours and commend the Bill the House.

Mr. Murphy:  The general objectives which this Bill wishes to promote are to be welcomed, namely, quicker driving tests and better driving standards. However, one must ask why this Bill is necessary. Is the Government losing confidence in the Civil Service and its ability to control and direct public servants? The Department of Transport has, or should have, all the necessary powers and that this Bill is being proposed exposes the fact that the Department must not be competent to deal with these issues in the Minister’s opinion.

Whatever about the Department’s ability, it is the Minister’s responsibility. That both he and his predecessor have failed to manage the Department to get the desired results has led to the introduction of this Bill. When an issue becomes too troublesome and too difficult to handle, the immediate reaction of Ministers in this Government is to set up a quango to distance themselves from the problems. This approach has the added advantage for Ministers of helping them avoid direct accountability in the Dáil.

The first question the Minister must answer is why he thinks this authority, with a new chief executive, will be more successful than the Department of which he is the chief executive. Either he must admit the incompetency of his predecessor or admit that he is not capable of managing this section of his Department. Is he blaming his civil servants, which seems to be a developing trend within the Government, or is the Minister just commencing a new public relations exercise which will portray to the public that the passing of this legislation is a job done as far as he is concerned and that from now on the new authority can be blamed for any problems which arise?

This is a cynical exercise. The Minister knows well that this relatively small administrative job could be done well by his civil servants if the resources were made available to them. He and the Minister for Finance have no intention of making these resources available in the Department so he needs someone else to do the job for him and take the blame for this issue. The previous Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, made this one of his priorities on entering the Department of Transport.

We have heard recently that yet another bonus scheme to encourage testers to work extra hours is to be introduced. That funding request has again been sent to the Department of Finance and negotiations are ongoing with IMPACT to facilitate this. We have been told that under this [78]plan, 117 full-time testers will be offered a bonus if they meet a set quota of tests in six months. The Department hopes that 80 testers will be attracted by this bonus scheme which will lead to the possibility that approximately 40,000 extra tests will be carried out this year. A similar scheme failed in 2003 and the scheme was not available in 2004 due to lack of funding and financial constraints, even though the scheme was only estimated to cost €2 million.

Some experts have suggested that the use of simulators could be used as a training or even testing device. The airline industry has used simulators for training pilots since the Second World War. Skid pads are also an excellent training facility, particularly for young drivers. However, again the resources were not made available. The logic for driver testing is to try to ensure a better standard of driving to save lives. This is the same logic which was used to introduce the penalty points system which worked very well in the beginning until motorists realised that the passing of the law was about as far as the Government would go.

Just as the Minister starved the driver testing section of his Department of funds to implement an effective test system, the Garda Síochána was deprived of resources to implement the points system. A great idea that saved lives was diminished by the Government’s refusal to provide the resources necessary to implement its own proposals. The recent introduction of metric speed limits was a good idea but again it was put into operation without due planning and assessment.

The Department has stated that regional roads are to be reassessed with the clear implication that speed limits will be increased on the better ones, with which I agree. However, this should have been done before the introduction of the system. How is the public to have respect for these limits when the Government which introduced them immediately admitted that regional roads needed to be reassessed? This is another good idea for road safety which has been diminished because of the Government’s continuing incompetence.

To solve the lack of implementation of the penalty points system and other responsibilities which are clearly the Minister’s, it is to be placed in private hands. A network of speed cameras is to be operated by private companies. Needless to say, the reclassification of regional roads will not be the responsibility of the Minister. This job, and the blame if the occasion arises, will be passed to local authorities. At least on this occasion those responsible will be accountable to the electorate. Much of the road safety strategy was initially promised at the launch of the previous road safety strategy in 1998. The strategy clearly set out a timetable of enforcement, education and legislative organisational measures, which included the deployment of additional mobile speed detection units by 1998. Few of these have yet been provided. Garda equipment in the information technology area was to have been com[79]pletely upgraded by 2000. We are now told this might happen in 2006.

Debate adjourned.

  1.  Mr. Bruton    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has examined the take-up of tax relief for pension contributions across different income categories; if he has satisfied himself with the incentives in the tax code for the provision for old age; and if the maturity of SSIAs offers an opportunity to promote a wider provision for pensions. [7436/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The latest figures published in the 2003 annual report of the Revenue Commissioners indicate that in the short tax year, April to December 2001, the cost of tax relief on pension contributions was tentatively estimated at approximately €2 billion. It is not possible at present to examine the take up of the tax relief for all pension contributions across different income categories. This is because the relevant information is not available to the Revenue Commissioners as the tax relief for pension contributions for employees is normally given at source, that is, the taxable income is the income net of pension contributions by employees.

However, data are available in respect of the tax relief for contributions to retirement annuity contracts, RACs, across different income categories. Retirement annuity contracts are used by the self-employed and by employees who are not in pensionable employment. It is intended to examine these data in the context of the review of pension reliefs which forms part of the review of tax reliefs for high earners.

There are a number of tax measures to make provision for old age. These include capital allowances in respect of nursing homes and housing for the aged and infirm, relief for health expenses which includes relief for approved nursing home fees, a carer’s allowance and a home carer’s tax credit as well as tax relief for payments to over 65 year olds under deeds of covenant. These provisions clearly indicate that the Government continues to have the best interests and long-term care of the elderly in our society at the top of its agenda.

Regarding the maturity of SSIAs, the use to which the SSIA moneys are put is ultimately a matter for the individual account holder. Any suggestion for further incentives by way of tax concessions to facilitate further savings on pension contributions will have to be judged in the overall context of Government priorities and resource constraints.

[80]Mr. Bruton:  I am surprised at the sanguine view the Minister takes of tax relief for pension contributions. More than half of workers do not have pension cover and these are predominantly low income earners. Does the Minister agree that there is a real difficulty with the distribution of pension benefits? At the top end, people have unlimited opportunities if an employer is contributing to a pension for a director. On the other hand, many ordinary workers have no pension cover. Does the Minister not agree that there is a need for action to address this huge gap both in terms of equity and lack of pension cover?

Does he not agree that the SSIAs pose the risk of a considerable increase in consumer spending which could have an inflationary impact? Is there not, therefore, a great opportunity to examine pump priming pension cover, particularly for the lower paid who took the opportunity to participate in the savings scheme?

Mr. Cowen:  Tax relief for pension contributions is not unlimited. Relief on contributions to personal pensions and PRSAs is limited to a certain percentage of remuneration which rises with age, 15% to 30% for age 50 years and above. The employer contribution to PRSAs is aggregated with the employee contribution for the purposes of tax relief limits.

With regard to occupational pensions, where relief for employee contributions, including additional voluntary contributions, AVCs, is limited to an age related scale of 15% to 30% of earnings, there is no monetary or percentage limit in respect of relief given for employer contributions. The limitation on the employer contribution is by reference to actuarial guidelines in meeting funding requirements for the maximum pension of two thirds of final salary. This means that, unlike personal pensions where the control is on the relief given, the control here lies in the limitation of benefits paid. Furthermore, relief for employee contributions and contributions to personal pensions is capped at an earnings figure of €254,000.

Pension coverage is an issue that must be kept under review. The policy response must meet the challenge that confronts us. The CSO survey on pension coverage reveals that the coverage rate for persons in employment in the first quarter of 2004 was 52.4%. It has indicated it will complete its full survey of pension coverage towards the end of this year and it expects it to be published in the first half of 2006. The Pensions Board is also doing some work on this which might well be available in the middle of this year.

With regard to SSIA account holders, legislation on PRSAs was introduced in 2002. It would be desirable to monitor the up-take of these accounts before considering the need for incentives such as eliminating exit tax for SSIA funds which are eventually transferred to PRSAs.

Mr. Bruton:  The Minister said during the week that Fianna Fáil is the best party for the working [81]man. However, the truth is that many working men do not have pension cover. The Minister must accept that there is an urgent case for enhancing the incentives to ordinary earners to get pension cover. At present, there is almost three times the incentive for people on high income to contribute to pensions than for people on low income. There is no justice in that. Would the Minister not take a more urgent approach than talking about long-term reviews and confirm that this is a priority and that he intends to tackle it?

Mr. Cowen:  The Pensions Board is due to report in mid-year on pensions coverage. That is not a long-term review.

Mr. Bruton:  The Minister did not indicate that he would act on it.

Mr. Cowen:  Obviously, I must wait to see what is in the report. If the Deputy knows what is in the report already, he has an advantage. The Pensions Board, which has a statutory remit in this area, is addressing this issue. It will come forward with ideas and recommendations as a result of the work it is doing.

With regard to what will happen with the SSIA scheme, we are monitoring that situation. I do not wish to indicate at this remove what, if any, response there will be from Government. It is better to monitor the situation. Obviously, I am examining the issue but it is not an issue on which the Government has come to a firm view.

  2.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has plans to extend the remit of the IFSRA or the Central Bank to regulate companies which advance money from their own resources secured on assets such as property, especially in view of the fact that the advisory group on this sector recommended in 1999 that such businesses be regulated and in view of the reported extensive activities of a company (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7296/05]

Mr. Cowen:  All financial service providers that provide loans secured on a person’s principal private residence are subject to the provisions of Part IX of the Consumer Credit Act. This is as a result of an amendment to the Act made last year, following consideration of a recommendation in the 1999 McDowell report.

The Consumer Credit Act is the principal source of protection to personal borrowers. The Act subjects all lenders who provide finance on the security of the family home to a range of obligations. These include: provision of a written loan agreement, quoting the APR and any other fees that will be charged; a requirement to warn the borrower about the risk of losing their home; and an obligation to put mortgage protection insurance in place. Apart from the special case of [82]the family home, the Act does not apply where a loan is given for a commercial purpose.

There is no statutory oversight of interest rates except for the special case of moneylenders who come within the scope of Part VIII of the Consumer Credit Act. This special category of lender typically provides short-term loans to poor credit risks at very high APRs. Such lenders are required to hold a moneylender’s licence and the financial regulator can refuse to grant such a licence on the grounds that the cost of credit is excessive. The requirement to hold such a licence and the corresponding oversight of interest rates only applies to this specialist category of lender.

The financial regulator already has the power under the Consumer Credit Act to give directions to a mortgage lender about misleading advertising as well as to prosecute for breaches of the Act. In addition, under the legislation establishing the regulator, its consumer director has responsibility for monitoring the provision of financial services to consumers generally and has the power to require a provider of such services to furnish information relevant to any inquiry or study that the director chooses to undertake.

I am at present consulting the Financial Services Ombudsman Council about the financial service providers not regulated by the financial regulator that should be brought within the scope of the Financial Services Ombudsman, when the ombudsman commences operations on 1 April. The ombudsman has extensive powers to provide redress to consumers who have been unfairly treated by a financial service provider. Subject to the views of the council, I can see merit in including those mortgage lenders who provide loans secured on a person’s principal residence.

Criminal activity, including money-laundering, by financial service providers or any other persons is governed by criminal justice legislation. This is enforced by the Garda Síochána and the Criminal Assets Bureau. All entities whose primary business is lending are subject to the know your customer, reporting and other obligations under money-laundering legislation. Their professional advisers, such as accountants and solicitors, are also subject to these reporting requirements. All companies are subject to the enhanced company law regime that has been put in place in recent years, including the oversight role of the Director of Corporate Enforcement. The financial regulator’s role regarding compliance by regulated institutions with money laundering, tax and company law is purely supportive.

Ms Burton:  Does the Minister agree that this type of company should be fully regulated by IFSRA and, therefore, the remit of the authority should be extended to cover this type of company? I do not know if the Minister shares the shock of most people who heard reference to a company, Chesterton Finance, in media reports concerning Garda investigations into money laundering and the Provisional IRA and other para[83]militaries. I received the same reply as the Minister from the Director of Consumer Affairs in regard to Part IX of the Consumer Credit Act 1995. Does the Minister think this sufficient? For example, a prominent partner in one of the largest accountancy practices was offering potential investors in this company 10% returns, well above ordinary interest rates and, therefore, attractive in the context of the potential for money lending.

Does the Minister know how many such entities are unregulated? Does he know the amount of lending which may be undertaken by such companies? Such companies have had dubious reputations in the past, particularly where they have lent money on the security of land, generally lending about half the value of the land which they hold as a mortgage. The Minister may be aware that these companies also apply stringent terms and conditions and high interest rates on the loans they provide. Does the Minister share the view of the McDowell committee in 1999 that such entities should be regulated? While the original plan was that regulation of IFSRA was to operate through the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, once it came into the ambit of the Central Bank and the Department of Finance, this appears to have been blocked. Will the Minister comment on this matter?

Mr. Cowen:  The specific information the Deputy seeks on the amount that can be borrowed and the numbers of institutions involved is not immediately available to me but I will make it available to her. With regard to the point on companies linked to money laundering and the allegations in regard to IRA criminal activity, the main purpose of the financial regulator’s supervision of financial services providers is the stability of the financial system and the protection of individuals who entrust financial institutions with their money. While the financial regulator has a general obligation to support other State agencies such as the Garda and the Revenue Commissioners by providing them with reports on relevant matters which come to its attention in the course of its activities, this role is a supportive one.

The Criminal Justice Act 1994, as amended, provides, among other things, for the offence in law of money laundering and includes measures to counteract money laundering, which includes the concealment, disguise, conversion, transfer or removal from the State of any property, including money, which is or represents the proceeds of criminal activity. The obligation of clients of financial institutions in general therefore applies also to non-deposit-taking mortgage lenders. The obligations also apply to auditors, accountants, tax advisers and lawyers. The financial regulator is even obliged to report any suspicions it may form in regard to a body supervised by it to comply with the identification, records and reporting requirements.

[84]The Office of the Financial Services Ombudsman, which commences operation on 1 April, will have extensive powers to investigate complaints and order redress where a customer has been unfairly treated, and such redress could include a direction to change a practice complained of and award financial compensation. This is the avenue we should explore and on which I hope to make decisions before 1 April.

Ms Burton:  That does not answer the point that this area is not regulated by IFSRA. We have set up an expensive and extensive regulation model. However, a letter in my possession from the Director of Consumer Affairs indicates that the only powers of oversight that exist are in regard to the Consumer Credit Act 1995. Will the Minister agree to extend the powers of IFSRA specifically to cover this area, as recommended in the McDowell report?

Mr. Cowen:  The question arises whether we should apply it to those bodies which do not take money deposits as part of their operations. As I stated, the Financial Services Ombudsman Council may well be the best avenue in this regard. We will consider the matter in that context.

  3.  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will report on progress to date at EU level to secure the extension of the PEACE II programme until 2006; if he has also pressed for a successor programme or programmes, that is, PEACE III, to build on the achievements of PEACE II; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7385/05]

Mr. Cowen:  The Government is aware of the valuable role the PEACE II programme has played in building peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the Border region and that there continues to be a need for such funding. Therefore, I am glad to report that we have recently secured an extension of the PEACE programme to 2006. The extension has been adopted on foot of the conclusions of the Heads of State meeting in June 2004 which, responding to a joint initiative by the two Prime Ministers concerned, the Taoiseach and British Prime Minister, invited the Commission to examine the possibility of extending the programme to 2006. It was approved by the European Parliament on 14 January 2005 and by Council on 24 January 2005.

The operational programme detailing the priorities and measures for the extended programme was submitted to the Commission on 11 February 2005 jointly by my Department and the Department of Finance and Personnel in the North. The submission took account of an extensive public consultation carried out last summer by the special EU programmes body which manages the programme. There was a very good response to this consultation, including more than [85]70 written responses and a wide attendance at public meetings. This shows the high level of public engagement with the PEACE II programme.

Although the extension of the programme was agreed only five weeks ago, we are already turning our attention to the post-2006 situation. Under the terms of the programme agreed, spending may continue up to 2008. The question of what will happen when the extension runs out is one which will have to be reviewed by the two Governments in consultation with the European Commission. This is under active consideration at present.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  I welcome the good progress made and the confirmation that the European Parliament has formally ratified the extension of PEACE II to 2006. The programme is very important for communities in the Border counties and the Six Counties which still experience, as we all recognise, the legacy of partition, conflict and neglect over decades. The previous Minister stated in reply to a question from me on this issue last year that a new programme beyond 2006 would be considered in due course. While I note what the Minister has just stated on the consideration of this matter by the Irish and British Governments, is it also being addressed at EU level? Will the Minister be more specific in this regard?

We addressed the Taoiseach yesterday on the absence of infrastructural investment in the Border counties as part of the overall Border, midlands and west region. Does the Minister accept that the supports under PEACE II should at all times be in addition to and not substitutes for normal State investment in regard to infrastructural development or other initiatives that come under the ambit of the PEACE II programme and, it is to be hoped, a PEACE III programme which will follow?

I understand concerns have been raised that while training for women in the child care sector was funded under PEACE II, this may not be continued under the extension to 2006. I am not privy to the detail of this matter. Is the Minister aware of the concerns raised and can he provide further information in this area?

Mr. Cowen:  An extension to the end of 2006 will bring the programme in line with other Structural Funds programmes. Therefore, a new PEACE III programme could not be sought until then. Both Governments wanted to ensure that a gap period did not occur and, therefore, an extension rather than a new programme was sought at that stage. The question of whether there will be a PEACE III programme will be considered in the context of the budget discussions for 2007-13, financial perspectives which are being discussed in respect of all programmes and policies thereafter. What we were doing here was to make sure that this programme which was due to end last year was extended to bring it in line with other [86]structural funds programmes so that one could make the argument thereafter.

Regarding the funding arrangements, the total fund of €707 million, including Exchequer and other matching funds, has been made available to projects in Northern Ireland and the six Border counties in PEACE II between 2000 and the end of 2004. The EU contribution was €531 million, with a ratio of 80:20, four to one respectively between North and South. The Border region has received €106 million in Structural Funds, an average of about €21 million annually, plus additional Exchequer support of €35 million over the five years. Under the terms of the programme, 15% of total funding was allocated for promoting and supporting cross-Border activity. The amount available, including the maximum funding in 2005, totals €80 million. This breaks down to €56 million to Northern Ireland and €24 million to the Border region. These are independent of or in addition to the national development plan programme rolling out the regional development objectives of the BMW region.

As regards the specifics on the opportunities for women, I have not got the information available as to whether that is covered in the child care sector of the extended PEACE II programme.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  I would be grateful if the Minister would be good enough to come back to me when he establishes the position because it is a matter of concern whether the extension of the PEACE II programme also covers women in the child care sector in terms of what is applied heretofore.

Am I to understand from the Minister’s reply that we are now looking at both Governments addressing what might apply post-2006 and that there is not yet an EU dimension to what might then come into play? Will the Minister be more specific in that area?

Is the Minister familiar with the report entitled Building on Peace: Supporting Peace and Reconciliation after 2006, which was produced by a consortium of cross-Border bodies based at European House in my home town of Monaghan? If the Minister is not familiar with it, I commend it to him. It is an excellent case for a PEACE III programme and I hope it is being factored into the consideration of both administrations in deciding what is to happen from 2007 onwards.

In recognition of the important role that PEACE I and PEACE II have played, I ask the Minister to affirm his commitment and that of the Government to advance to a PEACE III programme. That is very important for those counties.

Mr. Cowen:  The extension proposal contains European agricultural guidelines as regards the fund and financial instruments for fisheries guidance funding, increased funding for and focus on reconciliation, more capacity building for groups such as ethnic minorities and Protestant working class communities, continued focus on economic [87]and social projects, specific tourism measures and a continued focus on cross-Border co-operation. This is all as a result of the public consultation process.

My reading of the final part of the draft as recently delivered by Minister Pearson in Northern Ireland on Monday, 7 March, is that it would send a clear signal that the current extension of the PEACE II programme would complete the work and that there might not, therefore, be a successor programme. Our view is that in advance of sending such signals there should first be proper consultations with the stakeholders and given the political aspects of the questions, we imagine these consultations should take the form of Government to Government discussions, and that the views of the European Commission should be sought.

It also highlights the point that successful conclusions to the peace process would be the best way of maintaining the extra goodwill we have had up to now regarding this programme, and everyone should take up that responsibility.

  4.  Mr. P. McGrath    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has satisfied himself that the tax treatment of different categories of parents with children takes proper account of the financial pressures on them; and if he has plans to address this aspect of the tax code. [7437/05]

Mr. Cowen:  I assume what the Deputy mainly has in mind is support through the tax system for child care. The Government’s policy is that child benefit is the main instrument through which support is provided for parents with children. One of the main advantages of this approach is that whereas tax relief would be of little or no benefit to those with low incomes, the provision of support for parents through the child benefit route means equality of treatment for all recipients.

The Government has substantially increased child benefit since coming into office in 1997. Overall expenditure on child benefit has increased by 279% from €506 million when the Government came into office in 1997 to an estimated €1,916 million in 2005. On the supply side, the provision of formal child care places is being stimulated through a programme of investment under the national development plan equal opportunities childcare programme, about which there were further announcements today. Over the next five years, about 17,000 places are expected to be created under this programme. The Government has also undertaken measures to favour the supply of child care by tax incentives to set up facilities and relief from benefit-in-kind taxation for free or subsidised child care where this is provided by employers. Taken together, these represent substantial measures to assist with the cost of child care.

In addition, the tax system treats parents with dependent children more favourably than persons [88]with no dependent children, in recognition of the additional financial burden associated with parenthood. This is done mainly through the one parent family tax credit, the widowed parent tax credit, the incapacitated child tax credit and the home carer tax credit. Persons who qualify for the one parent family tax credit, including widowed parents, qualify for the associated standard rate band cut-off point which is €33,400 in 2005. This is €4,000 greater than that which applies for a single person.

Mr. P. McGrath:  Since the Minister has indicated that child care assistance is through the child benefit system, is he aware that child care costs in the provinces are approaching €150 weekly and €200 weekly in the city, while child benefit is no more than €130 monthly? How can this be a measure to help with child care if the money falls so far short?

The Minister said in his reply that equality of treatment for all is important. How can he say there is equality of treatment? For example, separated parents of a child get four times the tax credit anyone else would get. A married couple living together gets the double allowance, the married couple’s allowance, while an unmarried couple living together gets the single allowance. How can the Minister say the system is promoting equality while a separated couple, be they married or a couple who have just separated, gets four times the tax credit given to an unmarried couple living together?

The Minister mentioned the spouse’s home carer’s allowance. That has not increased in value since it was introduced and remains at €770 per annum. It affects couples where one spouse stays at home. Such couples are severely discriminated against under the tax code. They attract the top rate of tax when their annual income reaches €38,000. If their income is greater than that they pay a lot more in tax than a couple with one spouse going out to work. Does the Minister agree it is time those issues were addressed?

Mr. Cowen:  As I said, since this Government came to office in 1997 child care benefit has increased by nine times the rate of inflation during the period. That is a fair indication of the effort being made. It is always a question of resources. Clearly, child benefit does not defray all family child care costs, nor was it designed to do so. It was, however, recognised as being probably the best mechanism by which support would be provided for families. It was not meant to defray the total costs of family requirements but would certainly be of some assistance to them. The fact of the benefit increasing at a rate of nine times more than the consumer price index is a fair indication that the policy of the Government has been to use that benefit as a means of providing some assistance in these circumstances.

The home care tax credit, which is €770 per annum and may be claimed by a jointly assessed married couple where one spouse remains in the [89]home to care for one or more dependants, was not increased in the budget but was the only credit that was not increased. The one-parent family, widowed parent and incapacitated child tax credits were increased. The Deputy is entitled to highlight the only one that was not increased but I am entitled to mention the other increases. The home care tax credit was introduced in the Finance Act 2000 and was designed to recognise the contribution made by a spouse who remains working in the home. The provision is intended to assist in cases where a spouse has forfeited a second income to care for dependants in the home.

  4 o’clock

The Deputy asked why double income married couples get nothing extra through the tax code in respect of their children. It is a question of targeting resources. Under Government policy, the main instrument through which the State provides support for parents with children is the child benefit system. Expenditure on it is more than €1.9 billion, which is a not inconsiderable amount. I have no plans to move away from that approach but we will keep the issue under review.

Mr. F. McGrath:  The Minister has not delivered.

Mr. P. McGrath:  The focus of the Minister’s attention on child care is the child benefit system but that does not provide adequate help to alleviate financial pressure on married couples. Many people pay an amount for child care equivalent to their mortgage repayment each month. It is a significant burden on young working couples who have managed to purchase a house and who are trying to rear children. Does the Minister concede his efforts through the child benefit system are inadequate and do not meet the needs of young couples and that he must refocus his attention on others method to help them with child care costs?

Mr. Cowen:  The matter is kept under review. It is a challenge to the system to see what way we can do this but every Member accepts that using a tax credit for child care has a significant discriminatory effect against low income couples.

Mr. P. McGrath:  There are ways around that.

Mr. Cowen:  One can devise a range of measures but it is a question of targeting resources. We have trebled that resource since coming into office from €531 million to €1.9 billion, which represents a considerable transfer of funds to this area. An extra €1.3 billion is going into the child benefit system. Progress is being made and those who have problems with it have yet to come up with alternatives.

Mr. F. McGrath:  The Minister is losing thousands of workers.

Mr. Cowen:  The Deputy should keep an eye on the four seater. He has enough on his own plate rather than worrying about me.

[90]Mr. F. McGrath:  I am safe enough.

  5.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will make a statement on his address to the lunch of Financial Services Ireland on 21 February 2005, particularly his reported statement that the compensation bill arising from the Supreme Court decision on the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2004 would result in lower spending elsewhere; the anticipated amount by which spending will have to be reduced; and if specific areas have been identified for such reduction. [7297/05]

Mr. Cowen:  The Supreme Court decision on the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill has significant expenditure implications. The issue of repaying the money has been referred to a special Cabinet sub-committee comprising the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Attorney General and myself.

The Revised Estimates Volume, which I recently published, provides for a 13% increase in estimated health expenditure in 2005. Repayments will be made from the Health Service Executive Vote and, as made clear in the recent Revised Estimates Volume, a Supplementary Estimate will be brought forward for the costs arising in 2005 on foot of the recent Supreme Court decision. There will be no cutbacks in the Estimate for the health services this year or in other departmental Estimates to pay for this Supplementary Estimate.

Given the number of people involved and the complexity in calculating the repayments due, it is likely that the repayment of moneys will take time. Claims falling for payment after 2005 will be a charge on the Vote for subsequent years and the required funding will be accommodated within the overall spending plans for those years.

Ms Burton:  Is the Minister aware of the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children’s statement earlier that she has been advised 300,000 people affected by the Supreme Court ruling are likely to claim? Has the Minister estimated the cost of these claims? He commented on 21 February that the cost would be approximately €500 million. However, the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children’s statement indicates a much higher figure of between €1 billion and €3 billion. Has the Minister had an opportunity to examine the costing? He stated prior to the Financial Services Ireland lunch that the Supreme Court ruling would result in lower spending elsewhere in the health service. He contradicted himself in his reply in regard to 2005 by stating he will introduce a Supplementary Estimate. I would like him to reconcile those statements. Has he identified the areas in which there will be lower spending? When is that likely to occur?

[91]Mr. Cowen:  I am glad to clarify that I never made those comments. The Deputy has referred to an inaccurate interpretation of what I said, which related to questions I was asked prior to the lunch referred to by the Deputy. I stated the blindingly obvious. I was asked who pays for it; the taxpayer pays. I was asked what impact this would have on future spending; I replied that the amount to pay for this could have been used in other areas. That was interpreted subsequently as a statement about specific cuts, which were never mentioned. I made four attempts to have it corrected and it was finally reasonably well corrected by the following day. People have the tapes. It was an incorrect interpretation. I was asked a question and I stated the blindingly obvious. I never mentioned a figure on this matter because I do not know what the figure is nor does the Department. That will not be known until one tries to quantify what is involved. People can make guesstimates but I have no intention of doing so.

In addition, a number of families may not claim refunds because they were happy with the service provided and do not have a problem.

Mr. P. McGrath:  There will not be too many.

Mr. Cowen:  The Deputy will be surprised.

Mr. P. McGrath:  Few people will look a gift horse in the mouth and turn back.

Mr. Cowen:  A number of people commented on radio in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling that they had no intention of claiming. I do not suggest how many will do so but families will come to their own conclusions as to whether they wish to claim. I am not commenting on whether they should but some people are happy with the service and may not claim. I know people who feel that way about it.

Mr. P. McGrath:  I also know people who are happy with the service but I do not know that they will look a gift horse in the mouth.

Mr. Cowen:  Those who are entitled to claim will be paid. We will seek to devise as expeditious a way as possible of providing for what is due to them. We are still considering this at Cabinet based on legal advice and decisions must be taken on the logistics involved.

Ms Burton:  Does the Minister accept the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children’s statement earlier that there are 300,000 potential claimants? If so, does he agree the sum involved, regardless of whether everybody claims, will be significantly higher than first estimated? He stated this will have an impact on health spending. Has he identified the areas on which there will be an impact, particularly since a significantly higher number of claimants is involved?

In the context of the trolleys and the accident and emergency disaster, many people are con[92]cerned about the implications of the Minister’s statement of 21 March for health services.

Mr. Cowen:  The purpose of Question Time is to clarify those situations, and despite my clarification, the Deputy is seeking to continue misrepresenting my position. It was stated in this House by the Tánaiste, confirmed by me in an interview when attending the ECOFIN meeting the week before the interview to which the Deputy referred and has been made clear by the Government that we will introduce a Supplementary Estimate regarding that matter this year. A Supplementary Estimate does not impact on the current Revised Estimates Volume which has been published.

Ms Burton:  For 2005.

Mr. Cowen:  That is the position, and when I am asked about this situation, I presume that people have taken on board the clear Government position stated by the Tánaiste in this House last week. I was asked the following week who pays for it; the taxpayer does. I said that the impact would be as follows. Whatever liability the State is deemed to owe families, estates or people who are still alive, we will pay according to the law and the money will be diverted from other purposes. That much is a statement of the blindingly obvious. That was the generality of the statement; no more specifics were involved. It was subsequently interpreted in the way that the Deputy has suggested, and as I have said, that is not my position. Neither did I state that on that occasion or any other.

Regarding the question of Estimates, as I have said, only guesstimates have been mentioned on this matter hitherto. We are not able to estimate accurately what it would mean. Regarding the figure that the Tánaiste mentioned yesterday, if the Deputy counts back over the period, she will see that the numbers of people who have come through the system are estimated, according to the figures that I saw, at approximately 275,000. What amount will be due to any of those people is a matter still to be decided based on legal advice and is being considered by the Government. That is the exact overall situation, and there is no other. Further Supplementary Estimates or payments beyond this year will be taken in the normal course of events based on the resources available. As the Deputy is aware, in my Budget Statement I estimated 5% growth in the economy this year.

  6.  Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of persons, companies and trusts being investigated by the Revenue Commissioners arising from the Clerical Medical [93]Insurance-NIB inquiry at the latest date for which figures are available; the number of cases in which settlements have been agreed; the amount paid; the number of cases outstanding; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7187/05]

Mr. Cowen:  I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that arising from the Clerical Medical Insurance-NIB inquiry, 466 cases have been targeted for investigation. To date, 297 cases have been settled on payment of tax, interest and penalties amounting to a total of €49.51 million. A further 116 cases have been finalised with no additional liability arising. The remaining 53 cases are the subject of ongoing investigation, in respect of which €4.38 million has been paid on account.

In the course of 2003, three cases were prosecuted, with fines being imposed in two cases and a suspended sentence imposed in the other. The individuals concerned have also settled their tax affairs and paid the outstanding tax together with interest and penalties. A further case is under investigation with a view to prosecution.

Aggregate results of the ongoing investigations have been published each year since 1998 in the annual reports of the Revenue Commissioners. Individual details of settlements have also been published where the provisions of section 1086 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 applied.

Ms Burton:  Given the increase in cases identified compared with previous answers — it now stands at 466 as opposed to 452 and there are now 53 cases not yet dealt with — will the Minister reconsider his proposal in yesterday’s discussion on the Finance Bill effectively to dilute the provisions that he promised to introduce in the Bill regarding those who aid and abet tax evasion? In particular, does the Minister agree with statements by Mr. Daly, the Chairman of the Revenue Commissioners, that not only is a tightening up of the aiding and abetting offence required, we should also have a clear reference to putting money offshore? That is the net point where the Revenue cannot successfully prosecute. The Minister has himself stated that in 2003 only three prosecutions took place, two of which resulted in fines. Compare that with a person who defrauds social welfare, is prosecuted and receives a sentence or suspended sentence. Will the Minister reconsider his proposed amendment on Report Stage to dilute the aiding and abetting offence in this year’s Finance Bill?

Mr. Cowen:  I find that most unfortunate, and I ask people and the press to check the record of the House yesterday regarding the Committee Stage of the Finance Bill. In an effort to make some sort of political point, presumably in the context of the by-election campaign, the Deputy has continually misrepresented my position. That is the second successive such question from the Deputy. She was listening to me very intently yesterday in committee, but she has sought to misrepresent my position, and I find it most unfortu[94]nate. The purpose of Question Time is to clarify matters and provide factual information to the House on any matter that any Deputy wishes to raise with me, something that I gladly do. I find it unfortunate to have to come back with a reply that has to retrieve a situation after inaccurate and untrue assertions made by the Deputy in her question.

There is no question of diluting the aiding and abetting section. What is involved, as is the normal course in such matters, is ensuring that we have sufficient clarity and understanding on the part of everyone involved, including the Revenue Commissioners, the taxpayers, tax advisers, the Law Society and accountancy bodies, and that they all understand precisely what the extension of section 1078 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 involves. The problem hitherto has been that one could prosecute only on the basis of providing or assisting in providing incorrect information on a tax return. We are broadening that to try to ensure that in future — prospectively, since to do so retrospectively is unconstitutional — where there has been a direction, policy or practice not by those on the front line and accountable but by others higher up in management, they will be amenable to prosecution through the creation of the new offence created by the Finance Bill 2005.

I made it very clear on the basis of legitimate questions asked by Deputy Bruton that there was no question of any dilution involved. It was a matter of clarifying the extent and extension of the existing range of offences available. I also made it clear in our discussion with Deputy Burton in committee that the wording being used covers the specific situation raised by the Chairman of the Revenue Commissioners and that the facilitating of fraudulent tax evasion covers the specifics that she mentioned, recognising that putting money offshore is not in itself an offence. Doing so without notifying the Revenue is the offence. I made it very clear in our discussions on what I did in section 133 of the Finance Bill that the issue in question is covered.

I have no problem, and the Deputy is quite entitled to put her point of view if it is different. However, I ask her, in the interests of fairness and accuracy, to desist from seeking to misrepresent my position, which is quite clear.

Mr. Boyle:  In light of the recent takeover of National Irish Bank by Danske Bank, is the Minister confident, with the change of ownership and whatever alteration in management might have taken place since, that corporate responsibility for the malfeasance that occurred in that bank will be properly prosecuted and that individuals in the new company will not slip through the net?

Mr. Cowen:  As is normal regarding the law on mergers or takeovers, existing liabilities of the bank remain current. People can still sue in the event of malfeasance against them under the auspices of the National Irish Bank. People buy both [95]the assets and the concurrent liabilities of businesses when they acquire them. As I understand it there is no question of a person’s right to sue or to claim recompense for any wrongdoing regarding any of these matters being put at risk as a result of the acquisition taking place.

Ms Burton:  May I ask a brief supplementary?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  We are over time. The Deputy must be very brief.

Ms Burton:  Will the Minister explain the reason for the increase in the number of cases under investigation from 452, the number he gave me on 1 February, to 466, an increase of 14? Will he explain also the increase from 40 to 53 of the unsettled cases he indicated in earlier replies are likely to be the ones which involved tax evasion and the possible commission of offences?

Mr. Cowen:  I understand from my note that the number of cases under investigation has increased from 452 to 466, an increase of 14, as a result of some supplementary information provided by NIB during the final clean-up phase of the investigation.

  7.  Mr. Crawford    asked the Minister for Finance    the total tax generated from the motor sector in 2002, 2003 and 2004; the main components of tax raised from that sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7172/05]

Mr. Cowen:  I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that the relevant information available is the amount of tax revenues collected as VAT, excise and VRT in respect of motor vehicles. As regards VAT, all figures are estimates as the information to be furnished on VAT returns does not require the yield from particular sectors of trade to be identified. It is not possible to quantify corporation tax or income tax data separately for the motor industry.

In 2004, the provisional tax revenue was €3,752 million. This was comprised of VAT on a range of commodities including mineral oils, vehicle sales, other motor-related products and services of €962 million; mineral oil tax in respect of petrol, diesel and LPG of €1,845 million; and VRT of €946 million. In 2003, the tax revenue in respect of the motor sector was €3,256 million comprising VAT of €880 million; mineral oil tax of €1,557 million; and VRT of €819 million. In 2002, the tax revenue was €3,167 million comprising VAT of €860 million; mineral oil tax of €1,514 million; and VRT of €793 million.

In respect of annual motor tax, I am advised by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that revenue from motor tax was €747 million in 2004, €680 million in 2003 and €539 million in 2002. As the figures illustrate, the tax raised from the motor sector is an important component of the overall tax take. It is [96]a matter for Government as to how taxes across the different tax heads are raised. The Government has prioritised tax reductions on income earned by employees, in preference to other areas, and this policy has helped create record employment levels. The Deputy might wish to note that I did not increase VRT, VAT or excise rates on petrol or diesel in this year’s budget. Consequently, increasing tax revenues arising from car sales to date in 2005 is a function of increased sales and, in some cases, higher prices but not higher tax rates.

Mr. Bruton:  Will the Minister agree that motorists have become something of a soft target? To put a car on the road now, the average tax contribution is over €2,500 and as the Minister’s reply has revealed, that contribution is growing rapidly. Will the Minister accept it is time to reassess the extent to which we depend on this type of expenditure tax on what is for many people a necessity in terms of their livelihood? Does he sense that this huge growth in tax in this area, which the Minister seldom adverts to — the concentration is exclusively on what I believe he said yesterday was a €4 a week reduction in income tax that he secured——

Mr. Cowen:  No, it is not. The Deputy is not telling the whole story.

Mr. Bruton:  The amount a person has to pay on his or her motor tax is far more than the €4 a week reduction of which the Minister is so proud. The real issue for the Minister is that tax in this area has doubled in the past seven years, and spending has doubled to match, but what frustrates many people is that they do not see the delivery in the health service and the quality of footpaths, roads or public transport. There is a serious issue in that there are soft targets in the Minister’s tax approach and he is not delivering value for money. People are getting frustrated with that combination, as frustrated as the Minister’s predecessor who must have thought there was a boiler in the Custom House burning money it was absorbing so much.

Mr. Cowen:  I am glad to have the opportunity to record the achievement of which I am so proud because Deputy Bruton likes to hear only the first part of the sentence and shout down the second part. A total of €220 less in tax is being paid by the average industrial wage earner this year compared with 1997, while his or her wage has increased by €11,000. Instead of an average industrial wage of €19,000 when the coalition Government was in office, the average industrial wage now is over €30,000. Despite the fact that his or her wages have risen by €11,000 per year, they are actually paying €220 less in income tax. That is what I am proud of and that is not a difference of €4 per week. I am glad to clarify that point so that we do not continue with the misapprehension that I am proud of a change of just €4.

[97]The second point made by the Deputy relates to this basic choice. The Deputy wants to be a friend to the motorist and seek to review this area with a view to indicating to the public that he will reduce these taxes, despite the fact that a function of these increases has been the buoyancy in vehicle sales. We know all about that from our own experience in terms of the numbers of cars on the road over the past ten years and what is estimated to continue to rise. The level of car ownership in this country is very high. If the Deputy wants to do that he will have to ask the public from where will we get our taxes.

By taking the decision to keep taxes low on income we have far better prospects of increasing job creation and the numbers of wage earners who will contribute to the buoyant revenues of the economy. We believe the model of taxation under the various tax heads is probably the best one as we see it. Others might disagree but if they want to change it, they should tell the public the full story. If they reduce it in one phase, where will they increase it because we cannot try to be a friend to everybody and leave things as they are?

I do not accept that we are not seeing an improvement. The national development plan is being rolled out. For example, if one travels on the N2 today one can see the amount of work taking place on the Ashbourne Road, which happens to be in Meath — with the by-election we might as well be topical.

Ms Burton:  There are no buses on the road. The Minister should try to get a bus or ask his colleague, the Minister for Transport, if he can get one. He might not suffer from car sickness then.

Mr. Cowen:  I knew that would prompt Deputy Burton to seek to shout me down. There are about 17 machines on the road and another 20 or 30 are due to come on to it. As soon as that road is completed, we will move on to the N3. The chambers of commerce in the Meath constituency made it clear in committees — I hope members of the press were in a position to attend — who they regard as the strongest proponents of the necessity for the N3 to go ahead. They were thankful of the consistent position of the Fianna Fáil Deputies in their constituencies as distinct from manoeuvres being made by others who have now finally recognised that over 80% of the constituents of Meath want to see that road go ahead as quickly as possible.

  8.  Mr. Coveney    asked the Minister for Finance    if he is satisfied with the effectiveness of the process whereby different funding options are being assessed for capital projects; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7134/05]

Mr. Cowen:  The responsibility for capital project selection and choosing the optimal means of funding such projects rests with the agencies [98]sponsoring and sanctioning such projects. Normally the sanctioning authority will be a Department. I am determined to ensure that value for money for the taxpayer is maximised in the exercise of this responsibility. Accordingly, Departments and implementing agencies, in deciding projects and funding, must operate within the financial framework of the five-year multi-annual capital envelopes as approved by the Government in the context of the annual budget and within the appraisal and procurement framework as set out in my Department’s capital appraisal guidelines, interim PPP guidance and procurement guidance.

Under the general conditions of sanction for the multi-annual capital envelopes introduced in budget 2004, Departments are required to comply in all cases with my Department’s guidelines for the appraisal and management of capital projects, the interim PPP guidance from my Department and observe the rules on procurement. Revised Department of Finance guidelines for the appraisal and management of capital expenditure proposals in the public sector were published in February and circulated to Departments and agencies for implementation.

To assist State authorities in determining the optimal means of financing public investment projects, the Government established the National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, on 1 January 2003. Its role includes advising on the financing and risk evaluation of Ireland’s public private partnership procurement projects and raising or arranging finance for appropriate capital projects. In this respect it provides a centralised expert service to Departments and certain other State authorities. The PPP procurement option should be available to Departments and State authorities for application to appropriate projects where there is the right scale, risk and operational profile to harness the benefits of this approach.

As the Deputy will be aware, there are also reforms planned in the area of public sector contracts for construction and construction related services. The reforms will involve the amendment and introduction of new standard forms of construction contracts which will transfer appropriate risks to contractors where they are best placed to manage them. These initiatives seek to reduce the potential for project cost overruns and provide better value for money for the State. Consultation with the construction industry on the contract-related material will commence shortly.

Mr. Bruton:  The Minister stated that the Departments sponsoring these projects follow his Department’s guidelines. The Comptroller and Auditor General has indicated, in the case of the roads programme, that an overrun of €4 billion was due to underestimates of items that should have been correctly estimated when projects were originally put forward. He also indicated that there was an additional overrun of €2 billion on the programme as a result of altered works. Is the [99]Minister stating that in the case of the projects which generated such a massive overrun, the sponsoring Departments applied the guidelines set down by his Department? The Comptroller and Auditor General strongly criticised those involved for not applying the guidelines. He also indicated that proper reassessments were not carried out when changes were made and that items which should have been costed were not properly costed.

Is the Minister living in cloud cuckoo land? He is failing to recognise what Accounting Officers are telling us, namely, that the rules to which he refers are not being applied. That is why there have been so many overruns and why so many projects have not been delivered on time. The Government needs to get to grips with the situation. If the Minister continues to read replies of the sort he has just read into the record of the House, he will not get to grips with it.

Mr. Cowen:  There has been a great improvement in this area and major projects are now coming in not only on time but before time and on budget. The learning curve relating to this process was not sufficiently steep and we did not come to grips quickly enough with certain problems that arose. Some of these problems came about as a result of judicial reviews which arose on foot of people exercising their right under the existing system to delay matters. As a result of the opposition that was organised by people who had difficulties with particular issues — many of these have been well publicised — huge costs were incurred on behalf of the taxpayer. Perhaps that matter should be highlighted, particularly to those who state that we have the luxury to wait two, three or four years for judicial reviews etc. to be completed.

Delays do not always occur as a result of what the Deputy would portray as internal institutional incompetence but are rather caused by actions taken by people. We are trying to roll out a capital programme of a greater magnitude than any seen in the past. In that context, we must ensure that the statutory and legislative framework is such that it compares favourably with those that apply in other countries on the Continent which do not appear to experience the same level of problems as Ireland in this area.

We have updated the guidelines — which were originally drafted in 1994 — to take account of the factors to which I refer. It is not, as the Deputy suggested, all down to internal incompetence. As he is aware, a number of delays occurred which were outside the control of those managing the projects. Perhaps everyone would be better served if the costs involved in dealing with such delays were highlighted rather than suggesting that they are a luxury we can afford and a price worth paying.

Mr. Bruton:  What sanctions are imposed if a Department does not meet the guidelines? Let us [100]move away from roads and consider the position vis-à-vis hospital projects. In some instances, Ministers have approved projects, investments have been made and then the new facilities could not be opened. Deputy Burton will be aware of a notable example of such a project in her constituency. Surely someone must take the rap for not properly planning a project and ensuring that it could be opened when taxpayers money has been spent. What sanctions does the Department apply where the guidelines are manifestly not having an effect in terms of the way projects are planned?

Mr. Cowen:  I previously served as Minister for Health and Children and am aware it can be the case that when a capital project — for which there have been many calls and in respect of which everyone is agreed — is proceeded with, industrial relations issues begin to arise on the current side in terms of staffing levels etc. People seek leverage and this can cause problems in respect of attempts to open a facility. This happened in my constituency on one occasion during an election campaign. When else would it happen? It did not have the desired result for some of those involved, however, because Fine Gael, not Fianna Fáil, lost a seat.

One may be providing much better facilities, both in terms of work and care environments — I refer here, in particular, to geriatric and other care environments — and one may discover that further negotiations need to be undertaken because those facilities have been improved.

Mr. Bruton:  Is the Minister saying that these problems are always caused by someone who is exploiting the situation?

Mr. Cowen:  No. I am saying that there are reasons other than those to which the Deputy referred. There are real problems that arise.

Mr. Bruton:  There have been breaches of the guidelines with which the Minister has failed to come to grips.

Mr. Cowen:  I have brought forward new guidelines. I have circulated these and I want them to be implemented. That is where I stand and I will be accountable for what I do.

Mr. Bruton:  The Minister said that he was preparing guidelines.

Mr. Cowen:  I have circulated guidelines relating to contracts for implementation. I will also be engaging in detailed discussions with the construction industry in respect of other aspects of this matter.

There has been an improvement in the way the system operates. Deputy Bruton, in his position as an Opposition spokesperson, is trying to suggest that nothing has been done and that they money has been wasted or has disappeared into thin air. That is not the case and there have been improvements.

[101]Mr. Bruton:  I am not pretending that it is the case.

Mr. Cowen:  The Deputy never made that clear.

  9.  Mr. M. Higgins    asked the Minister for Finance    the position regarding the planned sale of [102]State property announced; if he will list the property sold and the amount raised; the way in which the money raised has been used; the properties it is planned to sell during 2005; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7155/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Parlon):  The list of property sold by the Office of Public Works to date in 2005 and the amounts raised are as follows:

Building Title Price Closing Date of Sale
2 Church St., Dungarvan, Co. Waterford. Fee Simple 337,000 12 May 2004.
Lad Lane, Dublin 2. Leasehold — 92 years. 22,500,000 5 May 2004.
Blacklion Customs Frontier Post Site, Cavan. 21,586.23 16 March 2004.
72-76 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2. Fee Simple 52,300,000 15 Sept. 2004.
Kilmacthomas Garda Station, Co. Waterford. Fee Simple 100,000 13 August 2004.
14-16 Lord Edward St., Dublin 8. Fee Simple 8,780,140.48 30 August 2004.
Thomastown Garda Station, Co. Kilkenny. Fee Simple 450,000 7 Dec. 2004.
Total 2004: 84,488,726.71

[101]Two sites were also made available to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for affordable housing, one at Jamestown Road, Inchicore, and the other at Infirmary Road.

The bulk of the proceeds of these sales will go to finance the decentralisation programme, while €10 million has been applied to priority projects, mainly in the Garda area. Identification of properties surplus to requirements evolves continuously and it is not possible to confirm what properties will be disposed of in 2005. Premature release of disposal information and timescales would also affect the potential income from such disposals.

Ms Burton:  What is the position regarding the current proposals for decentralisation? The Minister of State indicated that the bulk of the money raised will go to finance the decentralisation programme but no progress is being made on that programme at present.

Even in Tullamore, in the constituency of the Minister and the Minister of State, FÁS has run into severe problems. The Minister of State may recall he suggested that one sell old properties at a high price and buy new sites cheaper for decentralisation, as in Tullamore. However, the board of FÁS has reported that the price at which the site in Tullamore is now being offered is double or triple that originally suggested and, as such, is unacceptable.

What is the impact on the decentralisation proposals of the resignation of Mr. Philip Flynn?

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy is going way outside the remit of Question No. 9. That matter does not arise. I am allowing the Deputy’s question on properties.

[102]Ms Burton:  He is the chairman of the Government’s decentralisation body.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I understand we are on Question No. 9, which refers specifically to the list of properties sold, the amount raised, the way in which the money raised has been used and the properties it is planned to sell during 2005. That is what the question is about.

Ms Burton:  I have asked the Minister of State those questions, specifically, because no progress appears to have been made. What is the effect of the resignation of Mr. Philip Flynn on the decentralisation programme?

An Ceann Comhairle:  I am allowing the Minister of State to answer those questions, but we cannot go into other questions because other Members have questions to be answered.

Mr. Parlon:  I believe that Deputy Burton is again relying on poor sources of information. The board of FÁS has no interest in any property in Tullamore.

Ms Burton:  I said FÁS was told to acquire a property, which it did not do because the value had tripled.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Minister of State, without interruption, please.

Mr. Parlon:  The property in question is in Birr, County Offaly, which is quite a distance from Tullamore. The speculation referred to by the Deputy, which is entirely inaccurate, appeared, I believe, in one of the national newspapers. I understand the board of FÁS has now decided to buy that property. It has been advised by the OPW that the price sought is well within the [103]range of the amount being paid for property throughout the country. I understand that particular deal is moving along quickly.

Likewise, in terms of the Deputy’s reference to the lack of progress on decentralisation, I am hopeful the Minister of Finance and I will shortly make substantial announcements with regard to progress, in terms of the acquisition of sites and further progress.

Ms Burton:  Will the Minister of State comment on the price of the sites?

An Ceann Comhairle:  I would like to get another question in before 4.45 p.m.

  10.  Mr. Bruton    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has decided on the membership of the public service benchmarking body for its next phase of work; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7127/05]

Mr. Cowen:  I refer the Deputy to my previous reply of 1 February 2005. In the first public service pay agreement under Sustaining Progress, the parties agreed that the benchmarking process was the appropriate way to determine public service pay rates. They committed themselves to engage in consultation on the terms of reference, modus operandi, establishment and timescale of a further benchmarking exercise.

In the pay agreement reached in June 2004 under the mid-term review of Sustaining Progress the parties agreed that the benchmarking body will commence its next review in the second half of 2005, to report in the second half of 2007. Under the agreement the parties agreed to review the operation of the first benchmarking exercise and consider ways in which, based on experience gained in the last exercise, the process can be improved and streamlined. It was also decided that the membership of the benchmarking body and its terms of reference will be agreed between the two parties not later than July 2005. Membership of the benchmarking body has not yet been decided and will be the subject of consideration and consultation by the parties over the coming months.

Mr. Bruton:  On the last occasion, benchmarking cost the taxpayer €1.3 billion. Surely somebody representing the taxpayers’ interests should have a role in deciding the membership of the benchmarking body. Should there not be a member of that body who is watching out for issues such as value for money and public service reform? I am not satisfied at the way this is being structured because benchmarking was charged with problems over non-transparency before and it looks as if this will happen again.

Mr. Cowen:  To answer that specific supplementary question, as stated in the national pay [104]agreement, the parties considered in its request that the body should seek to ensure the optimum level of transparency consistent with the efficient and effective operations of the benchmarking process. How this is reflected in the report is a matter for the benchmarking body as it is independent. In the last exercise it felt restrained as regards the amount of information it could give because of the assurances on confidentiality that had been given when researching the data underlying its examination. In any event, in an exercise of this type, if endless debate and nit-picking are to be avoided, all information cannot be released and some selectivity must enter into the equation. It would be desirable for the body to give a greater amount of information this time around. However, that is a matter for the body to decide and the Government represents the taxpayer in these matters.

Mr. Bruton:  The Government did not do very well on the last occasion.

Mr. Cowen:  I disagree.

Written answers follow Adjournment Debate.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I wish to advise the House of the following matters in respect of which notice has been given under Standing Order 21 and the name of the Member in each case: (1) Deputy Eamon Ryan — to ask the Minister how he intends to decide on the appropriate level for the wild salmon catch for 2005; (2) Deputy Healy — the need for the Minister to approve the relocation of the Tipperary Institute from its current location to the Watson Estate, Ballingarrane, Clonmel; (3) Deputy Neville — construction of a new national school at Kilfinane, County Limerick; (4) Deputy Howlin — to ask the Minister the implications of the decision of the European Commission to veto a plan for grant aid for the Intel development in Leixlip; and (5) Deputy Boyle — to ask the Minister the implications of the European Commission’s indication that grant assistance cannot be offered to Intel in Leixlip.

The matters raised by Deputies Eamon Ryan, Howlin, Boyle and Healy have been selected for discussion.

Mr. Eamon Ryan:  I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter of enormous importance. We face the extinction of wild salmon on many of our most important rivers. The Minister has set himself against the possible buy-out of offshore indiscriminate drift nets, a [105]policy that goes against all scientific advice that I have seen. While Ireland is unique in the north Atlantic in allowing such indiscriminate fisheries, the Minister puts out ridiculously inflated buy-out costs and said he stands against it. In response to a question from me on 8 February, he said the Government’s current strategy is to develop a sustainable commercial and recreational salmon fishery sector through aligning catches on the best available scientific advice. That forms the basis of my question because the best scientific advice was clearly set out in a report by the standing scientific committee to the National Salmon Commission, presented earlier this year, which shows the crisis as regards wild salmon in our rivers, not just on the rivers one might expect, the Liffey, Boyne, Suir and Nore, the east coast rivers, but also the Shannon, the Corrib and in Sligo where some of our previously healthiest rivers are in a state of crisis.

The scientific advice clearly indicates that there is no surplus, that we are below the conservation limits and should not allow any catch, if at all possible, in such rivers. The scientists, Dr. Paddy Gargan of the Central Fisheries Board, and Dr. Niall Ó Maoiléidigh of the Marine Institute, recommended a national commercial catch of 90,000 fish and another 27,000 to be caught by rod, to give a total of 122,300 fish. That, everyone believed, was the figure the National Salmon Commission would approve this year. For some reason, at the recent meeting of the National Salmon Commission, the Central Fisheries Board and the other boards proposed a higher figure of 137,000 for the commercial catch plus a rod catch of 30,000, to give a total of 167,000 fish. That is inexplicable. It is impossible to understand. I can only assume that political direction was given to the fisheries boards to get them to increase the recommended quotas, because there is no justification for not accepting not only the advice of our own scientists, but that of ICES, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, that we should stick to a 75% probability of meeting conservation limits.

It seems that the National Salmon Commission, by a majority vote, was completely against such a proposal and is recommending this much higher quota, which I believe further increases the possibility of wild salmon extinction on rivers such as the Liffey, the Boyne, the Corrib, the Shannon etc. I believe this is one of the greatest scandals currently evolving in this country. I want to know how the Minister will decide on this issue when he sets the quota, which he has yet to do. He has a recommendation from the salmon commission, but he does not necessarily have to follow it. I urge him to follow the scientific advice and to stick with the recommended catch level of 122,000. If he fails to do that, it makes a mockery of Government policy and a nonsense of his statement in the House a month ago that policy is to align catches on the best available scientific advice. That advice is patently and perfectly clear. [106]The Minister will ignore it at his peril because there will be uproar from anglers, conservationists and people who do not want wild salmon to become extinct, which current Government policy ensures will happen rapidly.

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Martin):  I apologise to the house for the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Gallagher, on whose behalf I am taking this debate.

The Minister of State relies upon the advice of the National Salmon Commission and the national fisheries managers executive in determining the terms of the wild salmon and sea trout tagging scheme which sets out annual district quotas for the commercial salmon catch. He does not receive advice on this matter from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea as suggested by the Deputy. The National Salmon Commission is an independent statutory body established under the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 1999 to assist and advise the Minister of State on the conservation, management, protection and development of the national salmon resource. In particular, it advises on the national wild salmon and sea trout tagging scheme regulations. The commission includes representatives of the commercial fishing sector, the angling sector and other relevant stakeholders.

The National Salmon Commission is advised in its work by its standing scientific committee, which includes scientists from Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Central Fisheries Board, the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Loughs Agency and the Marine Institute. The standing scientific committee advice is formulated each year in accordance with the latest guidelines on fish stock assessment from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.

On 30 November 2004, the standing scientific committee presented its preliminary recommendations to the commission on the precautionary salmon catch advice for the 2005 fishing season. At that time, the scientific committee’s preliminary advice recommended that the total number of salmon to be exploited by all fishing methods in 2005 should not exceed 122,305 fish. This advice was updated to a figure of 124,571 fish when the final catch statistics report for the 2004 season became available from the Central Fisheries Board towards the end of January 2005. In the meantime, the preliminary scientific advice was considered by the national fisheries management executive from a fisheries management perspective. It submitted its advice and recommendations to the Minister of State on 14 February regarding salmon conservation measures and salmon quotas for 2005 and beyond.

The national fisheries management executive has recommended that the total catch of wild [107]salmon in 2005 should not exceed 173,854. The national fisheries management executive advice also includes recommendations for a suite of conservation measures that should be introduced in the fishery. It believes that if these measures are introduced in 2005, a provision of 27,500 fish should be sufficient for exploitation by anglers this year. With this figure in mind, the national fisheries management executive recommends that the national commercial total allowable catch, TAC, for 2005 should not exceed 146,174 fish. The National Salmon Commission met on 22 February 2005 to consider the scientific and management advice available with a view to finalising its recommendations on the management of the wild salmon fishery in 2005.

The chairman, in his letter of 1 March 2005 and which the Minister of State only received today, advises that the commission was unable to reach a consensus on either the scientific or management quota proposals. However, he advises that the commission endorsed, by a majority decision, a compromise proposal that the national commercial catch of salmon for 2005 should not exceed 139,900 fish and that this recommendation is made on the basis that the commission would adopt the scientific committee’s advice by the 2007 season at the latest. The chairman also reports that no agreement could be secured at the commission on the reductions in annual bag limits for anglers that have been proposed by the national fisheries management executive. As a result, he recommends that this issue should remain on the agenda for future consideration by the National Salmon Commission.

Having only just seen the advice from the National Salmon Commission for the first time today, the Minister of State will need to take some time to consider all the advice and its implications in the widest context. The Minister of State will make a decision in this matter shortly and it is his intention to publish the draft wild salmon and sea trout tagging scheme regulations for a 30-day consultation period later this month in accordance with the requirements of the Fisheries Acts. During this time, interested parties will have an opportunity to submit any objections they may have. Following the receipt and consideration of these, the Minister of State will then make a final decision on the scheme.

Mr. Howlin:  I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me the opportunity to raise what is a critical issue for Ireland’s economic progress. I hope to get a comprehensive response from the Minister.

The decision of the Government, in the face of reported opposition from the European Commission, not to proceed with plans to provide grant aid for the planned extension of the Intel plant at Leixlip, County Kildare, raises a series of important questions that need to be addressed by [108]the Government. This is an important issue for the people of Leixlip and surrounding areas who were looking forward to the 400 additional jobs at the expanded Intel plant. It is equally important for other parts of the country where people are concerned that their hopes of attracting foreign manufacturing industry might be dashed by any wider decision of the European Commission to prohibit grant aid on the basis that it might constitute an illegal state aid.

Intel is a major employer and a flagship project for Ireland’s high technology sector. Some people might argue, with some validity, that a huge and very profitable multinational company like Intel does not need grants from the State, and that is probably true. However, this is now the basis on which decisions on the location of multinational companies are made. If we are not able to compete with other international locations outside the EU for grant aid, then there is clearly a danger that we may lose out.

The situation is made all the more uncertain by the fact that no determination has been made by the European Commission on the matter. We do not know whether the grant aid proposal would have been approved by the Commission because the Government took the extraordinary step of withdrawing the application. Government sources are quoted as saying that there were clear indications from the Commission that it was preparing to rule against financial assistance, but surely there was a case for allowing a decision to be made so that everyone would be clear about where the Commission stood. This is especially the case since we understand that the Intel development is going ahead in any event. There must have been a strong case to be made that the proposal did not constitute an illegal state aid, especially since it is quite clear that there was no prospect of Intel locating this project anywhere else in the EU. If it was not coming to Ireland, it was clearly going to go elsewhere in the world.

As a matter of urgency, the Minister must clarify why this package has fallen through and specifically why the Government decided to withdraw it before a final decision was made by the Commission. He should also explain why his Department and IDA Ireland came to hold a view on this aid package which was so at variance with the European Commission that the package was withdrawn. We need a detailed explanation from the Minister on why the proposal was so vigorously opposed by the Commission. He should also indicate what implications this has for other projects in the pipeline, particularly in the vital high technology sector.

It is important that we know whether this is likely to be a once-off occurrence or whether there are ongoing implications for the IDA Ireland strategy of developing the high-technology sector. Foreign investment has been a great source of jobs over the past four decades. It is essential for our economic future that we should be able to continue to source jobs in this [109]way. However, the experience with this project, as well as the warning from some that the era of large-scale state aid for industry is nearing an end, provide a timely warning against placing all our eggs in the one industrial basket. While continuing to seek investment from abroad, we also need to make more effort than we have done in recent years to promote the development of the indigenous high technology sector and manufacturing industry. A clear enunciation of Government strategy is now urgently required.

Mr. Boyle:  I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue. I also thank the Minister for attending and giving this issue the serious consideration it deserves.

This decision by the Government has enormous implications for future industrial policy in Ireland. It demands an immediate response for those of us who need to know the future direction of Government industrial policy. The Minister can be assured of some degree of support, as Deputy Howlin indicated, in initially questioning how inward investment to Ireland is regulated at EU level. However, the Minister has contacts at European Council level and at the Commission and cannot have been unaware of feelings among the Commission and other member states to which Ireland needs to respond if it is to frame an industrial policy for the future.

  5 o’clock

Members on this side of the House believe it was the intention of the enterprise strategy group that we should not only recognise that foreign direct investment has brought many jobs to Ireland and has the potential to bring more, but must also accept the need to reduce our reliance on it. The enterprise strategy group recommended that indigenous companies based on research and development must be encouraged to a greater extent, not in substitution for foreign direct investment but to enable us to avoid in future circumstances like those under discussion.

I concur with Deputy Howlin in what I would like to hear from the Minister. I wish to know what will be the immediate impact of the Government’s action on other projects. A similar package is in place for Centrecore which the Government seems confident will be approved in its current form. Surely, questions must be asked about the feasibility of pursuing State grant assistance for projects such as the one involving Johnson and Johnson which appears comparable to the project the Government proposed for Intel. We require more information if we are to proceed further in establishing worker confidence in the companies involved and general business confidence in the direction of the State’s industrial policy.

In the brief time available to him, it is hoped that the Minister can provide the House with a brief overview of the status of the enterprise strategy group’s recommendations. Many Members had hoped that unlike its predecessors, the Culliton and Telesis reports, the group’s [110]report would include a strategy to implement its recommendations. We hoped it was not a report which was likely to remain unconsulted on a library shelf for years to come. While the Minister might argue that upwards of 70% of the report’s recommendations are being implemented in one form or other, some of the 30% which have not been implemented are key recommendations of the enterprise strategy group on the organisation of Enterprise Ireland, that IDA Ireland and Forfás should be brought under the same umbrella and that there should be different arms dealing with marketing and technology.

While we are all concerned at the nature of the impasse with which we are faced and its impact on industrial policy, I would like the Minister to articulate how the opportunity to recast Irish industrial policy to give birth to ideas expressed in the report of the strategy group and those of its predecessors will be seized. At last, we can begin to offer the support necessary for indigenous Irish industry to facilitate research and development. In a decade or two, we should be able to point to successes in the Irish economy and to a company in the high technology sector which is the equivalent of Nokia in Finland.

Unfortunately, the above is indicative of the gap which exists here. While we are reacting to the immediate implications of the Commission decision for foreign direct investment, we should be thinking about how to develop investment opportunities within the economy. I would like to hear a positive contribution from that perspective from the Minister.

Mr. Martin:  I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter and, at the outset, record my disappointment at the outcome of the aid notification procedure. Notwithstanding recent developments, it is clear that Ireland will continue to face global competition for future investments. It is to be regretted that the European Commission has opted such a narrow interpretation of its conditions when projects like Intel can locate anywhere in the world. I have made this point very clearly to Commission officials on numerous occasions.

The vast majority of inward investment projects need not, however, undergo this process. Of the very small number of projects that do, each project must be examined in the context of its individual elements. We cannot, therefore, draw generic conclusions from the Commission’s decision and must be careful to ensure we do not do so. Recently, for example, the Lucent Technologies-Bell Labs investment of €69 million to establish a global headquarters for research into telecommunications and supply-chain technologies in Ireland was successfully notified to the EU.

While IDA Ireland considers the outcome of the Intel case to be unhelpful in the progressing of investment projects of this size, it does not envisage that it will have a direct negative impact on Ireland’s ability to attract foreign direct invest[111]ment in the future. Financial support is only one of a combination of factors which makes Ireland attractive and competitive to inward investment. The availability of highly educated young people with the skills and ability to use knowledge quickly, flexibly and creatively has been vital in attracting inward investment. The education system is focused on continuous learning and pursues a collaborative approach with business and industry. The Government’s science foundation programme contributes to the improvement of research capabilities and skills in Irish universities in partnership with international business and world-leading centres of research excellence.

Ireland continues to invest heavily in infrastructure, especially in the areas of access and telecommunications, and the Government’s national development plan is establishing high quality physical and social infrastructure. Ireland has retained a competitive operating environment while undergoing a transformation in much of its business structures in response to new models and the needs of global enterprise. We offer one of the most attractive corporate tax environments in the world in which a rate of 12.5% applies to all corporate trading profits. Ireland consistently outperforms other locations in providing the best return on investment to US companies. We also compete on a par with the best, most advanced countries in the world for business. We are winning investments of the highest quality across the wide range of business types and sectors in which we have chosen to compete.

The current regional aid guidelines will expire at the end of 2006. Discussions have commenced on the guidelines which will cover the period 2007-13 on the basis of proposals from the European Commission. In considering the new guidelines, I am influenced by comments in the Commission communication, Working together for growth and jobs — A new start for the Lisbon Strategy, which states that the renewed strategy will focus on growth and jobs. According to the Commission, if we are to succeed we must ensure that Europe becomes a more attractive place in which to invest and work while shaping policies which allow our businesses to create more and better jobs.

Consideration of the new guidelines should focus on ensuring that the reform of state aid policy and, specifically, the shaping of the new regional aid policy are geared towards allowing a sufficient degree of flexibility to promote the realisation of the objectives and targets of the re-launched Lisbon strategy. State aid rules should not be solely inward looking, nor should they be designed primarily to regulate state aid within the European Union. As I pointed out to the Commission, the world is changing rapidly and Europe must look outwards every bit as much as it looks internally. The rules must recognise the need for the EU to be internationally competitive in attracting investment. Any desire to reduce [112]regional aid within the Union must be balanced with the need to recognise that all member states face an increasingly competitive threat from other locations around the world in attracting investment. These countries not only have access to much lower cost bases and improving skills and infrastructure, but are less restricted in the levels and types of aid they can offer.

The Commission has stated that the regional aid guidelines review must not be approached as an isolated issue. It must also be conceived as an integral part of a general reform of state aid policies designed to give practical effect to the conclusions of the European Council which call for less and better targeted state aid. According to the Commission, this approach implies strict control of what are potentially more distorting forms of aid while allowing member states sufficient flexibility to design aid measures which promote the realisation of the objectives and targets set out as part of the process of implementing the Lisbon Agenda.

I am concerned that the focus to date in the review of the regional aid guidelines has concentrated on the strict control of state aid. Mechanisms which provide member states with a sufficient degree of flexibility to design aid measures to realise the objectives and targets of the Lisbon Agenda must also be accommodated in the new guidelines and general reform of state aid. The package must encourage a high level of investments and allow disparities to be reduced in line with the Lisbon objectives.

On the Intel project, I reiterate the comments I outlined in my press statement yesterday. As indicated at the outset of my reply, I am extremely disappointed with the outcome of the aid notification. Under the terms of the European Commission’s multisectoral framework on regional aid for large investment projects, which came into general effect on 1 January 2004, approval of the proposed grant aid to Intel was required. Detailed discussions continued until recently following the submission of notification to the Commission in June 2004. It became apparent in the course of the discussions that the Commission was adopting a different interpretation of the provisions in the multisectoral framework than that on which IDA Ireland and my Department relied in proposing to grant the aid. The Intel project was the first case to which the framework’s provisions were applied. Substantial further information was supplied to the Commission and a number of meetings were held. Further submissions were made in an attempt to resolve the differences which arose.

To respond to Deputy Howlin’s point, the Government took its decision to withdraw the proposal for aid in agreement with Intel and IDA Ireland. It did not take that decision in isolation, which is an important point. I attended meetings with Commissioner Monti before he retired and with his successor, Commissioner Kroes. At one of the meetings, an official made it clear that even [113]if this went through a full formal process, it would not come out the other end in a positive light. We had to be honest with Intel and communicate that to the company.

Mr. Howlin:  Would the location have made any difference?

Mr. Martin:  We repeatedly pointed out to officials that we were not taking this from anywhere in Europe. Location within Ireland would not have made any difference. That is not the issue; the issue is definition of innovation. During the Irish presidency, as this framework was being negotiated and concluded, Ireland was successful in getting a footnote into the framework agreement which allows for flexibility in terms of leading edge technology companies of this kind. We felt that clause was the way the Commission should have dealt with this particular project. China, India, the US and a range of countries outside the European Union are putting forward competitive packages for attracting foreign direct investment. Europe does not have a preordained destiny that means it will always be strong. We must get competitive and that is what the Lisbon Agenda is about. After six months in the job, I feel there is a mismatch between the rhetoric and commitment surrounding the agenda and decisions of this nature. We must reflect on and review that at pan-European level, given the competitive forces within Europe and outside.

There was a degree of advance spinning before this decision was announced by the Commission yesterday about which I also have concerns. It is important, even when going into a full formal process, that confidentiality is assured to companies in terms of commercially sensitive material they may be asked to submit. The events of recent days would not lend confidence to the process and this is a point I intend to take up with the Commission in light of my experiences this week.

The Commissioner indicated in writing to me that she felt she would not be prepared to approve the aid package at preliminary stage and therefore we cannot now grant the notified aid to Intel. However, work on the project has already commenced at the Leixlip site and will continue. We have a very good relationship with Intel and I have been in constant contact with the company throughout the process. I met different individuals and they are happy with their performance, staff, productivity and outcome in Ireland. They feel that Intel Ireland has been good for the company as a whole, and we feel Intel has been good for Ireland. It is my job and the Government’s responsibility to maintain that strong and fruitful relationship into the future.

I agree with the Deputies on the indigenous issue. I am passionately committed to the implementation of the recommendations of the enterprise strategy group, in particular the internationalisation of indigenous Irish companies in the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises, equipping them with all that is [114]required to internationalise and develop markets and build presence in overseas markets. I have a strong record regarding research and development in my previous portfolios at the Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children. I intend to give the issue a major priority in the context of Ireland’s competitiveness, in particular the commercialisation of research and the linkage between research and small businesses in Ireland within the indigenous sector. I am in agreement with the essence of what the Deputies said regarding the importance of bringing indigenous enterprise centre stage.

Mr. Healy:  I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this issue with the Minister. In 2002 the Government announced the national spatial strategy for 2002 to 2020. Unfortunately, County Tipperary was not mentioned. It got no hub or gateway. It was as if the county did not exist. Clonmel is the main town within the county and within the south Tipperary, west Waterford, west Kilkenny and east Limerick areas.

When one looks at the characteristics of gateways and hubs as outlined in the strategy, Clonmel met all requirements. The definition of a hub having a significant urban population in the range 20,000 to 40,000 set in an associated rural hinterland describes Clonmel. It has the required primary, secondary and outreach education facilities, with third level facilities provided at the Tipperary Institute. A hub also has a mix of local medium-sized and larger businesses serving local, regional, national and international markets. Guidant employs 1,100 staff and will employ a further 1,000 over the next three years. We also have companies such as Showerings, Medite Europe, Merck, Sharp and Dohme, Clonmel Healthcare and a host of other industries.

Regarding the requirements of infrastructure and transportation, Clonmel is situated on a national primary road and there is a rail link from Limerick to Waterford and on to Rosslare port. We have a regional hospital and South Tipperary General Hospital is also based in Clonmel. A range of required amenities, such as sporting and cultural facilities, are available in Clonmel, as are water services and facilities for physical, social and economic development.

These requirements describe Clonmel to perfection but, for whatever reason, it was not given hub status. Having discussed the matter with the Department and the Minister at the time, the reaction of the county enterprise board, county council, public representatives and the people of south Tipperary was to ensure Clonmel was given de facto hub status. The authorities purchased Ballingarrane estate owned by the Watson family on the edge of Clonmel. South Tipperary County Council is establishing a technology and business park on the estate. Many bodies have come on board, including IDA Ireland which purchased 65 acres, as well as private interests.

[115]The educational element is vital to the establishment of the technology and business park. In the Minister’s reply to the last Adjournment matter, he spoke of the Government’s proposals for the integration of education with industry, research and development and their importance for future economic and social development. In keeping with this, a request has been made for the relocation of the Tipperary Institute to the technology and business park.

The Tipperary Institute has two campuses, one in Thurles and the other in Clonmel. It is the only third level institute in Europe which integrates third level education with rural and business development. I raised this matter in a parliamentary question before Christmas and was informed there was some merit in the request and a review would take place. I hope the review has been completed and a decision has been made to relocate to Ballingarrane. This is a cost-neutral exercise in that no cost is involved in the relocation of the institute to the new business and technology park. I hope the Minister has good news regarding the matter.

Mr. Martin:  I am glad the Deputy has given me the opportunity to outline, on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, the proposals of her Department concerning the proposed relocation of the Tipperary institute. A Government decision of 26 July 1995 authorised the establishment of the Tipperary Rural and Business Development Institute as a company limited by guarantee. The institute was duly incorporated under the Companies Acts on 26 March 1998. The institute is now functioning with a board of directors with a wide range of expertise drawn both from the private and public sectors, in accordance with its memorandum and articles of association.

The institute opened in 1999 as an alternative type of institution to the traditional third level model, with an emphasis on integrating mainstream thirdlevel education with activities designed to promote rural enterprise and community development. It is located on two campuses, one in Thurles and one in Clonmel.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, I would like to outline the background to the proposed development. The existing campus in Clonmel comprises 21 acres and is owned by the Tipperary Rural and Business Development Institute, a limited company. The facility comprises a single-storey structure of over 1,800 sq. m., which consists of a lecture theatre, multi-media centre, classrooms, computer laboratories and office accommodation. The site was pur[116]chased with Exchequer funding in 1998, when I was Minister for Education and Science.

Mr. Healy:  The Minister has other responsibilities now.

Mr. Martin:  I always had a fondness for Clonmel.

South Tipperary County Council purchased circa 300 acres — the Ballingarrane property — for the development of a large-scale technology park. The council has proposed that the TRBDI campus in Clonmel be relocated to the park. To facilitate the transfer, the council is amenable to providing a free site to the institute. The Minister, Deputy Hanafin, understands the institute is agreeable in principle to the council’s proposal. The institute believes the relocation cost to include design, construction and fit out of new facilities would be met from the disposal of existing assets. The institute submitted the proposal to the capital review and prioritisation working group, the Kelly report, on future capital needs in the higher education sector. The Kelly report recognised that the proposal has merit on the basis that it would be self-financing.

Before the Department of Education and Science can consent to the proposal, it will need to be satisfied as to the value of the assets available for disposal against the cost of the new facilities, as well as whether the issue of bridging finance arises and, if so, how the institute intends to finance bridging arrangements. The Department has been pursuing a site in the town for a primary school for some time. Discussions have taken place with TRBDI on the possibility of a site for the school being made available at its current location. All of these issues will be discussed further at a meeting that is being arranged with officials of the Department of Education and Science and TRBDI.

The submission by TRBDI to the review group also included several capital proposals concerning other campus developments in both Clonmel and Thurles. However, the review group recommended that the policy framework for the institute should be looked at again before the other proposed investment proposals could be considered. This is interpreted as being a reference to the TRBDI basis structure. The institute is currently considering its capital development proposals in the context of this recommendation. The implications of changes, if any, to the policy framework will need to be assessed carefully before substantial capital investment can be sanctioned for the institute.

I thank the Deputy again for raising this matter on the Adjournment.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 8 March 2005.

The following are questions tabled by Members for written response and the ministerial replies received from the Departments (unrevised).

Questions Nos. 1 to 10, inclusive, answered orally.

  11.  Mr. Gogarty    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will make a statement on the conflict of interest engendered by the role of the National Treasury Management Agency in supplying staff to the National Pension Reserve Fund and the National Development Finance Agency and the resultant withdrawal by the NTMA from advising the NRA on obtaining the best financial deal for the M50 project; if this type of conflict of interest could have been foreseen; and if this type of conflict of interest may happen with other agencies. [7064/05]

  14.  Mr. Quinn    asked the Minister for Finance    if he is satisfied that there are sufficient safeguards and guidelines in place covering the involvement of the National Development Finance Agency in projects, in view of the fact that the agency had to withdraw from advising the NRA on plans for the upgrading of the M50 motorway due to a potential conflict of interest by way of its links to a consortium bidding for the project; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7199/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 and 14 together.

The Government established the National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, on 1 January 2003. The NDFA has, inter alia, the function of advising State authorities on the optimum means of financing public investment projects, whether procured through a PPP approach or through traditional procurement. The NDFA does not have a project approval role.

I am advised that the National Pension Reserve Fund Commission, which makes investment decisions independently of the Minister for Finance, has made an initial €200 million allocation to PPPs in Ireland. It has also announced that it has joined a consortium tendering for the M50 motorway upgrade.

I am advised that the commission’s involvement with PPPs is consistent with the fund’s purpose and statutory investment policy and, on that basis, I can see no difficulty with it.

I am advised by the NTMA that, while it performs the function of manager of the NPRF and also performs the functions of the NDFA, there is a robust Chinese wall between the two functions. However, given that the NPRF is charged with maximising the gains for the Exchequer from its investments, while the NDFA is required to advise on the optimal means of financing public investment projects, there could, in some circumstances, be a perceived problem, even though [118]both are seeking to work in the best interests of the taxpayer. I am advised that, in its press release of 9 February last on the publication of its annual review, the NPRF commission stated that, in future, rather than joining particular consortia in tendering for projects, it will make finance available to the winning bidder provided it is satisfied with the prospective rates of return.

Because of the perception I have referred to, I am advised by the NTMA that the NDFA withdrew from providing advice to the NRA on the M50 project as the NPRF commission had decided to join a consortium in tendering for the project.

  12.  Mr. O’Shea    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of special savings investment scheme accounts opened at the latest date for which figures are available; the average amount of savings per investor per month; the likely cost to the Exchequer of the special savings investment scheme on the basis of such figures; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7194/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that all qualifying savings managers are furnishing their 2004 SSIA annual returns at present. The Revenue Commissioners will shortly begin analysing these returns and it is expected that final details of this analysis will be available at the end of April 2005.

All qualifying savings managers have, in advance of the annual return, provided a declaration indicating the number of active accounts held at 31 December 2004. Based on these 2004 declarations, I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that the total number of active accounts at 31 December 2004 was 1,094,188 and the average monthly subscription was €175. Revisions may be necessary if amendments are received at a later date.

As indicated in replies to previous questions, it is not possible to give a definitive answer as to the eventual cost of the scheme as it is subject to a number of variables such as participants dying, withdrawing from the scheme or varying their monthly contributions. The cost of the scheme in 2004 was €548 million. The estimated cost in 2005 is €560 million. This, however, is not a conclusive figure, and the final figure may be different if account holders change their monthly contributions. The total gross cost over the period of the scheme will be reduced by the exit tax to be received at the end.

  13.  Ms Enright    asked the Minister for Finance    if he plans changes in the capital gains tax code. [7072/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  As the Deputy may be aware, I have made a number of changes to the capital gains tax code in the 2005 [119]Finance Bill, as initiated. These include provisions relating to the 15% deduction from the consideration on the disposal of certain assets, to the updating of the titles of certain bodies which are exempt from capital gains tax and to an exemption for foreign pension bodies doing pensions business in the State.

I have no proposals to make any further changes to the capital gains tax code in the 2005 Finance Bill.

Question No. 14 answered with Question
No. 11.

  15.  Ms Shortall    asked the Minister for Finance    the anticipated costs, in terms of acquiring and equipping premises and other related costs, at the latest date for which figures are available, of the original decentralisation programme announced in budget 2004 and the slimmed down version announced in December 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7191/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The Government’s decentralisation programme involves some 10,500 civil and public service jobs in more than 56 locations. As I have said on a number of occasions the Government is committed to the full implementation of the programme.

My office has been tasked with procurement of development sites in the designated locations and the procurement of accommodation solutions to the office and facility requirements of the Departments and agencies involved.

The Office of Public Works, having evaluated in excess of 700 proposed property solutions in relation to the decentralisation programme scheduled for the various locations around the country has made significant progress in sourcing possible sites at the locations concerned.

The prevailing property market conditions in each geographical area will have a significant bearing on the cost of acquiring sites. As the acquisition process is still in progress, it is not possible at this stage to provide a precise estimate of the cost of the site acquisition programme. However, for working purposes only, an indicative figure of €75 million to €100 million is being used by the OPW.

As the Deputy will be aware, the decentralisation implementation group, DIG, announced the names of the Departments and organisations selected to move in the first phase of the programme on the 24 November 2004. A further report from the group on the procurement and financial issues relating to property was also published on the 24 November 2004.

The next stage in the decentralisation process will focus on the construction of office accommodation on the sites being procured by OPW. In line with the DIG report on procurement the OPW advertised for expressions of interest in the first 15 design-build projects in December 2004. [120]A very significant response was received and the submissions are currently being evaluated.

In relation to the public private partnership approach recommended by the DIG my office has been developing a comprehensive risk-adjusted costing of project elements to measure the value-for-money of future PPP bids.

It is anticipated that, in the vast majority of cases, the accommodation facilities will be provided by the construction of new office buildings and cost estimation can be approached on that basis. However, in advance of actual market testing of any procurement methodology, it is possible, at this time, only to assign the most general measurements of cost to such a large-scale, diverse and complex programme.

It is estimated that approximately 210,000 sq. m.— 2.26 million sq. ft.— of office space will be required to accommodate the total numbers included in the programme. Current industry cost norms in respect of commercial offices would indicate an average build-cost to fit-out standard, in the range of €1,450 per square metre to €2,000 per square metre. Such figures exclude VAT, professional fees and inflation. In addition the cost of equipping the accommodation to standard office equipment levels could be estimated at circa €4,000 per person. This would exclude the cost of information and communication technology and specialised equipment requirements. Such general measurements of cost do not include specialised facility and equipment requirements and other variables which would arise from the spread of possible procurement methodologies. In addition general cost indicators of this type show a snapshot in time.

It is self-evident that a firmer scale of costs for the decentralisation programme will only emerge on foot of actual cost proposals being received from the market. Nevertheless, we can clearly anticipate that, generally-speaking, the cost of providing accommodation infrastructure in provincial locations compared to central Dublin locations should yield considerable cost savings to the State over time in terms of site costs, capital build costs and indeed maintenance costs.

  16.  Mr. Hogan    asked the Minister for Finance    when the terms of the stability pact are likely to be revised; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7076/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The European Commission presented a formal communication on 3 September 2004, outlining a range of proposals for strengthening economic governance in the European Union and clarifying the implementation of the Stability and Growth Pact. Since then, the issues involved have been the subject of detailed and wide-ranging discussions.

The most recent discussions took place at the ECOFIN Council of 17 February 2005, when Ministers made further progress in identifying areas of common ground. Consideration of the [121]issues involved is still ongoing. The Luxembourg Presidency has expressed its aim of finalising the review of the pact by the spring European Council on 22 and 23 March 2005.

  17.  Mr. J. O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Finance    if he is satisfied with the entry level to the top rate of income tax; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7138/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  As a result of the budget, the standard rate bands for this and subsequent years are €29,400 for a single person, €38,400 for a married one-earner couple and €58,800 for a married two-earner couple of which €38,400 is transferable. Lone and widowed persons have a standard rate band of €33,400. Taxable income above these levels is subject to the higher rate of tax of 42%.

The major portion of available resources for the personal tax package in budget 2005 was devoted to achieving the aim of taking those on the minimum wage out of the tax net. This fulfilled a key taxation commitment contained in An Agreed Programme for Government. It will benefit those on low incomes and will help remove 66,000 from the tax net for 2005. Overall, after budget 2005, there are over 34% of income earners — some 656,500 — outside the tax net.

To the extent that further resources were available for tax reductions in the budget 2005 income tax package, they were used essentially to widen the standard rate bands so as to increase the entry level to the higher rate of tax. The increases in the standard rate band will ensure that an extra 52,000 taxpayers will not pay tax at the higher rate in 2005. The band widening in budget 2005 ensures that about 33% of income earners will pay tax at the higher rate in 2005 as compared with a projected 36% of income earners if no such measure had been included in the budget.

It should be noted that all income earners benefited from the tax changes in the recent budget and that while the proportion on the top rate increased, there was a reduction in their average tax rate, that is, tax as a percentage of income. It should also be noted that in 2005 a single PAYE worker on the average industrial wage will pay over €200 less in tax in 2005 than in 1997 on a wage which is over €11,000 greater in value.

  18.  Mr. Stanton    asked the Minister for Finance    if he is satisfied with the progress under the expenditure review initiative; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7129/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  As I stated in a reply to a previous parliamentary question on 1 February this year, I would like to see greater progress being made in improving the arrangements for carrying out expenditure reviews and in completing reviews.

[122]I am committed to ensuring that we get better value for money from public expenditure. I have therefore accepted the recommendations in the first formal report from the expenditure review central steering committee on progress under
the expenditure eview initiative, ERI, for the period June 2002 to June 2004 which was submitted to me last November. This report found that progress had been made by Departments and offices in undertaking systematic evaluation both within and outside the ERI, and in building an evaluation culture. However, it also highlighted some deficiencies in the process and made a number of recommendations to improve it. The recommendations set out in the report require Departments to take steps to: address the problems identified in planning, managing, and resourcing the review process; ensure the timely completion of reviews in accordance with Government decisions; build on the impact and effectiveness of the review process, with particular emphasis on the role of reviews in directing significant resource allocation decisions; help build an evaluation culture by engaging proactively with the expenditure review process; and focus reviews on programme areas of significant expenditure.

They are designed to enhance the improvements in the arrangements for carrying out expenditure reviews since publication of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s value for money report on ERI in January 2002 and to address perceived gaps in the responses to the recommendations set out in the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report.

I attach particular importance to the recommendations of the steering committee that expenditure reviews should encompass significant spending programmes, that they should be completed on time, and that their recommendations should be followed up on. The responsibility in regard to implementation of these and the other recommendations rests in the first instance with Departments. I therefore wrote to all Ministers last November on receipt of the steering committee’s report urging them to ensure that their Departments and offices take appropriate steps to implement the recommendations. My Department also wrote to all Secretaries General on 1 March requesting them to: make the necessary arrangements to complete as soon as possible all outstanding reviews for which their Department is responsible and to report progress in this regard; indicate the steps which their Department-office has taken to implement the recommendations of the expenditure review report; and propose topics for the next round of expenditure reviews for the period 2005-07 for submission to Government.

  19.  Mr. P. Breen    asked the Minister for Finance    if he is satisfied with the payments made to terminate the employment of the chief executive [123]of Aer Rianta; and the papers which were presented to him in this respect before he issued his approval. [7125/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I refer the Deputy to my previous replies of 14 October 2004, 23 November 2004 and 1 February 2005.

The previous Minister, as shareholder, indicated his consent to arrangements, outlined to him by the chairman of Aer Rianta on 24 September last, concerning the package the board proposed to make to the deputy chief executive who was leaving the company.

I understand that the proposed package included a lump sum of two and a half times salary, a contribution to pension fund, payment of a bonus and retention of company car.

  20.  Mr. Kehoe    asked the Minister for Finance    the level of disruption likely to occur in areas of Dublin where flooding occurred; the proposed drainage schemes that are implemented; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7121/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Parlon):  The last major flood event to occur in Dublin happened in November 2002 when there was major flooding from the Glasnevin and Drumcondra areas of Dublin city to the Clonee area on the County Meath border as a result of the River Tolka breaking its banks. Analysis has shown that this flood exceeded the scale of any previous flood on record in the catchment.

There was widespread flooding of residential properties from Glasnevin to Ballybough. The river also broke its banks along the N3 road at Blanchardstown which led to the road being closed for a period of time. Residences and roads were also flooded in the Blanchardstown, Mulhuddart and Clonee areas causing widespread damage.

Since this flooding in 2002 the OPW, in co-operation with Dublin City Council, Fingal County Council and Meath County Council, has been implementing flood alleviation measures which were recommended in the River Tolka flooding study which was under way at the time of the 2002 flood. Most of these works have been constructed by OPW direct labour as part of a scheme which, when completed, will provide protection against a flood event with a design return period of 100 years. With some exceptions, the works from Dunboyne in County Meath to the Luke Kelly bridge in Ballybough have mostly been completed. The OPW and the local authorities have pursued a policy of completing works in areas where the higher risk of flooding existed.

Flooding also occurred in Dublin city in February 2002 from the River Dodder which was the result of tidal surge. Major flooding of residences took place in Ringsend and the north inner city as a result. The OPW had no responsibility for the River Dodder but following a [124]request from Dublin City Council, funding of €1.7 million was made available for the construction of a wall in the Ringsend area from London Bridge to Ringsend Bridge in order to alleviate the risk of flooding there.

As a result of flooding in Dublin in February 2002, the Dublin coastal flooding protection project was initiated by Dublin City Council in association with Fingal County Council, the OPW, the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. The project has been part funded by the OPW and a draft final report is due shortly. The report examines the causes and impacts of flooding in an area from Portmarnock to Booterstown and includes the Tolka, Liffey and Dodder estuaries. The report deals in particular with the risk to Dublin and Fingal from coastal flooding, the need for an early flood warning system, the identification of appropriate strategies and policies to combat and manage the risk of flooding, and the identification of various works which would add to coastal defences already in place.

Initial indications are that the cost of proposed flood defence works in the report is estimated at over €100 million. This report will need to be carefully examined by all the stakeholders before committing to any recommendations contained in the report. The OPW, in particular, will need to consider the cost implications in the context of its annual budget for flood relief activities of €20 million approximately, and the large amount of flood alleviation projects currently being advanced by OPW.

  21.  Mr. Sargent    asked the Minister for Finance    the reason mortgage lenders are exempted from regulation under the Consumer Credit Act 1995. [7070/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  All financial service providers that provide loans secured on a person’s principal private residence are subject to the provisions of Part 9 of the Consumer Credit Act. This is as a result of an amendment to the Act made last year, following consideration of a recommendation of the 1999 McDowell report. The Consumer Credit Act is the principal source of protection to personal borrowers. The Act subjects all lenders who provide finance on the security of the family home to a range of obligations. These include: provision of a written loan agreement; quoting the APR and any other fees that will be charged; a requirement to warn the borrower about the risk of losing his or her home; and an obligation to put mortgage protection insurance in place. Apart from the special case of the family home, the Act does not apply where a loan is given for a commercial purpose.

There is no statutory oversight of interest rates, except for the special case of moneylenders who come within the scope of Part 8 of the Consumer Credit Act. This special category of lender typically provides short-term loans to poor credit [125]risks at very high APRs. Such lenders are required to hold a moneylender’s licence and the financial regulator can refuse to grant such a licence on the grounds that the cost of credit is excessive. The requirement to hold such a licence, and the corresponding oversight of interest rates, only applies to this specialist category of lender.

The financial regulator has power under the Consumer Credit Act to give directions to a mortgage lender in relation to misleading advertising, as well as to prosecute for breaches of the Act. In addition, under the legislation establishing the regulator, its consumer director has responsibility for monitoring the provision of financial services to consumers generally and the power to require a provider of such services to furnish information relevant to any inquiry or study that the director chooses to undertake.

  22.  Mr. Neville    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has examined the take up of tax relief for pension contributions across different income categories; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7096/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  As I stated in my earlier reply it is not possible at present to examine the take up of tax relief for all pension contributions across different income categories. This is because the relevant information is not available to the Revenue Commissioners, because the tax relief for pension contributions for employees is normally given at source, that is, the taxable income is the income net of pension contributions by employees. However, data are available in respect of the tax relief for contributions to retirement annuity contracts, RACs, across different income categories. RACs are used by the self-employed and by employees who are not in pensionable employment. It is intended to examine this data in the context of the review of pensions reliefs which forms part of the review of tax reliefs for high earners.

Provisions were included in Finance Act 2004 requiring employers to give information regarding the total employer and employee pension contributions in the annual P35 return detailing PAYE paid and so on. We will then have a better data set in relation to tax relief for the generality of pension contributions, which will be useful for policy purposes.

  23.  Ms Lynch    asked the Minister for Finance    the response received by the Revenue Commissioners to the letters sent by ten top banks to approximately 120,000 customers warning them to regularise their tax affairs by the end of March; the number of responses received; the amount collected; the number of such cases that have been finalised; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7184/05]

[126]Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that precise figures are not available as to the number of letters which issued from the financial institutions. It is understood to be in excess of 100,000. It is not known how many accounts or individuals this represents because some individuals had accounts in different banks or in different branches of the same bank. In other instances there was more than one name on the account.

The Revenue Commissioners have advised that, following the issue of the letters by the financial institutions, written responses were received from approximately 25,000 persons. Of these, approximately 15,000 persons advised that a statement of disclosure would be made, and to date payment has been received from in excess of 11,500 cases. The difference is accounted for by duplicate notices received by Revenue at the time of the initial deadline of 29 March 2004, cases where the taxpayer subsequently indicated that no liability to tax arose, a small number of cases where assets are being disposed of to meet the liability owing or where there is an inability to pay and cases where no further communication has been received from the taxpayer. Where appropriate, inquiries are continuing in such cases.

In relation to the balance of the 10,000 written submissions received, these individuals were notified that on the basis of the submission received, a statement of disclosure was not required. I am also advised that a further 5,000 persons approximately telephoned the Revenue Commissioners and, on the basis on the information provided, most were advised that a written response was not required.

To date the total amount collected by the Revenue Commissioners from their offshore investigation is in excess of €720 million. Details of amounts collected in respect of this, and other special investigations, are regularly updated on Revenue’s website www.revenue.ie.

  24.  Mr. G. Mitchell    asked the Minister for Finance    his plans for reform of the tax concessions for disabled drivers. [7136/05]

  49.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will report on the contents of the report produced by the interdepartmental group which examined the 1994 disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concession regulations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7144/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I propose to answer Questions Nos. 24 and 49 together.

The disabled drivers and disabled passengers (tax concessions) scheme is open to people with disabilities who meet the specified criteria and have obtained a primary medical certificate to that effect. The senior area medical officer attached to the local Health Service Executive is responsible for both the medical assessment and [127]the issue of the medical certificate. Where the issue of the required certificate is refused, this can be appealed to the Disabled Drivers Medical Board of Appeal, an independent body, whose decision is final. The medical criteria for the purposes of the tax concessions under this scheme are set out in the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers (Tax Concessions) Regulations 1994. Six different types of disablement are listed under the regulations and a qualifying person must satisfy one or more of them.

An individual who obtains a primary medical certificate qualifies for remission or repayment of vehicle registration tax, VRT, repayment of value added tax, VAT, on the purchase of the vehicle and a repayment of VAT on the cost of adaptation of the vehicle. Repayment of the excise duty on fuel used in the motor vehicle and exemption from annual road tax to local authorities are also allowed.

An interdepartmental review group was convened to review the operation of the scheme. The terms of reference of the group were to examine the operation of the existing scheme, including the difficulties experienced by the various groups and individuals involved with it, both on an administrative and user level, and to consider the feasibility of alternative schemes, with a view to assisting the Minister for Finance in determining the future direction of the scheme.

The group’s report was published on my Department’s website in July 2004 and copies have been placed in the Oireachtas library. It sets out in detail the genesis and development of the scheme. It examines the current benefits, the qualifying medical criteria, the Exchequer costs, relationship with other schemes and similar schemes in other countries. The report also makes a number of recommendations, both immediate and long-term, encompassing the operation of the appeals process and options for the future development of the scheme.

Following on from the report’s recommendations concerning the appeals process, amendments to the regulations governing the scheme were made to improve the operation of the appeals process. These were signed by the Minister for Finance on 23 July 2004.

The amendments provided for changes as follows: expanding the panel of medical practitioners serving on the medical board of appeal from three to five, and; amending the appeals process by (a) introducing a six month waiting period between an appeal and subsequent application, and (b) introducing the requirement for a second or subsequent application to be certified by a registered medical practitioner to the effect that there has been material disimprovement in the medical condition since the previous application.

Given the scale and scope of the scheme, further changes can only be made after very careful consideration. For this reason, the Govern[128]ment has decided that the Minister for Finance will consider the recommendations contained in the report of the interdepartmental review group in the context of the annual budgetary process having regard to the existing and prospective cost of the scheme.

  25.  Mr. Penrose    asked the Minister for Finance    his views on the National Pensions Reserve Fund review for 2004; if he is satisfied with the rate of return secured by the fund which, at 9.3%, was two percentage points below its benchmark; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7197/05]

  46.  Mr. Gormley    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will make a statement on the annual review 2004 published by the National Pensions Reserve Fund. [7065/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 25 and 46 together.

I was pleased to note that the commission reported a return of 9.3% in 2004 or an appreciation of €951 million in fund value, excluding the 2004 Exchequer contribution of €1,177 million.

As with its investment strategy, the fund’s benchmarks are determined by the commission and I have no role in relation to them. I note from the review that the fund’s return of 9.3% in 2004 was achieved in the context of the completion of the commission’s averaging-in or phased entry programme to the capital markets. The review points out that such a strategy will under-perform its benchmark in a rising equity market due to its holding less equities and more cash than the benchmark. Conversely, it leads to out-performance in a falling market.

It is only fair to judge the success or otherwise of the commission’s averaging-in strategy over the full period for which it was in effect. In this regard the review states that the averaging-in programme has seen the fund out-perform its strategic benchmark by a cumulative 8.9% over the period since its inception in 2001.

  26.  Ms McManus    asked the Minister for Finance    the progress made by the Revenue Commissioners into allegations that tax improprieties may surround trust operations in a bank in Jersey (details supplied); if the Revenue has reached a determination regarding whether these trusts facilitated tax evasion as distinct from tax avoidance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7185/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that substantial progress has been made in relation to this inquiry. Arising from a voluntary disclosure programme 254 individuals came forward and made voluntary disclosures. To date this programme [129]has recovered in excess of €105 million for the Exchequer.

The Revenue Commissioners indicated previously that those individuals who fail to make disclosures under the voluntary phase of projects will be pursued with all means available. They advise me that through their investigations and inquiries they have now identified individuals who did not come forward during the voluntary phase of this particular project and are now actively pursuing them in relation to breaches of the tax code.

It is clear from some of the disclosures and the amount collected to date that in some instances taxpayers used trusts to facilitate tax evasion.

  27.  Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of High Court orders sought to date by the Revenue Commissioners under the Finance Act 1999 to require financial institutions to supply names, addresses and other relevant information regarding holders of bogus accounts at the latest date for which figures are available; the number of cases in which orders have been granted; the general progress made to date in identifying the holders of such accounts who did not avail of the recent voluntary disclosure scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7188/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  Authorised Revenue officers are empowered to make an application to a judge of the High Court seeking an order requiring financial institutions to supply names, addresses and other relevant information concerning account holders who may have held bogus non-resident deposit accounts. Such applications are made under section 908 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, as amended by the Finance Act 1999. Information supplied by the financial institutions under section 908 orders is the principal basis for identifying bogus non-resident account holders who did not avail of the voluntary disclosure scheme in 2001. This inquiry work commenced on 16 November 2001.

I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that 18 applications for orders under section 908 have been made and granted. When one includes institutions, which have been taken over or amalgamated with other institutions, these orders seek information in respect of accounts in 26 financial institutions. No further applications for such orders are pending in regard to the bogus non-resident account inquiries.

A large volume of information has been reported to Revenue under the High Court orders. Inquiry work in relation to the examination of the first batch of taxpayers commenced on 11 October 2002. Further general issues of inquiry letters were made in January, May, July, September, October 2003 and January 2004. These general inquiry letter issues relate to 91,000 non-resident accounts that had Irish addresses connected to them. A total of 177,000 inquiry letters have been issued to taxpayers in respect of [130]these non-resident accounts. The final general inquiry letter issue took place in January 2004.

The Revenue Commissioners have informed me that they are satisfied that very significant progress has been made in this the final phase of the investigation. Since 15 November 2001, payments of €342 million have been made to Revenue by taxpayers who held bogus non-resident accounts.

  28.  Mr. Costello    asked the Minister for Finance    the progress made by the Revenue Commissioners in their investigation into the reported use of single premium insurance policies as a tax avoidance mechanism; if the precise nature of the investigation has been decided; the information available to his Department or the Revenue on the extent of this practice; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7151/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that they propose to initiate an investigation into the use by some taxpayers of insurance-based products to hide income or gains not declared for tax purposes. The preliminary work to underpin the investigation is nearing finality and I understand that the formal investigation will be announced shortly by the Revenue Commissioners. I am not in a position to comment further at this stage.

  29.  Ms Shortall    asked the Minister for Finance    the position in regard to negotiations with the public service unions regarding his proposals to restrict promotional opportunities to staff willing to move to decentralised locations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7192/05]

  47.  Dr. Twomey    asked the Minister for Finance    if he envisages making any special provision for promotion and for new recruitment in the context of the decentralisation programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7084/05]

  51.  Mr. Murphy    asked the Minister for Finance    if his Department has sought to introduce a policy that only Civil Servants prepared to decentralise may avail of promotion opportunities; the implications of this policy on the career path of civil servants who wish to remain in Dublin; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7176/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 29, 47 and 51 together.

Promotion and recruitment are key elements of the Government’s decentralisation programme. In the implementation phase, they are important in supporting the efficient movement of Departments and offices to their new locations. In a more decentralised service, acceptance of a post, whether as a result of promotion or open recruitment, will have to be conditional on agreement to work in a particular location. The need for new procedures in these areas has been clearly iden[131]tified as a priority by the decentralisation implementation group.

In accordance with the group’s recommendations, the Department of Finance began detailed discussions in 2004 with the staff unions on the procedures which have to be put in place to support the programme and to develop arrangements for a fully decentralised service. It is desirable that these procedures be discussed and agreed between management and staff.

The Government’s position is quite clear: new promotion and recruitment arrangements are required in the Civil Service which take account of the decentralisation programme. It will not be possible in many locations to fill all the posts being transferred solely by the lateral transfer of volunteers. If promotion and recruitment policies are not changed, it could delay implementation of the programme and give rise to extra costs. Getting these policies right is important for the programme and important for the long-term management of the Civil Service.

In 2004, arrangements were made to fill some promotion posts from existing interdepartmental competitions on the basis that promotees would agree to decentralise.

In relation to recruitment, a number of specific posts in the Civil Service, which were known to be decentralising as part of the Government’s programme, were advertised both internally and publicly on the basis that the successful candidate would agree to decentralise.

Discussions are continuing between the management and the Civil Service unions with a view to agreeing new promotion and recruitment mechanisms to support implementation of the programme.

  30.  Mr. Coveney    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will report on the purpose of the Dormant Financial Assets Bill, which appeared in the Government’s autumn 2004 legislative programme; the types of financial assets being considered for inclusion in the Bill; the reason the Bill no longer appears on the Government’s legislative programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7177/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The intended purpose of the Dormant Financial Assets Bill was to extend the Dormant Accounts treatment of assets, other than life assurance and bank accounts, which have been dealt with in recent legislation. However, a secondary legislation approach can be adopted for some items and those requiring primary legislation can now be accommodated in the proposed Financial Services (Consolidation) Bill.

The purpose of the Financial Services (Consolidation) Bill is to consolidate and simplify financial services legislation, in accordance with the Government’s Better Regulation agenda. The Bill may also accommodate certain amendments [132]to related primary legislation, for example, legislation to deal with dormant financial assets. It is expected that this Bill will be published in late 2005.

  31.  Mr. Rabbitte    asked the Minister for Finance    if it is intended to appoint a new chairperson to the decentralisation advisory committee, following the recent resignation of Mr. Phil Flynn; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7193/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  Following on from the recent resignation of the chairman of the decentralisation implementation group, it is my intention to make an appointment to fill the vacancy as chairman of the group as soon as possible.

  32.  Mr. Gilmore    asked the Minister for Finance    when the Government expects to honour the commitment given in An Agreed Programme for Government that 80% of all earners would pay tax only at the standard rate, especially in view of the fact that the proportion of taxpayers paying at the higher rate is expected to increase from 32.61% in 2004 to 33.17% in 2005; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7153/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The Government remains committed to the aim of having 80% of all earners paying tax only at the standard rate and I will be looking at how best we can achieve this over my next two budgets. An Agreed Programme for Government specifically indicates that progress in relation to taxation commitments would be “over the next five years”. The five years began in 2002 and extend to 2007.

However, I draw the Deputy’s attention to the fact that An Agreed Programme for Government also contains an over-arching commitment about the need to pursue responsible fiscal policies and to maintain the public finances in a healthy condition. Accordingly, actions in relation to taxation must have regard to the prevailing budgetary circumstances and the resources available to me at budget time.

In budget 2005 I decided to use the major portion of resources available for a personal tax package to achieving the priority of taking those on the current minimum wage out of the tax net. I also devoted money as a priority to increasing the age exemption limits, which assist the elderly, for the fourth year in a row.

To the extent that further resources were available for tax reductions in the budget 2005 income tax package, they were used essentially to widen the standard rate bands so as to raise the entry level to the higher rate of tax. The increases in the standard rate band will ensure that an extra 52,000 taxpayers will not pay tax at the higher rate in 2005 and that an estimated 33% of income [133]earners will pay tax at the higher rate in 2005 compared with a projected 36% of income earners if no such measure had been included in the budget.

It should be noted that all income earners benefited from the tax changes in the recent Budget. It should also be noted that in 2005 a single PAYE worker on the average industrial wage will pay over €200 less in tax in 2005 than in 1997 on a wage which is over €11,000 greater in value.

  33.  Mr. Hayes    asked the Minister for Finance    if his attention has been drawn to the apparent anomaly in the tax relief scheme for hospitals whereby it excludes certain psychiatric hospitals; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7081/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  When the scheme of capital allowances for the construction of private hospitals was introduced in 2001, the question of including psychiatric hospitals and geriatric-psychiatric hospitals within the ambit of this scheme did not arise.

In recent months I have received proposals with regard to the provision of capital allowances for psychiatric hospitals. These proposals are being examined in my Department.

  34.  Mr. Quinn    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of former Dáil Éireann secretaries who are likely to be eligible for a lump-sum pension payout arising from the decision of the Circuit Criminal Court on 3 February 2005 in the case taken by a person (details supplied); the amount likely to be paid out; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7200/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  As the Deputy is aware, the court case referred to relates to the retirement lump sum of a person who retired in 1997 under an arrangement reached in 1997 for voluntary early retirement. The court held that a lump sum in this case should be paid. The amount involved was €27,687.

I am informed by the Oireachtas Commission that there are up to 51 people in similar circumstances. These will reach age 60 at various stages over many years and may be entitled to retirement lump sums of differing amounts, relating to their length of service, retirement salaries and pay rates applying at the time each lump sum becomes payable.

  35.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Finance    the percentage of the cost of a new house taken by the State in terms of taxation or levies; if this can amount to 40% of the purchase price; if has plans to reduce the tax take in view of the serious economic difficulties faced by many couples when trying to buy a home; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7205/05]

[134]Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  Government policy in the housing market has focused, among other things, on improving supply thereby assisting home ownership particularly for first-time buyers. In this context, the years 2002 and 2003 were the eight and ninth successive years of record housing output with 57,695 and 68,819 completions respectively. This positive trend in supply has continued into 2004, with statistics for the nine months to September showing that overall house completions at 54,170 were up 13.4% on the same period for the preceding year. The rate of house building is now more than double that in 1996.

In addition, a range of tax incentives exist to facilitate first-time buyers in purchasing their own homes. The Deputy will be aware that I introduced a stamp duty relieving measure in the 2005 budget for first-time house purchasers who are owner-occupiers of second-hand houses by increasing the stamp duty exemption threshold for such purchasers from €190,500 to €317,500 and by having reduced rates for house values up to €635,000. The lowering of stamp duty rates for first-time buyers was designed to increase the affordability of residential property for such buyers, thus helping them to get a foothold in the property market. It should be noted that all owner-occupiers are generally exempt from stamp duty on new houses where the property is 125 square metres or less, whereas an investor who purchases a new house for renting is liable for stamp duty where the price exceeds €127,000.

Mortgage interest relief is available at source in respect of interest paid on moneys borrowed for the purchase, maintenance, repair or improvement of that taxpayer’s main residence, including second-hand houses. For owner-occupiers, mortgage interest relief at the standard rate is granted in respect of interest paid up to a ceiling on loans used for the purchase or improvement of a person’s sole or main residence. Preferential arrangements exist for first-time buyers over other owner occupiers. The existing higher ceilings for first-time buyers on allowable interest were increased in budget 2003 and currently stand at €4,000 for a single person and €8,000 for married couples and widowed persons. The period for which these increased ceilings apply was extended from five years to seven years.

In relation to the tax take from new homes, the State finds it necessary to raise taxes from this area like all other goods and services. The Deputy may wish to note that I dealt with the issue of the tax take from the price of a new house in a reply to a parliamentary question on 23 November 2004. Figures in excess of 40% have been attributed by the house building industry to the amount that the Government raises in tax from each new home. However, this figure is wrong. In fact, based on the same industry figures, the cost of a new home that accrues directly to the Exchequer through taxation is more like 28%, based on both Dublin and national prices. [135]This is broadly in line with the tax take on the overall economy.

  36.  Mr. Eamon Ryan    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will provide his Department’s costing for the implementation of a basic income scheme. [7068/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  My Department did not produce the costing for the implementation of a basic income scheme.

The examination of the issues involved in introducing a basic income scheme was undertaken by the steering group on basic income which was established as part of a commitment in Partnership 2000 for inclusion, employment and competitiveness. The group which was chaired by the Taoiseach’s Department was composed of representatives of all four pillars of social partnership, as well as relevant Departments including the Department of Finance. The group commissioned a number of reports and finished its work in March 2001. The group’s work contributed to the development of the Government’s Green Paper on Basic Income, which was published in September 2002.

  37.  Mr. Eamon Ryan    asked the Minister for Finance    if his Department has obtained an extension to the one-month deadline set by the European Commission regarding Ireland’s comments on the nature of the stallion tax relief; the date of the new deadline; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7067/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  Officials from my Department and the Department of Agriculture and Food met with officials from the Commission Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development on 23 February 2005. At this meeting, the Commission agreed to extend the deadline to respond to their letter of 6 January 2005 to the end of March.

  38.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    if he is satisfied that there are adequate procedures in place within the financial and banking sectors; if he has plans to improve or strengthen such procedures; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7146/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland Act 2003 established the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority. The post of consumer director is specifically provided for within the structure of the financial regulator established under that Act. The director exercises important consumer protection powers under legislation.

The Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland Act 2004, complemented the 2003 [136]Act, further enhanced the financial regulator’s powers and strengthened the regulatory environment. This Act conferred new powers on the financial regulator to impose stiff administrative penalties, to be applied where there is a breach of: any financial services legislation; codes of conduct issued by the regulator; or any condition, requirement or direction imposed under legislation or codes.

The Act provided for an enhanced structure for dealing with consumers who have complaints about financial institutions and also provides consumer and industry consultative panels for the financial regulator. The consumer panel will have an important role in ensuring that the regulator is correctly reflecting the interests of consumers in its protective — issue of codes of conduct — and educational — information pamphlets etc. — roles. The Act also established a single statutory Financial Services Ombudsman for all financial services firms. The ombudsman’s office is due to begin operations on 1 April 2005. The Financial Ombudsman will have power to order redress in appropriate circumstances.

The Consumer Credit Act 1995, which commenced in May 1996, regulates the provision of consumer credit. It prescribes inter alia the form and content of credit agreements for consumer lending, including in the case of loans secured on the family home a requirement to warn the borrower about the risk of losing their home. The Act also provides for the regulation of fees and charges imposed by credit institutions.

In addition to the specific regulatory requirements under the Central Bank and Consumer Credit legislation, credit institutions are also subject to specific requirements to know their customers, keep records and report suspicions of money laundering under criminal justice legislation. Their professional advisers, such as accountants and solicitors, are also subject to these reporting requirements. All companies are subject to the enhanced company law regime that has been put in place in recent years, including the oversight role of the Director of Corporate Enforcement.

I am satisfied that the provisions now available in law provide not just for the effective regulation of the way that credit institutions conduct their business but also for effective supervision and enforcement of the law where necessary. I am open to making suitable amendments to the law, if the need arises. In this regard I have asked the financial regulator to advise me as soon as possible if anything emerges from recent developments in relation to asset based lending that in their view would require a legislative change. The forthcoming Bill to consolidate and modernise our financial services legislation could offer a suitable vehicle for such amendments.

  39.  Mr. English    asked the Minister for Finance    if he is satisfied with the provisions for dealing [137]with overpayment of taxation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7106/05]

  42.  Mr. Naughten    asked the Minister for Finance    if the Revenue Commissioners will undertake a major proactive public information campaign, including radio and television advertising, to advise taxpayers of overpaid taxes or unclaimed tax relief; if the Revenue Commissioners will liaise with other State bodies which hold information which might facilitate the identification of taxpayers who have unclaimed reliefs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7174/05]

  72.  Mr. Cuffe    asked the Minister for Finance    if he plans to introduce reforms to encourage people to claim back overpaid PAYE tax. [7062/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 39, 42 and 72 together.

I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that a wide range of initiatives have already been taken to inform PAYE taxpayers of their entitlements to tax credits-reliefs and so avoid overpayments of tax.

Revenue inform me that the vast majority of PAYE workers receive their full entitlements every year. At the beginning of each year a tax credit certificate is issued to every PAYE taxpayer and this reflects the most up-to-date information that Revenue has regarding an individual’s entitlements. Revenue completed the issue of 2.24 million such certificates for 2005 in mid-February. Each certificate was accompanied by a simple but comprehensive leaflet giving full details of the credits-reliefs to which a taxpayer may be entitled including: main personal tax credits available for the year in question with comparative figures for the preceding year; tax rates and tax bands for the year in question; exemption limits for single, widowed and married persons; and how to claim an adjustment to the tax credit certificate.

Revenue uses media advertising on a regular and systematic basis to acquaint taxpayers about their entitlements and to encourage them to claim these. In relation to the PAYE community in particular there is extensive advertising of the budget provisions each year including a Revenue free-phone service which operates for two days immediately following the budget. Again when the tax credit certificates are being issued during January and February each year a newspaper and radio campaign is run to alert people to this.

In February 2005, Revenue launched a new self-service option for PAYE taxpayers. This service allows PAYE employees to claim, using the Internet, text messaging or the lo-call 1890 telephone number, age credits for those over 65, service charges and trade union subscriptions. It also allows them to request a Form 12 — return of income, Med 1 — medical expenses claim, P50 — unemployment claim and Rent 1 — rent relief. These facilities were widely advertised in the [138]media and were included in the information leaflet issued with the tax credit certificates for 2005.

Revenue also publishes a wide range of claim forms, leaflets and guides on all PAYE credits and reliefs including: IT1 — tax credits, reliefs and rates for 2004 and 2005; IT2 — taxation of married persons; IT3 — what to do about tax when you separate; IT6 — health-medical expenses relief; MED 1 — health expenses claim form; IT8 — tax exemption and marginal relief; IT9 — one parent family tax credit; IT11 — employee’s guide to PAYE; IT18 — incapacitated child allowance; IT27 — tax relief for service charges; IT31 — tax relief for tuition fees; IT35 — blind persons allowances and reliefs; IT45 — tax credits and reliefs for over 65’s; IT46 — dependent relative tax credit; and IT47 — employed person taking care of incapacitated individual.

All of these forms and information leaflets can be downloaded and printed from the Revenue website or ordered on-line. There is also a 24-hour telephone number available, 1890 30 67 06, for requesting forms or leaflets.

Revenue is currently undertaking a very comprehensive review of the PAYE system and in the latter part of this year will begin the roll-out of a redesigned system which will allow taxpayers to: access their Revenue records over the Internet to ascertain allowances-credits given and details of pay and tax; amend their tax credit details over the Internet, that is claim an allowance-credit not on record or to change the amount involved for an existing relief; and request an on-line review of their liability or a balancing statement, based on the details available on the Revenue record, including where amended in relation to entitlements. This will give taxpayers a greater control over their tax affairs and let them check whether they have claimed their full entitlements.

Revenue also engages from time to time in targeted media campaigns on particular issues. Two recent examples of such campaigns relate to the four-year time limit for claiming repayments, which encouraged taxpayers to ensure they made claims within the required time frame, and informing taxpayers about the reliefs available to those supporting relatives in nursing homes.

Revenue already liaises with other State bodies and private institutions to facilitate the granting of credits-reliefs to PAYE taxpayers. For example, liaison in relation to the tax relief at source system which was introduced a number of years ago and which ensures that all those entitled to mortgage and medical insurance reliefs get these reliefs at source and do not have to make a claim to Revenue, and service charges, where payment information is received from certain local authorities, which is used in such cases to give a credit to the individual PAYE taxpayer concerned, there is an ongoing exchange of information between Revenue and the Department of Social and Family Affairs in regard to certain taxable payments made by that Department to [139]PAYE employees. This interaction will be enhanced considerably through the more timely exchange of information when the redesigned PAYE system already referred to is rolled out in the latter part of this year.

I am accordingly satisfied that Revenue is already very proactive in the manner in which they ensure that PAYE taxpayers are made aware of their entitlements and facilitated in claiming these. Revenue will keep the issue under constant review and take whatever steps are necessary in relation to public information campaigns so as to continue to inform taxpayers of their entitlements and to simplify as far as possible the arrangements for making these claims. I emphasise, however, that the primary responsibility for ensuring that Revenue has the most up to date information on a taxpayer's affairs lies with the taxpayer.

  40.  Mr. Ring    asked the Minister for Finance    if he is satisfied that the price of homes bought by first-time buyers in Dublin will benefit from the recent stamp duty concession; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7099/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  As the Deputy will be aware, the 2005 budget introduced a stamp duty relieving measure for first-time house purchasers who are owner-occupiers of second-hand houses by increasing the stamp duty exemption threshold for such purchasers from €190,500 to €317,500 and by having reduced rates for house values up to €635,000.

This relieving measure will further assist affordability for first-time buyers and will help some first-time buyers to afford a starter home who might not otherwise be able to do so. It will also help to open the second-hand market more to first-time buyers who had been increasingly deterred by the impact of stamp duty. The current high levels of housing output, coupled with the fact that the reductions have been confined to the first-time buyer segment of the market, should lessen the risk of the measure causing an increase in house prices. The reductions in stamp duty for second hand houses should remove distortion between the new and second-hand markets for first-time buyers by reducing the degree of concentration of first-time buyer demand on the new house market.

  41.  Mr. Noonan    asked the Minister for Finance    if he plans to undertake a study of the impact of the maturity of SSIAs on the economy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7095/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The matter is subject to ongoing study within my Department.

The impact of maturing SSIA funds on consumer demand in 2006 and 2007 is difficult to esti[140]mate and will depend on how the accumulated savings are spent or saved, how that portion of an individual’s income that was previously saved in SSIAs is used, and the extent to which savings are rolled over into other investment products. The economic effect will also depend on the state of the economy in 2007 when the bulk of SSIA funds — around 55% — mature. To date a number of reports have been prepared regarding the impact of the SSIAs by, among others, Goodbody Stockbrokers, Lansdowne Market Research, the Irish Mortgage Corporation and the Bank of Ireland. However, there is no consensus in these reports as to how these funds may be used. It is inevitable that there will be a lot of uncertainty about the likely outcomes. As a scheme such as the SSIA has not existed previously, it is not possible to draw on experience as a basis for anticipating the impact the maturing accounts will have on the economy.

Question No. 42 answered with Question
No. 39.

  43.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    if his Department has concluded its consideration of the letter from the Commission Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development advising that it had come to a preliminary opinion that the stallion tax exemption scheme would seem to constitute an aid that was not compatible with the Common Market; if a reply has been submitted; if an extension of the one month deadline for reply has been agreed by the Commission; the details of the amount he has submitted to the Commission of the estimate for 2003 of the stallion income exempted by the scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7147/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The Irish authorities have yet to conclude their consideration of the letter of 6 January 2005 from the Commission Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development and a reply to the Commission’s letter has not yet issued. Officials from my Department and the Department of Agriculture and Food met with Commission officials on 23 February 2005. At this meeting, the Commission agreed to extend the deadline to respond to the end of March.

In relation to the cost of the exemption, in the Commission’s letter of 20 April 2004, the Commission sought, inter alia, information on the amounts concerned. If no detailed official statistics can be provided, then the Irish authorities are requested to give best estimates on statistics on the number of holdings concerned, the number of stallion nominations performed, the relevant tax brackets, and the regular price paid for such nominations.

In response, the Commission was informed by the Irish authorities that, as the measure represented exempt income, there has been no [141]requirement in the past on those claiming the exemption to supply any information to the Revenue Commissioners of details of the amount of income involved. Therefore, the information requested on the cost was not available.

The Commission was also informed that this position changed with the introduction through section 33 of the 2003 Finance Act of an amendment to section 231 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 which provided that the profits, gains or losses arising in this regard must be included in the annual return of income for the taxpayer even though the income or gains are exempt from tax. This requirement applies in respect of chargeable periods commencing on or after 1 January 2004. The Commission was also informed that this information, which will not be available in full until early 2006, will enable more reliable information to be determined as to the cost or otherwise to the Irish Exchequer of the exemption. Other statistical estimates as requested by the Commission in relation to numbers of stallions, numbers of stallion farms, nominations and fee ranges were obtained from industry sources and were provided to the Commission in addition to the tax rates applicable. However, this could not give the cost of the exemption as this can only be obtained on the basis of the individual returns for each taxpayer claiming the exemption.

Subsequently, a copy of the report by Indecon International Economic Consultants, Assessment of the Economic Contribution of the Thoroughbred Breeding and Horse Racing Industry in Ireland, was sent to the Commission at end September 2004. As has been widely reported, that report contained an estimate that the Exchequer cost of the exemption was in the region of €3 million which was based on the consultants’ own research and analysis. It was not an estimate prepared by the Irish authorities.

  44.  Mr. Boyle    asked the Minister for Finance    the reason he opposed the initiative by his EU colleagues, including France, Germany, the Presidency and the Commission to introduce an aviation fuel tax to fund poverty relief in Sub-Saharan Africa. [7059/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  At the most recent meeting of EU Finance Ministers on 17 February, there was a lunchtime discussion about exploring the possibility of introducing a tax on aviation fuel or a levy on airline tickets for the purposes of raising revenue for development aid. Opinions differed on the wisdom of such an approach.

Following this discussion, the European Commission was asked to examine the pros and cons of possible approaches for the financing of development aid, including the suggestions referred to above. At that stage we will be in a position to better assess the impact of any such proposal from an Irish perspective.

I have not opposed any proposal as no detailed proposal has yet been made.

  45.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Minister for Finance    his views on the Report on Competition in Banking recently published by the Competition Authority. [7102/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  In responding to the Deputy, I should, perhaps, first clarify the context in which the recent report was published and the views of interested parties sought thereon.

The report published by the Competition Authority last December was one which had been prepared for it by a firm of consultants. While endorsing the analysis in the report, the authority has not yet taken a position on the findings in the report. It is only after it has considered the responses to the current consultation exercise that the authority will issue its own report and recommendations, probably around mid-2005. Given these circumstances, the response which I sent to the authority was a preliminary one. This will be reviewed in the light of the finalisation of the authority’s own position in relation to the issues raised in the report.

The report which was published contained 40 recommendations, but only a small number of these were actually addressed to my Department. A particular focus of interest for my Department related to stamp duty on “plastic” cards. The recommendations on this topic dealt with the issue of the double stamp duty burden on persons in a year in which they switched card providers, or up-graded or down-graded the status of the card provided by their existing supplier.

I had already indicated in my budget speech last December that I would take steps to eliminate this double charge and section 120 of the Finance Bill 2005 provides accordingly. It amends Part 9 of the Stamp Duties Consolidation Act 1999 to provide for an exemption from a second or subsequent charge to stamp duty for financial cards such as credit cards, charge cards, ATM cards, Laser cards and combined cards arising from the switching of accounts within a financial institution, or from one financial institution to another, in the same year of charge. The change in relation to credit cards and charge cards will take effect from 2 April 2005, while the change in relation to ATM cards, Laser cards and combined cards will take effect from 1 January 2006.

A second area of particular interest to my Department in the report concerned the recommendation that the regulation of non-interest bank charges be phased out. As pointed out in the response which I forwarded to the authority, the regulation of non-interest charges and fees is aimed at consumer protection. It facilitates IFSRA both to verify that notified charges are in fact being applied to customer transactions and to require restitution in the event of overcharging. A reconsideration of the present arrangements would be warranted only in the context of a compelling case being made that these provisions significantly deter new entrants [143]to the markets for these banking products, or that the effectiveness of competition in the sector is considerably increased.

There were some other issues in the report for my Department, to which I have also responded. I am arranging to have the full text of the response placed on my Department’s website.

As to my own views in the matter, I welcomed the report when it was published. The approach of putting the consultants’ views forward for discussion is an interesting one. As I said, when the authority takes its own position on the various issues I will consider the matter further.

Question No. 46 answered with Question
No. 25.

Question No. 47 answered with Question
No. 29.

  48.  Mr. Gilmore    asked the Minister for Finance    the progress made to date with regard to his review of tax reliefs and exemptions for high earners; if consultants have now been appointed to assist in this process; when he expects the process to be completed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7152/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I announced in my Budget Statement that my Department and the Office of the Revenue Commissioners will undertake a detailed review of certain tax incentive schemes and tax exemptions in 2005. This review will evaluate their impact and operation including their economic and social benefits for the different locations and sectors involved and to the wider community. In addition the review will examine the degree to which these schemes allow high-income individuals to reduce their tax liabilities.

I subsequently announced in a press release on 6 January 2005 that my Department had advertised for external consultants to review certain tax incentive schemes. Tenders were invited from suitably qualified consultants to undertake two separate studies in economic, fiscal and social terms, as necessary, of the impact, operation, effectiveness and cost of 15 separate tax incentive schemes. The request for tenders was placed in the Official Journal of the European Union on 24 December 2004. Seven tenders have recently been received in my Department and decisions on the award of the contracts will be taken by the end of this month. It is envisaged that the consultancy review of these various reliefs will be completed by end July 2005.

The review of tax reliefs also includes a special public consultation process seeking submissions on measures that could be introduced to balance the benefit of such reliefs with the extent to which these are used by high-earners to reduce their tax bill. The public consultation was advertised on 8 [144]January 2005 and submissions should be made to my Department before 31 March 2005.

The review will also involve the examination by my Department and the Revenue Commissioners of certain other tax exemptions, for example, for stallions, woodlands, artists and patent income. I would welcome the views of public representatives, either individually or via the forum of the relevant Oireachtas committees and of the social partners in due course in relation to all these matters.

The aim is to have all these examinations completed by the autumn so that the various issues can be examined in the context of the 2006 budget next December.

Question No. 49 answered with Question
No. 24.

  50.  Mr. Cuffe    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has considered and costed charity tax reform as proposed by the ICTRG. [7061/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  In the context of this year’s Finance Bill, the Irish Charities Tax Reform Group, ICTRG, has proposed a reduction in the minimum threshold for donations qualifying for tax relief from €250 to €100 and an extension of the current donations scheme to cover gifts of non-cash assets. In addition, the group has proposed the introduction of a VAT refund scheme for charities.

I have considered the issues raised but am not prepared to reduce the minimum amount at this time. The relief is already very generous, being at the taxpayer’s marginal rate of tax. This could be as high as 42% for an individual donor. In such cases, the value of the donation is increased by 72% as a result of the tax relief. A reduction in the minimum qualifying donation would have the effect of increasing the numbers of donations qualifying for relief and could therefore be very costly to the Exchequer.

Regarding the donation of non-cash items, the position is that where an asset is donated to an eligible charity, the donation for capital gains tax, CGT, purposes is deemed to be such that neither a gain nor loss accrues to the donor on the disposal. Therefore, no tax charge arises in respect of such a donation and any gain on a subsequent disposal of the asset by the charity is not a chargeable gain provided it is applied for charitable purposes only. Income tax relief on the value of an asset donated as proposed by the ICTRG, together with the current CGT exemption, would amount to a double relief. Such a concession could result in tax relief being granted which was well beyond the top rate of income tax.

In addition, the means whereby the relief is currently given in the case of a PAYE donor presupposes that the individual is making the donation from income on which he or she has paid income tax to the value of the relief being claimed. While there is some prospect that this is so when the donation is in the form of money, [145]such a link may be broken where non-cash items are involved.

I very much appreciate the valuable work done by charities for the benefit of the community at large. I also understand the desire of the ICTRG to have the minimum qualifying threshold reduced still further and for the relief to be extended to non-cash items. However, the Exchequer is responding very generously in the present climate to the voluntary sector. In the circumstances, therefore, I do not consider the changes proposed are merited at this time. It is not possible to provide an estimate of the cost of the ICTRG proposals on the donations scheme but they would have significant implications for the Exchequer.

With regard to the ICTRG’s proposal for the introduction of a VAT refund scheme for charities, charities and non-profit groups are governed by EU VAT law with which Irish VAT law must comply. Charities are exempt from charging VAT on the services they provide and cannot recover VAT incurred on goods and services they purchase. Essentially, only VAT-registered businesses which charge VAT are able to recover VAT. Accordingly, I have no plans to make any changes to the VAT treatment of charities.

Question No. 51 answered with Question
No. 29.

  52.  Mr. M. Higgins    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of persons on the national minimum wage who are expected to be brought back into the tax net if the increase to €7.65 per week, as recommended by the Labour Court, is implemented; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7154/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I remind the Deputy it was this Government that introduced the minimum wage to protect low paid workers and which, over the last eight budgets, removed a record number of some 459,500 workers from the tax net.

The wage is €15,515 on an annualised basis, based on a 39-hour week. The income tax threshold is €14,250 per annum. The Revenue Commissioners estimate there will be approximately 37,300 income earners in this annual income range in 2005 who will pay some small amount of tax if the new minimum wage is implemented. Some of these are likely to be workers on the minimum wage working full time, while others are likely to be workers on higher wage rates working shorter hours. This estimate is provisional and likely be revised. A married couple who has elected or has been deemed to have elected for joint assessment is counted as one tax unit.

  53.  Mr. Costello    asked the Minister for Finance    [146]his views on the recent suggestions that high-income earners who are paid more than €200,000 per year should pay a minimum 20% tax; if he intends to take steps to ensure a minimum tax contribution from high earners; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7150/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The Deputy is aware of my announcement in budget 2005 that my Department, in conjunction with the Revenue Commissioners, will undertake a detailed review of certain tax incentive schemes and tax exemptions this year. There are a number of elements to the review which is already under way. It will evaluate the impact and operation of certain incentive schemes and exemptions including their economic and social benefits for the different locations and sectors involved and to the wider community. It will include external consultancy work on the evaluation of property-based tax incentive schemes and examine the degree to which these schemes allow high-income individuals to reduce their tax liabilities.

As well as examining relevant international approaches, the review will also include a consultation process seeking submissions on measures that could be introduced to balance the benefit of such reliefs and the extent to which such incentives and exemptions are used by high earners to reduce their tax bill. One such measure to be examined will be the concept of a minimum income tax.

Until this review of tax incentives and exemptions is complete and I have considered the matter, I do not propose to make any comment on the steps I may take in this area.

  54.  Mr. O’Shea    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of persons, companies and trusts being investigated by the Revenue Commissioners arising from the Ansbacher accounts at the latest date for which figures are available; the number of cases in which settlements have been agreed; the amount paid; the number of cases still outstanding; if additional action has been taken by the Revenue Commissioners arising from the report of the Ansbacher inspectors; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7189/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that their Ansbacher review team has inquired into 289 cases to date, 109 of which have been finalised. The 289 cases, taking account of spouses and connected companies, consist of 300 names. They are made up of 179 cases listed on the High Court inspectors’ report and 110 similar cases discovered by Revenue or listed on the authorised officer’s report.

A total of 211 cases have been under active investigation. The remaining cases consist of 62 non-resident persons, including 17 former Irish residents, 12 individuals who claimed the 1993 amnesty provisions and four cases with insuf[147]ficient identity information. The investigation includes examining the tax position of disclosed entities and accumulating and assembling information on other connected entities. The number of connected entities in regard to cases under investigation is now almost 700. Revenue is making extensive use of its legislative powers to seek books, records, documents and information in the cases being investigated. Where appropriate, prosecutions will be considered but these will depend on the level of evidence available. Revenue has made six successful applications to the [148]High Court for the production by financial institutions and third parties of books, records and other documentation, which are relevant to liabilities of Ansbacher account holders. Some 200,000 documents have been received under the terms of the High Court orders. Advanced investigative computer software is used in controlling and managing the documentation.

To date a total of €45.53 million has been received, consisting of settlements and payments on account, in respect of 95 cases. This is detailed in the following table.

Cases € million
Cases involving Ansbacher or Ansbacher type arrangements 77 cases 36.22
Other cases involving offshore funds or deposits 18 cases 9.31
Total 95 cases 45.53

[147]The 109 cases which have been finalised consist of 66 cases which were settled on payments of €35.62 million, included in the amount above, 26 non-resident cases which are covered by the provisions of double taxation agreements and 17 which had no additional liability, of which two were covered by the 1993 amnesty provisions.

Revenue made an application under section 11 of the Companies Act 1990 for a copy of the High Court inspectors’ report. This was made available to Revenue on 6 July 2002. The information in this report has been carefully considered as regards the tax liabilities of the persons concerned. In addition, Revenue made a further application to the High Court for access to the supporting papers to the High Court inspectors’ report. Judgment was delivered by the president of the High Court in May 2004 to allow access to documents relating to clients of Ansbacher named in the report and those persons and companies found by the High Court inspectors to have failed to co-operate with their inquiry.

The judgment also allows for Revenue to make application and grounding affidavit for the obtaining of information and documents relating to any other individual or company. Access to documents is subject to the direction of the High Court. The High Court orders in the matter were granted in June 2004 and perfected in January 2005. Revenue has applied on foot of the orders for access to documentation in respect of certain cases named in the High Court inspectors’ report. The documentation is awaited.

Revenue has informed me the investigations are time-consuming and complex and are likely to continue for some time to come.

  55.  Mr. Perry    asked the Minister for Finance    if he is satisfied that penalties for non-compliance in the banking sector are adequate in view of the recent investigations of non-compliance at banks (details supplied). [7087/05]

[148]Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The level of penalties to be applied in the case of certain tax evasion by the banking sector was addressed in the Finance Act 2002, following recommendations made by the Committee of Public Accounts. As a result, heavier tax-geared penalties can now be applied in circumstances where fixed penalties were previously applied. As the Deputy is aware, the Revenue Commissioners were given additional powers by my predecessor in the Finance Act 1999 to enable them to carry out on-site audits in financial institutions thereby increasing the prospect of detection and reducing the prospect of non-compliance.

I am satisfied the powers available to the Revenue Commissioners and the sanctions that may be applied in cases involving non-compliance are broadly adequate. The Law Reform Commission’s recent report on a fiscal prosecutor and a revenue court and last year’s report of the Revenue Powers Group both provide reassurance in this regard.

  56.  Ms O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Finance    if the Government has plans to encourage the productive use of money that will be released into the economy when the SSIAs mature; if there are plans for any further scheme to encourage saving; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7195/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The SSIA scheme opened on 1 May 2001 and entry to it closed on 30 April 2002. The accounts are due to mature between May 2006 and April 2007 at the end of the five-year period. A total of 1.17 million accounts were opened during the period outlined.

The specific goal of the SSIA scheme was to encourage people to save over a period of at least five years. Its effect has been to stimulate such savings over varying income ranges as evident in the extensive take-up by many low-income ear[149]ners. The scheme has been a success in those terms.

The scheme has a specific duration. Any proposals for new savings schemes to replace the SSIA scheme would be considered as part of the normal annual budgetary process taking account of public policy objectives and Exchequer cost implications. The use to which the moneys arising on maturity of the SSIAs are put is ultimately a matter for the individual account holder.

  57.  Mr. Deasy    asked the Minister for Finance    the changes he plans to make in the PPP process to achieve the new targets for expenditure. [7118/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I refer the Deputy to my answer to a parliamentary question put by Deputy Murphy on Tuesday, 1 February 2005, reference number 2536/05, wherein I provided the following information.

Public private partnerships, PPPs, are part of the overall strategy to deliver on investment priorities. The Government is committed to developing the PPP process as a viable procurement option for appropriate projects. There has been good progress on PPPs overall since the first group of pilot projects were announced in 1999. Reasonable deal flow has been established in the roads and environment areas but progress in regard to projects remunerated by unitary payments from the Exchequer has been slower. We are still learning and continue to keep our processes and procedures under review.

The multi-annual capital envelopes introduced in budget 2004 set ambitious targets for investment funded by PPPs and the National Development Finance Agency, NDFA. After the first year of operation, it was clear that not all the first set of targets for PPPs to be remunerated by unitary payments would be met in the short term. There are a number of reasons for this, including the complexity of the process and a lead time of 18 months to two years in bringing PPP projects to construction.

Adjustments to the targets were made in budget 2005 to take account of the shortfall in 2005 and to accommodate the situation in the short to medium term. The total PPP-NDFA allocation for 2005 to 2009, remunerated by unitary payments from Departments’ Votes, is €3.675 billion. In addition, a target of €1.195 billion for PPPs remunerated by user charges has been set.

PPPs should not replace traditional methods where these are considered more suited to the individual project or projects under consideration. However, the PPP procurement option has an important role to play when applied to appropriate projects where there is the right scale, risk and operational profile to harness the benefits of this new approach. PPPs are acknowledged to be complex, involving a long-term financial commitment for both the private and public sector partners for a period of anything up to 30 years.

[150]The challenge for the future is to ensure the appropriate skills and capacity are in place, together with balanced and proportionate procedures for appraisal, assessment and evaluation of proposals, which will facilitate the selection of PPP projects offering quality public services, value for money and timely delivery. My Department is actively considering what changes, if any, are appropriate.

  58.  Mr. G. Mitchell    asked the Minister for Finance    if his Department or any agency under its aegis is carrying out an investigation into companies (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7181/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  My Department is not carrying out an investigation into any of the companies named. Since this is an operational matter, it is for the Revenue Commissioners to decide what action should be taken in cases that come to their attention. For operational reasons it would not be appropriate to comment further.

The role of the Minister for Finance in regard to financial regulation is to bring forward legislative proposals whereby the duly empowered financial regulator, IFSRA, can supervise and regulate the financial sector in accordance with those powers. IFSRA is independent in the exercise of its powers.

I am, however, open to making suitable amendments to the law if the need arises. In this regard, I have asked the financial regulator to advise me as soon as possible if anything emerges from recent developments in regard to asset-based lending that would require legislative change. The forthcoming Bill to consolidate and modernise our financial services legislation will offer a suitable vehicle for such amendments.

  59.  Mr. Allen    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has satisfied himself with regard to the numbers of persons from within State agencies who have indicated a willingness to decentralise with their agencies; and his views on the assessments from some of the agencies of the risk of damage to delivery of services. [7131/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I accept that the number of applications to the central applications facility, CAF, from the Civil Service are much better than those from State agencies. Unlike the State agencies, the Civil Service has considerable previous experience of decentralisation and has a long tradition of interdepartmental transfers.

The decentralisation implementation group asked that all organisations participating in the programme should prepare detailed implementation plans including risk mitigation strategies. These plans were prepared and submitted to the group and most included risk mitigation stra[151]tegies. In its July 2004 report, the group noted that the overall quality of the plans was good. It has recommended, in paragraph 9.3, that in preparing the next version of their implementation plans, each organisation should ensure a risk mitigation strategy is included. I am satisfied this represents a realistic approach to risk identification and mitigation.

  60.  Ms Lynch    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of breaches detected of the Waiver of Certain Tax, Interest and Penalties Act 1993 in respect of each year since 1994; the number of prosecutions initiated and convictions secured arising from such detections; if he has satisfied himself the law is being applied in the manner intended by the Oireachtas; if his attention has been drawn to comments made by the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners at the meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts on 2 December 2004 in which he referred to the difficulties faced in initiating prosecution for breaches of the Act; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7158/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that there are two ways in which a taxpayer may have been in breach of the amnesty, either through making a false declaration or through not making a declaration. The Revenue Commissioners do not have figures for the number of detected breaches of the amnesty. The confidentiality conditions built into the 1993 amnesty legislation make such breaches difficult to identify and prove.

Individuals and companies have been successfully prosecuted in recent years as a result of Revenue investigations and, although these investigations have in some instances involved consideration of possible amnesty breaches, it has not generally been possible to obtain the evidence necessary to meet the required standards of “beyond reasonable doubt” from an amnesty perspective. However, one individual has been successfully prosecuted to date for failure to comply with the obligatory provisions of the Waiver of Certain Tax, Interest and Penalties Act 1993 following a Revenue investigation and is awaiting sentence. There was a well-publicised conviction in the Circuit Criminal Court recently for tax offences related to the amnesty and in January last a six-month jail sentence was handed down.

Revenue’s criminal investigation programmes have been refocused recently with the establishment of an investigations and prosecutions division, one of the functions of which is to increase the number of prosecutions for serious tax evasion. Many of the cases under investigation relate to tax offences committed in recent years and do not therefore involve consideration of amnesty issues. However, a number of cases have been identified which could involve offences in regard [152]to the amnesty and they will be investigated with a view to taking a criminal prosecution.

I am aware of the comments made by the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners at the Committee of Public Accounts in December 2004, in response to questions regarding the 2003 Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on the issue of the tax amnesty. He referred to the serious difficulties the Revenue Commissioners had in obtaining admissible evidence due to the confidentiality safeguards enshrined in the amnesty legislation. He went on to say there were two cases coming before the courts in the near future and that much would depend on the outcome of these as to whether the other cases being investigated would go for prosecution. One of these is the successful Revenue conviction mentioned earlier.

In view of this, I am satisfied the Revenue Commissioners are making every effort to ensure the law is applied in the manner intended by the legislation as passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas. Deputies are aware the Finance Bill 2005 contains important additions to the powers of the Revenue Commissioners to seek prosecutions, which will be of assistance in deterring and allowing the prosecution of future tax offences.

  61.  Ms McManus    asked the Minister for Finance    the progress made by his Department and the Revenue Commissioners in their consideration of the recommendations of the Revenue Powers Group; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7186/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The Revenue Powers Group was established in March 2003 to review Revenue’s main powers and recommend changes. The group reported in late 2003 and its report was published in February 2004. At the time of publication of the report, the then Minister for Finance indicated his intention to allow a period for public debate and reflection on many of the wide-ranging issues raised by the recommendations.

I have now considered the various recommendations and, in this year’s Finance Bill, initiated the first measures in a process of reforms in the area of Revenue powers. The measures contained in the Bill represent a balanced package which includes some of the recommendations of the Revenue Powers Group. I intend to return to some of the remaining recommendations, which require further consultation and careful consideration, for future implementation. In this context, the recent report of the Law Reform Commission on a fiscal prosecutor and a revenue court is also relevant.

One of the measures proposed in the Finance Bill 2005 as a result of the Revenue Powers Group report is the increase in the publication limit for settlements with tax defaulters from €12,700 to €30,000. The limit of €12,700 has not been changed since it was first enacted in 1983 [153]and if indexed according to the CPI would be of the order of €26,000. The RPG recommended a limit of €50,000 while the Law Reform Commission recommended a limit of €25,000. The amendment provides that the limit be automatically revised every five years in line with the CPI to a rounded figure of the next €1,000.

The interest rate on underpaid tax will be reduced to a daily simple interest rate equivalent to 10% per annum for non-fiduciary taxes while retaining the 11.75% rate for fiduciary taxes, which are collected and remitted on behalf of others, for example, VAT and PAYE. The Bill also provides for the repeal of the 2% per month interest charge for ‘fraud and neglect’ and the 200% tax-geared penalty for fraud from a current date. However, both will remain on the Statute Book for historical “legacy” cases.

Other recommendations of the group will also be administratively implemented or have already been implemented by the Revenue Commissioners. The Revenue Powers Group had concerns regarding the modalities of exchange of information between Revenue and other agencies, especially the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement. Revenue and the ODCE have recently concluded negotiations and signed a memorandum of understanding which will govern this information exchange and largely meets the group’s concerns.

The targeting of audits will be continually improved through greater focus on risk. Regional “powers officers” have been appointed within Revenue to manage the use of powers in the new regions. Compliance costs will be reduced wherever possible and the cost of compliance will continue to be weighed up when considering the introduction of new powers. Revenue will aim to examine records at the taxpayer’s premises where the removal of records would prevent the business carrying on in an orderly manner. In addition, Revenue will give more prominence to the external reviewers and in future will have them appointed using the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commission.

I have also addressed a number of other issues within the general area of Revenue powers which did not arise from the recommendations of the Revenue Powers Group.

  62.  Mr. Sargent    asked the Minister for Finance    the reforms of the budgetary process to which he alluded in his Budget 2005 speech. [7069/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I am continuing to examine a number of options for change which could be implemented in the short and medium term. Any changes to the process would need to meet best practice, improve both the quality of debate and the data available to the House on the budget, meet our obligations to the EU and be capable of being delivered within the existing budget timetable. Before I bring proposals to the House, I will discuss the possibilities [154]for change with my colleagues in Government. At that stage, I will bring proposals which the House will have an opportunity to discuss.

  63.  Mr. Deenihan    asked the Minister for Finance    the position regarding the provision of a new Garda station at Castleisland, County Kerry. [5079/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Parlon):  The Commissioners of Public Works recently identified a number of new site options in the Castleisland area for a new Garda station. Following preliminary assessment of these options, the commissioners have now short-listed a number of suitable sites for consideration by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. On receipt of the views of the Department, the commissioners will commence the acquisition process.

  64.  Mr. S. Ryan    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will make a statement on the recently published guidelines for the appraisal and management of public capital programmes and projects. [7202/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The recently revised guidelines for the appraisal and management of capital expenditure proposals in the public sector are part of the Government’s continuing commitment to maximising value for money from public expenditure. They will complement the rolling multi-annual capital envelopes introduced in budget 2004. The new guidelines are designed to be rigorous in their approach to the management and evaluation of capital programmes and project appraisal and management and to reflect best practice, while introducing greater proportionality into project assessment. All projects under capital programmes or included in business plans must be subject to project appraisal.

Under the revised guidelines, projects involving minor refurbishment works, fit outs and so on with a value of less than €0.5 million will undergo a simple assessment. Projects between €0.5 million and €5 million will be the subject of a single appraisal, comprising elements of preliminary appraisal to determine if a project justifies more detailed consideration and detailed appraisal to determine if a project should go to planning and implementation stages.

A preliminary appraisal and a full detailed appraisal will be carried out for all projects costing over €5 million. These larger projects will undergo a more sophisticated analysis with projects over €50 million required to undergo a full cost-benefit analysis at detailed appraisal stage. All capital programmes with an annual value in excess of €50 million and of five years’ duration or more will, for the first time, be required to be evaluated at the beginning and mid-point of each [155]five-year cycle, unless otherwise agreed by the Department of Finance. Formal structures for the monitoring and management of investment programmes to include the appointment of a programme co-ordinator and a monitoring committee must also be put in place.

The new guidelines also provide for a clearer definition of the respective roles and responsibilities of all involved in the management and appraisal of capital programmes and projects, Government, Ministers, the Department of Finance, Departments and public bodies. Furthermore, the guidelines contain the Department of Finance general conditions of sanction to expenditure under the capital envelopes. Under the general conditions of sanction for the multi-annual capital envelopes, Departments are required to comply in all cases with my Department’s guidelines for the appraisal and management of capital projects. Under the Department of Finance general conditions of sanction to the capital envelopes, Departments must put in place systems to report regularly to their management on the evaluation of projects prior to approval, the management of capital projects and progress on capital programmes. They must also arrange to carry out spot-checks for compliance with the capital appraisal guidelines and report on these and on progress generally under their capital envelopes to the Department of Finance.

The NDP-CSF evaluation unit will review on behalf of the Department of Finance the reports from Departments on the spot checks for compliance. My Department will consider any recommendations from the unit in this regard and take any necessary follow-up actions with Departments.

  65.  Mr. Connaughton    asked the Minister for Finance    his views on the exposure of the economy to reversals in the housing market; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7091/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  In the past number of years there has been a sharp increase in housing output and it has become a highly significant sector of the economy. In 2003 housing construction accounted for just over 10% of GNP. A gradual easing back of housing output is envisaged in the coming years, although this is expected to be offset by other components of building and construction, assisted by a continuation of a strong public capital programme, as well as a continuation in the pick up in other investment. Most commentators believe that the Irish housing market is underpinned by strong economic fundamentals and favourable demographics must also be taken into account.

  66.  Mr. Sherlock    asked the Minister for Finance    the amount in corporation tax paid by the [156]banks and other financial institutions in the latest year for which figures are available; his views on whether this represents a fair return in regard to the huge profits now being made, particularly by banks; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7203/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that the estimated corporation tax paid in 2004 by banks and other financial institutions was of the order of €1,300 million. This figure is significant, representing almost 25% of our total corporation tax take of €5,334 million in 2004. This covers banks, their Irish subsidiaries, banking activities in the IFSC, insurance companies and building societies. The amount does not include foreign tax paid by Irish financial institutions in respect of their overseas operations, which is likely to be significant.

As the Deputy will be aware the 12.5% corporation tax rate enjoyed by companies in Ireland is a general measure which applies to a company’s trading income. In this regard it would not be appropriate, under EU state aid rules, to impose a higher corporation tax rate on the profits of the banking sector.

As the Deputy is no doubt also aware, the Finance Act 2003 provides for a special three year contribution from the banking sector. This provision has already yielded €206 million and also applies for 2005.

  67.  Mr. Broughan    asked the Minister for Finance    the Government’s position in relation to a proposal put forward by the European Commission that the proportion of value added tax currently paid into the Union budget by member states should be increased; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7148/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  There is in fact no such proposal from the European Commission at this time. The Commission has invited Council to discuss the options suggested by the Commission for direct EU taxation to fund, in part at least, the Union budget from 2014 onwards. In putting forward this suggestion, the Commission has identified VAT as one of three options for that direct EU tax.

Currently, the EU budget is financed by traditional own resources, mainly customs duties, a notional VAT resource whereby a common rate is applied to each member state’s harmonised VAT base and a GNI related resource whereby a common rate is applied to each member state’s gross national income. The essence of the current system is that the EU budget is mainly funded by contributions from the member states, whose unanimous agreement is needed to make any change to the system.

In a report published last July, the Commission considered a number of options in relation to the future financing of the EU budget. These were maintaining the current system; abolishing the current VAT resource in favour of greater reliance on the GNI resource; or introducing a [157]direct EU tax to finance the budget. The direct EU tax approach was favoured by the Commission, which proposed that it be introduced from 2014.

Three options for such a direct EU tax were put forward by the Commission: A tax on energy consumption; the application of an EU rate to actual national VAT bases; or a tax on corporate income. While not expressing a distinct preference for any one of these options, the Commission noted that an EU tax on corporate income would require the most preparatory work.

With specific regard to the VAT option, the Commission envisaged that this would be implemented through an EU rate as part of the national VAT rate paid by taxpayers and on the same taxable base. The Commission suggested that the EU VAT and national VAT should appear as separate taxes on the invoice or receipt that a taxable person provides to a customer. It was not envisaged by the Commission that the overall VAT burden on citizens would increase as the EU rate would be offset by an equivalent decrease in the national rate.

Virtually all the member states, including Ireland, have clearly expressed their opposition to a new direct EU tax to finance the budget. In their view, the current system is efficient, effective and reasonably equitable though there might be some scope for improving matters on that latter point. Debate has centred instead on the other two scenarios outlined by the Commission for financing of the budget. These are retaining the current system or abolishing the current VAT resource and going to a more emphatically GNI based system. As they think the latter scenario would be more equitable, transparent and administratively less burdensome, Ireland and a majority of member states favour the more GNI based option.

The final decision on the Commission’s proposals will form part of the agreement on the future financing of the EU for the period 2007-13. The current negotiations on future financing are due to conclude in a political agreement at the European Council next June.

  68.  Mr. S. Ryan    asked the Minister for Finance    if an assessment has been done of the likely implications of the recent decision of the European Court of Justice which found against the Revenue Commissioners’ interpretation of VAT rules on canteen food sales; the anticipated loss to the Exchequer as a result of the ruling; the amount that it is likely that will have to be repaid; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7201/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I assume the Deputy is referring to the recent decision of the European Court of Justice concerning Hotel Scandic, a Swedish company which was about to provide subsidised meals to its employees. There has been no European Court of Justice case [158]involving the Revenue Commissioners’ interpretation of VAT rules on canteen food sales.

In the Scandic case the European Court of Justice found that VAT would be chargeable only on the price paid by employees for the subsidised meals. Ireland’s position is not the same as that of Sweden. The charging rules in Ireland are based on a different provision of the sixth VAT directive than that at issue in the Swedish case. Ireland’s rule is that the taxable amount in respect of subsidised canteens is the cost of providing the meals or the price paid by the employees, whichever is the greater. Nevertheless, the Revenue Commissioners are examining the details of the judgement to establish whether or not it has any implications for the Irish position.

  69.  Mr. P. McGrath    asked the Minister for Finance    if an evaluation of the proposed decentralisation of Ordnance Survey Ireland has been prepared or presented to him; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7120/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  As stated in my reply to Parliamentary Question No. 52 of 1 February 2005, all organisations that are decentralising, including Ordnance Survey Ireland, OSI, have prepared and submitted an implementation plan as requested by the decentralisation implementation group, DIG. This plan included detailed material on all issues to be addressed in terms of people, property and business planning and will be further developed as additional information emerges. The plan also incorporates specific risk assessment and mitigation strategies. The plan was circulated to all staff and has been placed on the OSI intranet.

  70.  Ms O. Mitchell    asked the Minister for Finance    his views on whether a review of the performance of the NDP would now be timely. [7079/05]

  112.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Finance    the extent to which he views the national development plan being achievable within budget and on time; the financial implications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7423/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 70 and 112 together.

I would also refer the Deputies to my response to Questions Nos. 23 and 82 of 1 February 2005.

A detailed evaluation of the National Development Plan 2000-2006 was conducted by the ESRI in 2003. The evaluation found that the NDP has made significant progress towards its objectives of promoting continuing sustainable national economic and employment growth and of consolidating and improving Ireland’s economic competitiveness. In particular, the ESRI found that the NDP will have a sustainable positive [159]effect on competitiveness and the productive capacity of the economy in the long term. It also found that NDP expenditure over the period under review raised the level of GNP by over 7% above what it would have been had the NDP not been undertaken and, in the long run, the level of GNP will be approximately 3% higher. The real rate of return on NDP investment is around 14%. More generally, the mid-term evaluation endorsed the strategy underpinning the NDP and its continuing relevance. Therefore, it is not necessary to conduct a further review of the NDP at this juncture.

Most of the key infrastructure projects are delivered through the economic and social infrastructure operational programme, ESIOP, which accounts for over €19 billion of the total €31 billion spend on the NDP to date. It was acknowledged some time ago that the NDP output targets under some headings would not be achieved and that the cost of the infrastructure programme would be ahead of initial targets. This is due to a variety of factors including initial cost underestimation, re-specification of projects and inflation. By the end of 2004 it is estimated that the Exchequer had contributed almost €3 billion more on the ESIOP than initially planned.

The Government continues to provide investment in infrastructure over the medium term beyond the completion date of the current NDP. The multi-annual capital envelopes for 2005-2009 provide for overall capital investment of €36.3 billion; as a percentage of GNP this is a level around twice the European average. This level of investment will ensure that by end 2006 investment under the ESIOP will be greater than the initial target and will fund a major enhancement of Ireland’s economic and social infrastructure up to and beyond the current NDP.

  71.  Mr. Timmins    asked the Minister for Finance    his policy for the development of the treatment of children in budgetary policy over the coming two budgets. [7124/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The Department of Social and Family Affairs has the primary role in the provision of financial support in respect of children. Child benefit is the main fiscal instrument through which such support is provided. Child benefit provides support to all parents or guardians in their parenting role irrespective of the parents’ economic or income status and, as such, it does not contribute to employment disincentives or poverty traps. In line with this overall policy approach, the Government commenced a major initiative to substantially increase the rates of child benefit. With effect from next month, child benefit rates will have, since 2000, increased by almost €88 per month in respect of the first and second qualifying children and by €106 per month for each subsequent child. This means that 92% of the target rates increases [160]announced in the budget of 2001 have now been delivered and, as stated in my recent budget speech, I will complete the transition to a higher rate of child benefit in next year’s budget.

The social welfare system also provides additional income support in respect of children by way of child dependant allowance increases to an underlying social welfare payment. Furthermore, family income supplement provides income support to families with children who are at work on low pay. One of the special initiatives under the partnership Sustaining Progress agreement is concerned with ending child poverty and, in that context, the effectiveness of merging child dependant allowance with family income supplement to provide a seamless source of child income support to low income families is being examined. NESC is undertaking this examination and the outcome of this work will be taken into account by relevant Departments in the formulation of future policy in this area.

In regard to child care, the 2005 Estimates provide €43.799 million in current support and €39.633 million in capital grants for the equal opportunities childcare programme through the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform Vote. The total number of new child care places being created through this programme from the funding allocated to date exceeds 33,500. It is expected that progress will be maintained in 2006 and 2007 during which it is estimated that a further €96 million in current expenditure and €104 million in capital funding will be provided for child care facilities through this Vote. In addition, the Government has also undertaken measures to favour the supply of child care places by tax incentives to set up facilities and relief from benefit in kind taxation for free or subsidised child care provided by employers.

Question No. 72 answered with Question
No. 39.

  73.  Mr. Howlin    asked the Minister for Finance    if he is satisfied that sufficient steps are being taken to combat tax evasion in view of the continuing high level of settlements and in view of the large number of settlements reported by the Revenue Commissioners each quarter; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7156/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I am satisfied that the Revenue Commissioners are pursuing a programme which is dealing in a very determined way with tax evasion. The commissioners are taking an approach which, depending on the nature of the case, involves either a monetary settlement and possible publication, or criminal investigation and prosecution. This combined policy has yielded significant results.

In recent years, for example, Revenue special investigations have yielded a total in excess of €1.6 billion. Revenue’s normal audit programme each year also continues to recover significant [161]tax, together with interest and penalties. For 2004, in excess of €400 million was collected in this audit programme in approximately 16,000 cases.

Having regard to the extensive resources required and the very significant evidential requirements in prosecuting cases of serious tax evasion, the majority of cases are dealt with by means of monetary settlement. This involves payment of the tax evaded, interest and penalties and, provided the case meets the criteria in section 1086 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, publication of the details in Iris Oifigiúil. It is worth noting that in settlement cases the ultimate sum paid involves a penalty that can be equivalent to the tax evaded which, when combined with the public odium brought about by publication, is regarded as a severe sanction.

The high level of settlements is a reflection of the targeted approach used by Revenue which is to focus its compliance resources on the areas and cases of highest risk.

I am informed by Revenue that they are prosecuting an increasing number of cases of serious tax evasion each year. This work is dealt with in their investigations and prosecutions division and recent figures indicate that this new approach is proving successful. Currently 45 cases are under investigation for prosecution, eight cases are with the DPP, directions to prosecute have been received from the DPP in another four cases and [162]these are proceeding to court. Bench warrants have been issued in three cases and three cases are before the courts.

It should be noted that Revenue also takes prosecutions in the District Courts each year in respect of in excess of 1000 cases related to non-filing of tax returns.

New powers to assist Revenue to pursue tax evasion are included in this year’s Finance Bill, which completed Committee Stage in the Dáil yesterday evening. In this, my first Finance Bill, I have sought to strike a balance between combating tax evasion and avoidance and ensuring that the tax system recognises the needs and concerns of compliant taxpayers.

  74.  Mr. Howlin    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of court prosecutions initiated as a result of tax evasion in respect of each year since 1997; the number of cases in which convictions were secured; the number of cases in which prison sentences were imposed; the sentence in each case; if he is satisfied with the level of court cases taken having regard to the high level of evasion; if he will report on the work of the investigations and prosecutions division of the Revenue Commissioners; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7157/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that the table provided gives information in relation to court prosecutions initiated for tax evasion.

Year No. of Cases Fines Imposed Custodial Sentence (suspended in brackets) Details of Custodial Sentence
1997 1 £635 Nil
1998 6 £42,854 2 (2) (a) six months (suspended)
(b) two years (suspended)
1999 1 £19,046 Nil
2000 3 £952 2 (1) (a) two years (18 months on appeal)
(b) 12 months (suspended)
2001 4 £14,284 4 (2) (a) twelve months
(b) six months (suspended),
(c) six months (suspended),
(d) three months
2002 3 €5,540 1 (1) six months (suspended)
2003 6 €29,365 Nil two years (suspended)
2004 1 €5,000 and 180 hours community service. 1 (1) three months suspended provided convicted party completes 180 hours community service
2005 4 1 case fined €10,800 and adjourned to await report on suitability to serve 120 hours community service in lieu of three months prison sentence. The other three cases are awaiting sentencing

[161]Revenue has a very clear policy of prosecuting cases of serious tax evasion. This function is tasked to their investigations and prosecutions division. Following Revenue restructuring in 2003, all investigation activity was consolidated in this division with a remit to co-ordinate all Revenue prosecution work and in particular to increase the number of criminal investigations for serious tax offences and ultimately to increase the [162]number of prosecutions. The number of investigators was also increased for this purpose.

Recent figures indicate that this approach is now proving successful. There are currently 45 cases under investigation for potential prosecution, the DPP is considering a further eight cases and has given directions to prosecute in another four. Bench warrants have been issued in three cases for failure to attend court and three [163]cases are in the court process. If this is combined with the four cases for which convictions have been obtained in 2005, it is the highest combined figure to date and vindicates the decision to concentrate Revenue’s prosecution resources in one area.

  75.  Ms O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Finance    the amount in the funds of the national pensions reserve fund at the latest date for which figures are available; the amount invested outside of Ireland; the amount held in cash balances; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7196/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The 2003 annual report of the National Pensions Reserve Fund Commission shows that at 31 December 2003 the market to market value of the fund was €9,561 million. This included cash deposits of €1,283 million, net current assets of €36 million, unrealised gains on foreign derivative contracts of €70 million and equities and bonds worth €8,172 million. Of this €8,172 million, €8,099 million was invested in non-Irish equities and bonds.

The commission also publishes quarterly performance statements setting out a summary of the fund’s performance in the year to date as a means of improving the timeliness of information on the fund. The most recent of these performance statements, for the quarter to end December 2004, was published on 9 February 2005. It shows that the estimated market value of the fund was €11,689 million at 31 December 2004. Of this amount, €1,299 million was held in cash and other net current assets, including derivatives, €12 million was held in property, a total of €8,893 million was held in equities and €1,485 in bonds. The statement does not distinguish between Irish and non-Irish investments.

The commission’s annual report is required to include information on the investment strategy followed by the fund, a report on the investment return achieved and a valuation of the net assets of the fund at year-end. These requirements are designed to ensure that detailed information concerning the fund is made available to the Minister and the public at the appropriate time.

As the Deputy will be aware, the National Pensions Reserve Fund Commission which manages the fund is independent of Government. It controls and manages the fund with discretionary authority to determine and implement the fund’s investment strategy. This investment strategy is based on a commercial investment mandate with the objective of securing the optimal return over the long term, having regard to (a) the purpose of the fund as set out in section 18(1) of the National Pensions Reserve Fund Act 2000 and (b) the payment requirements of the fund as provided for under section 20 of the Act, provided the level of risk to the moneys held or invested is acceptable to the commission.

  76.  Mr. Broughan    asked the Minister for Finance    if his Department has carried out any further review in relation to public private partnerships; if his attention has been drawn to the specific reports from the United Kingdom in relation to the cost of such public private partnerships for certain public transport infrastructure and other public service infrastructure and the findings of these reports that these projects are excessively costly when compared with design and build methods or traditional methods of public financing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7149/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The Government is committed to developing the PPP process as a viable procurement option for appropriate projects within the overall context of public investment in infrastructure and public services. PPPs are one procurement tool to be used alongside traditional approaches.

In common with all large capital projects, the value for money achieved in individual projects is determined by a number of factors including the quality of the procurement process. The value for money achieved in individual projects is a matter in the first instance for the Accounting Officer in the Department or office sponsoring a project.

My Department prepares and issues guidelines for Departments and agencies in regard to the assessment, approval, audit and procurement of PPP projects, taking into account the experience of projects to date and any further relevant information, including any from other countries, as appropriate. Lessons gained from the initial pilot phase have been incorporated into our processes, structures and procedures, including the establishment of the National Development Finance Agency, NDFA. We are still learning and will continue to keep our processes and procedures under review. As regards the position in other countries, including the UK, it is my understanding that their experience would indicate that PPPs can be cost-effective in the right circumstances.

  77.  Mr. Sherlock    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of foreign guests who stayed at Farmleigh House during 2004; if he has plans for greater access by community or voluntary groups to Farmleigh’s facilities in view of its low level of usage as a Government guest house; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7204/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Parlon):  A total of 73 foreign guests stayed in Farmleigh in 2004, involving a total of 146 bed nights. Two high level foreign delegations stayed overnight in the main house involving a total of 45 people and 104 bed nights. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan, and his delegation was one of these. In addition 28 foreign guests stayed overnight in the courtyard residence, involving 42 bed nights. These stays [165]related to the programme of cultural events managed by the Office of Public Works that had a particularly international focus in 2004.

Farmleigh experienced a very busy year in 2004 as the property was used by the Irish Government as one of the main venues for EU Presidency meetings and receptions. As a result of its extensive use during the EU Presidency it was not feasible to use the property for residential use during the first six months of the year.

The Office of Public Works operates a very comprehensive public access programme at Farmleigh. Approximately 110,000 people visited Farmleigh and enjoyed its facilities in 2004, through a combination of open access days, specific public events and booked tours. Very many community and voluntary groups make use of Farmleigh’s facilities and amenities in this way, particularly through the booked tours. The Office of Public Works will continue to work at developing and improving its public access programme for the benefit of these groups and for the public generally.

  78.  Mr. Rabbitte    asked the Minister for Finance    the latest information available from the central applications facility in respect of applications from civil servants and other public servants currently located in Dublin who wish to transfer to new locations outside of Dublin under the Government’s decentralisation programme; the way in which this compares with the Government target of 10,300; his views on the potential loss of skills and expertise for specialist State agencies should they be decentralised with so few persons willing to transfer; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7190/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The latest figures from the central applications facility show there is very substantial interest in the programme. New applications for decentralisation continue to be received. Since the period for priority applications finished in September 2004, over 500 new applications have been received.

During the period for priority applications up to 7 September 2004, a total of 8,958 staff, made up of 8,152 civil servants and 806 public servants, applied for transfer to new locations. Of this number, 4,813 staff, made up of 4,236 civil servants and 577 public servants, are based in Dublin.

There are particular issues that arise in dealing with the State agencies. The correct approach is to tease out the issues and develop good long-term solutions in consultation with all of the parties involved. This is the approach being adopted by the decentralisation implementation group.

The results are encouraging and provide a very good base from which to move forward.

  79.  Ms McManus    asked the Tánaiste and Mini[166]ster for Health and Children    the funding which is available in view of the refusal of the Health Service Executive to exceed the maximum level of enhanced subvention and its statement that the funding available to it in 2005 will determine the scope for a review of the maximum enhanced subvention rate this year in its letter of 14 February 2005; if it will enable the review to be carried out; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7305/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. S. Power):  As the Deputy is aware, responsibility for the administration of the Nursing Home (Subvention) Regulations, 1993 rests with the Health Service Executive. There are currently three rates of subvention payable under the regulations, €114.30, €152.40 and €190.50 for the three levels of dependency which are medium, high and maximum.

Under Article 10.6 of the Nursing Homes (Subvention) Regulations, 1993 the Executive may pay more than the maximum rate of subvention in a case, for instance, where personal funds are exhausted. The application of these provisions in an individual case is a matter for the executive in the context of meeting increasing demands for subvention subject to the provisions of the Health Act 2004. The average rate of subvention paid by the executive generally exceeds the current approved maximum rate of subvention. For 2005, funding of over €120 million has been made available for the operation of the scheme, and increase of €5.7 million over the 2004 allocation.

The nursing home subvention scheme is being reviewed by my Department and I do not intend to increase rates of subvention pending the outcome of the review.

  80.  Dr. Upton    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if she will report on an application for the domiciliary care allowance for a person (details supplied) in Dublin 10. [7306/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. T. O’Malley):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the Health Service Executive, HSE, which was established on 1 January 2005. Under the Act, the HSE has the responsibility to manage and deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for payment of and entitlement to domiciliary care allowance. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer for the HSE’s eastern regional area to investigate the matter raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  81.  Ms McManus    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    her views on the bogus pregnancy counselling agencies that are in [167]operation in a number of locations around the country and which provide inaccurate and sometimes inflammatory information regarding abortion; her further views on the opinion of a person (details supplied), that nothing can be done to stop these agencies from operating; if she will consider developing legislation to require such agencies to apply for a licence to operate; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7307/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  Recent research commissioned and published by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency refers to the unworthy practices of so called rogue agencies. The reported behaviour of these agencies towards vulnerable women experiencing crisis pregnancies is objectionable and unprofessional; it shows that they are not focused on helping women. Indeed the research found that their tactics extended to lies, threats and misrepresentation, behaviour that should be brought to the attention of the Garda authorities.

While there are no plans to consider a regulated licensing system such as that proposed by the Deputy, a greater awareness amongst the public of the professional counselling services available from reputable crisis pregnancy agencies is an important step to counteracting the work of rogue agencies. The Positive Options campaign, developed by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, CPA, in 2002, is one such major information programme that has been promoting support services in crisis pregnancy. The focus of the campaign is to make women more aware of their options, should they have a crisis pregnancy, and to improve the supports and assistance available to women in this situation.

Initiatives undertaken as part of the campaign have included a text message information service, wallet card, posters, website and television advertisements. Last year the CPA achieved the national dissemination of 250,000 leaflets, 250,000 cards and 10,000 posters to key points such as GP surgeries, family planning clinics, pharmacies, libraries, schools and citizens information centres. The Positive Options website received 1,000 hits per month in 2004, which is a measure of the response to this information campaign. My Department is monitoring the impact of this extensive information campaign.

Furthermore, the CPA is sponsoring consumer tips in the Dublin Golden Pages to promote the use of trustworthy counselling services. It has also placed advertisements with the national and regional Golden Pages directories. The CPA has also written to all crisis pregnancy counselling agencies requesting them to monitor complaints against rogue agencies.

  82.  Ms McManus    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if her attention has been drawn to the fact that all of the nine agencies funded by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency now provide information on all three options facing [168]women with a crisis pregnancy; if she has satisfied herself that even those agencies which are publicly anti-abortion are in a position to provide accurate and impartial information on abortion as an option; if she is satisfied further that standards exist across all of these publicly funded agencies to ensure that the information they provide in relation to all of the options is accurate and useful to women in crisis pregnancy; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7308/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Crisis Pregnancy Agency, CPA, has informed me that the nine agencies participating in the Positive Options campaign provide counselling on abortion; but some do not provide information likely to be necessary in order for a woman to avail of pregnancy termination services. The CPA is compiling a manual of good practice for crisis pregnancy counsellors in conjunction with crisis pregnancy counselling agencies. The CPA has informed me that referrals by agencies which do not provide information on pregnancy termination services, to crisis pregnancy agencies that do, will be addressed in this manual.

The CPA launched its strategy to address crisis pregnancy in late 2003. The CPA acknowledges in this document that crisis pregnancy counselling has the potential to provide women with standardised information on supports available to them. The Agency aims to review the type of information available to women in crisis pregnancy counselling through this strategy, in order to set and maintain high standards. It has commissioned a number of research studies into the provision of crisis pregnancy counselling. The need to develop a training module for crisis pregnancy counsellors to provide counselling up to an agreed quality standard has also been identified. This module is being provided and it will be used by all State funded organisations that offer crisis pregnancy counselling. Its objectives are to ensure that women seeking counselling receive a minimum standard of care including the provision of accurate information.

I welcome the initiatives taken by the CPA to further enhance and standardise crisis pregnancy counselling services provided by agencies.

  83.  Ms McManus    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if a replacement nurse will be appointed to the community mothers scheme in Newbridge, County Kildare to bring up the staffing to its original full complement; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7309/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the Health Service Executive, which was established on 1 January 2005. Under the Act, the executive has the responsibility to manage and deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, [169]health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for the appointment of nursing staff to the community mothers scheme in Newbridge, County Kildare. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer for the executive’s south western area to investigate the matter raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  84.  Dr. Twomey    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the total funding given to the HSE in 2005 for development funding; the projects which will be funded by these resources; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7336/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Revised Estimates Volume 2005 shows a gross current figure of €10.975 billion for the HSE’s Vote 40. This is an increase of €1.209 billion or 12.4% over the 2004 notional out-turn. The 2005 figure includes funding for technical adjustments necessary due to the establishment of the new HSE Vote, as explained in the Revised Estimates Volume 2005.

Within the overall increase for the HSE, an additional €200 million is provided for three specific priority areas in the coming year. This funding is made up of a package of €70 million to allow for a “whole system” approach to improving accident and emergency services; an additional €60 million for the extension of the medical card scheme to a further 230,000 people, including €30 million for an additional 30,000 full medical cards and €30 million for the introduction of approximately 200,000 new doctor visit cards in 2005; and €70 million for disability services, comprising €40 million for the intellectual disability sector and €15 million each for physical and sensory disability and mental health services.

  85.  Dr. Twomey    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the timescale and amount of development funding for key priorities announced during the publication of the Estimates and Budget 2005 package for accident and emergency and disability services; when patients can expect to avail of these services; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7337/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  On publication of the Estimates for 2005, I announced a ten point action plan to improve the delivery of accident and emergency services. Additional revenue funding of €70 million and additional capital funding of €10 million is available to the Health Service Executive this year for these initiatives. I have met with senior management of the HSE and my Department is working closely with the HSE to ensure the early implementation of these measures.

Reported progress to date confirms that HSE plans to put the necessary measures in place are well advanced. Some improvements, for example the discharge of patients to nursing home care, [170]are expected to materialise shortly while others will require further time to be fully implemented. My Department will continue to monitor progress in this regard.

In November 2004, I also announced additional revenue funding of €70 million as part of a special revenue development fund for services for people with disabilities. Additional capital funding of €60 million has also been provided to support these developments. The allocation of the €70 million funding is as follows —€40 million to services for persons with intellectual disability and those with autism; €15 million to services for persons with physical or sensory disabilities; and €15 million to mental health services.

I expect that the detail of how the disability funding is used will be fully clarified in the context of my approval of the HSE service plan for 2005. The service plan is currently under consideration by my Department and I expect to be in a position to respond to the HSE within the 21 day period specified for this purpose. It will then be a matter for the HSE to put the relevant services in place.

  86.  Dr. Twomey    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if she will publish all existing uncommenced developments in each HSE area; if funding will be available in 2005; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7338/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  It is not always possible for an agency to commence approved developments on schedule. Developments can get delayed for a number of reasons, such as the recruitment of appropriate personnel, or the acquisition of appropriate premises. When this occurs, it is normal practice for the funding to be carried forward into the following year. Accordingly, unspent development funds will form part of the service delivery, and thus form part of the following year’s service plan.

In this context, I have referred this question to the Health Service Executive, requesting that it responds to the Deputy directly, outlining the extent to which unspent development funds form part of the 2005 service plan. I have requested that the HSE address this query as a matter of urgency.

  87.  Mr. Gregory    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the reason core funding has been refused to a project (details supplied); if this will be reviewed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7343/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. S. Power):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the Health Service Executive, which was established on 1 January 2005. Under the Act, the executive has the responsibility to manage and deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for the funding of [171]projects relating to drug treatment services. Accordingly, the Department has requested the HSE to investigate the matter raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  88.  Mr. Ring    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when the cancer screening programme, BreastCheck, will be operational in the western region of the Health Service Executive; and the date the programme will commence. [7350/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The roll-out of the national breast screening programme to the remaining counties is a major priority in the development of cancer services. This will ensure that all women in the relevant age group in every county have access to breast screening and follow up treatment where appropriate.

A capital investment of approximately €21 million has been approved to construct and equip two static clinical units, one in Cork and the other in Galway. Design briefs in respect of the capital projects have been completed. It is anticipated that the advertisement for the appointment of a design team will be placed in the EU journal in the coming weeks. Additional capital funding of €3 million has been approved for the relocation and development of the symptomatic breast disease unit, in tandem with the BreastCheck development at University College Hospital, Galway. I am confident that the target date of 2007 for the expansion of BreastCheck nationally will be met.

Any woman, irrespective of her age or residence, who has immediate concerns or symptoms should consult her GP who, where appropriate, will refer her to the symptomatic services in her area.

  89.  Mr. McHugh    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when funding will be made available in order to employ the required number of staff to enable the two palliative support beds provided at Arus Mhuire in Tuam, County Galway to be open; the reason for the six month delay in providing funding; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7366/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. S. Power):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the Health Service Executive, which was established on 1 January 2005. Under the Act, the executive has the responsibility to manage and deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for the provision of palliative care. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer for the executive’s [172]western area to investigate the matter raised and to reply direct to the Deputy.

  90.  Mr. O’Shea    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if she will meet a group (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7367/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  I have arranged to meet representatives of the Parents for Justice group at
2 p.m. on Thursday, 24 March 2005 in Leinster House.

  91.  Mr. Murphy    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when she will provide the needed finance to the southern health board to enable it to award the home care grant to a person (details supplied) in County Cork; and if the award will be backdated to the date of approval. [7368/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. S. Power):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the Health Service Executive, which was established on 1 January 2005. Under the Act, the executive has the responsibility to manage and deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for the provision of the home care grant scheme in the Cork area. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer for the executive’s southern area to investigate the matter raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  92.  Mr. Murphy    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the cost of an ultra sound machine, an EEG machine and equipment that carries out a CAT scan. [7369/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The cost of medical equipment, including that referred to by the Deputy, depends primarily on specification requirements and the response to tender procedures in specific instances.

The Health Service Executive has responsibility for the procurement of medical equipment in the public health sector. I have requested the executive to provide the Deputy with an indication of costs incurred in recent procurements of the items specified.

  93.  Mr. O’Shea    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    her proposals to facilitate the provision of an EEG unit at Waterford Regional Hospital; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7370/05]

[173]Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the Health Service Executive, which was established on 1 January 2005. Under the Act, the executive has the responsibility to manage and deliver or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for the provision of services at Waterford Regional Hospital. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer for the executive’s south eastern area to investigate the matter raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  94.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if the full complement of beds is now in use in the Maynooth community care unit, Maynooth, County Kildare; if not, the number of beds in use; the reason for the delay in bringing the unit to full capacity; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7376/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. S. Power):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the Health Service Executive, which was established on 1 January 2005. Under the Act, the executive has the responsibility to manage and deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for the provision of health services in the Maynooth community care unit. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer for the executive’s eastern regional area to investigate the matter raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  95.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if her attention has been drawn to the serious overcrowding in recent weeks in the accident and emergency unit at Naas General Hospital, Naas, County Kildare; the way in which she intends to improve matters at the hospital prior to autumn 2005; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7379/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Health Act 2004 provides for the Health Service Executive, which was established on 1 January 2005. Under the Act, the executive has the responsibility to manage and deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for services at Naas General Hospital. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer for the executive’s eastern regional area to investigate the matter raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

I have identified the delivery of accident and emergency services as a priority area for attention. I have announced a ten point action plan in relation to accident and emergency services which is being financed with €70 million current funding and €10 million capital funding. My Department is liaising with the HSE to progress the implementation of the plan.

  96.  Mr. Quinn    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if her Department has received letters dated 21 October 2004 and 21 January 2005 from a person (details supplied) in Dublin 4; when a reply will be issued; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7400/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  My Department has been in contact with the Health Service Executive in the eastern regional area and requested that contact be made with the individual concerned as a priority in relation to the issue raised.

  97.  Ms Burton    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the amount paid in fees or remuneration to a person (details supplied) for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of her Department for each year since 1998; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7449/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The information requested is being collated by my Department and will be forwarded to the Deputy as soon as possible.

  98.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Finance    when the asbestos remediation works to a school (details supplied) in County Kildare will be carried out; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7364/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Parlon):  Planning is in hand for a scheme to replace the asbestos based roofs at the school in question. Works will commence as soon as possible following completion of this process and the necessary tendering and contractual procedures and subject to agreement on programming with the school authorities.

  99.  Mr Stagg    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has approved the revised sketch scheme for the new Garda station for Leixlip, County Kildare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7383/05]

  104.  Mr Stagg    asked the Minister for Finance    if negotiations with Kildare County Council for the acquisition of a small portion of land to the front of the site for the new Garda station for Leixlip, County Kildare have been concluded; if a revised sketch scheme has been submitted to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for approval; if approval has issued from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; when construction is likely to commence; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7382/05]

  108.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Finance    when it is expected that final approval will [175]be given to the commencement of site works for the long awaited Leixlip Garda station; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7419/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Parlon):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 99, 104 and 108 together.

Negotiations are continuing with Kildare County Council for the acquisition of an additional plot of land for this development. The Office of Public Works wrote to the council again on 16 February 2005 regarding clarification of certain estate issues in respect of this plot of land. No response has been received from the council as yet. When these negotiations are completed satisfactorily, a reviewed sketch scheme will be issued to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for approval.

  100.  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will report on his review of tax reliefs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7462/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I announced in my Budget Statement that my Department and the Revenue Commissioners will undertake a detailed review of certain tax incentive schemes and tax exemptions in 2005. This review will evaluate their impact and operation including their economic and social benefits for the different locations and sectors involved and the wider community. In addition, the review will examine the degree to which these schemes allow high-income individuals to reduce their tax liabilities.

The review of tax reliefs includes a special public consultation process seeking submissions on measures that could be introduced to balance the benefit of such reliefs with the extent to which these are used by high-earners to reduce their tax bill. The public consultation was advertised on 8 January 2005 and submissions should be made to my Department before 31 March 2005. I would welcome the views of public representatives, either individually or via the forum of the relevant Oireachtas committees and of the social partners in due course in relation to all these matters.

I announced in a press release on 6 January 2005 that my Department had advertised for external consultants to review certain tax incentive schemes. Tenders were invited from suitably qualified consultants to undertake two separate studies in economic, fiscal and social terms, as necessary, of the impact, operation, effectiveness and cost of 15 separate tax incentive schemes. The request for tenders was placed in the Official Journal of the European Union on 24 December 2004.

Seven tenders have been received in my Department and a decision on the awarding of the contracts will be taken by the end of March [176]2005. It is envisaged that the consultancy review of these various reliefs will be completed by the end of July 2005.

Finally, the review will also involve the examination by my Department and the Revenue Commissioners of certain other tax exemptions, for example, for stallions, woodlands, artists and patent income. The aim is to have all of these examinations completed by autumn 2005 so that the various issues can be examined in the context of the 2006 budget, in December 2005.

  101.  Mr. Cuffe    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will provide a copy of the criteria being used by the Office of Public Works in seeking appropriate sites or buildings for use by the State sector in the decentralisation process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3933/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Parlon):  The decentralisation implementation group in its report of 31 March 2004 stated that “the overall objective of the acquisition strategy is to secure, to the greatest extent possible, the right building at the right location, at the right time and at the right price and to do so in an open and transparent manner. . .”.

Underpinning this objective is a set of principles, which were adopted by the group and which are entitled Principles to Underpin Accommodation Acquisition Strategy. These principles can be accessed on the decentralisation website: www.decentralisation.gov.ie/property/principles.

  102.  Mr. Eamon Ryan    asked the Minister for Finance    his views on whether there is cause for concern at the latest figures on consumer debt, which show a higher ratio of debt to income than ever before; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6217/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I am aware of the concerns expressed by a number of commentators in relation to the continued strong growth in credit, particularly to the household sector and the possible effects of increasing indebtedness upon borrowers. The growth of credit and the associated increase in indebtedness is a matter for the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland, taking into account its role as a part of the European system of central banks and the functions of the financial regulator in relation to the prudential supervision of financial institutions and the protection of the consumers of those firms.

I am advised by the financial regulator that the increase in personal indebtedness can be viewed against a background of record housebuilding and while personal liabilities have increased these are backed by real assets; non-housing debt is a relatively small proportion of overall personal debt; and credit card debt in Ireland is growing more slowly than overall personal debt and is [177]modest compared with developments in other markets where there are concerns about unsecured lending.

The provision of consumer credit in Ireland is regulated by the Consumer Credit Act 1995, which is administered by the financial regulator. This Act obliges credit providers to include specific information in all credit agreements in relation to such matters as the total cost of credit, the amount of each repayment instalment, the number of instalments, etc. Additionally, in the case of housing loans, the Act specifically obliges mortgage providers to inform borrowers of the effect on the amount of their repayment instalments of a 1% increase in interest rates in the first year of their mortgages. The purpose of obliging credit providers to provide such information is to ensure that consumers, when making credit decisions, are armed with the fullest possible information in relation to any credit agreement they are entering into and most important the impact that servicing a loan will have on the consumer’s household budget.

In addition, the Central Bank and the financial regulator have sought to raise the level of awareness of both borrowers and lenders of the importance of prudent borrowing and responsible lending. The financial regulator, with its statutory consumer mandate, has developed a number of specific initiatives to help consumers make informed choices and make the most appropriate credit decisions given their circumstances. Separately, mortgage lenders were requested to review their practices in relation to customer income verification and the funding of mortgage balances so as to ensure that not only were loans properly secured but also that borrowers would be able to fully repay them. They were also advised of the need to stress test every would-be borrower’s ability to meet their credit obligations, in the event of more challenging times.

Responsible use of credit clearly can have advantages for borrowers in terms of their lifestyles, etc. On the other hand, it is very important that loans fully suit borrowers’ requirements both in terms of amount borrowed and ability to repay. This is equally important for lenders as inappropriate lending or borrowing can also be damaging to the economy. I, therefore, fully support the Central Bank and the financial regulator in their endeavours to raise the level of awareness of the risks of reckless borrowing and excessive credit growth.

  103.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has received a report from Kildare County Council in relation to flood alleviation measures in Leixlip, County Kildare; if funding is available from his Department to carry out the work; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7374/05]

  106.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Finance    the position regarding the availability of [178]funding to Kildare County Council to alleviate the ongoing flooding at Mill Lane, Leixlip, County Kildare and other locations throughout the county; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7417/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Parlon):  I propose to take Questions
Nos. 103 and 106 together.

The Office of Public Works has received a copy of the executive summary of a study commissioned by Kildare County Council on proposed flood relief works at Leixlip, County Kildare. The OPW has written to the county council requesting additional information including a copy of the full study in order that consideration can be given to the council’s application for funding for the proposed works. A reply is still awaited.

The Deputies will also be aware that the OPW has carried out a flood relief scheme on the Shinkeen Stream in Hazelhatch in County Kildare which was completed in 2002. In addition, works were funded and carried out by the OPW on behalf of Kildare County Council on the Lyreen and Meadowbrook rivers in Maynooth together with the Morrell river in the Kill-Johnstown area.

The Commissioners of Public Works have no plans for the implementation of further flood relief works in County Kildare at this time.

Question No. 104 answered with Question
No. 99.

  105.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Finance    the extent, nature and cost of any security enhancement or other features paid for by the State in respect of the homes, offices or other properties owned by each Minister and Minister of State in the past seven years, including security walls, electronic devices or other such features; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7404/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Parlon):  I consider it would be inappropriate to put details of the security measures at each property into the public domain. However, I can inform the Deputy that the total cost of the various elements of security works — physical, electronic, communications etc. for the period in question was €350,465.09

Question No. 106 answered with Question
No. 103.

  107.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Finance    the extent to which the national debt has been reduced during the past seven years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7418/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  Between 31 December 1997 and 31 December 2004, the [179]national debt fell from €38,966 million to €37,846 million, a reduction of €1,120 million in cash terms. I would suggest that the generally-accepted measure of the debt burden on an economy is the percentage of gross national product, GNP, to which the debt equates. Between 1997 and 2004, the debt-to-GNP ratio has fallen from 66.1% to 31.1%, a 35 percentage points reduction.

Question No. 108 answered with Question
No. 99.

  109.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Finance    the extent to which public spending is on target under the various headings in the year to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7420/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The budget 2005 spending projections for each Department were updated in the 2005 Revised Estimates for Public Services which were published last week. The REV provided that estimated net voted spending on departmental services will be €36.2 billion. The end-February Exchequer returns showed that net spending by Departments and offices is €0.2 billion below profile — of which about 80% is current and 20% is capital. There are no indications at this stage of the year of any deviations from 2005 spending targets except for the costs arising out of the reimbursement of charges for long stay care in health board institutions. As made clear in the recent Revised Estimates Volume, a Supplementary Estimate will be brought forward for the costs arising in 2005 on foot of the recent Supreme Court decision.

  110.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Finance    if the development of public private partnerships in the future presents a liability to the State; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7421/05]

  111.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Finance    the extent to which he intends to utilise the concept of public and private partnership in the future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7422/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 110 and 111 together.

The multi-annual capital investment framework set out in annex D of budget 2005 sets out targets for the period 2005-2009 for capital investment funded by PPP-National Development Finance Agency, NDFA. The total 2005-2009 PPP-NDFA targets, which would be remunerated by long-term unitary payments from Departments’ Votes, is €3.675 billion; in addition, there is a target of €1.195 billion for PPPs remunerated by user charges. There has been good progress on [180]PPPs overall since the first group of pilot projects were announced in 1999. Reasonable deal flow has been established in the roads and environment areas; progress in relation to projects remunerated by unitary payments from the Exchequer has been slower than anticipated. We are still learning and continue to keep our processes and procedures under review.

PPPs are acknowledged to be complex, involving, as they do, a long-term financial commitment for both the private and public sector partners for a period of anything up to 30 years. I believe that the PPP procurement option has an important role to play when applied to appropriate projects where there is the right scale, risk and operational profile to harness the benefits of this new approach.

Question No. 112 answered with Question
No. 70.

  113.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Finance    the extent to which the decentralisation programme has been advanced in the year to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7424/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The two reports of the Decentralisation Implementation Group, DIG, dated 31 March 2004 and 30 July 2004 provide detailed accounts of the progress made in implementing the decentralisation programme announced last December. An analysis of the applications registered with the central applications facility by 7 September 2004 has also been published.

Each organisation produced a first iteration of its implementation plans by end May 2004. The implementation group rated the plans overall as good. Updated versions of the plans are being submitted at various dates in early 2005. Overall, I am very pleased with the progress which has already been made in driving forward the implementation of the programme.

In addition the DIG report published on 24 November 2004 contains proposals on those organisations-locations which, in the group’s view, should be included in the first phase of moves and the DIG will report to me again in the spring of 2005 about progress in relation to implementation of the programme. The group will also deal in that report with the locations and organisations not covered in the November 2004 report.

  114.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Finance    if recent developments have presented potential security risks in international banking; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7426/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The recent developments which are currently the subject of [181]a Garda investigation and widespread publicity, must be viewed in perspective. There is no evidence to date that these activities are of a scale or volume that would pose potential security risks in international banking. Similarly, there is no evidence of any significant involvement, whether deliberate or inadvertent, of the national or international banking systems in these activities.

These developments highlight the need for all institutions and supervisory authorities to remain alert to unwelcome activity of any kind which could pose a risk to the security or reputation of individual institutions or the banking system.

  115.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Finance    if he is satisfied that adequate legislation is available to ensure that the banking system is secure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7427/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland Act 2003 established the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority. The post of consumer director is specifically provided for within the structure of the financial regulator established under that Act. The director exercises important consumer protection powers under legislation.

The Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland Act 2004, complemented the 2003 Act, further enhanced the financial regulator’s powers and strengthened the regulatory environment. This Act conferred new powers on the financial regulator to impose stiff administrative penalties, to be applied where there is a breach of: any financial services legislation; codes of conduct issued by the regulator; or any condition, requirement or direction imposed under legislation or codes.

The Act provided for an enhanced structure for dealing with consumers who have complaints about financial institutions and also provides consumer and industry consultative panels for the financial regulator. The consumer panel will have an important role in ensuring that the regulator is correctly reflecting the interests of consumers in its protective — issue of codes of conduct — and educational — information pamphlets etc. — roles. The Act also established a single statutory Financial Services Ombudsman for all financial services firms. The ombudsman’s office is due to begin operations on the 1 April 2005. The financial ombudsman will have power to order redress in appropriate circumstances.

The Consumer Credit Act 1995, which commenced in May 1996, regulates the provision of consumer credit. It prescribes, inter alia, the form and content of credit agreements for consumer lending, including in the case of loans secured on the family home a requirement to warn the borrower about the risk of losing their home. The Act also provides for the regulation of fees and charges imposed by credit institutions.

In addition to the specific regulatory requirements under the Central Bank and consumer cre[182]dit legislation, credit institutions are also subject to specific requirements to know their customers, keep records and report suspicions of money laundering under criminal justice legislation. Their professional advisers, such as accountants and solicitors, are also subject to these reporting requirements. All companies are subject to the enhanced company law regime that has been put in place in recent years, including the oversight role of the Director of Corporate Enforcement.

I am satisfied that the provisions now available in law provide not just for the effective regulation of the way that credit institutions conduct their business but also for effective supervision and enforcement of the law where necessary. I am open to making suitable amendments to the law, if the need arises. In this regard I have asked the financial regulator to advise me as soon as possible if anything emerges from recent developments in relation to asset based lending that in their view would require a legislative change. The forthcoming Bill to consolidate and modernise our financial services legislation could offer a suitable vehicle for such amendments.

  116.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Finance    when he expects to make a decision in regard to the disabled drivers passengers 1994 tax concessions regulations with a view to enabling more persons to qualify; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7428/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concessions scheme is open to people with disabilities who meet the specified medical criteria. An interdepartmental review group was established to review the disabled drivers’ and disabled passengers’ tax concessions scheme. The group examined all aspects of the scheme including the qualifying medical criteria. The report was published on my Department’s website in July 2004 and copies have been placed in the Oireachtas Library. As agreed by Government in June 2004, I will consider the report on an ongoing basis in the overall budgetary context having regard to the existing and prospective cost of the scheme.

  117.  Mr. O’Dowd    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    the steps he intends to take to reduce cross-Border mobile phone roaming charges; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7431/05]

  118.  Mr. O’Dowd    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    the action he intends to take to have an all-Ireland mobile phone prefix. [7432/05]

Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. N. Dempsey):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 117 and 118 together.

[183]Responsibility for the regulation of mobile phone prices and the overall management of the mobile numbering resource in this jurisdiction is a matter for the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, in accordance with the requirements of the Communications Regulation Act 2002 and regulations made under the EU Regulatory Framework for Electronic Communications. I have no function in the matter.

In relation to cross-Border mobile phone roaming charges within the island, the provision of commercial offerings to tackle this issue, such as expanding the availability of all-island tariffs to more customers, is primarily a matter for the operators. I am on record as supporting the work that ComReg and Ofcom, the UK telecommunications regulator, have done to date to encourage operators north and south to tackle this issue.

  119.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    when broadband will be supplied to the Woodvale Estate, Clonsilla, Dublin 15. [7448/05]

Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. N. Dempsey):  I refer the [184]Deputy to my reply to Question No. 215 answered on Tuesday 1 March 2005.

  120.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    the amount paid in fees or remuneration to a person (details supplied) for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of his Department for each year since 1998; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7450/05]

Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. N. Dempsey):  There are no records of payments to the person whose details have been supplied since the establishment of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in June 2002. The following table sets out details of such payments, if any, by the former Department of the Marine and Natural Resources, Department of Public Enterprise and Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in the period 1 January 1998 to 17 June 2002, in so far as the communications, energy including Geological Survey of Ireland, seafood, research, natural resources, broadcasting and other functions transferred to the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources with effect from 18 June 2002 are concerned.

Payment (€) Date Services Provided
8,148.98 July 2000 Facilitation in respect of digital terrestrial television project.
3,060.00 December 2001 Post office forum.
1,292.78 January 2002 Post office forum.
5,227.00 May 2002 Post office forum.

  121.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs    if the Government will actively urge the EU to work with the 77 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries at the WTO to achieve an extension of the Cotonou waiver or to change GATT Article XXIV in order that Europe can continue to give preferential access to developing countries; and his views on whether this approach is preferable to pushing ahead with reciprocal economic partnership agreements in view of the fact that the EU 25 and the ACP 77 together constitute the vast majority of WTO members. [7320/05]

  122.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs    the assessment undertaken by the Government on the impact of the economic partnership agreements on industrial and agricultural producers in Ireland’s priority aid countries, including and specifically the required liberalisation of 90% of trade with the poorest countries; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7321/05]

  123.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs    the [184]number and dates of communications, meetings and other representations between his Department and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in relation to EU requests for the opening of markets under the proposed economic partnership agreements; and if he will publish or otherwise lay the documents relating to these meetings before Dáil Éireann. [7322/05]

  124.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs    the concerns his Department has raised with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in relation to the opening up of priority country markets to EU competition; and the areas of their markets which his Department has recommended be excluded from liberalisation. [7323/05]

  125.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs    the nature of the representation of his Department at the EU 133 committee meetings considering liberalisation of trade with priority countries under economic partnership agreements. [7324/05]

[185]

  126.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs    the consultations his Department has had with priority country governments, business interests and civil society regarding their defensive interests in the economic partnership agreement trade negotiations; the areas of concern highlighted through those consultations; and the steps taken by his Department to ensure those interests are catered for in the EU position on EPAs. [7325/05]

  127.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs    the concerns of his Department regarding the regional groupings being established under the economic partnership agreements, specifically his Department’s views on whether Zambia, an Irish priority aid country, is forced by this process to decide between the two regional groups, SADC and COMESA, in which it has invested years of energy; and his further views on whether it is appropriate for Europe through EPAs to effectively redraw the economic map of Africa. [7326/05]

  128.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs    his views on whether there are parallels between the 1884 redivision of Africa and the contemporary redrawing of the economic map of Africa through the economic partnership agreements. [7327/05]

  129.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs    his Department’s assessment of the industries in each of Ireland’s priority aid countries that will come under most pressure as a result of the liberalisation envisaged in the economic partnership agreements; the industries thus identified and the number of persons employed in each such industry in each priority country; the estimated capacity these industries have to adjust to competition from European exports during the transition period; and the expected change in the level of unemployment in each of the priority aid countries as a result of such liberalisation under the EPAs. [7328/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Mr. C. Lenihan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 121 to 129, inclusive, together.

The legally binding Cotonou Agreement between the African, Caribbean and Pacific, ACP, states and the European Union provides for the negotiation of economic partnership agreements, EPAs, between the parties. As trade is a European Community competence, it is the European Commission which negotiates the EPAs between the EU and six regional groupings of ACP states on behalf of the member states. The Commission provides member states with regular updates on the progress of the negotiations. The EPAs are to enter into force by 1 January 2008.

The EPAs are first and foremost instruments for development that will foster the smooth and [186]gradual integration of ACP states into the world economy, with due regard for their own political choices and their own development priorities, thereby promoting their sustainable development and contributing to poverty eradication in the ACP countries. They combine trade and wider development issues in a unified framework while taking account of the specific economic, social and environmental circumstances of each regional group and its component states. By enlarging ACP markets through regional integration and by making regulatory frameworks in these countries more transparent, EPAs can create an environment conducive to the private sector and thus function as a vehicle for long-term economic development.

According to Article 37/7 of the Cotonou Agreement the negotiations on the EPAs:

. . . shall take account of the level of development and the socio-economic impact of trade measures on ACP countries, and their capacity to adapt and adjust their economies to the liberalisation process. Negotiations will therefore be as flexible as possible in establishing the duration of a sufficient transitional period, the final product coverage, taking into account sensitive sectors, and the degree of asymmetry in terms of timetable for tariff dismantlement, while remaining in conformity with WTO rules then prevailing.

While Ireland like the other member states does not participate in the ongoing EPA negotiations, we are satisfied that the Commission is discharging its mandate in accordance with these provisions of the Cotonou Agreement. It is clear from the most recent EU-ACP joint report of last October on the state of play of regional EPA negotiations that the process with the six regions is conducted with considerable concern for its impact on the economies of the ACP countries. As with all trade negotiations, the EPA negotiation has brought to light differences of approach between the parties in a number of areas. It is to be hoped that as the talks progress, these divergences can be resolved in accordance with the principles and objectives underlying the negotiations. However, I do not think that it is helpful for the success of the EPA project at this stage to suggest taking action at the WTO for a continuation beyond 2008 of the preferential access of ACP countries to EU markets.

In Ireland, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has primary responsibility for trade policy. An officer of that Department represents Ireland at meetings of the 133 committee. The committee normally meets once a month at the level of full members. An officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs also attends meetings of the committee on a regular basis.

Given the importance for Ireland of trade and trade relations with other countries, including those which are programme countries for Ireland’s development co-operation programme, there is very regular and ongoing contact with the [187]Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and other Departments including the Department of Agriculture and Food in preparing for meetings of the 133 committee and on questions relating to trade generally, including the EPA negotiations.

All of the programme countries in Ireland’s bilateral aid programme — Ethiopia, Lesotho, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Timor Leste — are ACP states. Our underlying approach in those countries is complementary to that of the EPAs in that we are sensitive to the need to help build the economic infrastructure in these least developed countries, LDCs, so that they will be able to avail of an improving international trading environment. To that end Ireland works both with its partner governments and with other donor countries to ensure that there is a real focus on economic development, employment generation and on helping to equip our African partners to pursue access for their goods and progressively the means to avail of that access. On the aid side Ireland is achieving the UN target of 0.15% of GNP to LDCs.

Part of our overall engagement with the private sector in sub-Saharan Africa involves working to create a better climate for enterprise development and economic growth and involves efforts aimed at creating a more enabling international environment and improving coherence on trade and agriculture domestically. Finally, the level of detail being sought by the Deputy in relation to employment in particular industries in sub-Saharan Africa and other related details is not available to me.

  130.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs    the amount paid in fees or remuneration to a person (details supplied) for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of his Department for each year since 1998; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7451/05]

Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern):  The Department has no record of any payment made to the person referred to by the Deputy for consultancy or other work for the period in question.

  131.  Mr. Ring    asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism    the portion of the €25,000 allocated to an organisation (details supplied) in County Mayo under the sports capital programme in 2002 which has been allocated; and the reason the remainder of the grant has not been awarded. [7315/05]

Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism (Mr. O’Donoghue):  A grant of €25,000 was provisionally allocated to the club in question under the 2002 national lottery funded sports capital programme operated by my Department. The grant [188]was subject to the terms and conditions of the programme. As I informed the Deputy in my reply to Parliamentary Question No. 226 of 1 March 2005, all of the documentation required should have been submitted to my Department and the grant drawn down by 27 June 2003 and the club was advised of these conditions by way of letters from my Department dated 9 May 2002 and 25 June 2003. As the relevant documentation was still not received from the club the provisional grant offer was withdrawn in December 2004.

  132.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism    the position in relation to the application by Kildare County Council for grant aid towards the cost of replacing the swimming pool at Naas, County Kildare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7377/05]

Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism (Mr. O’Donoghue):  The proposal to replace Naas swimming pool is one of a number of swimming pool projects within the local authority swimming pool programme under consideration in my Department. There are four stages in the programme: preliminary report; contract document; tender approval; and construction. The Naas project is at contract document stage. The question of this project moving on to the next stage in the programme is being considered in my Department in the context of funding available in the Department’s multiannual capital envelope for the local authority swimming pool programme and the limit on borrowings by local authorities

  133.  Mr. Perry    asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism    if funding will be granted for the capital costs of a community sports and recreation complex in Ballisodare County Sligo; when a decision will be made; if funding will be allocated; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7446/05]

Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism (Mr. O’Donoghue):  The national lottery funded sports capital programme, which is administered by my Department, allocates funding to sporting and community organisations at local, regional and national level throughout the country. The programme is advertised on an annual basis.

Applications for funding under the 2005 programme were invited through advertisements in the press on 5 and 6 December 2004. The closing date for receipt of applications was 4 February 2005. All applications including one from the club in question are currently being evaluated against the programme’s assessment criteria which are outlined in the guidelines, terms and conditions of the programme. I intend to announce the grant allocations for the programme as soon as possible after the assessment process has been completed.

  134.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism    the amount paid in fees or remuneration to a person (details supplied) for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of his Department for each year since 1998; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7452/05]

Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism (Mr. O’Donoghue):  My Department has no record of any fees or remuneration being paid to the person referred to by the Deputy in respect of any consultancy or other work carried out on behalf of the Department since its establishment in June 2002.

  135.  Mr. Gilmore    asked the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the total number of posts for labour inspectors in his Department; the number of such posts that are vacant; his plans to add to the number; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7298/05]

  136.  Mr. Gilmore    asked the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the number of labour inspectors who were out on loan during the EU Presidency; if all of these inspectors have returned to the inspectorate; if any labour inspector has been transferred out of the inspectorate to other divisions of his Department in the past two years; if such transferees have returned; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7299/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Killeen):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 135 and 136 together.

There are 21 labour inspector posts and at present there are 17.5 officers serving in the inspectorate. In addition one inspector is currently on long term sick leave and one job sharing inspector is on extended unpaid leave. A further two inspectors are currently engaged in work with the employment appeals tribunal to assist with processing a backlog of cases.

One inspector was on loan to the Department of Foreign Affairs during the Irish Presidency of the EU and returned to the inspectorate in July 2004. In addition ten inspectors were involved in Presidency related work at various stages during the first half of 2004.

As agreed in the mid-term review of Sustaining Progress, four additional labour inspectors were appointed earlier this year. This increased the complement of inspectors to 21. The review of the mandate and resourcing of the labour inspectorate contains a wide ranging analysis of various options regarding the enforcement of employment rights, including the powers of the inspectorate and the number of inspectors required in [190]the future. The report is currently being considered by the social partners.

  137.  Mr. Gilmore    asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the number of successful prosecutions brought by the labour inspectorate in each of the years 2003 and 2004; the largest number of such prosecutions which related to a single employer; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7300/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Killeen):  The number of successful prosecutions initiated by the labour inspectorate in 2003 was 20. In 2004 the labour inspectorate initiated 14 successful prosecutions. The largest number of prosecutions which related to a single employer was nine.

The primary function of the labour inspectorate is to seek compliance and rectification of any breaches identified, including payment of any arrears due to employees. Therefore an important measure of the effectiveness of the labour inspectorate is to look at the arrears of pay collected on behalf of employees. For the periods in question the recoveries were as follows: 2003 —€226,000; 2004 —€486,000.

Inspectors pursue allegations of worker mistreatment and when evidence of non-compliance with the relevant employment rights legislation is found, the inspectorate seeks redress for the individual or individuals concerned and, if appropriate, a prosecution is initiated. Successful prosecution can be dependent on adequate support from witnesses.

  138.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the amount paid in fees or remuneration to a person (details supplied) for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of his Department for each year since 1998; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7453/05]

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Martin):  My Department’s records show the following payments to the person referred to by the Deputy. Fees amounting to €18,111.54 were paid to the person in the 1997-98 tax year and €2,632.21 in the 1998-99 tax year, in respect of service as a rights commissioner. A payment in the amount of €35,336.81 was made on 22 December 1999 in respect of work carried out in the course of an inquiry into an industrial dispute.

  139.  Mr. Coveney    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if free travel (details supplied) is available to European Union nationals; if he will consider amending the legislation to provide [191]that European Union citizens visiting this country, while not living permanently here, be able to avail of the same entitlements. [7349/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The free travel scheme is available to all people living in the State aged 66 years, or over. It is also available to carers and to people with disabilities who are in receipt of certain social welfare payments.

European nationals aged 66 or over who are permanently living in Ireland, qualify for free travel in the same way as Irish citizens aged 66 or over.

The issue of extending the free travel scheme to non-resident pensioners was examined in the review of the free schemes which was published by the policy institute, Trinity College, Dublin in 2000. The review considered that the main objective of the free travel scheme is to encourage older people and people with disabilities to remain independent and active within the community, thereby reducing the need for institutional care.

It noted that extending the scheme to Irish pensioners living abroad who visit Ireland would have significant administrative and cost implications even if it was confined to those in receipt of Irish social welfare pensions. In 2000, it was estimated that the extension of the free travel scheme to EU pensioners could incur expenditure of the order of €10 million to €19 million, depending on the level of concession granted.

It appears that, if the scheme were extended along the lines suggested, it would have to be extended to all pensioners who are EU nationals coming to Ireland for temporary stays.

I am mindful that this matter has been raised in the House a number of times recently and I am continuing my examination of the issues involved.

  140.  Mr. Eoin Ryan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the reason a person (details supplied) in Dublin 4 is not allowed to apply for unemployment assistance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7429/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  Social welfare legislation provides that a person must satisfy the conditions of being available for and genuinely seeking work in order to be entitled to unemployment benefit or unemployment assistance.

The person concerned had made an application for asylum in the State and on 28 January 2005 the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform refused this application. He was given leave to reside in Ireland on humanitarian grounds on the basis that he is not free to accept offers of employment.

The person concerned had applied for unemployment benefit on 26 January 2005 and his claim was disallowed by a deciding officer on the [192]grounds that he is not available for work due to his status. He is being informed of this and of his right of appeal.

In the meantime, it is open to him to contact his local community welfare officer with a view to applying for supplementary welfare allowance.

  141.  Mr. P. Breen    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the reason a person (details supplied) in County Clare who was in receipt of the disability allowance, can no longer qualify for same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7304/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  In the case raised by the Deputy, the person commenced a FÁS training course on 6 December 2004. Under agreed arrangements with FÁS, people undertaking training who are in receipt of disability allowance, are eligible for a FÁS training allowance instead of disability allowance. Payment of disability allowance is suspended for the duration of the person’s attendance on the FÁS training course as the person’s income support needs are being met through the training allowance.

FÁS pays participants a standard training allowance or an amount equal to their current disability allowance payment, including living alone allowance, free fuel allowance, etc., whichever is greater. In the case raised by the Deputy, the FÁS training allowance is being paid at the equivalent of the maximum rate of disability allowance of €148.80 per week with a training bonus of €31.80 per week.

Participants also retain any secondary benefits to which they have entitlement, for example, medical cards, free schemes etc.

All disability allowance recipients who transfer to a FÁS training scheme under these arrangements are guaranteed that they will not lose out by transferring to the training allowance; that they will retain any secondary benefits they are in receipt of and that in the event that they are unable to continue with the training programme, their disability allowance payment will be restored automatically.

My Department aims, through a provision of a range of supports, to encourage and assist people with disabilities and long-term illnesses who are in receipt of social welfare payments to identify and take up available employment, training and other self-development opportunities, where appropriate.

The Deputy raises the issue of treatment of persons on disability benefit or invalidity pension in similar circumstances. Income maintenance payments available under the social welfare code consist of a range of social insurance benefits which are financed through PRSI contributions, and a range of social assistance payments, which are payable subject to a means test and financed by the Exchequer through general tax revenue. The purpose of the means test is to ensure that, [193]for people who do not have social insurance cover or who have insufficient PRSI contributions to qualify for benefit, resources are targeted at those most in need.

A person who is ill or disabled, and has sufficient PRSI contributions, may qualify for either disability benefit or invalidity pension. Entitlement to social insurance benefits such as these are not affected by the claimant’s income or, if one of a couple, by their spouse or partner’s income, subject to certain limits.

A person in receipt of disability benefit or invalidity pension may apply to the Department for an exemption from the general “no work” conditions which apply to these contributory schemes in order to undertake a training course to fit him or her for another job if he or she is unable to do his or her usual work.

In such cases where permission is given to commence a course, any training allowance payable can be made to the person in addition to the payment of disability benefit or invalidity pension, without affecting the rate of entitlement due to the contributory nature of these schemes.

Where people have not worked or do not have sufficient PRSI contributions, they may apply for disability allowance, which is means tested. In assessing means, account is taken of the claimant’s own means and, in the case of a couple, the joint means of the couple are assessed. In addition, the value of any capital held is assessed. In this way, applicants for disability allowance are treated in the same manner as applicants for other social assistance payments.

  142.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the amount paid in fees or remuneration to a person (details supplied) for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of his Department for each year since 1998; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7454/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  In 2003, the personnel section of my Department engaged the services of the person concerned, to adjudicate on a pay claim submitted by the branch managers’ association. This work included a one-day arbitration hearing on 19 February 2003 and the total cost was €1,306.

No other consultancy or other work was carried out for or on behalf of this Department since 1998 by the person concerned.

  143.  Mr. Gregory    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the reason the clothing allowance for elderly persons in need has been withdrawn and restricted to persons with asthma, diabetes and arthritis; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7471/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The supplementary welfare allowance [194]scheme, which is administered on my behalf by the community welfare division of the Health Service Executive, HSE, provides for exceptional needs payments to be made to assist with essential, once-off expenditure in exceptional circumstances. Exceptional needs payments, are made at the discretion of the community welfare division of the Health Service Executive and I do not have any function in deciding individual cases.

There is no automatic entitlement to an exceptional needs payment. Every decision is based on consideration of the circumstances of the case, taking account of the nature and extent of the need and of the resources of the household concerned.

There is no standard clothing allowance for adults. It is expected that expenses incurred in respect of normal clothing requirements, which are of a predictable and recurring nature, should be budgeted for out of regular weekly income whether from earnings or from social welfare payments.

  144.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Transport    if he will approve the business case for the Kildare Arrow route project; if not, when he will respond to Irish Rail; if funding is available to proceed with the project from 2005; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7373/05]

  145.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Transport    if he has considered Irish Rail’s plan to provide a DART service on the Maynooth suburban line; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7375/05]

Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 144 and 145 together.

Iarnród Éireann has submitted a business case to my Department for the development of a greater Dublin integrated rail network, aimed at meeting the projected demand for rail services in the area into the future. Included in the business case are proposals to: construct a new rail station in the city centre; provide an interconnector tunnel linking Heuston to the Docklands; provide a spur off the Maynooth line to the N3 beyond Dunboyne; double the track on a section of the Kildare line.

The proposal includes plans to electrify the Maynooth line. This would allow DART type trains to operate on that line. The Iarnród Éireann proposed integrated rail network plan is being assessed by my Department and I expect to respond to the company in the context of the ten-year transport investment framework that is being finalised at present.

  146.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Transport    the amount paid in fees or remuneration to a person (details supplied) for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of his Depart[195]ment for each year since 1998; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7455/05]

Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen):  Our records do not show any direct fees or remuneration paid to the person concerned for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of the Department of Transport during the period in question.

  147.  Mr. O’Shea    asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs    his views on the fact that no grant for 2005 has been approved by Foras na Gaeilge for any Irish language organisation in the south-east region; the action he proposes to take; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7433/05]

Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Éamon Ó Cuív):  As I have indicated previously, the Deputy will understand that decisions regarding the provision of grants by Foras na Gaeilge is a matter for Foras na Gaeilge itself, in the context of its statutory obligations and its business and corporate plans.

I understand from Foras na Gaeilge that it was clearly explained last year that the previous community schemes funded by Foras would come to an end on 31 December 2004. At the same time, it was announced that Foras would hold an open competition for community Irish language schemes for 2005-2007 in the autumn of 2004 and that the successful projects would be funded over a period of three years.

I understand from Foras that 44 groups applied under the new scheme and that a standardised and comprehensive assessment was carried out on all the applications in the context of the criteria that had been laid out in the application form. I understand that 20 of the 44 applications were successful. Only one application was received from the Waterford region and that application was not successful.

  148.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs    the amount paid in fees or remuneration to a person (details supplied) for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of his Department for each year since 1998; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7456/05]

Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Éamon Ó Cuív):  No fees or remuneration have been paid to the person concerned for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of my Department since its establishment in June 2002.

  149.  Mr. Connaughton    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    when the outstanding 40% [196]of the suckler cow grant for 2004 will be awarded to a person (details supplied) in County Galway; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7316/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  Under the herd number quoted, an application for premium on seven animals under the 2004 suckler cow premium scheme was received on 11 February 2004, from a person other than the person named.

Payment of the 60% advance instalment has issued to the applicant. Processing for 40% balancing instalments is ongoing and it is expected that payments will start at the end of March.

  150.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    the amount paid in fees or remuneration to a person (details supplied) for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of her Department for each year since 1998; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7457/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  No such payments have been made by my Department to the person in question from 1998 to date.

  151.  Mr. Naughten    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    her plans for the modulation fund under the single farm payment; if she intends to use it as a top up to the disadvantaged area payments and to address animal welfare issues; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7464/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  The modulated funds become available for use in 2006. I will decide on their use and seek the necessary EU approval in the coming months. Currently my Department is finalising its examination of the relevant options. As part of that examination, there has been widespread public consultation and discussions with stakeholders.

The use of modulated funds in 2006 is limited to certain measures under the relevant EU regulations. The eligible measures are those in the CAP rural development plan, agri-environment, early retirement, less favoured areas payments and forestry and the new initiatives introduced as part of the CAP mid-term review, food quality, animal welfare, farm advisory services and meeting standards. The two options referred to in the question are among those under consideration.

  152.  Mr.Durkan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he is satisfied that adequate legislation exists to prevent money laundering through the banking system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7425/05]

[197]Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  I refer the Deputy to my answer to his Parliamentary Question No. 248 of Wednesday, 16 February 2005 on the same subject in which I set out the extensive legislation in place in this jurisdiction to tackle money laundering activities, including through the banking system. The situation remains the same.

  153.  Mr. Noonan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if a person married to an Irish citizen (details supplied) will be allowed to remain here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7310/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  I understand that the circumstances of the person in question have recently changed and that his case is subject to a review with regard to granting further periods of permission to remain in the State. It is expected that this review will be completed shortly.

  154.  Ms McManus    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if the ADM funding for a playgroup (details supplied) will be extended; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7311/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  As the Deputy may be aware the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme, EOCP, provides grant assistance towards the staffing costs of community based, not-for-profit child care services which have a clear focus on disadvantage. Funding under the staffing measure of the EOCP is only made available to help support the staffing costs of those projects which can demonstrate that they are providing child care in areas of significant disadvantage and that they are supporting disadvantaged parents to access employment, education or training. It was not intended that the EOCP would meet the full costs of running a service. The programme makes staffing grant assistance available for a period of years, usually three years, to enable them to move towards self-sustainability which would normally be achieved when the service is operating at capacity and with an appropriate fee structure.

In a number of services, the levels of disadvantage among parents are such that families would be unable to pay economic fees and therefore those services are likely to require ongoing State support towards their staffing costs. My Department is currently reviewing the arrangements for the ongoing support of such services in very disadvantaged areas and plans to introduce new arrangements to support those services in cases where they will have received staffing grant assistance for three or more years, at any date prior to 31 August 2005. Information regarding the introduction of these new arrangements will [198]be forwarded to the groups in question as soon as it is available.

The relevant groups have been informed that their existing level of staffing grant assistance funding will be continued up to 31 August 2005, subject to the groups maintaining their forecast levels of service and meeting the targets they had previously agreed. The amounts awarded are deemed sufficient to enable the groups to maintain their approved level of service and to give them an opportunity to review their services and their fee structures.

In the interim, it would be premature of me to comment further on future staffing grant assistance.

  155.  Mr. Neville    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if the Land Registry Office will forward a copy of the deeds of a house to a person (details supplied) in County Limerick. [7312/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  I am informed by the Registrar of Titles that there is no record of an application pending on this folio at present. If the Deputy can provide me with the date of lodgement of the application and a Land Registry reference number I will make further inquiries on his behalf.

  156.  Mr. Gregory    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he will review the decision to deport persons (details supplied) in view of the representations made on their behalf. [7313/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  Both persons referred to by the Deputy are young Nigerian nationals who arrived separately in the State in April 2001 and September 2002, respectively, as unaccompanied minors and claimed asylum. Both their applications for refugee status were refused following consideration by the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and on appeal by the Office of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal. These decisions were communicated to them by letters informing them of three options open to them: that is, to leave the State voluntarily before their cases were considered for deportation; consent to the making of a deportation order in respect of them; or to make written representations, within 15 working days, setting out the reasons they should not be deported and instead to be allowed to remain temporarily in the State.

The case of each was considered under section 3 of the Immigration Act 1999, as amended, and section 5 of the Refugee Act 1996 on the prohibition of refoulement, including consideration of all representations received on their behalf. Deportation orders were subsequently made in respect of each in January 2005 and December 2004, [199]respectively. These orders were recently served on them requiring them to report to the Garda national immigration bureau in order for arrangements to be made for their return to Nigeria. Both presented to the bureau as requested and are due to present again on 10 March 2005 so that arrangements could be made with the Nigerian Embassy for their documentation. The bureau informs me the process of documentation is currently in train and that travel documents are expected to be issued soon.

While both persons were minors when they first entered the State, one of them reached 18 years in March 2003 and is now being treated as an adult. When his travel documents have been obtained from the Nigerian Embassy, the Garda national immigration bureau will be arranging his return. This is expected shortly. The other person will be 18 years in May 2005 and is being treated as a minor who is in the care of the Health Service Executive. His return will require special arrangements to be made with the Nigerian authorities for his reception upon arrival in Nigeria. As this is likely to take some time to arrange, there are no immediate plans at this stage to repatriate him to Nigeria.

  157.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he plans any deportations to conflict zones, including the DRC, Angola or Sierra Leone in the near future; the dates on which they will take place; if there have been any deportations to these countries since he became Minister; and if so, the number in each case. [7332/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  Section 5 of the Refugee Act 1996 regarding prohibition of refoulement, requires that a person shall not be expelled from the State or returned in any manner whatsoever to a State where, in the opinion of the Minister, the life or freedom of that person would be threatened on account of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Every deportation case is fully considered with regard to this specific requirement as well as the eleven other factors required under section 3(6) of the Immigration Act 1999, as amended. My Department uses extensive country of origin information drawn from different independent sources, including UNHCR, in helping to make this evaluation. The situation is constantly being monitored in regard to any changes in the countries concerned, in particular in respect of the non-refoulement requirement.

Persons served with deportation orders are informed of the reasons for their deportations and are requested to report to the Garda national immigration bureau in order for arrangements to be made for their removal. The place, date and time of removal is a matter for the bureau. These details are only communicated to the person con[200]cerned, and their legal representatives, in order to preserve their dignity and anonymity, as well as for security reasons. I cannot, therefore, comment on any removals that may be planned in the near future to the regions and countries mentioned by the Deputy.

In regard to previous deportations made to these countries, I set out the details in the following table:

Deported Countries June 2002 to date
Democratic Republic of Congo Nil
Angola 4
Sierra Leone 1

  158.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    his plans for asylum seekers who have no Irish children but have been in the asylum system for over three years; and his plans for asylum seekers who have children who have been in the education system here for periods of over three years. [7333/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  I am informed by the relevant determining authorities — the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, ORAC, and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, RAT, that there are in the region of 100 cases in the asylum system for over three years.

In the case of the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner a recommendation of some type has previously issued but for a variety of reasons further processing is now required. In general this arises where the case is returned to ORAC in order to be readmitted to the first stage process either as a consequence of the RAT overturning an ORAC decision on a “manifestly unfounded” or Dublin Convention-regulation case, or where agreement is reached to readmit an applicant in order to resolve a judicial review of the original decision on the case.

In regard to appeals outstanding in the RAT for more than three years from the date of appeal, the majority of cases have been delayed due to judicial review proceedings in either ORAC or RAT. It is my intention to have all asylum applications that have been in the system for over three years processed as expeditiously as possible.

  159.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of female asylum seekers who have been granted Convention refugee status on the basis that their deportation would place them in danger of genital mutilation; and the number of women who have been given humanitarian leave to remain on the basis that their deportation would place them in danger of genital mutilation. [7334/05]

[201]Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  Persons seek and are granted refugee status in the State based on a wide variety of reasons, some of them multiple, in accordance with provisions of the Refugee Act 1996 and the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. A detailed breakdown of these reasons is not maintained by the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner or by the Office of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal. Consequently, statistics are not available as to the number of females, if any, granted refugee status based on the alleged risk of female genital mutilation.

Similarly, the Minister must consider 11 factors under section 3 (6) of the Immigration Act 1999, as amended, together with section 5 of the Refugee Act 1996, prohibition of refoulement, when considering whether or not to deport somebody. Statistics are not maintained in a way that distinguishes whether a specific factor, either on its own or as one of a number of factors, resulted in a person being granted leave to remain in the State.

I should say that the issue of refoulement as set out in section 5 of the Refugee Act 1996, is given full consideration in every case when deciding whether to make a deportation order or grant temporary leave to remain in the State. My Department uses extensive country of origin information drawn from different independent sources, including UNHCR, in evaluating the safety of making returns to third countries. This means that a person shall not be expelled from the State or returned in any manner whatsoever to a State where, in my opinion, the life or freedom of that person would be threatened on account of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

  160.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if his attention has been drawn to the practice of the Nigerian Embassy here of asking Nigerian citizens to obtain a Garda report on a lost passport even when they have never lost their passport here; if his attention has been drawn to the practice of the Nigerian Embassy of charging €435 for passports which are needed for the residency applications and imposing a deadline of 28 February for persons applying for these passports; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that many applicants cannot afford the €435 fee; if he will be taking these issues up with the Nigerian Embassy; and the steps he has taken to resolve this matter. [7335/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  On 15 January 2005, I introduced revised arrangements for the making of applications by non-nationals for permission to remain on the basis of their parentage of a child born in Ireland prior to 1 January 2005. All applicants are required to provide adequate proof of [202]their identity by way of a passport or national identity card.

Establishing the true identity of an applicant under the revised arrangements is a basic obligation, both on the State and the applicant. In this context, the requirement that an applicant produces an identity document from his or her country of origin cannot be waived. I wish to advise the Deputy that I have been made aware of reports that certain embassies may be charging particular amounts for the issue of passports to their nationals. However, the amount to be charged by a foreign embassy in this regard is not a matter for my Department, or for the Irish Government, to determine.

  161.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if proposals exist to regularise the circumstances under which undertakers may deal with bodies in the absence of death certificates; his views on the efficiency that exists on issuing such certificates; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7341/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  The issue of certification of death is not generally the responsibility of my Department. However, I can say that in so far as the coroner’s service is concerned, all aspects of its operation are being considered for updating in the context of the preparation in my Department of proposals for a new Coroner’s Bill, in line with the commitment in the Government legislation programme as announced on 28 January 2005.

  162.  Mr. Gregory    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if gardaí have been able to assist residents (details supplied) in Dublin 7 with the very serious anti-social behaviour near to their homes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7344/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  I am informed by the Garda authorities that they are aware of the reports regarding anti-social behaviour in the location concerned and I understand that a policing plan has been devised to combat it. I am advised that a Garda inspector has been in direct contact with the residents referred to, concerning policing of the area, and regular contact will be maintained with them. I am further informed that a full investigation into the specific incident raised has been carried out and a file has been forwarded to the law officers for directions.

  163.  Mr. Cuffe    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the reason for the delay in processing applications for naturalisation, in particular that of a person (details [203]supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7347/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  An application for a certificate of naturalisation from the person referred to by the Deputy was received in the citizenship section of my Department on 12 May 2004. The average processing time for such applications is currently 24 months. It is likely, therefore, that the application of the individual concerned will be finalised by May 2006. The lengthy processing time for applications is primarily due to the significant increase in the volume of applications being received during the last number of years. In 2000, some 1,004 applications for naturalisation were received. The comparable figure in 2004 was 4,074.

It is of relevance to point out to the Deputy that while there are approximately 600 civil service staff currently assigned to immigration related functions in both my Department and its associated independent agencies, approximately 70% of those staff have been engaged full time in activities associated with the processing of asylum claims or in the provision of support for asylum seekers. The reduction in the numbers claiming asylum during 2003 and 2004 has freed up resources which are currently being deployed in the improvement of mainstream immigration services. The citizenship section is one of the areas which is benefitting from this process.

I will inform both the applicant and the Deputy as soon as I have reached a decision on this application.

  164.  Mr. Murphy    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if a file regarding persons (details supplied) will be reopened. [7371/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  The applications referred to by the Deputy were for the purposes of allowing the spouses of non-EEA nationals employed under the employment permit scheme to reside with them in the State. These applications were refused by my Department in May 2004 on the grounds that, based on the evidence supplied, the persons resident in the State did not have sufficient finances available to them to guarantee the support of the applicants without recourse to public funds.

An appeal was submitted in respect of each refusal. However, based on the additional evidence supplied, the appeals officer was unable to conclude that the initial decision should be overturned. As each application is entitled to only one appeal, it is not possible to review these applications again. However, should the applicants still wish to travel, a fresh application should be submitted accompanied by any additional supporting [204]documentation that it is felt will address the reasons for refusal given by my Department.

  165.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the reason he does not intend to carry out a review of the number of 24 hour Garda stations in the State with a view to opening new 24 hour stations to reflect population changes, with particular emphasis on the north east Kildare towns of Maynooth, Leixlip and Celbridge; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7381/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  I am informed by the Garda authorities that there are currently no plans to extend the number of Garda stations open to the public on a 24 hour basis. The Garda authorities have also informed me that the extension of the current opening hours of the Garda stations in the north Kildare area would necessitate the employment of Garda personnel on indoor administrative duties and that, in their view, such personnel can be utilised in providing a visible Garda presence on outdoor policing activities. Local Garda management is satisfied that the arrangements currently at Maynooth, Leixlip and Celbridge are adequate to meet the present policing needs of the area.

With regard to Garda resources generally, I am pleased that the Government has approved my proposal to increase the strength of the Garda Síochána to 14,000 members on a phased basis, in line with the An Agreed Programme for Government commitment in this regard. This is a key commitment in the programme and its implementation will significantly strengthen the operational capacity of the force.

The Commissioner will now draw up plans on how best to distribute and manage these additional resources. In this context, the needs of the Kildare district will be fully considered within the context of the needs of Garda districts throughout the country. Clearly, the additional resources will be targeted at the areas of greatest need, as is envisaged in the programme for Government. The programme identifies in particular areas with a significant drugs problem and a large number of public order offences but it will be possible to address other priorities as well, such as the need to significantly increase the number of gardaí allocated to traffic duties as part of the new Garda traffic corps. I have already promised that the additional gardaí will not be put on administrative duties. They will be put directly into frontline, operational, high-visibility policing. They will have a real impact.

  166.  Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of Garda personnel allocated to each Garda station in County Meath at 1 January 1997 [205]and 1 January 2005; and the total number of gardaí in the county on each of these dates. [7387/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  I am informed by the Garda authorities, who are responsible for the detailed allocation of resources, including personnel, that the number of Garda personnel allocated to each Garda station in County Meath at 31 January 1997 and 31 January 2005, and the total number of gardaí in the county on each of these dates, were as set out in the table.

Station 1997 2005
Laytown 6 8
Ashbourne 22 40
Dunboyne 14 12
Dunshaughlin 11 10
Kells 31 31
Athboy 4 6
Oldcastle 3 4
Nobber 3 3
Trim 24 26
Crossakeel 2 0
Summerhill 2 2
Enfield 18 15
Ballivor 2 3
Navan 47 46
Duleek 4 4
Slane 3 4
Kilmessan 1 0
Total 197 214

Historical statistical information relating to Garda personnel strength is maintained on an end of month basis. Accordingly, the personnel strength for a particular Garda station is readily available at the end of each month. This is the reason that figures for 31 January 1997 and 2005 are provided in response to this question.

With regard to Garda resources generally, I am pleased that the Government has approved my proposal to increase the strength of the Garda Síochána to 14,000 members on a phased basis, in line with the An Agreed Programme for Government commitment in this regard. This is a key commitment in the programme and its implementation will significantly strengthen the operational capacity of the force.

The Commissioner will now draw up plans on how best to distribute and manage these additional resources. In this context, the needs of the Meath district will be fully considered within the context of the needs of Garda districts throughout the country. Clearly, the additional resources will be targeted at the areas of greatest need, as is envisaged in the programme for Government. The programme identifies in particular areas with a significant drugs problem and a large number of public order offences but it will [206]be possible to address other priorities as well, such as the need to significantly increase the number of gardaí allocated to traffic duties as part of the new Garda traffic corps. I have already promised that the additional gardaí will not be put on administrative duties. They will be put directly into frontline, operational, high-visibility policing. They will have a real impact.

  167.  Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of Garda personnel allocated to each Garda station in County Kildare at 1 January 1997 and 1 January 2005; and the total number of gardaí in the county on each of these dates. [7388/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  I am informed by the Garda authorities, who are responsible for the detailed allocation of resources, including personnel, that the number of Garda personnel allocated to each Garda station in County Kildare at 31 January 1997 and 31 January 2005, and the total number of gardaí in the county on each of these dates, were as set out in the following table.

Garda Stations 1997 2005
Naas 69 77
Clane 5 6
Kill 3 3
Celbridge 12 19
Maynooth 9 16
Kildare 28 27
Newbridge 26 29
Robertstown 2 3
Kilcullen 3 3
Carbury 2 2
Monasterevin 3 3
Rathangan 2 3
Athy 17 16
Castledermot 2 2
Ballytore 4 1
Ballymore Eustace 1 1
Leixlip 11 27
Kilcock 6 5
Total 205 243

Historical statistical information on Garda personnel strength is maintained on an end of month basis. Accordingly, the personnel strength for a particular Garda station is readily available at the end of each month. This is the reason that figures for 31 January 1997 and 2005 are provided in response to this question.

With regard to Garda resources generally, I am pleased that the Government has approved my proposal to increase the strength of the Garda Síochána to 14,000 members on a phased basis, in line with the An Agreed Programme for Government commitment in this regard. This is a key [207]commitment in the programme and its implementation will significantly strengthen the operational capacity of the force.

The Commissioner will now draw up plans on how best to distribute and manage these additional resources. In this context, the needs of the Kildare district will be fully considered within the context of the needs of Garda districts throughout the country. Clearly, the additional resources will be targeted at the areas of greatest need, as is envisaged in the programme for Government. The programme identifies in particular areas with a significant drugs problem and a large number of public order offences but it will be possible to address other priorities as well, such as the need to significantly increase the number of gardaí allocated to traffic duties as part of the new Garda traffic corps. I have already promised that the additional gardaí will not be put on administrative duties. They will be put directly into frontline, operational, high-visibility policing. They will have a real impact.

  168.  Mr. Ring    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the funding which will become available in the near future for child care facilities under the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme 2000-2006. [7389/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  The Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme, EOCP, 2000-2006 is a seven year development programme which aims to increase the availability and quality of child care to support parents in employment, education and training. The level of demand for capital grant assistance was such that I considered it important to increase the capital provision for the present programme. Following discussions with my colleague the Minister for Finance, an additional capital provision of €90 million was made available over the period 2005 to 2009, in the context of the 2005 budget.

Of this amount, €50 million is being made available under the present programme and the remaining €40 million will flow under the next phase of the post-2006 EOCP. This augments the increased EU funding of some €12 million made available last year in recognition of the progress of the programme. This brings the total funding available for the programme to €499.3 million and now includes an increased provision for capital developments, for which €205 million has been set aside. In December 2004, I announced an allocation of almost €35 million in capital funding to community based not for profit groups.

The availability of the additional capital funding will enable me to make further capital grant assistance available over the coming months and years to groups which address significant child care service gaps and where the project proposal [208]represents good value for money when considered in the context of the current guidelines on building costs. I hope to make further significant capital commitments during 2005 and thereafter. The ongoing assessment of the applications in the pipeline will be concluded as speedily as possible to facilitate the development of additional child care facilities and places at the earliest opportunity.

  169.  Mr. Gilmore    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he will facilitate the transfer from Limerick to Dublin of a person (details supplied). [7390/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  Solicitors acting on behalf of the person in question made an application for a transfer to Dublin on his behalf on 4 February 2005. Having regard to his particular circumstances with regard to access to translation services, the reception and integration agency has arranged accommodation for him in Dublin from 1 March 2005.

  170.  Mr. Gilmore    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the arrangement which he has made to protect, manage and secure the buildings of the former prison at Shanganagh Castle, Shankill; if the buildings have been damaged or have deteriorated in any way since the closure of the prison; the cost of maintaining and managing the buildings since the closure; his plans for the future of these buildings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7391/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  The Prison Service has in place arrangements to ensure that the property is maintained in a secure and safe manner. I am not for obvious reasons going to go into detail about the specific measures but I can confirm that the buildings have not been damaged or vandalised since the closure. A total of €129,798.52 has been expended to date on security related measures and in addition to this, one member of staff has remained in a caretaker capacity.

A contract has been signed for the sale of 21.5 acres of the lands to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and the conveyance is due to be completed on 30 May next. I intend to dispose of the balance of the property including the buildings later this year. The proceeds of both transactions will be utilised towards prison capital projects.

  171.  Ms Lynch    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if his attention has been drawn to the fact that there is increasing [209]uncertainty regarding the continuing funding of child care provisions in the Cork city area; if he will clarify the criteria used by his Department to determine the term, very disadvantaged, in respect to funding; when child care organisations will be issued with funding application forms for the next round of funding; if all applications received will be fully processed prior to 31 August 2005; if applications are not processed by 31 August 2005, there will be a further roll-over of funding; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7430/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  As the Deputy may be aware the equal opportunities childcare programme, EOCP, provides grant assistance towards the staffing costs of community-based not-for-profit child care services which have a clear focus on disadvantage. Funding under the staffing measure of the EOCP is only made available to help support the staffing costs of those projects which can demonstrate that they are providing child care in areas of significant disadvantage and that they are supporting disadvantaged parents to access employment, education or training. It was not intended that the EOCP will meet the full costs of running a service. The programme makes staffing grant assistance available for a period of years, usually three years, to enable them to move towards self-sustainability which would normally be achieved when the service is operating at capacity and with an appropriate fee structure.

In a number of services, the levels of disadvantage among parents are such that the families would be unable to pay economic fees and therefore those services are likely to require ongoing State support towards their staffing costs. My Department is currently reviewing the arrangements for the ongoing support of such services in very disadvantaged areas and plans to introduce new arrangements to support those services in cases where they will have received staffing grant assistance for three or more years, at any date prior to 31 August 2005. Information regarding the introduction of these new arrangements will be forwarded to the groups in question as soon as it is available.

The relevant groups throughout the country have been informed that their existing level of staffing grant assistance funding will be continued up to 31 August 2005, subject to the groups maintaining their forecast levels of service and meeting the targets they had previously agreed. The amounts awarded are deemed sufficient to enable the groups to maintain their approved level of service and to give them an opportunity to review their services and their fee structures.

Applications will be processed well in advance of the 31 August 2005. In the interim, it would be premature of me to comment further on future staffing grant assistance.

  172.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the rehabilitation programmes for prisoners provided over the past ten years; the purpose of each; the prisons in which each programme has been offered; the total cost of each per year and to date in 2005; if, in each case, the programme has been discontinued; and if so, the reason therefor. [7438/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  The Irish Prison Service employs a number of means to encourage prisoners to bring about positive development within themselves, including: programmes in the areas of education, vocational and pre-vocational training and lifeskills, specific programmes and individual counselling to address criminogenic factors, for example, anger management and sex offenders programmes, individual and group counselling and support, drug treatment, and facilitating the involvement of voluntary organisations in providing appropriate prisoner support services. These programmes are delivered by a wide range of specialist services that operate in the prisons, such as the services of psychologists, teachers, probation and welfare officers and prison officers.

I note that the Deputy is seeking details of the various prison rehabilitation programmes provided over the past ten years. Each prison and place of detention has in place a range of prisoner rehabilitation programmes catering for its particular prison population. Across all of the prisons, the array and content of such prisoner rehabilitation programmes continue to evolve with additional elements added or replaced to take account of changing needs. I refer the Deputy to the annual reports of the Irish Prison Service which give an overview of developments in relation to the prisons and, in particular, those reports for most recent years contain prison by prison profiles of prisoner activities. It would be too substantial a task to assemble in detail all the information sought by the Deputy under the headings he has mentioned and compiling it would require a disproportionate and inordinate amount of staff time and effort and could not be justified in current circumstances where there are other significant demands on resources.

As regards the annual costs of such programmes, it is not currently possible to disaggregate from the total Irish Prison Service spending all of the elements that specifically relate to rehabilitation programmes for prisoners. However, I advise the Deputy that I obtained a budget for the Irish Prison Service of €369 million for 2005, which compares to a budget of €180 million provided for prisons in 1997.

  173.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of prison staff that will be employed at the new prison complex planned for north County Dublin; and the number and category of other support staff who will work at the complex. [7439/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  At this stage no final decision has been made as to the exact number or category of prisoners to be accommodated on the new site. Therefore, it is not possible to give precise staff numbers for the new prison complex planned for north County Dublin at this point in time.

  174.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if any prisoners other than long-term prisoners will be held in the new prison complex planned for north County Dublin; and if so, the other categories of prisoners that will be held there. [7440/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  At present, Mountjoy Prison operates as the largest committal prison for sentenced prisoners in the State. In this regard it caters for persons serving sentences ranging from a few days right through the spectrum to include those sentenced to life imprisonment. It is anticipated that the new complex will also cater for a wide range of offenders. However, no final decision has yet been made as to the range of prisoners to be accommodated at the new complex.

  175.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of prison spaces available in the State; the number of spaces in use; the number of spaces temporarily closed; the number of spaces permanently closed since he assumed his ministerial responsibilities; and the number of spaces required according to his estimates. [7441/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  As of 1 March 2005 the maximum available bed capacity of the prison system was 3,357. There were 3,257 persons in custody on that date. That does not however imply the existence of 100 readily available spaces. Two thirds of the available spaces were in Portlaoise Prison which mainly houses subversive and other high security prisoners and is not suitable for the general population. Cloverhill as a remand prison accounted for the balance. Taking these factors into the account the prison system currently operates at or in excess of full capacity [212]for sentenced prisoners with some overcrowding remaining in certain prisons.

The Deputy will be aware that, as an attempt to address the spiralling prisons overtime bill, the Government agreed to the mothballing of the places of detention at Fort Mitchell and the Curragh during 2004. These institutions each provided space for 102 inmates. However, the transfer of staff from these institutions allowed for the opening of new landings at Limerick and Midlands Prison which almost completely offset this loss in accommodation space. The future of both institutions is under continuous review and any decision on this issue will have regard to the ongoing discussions between the Irish Prison Service and the Prison Officers’ Association.

Shanganagh Castle, which provided capacity for up to 60 young offenders, ceased to operate as a place of detention in December 2002. The reasons for this decision have been set out on many occasions in the past.

It is clear that there is a need for new prison spaces for a number of reasons including the need to eliminate overcrowding in a number of our committal prisons, in particular, Mountjoy Prison, the Dóchas centre and Castlerea Prison. It is also my wish to replace outdated prison accommodation with new facilities which will eliminate the practice of “slopping out” and also reduce the “doubling up” which is prevalent throughout the system. As part of this process, I can confirm that a total of 150 new spaces are being provided in the new Portlaoise “C Block” which is due to be completed in 2007. I can also advise the Deputy that estimates of future space requirements are being refined in the context of planning for the development of the new prison complexes at north County Dublin and Spike Island.

  176.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if the training unit presently located at Glengarriff Parade will be transferred to the new prison complex planned for north County Dublin; and the facilities that will be provided for prisoners at the new site. [7442/05]

  178.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if St. Patrick’s Detention Centre will be relocated to the new prison complex planned for north County Dublin; if not, his plans for the facility. [7444/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 176 and 178 together.

A decision has been taken in principle to dispose of the current Mountjoy complex including the training unit and St. Patrick’s Institution. A final decision has not yet been made regarding [213]the facilities that will be provided for prisoners at the new site.

  177.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of prison spaces planned for the new prison complex in north County Dublin; the number of spaces for male prisoners; the number of spaces for women prisoners; and the number of spaces for juveniles. [7443/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  At this stage no final decision has been made as to the precise number of prisoners to be accommodated on the new site. The existing Mountjoy complex has a total capacity of over 900 prisoners and the new facility will cater for more than that number.

Question No. 178 answered with Question
No. 176.

  179.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if the case of a person (details supplied) in County Louth will be reviewed. [7447/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  A declaration of acceptance of Irish citizenship as post-nuptial citizenship was received in the citizenship section of my Department on 10 October 2003 from the person referred to in the Deputy’s question. Officials in the citizenship section wrote to the representatives of the person concerned by registered post on 10 January 2005 informing them that it was their view that the person concerned did not meet the statutory criteria for making a declaration of post-nuptial citizenship. However, the correspondence was returned to my Department marked “not called for”. The company moved to a new address and the correspondence has been forwarded to that address. The person concerned has been afforded an opportunity to make a submission on the reasons for my officials’ view and a final determination on the matter will take account of any submission that is made in this regard.

  180.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the amount paid in fees or remuneration to a person (details supplied) for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of his Department for each year since 1998; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7458/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  My Department has not paid [214]fees or remuneration to the person whose details are supplied.

  181.  Mr. Naughten    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    further to Question No. 162 of 24 February 2005, the way in which the person may enter and leave the State while the application for leave to remain and the application for post-nuptial citizenship are both pending; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7463/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  The person in question is free to leave the State at any time. As a visa requiring national he must be in possession of a valid Irish visa to allow him travel to the State. It is not the policy of my Department to assist persons who do not have leave to remain in the State with a re-entry visa prior to travelling.

  182.  Mr. F. McGrath    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the position regarding the reunification of a family (details supplied); and if the maximum support will be given to same. [7465/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  The application was recently approved and the refugee was notified in writing of the decision.

  183.  Mr. S. Ryan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if, in view of the unacceptable increase in anti-social behaviour in Donabate, County Dublin, a Garda station will be provided and additional Garda resources arranged in the interim to be specifically dedicated to the Donabate peninsula. [7469/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  I have been informed by the Garda authorities, who are responsible for the detailed allocation of resources, including personnel, that Donabate forms part of the Swords subdistrict and that personnel attached to Swords Garda station are charged with the responsibility for the provision of a full policing service in the neighbourhood.

The personnel strength of Swords Garda station, all ranks, as at 1 March 2005, was 68. The personnel strength of Swords Garda station, as at 1 March 2004, was 56. This represents an increase of 12, or 21%, since that date. There are no plans to establish a Garda station in the Donabate area. A structured and effective policing programme is in force in the subdistrict supported by several specialist units — the divisional task force, divisional traffic unit, district detective unit, district [215]drugs unit and the special detective unit. Community gardaí are assigned to the area and I am advised they have an excellent rapport with the local community.

With regard to Garda resources generally, I am pleased the Government has approved my proposal to increase the strength of the Garda to 14,000 members on a phased basis, in line with the An Agreed Programme for Government commitment in this regard. This is a key commitment in the programme for Government, and its implementation will significantly strengthen the operational capacity of the force.

The commissioner will draw up plans on how best to distribute and manage these additional resources. In this context, the needs of the Swords subdistrict will be fully considered within the context of the needs of Garda districts throughout the country. Additional resources will be targeted at the areas of greatest need, as is envisaged in the programme for Government. The programme identifies in particular areas with a significant drugs problem and a large number of public order offences, but it will be possible to address other priorities as well such as the need to significantly increase the number of gardaí allocated to traffic duties as part of the new Garda traffic corps. I have promised that the additional gardaí will not be put on administrative duties. They will be put directly into front line, operational, high-visibility policing. They will have a real impact.

  184.  Mr. Ferris    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if it will be possible to provide a school bus to take a person (details supplied) in County Kerry to school. [7317/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  Under the terms of the primary school transport scheme, children are eligible, subject to conditions, for free transport to their nearest national school or school of amalgamation. Pupils not attending their nearest national school may, subject to conditions, avail of concessionary fare-paying transport to another school, subject to spare accommodation being available on the bus and provided that no extra State cost is incurred by extending or re-routing the service. In this case the child referred to by the Deputy is not attending her nearest national school and is availing of concessionary fare-paying transport. The present service is the most that can be offered as additional costs would be incurred by extending the service.

  185.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if she will consult schools before making any decision to change to a weighted system of allocating support to children [216]with special educational needs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7339/05]

  186.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if she will maintain the current system of allocation of resource teaching support for children with special educational needs to ensure that children who need learning support receive it; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7340/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 185 and 186 together.

In the light of the reality that pupils in the high-incidence disability categories of mild and borderline mild general learning disability and dyslexia are distributed throughout the education system, my Department, in consultation with educational interests, developed a general model of resource teacher allocation to schools to support students in those disability categories. That model, which was announced by my predecessor in 2004 to come into effect from September 2005, was designed to put in place a permanent resource in primary schools to cater for pupils in those categories.

The model was constructed so that allocations would be based on pupil numbers, taking into account the differing needs of the most disadvantaged schools and the evidence that boys have greater difficulties than girls in this regard. The logic behind having a general allocation model is to reduce the need for individual applications and supporting psychological assessments and put resources in place on a more systematic basis, thereby giving schools more certainty about their resource levels. This will allow for better planning in schools, greater flexibility in identifying and intervening earlier with regard to pupils’ special needs, as well as making the posts more attractive to qualified teachers.

As I have told the Dáil on a number of occasions, I am however very conscious of difficulties that could arise regarding the model announced last year, particularly for children in small and rural schools, if it were implemented as currently proposed. Accordingly, I am having the proposed model reviewed to ensure that it provides an automatic response for pupils with common mild learning disabilities, without the need for cumbersome individual applications, while at the same time ensuring that pupils currently in receipt of service continue to receive the level of service appropriate to their needs. In carrying out the review, my Department is consulting representative interests including the National Council for Special Education.

I have made it clear that I am in favour of using a general allocation model to ensure that we have in place a permanent resource in our primary schools to cater for pupils with high-incidence mild disabilities and learning difficulties. [217]However, it will not be as announced last year. The revised procedure for providing a general allocation of resource hours to schools will be announced in the coming weeks, in time to be implemented for the next school year.

In the lower-incidence disability categories resources will continue to be allocated on the basis of individual applications.

It is important that where there is a particular special need in the low-incidence category those children be considered individually. Those pupils are not evenly distributed among schools, and a general allocation model would not be appropriate. However, the involvement of the National Council for Special Education and the special education needs organisers will greatly enhance the speed of response to such applications.

  187.  Mr. Penrose    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if an application by a school (details supplied) in County Longford will be expedited regarding the necessary refurbishments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7345/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  An application for refurbishment has been received from the school to which the Deputy refers. The application has been assessed in accordance with the published prioritisation criteria, which were revised following consultation with the education partners. Progress on the project is being considered in the context of the school building programme.

In that regard, the Deputy will be aware that on 10 January this year I announced the first phase of the 2005 school building programme, which provided details of 122 major school building projects countrywide which will prepare tenders and move to construction during 2005. The Deputy will also be aware that last week I announced details of an expansion of the number of schools that will be invited to deliver their building projects on the basis of devolved funding.

Those announcements form part of a series that I plan to make regarding the schools building and modernisation programme that will include: details of schools with projects approved under the 2005 summer works scheme; schools whose projects will further progress through the design process; schools that will be authorised to commence architectural planning; and details of schools identified as suitable for construction under public private partnerships.

  188.  Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the position regarding the provision of an amalgamated secondary school (details supplied) in County Kerry; [218]and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7346/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  I am pleased to inform the Deputy that approval has recently been given for the design team to invite tenders, subject to some amendments being made to the tender documentation, for the new school project to which she refers.

Construction will commence as soon as possible thereafter subject to a satisfactory outcome to the tender process.

  189.  Mr. O’Dowd    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the progress she has made in reducing the pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools as promised in the Programme for Government. [7352/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  The Deputy should note that significant improvements have been made in this area in recent years. The pupil-teacher ratio, which includes all the teachers in the school including resource teachers, has fallen from 22.2:1 in the 1996-97 school year to 17.44:1 in 2003-04. Over 4,000 additional teachers have been employed in our primary schools since 1997. These additional teaching posts have been used to reduce class sizes, tackle educational disadvantage and provide additional resources for children with special needs.

In line with the programme for Government commitment, class sizes for the under nine’s will be reduced still further, with priority given to those in disadvantaged schools.

  190.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    when tenders will be invited for the new school for a school (details supplied) in County Kildare; the anticipated timeframe for construction; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7353/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  The project referred to by the Deputy is listed among the large scale projects on the capital programme for 2005 which have been approved to move to tender and construction over the next 12 to 15 months.

My Department’s building unit arranged a general information session for all schools on this list to guide them through the process involved. The meeting took place on 1 February in Tullamore and representatives from the school in question attended. My Department’s building unit will be in touch with the school shortly to progress the project further.

  191.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    when tenders will be invited [219]for the required extension to a school (details supplied) in County Kildare; the anticipated timeframe for construction; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7354/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  I am pleased to inform the Deputy that an extension project at the school to which he refers is on the list of projects approved to proceed to tender and construction in the next 12 to 15 months.

Approval has recently been given to the school authority, County Kildare VEC, to prepare the tender documentation for this project. This will also involve advertising the project for expressions of interest from contractors.

When the VEC has completed this work my Department will be in contact with it regarding the invitation of tenders from short-listed contractors. Subject to a satisfactory outcome to the tender process the project will then be proceeding to construction.

  192.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the amount allocated to a school (details supplied) in County Kildare for the provision of temporary accommodation; if the accommodation is a double or single prefab; and when the prefab will be in place at the school. [7355/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  I am pleased to inform the Deputy that the school in question has been allocated one
76 sq. m. temporary mainstream classroom. My Department’s school building section will be contact with the school’s management authorities as soon as possible advising them on how to progress the project.

  193.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if her attention has been drawn to the serious problem with accommodation at a school (details supplied) in County Kildare; the reason she did not include this school in her allocation of temporary accommodation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7356/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  The school to which the Deputy refers did not apply to my Department for temporary accommodation for the 2005-06 school year nor has my Department any record of a current application for additional permanent accommodation. If the school authority has concerns about its accommodation, it should make contact with the school planning section of my Department for advice.

[220]

  194.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if her attention has been drawn to the serious problem with accommodation at a school (details supplied) in County Kildare; the reason she did not include this school in her allocation of temporary accommodation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7357/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  The school to which the Deputy refers did not apply to my Department for temporary accommodation for the 2005-06 school year nor has my Department any record of a current application for additional permanent accommodation. If the school authority has concerns about its accommodation, it should make contact with the school planning section of my Department for advice.

  195.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if she will sanction the invitation of tenders for the required extension to a school (details supplied) in County Kildare in 2005; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7358/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  The building project for the school referred to by the Deputy is at an early stage of architectural planning.

I recently announced details of 122 major schools building projects that will progress to tender and construction phase over the next 12 to 15 months under the €3.4 billion multi-annual funding secured for the years 2005-09. I also announced the next phase of the programme under which 192 schools will be allocated funding to undertake projects, such as extensions and refurbishments. These projects will proceed immediately, on a devolved basis, which means that the school authorities will control the planning and construction phases of the improvement works at their own schools.

I am anxious to ensure that a consistent flow of projects to tender and construction can be sustained into the future. I plan to make a number of announcements in the near future in respect of the school building and modernisation programme, including details of those school projects which will further progress through the design process. All projects in architectural planning, including the school in question, will be considered as part of this process.

  196.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if she will sanction the invitation of tenders for the required extension to a school (details supplied) in County Kildare in 2005; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7359/05]

[221]Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  My Department is moving towards a model of devolving the responsibility of building projects to school management authorities where appropriate. The devolving of funding to local level will accommodate school authorities to have responsibility and ownership of their building projects and assist in moving projects in a specific timeframe through the design process, to tender action and construction.

I am pleased to inform the Deputy that the school in question has been included for additional accommodation under the devolved permanent initiative 2005 which I announced last week.

  197.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if she will sanction the invitation of tenders for the required renovations to a school (details supplied) in County Kildare in 2005; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7360/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  The project at the school to which the Deputy refers has been assessed in accordance with the published prioritisation criteria, which were revised following consultation with the education partners. In this regard, the Deputy may be aware that I recently announced the first phase of the 2005 school building programme which provided details of 122 major school building projects countrywide that will prepare tenders and move to construction during 2005. In addition, I have further approved the next phase of the programme under which 192 schools will be allocated funding to undertake projects, such as extensions and refurbishments. These projects will proceed immediately on a devolved basis.

Further phases of the school building and modernisation programme are nearing finalisation and I will be making announcements on these in the coming weeks to include: expansion of the number of schools and extension of the scope of the projects approved under the summer works scheme; schools that will be authorised to commence architectural planning; schools whose projects will further progress through the design process; and details of schools identified as suitable for construction under public private partnerships.

  198.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if she will sanction the invitation of tenders for the required 17 additional classrooms for a school (details supplied) in County Kildare in 2005; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7361/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  Phase 2 of the extension project at the school to which the Deputy refers has been assessed in accordance with the published prior[222]itisation criteria, which were revised following consultation with the education partners. Progress on this project is being considered in the context of the school building programme. In this regard, the Deputy may be aware that I recently announced the first phase of the 2005 school building programme which provided details of 122 major school building projects countrywide that will prepare tenders and move to construction during 2005. In addition, I have further approved the next phase of the programme under which 192 schools will be allocated funding to undertake projects, such as extensions and refurbishments. These projects will proceed immediately on a devolved basis.

Further phases of the school building and modernisation programme are nearing finalisation and I will be making announcements on these in the coming weeks to include: expansion of the number of schools and extension of the scope of the projects approved under the summer works scheme: schools that will be authorised to commence architectural planning; schools whose projects will further progress through the design process; and details of schools identified as suitable for construction under public private partnerships.

  199.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if the OPW has investigated the site for the new national school for Kill, County Kildare; when a report on the site investigation will issue to the school board of management; when a decision will be made in relation to purchasing the site; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7362/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  The property management of the OPW, which acts on behalf of my Department as regards site acquisitions generally, is continuing to explore the possibility of acquiring a site for Kill national school, Kill, County Kildare. Due to the commercial sensitivities of site acquisitions, it is not proposed at this stage to identify specific sites to be acquired.

  200.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if permanent recognition of a school (details supplied) in County Kildare has been sanctioned; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7363/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  An application for permanent recognition from the school to which the Deputy refers is currently under consideration in the school planning section of my Department. As part of the examination, factors such as the long-term viability of the school, current and projected [223]enrolments and suitability of accommodation is being considered.

  201.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    when she will announce the allocation of funds towards the summer works scheme 2005; if her attention has been drawn to the urgent need to address the provision of a covered walkway at a school (details supplied) in County Kildare; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7365/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  The school to which the Deputy refers has submitted an application for grant aid under the summer works scheme, SWS, 2005 for a covered walkway. All SWS applications are currently being assessed in the school planning section of my Department. I intend to publish the list of successful applicants in the near future.

  202.  Mr. Quinn    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if he will list the primary schools and the number of places available in each school in the Dublin 4 area. [7392/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  The primary schools operating in Dublin 4 and their current enrolment are as follows: 18569J, St. Declan’s Special School, Northumberland Road, 44 pupils; 15253N, SN Naomh Pádraig, Cambridge Road, 130 pupils; 19727G, St. Mary’s Central NS, Belmont Avenue, 248 pupils; 11894I, Scoil Mhuire, Dumhach Tragh, 271 pupils; 16567S, St. Brigid’s Convent NS, Haddington Road, 198 pupils; 17279S, Scoil Mhuire, Haddington Road, 125 pupils; 03917V, Naomh Pádraig Boys, Ringsend, 92 pupils; 15995L, Canon O’Hanlon Memorial School, Sandymount, 314 pupils; 18282M, SN Paróiste Maitiú NFA, Cranfield Place, 91 pupils; 18370J, Íoclann na Pailirise Sp. School, Sandymount, 56 pupils; 20103V, John Scottus National School, Northumberland Road, 218 pupils.

The exact capacity of each school is not readily available. I would like to point out to the Deputy, however, that increasing space norms and reductions in the pupil-teacher ratio combined with significant increases in ex-quota staff in recent years effectively mean that the actual number of classrooms in a school may not directly relate to its capacity.

  203.  Mr. Quinn    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if she will report on the projections for growth in demand for primary school places in the Dublin 4 area; the basis on which the calculations have been made; the consultations she has had with principals and boards of [224]management of primary schools; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7393/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  The process of assessing the need for new or additional educational facilities at primary or post-primary level in any given area entails consideration of all relevant factors, including enrolment and demographic trends, housing and other developments and the capacity of existing schools to meet the demand for places.

As part of this process, my Department is included among the prescribed authorities to whom local authorities are statutorily obliged to send draft development plans or proposed variations to development plans for comment. As a matter of course meetings are arranged with local authorities to establish the location, scale and pace of any major proposed developments and their possible implications for school provision.

With regard to the planning of educational provision in areas of proposed regeneration, the Department seeks to optimise the use of existing provision in the first instance. It is necessary to adopt this approach due to the limited availability and prohibitive costs of new sites in such areas.

Officials in the Department’s school planning section are strengthening contacts with local authorities to enable informed decisions to be made in planning future educational provision. For example, a specific forum, the Dublin School Planning Committee, chaired by officials of the Department, interacts with the Dublin local authorities. This forum comprises representatives of the local authorities in Dublin together with representatives of the patron bodies of primary schools and works proactively in monitoring demographic changes and their likely impact.

With regard to the Dublin 4 area, enrolment in primary schools is in general decline and I am satisfied that existing capacity is adequate to meet current and emerging demand. The Department has not been made aware of any particular difficulties being experienced by parents seeking school places for their children in this general area.

If the management authority of any school in particular is experiencing an increase in demand and is unable to meet this demand it should contact the Department’s school planning section. A decision on the school’s application will be made as soon as possible.

  204.  Mr. Quinn    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if she will report on her Department’s system of forward planning in order to enable it to anticipate an increase in demand for primary school places in existing built-up urban areas which are undergoing significant rejuvenation, such as the area contained [225]within the remit of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7394/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  The process of assessing the need for new or additional educational facilities at primary or post-primary level in any given area entails consideration of all relevant factors, including enrolment and demographic trends, housing and other developments and the capacity of existing schools to meet the demand for places. As part of this process, my Department is included among the prescribed authorities to whom local authorities are statutory obliged to send draft development plans or proposed variations to development plans for comment. As a matter of course meetings are arranged with local authorities to establish the location, scale and pace of any major proposed developments and their possible implications for school provision. The local authority is requested to reserve a site for educational purposes if this is deemed necessary.

With regard to the planning of educational provision in areas of proposed regeneration, my Department seeks to optimise the use of existing provision in the first instance. It is necessary to adopt this approach due to the limited availability and prohibitive costs of new sites in such areas. Officials in the school planning section of my Department are strengthening contacts with local authorities to enable informed decisions to be made in planning future educational provision. For example, the Dublin school planning committee, chaired by officials of my Department, interacts with the Dublin local authorities. This forum comprises representatives of the local authorities in Dublin together with representatives of the patron bodies of primary schools and works proactively in monitoring demographic changes and their likely impact.

  205.  Mr. Quinn    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if she will report on the policy in respect of the desirability of an integrated coeducational single management structure for schools in cases in which boys and girls schools had previously been built side by side, on the one site; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7395/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  The position whereby some schools adjacent to each other operate on a single sex basis stems from a traditional approach to primary school education in this country. The vast majority of our schools are privately owned and managed and the question of ethos is, therefore, a matter for their trustees. However, schools wishing to change their status to become coeducational facilities or who wish to amalgamate to [226]form a single coeducational facility should contact the school planning section of my Department for advice on how to make an application in this regard. All newly recognised national schools operate on a coeducational basis.

  206.  Mr. Quinn    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the number of inspections that have taken place between January 2004 and January 2005 in primary schools in Dublin 2, 4 and 6; if the reports of these inspections are available for the board of management and principals of each school; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7396/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  Six school inspections, involving the work of 71 teachers, have taken place in primary schools in Dublin 2, 4 and 6 between January 2004 and January 2005. In four cases the evaluation report has been issued to the board of management of the school and to the school principal. A fifth inspection report will issue to the relevant school very shortly. In the sixth case, due to the absence of the reporting inspector on special leave, issue of the inspection report has been deferred until June 2005 with the agreement of the school. In addition, 32 teachers have been probated through the inspection process in the same area.

  207.  Mr. Quinn    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the number of pupils who are availing of special needs resource assistants in terms of classroom assistants, teachers or other special and additional provisions for the academic year 2004-05 in each primary school in the Dublin 2, 4 and 6 areas; the outstanding requests for each school; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7397/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  The information requested by the Deputy in relation to the specific areas in question is not available in my Department. However, I would like to assure the Deputy that every effort is made to ensure that children with special educational needs receive an education appropriate to their needs. Decisions regarding the most appropriate model of response in each particular case are based on the professionally-assessed needs of the individual child.

With effect from 1 January 2005, the National Council for Special Education has taken over responsibility for processing resource applications for children with disabilities who have special educational needs and in particular it is responsible for the following: deciding on applications for resource teaching hours in respect of children with low incidence disabilities with special edu[227]cational needs at primary level; deciding on applications for additional teaching support in respect of children with disabilities with special educational needs at second level; and deciding on applications for special needs assistant SNA hours.

Under the new arrangements, the council, through the local special educational needs organiser will process the relevant application for resources and inform the school of the outcome. It is important to note that in the case of decisions on resource teaching and SNAs, the SENO will outline the process to the school and parents, where appropriate, and will at the end of the process outline the basis on which the decision was made. I am confident that the advent of the NCSE will prove of major benefit in ensuring that all children with special educational needs, including those in the areas referred to by the Deputy, receive the support they require, when and where they require it.

My Department has recently issued a circular and letter advising the authorities of primary and post primary schools respectively, of the arrangements put in place as a result of the transfer of these functions to the NCSE. My Department is continuing to prioritise the development of the network of special educational provision for children with special needs and I believe that the steps taken in recent years and those currently in hand represent significant progress in the development of those services.

There are now nearly 6,000 special needs assistants in our schools, compared to just 299 in 1998 and 2,600 resource teachers, compared to just 104 in 1998. The enactment of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act and the establishment of the National Council for Special Education have provided the key to underpin service delivery in the future.

  208.  Mr. Quinn    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the number of primary schools in the Dublin 2, 4 and 6 areas which are owned and under the control of her Department; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7398/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  There are different management and ownership structures for primary schools. The vast majority of denominational and multi-denominational primary schools are owned by the relevant patron.

Sites and school buildings for Gaelscoileanna are vested in the Minister for Education and Science. Since 1999, the state offers to provide the full cost of sites for all new schools at both primary and post-primary level. Where the State bears the cost of the site purchase, new school [228]buildings provided on these sites would be vested in the Minister and leased to the school operator. I will arrange for the information to be forwarded directly to the Deputy as soon as possible.

  209.  Mr. Walsh    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if she will approve an extension to a school (details supplied) in County Cork. [7435/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  The project referred to by the Deputy is listed to proceed to tender and construction over the next 12 to 15 months. My Department’s building unit arranged a general information meeting for all schools at this stage to guide them through the process involved in moving projects to tender and construction. The meeting took place on 1 February in Tullamore and representatives from the school in question attended.

The school in question was recently authorised to apply for planning permission and fire certification and to request its design team to draw up tender documentation. When these tasks are completed, my Department will be in contact with the school on the proceeding to tender and construction of the project.

  210.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the amount paid in fees or remuneration to a person (details supplied) for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of her Department for each year since 1998; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7459/05]

Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  No fees or remuneration have been paid to the person in question by my Department since 1998 or at any time for consultancy or any other work.

  211.  Ms Enright    asked the Minister for Defence    if paragraph 4 of the training instruction 17/87, which requires periodic seminars to be conducted at sub-unit level, were carried out for those involved in a training exercise at the Glen of Imaal on 27 November 2001 prior to that date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7329/05]

  212.  Ms Enright    asked the Minister for Defence    further to a previous question, if he is satisfied that exercise instructions are issued prior to the commencement of any exercise; if he is further satisfied that paragraph 4 was properly followed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7330/05]

[229]Minister for Defence (Mr. O’Dea):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 211 and 212 together.

The items referred to in the Deputy’s questions are matters for consideration by the military court of inquiry to which I have referred in previous replies to the House on this incident. The court of inquiry will be held following completion of the civil legal action which has been initiated.

  213.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Defence    the amount paid in fees or remuneration to a person (details supplied) for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of his Department for each year since 1998; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7460/05]

Minister for Defence (Mr. O’Dea):  As no consultancy or other work was carried out for or on behalf of my Department by the person referred to by the Deputy, the payment of fees or remuneration does not arise.

  214.  Mr. Stanton    asked the Minister for Defence    if the integrated personal management system report has been completed; when he expects to be in a position to sanction the next commissioning from the ranks late course; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7468/05]

Minister for Defence (Mr. O’Dea):  The White Paper on Defence and the programme for Government recognise the importance of offering rewarding and challenging careers to Defence Forces personnel. In this regard, both provide for the preparation of an updated and comprehensive plan for an integrated personnel management system, IPMS, to address this and related issues. Initial proposals for an IPMS were developed by the military authorities and then referred to the top level civil-military strategic management committee for further development.

Following that process, key IPMS elements are now being implemented in agreement with the representative associations in the context of Sustaining Progress. It is intended that the process will be further developed in the context of the proposed development of a Defence Forces human resources strategy which will provide the overall framework to address all personnel issues, including those raised in the IPMS.

It is against that broad background that discussions are now taking place with the representative associations on the induction of officers to the Permanent Defence Force — Army, Naval Service and Air Corps. The question of commissioning from the ranks, CFR, is being considered in the context of those discussions. I cannot say at this stage when any CFR competition might take place.

  215.  Mr. O’Dowd    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    if he will make a statement on the proposed bridge at Narrow Water, County Louth. [7372/05]

Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Roche):  The initial selection and prioritisation of projects to be funded from non-national road grants in County Louth is a matter for Louth County Council. No application has been received in my Department from Louth County Council for funding in 2005 for a bridge at Narrow Water, County Louth. It is, however, open to the council to prioritise this project for funding under the EU co-financed specific improvement grant scheme in 2006, when applications are sought later this year by my Department.

As this would be a cross-Border project, an agreement with the Roads Service in Northern Ireland would be necessary regarding the project. I understand that no such agreement has yet been concluded.

  216.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    if he has received an application for supplementary funding for roads in the Turnings area of Straffan, County Kildare from Kildare County Council in the context of the Ryder Cup 2006; if he will approve a supplementary grant; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7378/05]

Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Roche):  In 2004, my Department paid a special grant of €1,149,103 to Kildare County Council for improvement works to two roads in County Kildare that will provide access to the Ryder Cup venue, that is, the Kill interchange, N7, to Straffan and Straffan to Barberstown Cross, R403. A further special grant allocation of €4 million has been made to the council in 2005 for improvement works to these roads.

Kildare County Council wrote to my Department in 2004 seeking extra funds of €325,000 for the road from Straffan Bridge to Sallins via Turnings in the event that additional grant monies would become available during 2004. The council was informed that the proposed work would be appropriate to the restoration improvement programme and that it would be open to the council to seek approval to carry out the scheme in 2004 on the basis that the expenditure could be recouped as a first charge in 2005 against the restoration improvement grant or consider including the scheme in the restoration programme for works from 2005 on. The council did not proceed with either of these options.

The council wrote to my Department in January 2005, again seeking extra funds for this [231]road. My Department would have no objection if the council wishes to revise its 2005 restoration improvement programme to include restoration improvement works on this section of road or alternatively include it in its programme of works from 2006 onwards.

  217.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    if his attention has been drawn to the serious problem facing applicants for disabled persons grants in County Kildare; the reason he will not consider making a supplementary sum available of €3.6 million to the council to clear the backlog on the basis of 100% funding from his Department, thereby releasing the council from providing its 33%; if there was ever a previous case in which 100% funding was provided in the State; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7380/05]

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. N. Ahern):  It is a matter for local authorities to decide on the level of funding to be provided for the disabled persons grant scheme in their area from within the allocation notified to them for disabled persons and essential repairs grants by my Department and to manage the operation of the schemes from within this allocation. My Department recoups to local authorities two thirds of their expenditure on the payment of individual grants and it is a matter for the authorities to fund the remaining one third from their own revenue resources with amounts provided for that purpose in their annual estimates of expenses.

All authorities have been asked to indicate their capital requirements and proposals for the funding of their own one third contribution for these schemes in 2005 and on receipt of this information the available funding will be allocated to authorities. The requirements of Kildare County Council will be considered in this context.

In relation to the provision of 100% funding, for the scheme, section 4(iv) of the Housing (Disabled Persons and Essential Repairs Grants) Regulations 2001 allows the recoupment to a local authority of a contribution which does not exceed two thirds of the amount of the grant, or €13,546.67, whichever is the lesser. It is not, therefore, open to my Department to recoup 100% of expenditure in the case of Kildare County Council. In specific instances, approval has been given to local authorities to use internal capital receipts which are surplus to the funding requirements of their housing construction and remedial works schemes to supplement their revenue provision for disabled persons and essential repair grants.

[232]I am aware of the situation in Kildare. Officials from my Department met with council officials last November to discuss their operation of their disabled persons and essential repairs grant schemes. The council undertook to examine further certain aspects of the operation and funding of the scheme and to revert to my Department in this regard.

  218.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    if he will sanction the tender documents for the sewerage and surface water contracts for Straffan village, County Kildare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7384/05]

Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Roche):  These works form part of the lower Liffey valley sewerage scheme which is included in my Department’s water services investment programme 2004-2006 as a scheme to commence construction this year. In December 2004 my Department approved Kildare County Council’s proposals to proceed with the Straffan element in advance of the rest of the lower Liffey valley scheme with a view to the works being carried out in conjunction with planned road improvements. The council’s contract documents for the Straffan works are now under examination in my Department and are being dealt with as quickly as possible.

  219.  Mr. O’Shea    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    when he proposes to make formal contact with the National Roads Authority regarding the Viking site (details supplied) in County Waterford; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7386/05]

Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Roche):  As indicated in the reply to Question No. 183 of 24 February 2005, I am at present consulting with the director of the National Museum about directions under the National Monuments Act 1930, as amended, concerning the Viking site at Woodstown. I hope to be in a position to determine the matter and notify the road authority and the NRA later this month.

  220.  Mr. Walsh    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    the progress he is making in securing the future of Ireland’s historic heritage, including great houses and heritage properties; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7434/05]

[233]Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Roche):  Statutory protection of the architectural heritage is primarily a matter for the planning authorities to whom my Department provides advice in the exercise of their functions under the Planning and Development Act 2000. In that regard, I recently issued the architectural heritage protection guidelines to assist planning authorities in implementing the legislation.

These guidelines include the criteria to be applied by planning authorities when selecting proposed protected structures for inclusion in the record of protected structures, as well as other advice for the performance of their functions under Part IV of the Planning and Development Act 2000. The guidelines also provide useful information and advice to owners and occupiers of protected structures.

Under the 2000 Act, the Minister may also make recommendations to planning authorities concerning the inclusion in the record of protected structures of any particular building or structure. Based mainly on the results of surveys carried out in the compilation of the national inventory of architectural heritage by my Department, recommendations have to date been made to 54 planning authorities covering over 11,700 buildings. Inclusion in the record of protected structures places a duty of care on the owners of protected structures and also gives planning authorities powers not only to deal with development proposals affecting them, but also to seek to safeguard their future.

A range of financial supports is available to the owners of our architectural heritage from local authorities, the Heritage Council and my Department, and from the tax relief available under section 482 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997. Considerable support for architectural heritage is also provided through the ongoing conservation and presentation of the State’s own portfolio of historic properties.

To further enhance the protection of our architectural heritage, I am considering an initiative to develop new methods of supporting the preservation of key heritage buildings. My Department engaged consultants to examine the question of facilitating the emergence of a national trust and other trust-type organisations which might, independently of Government, acquire and manage such heritage properties.

My Department is at present evaluating the recommendations of the consultant’s report and I hope to bring proposals to Government in the near future.

  221.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    the amount paid in fees or remuneration to a person (details supplied) for consultancy or other work carried out for or on behalf of his Depart[234]ment for each year since 1998; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7461/05]

Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Roche):  My Department is not aware of any payments made to the person named for consultancy or other work carried out on behalf of the Department since 1998.

  222.  Mr. F. McGrath    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    if the maximum support will be given in the case of a person (details supplied) in County Roscommon; and if he will work with Roscommon County Council on the matter. [7466/05]

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. N. Ahern):  I refer to the reply to Question No. 1339 of 26 January 2005. The position is unchanged.

  223.  Mr. F. McGrath    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    if he has satisfied himself that corruption has ended in the planning process; his views on the increase in the number of cases of builders receiving retentions for planning breaches; and his proposals to safeguard the planning system. [7467/05]

Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Roche):  The Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments was established in 1997 to investigate acts of planning corruption, and is continuing its work. To date, it has issued four interim reports. While the tribunal has, to date, not issued recommendations for legislative change, the Government has already introduced various new measures to prevent acts of corruption in the planning process.

The Planning and Development Act 2000 extended the existing rules relating to ethics for planning authority staff. Part 15 of the Local Government Act 2001 introduced a comprehensive ethics regime for councillors and local government employees, which came into effect on 1 January 2003. This regime includes an annual declaration of interests, disclosure of interests as a matter arises, and a public register of interests. This regime was further enhanced by the national codes of conduct for councillors and employees, which issued last year.

The Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 and the Standards in Public Office Act 2001 also introduced measures in the areas of disclosure of interests and conduct of public officials. Under the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act 2001, corruption is presumed where there is proof that certain persons in public office have received money or other benefits from a person who has [235]an interest in the outcome of decisions, including planning decisions.

The decision as to whether a person obtains permission to retain an unauthorised development rests with the planning authority and An Bord Pleanála on appeal. My Department has no function in this area, other than potentially to offer advice in any relevant case regarding the protection of the built and natural heritage.

Decisions on enforcement in particular cases are a matter for the planning authorities in question. Part VIII of the Planning and Development Act 2000 greatly simplified the existing statutory provisions to make it easier for planning auth[236]orities to take enforcement action in cases of breaches in the planning code.

The enforcement provisions in the Planning Act were commenced on 11 March 2002. While it is early to gauge the impact on the overall level of enforcement activity by planning authorities, figures on enforcement actions by planning authorities in 2003 indicate that there has been an increase in the level of convictions, as compared to 2002.

I am satisfied that the planning legislation gives planning authorities sufficient powers to enforce planning and development control. However, I will continue to keep the implementation of the enforcement provisions of the 2000 Act under review.