Dáil Eireann

24/May/2005

Prelude

Ceisteanna — Questions.

Standards in Public Office.

Northern Ireland Issues.

Priority Questions.

Social Welfare Code.

Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Social Welfare Code.

Social Insurance.

Other Questions.

Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Adjournment Debate Matters.

Leaders’ Questions.

Requests to move Adjournment of Dáil under Standing Order 31.

Order of Business.

Death of Students: Expressions of Sympathy.

Order of Business (Resumed).

Private Notice Questions.

School Transport.

Disability Bill 2004: Report Stage (Resumed).

Private Members’ Business.

Aer Lingus: Motion.

Estimates for Public Services 2005: Messages from Select Committees.

Adjournment Debate.

Services for People with Disabilities.

Crime Levels.

School Accommodation.

Written Answers

Social Welfare Code.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Budgeting Advice.

Social Welfare Code.

Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Pension Provisions.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Pension Provisions.

Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Services for People with Disabilities.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Pension Provisions.

Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Social Welfare Fraud.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Social Welfare Benefits.

School Meals.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Social Welfare Code.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Social Welfare Code.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Social Welfare Code.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Social Mobility.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Dublin-Monaghan Bombings.

Commemorative Events.

Adoption Services.

Food Safety.

Health Services.

Nursing Home Charges.

Health Services.

Medical Cards.

Nursing Home Charges.

Nursing Education.

Hospital Staff.

Services for People with Disabilities.

Health Services.

Consultancy Contracts.

Hospital Services.

Cancer Screening Programme.

Health Services.

Medical Cards.

Hospital Staff.

Hospital Services.

Water Fluoridation.

Services for People with Disabilities.

Task Force on Obesity.

Suicide Incidence.

National Lottery Funding.

Mental Health Services.

Cancer Screening Programme.

Medical Cards.

Health Service Staff.

Hospitals Building Programme.

Children’s Projects.

Hospital Services.

Health Services.

Hospital Waiting Lists.

Health Services.

Hospital Staff.

Cancer Screening Programme.

Hospital Staff.

Registration of Births.

Medical Cards.

Hospital Waiting Lists.

Health Services.

Hospital Waiting Lists.

Pre-School Services.

Nursing Home Subventions.

Benchmarking Awards.

Hospital Waiting Lists.

Hospital Services.

Hospital Accommodation.

Tax Code.

Flood Relief.

Pension Declaration Forms.

Public Projects.

Tax Collection.

Architectural Heritage.

Tax Code.

Proposed Legislation.

Prize Bonds.

Tax Code.

Tax Collection.

Departmental Properties.

Tax Code.

Tax Yield.

Tax Code.

Natural Heritage Areas.

Tax Collection.

Tax Code.

Mobile Telephony.

Aquaculture Licences.

Coastal Protection.

Telecommunications Services.

Harbours and Piers.

Broadcasting Services.

Post Office Network.

Alternative Energy Projects.

Electronic Communications Infrastructure.

Fisheries Protection.

Inland Fisheries.

Water Quality.

Inland Fisheries.

Postal Services.

Inland Fisheries.

Harbours and Piers.

Port Development.

Illegal Dumping.

Irish Language.

Overseas Development Aid.

Emigrant Services.

Sports Capital Programme.

Horseracing Industry.

Swimming Pool Projects.

Departmental Funding.

Computer Software.

Community Employment Schemes.

Work Permits.

Semi-State Bodies.

Work Permits.

Enterprise Centres.

Warehouse Agreements.

Poverty Reduction.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Decentralisation Programme.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Social Insurance Fund.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Social Welfare Fraud.

Money Advice and Budgeting Service.

Live Register.

Social Welfare Appeals.

Departmental Reviews.

Pension Provisions.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Traffic Calming Measures.

Driving Tests.

Public Transport.

Parking Regulations.

Taxi Hardship Panel.

State Airports.

Public Transport.

Road Traffic Offences.

Air Services.

Driving Tests.

Harbours and Piers.

Community Development.

Post Office Network.

Grant Payments.

EU Directives.

Grant Payments.

Afforestation Programme.

Accident Statistics.

Grant Payments.

Farm Retirement Scheme.

Milk Quota.

Common Agricultural Policy.

Grant Payments.

Legal Aid Service.

Garda Strength.

Tribunals of Inquiry.

Garda Stations.

Coroners Service.

National Identity Card.

Criminal Prosecutions.

Residency Permits.

Asylum Applications.

Asylum Support Services.

Child Care Services.

Garda Deployment.

Tribunals of Inquiry.

Registration of Title.

Visa Applications.

Crime Levels.

Residency Permits.

Citizenship Applications.

Deportation Orders.

Garda Investigations.

Closed Circuit Television Systems.

Departmental Funding.

Garda Strength.

Residency Permits.

Departmental Staff.

Schools Refurbishment.

Schools Building Projects.

Special Educational Needs.

Third Level Fees.

School Planning.

Education Welfare Service.

Pupil-Teacher Ratio.

Special Educational Needs.

School Discipline.

Special Educational Needs.

Schools Amalgamation.

Schools Building Projects.

State Examinations.

School Staffing.

Special Educational Needs.

School Staffing.

School Management.

Physical Education Facilities.

School Transport.

School Staffing.

School Completion Programme.

School Staffing.

Teachers’ Remuneration.

Third Level Fees.

School Transport.

Third Level Fees.

School Accommodation.

Special Educational Needs.

Schools Building Projects.

Inquiry into Child Abuse.

Third Level Colleges.

Pupil-Teacher Ratio.

Educational Disadvantage.

Schools Refurbishment.

School Accommodation.

Physical Education Facilities.

School Discipline.

Pupil-Teacher Ratio.

Schools Building Projects.

School Staffing.

Schools Building Projects.

Special Educational Needs.

Schools Building Projects.

Schools Amalgamation.

Schools Building Projects.

Army Barracks.

Fire Service.

Natural Heritage Areas.

Fire Stations.

Fire Service.

Planning Issues.

Grant Payments.

Road Network.

Local Authority Housing.

Road Network.

Hare Coursing.

Natural Heritage Areas.

Services for People with Disabilities.

Countryside Access.

Local Authority Funding.

Road Network.

Water and Sewerage Schemes.

Local Authority Housing.

EU Directives.

Social and Affordable Housing.

Architectural Heritage.

Proposed Legislation.

Recycling Policy.

Chuaigh an Ceann Comhairle i gceannas ar2.30 p.m.

Paidir.
Prayer.

  1.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    if he plans to make amendments to the code of conduct for office holders; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12847/05]

The Taoiseach:  The code of conduct for office holders was drawn up by the Government following consultation with the Standards in Public Office Commission. It has applied since 3 July 2003. As I have stated previously, I have no plans to amend it.

Mr. Kenny:  Can I ask the Taoiseach about the recommendations that were made in respect of the awarding of Government public relations contracts? Five or six recommendations were made about invitations to tenders, the EU Journal, an inventory of work to be carried out by whoever gets contracts, the areas of work involved and the fact that there are risks to Ministers if they do not adhere to these tight guidelines. In that context has the Government decided to examine whether the recommendations issued in that report are now being adhered to in respect of conduct by office holders in so far as public relations are concerned?

The Taoiseach:  Yes. The recommendations in that report have been made known to all office holders. I think we have had just one case since. It now applies that the recommendations in the new codes have to be followed in communications contracts or anything relating to the public relations domain.

Ms McManus:  I wish to ask the Taoiseach two questions in regard to the code of conduct. First, has he any plans to reconsider and review the code of conduct to ensure that no office holder can use this House to make a racist slur?

[1674]An Ceann Comhairle:  We cannot have a debate on what the Deputy might like to see either in the code of conduct or out of it. The question is quite specific. We cannot have a debate. Otherwise we would be here all day.

Ms McManus:  I am very succinct in my question and it does relate to amendments.

An Ceann Comhairle:  It does not arise from this particular question. The Deputy will have to find another way of raising it.

Ms McManus:  The question is about amendments. I am asking the Taoiseach if he intends to make any amendments to ensure that the public good is protected in regard to an office holder making a racist slur.

An Ceann Comhairle:  It is not appropriate. The Taoiseach has answered the question. It is not appropriate to ask about amendments the Deputy would like to see in the code of conduct or what she might like to see taken out of the code of conduct. If we were to allow that, every Member on each side of the House would ask such questions. The question was if the Taoiseach intended to amend the code of conduct. We cannot have a debate on what the Deputy would like to see in it or not.

Ms McManus:  I am not looking for a debate.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Taoiseach has already answered the question.

Ms McManus:  If the answers are just going to be “Yes” or “No”, we will not get very far. A new situation——

An Ceann Comhairle:  The question does not allow for the type of debate Deputy McManus is seeking.

Ms McManus:  The Taoiseach may consider responding since I am sure he understands the spirit in which this question has been asked. In regard to the code of conduct for office holders and Members of the Oireachtas appearing before tribunals of inquiry or Oireachtas committees carrying out inquiries of investigation——

An Ceann Comhairle:  That does not arise under this question.

Ms McManus:  ——is the Taoiseach satisfied that all of us are governed by the code of conduct, that it is not in need of amendment and that it works?

An Ceann Comhairle:  That does not arise. I call Deputy Sargent.

Ms McManus:  I find this very difficult. The two questions I am asking the Taoiseach are perfectly reasonable.

[1675]An Ceann Comhairle:  They do not arise. The purpose of questions——

Ms McManus:  I hardly imagine the Taoiseach will have a problem. I am sure he will be asking comprehensive questions before this session is out.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy should submit questions in order. I have called Deputy Sargent.

Ms McManus:  I think that is wrong, a Cheann Comhairle. I really do.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I appreciate the Deputy’s point of view.

Ms McManus:  The Taoiseach has been asked two reasonable questions and I am concerned that he is not being permitted to answer them.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I have called Deputy Sargent. The Chair must obey Standing Orders the same as the Deputy.

Ms McManus:  Can I put a reasonable question to the Taoiseach?

An Ceann Comhairle:  These types of questions arise and they are very confined. The Taoiseach has answered the question that was put to him by Deputy Kenny. We cannot allow a broad debate on what might or might not be in the code of conduct.

Ms McManus:  The Opposition putting questions to the Taoiseach may inform him in his approach to the code of conduct. All I ask for is his response.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Deputies should table the questions they wish to have answered. That question is quite specific. I have called Deputy Sargent.

Ms McManus:  It is a shame the Taoiseach is prevented from answering two perfectly reasonable questions——

An Ceann Comhairle:  That is a point of view.

Ms McManus:  They are important from the point of view of the public.

Mr. Sargent:  In response to the question to the Taoiseach on whether he plans to make amendments to the code of conduct, he answered “No”. When I and perhaps others ask that question again, will he at least think about his response before saying “No” so quickly? Does “No” mean “No” for today or forever? Will the Taoiseach take on board the question put by Deputy McManus in——

[1676]An Ceann Comhairle:  We cannot allow the Deputy to raise that question given that I ruled Deputy McManus out of order.

Mr. Sargent:  I am not going to raise it. I was simply asking the Taoiseach if saying “No” is for today because he has not finished his deliberations following the outburst of the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Conor Lenihan.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I call on Deputy Ó Caoláin.

Mr. Sargent:  I am just asking whether the Taoiseach is saying “No” for today.

Mr. O’Donoghue:  It is a kind of “No, no”.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I will allow the Taoiseach to respond to the Deputy’s legitimate question.

Mr. Sargent:  That is all.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy has made his point. He is being repetitive.

Mr. Sargent:  Is the Taoiseach taking on board the question of whether the process associated with code of conduct pertaining to lobbyists is still under way? Is he saying “No” until that has concluded?

Mr. O’Donoghue:  It is “No, no”.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Allow the Taoiseach to respond.

Mr. Sargent:  Will he give a different answer when that process has concluded? What progress has been made on the lobbyist issue? It is clarified in the Bundestag and the European Parliament, but in Ireland we still do not know what the position will be.

The Taoiseach:  I am saying the code of conduct has only been in place for two years. We went through long and detailed consultation over two or three years with the Standards in Public Office Commission. The code of conduct has applied for the past two years. Obviously, a code of conduct must always be kept under review in case an issue arises in connection therewith.

I can say without breaking the Ceann Comhairle’s ruling that the code of conduct deals with all aspects of an office holder’s position and applies to elected representatives, Ministers and Ministers of State. It is focused on taking decisions, the uses of resources and the furtherance of the common good. It is not drafted to deal with individual statements or utterances. There is another process for dealing with these which is and was used recently.

The lobbyist legislation has not worked as legislation anywhere. The two countries that tried [1677]it abandoned it. A question arises in respect of having a system in which outside lobbyists would register. It is not part of the code of conduct because it is a different issue. It only relates to the code of conduct when an office holder, including an adviser, Minister or Deputy, leaves office. In this case they are duty-bound for the initial months after their leaving not to engage in any area of work in which they would have had a vested interest or of which they would have had knowledge. In the case of advisers, the applicable period lasts for 12 months. If they get involved in a company or business, they must inform the Secretary General of the nature of the business in which they are involved.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  If the Taoiseach does not intend to amend the existing code of conduct, can he advise the House if, given the number of serious breaches, not least of which includes the utterances regarding asylum seekers by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, he is determined to have it enforced as it stands?

An Ceann Comhairle:  That does not arise out of this question.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  Will the Taoiseach indicate——

An Ceann Comhairle:  I suggest that the Deputy submit an appropriate question.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  Enforceability is very important.

An Ceann Comhairle:  We will proceed to ceist a dó on Northern Ireland.

Mr. Durkan:  I have a brief question. Will the Taoiseach describe the people to whom the code of conduct applies? Who are deemed to be office holders? Does the code of conduct extend to people who might have access to information also possessed by office holders?

The Taoiseach:  The code of conduct applies to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, Ministers, Ministers of State, the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil, the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad and their deputies. We have not passed resolutions to extend it to include the Chairmen of committees. That is ultimately a matter for the House to decide. That is what the code of conduct is but, as I mentioned, there are guidelines under the ethics Act. A code of conduct is not taken in isolation. It is part of the wider ethics framework established by the Standards in Public Office Act 2001. The legislation provides that due regard must be taken of the code of conduct, but there are regulations in place which must be followed by advisers and others, and they must comply strictly with the 2001 Act.

Mr. Durkan:  What sort of regulations?

  2.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on recent developments in the Northern Ireland peace process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14071/05]

  3.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on his recent contacts with the British Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14072/05]

  4.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    if he plans to meet the Northern Ireland political parties after the Westminster elections of 5 May 2005; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14073/05]

  5.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on his recent meeting in Dublin with the family of the late Mr. Robert McCartney; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14074/05]

  6.  Mr. Rabbitte    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on recent political developments in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15031/05]

  7.  Mr. Rabbitte    asked the Taoiseach    when he next plans to meet the British Prime Minister, following the British general election of 5 May 2005; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15032/05]

  8.  Mr. Rabbitte    asked the Taoiseach    if, following the outcome of the British general election of 5 May 2005, he has plans to meet the political parties from Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15033/05]

  9.  Mr. Rabbitte    asked the Taoiseach    the implications of the outcome of the British general election of 5 May 2005 for political developments in Northern Ireland. [15034/05]

  10.  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Taoiseach    when he expects to meet the British Prime Minister and the political parties in connection with the peace process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15071/05]

  11.  Mr. J. Higgins    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on his meeting with the family of the late Mr. Robert McCartney. [15206/05]

  12.  Mr. J. Higgins    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on his recent contacts with the parties in Northern Ireland. [15209/05]

  13.  Mr. J. Higgins    asked the Taoiseach    when he next expects to meet the President of the United States of America, Mr. George W. Bush; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15211/05]

  14.  Mr. J. Higgins    asked the Taoiseach    his plans to meet the political parties in Northern Ireland following the Westminster elections of 5 May 2005. [15212/05]

  15.  Mr. J. Higgins    asked the Taoiseach    his plans to meet the British Prime Minister follow[1679]ing the Westminster elections of 5 May 2005. [15213/05]

  16.  Mr. J. Higgins    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on his recent contacts with the US administration. [15220/05]

  17.  Mr. J. Higgins    asked the Taoiseach    the matters discussed and conclusions reached at his meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, on the fringes of the Victory in Europe celebrations in Moscow. [15896/05]

  18.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister on the margins of the VE Day ceremonies in Moscow; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15969/05]

  19.  Mr. Rabbitte    asked the Taoiseach    if he will make a statement on his recent meeting with members of the family of the late Mr. Robert McCartney. [15978/05]

  20.  Mr. Rabbitte    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on any recent contacts with the US administration; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15981/05]

  21.  Mr. Sargent    asked the Taoiseach    when he expects to meet the Northern Ireland political parties following the Westminster elections of 5 May 2005; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16068/05]

  22.  Mr. Sargent    asked the Taoiseach    when he will next meet the British Prime Minister regarding the Northern Ireland peace process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16069/05]

  23.  Mr. Sargent    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on his meeting with the family of the late Mr. Robert McCartney; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16070/05]

  24.  Mr. Sargent    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on recent contacts he has had with the US administration regarding the Northern Ireland peace process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16071/05]

  25.  Mr. F. McGrath    asked the Taoiseach    if he will kick-start the peace process again by demanding that all parties meet and proceed with talks following the recent elections. [16881/05]

The Taoiseach:  I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 25, inclusive, together.

Since the results of the British general election became known, my priority has been to renew contacts with a view to getting the peace process back on track.

I did not have the opportunity to meet the Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, at the VE celebrations in Moscow, but I spoke with him shortly after his re-election and I extended my best wishes to him as he begins his third term in office. I hope he and I can meet in the coming weeks. I greatly value the close personal friendship and working relationship the Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, and I [1680]have established, particularly in our common efforts to advance the Northern Ireland peace process. This real and stable partnership between the Irish and British Governments has been vitally important in recent years and it will remain so, as we seek to bring all outstanding issues to successful finality. Together, and as joint guarantors, we are committed to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. In the aftermath of the elections, it is important to get on with this vital project, to resolve the crisis of trust and confidence and move beyond the current stalemate.

The general and local elections have brought change to the political landscape in Northern Ireland. When the results became known, I congratulated all those who were elected and wished them well as they serve the community over the coming years. The Westminster election saw the end of an era with the retirement of Mr. John Hume and Mr. Seamus Mallon. Their service to the people of Ireland has been of truly historic proportions. They showed that politics can work and we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. I also paid tribute to Mr. David Trimble when he resigned as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Now, we must look ahead. For its part, the Government will continue its efforts to achieve an inclusive, comprehensive peace settlement.

Yesterday, I met Mr. Mark Durkan and his SDLP colleagues. I had the opportunity last week for some brief discussions with the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Peter Hain, first in Dublin, when he had a meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Subsequently, I met him, along with Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Prescott, in the Isle of Man at a plenary session of the British-Irish Council. I spoke briefly with President Bush in Moscow during the VE celebrations and I had a useful meeting with his Special Envoy Dr. Mitchell Reiss, last week on a range of topics. All of these discussions have focused on overall political developments in the aftermath of the elections, with an emphasis on the centrality of the Good Friday Agreement and the continued partnership between both Governments.

The peace process has been damaged by a number of high profile incidents over the past six months, including the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Mr. Robert McCartney. I had a meeting with Mr. McCartney’s sisters and partner in Government Buildings on 11 April, when I reiterated our continuing and full support for them. Their campaign has the support of the Irish people and of political leaders around the world. The family has shown great courage and I continue to condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the intimidation it is enduring. As I have said before, a tangible way of showing that the republican movement is committed to making progress in the peace process would be to see his killers brought to justice.

The latest report of the Independent Monitoring Commission is published today. It shows, as I [1681]have indicated to the House in recent weeks, that paramilitary and criminal activity continues on both sides of the community in the North. This places an unacceptable burden on ordinary people who want to get on with their lives, as well as posing a broader threat to the peace process and all our hopes for a prosperous future. If we are to make progress, this issue needs to be addressed once and for all.

Mr. Gerry Adams’s appeal to the IRA will ultimately be judged on the basis of the IRA’s actions in response. I understand that an internal consultation process is under way within the IRA. The outcome must be a clear and decisive end to paramilitarism and criminality, and the completion of decommissioning. If that happens, both Governments will expect Unionists to fully accept partnership politics and the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, including an inclusive Northern Ireland Executive and North-South co-operation.

The full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, with a full commitment by all involved to purely democratic and peaceful methods, is the only basis on which we can all move forward.

Mr. Kenny:  This is a day of tragedy and depression. The fifth report of the Independent Monitoring Commission was published today. It makes for grim reading in respect of Northern Ireland. In regard to the Continuity IRA, the Irish National Liberation Army, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, the Provisional IRA, the Real IRA, the Ulster Defence Association, the UVF and the Red Hand Commando, the commission states clearly that all these organisations are active, intent on continuing criminality and continuing in the ways of terrorism, and it points out incidents in respect of each case. In the case of the Continuity IRA, it makes the point about threats being issued to district policing partnerships and a taxi driver being forced to take a bomb to the PSNI station in January. In respect of the Irish National Liberation Army, it believes that group was responsible for the robbery of €100,000 worth of goods from Debenhams in October 2004. In the case of the LDF——

An Ceann Comhairle:  A question, please.

Mr. Kenny:  I am coming to the question. The commission believes that the LDF is deeply involved in drug dealing. In respect of the Provisional IRA, the police discovered 10,000 rounds of ammunition suitable for use in assault riffles in September 2004 when elements of the Provisional IRA were involved in negotiation with both Governments about concluding a peaceful agreement, and so on.

I note the Taoiseach said if the IRA responds to Mr. Adams’s call both Governments would treat this as positive and would get on with the business. Has the Taoiseach had time to consider the report? Does he believe that the call from [1682]Gerry Adams to those in the IRA to cease their ways is genuine and made in good faith? Having said that they are two sides of the one coin, does he believe that this call is real and genuine?

What are the concerns of the Taoiseach and the Government about the continued terrorist activities of these groups? How soon does the Taoiseach intend to talk to Prime Minister Blair and the police authorities on both sides to ensure that such activities are in some way countered?

Will the Taoiseach comment on the call by the DUP leader that the Good Friday Agreement is dead? I do not believe that. There is a sense of urgency to have this matter dealt with. Obviously the DUP wants to play a very long game here and does not appear to have any intent in moving forward at an early date. Will the Taoiseach comment on that?

The Taoiseach:  The recommendations of the IMC report are as Deputy Kenny stated. The report states that a number of the paramilitary groups are, as I said previously in the House, continuing to recruit and train people in the use of firearms, explosives, intelligence gathering and becoming involved in criminal activity. There is no evidence of paramilitary groups ceasing their activities. All those issues are factual.

For the most part, the downward trend in criminal activity and crime has continued, with the number of paramilitary murders more or less the same as in previous periods. Loyalist groups remain responsible for most of the violence, but there are also some worrying issues about ex-prisoners being involved in either paramilitary activity or criminal activity. All these issues are mentioned in the report. However, they must be set against the general overall position. There is an attitude of getting on with life in most parts of Northern Ireland, but we have still not reached the position we want to reach.

On the Deputy’s second question about the genuineness of Gerry Adams’s call, the position is, as I stated previously, that we believe the statement he made is significant and has potential but we need to see what the IRA does on foot of it. The best information I have is that a live debate is happening within the IRA which, in itself, is important. I hope that debate will be fruitful. When the Government met Sinn Féin at the beginning of the year we made it clear we needed to reflect on the key issues which had to be addressed by the republican movement if the peace process was to be put back on course. Nothing has really changed since then. That is still the position. Mr. Adams said the republican movement has reached a defining moment.

For so many years, we have had many false dawns and dashed hopes in that regard and the last few months have crystallised the challenges which must be addressed. The crisis of trust and confidence is profound and will not be easily repaired. Only complete transformation of the situation will generate the energy needed to move beyond the current stalemate and realise the full [1683]potential of the Good Friday Agreement. Fudge and ambiguity will simply not work. It must be clear they are taking decisive steps to move on. We can only come to a judgment on that when we see it because, quite frankly, much damage has been done. Once it is clear the issue of IRA paramilitary capability and activity has been decisively dealt with, then we can try to get on with attempting to re-establish the political institutions under the Good Friday Agreement and embrace the principles and practices of partnership. I cannot make that judgment until I see the response. If it is clear and unambiguous, we will see where we go from there.

In regard to Dr. Paisley’s comment, the situation is quite clear. The entire focus must be on our efforts to re-establish the Executive and on the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. There is no viable alternative, which I think everyone knows. There is no question of starting again from the beginning. If we can get decisive clarity on the question of the IRA, we must restore the institutional arrangements at the heart of the Agreement. It is not a question of preferring one model over another. Anything less than the inclusive arrangements set down in the Agreement would simply not work. The only way to get devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, which would be capable of working, is if it is done on a cross-community basis. That is what is enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. There is no other mechanism to do that. We are all clear about that.

  3 o’clock

As I have said outside the House, the result of the Assembly elections in November 2003 changed the basis of progress in Northern Ireland on the grounds of the political strength of parties with an increased mandate for the DUP and Sinn Féin. Following that election, the parties, particularly the DUP, said they wanted to trigger the review, which they were entitled to do and which I supported. We spent most of last year working on that review. The political aspects of the review were accepted in the discussions which ended with the presentation by both Governments of the document of 8 December. The political aspects of it were accepted by the DUP, Sinn Féin and other parties. Some parties had differences on some points, but the DUP and Sinn Féin agreed with it. The change in the position from then to now does not make any sense to me.

As was re-emphasised last week at the British-Irish Council by the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Prescott, both Governments are working on the basis of the Good Friday Agreement. I think that was certainly the view of all the other political parties.

Ms McManus:  Does the Taoiseach accept that the task of making progress in Northern Ireland has become more difficult since the recent election there? Does he accept that it was a mistake effectively to exclude the moderate parties from [1684]the discussions leading to the aborted deal last December and that, notwithstanding the SDLP’s achievement, it has created greater difficulties in reaching a resolution than existed before the election?

Does the Taoiseach accept that today’s report of the Independent Monitoring Commission shows that, far from winding down its paramilitary activity, the Provisional IRA is more active in recruiting, training, and in one case, acquiring ammunition made after the Good Friday Agreement? The Provisional IRA is acquiring rather than disposing of arms.

When does the Taoiseach expect to receive a statement from the IRA? Does he accept that while we all endorsed the Good Friday Agreement, the IRA did not and the resulting twin track approach is creating an anomalous situation? While we want to support the Taoiseach’s efforts to advance the Good Friday Agreement, the IRA is debating whether it will make a move in terms of paramilitary activity.

The attitude of the DUP is hardening. One cannot ignore the fact that the failure of the deal in December has further reduced the level of trust. Does the Taoiseach intend to meet the DUP to discuss this hardening of attitude and see what progress can be made?

What progress can be made to ensure the killers of Robert McCartney are brought to justice? What pressure can be put on the Provisional movement to surrender these men to the police? Will the Irish Government assist the McCartney family in pursuing a civil action if there is no possibility of proceeding with a criminal action?

The Taoiseach:  Regarding the Deputy’s first question, I never regard any parties as excluded from the process at any time.

Ms McManus:  They do.

The Taoiseach:  They do because, for example, when the strength lay with the UUP and the SDLP we dealt more with David Trimble and John Hume than with other parties or representatives. Dr. Paisley would not speak to any of us, and certainly not to me, until recently. From that point of view the DUP was fully excluded. In terms of what we were endeavouring to do we always tried to keep lines open to, and communicate with, every party. When we came to discuss the decommissioning of arms we went only to the parties which could do something about that.

We have always tried to keep everyone involved and to the fore but when one party loses the strength it had, moves out of the centre and no longer plays the same role, it feels less close to the process. We have tried at all times, at ministerial and official level, to the best of our abilities, to keep everyone involved. Regardless of switches in the power bloc we have always accepted that all parties should be involved. The very small parties had a sense of frustration but we tried to keep the Women’s Coalition, the [1685]UDP and others actively involved, and we continue to do so through individual meetings. Each time there is a major issue, it is difficult to go back to separate meetings. The easy way for us, as I have said many times before, would be round table meetings. As Deputy McManus knows, we could never do that because somebody may not turn up or may not be talking to others. One would never get them all together. The easiest way for the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and I to brief everyone is to address them all in one room, but I can remember the number of times that proved possible. That would never be agreed to so one always had to hold separate meetings, which is a long process. To this day we continue to meet people separately. I hope some day we will get to a position where we can meet people collectively.

I accept the point the Deputy made about trust and confidence. The position we had reached in November and early December was severely damaged but we must get back to that position. The only way we can do that is when the key issues of decommissioning, the IRA moving to a new mode, and criminality are dealt with. If we get to that position, we can move on. In that instance, the DUP would have to see that the only way of moving to devolved Government in Northern Ireland would be on the basis of the Good Friday Agreement. The DUP is careful to say it will wait to see what happens. I hope we can make progress on that issue.

I hope to meet the DUP but I am not certain when. We were to meet the party shortly before the recent elections but the meeting was cancelled. We hope to re-enact that meeting as soon as possible. On the day the elections ended, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and I stated that position directly to the DUP and have since done so at official level.

I honestly do not know when the IRA might make a response. I have resisted answering that question many times. The time issue is not my biggest concern. I am pleased an engagement is taking place throughout the island. What is more important is the quality and clarity of the reply. I have turned my mind to this issue rather than whether it takes one week, two weeks, a month or whatever.

On the issue of the murderers of Robert McCartney, as I said in my reply, I hope and genuinely believe a way of showing concern would be for the republican movement to commit to making progress and seeing the killers brought to justice and to make whatever efforts they can to do that. The investigation is ongoing but, naturally enough, the PSNI does not bring me up to date. However, as I understand it, a dedicated and committed team is working on it and doing all it can to try to piece together the case in all its difficulties. That is the best way of progressing the matter. What will happen in future is another matter. Rather than move on to the next stage of a civil action, from which we are some time away, it is best that we stick with the investigation. Much effort and many resources are going into it. [1686]There are many difficulties also because of the operation that happened after the murder which makes it very difficult. It is to be hoped that they will make the necessary breakthrough. In the meantime, I am keeping in touch with the McCartney sisters and with Bridgeen and certainly we will be helpful.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  Will the Taoiseach note that this Deputy and my party reject the so-called Independent Monitoring Commission report and its charge against the IRA? There is no evidence to substantiate such a charge.

I want to proceed on a positive note because it is important that I acknowledge and welcome the Taoiseach’s statement that the Good Friday Agreement is the only way forward. Will he impress that point on the leader of the DUP when he has an opportunity to engage with Mr. Paisley at some time, hopefully in the near future?

I also welcome the Taoiseach’s commentary of last week — he is not just as clear in his responses here today, but nevertheless they are on the record, and very importantly so — on his acceptance of what he has described as a genuine and significant debate that is going on within the IRA as a result of the call by the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams. I too hope that the outcome of those deliberations will be positive and fruitful in terms of all we hope to see achieved.

On a matter that has not been addressed, does the Taoiseach disagree with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, when he told the Nationalist people of the Six Counties recently that their Sinn Féin MPs should take their seats in Westminster and take an oath to the Queen? Was the Minister speaking for the Taoiseach and the Government? Was he also speaking for the Taoiseach and the Government when he said that representation in the Dáil for people from the Six Counties is not on the cards?

Does the Taoiseach accept that when the Good Friday Agreement was achieved in 1998, he gave a commitment that this issue would be addressed? Does he recall it was substantively addressed by an Oireachtas all-party committee? Does he recall there was a clear indication and understanding that there would be such a provision where we would see an accommodation for the 18 Northern MPs within the debate process in these Houses? What exactly is the Taoiseach’s position on this very important issue? Despite the current process being almost on-hold, will he continue to address this very important issue, recognising the contribution that it can make?

Mr. Kenny:  Has the Taoiseach made arrangements to meet Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness of Sinn Féin in the near future? Does he not regard it as frustrating that four and half months later there is no reaction from the persons who were in McGuinness’s bar in January when Robert McCartney was murdered? In his view, [1687]would a discussion between the Taoiseach as head of Government and the Sinn Féin leadership be important in achieving a breakthrough in bringing to justice those who carried out this vicious murder?

The Taoiseach:  In answer to Deputy Ó Caoláin’s question on the Good Friday Agreement, I will emphasise that point when I meet Dr. Paisley because there is no other basis on which we can move forward. If I did not make the position as clear today as I did last week, it is my view that the process of dialogue and discussions going on at present is of major importance. A positive answer to these issues is the only way I can see of getting back into the position of building trust and confidence and moving forward — it is a different day’s work if the answer is negative. It is a very important and significant debate.

As to how Sinn Féin uses the seats for which it won a mandate by way of representation in Westminster, that is totally a matter for Sinn Féin and I have no comment to make on it. I am still totally committed to the all-party committee report. I believe the Deputy would accept that we can only progress that matter in the right circumstances. However, I am still supportive of those circumstances because it is a good way of moving forward. I am sure I will shortly meet representatives of Sinn Féin on a formal basis, but I have no date for that.

On Deputy Kenny’s last question, in reality we need co-operation and help to try to get the convictions necessary on the McCartney murder. We need people to be helpful. This incident did not happen in the countryside in the middle of the night with nobody around. A huge number of people were around. We must always be very careful about the legal position and that a major investigation is going on. I am sure Deputy Kenny, like me, hears the same names with the same picture being painted. Regardless of whether that is right or wrong, if people who are brought in for questioning answer nothing and do not engage, it makes the matter very difficult to resolve. It is a case with huge significance not only within this country but also around the world.

As I said recently on other matters, we have continued, I believe in a fair-handed way, to follow many cases like the Finucane case, and 16 years later the Government has followed that case. We have followed many other cases also. However, this is an important case as well. It is not many months ago since it occurred and some people know precisely who was involved, what happened and the circumstances of it. I hope prosecutions can be dealt with to give justice to a decent family, which is all they are looking for. I know they are not looking for all the publicity that relates to this, they just want to see justice for the murder of their brother.

[1688]An Ceann Comhairle:  I call Deputies Sargent and Finian McGrath and ask them to be very brief.

Mr. Sargent:  As I have four questions, I will try to be succinct. The Taoiseach mentioned the importance of inclusivity and regard for smaller parties. I ask him to take on board that, following the local elections in the North, the Green Party is now the sixth largest party there and draws its support from both Unionists and Nationalists. It should be included in the discussions the Taoiseach is having with other parties. While he did not mention the Green Party by name, it is important to take whatever small indications of hope that exist that cross-party and cross-community politics has a future in the North as well as throughout the island.

To move forward from the stalemate that has gripped the process following the British elections, in particular those in the North, is the Taoiseach looking at opportunities that may exist for a cross-party committee on a short-term basis, some form of the forum working together, even holding a few meetings on a short-term basis or indeed bilateral meetings with Opposition parties? Is he following any model or developing any ideas, including, for example, the idea floated by the SDLP of having an interim committee to try to move beyond the present direct-rule model? Will the Taoiseach indicate whether anything is happening other than waiting for people to change their minds?

Mr. F. McGrath:  Does the Taoiseach share my frustration at the lack of movement on talks regarding the peace process? Is he aware that many of our citizens in the broader society are extremely frustrated and feel let down by many parties to the talks? Following the increased mandate of the DUP arising from the recent elections, does the Taoiseach have concrete proposals to break the logjam and deal with parties that are hostile to the Good Friday Agreement? Does the Taoiseach agree that all parties to the conflict have a responsibility, particularly those with an increased mandate after the recent elections, to get stuck in and do a deal? All the victims deserve respect, support and compassion. If the political parties are serious about the victims, they will negotiate a package and move the whole process forward.

The Taoiseach:  On Deputy Sargent’s point about the Green Party, it has not been involved to date, but I certainly have no difficulty regarding engagement with our colleagues in the North and regular briefings. If that helps, I have no problem with that. The idea of consultation in bilateral——

Mr. Sargent:  They had not been elected before.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Allow the Taoiseach to answer.

[1689]The Taoiseach:  Yes, but even on previous occasions we tried to keep everyone on board, including the parties that had very little representation, such as the PUP and the UDP. I see as positive anything that helps and is supportive of the issue; I very much agree with that.

Regarding a forum, we will have to see the initial reaction and response to the major outstanding issues before we see movement. The reality is simply that — it is always best to deal in facts — as Deputy Finian McGrath has said, if we do not secure a substantive jump by the parties on all sides with a significantly increased mandate, we will not be able to build up the trust and confidence that has been fairly badly eroded in recent months. There is no doubt there will be stalemate if that is the position and nothing that anyone can do will change that.

On the positive side, if we achieve the necessary progress on the relevant issues, which are well known to everyone, that deserves a corresponding boost from all parties, including the DUP, to move forward. A great deal hinges on the coming period. For the long-suffering people of Northern Ireland, we should get the institutions set up again as quickly as possible. I do not expect that to happen overnight, but we should not have long delays either. The institutions could then operate again, with the Executive and the Assembly working. Regarding the dynamics of recent years, if we can avoid the central issues that have dragged us down, we can really start making progress and gain a whole new momentum. If the rift continues, it is all bad news, but I hope that will not be the position. As we once again move into the marching season, it is important that we have the co-operation seen in the past few years, to see us through what is always a potentially difficult season.

  48.  Mr. Stanton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the supports provided by the State for carers; his views on whether they are adequate and equitable; his plans to enhance these supports; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17345/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  Supporting carers in our society has been a priority of the Government since 1997. Over that period, weekly payment rates for carer’s allowance have been greatly increased, qualifying conditions have been significantly eased and coverage of the scheme has been extended. In addition, new schemes such as carer’s benefit and the respite care grant have been introduced.

I announced several improvements for carers in the last budget which will benefit existing recipients of carer’s payments and will extend supports to carers who have not previously been [1690]eligible for those payments. Regarding the means test for carer’s allowance, I have increased the weekly income disregards to €270 for a single person and to €540 for a couple, with effect from this month. That means that a couple with two children can earn up to €30,700 and receive the maximum rate of carer’s allowance, while the same couple can earn up to €49,200 and receive the minimum rate of carer’s allowance, free travel, the household benefits package and the respite care grant.

It is estimated that those changes will result in an additional 1,000 new carers qualifying for a carer’s allowance, free travel, the household benefits package and the respite care grant. In addition, 2,400 existing carers who are currently in receipt of reduced carer’s allowance will receive an increase in their weekly payment over and above the general rate increase that they would receive in the normal way.

In response to the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, which stated that the greatest need identified by family carers is the need for a break from caring, I made provision in budget 2005 for major improvements to the respite care grant. That includes the increase of the grant to €1,000 and its extension to all persons providing full-time care and attention, regardless of their means.

Those persons in receipt of other social welfare payments, excluding unemployment assistance and benefit, will be entitled to the payment, subject to meeting the full-time care condition. That arrangement is being introduced to acknowledge the needs of carers, especially regarding respite, and it is estimated that overall almost 33,000 carers will receive a respite care grant from June.

With regard to carer’s benefit, one of the conditions of the scheme was that while the carer might work for up to ten hours per week, he or she could not earn more than €150 per week. I improved that aspect of the scheme by increasing that income ceiling from €150 to €270 per week. That measure, which took effect from April, allows those carers who are in a position to work for up to ten hours per week to earn extra income and, equally importantly, it may keep the carer in touch with his or her workplace.

Another condition of that scheme was that the applicant must have been engaged in full-time paid employment as an employed contributor for the three-month period immediately prior to claiming carer’s benefit. I have eased that condition with effect from April to make it easier for carers with an atypical work pattern to qualify.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Government policy is strongly in favour of supporting care in the community and enabling people to remain in their own homes for as long as possible. The types of services which recognise the value of the caring ethos and which provide real support and practical assistance to the people involved will continue to be developed, and all [1691]allowances and systems of support will be kept under regular review.

Mr. Stanton:  One of the conditions governing the scheme, as I am sure the Minister is aware, is that a person may claim only one payment from his Department. Is he aware of the needs of old age pensioners and the widowed who are caring and may receive only one payment? Does he know how many such people there are? Has he carried out research into the area? How much extra would it cost to give them at least half the payment recommended by the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs? What moves has he made in that regard?

Does he feel that current supports are adequate and equitable, especially taking into account the group I mentioned, namely, old age pensioners and the widowed caring for adult dependants at home under trying conditions, who very often perceive that their payment is taken from them or stopped as soon as they reach 66. In their view, they are penalised for reaching pension age, since at that stage the carer’s allowance is stopped and they must choose between it and the old age pension. Is that fair and right, and does the Minister plan to address it?

Mr. Brennan:  I could never put my hand on my heart and say that we are doing enough for carers, who deserve every support we can give them. We must continue to make improvements and, as I said, we have made substantial improvements, both in the budget and in the legislation that followed. The new respite grant will be paid to approximately 9,000 full-time carers who would otherwise qualify for nothing. From June €1,000 will be paid to an estimated full complement of 33,000 carers, 9,000 of whom will be additional because there will be no means test. It is not intended as a payment as such but as recognition of the valuable work they do.

I am aware of all the arguments and I continue to consider them. There is a basic rule in welfare that one receives one payment, and I am examining what is possible there. Many widows provide full-time care and attention. Many old age pensioners also provide it. The Deputy is right that they either get the old age pension or the widow’s allowance. By and large they do not move to the carer’s allowance. The Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs recommended that they get a half rate. There are substantial implications in moving from the concept of one payment. It throws up a number of anomalies across the board. We need to be sure it is the way to go given the implications in terms of welfare for a payment other than a single payment to a person. I will continue to examine that. I do not have a cost for it, but the cost of removing the means test is about €160 million per annum. A half rate payment would be very substantial, costing many millions of euro.

[1692]Mr. Stanton:  Does the Minister think it is right that someone caring for an adult dependant and in receipt of the carer’s allowance no longer receives that allowance when he or she reaches retirement age? As the person gets older, the allowance is taken away. Will he address this given that his Department is, thankfully, saving millions in fraud detection and other areas? Can he give details showing the figures? How many people are affected by this and how much would it cost to move it at least to a half payment? Does he know when this further review will be finished?

Mr. Brennan:  I never apologise for reviews. One learns something every day as people move from one payment to another so it would be silly not to review it every day. I keep everything under constant review as we learn how things operate from dealing with people. The Deputy is wrong, although accurate, to phrase it in the way he chose. It is accurate to the extent that if one is on a carer’s allowance and gets to a pensionable age, one has the option to hold on to the carer’s allowance or move over to the pension. If one decides to hold on to the allowance, then it is not taken from that person, which gives the wrong impression. There is a rule in the social welfare code that states that a person gets one payment only, but we are currently working on that to see what is possible. This year I decided to give a one-off payment every June of €1,000 to everyone involved in full-time care irrespective of their means. I did this to give them a break because the all-party committee emphasised the need for people to get a break from caring.

There will be improvements in other areas and I will examine where additional payments are possible. There are many thousands of widows and hundreds of thousands of old age pensioners.

Mr. Stanton:  Many of them are carers.

Mr. Brennan:  The cost would be very substantial.

  49.  Mr. Penrose    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if his attention has been drawn to the recent report by the One Parent Exchange Network showing that the average debt for lone parents approaches €8,000; if the absence of affordable child care is a contributory factor to preventing many lone parents entering the workforce and means they must stay at home to look after their children; his plans to address this situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17240/05]

Mr. Brennan:  The research into indebtedness among lone parents was commissioned by the One Parent Exchange Network with funding from my Department’s money advice and budgeting service and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It focuses on the situation where debt has become [1693]a dominant aspect of people’s lives and has come to carry serious social and health implications. The revelations on debt from an earlier study carried out by OPEN in 2004, entitled Living on the Book, prompted OPEN to seek a partner and launch further research into indebtedness among lone parents.

The issue deals with the extent to which the absence of affordable child care is a contributory factor in preventing many lone parents from entering the workforce. As part of the ending child poverty initiative under Sustaining Progress, a steering group has been established, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach, to address the obstacles to employment faced by lone parents. This group is scheduled to report back to the Cabinet committee on social inclusion by the end of July 2005. The steering group will examine five specific topics to assess how they impact on employment opportunities and family circumstances. These are income supports, employment, education, child care and support programmes and information.

In addition, I have established a working group in my Department to review the income support arrangements for lone parents. Some of the main issues to be addressed by the working group include the contingency basis of the one-parent family payment, cohabitation, maintenance and the role of secondary benefits. As part of this review, 40 organisations dealing with lone parents were asked for their views. Detailed submissions have been received from OPEN, the money advice and budgeting service and from many of the other groups consulted. The Department is examining the submissions received and is considering the issues raised. It is intended that this review will feed into the work of the Sustaining Progress group.

The research conducted by OPEN found that the average size of arrears of a lone parent household is €1,092 and the average size of credit based debt was €7,862. The arrears relate to utilities such as rent, electricity supply, gas and telephone bills. Lone parents in debt are more likely to be using home collection credit or illegal moneylenders than mainstream providers. The money advice and budgeting service was set up to combat money lending and to assist people in managing their money with a view to regaining control of their finances. The service has been and remains a practical response to those in debt or at risk of getting into debt.

I met last week with the Irish Bankers’ Federation as a result of the report’s findings and received assurances that the legal requirements for opening bank accounts and accessing bank services will be communicated to counter staff, and that it would continue co-operation with related bodies, including the money advice and budgeting service. Later this week, I will meet the ESB and the Irish League of Credit Unions to discuss the report’s findings on these groups. I look forward to receiving the report of the group of senior officials and my Department’s review of [1694]income support arrangements. I also look forward to working with a number of groups and people, including the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who has responsibility for child care, in addressing these complex issues.

Mr. Penrose:  This report is a severe jolt to the system and a significant rebuttal of the fatuous and ill-founded comments that have emanated from certain quarters. There has often been a distortion of the facts surrounding lone parenthood. There is no crock of gold in lone parenthood and lone parents have been badly maligned by recent utterances by certain people. Such people, following a perusal of this report, should apologise for their facile statements which were grossly untrue.

Some of the acts carried out by the Minister’s predecessor have contributed to this situation, including the savage 16 social welfare cuts. We are still waiting for the back to education allowance waiting period to be reduced to six months. What about rent allowance? I can give the Minister an example of a lone parent working on a FÁS scheme with four months left on the scheme. Due to a combined income of the FÁS scheme and the lone parent allowance, she is earning in excess of the figure allowed to claim rent allowance. This means she can no longer participate in the scheme and it is unfair that everything is taken from her when she is just a few euro over the eligibility threshold. This should be looked at on a pro rata basis so that the rent allowance can be paid pro rata. This is what has lone parents in poverty. There are 80,000 people in receipt of a one parent family allowance, along with 13,000 other lone parents as well as 150,000 children.

Lone parents have to micro-manage their money. They know what every item of household goods costs. When they succeed in getting maintenance from their partners, there is an immediate reduction of rent allowance so they are no better off. Does the Minister agree that lone parents, under the current structures, are effectively ensnared in a poverty welfare trap? Does he agree that affordability of child care is now acute for lone parents? A worker on the minimum wage has to work from Monday morning to 1 p.m on Wednesday in order to pay for child care before he or she earns a brass farthing to pay for the other household expenses. People who want to go to work cannot afford child care. They are ensnared in a vicious cycle of poverty. It is time to tackle this once and for all to ensure affordability of child care.

Does it worry the Minister that financial companies and money lenders are charging families up to 200% interest on loans? The report commissioned by OPEN, which represents 78 lone parent groups, referred to that fact. Is the Minister concerned that lone parents find themselves in the position of accumulating rolling debts? Is he surprised or shocked by the finding that the ESB charges up to 22.9% on hire purchase agreements, which is almost equivalent to a moneylender charge? It is time the Government [1695]prevented legal moneylenders from charging more than a 30% annual percentage rate of interest. This would be a start in helping lone parents and would represent a positive response to this excellent report from OPEN.

Mr. Brennan:  I am concerned that some lone parents and other welfare recipients appear to encounter considerable difficulties in opening accounts with banks and other financial institutions. As a result, they are often obliged to obtain loans at higher interest rates from finance companies outside the mainstream or from moneylenders. As I indicated, representatives of the Irish Bankers’ Federation have responded to my concerns this week. These are issues of serious concern and I did not pull any punches in making this clear to the IBF.

I will meet ESB management shortly. The report points out that some ESB charges are up to 22.9% for credit purchases on certain products. I am informed that lenders who charge an interest rate of 23% must apply for a moneylender’s licence. It is a source of concern that there are currently 50 licensed lenders who may charge more than 23%.

Mr. Penrose:  It is frightening.

Mr. Brennan:  Legal moneylenders are entitled to charge from 23% to more than 100%. We must examine this legal entitlement and warn people of its implications.

Although the rates charged by the 50 licensed moneylenders are very expensive, I am even more concerned about unlicensed lenders. The money advice and budgeting service works hard in this area and has a budget for this year of €13 million. It deals with 16,000 cases on an annual basis in its efforts to help people escape the grip of moneylenders. In so far as I can, I warn anybody who cares to listen to avoid availing of the services of illegal moneylenders. People would also be well advised to avoid licensed moneylenders and the associated interest rate of 23%. The full force of the law will be brought to bear on the activities of illegal moneylenders.

  50.  Mr. Boyle    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the actions his Department intends to take on the recommendations of the survey undertaken by the One Parent Exchange Network, entitled Do the Poor Pay More? [17239/05]

Mr. Brennan:  The report into indebtedness, Do the Poor Pay More? was commissioned by OPEN with funding from my Department’s money advice and budgeting service and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The report focuses on the situation of those for whom debt has become a dominant aspect of their lives and has come to carry serious social and health implications. The revelations on debt from an earlier study by OPEN in 2004, Living on the Book, prompted the [1696]organisation to seek a partner and launch further research into indebtedness, its prevalence and depth, among lone parents. The report has 13 key recommendations that are being examined by my officials.

To date I have met the Irish Banking Federation and the Irish Payment Services Organisation to explore ways in which those on low incomes can better access financial services. The meeting identified a number of areas in which progress could be made in facilitating wider access to financial services, including customer identification requirements and universal bank accounts.

In regard to customer identification, the IBF has agreed to communicate with its member retail banks to ensure staff is reminded of procedures for opening an account and the attendant customer identification requirements. It has further committed to liaising with the financial regulator, IFSRA, on this issue. The existing guidance notes on money laundering set out, as good industry practice, the measures to establish identity that might reasonably be expected of credit institutions. However, they state that any measures adopted should not deny a person access to financial services solely on the grounds that they do not possess certain specified identification documentation.

The banking industry has proposed the development of a universal bank account as an integral part of a national payments strategy. My Department will consider this issue as part of its review of current payment strategies. The IBF has assured me of its commitment in helping to deliver real progress on these and related issues. Since the introduction of the money advice and budgeting service in 1992, it has developed a good working relationship with the IBF.

The report found that 59% of lone parents surveyed were in arrears to the ESB. It also found that utility companies such as the ESB and Bord Gáis were not seen as totally transparent in their dealings with low-income families using pre-payment meters. I have invited the ESB to meet me to discuss the report and I also intend to meet the Irish League of Credit Unions.

Those who receive social welfare payments through the electronic payment option operated by An Post can opt to avail of its household budget scheme. Under this scheme, An Post makes regular deductions of up to 25% of a person’s social welfare payment towards their household costs, such as rent or mortgage payments to local authorities, ESB, Bord Gáis and Eircom. This ensures people are not faced with a single large bill for these services.

I emphasise that I consider it a priority that those on welfare supports or on low incomes are given the opportunity to achieve financial inclusion so they can attain control over their own finances. This is an important step on the ladder to better prospects and an improved quality of life for them and their families.

[1697]Mr. Boyle:  I am surprised this question was not taken with the previous one. Why does it take the release of a report of this type for the Minister and his Department to react? Why were the deficiencies in the system, which the report identifies, not recognised earlier? Why is there no response to the obvious inadequacies in payments lone parents receive before they are exposed by representative bodies such as OPEN? At the launch of this report the consumer director of IFSRA, Ms Mary O’Dea, said it was obvious the title of the report, Do the Poor Pay More?, was a rhetorical question. She observed it is evident that the poor pay more and that the situation of lone parents in particular must be examined in this regard.

The Minister said he met the IBF and intends to meet the Irish League of Credit Unions. What does he intend to do about the greatest problem in this area? The legal moneylenders are the most significant problem in terms of indebtedness. The Government had opportunities to deal with this problem when the two Bills relating to IFSRA came before this House since 2002. The Minister for Finance was told the Consumer Credit Act 1995 must be amended and that the existing rules in regard to moneylending were causing untold hardship. The Government’s failure to respond is a contributory factor to the misery many experience as a consequence of indebtedness.

The Minister has been far too slow in counteracting the inconsistencies and contradictions in regard to payments and differentials within his Department. Another question I tabled today highlights the situation of a lone parent on a community employment scheme who would find herself €45 euro better off a week if she worked part-time in the private sector. However, her job does not exist in the private sector because it is social services-based. Another constituent of mine, a male lone parent who is participating in the job initiative scheme, finds his secondary benefits eroded so severely because of the recent rise on payment for this scheme that he is now worse off by €80 a week, or €4,000 per year. These cases arise as a consequence of rules the Department implements, which could be changed merely with the movement of a pen. However, no action is taken in this area.

The Government had advance notice of the content of this report. I had not been a Member of this House for long when the Free Legal Advice Centres produced a similar report, An End Based on Means, which highlighted the failures of Government policy on moneylending and in regard to those living in poverty. Some two and a half years later, there is still inaction. The Minister must address this issue with his Cabinet colleagues who have joint responsibility for this area. We should not have to return to this issue at Question Time in the future.

Mr. Brennan:  I do not accept that nothing was done in this area prior to the publication of this welcome report, for which MABS and the Society [1698]of St. Vincent de Paul provided funding. MABS has expanded over the years and now has more than 220 staff and a dramatically increased budget. This year alone we gave it €700,000 on top of the normal increase so that it could continue to advise people on managing money.

Deputy Penrose’s remarks on legal moneylenders were fair. Three options are available to those seeking money. Ordinary lending rates are lower than 23% and most people take loans with single figure interest rates. Legally licensed lenders provide loans at rates above 23%, often involving hire purchase, credit cards and a range of financial products. To an extent this must be legal because the financial products provided are different from ordinary day to day lending. People should be warned that it is expensive to take this type of loan. I commented earlier on the third option of illegal lenders. I will continue to discuss this matter with the Ministers for Finance, Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Justice, Equality and Law Reform, each of whom has responsibilities in this area.

Interest rates for credit cards, hire purchase and other similar financial products will always be substantially higher than overdraft or mortgage rates. MABS ensures that this is understood, in particular by those who are vulnerable. Last week, I raised with banks their need to respond to this report because otherwise they will find that vulnerable people are forced to the second option of high rate legal moneylenders. We do not want to so force them when funds are needed.

I will consider the anomalies raised by Deputy Penrose, of which a significant number exist. As people transfer from welfare to work, a balance must be achieved so that pay is sufficient to support people and allow them to look after their families while also encouraging them to return to education or work. It is often difficult to achieve the correct balance. We will continue to work towards removing anomalies which arise occasionally and involve small sums of money.

  51.  Mr. Stanton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he will report on the guidelines issued to social welfare offices regarding the habitual residency condition; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17346/05]

Mr. Brennan:  The requirement to be habitually resident in Ireland was introduced as a qualifying condition for certain social assistance schemes and child benefit with effect from 1 May 2004. A central unit was established to monitor policy in terms of the implementation of the habitual residence condition and to provide advice and support to scheme areas and social welfare local offices. Decisions to the effect that applicants satisfy the habitual residence condition are made in the majority of cases at claim acceptance stage by deciding officers. At present, decisions on complex cases are made in the central unit.

[1699]The main policy and administrative developments to date have included the drafting of guidelines overseen by the Department’s decisions advisory office and the posting of these guidelines on the Department’s website and on the internal computer network for access by staff. Administrative guidelines on the operation of the condition have also been compiled and furnished to staff in social welfare offices and scheme areas. In addition, training has been provided to 1,300 staff. A leaflet providing comprehensive information on the habitual residence condition has also been published.

While the primary function of the staff in the central unit is to make decisions on complex cases, they also provide advice and support on an ongoing basis to colleagues in social welfare offices. The management of the unit maintains contact with their colleagues in social welfare offices to assist them with policy and administrative issues which may arise with regard to the habitual residence condition.

The habitual residence condition is operated in a careful manner to ensure that Ireland’s social welfare system is protected while at the same time ensuring that people whose cases are appropriate to the Irish social welfare system have access to the system when they need it. In the period from May 2004 to May 2005, 72% of cases were found to satisfy the habitual residence condition. The operation of the condition is under review within the Department.

Mr. Stanton:  Will the Minister tell me how many people were told that their claims did not satisfy the condition over the period 2004 to 2005? Is it true that migrants who have been invited to work here but lose their jobs and fall upon hard times, as has been reported in the media, have no supports? How are these people supposed to eat or find shelter? Has the Minister any knowledge of the extent of this problem?

Mr. Brennan:  A total of 13,776 cases were decided between 1 May 2004 and May 2005. Of these, 9,895 or 72% were found to satisfy the habitual residence condition. Of the 13,776 cases which were decided, 3,500 were Irish, 2,244 from the UK, 1,716 from the EU 13, 1,887 from new member states and 4,395 others. Affirmative answers were given in 72% of cases and 28% were refused. Approximately 10% of Irish applicants were refused because the two-year rule is not the only factor involved in the habitual residence conditions. Before qualifying for welfare, five tests are applied to determine whether a central connection with Ireland exists.

Mr. Stanton:  I again ask the Minister about those who came here in good faith to work but lost their jobs and are on the side of the street. Without support, how are they expected to eat and find shelter? Is the Minister aware of the extent of this problem? Has he or his Department [1700]investigated this issue? The answer to a recent parliamentary question indicates that this issue will not be subject to one of the famous reviews which he continually mentions. Does he plan to review this scheme? How are these people supposed to live, eat and find shelter? How many such individuals exist? Does the Minister have any contact with non-governmental organisations which have informed us that they are snowed under by the growing numbers of stranded migrants seeking help? What are his plans in this area?

Mr. Brennan:  I am sorry to disappoint Deputy Stanton but, as I said in my reply, the scheme is being reviewed by the Department.

Mr. Stanton:  I was not informed of this in the answer to my parliamentary question last week.

Mr. Brennan:  I inform the Deputy now that the operation of the habitual residence condition is under review within the Department. That is the case.

Mr. Stanton:  An unofficial rather than an official review is being conducted. I asked about this matter last week.

Mr. Penrose:  It proves that the Labour Party was correct to oppose this policy vehemently from the outset.

Mr. Stanton:  Why did the Minister not provide me with the correct information last week? Everything and nothing is under review.

Mr. Brennan:  Does Deputy Stanton want me to conduct a review?

Mr. Stanton:  Will he conduct a review? He did not give me an answer on this last week.

Mr. Brennan:  I am conducting a review. I take it that the Deputy wants me to do so.

Mr. Stanton:  Of course. I ought to have received the appropriate information last week when I asked about it.

Mr. Brennan:  I said earlier that five factors are taken into account when deciding whether somebody who arrives here is entitled to welfare: the length and continuity of residence in a particular country, the length and purpose of absence from Ireland, the nature and pattern of the employment, the applicant’s main centre of interest and the future intention of the applicant concerned as it appears from all circumstances. Every circumstance, not only the two-year requirement, is taken into account. We have received a number of queries on this matter, some of which were from the European Commission.

Mr. Stanton:  A death will occur among these people before action is taken.

[1701]Mr. Brennan:  I have also received the advice of the Attorney General on this matter. These factors will be taken into account when action is being considered. We must protect Ireland’s social welfare structure at the same time as being humane and fair to people who come here.

Mr. Stanton:  That is not happening.

Mr. Brennan:  It is my job to find that balance.

Mr. Penrose:  The Minister’s predecessor was mistaken. She said that the floodgates would open. Fianna Fáil was lucky that she was removed from the Department.

Mr. Stanton:  People will die. The policy is media-driven.

  52.  Mr. Penrose    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the reason the Turkish construction firm Gama received a Government exemption from paying millions of euro in PRSI contributions here over recent years; the number of PRSI exemptions that were granted to Gama; the value of these exemptions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17241/05]

  4 o’clock

Mr. Brennan:  A total of 1,416 PRSI exemption certificates have been issued to Gama since 2002. The certificates were granted under regulations which provide for exemptions from PRSI contributions for up to 52 weeks per year to be granted to employees not ordinarily resident in the State but who are temporarily employed here. The purpose of the legislation is to enable workers sent by their employers to work for temporary periods in another country to remain subject to social insurance in their own country. Similar arrangements apply under EU legislation to workers moving within the EU and to workers covered by bilateral social security agreements with Ireland.

When a request for an exemption certificate is processed, a signed declaration is obtained from an employer to confirm that the person for whom the certificate is being sought has been retained in the social insurance regime of his or her home country while working in Ireland. The procedure is intended to confirm that an employee has been posted and is covered for social insurance in his or her home country while covered by an exemption certificate in Ireland. In randomly selected cases, independent confirmation is sought from the authorities in an employee’s home country that social insurance payments have been made during the period covered by an exemption certificate. This control complements an employer’s declaration that an employee has been retained in insurance cover in his or her own country.

In the case of Gama, a random sample of exempted cases has been referred to the relevant overseas authorities via the Department of Foreign Affairs to confirm that the employees involved have been retained in their home coun[1702]try’s social security regime during the period of the exemption. Efforts continue to confirm the status of the workers in question. Granting of an exemption certificate is linked to the existence of a valid work permit which confirms that the employee is not ordinarily resident in the State and is entitled to work here.

The value of exemptions to Gama cannot be quantified by my Department. Information on the wages of workers for whom exemption certificates are sought is not a requirement of the application process. It is, therefore, not possible to calculate the amount of PRSI which would arise if the exemptions had not been applicable. The workers in question remain subject to social insurance in their home countries during the period covered by the exemption certificates.

The needs of the Irish economy have changed significantly since exemption legislation was originally enacted. There have been significant changes in working patterns and skill levels while the enlargement of the European Union has also affected the labour market. Against this background and having regard to the circumstances of the matter in question, I have commissioned a review of the policy and legislative provisions on exemption certificates of my Department. I will bring forward any necessary measures to change the current arrangements in light of the review.

Mr. Penrose:  The treatment of Gama workers represented one of the most shameful episodes of the systematic exploitation of workers in the history of the State. The failure to put in place measures to enforce our labour laws to prevent such outrageous exploitation represents a shocking failure of the Minister and former Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputies Harney and Martin. The treatment by Gama of its workers was, simply, shameful. That Gama has been allowed to run rings around the institutions of the State has exacerbated the entire matter.

A company at the centre of an alleged worker exploitation scandal has been granted an exemption from paying social insurance for more than 1,400 employees for three years. Gama received three quarters of all PRSI exemptions granted over the past three years. Of approximately 1,900 exemptions granted, Gama received more than 1,400. The Minister said a random selection process applied to checks of the exemptions. Irish employers must look askance at such provisions as they are subject, rightly, to detailed examination. What efforts has the Department of Social and Family Affairs made to confirm that social insurance payments were being made in Turkey? Will we ever know the value of these important exemptions? Do we know what PRSI would have been payable had exemption certificates not been granted?

It appears the Exchequer may have lost many tens of millions of euro in PAYE and PRSI deductions in respect of Gama’s employees. Many Irish firms which must take on direct employees on a sub-contracting basis are at a sev[1703]ere competitive disadvantage to an employer which, like Gama, can, in effect, opt out of the Irish PAYE and PRSI systems. Is the Minister concerned? When can the House expect the legislation framework which underpins the exemptions to be updated to ensure that a scandal like the one which has been brought to the fore by my colleague, Deputy Joe Higgins, for which he is to be complimented, and pursued by my party leader, Deputy Rabbitte, will not happen in the State in future? It is an indictment of us all that these events took place.

Mr. Brennan:  The total number of exemptions issued since 1998 is 2,449. Of these, Gama received 1,416. The reference to a random sample was made in respect of the Department’s approach in contacting authorities overseas. The Department decided to take a random sample of 40 of Gama’s 1,416 employees but, disappointingly, has yet to hear from the social security ministry in the country concerned. We will follow up the matter to ensure we receive a response.

It is important not to leave the impression that exemption from PRSI represents a loss to the Exchequer. The system also works in reverse. Where an Irish company is working abroad, it does not pay PRSI in respect of its Irish employees if it is confirmed that it is being paid here. The principle is that a company pays PRSI in one country or another, but not in both. This system has been in place for decades — it is not a recent measure — to avoid double taxation.

I have a copy of the inspector’s report commissioned by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. My Department is examining it very carefully to determine whether breaches of social welfare legislation have taken place. It should be noted that the purpose of the exemptions system is to ensure that people do not get caught for PRSI in more than one country. We seek to ensure that no one slips through the net.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  That concludes Priority Questions. We now come to Other Questions.

  53.  Mr. Rabbitte    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if his attention has been drawn to the recent report produced by Community Platform which found that national partnership is not meeting the needs of those living in poverty; if he intends to raise this issue with the social partners; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13042/05]

Mr. Brennan:  The report to which the Deputy refers is, I understand, Community Platform’s mid-term review of the Sustaining Progress [1704]agreement. A copy of the report was made available to my Department yesterday and is being examined. As Minister with overall responsibility for the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion, I noted the platform’s reported contention that national partnership is not meeting the needs of people living in poverty. The Deputy will be aware that Sustaining Progress and the plan against poverty and social exclusion are complementary strategic initiatives aimed at delivering a fair and inclusive society to all citizens. Spending on social welfare has increased from €7.8 billion to €12.2 billion since 2001. During this period, the lowest social welfare rates have increased by 40% while the consumer price index has increased by just over 13%.

On foot of the 2005 budget, welfare payments have increased by three times the expected rate of inflation. Over its lifetime and in addition to increases in weekly payments, the Government has introduced substantial increases under the child benefit scheme which is a key element of its drive to combat child poverty. Between 1997 and April 2005, the rate of child benefit was increased from €38.09 per month for the first two children and €49.52 for each child thereafter to €141.60 per month for each of the first two children and to €177.30 per month for the third and each subsequent child. There have also been significant improvements in my Department’s family income supplement scheme, including the assessment of entitlements on the basis of net rather than gross income and progressive increases in the income limits. It must be further emphasised that improvements in social welfare have taken place against the backdrop of Ireland’s achievement of the lowest unemployment rate, at 4.4%, in the EU.

To address the circumstances of those children most at risk of poverty, I am considering the introduction of a second tier of supports in addition to child benefit and other support entitlements to be aimed specifically at families in greatest need. I am also concerned about the vulnerable circumstances of many lone parents, most of whom are women. My Department is involved in an interdepartmental working group which is developing a strategy to eliminate obstacles to employment for lone parents. My Department is also participating in an interdepartmental working committee on early child care and education which is chaired by the National Children’s Office. The work of the committee is at an advanced stage and its outcome will make an important contribution to the determination of the right mix of services and income support to facilitate employment take-up and care for children.

Poverty is a multidimensional problem which requires action across a wide range of policy areas if it is to be tackled decisively. In addition to income supports, the national action plan sets ambitious targets across a range of policy areas, including employment, health, education, housing and accommodation, all of which impact on pov[1705]erty and social exclusion. Social inclusion commitments under Sustaining Progress, especially many of the special initiatives to be progressed during the lifetime of the agreement have added a strong impetus. There has been substantial social partnership involvement in the development and ongoing implementation of the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion. The social partners are represented on the social inclusion consultative group, which along with other institutional structures, supports the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the national action plan.

Mr. Penrose:  The Minister is aware that the community platform represents 25 participant organisations including, Age Action Ireland, the Community Action Network, the Community Workers Co-operative, the Forum of People with Disabilities. As the Minister stated, the community platform was set up in 1996 to enable participation in social partnership negotiations at national level. Why would it state in its mid-term review that apart from the pay deal part of Sustaining Progress, it has little connection with real people facing real disadvantage, exclusion or poverty? Is it not a most serious evaluation and indictment of the process that people would feel excluded?

The community platform participated in the social partnership agreements since 2000 but neither it nor the National Women’s Council of Ireland endorsed Sustaining Progress because they said it displayed the refusal of Government to engage in addressing anti-poverty or equality issues. Is the Government concerned about the impact and thrust of this evaluation?

Let us take the example of the Community Workers Co-operative, from which the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, removed all core funding. Surely this action suggests that the Government is not that interested in giving disadvantaged people a key role in the area of citizenship decision making? By withdrawing that funding the Government showed scant regard for what was portrayed as a sincerely held policy. It would appear that anybody who gives any critical evaluation of the social partnership model is ruled out for funding by the Government. Does the Minister accept this is a short-sighted and possibly cynical approach on the part of the Government? Anybody who appears not to share the ‘hallelujah’ mode of social partnership is effectively ruled out of the process. They perceive themselves to be at the butt end of the big stick from Government. Some of the social partners might not like me saying this. I refer to the groups who appear to dominate the stage to the exclusion of people who make a difference at the level at which they operate and who want to participate and make positive and constructive contributions to this important debate.

Mr. Stanton:  Is the Minister concerned that the Government has excluded as social partners [1706]many of those organisations interested in the plight of those experiencing poverty? Will the Minister address this issue so that their voices can be heard?

Mr. Boyle:  I also wish to hear the Minister’s opinion on the fact that the Government is removing core funding from these organisations, many of which are outside the social partnership structure, and are working directly with people experiencing poverty. What representation is the Minister for Social and Family Affairs with direct responsibility for the alleviation of poverty, making to ensure that these bodies receive proper funding from the Government?

Mr. Brennan:  Literally dozens of bodies are in receipt of Government funding in the poverty area. They are all working hard. I have met more than 30 of them in recent weeks on a one to one basis to discuss the issue with them. Through those meetings I have gained a better understanding of their concerns. It should be noted that the community platform withdrew from the national partnership process prior to finalisation of the current agreement.

Mr. Stanton:  They were excluded.

Mr. Brennan:  There were 25 participant organisations in the platform, including the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, the Simon Community of Ireland, the Migrants Rights Centre and the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. I am available at all times to meet those groups and hear what they have to say.

It is probably not the occasion to make a wider statement on the poverty issues raised except to say again that in the past four years the total welfare spend has increased from €7 billion to €12 billion. The lowest rate of social welfare increases has risen by 40% at a time when inflation was 13%. The recent budget was three times the rate of inflation. Child benefit has increased from €38 to €177 against a backdrop of the lowest unemployment rate in Europe of 4%. A great deal is happening out there that requires constant daily investment and attention, which the Government is attempting to give it.

An Ceann Comhairle:  That concludes Question Time. Information appertaining to——

Mr. McCormack:  Is it a record that we reached only one ordinary question?

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Chair is reading out the Adjournment debate matters.

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 [1707]Order 21 and the name of the Member in each case: (1) Deputy Burton — the current spate of violent gun crime in Dublin 15, including the shooting dead of a person (details supplied); (2) Deputy Peter Power — that the Minister immediately provide the funding necessary to staff a new six unit residential complex at St. Vincent’s residential centre for the disabled, Lisnagry, County Limerick; (3) Deputy O’Connor — to ask the Minister to note the loss of up to 40 jobs at the Jacobs Biscuit factory on the Belgard Road, Tallaght; (4) Deputy Finneran — that the Minister give an update regarding the need for refurbishment and extension at a school (details supplied); (5) Deputy O’Sullivan — the need for the Minister to order a review of the safety of the school bus fleet in view of the accident in County Meath in which five young girls lost their lives; (6) Deputy Naughten — the need for the Minister to take immediate steps to provide an adequate audiology service in the west of Ireland; (7) Deputy Healy — the urgent need for the location of an emergency ambulance station at Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary; (8) Deputy Costello — that the Minister resolve the confusion created by the new computerisation system used to register births, marriages and deaths in the General Register Office; (9) Deputy Cowley — if the Minister has yet reached a decision as regards the allocation of a permanent site for a school (details supplied); and (10) Deputy Olivia Mitchell — to call on the Minister to immediately commence a programme of seat belt installation in all school bus services.

The matters raised by Deputies Peter Power, Naughten, Burton and Cowley have been selected for discussion.

Mr. Kenny:  Obviously there are many questions we could ask about yesterday’s tragedy but as there are expressions of sympathy on the Order of Business I do not wish to also raise it under Leaders’ Questions.

Following a visit to Cork last week, members of the business community brought to my attention serious concerns about commitments given by the Government on the debt Cork Airport now faces. As I understand it, on 19 July 2003, the then Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, announced on behalf of the Government that it had made a decision to break up Aer Rianta and to establish independent airport authorities at Dublin, Cork and Shannon. On that occasion the Minister gave specific assurances that both Cork and Shannon would be debt free so as not to hinder their future development. The Minister said this status was vital to allow the airports to compete for new business. He also said it would mean a fresh start for all three airports.

As I understand it, the terminal at Cork Airport is under construction. Some 600 persons are working on the terminal and the wage bill is more [1708]than €900,000 a week. A business plan has not yet been submitted. Cork Airport faces a debt of €160 million as a result of this development and that figure continues to rise. I understand the debt in respect of Shannon is of the order of €80 million. In the context of the commitment given by the then Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, and irrespective of what business plans come in, surely this means that the viability of both airports will be seriously hampered as a consequence? Is it the Government’s intention to honour the commitment given on its behalf by the then Minister, Deputy Brennan, on 19 July 2003?

The Taoiseach:  In the discussions last year and ever since, there has not been any change in that. As the debts of Shannon and Cork airports related to Aer Rianta they were considered to be the responsibility of Dublin Airport and were to be taken into account as part of the Dublin operation. Obviously the business plans and the business programmes have to come back but the question in Cork where they were building a new terminal at a cost of €150 million was how would this be funded? That may not be so much the case in Shannon. It was always an issue as to whether the Dublin Airport Authority would be able to handle a second terminal as it needed a cash flow to be able to fund any debt it would incur which would be exacerbated by the fact that the original debts, liabilities or capital acquisitions, whatever one wishes to call them, would be carried forward. That was the position then and I understand it is still the position. The authorities must reflect it in their business plans.

Mr. Kenny:  That is not the understanding of persons in Shannon and Cork. They were met face to face by the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, who told them there would be no debt accruing to Cork Airport so it could have a fresh start and compete for new business.

I am concerned that another commitment by the Government is being broken. People in Cork are seriously upset and very concerned about the validity of the statement made by Deputy Brennan on 19 July 2003 to the effect that the decision by the Government represented a new start for Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports. Surely it is an example of the Government having put the cart before the horse again in that it made the commitment initially that there would be no debt accruing to Cork and Shannon airports and then asked for business plans in the knowledge that there are serious debts facing both airports, not to mention the decision last week in respect of the Dublin Airport Authority.

Will the Taoiseach confirm and reiterate the Government’s commitment, as made by the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, that there will be no debt accruing to Cork and Shannon airports when the relevant legislation comes into effect? Will he confirm that this rep[1709]resents a fresh start for Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports? I ask him to tell the truth.

The Taoiseach:  To the best of my knowledge, this is the first I have heard of what the Deputy is saying. Cork and Shannon airports were to proceed, as per the agreements last year, with the establishment of Cork and Shannon airport authorities as separate companies, initially with no assets or staff. They were to prepare their plans. Dublin was always seen to be carrying the debt for them and the cashflow was needed to run the second terminal. I have not heard of any change to this position. I have met representatives from Dublin, Cork and Shannon many times and they have never raised that issue with me. Unless somebody tells me otherwise and there are developments about which I have not heard, the position is as I have stated.

Mr. Rabbitte:  I am sure the Taoiseach saw last night’s splendid “Prime Time” programme on taxation. If not, I am sure he has been advised of its content. Essentially, it depicted how the powerful and wealthy in our society exploit the tax code to minimise their tax liability or avoid paying any tax at all. The blood of anybody who saw the programme and who goes to work in the morning and pays his taxes as best he can would boil at the unfairness of the operation of the tax code. Such a person has no discretion in terms of his or her tax liability while the elite seem to be able to write their own tax bills or pay a voluntary tax.

The Taoiseach will recall that he is the author of a particular measure concerning tax exiles. The record of the House shows that at 6.05 p.m. on Friday, 6 May 1994, a bank holiday weekend, he introduced an amendment in this regard. He will recall that he advised me of it at 11 p.m. the night before. His explanation of the very opaque amendment was very technical.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy’s two minutes have concluded.

Mr. Rabbitte:  He concluded by saying:

In recent days I had much contact with staff in FÁS International Services, Telecom Éireann, ESB and other agencies who are concerned about matters that affect them when going abroad for contracts of short duration. I hope we have dealt with most of the points in this regard and I will deal with the remaining points over the weekend.

This had nothing to do with anybody employed in FÁS, the ESB or any other organisation whose staff were going abroad. To have stated it did was misleading. In the ten years that have passed since this statement, has the Government made any plans to restrict the extraordinary latitude we give, under the tax code, to very wealthy people to disport themselves in this country as and when they choose without being subject to any enforce[1710]ment, monitoring or supervision that one can see, thus benefiting at the same time——

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy is a minute over time.

Mr. Rabbitte:  ——by not paying any tax in this jurisdiction?

The Taoiseach:  I did not see the “Prime Time” programme last night but received a briefing note thereon. Before dealing with the question, tax incentive schemes have been good in this country and have generated much economic activity. They were introduced with a view to providing incentives for economic development and not to enrich particular individuals.

As Deputy Rabbitte knows, there is an ongoing examination of all the tax incentive schemes to determine whether some of them are too generous, whether they are needed now, whether they require amendment or whether they should be capped. All of these issues have been discussed and the Minister has brought in outside financial experts to assist him in the ongoing examination.

On the last point raised by Deputy Rabbitte, I remember the issue very well but do not remember introducing the amendment at 5 p.m. on the Friday of a bank holiday weekend. I would be surprised to hear that the committee was even sitting then. However, I remember the issue, which was debated for a long time. It arose from the Commission on Taxation’s report of that year. There was much argument on the issue outside the House. I may have tabled the amendment late because, as I remember very well, there had been considerable discussion at the time between the leader of my party and the Labour Party. The Deputy will recall this very well. Neither of us would have been surprised that the amendment was tabled so late.

Deputy Rabbitte was implying on “Questions and Answers” last night that I had thought up the amendment over night. However, as he knows, the issue had been discussed for a long time. Former Deputy Ivan Yates expressed concern that if a person came to the State at 11 p.m. and left the following day at 6 a.m., that person would be treated as being in the State for two days. He and I, the then Minister for Finance, tabled similar amendments on Report Stage, of which Deputy Rabbitte would have been well aware. I found this out today having checked the matter quickly at lunch time. Had I had more time, I would have found out more.

The amendment was agreed by the Dáil and continues to apply today. To make a mild political point, if the Labour Party, which Deputy Rabbitte now has the honour of leading although he was representing another party during the debate in question, believed it was so terrible at the time, it had an opportunity to change it through the Finance Acts of 1994, 1995 and 1996. It did not deem it a bright idea to do so.

[1711]It should be noted that the administrative practice of Revenue prior to the 1994 Act was based on a number of nights spent in the State. The Report Stage amendment merely confirmed the procedure being adopted at the time. It was quite a contentious issue.

The Deputy asked me if this issue should be examined ten years on. All the tax incentive schemes are being examined and this one should also be examined.

Mr. Rabbitte:  The first half of the Taoiseach’s answer dealt with tax incentive schemes but I did not raise any issue pertaining to these at all. I have been clear that tax incentive schemes comprise a legitimate instrument to stimulate economic activity, depending on circumstances and the economic cycle. Of course they ought to be reviewed and subjected to a test determining their demonstrable economic benefit. This has not and is not being done.

The study the Taoiseach referred to is the first that was undertaken under pressure from my colleague, Deputy Burton, last year. I will go back to the point. The record will show that the Taoiseach brought in an amendment at 5 o’clock on Friday evening. That is the simple fact of the matter. There is no point in trying to blame former Deputy Ivan Yates or anyone else. The Taoiseach gave the assurances to me, privately, which I was happy to accept, although I am on the record as saying: “I think one could be forgiven for being suspicious about getting a major item like this on a holiday weekend, by way of a last minute amendment.” That is on the record of the House for 6 May 1994. I went on to raise the objections to it and so on. There is no point in talking about the Labour Party reviewing this in 1995 or 1996. This is one of the areas little focused on or understood, a very arcane area of tax law that was only in operation for a year or two at that time. The question I put to the Taoiseach was about the fact that ten years later we now know how it has been abused and the Minister for Finance said last night that he had no intention of reviewing it and that it was working perfectly.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy is two minutes over time.

Mr. Rabbitte:  I cannot, for the life of me, see what this has to do with FÁS or ESB employees working abroad. This was brought in, like other matters at that time, with certain people very clearly in mind. The PAYE taxpayer believes that this is profoundly unfair, to put it at its mildest. I ask the Taoiseach again whether this will be included and if there is any intention——

An Ceann Comhairle:  I ask the Deputy to give way to the Taoiseach.

[1712]Mr. Rabbitte:  ——to restrict the 183 days requirement to be in this jurisdiction.

The Taoiseach:  I have three brief points to make. Deputy Rabbitte raised the matter of tax incentives on last night’s “Prime Time”, which was what the entire programme was about.

Mr. Rabbitte:  I was very thankful to the Taoiseach, last night.

The Taoiseach:  I thank Deputy Rabbitte. I appreciate that greatly and will thank him, personally, when I meet him.

Second, as I understand it the Minister is looking at all of the allowances. The third point is that this particular mechanism does not just relate to a handful of people. I am not sure what the figure is but it is used by quite a lot of people. The argument which has been used for a long time is that there are many people, some termed non-resident who come here and pay tax, who spend quite a lot of money and have many businesses in this country. They generate a good deal of wealth. They could go elsewhere or stay elsewhere and it is better to have them in the country over a longer period. The Deputy is right in that it covers a certain category of people in this country. There is no doubt about that. I well recall the arguments about that. They are generally wealthy people, not FÁS workers, as the Deputy said.

The reason for the operation of the clause is that it was agreed it was better to have these people spending as many days as possible in the State. That means they have directorships, investments and property here. They spend money while they are here, probably more than the rest of us would in the entire year.

Ms Lynch:  They do not pay tax.

The Taoiseach:  Even if a person is non-resident, Irish people are liable to income tax on directorships, rental procedures and in other areas. It is not simply a black and white situation. We all know the types of people we are talking about.

Mr. F. McGrath:  They are chancers.

The Taoiseach:  They are not chancers.

Mr. F. McGrath:  They are chancers and dodgers.

The Taoiseach:  They are significant Irish people who come back. As regards Deputy Rabbitte’s question about whether this should be examined in the review, I have no difficulty with that.

Mr. J. Higgins:  It is a day when our schools are in mourning over the young lives lost in the awful tragedy in County Meath. Members will express their sympathy and have points to make on the safety of children on school transport.

[1713]I want to draw the Taoiseach’s attention to another aspect of student welfare, which is the urgent and extensive investment needed immediately for physical fitness facilities in schools, in the form of gyms and sports halls. Everybody was taken aback in recent days when it was announced that many principals throughout the State have a “no running” policy in school playgrounds. The Taoiseach described the ban as shocking, but the reality is that teachers have explained that it is the lack of space and facilities that is the real cause. If insurance was a consideration, that should certainly be put off side. However, it is the former point that is mostly responsible, in primary and secondary schools.

Against the fact that the national task force on obesity said every school-going child should have at least 30 minutes a day, or two hours a week of physical fitness exercise, is it not crazy that parents and teachers in many parts of the State have to spend endless hours, days, weeks and years lobbying the Department of Education and Science for investment in sports halls and gyms? In view of what has emerged in the last week, and the report, will the Taoiseach now say the Government will immediately ring fence investment for physical education infrastructure in schools? If he does not do that, is not the whole health strategy as regards obesity a fiction?

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy must conclude.

Mr. J. Higgins:  I am not saying the schools and the physical fitness regime is the only answer, but it is an important one, acknowledged by all.

The Taoiseach:  The Deputy is highlighting an important issue about the activity of young people and the fact that they should be able to do some of that in school. Improved PE facilities account for a large part of the enormous amount of money being spent in upgrading schools. Any worthwhile initiative in this whole programme is, of course, good. The Deputy will agree that children spend less than 20% of their overall time in school. However, they learn much of the basics of PE training, gym work etc. there, so that is important.

I do not buy the argument that obesity comes about through lack of training, though. The only research that I have seen showed that 35 years ago obesity related to 5% of the young population. Now it is approximately 15%. At a time when people had nothing, children were out playing and running around school yards. Now it is a different issue. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of those figures. Other countries have done similar studies which showed the levels of obesity to be relatively low. Having said that, facilities are important and prevention is far better than cure. It is good to have people active, as encouraged by the sports and community grants.

Some 4,000 communities have received money in the last six or seven years that is helping to [1714]build a really good capital base of facilities where children can go, whether it is scouts, football, community halls or whatever. The more activity there is as regards PE and gym training in school yards or halls, the better and this is important. I do not disagree with the Deputy. Some €2 billion has been spent on upgrading schools in the last few years, which is an enormous amount. Every year about 1,200 projects are being finished and all of them are improving the facilities.

As regards this issue it is important that the community is linked to the school. We are now seeing in the 3,000 or so schools across the State an enormous amount of work in terms of schools and local facilities. There is no point in building school halls that are not being used during the day. The use of such facilities should be closely monitored and that is what the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism is doing.

Mr. J. Higgins:  If such investment has been made, why did the INTO discover that 80% of schools surveyed in Donegal did not have a PE hall, that 70% of schools surveyed in Kerry did not have one and a similar percentage was found in respect of schools between those two counties? The University of Limerick in a study on secondary schools pointed to an absence of adequate facilities, qualified staff and timetabling as regards physical education.

I accept that lifestyle is a major factor. Schools cannot be expected to correct everything that is unhealthy or tending to make people unhealthy in society but schools have a corrective role. In this regard, they have an important function. Does the Taoiseach accept that this issue is linked to an earlier point Deputy Rabbitte raised, in that, if the speculators who flit off to the Bahamas and Switzerland at weekends for tax purposes stayed here instead and paid their taxes, as other elements of big business should pay equally to the PAYE system, we would have far more funding for such facilities?

What new urgency is the Government bringing to bear on investment in regard to this important sector of education that will show an acceptance of what has been said in the past week?

The Taoiseach:  This issue is being dealt with across Departments. The huge amount being invested in recreational facilities in terms of sport and community facilities should be linked to schools because we would obtain much better use of such facilities. Under the capital programme approximately €2 billion has been spent in the area of education across schools. Approximately €3.5 million will be spent over the next five years under the multi-annual programme.

Deputy Higgins referred to the physical education programmes in primary schools. All primary teachers are receiving in-service training in this area. It is a core part of the curriculum. There is no reason for not running a policy on playgroups. There is joint funding in terms of the community grants for playgrounds and provision [1715]of approximately €4.6 million for playgrounds in schools. That provision taken with the sports grants is a significant investment to help our young people. I accept the point the Deputy made. While provision in this area is not the only issue in question, I accept it is an important one. It is important that children are able to do drill and PE and that teachers are able to train them in that respect. That is the reason such education is a core part of the curriculum. It is also important to build up the number of facilities available where possible.

We have now put community facilities into 3,000 places. The schools should use them in the day time. Separate facilities are not needed for use by schools. Local clubs and societies should allow schools to use their facilities in the day time.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Before coming to the Order of Business I propose to deal with a number of notices under Standing Order 31. I call Deputy O’Sullivan.

Ms O’Sullivan:  I seek the adjournment of the Dáil under Standing Order 31 to discuss the following specific and important matter of public interest requiring urgent attention, namely, the need for the Minister for Education and Science to report on the latest information available on the circumstances of the accident involving a school bus in which five girls died and to outline what steps she intends to take to review the safety of the school bus fleet.

Ms O. Mitchell:  I seek the adjournment of the Dáil to raise the matter of the tragic accident that left five children dead and many more critically injured and to ask the Minister to end the practice whereby children are permitted to stand in a moving bus, if he will start immediately a programme of installation of seat belts in school buses, end the practice whereby buses considered unfit for mainstream passengers are diverted to the transportation of school children and if he will also ensure a full, speedy and transparent investigation of the causes of this accident and the lessons to be learned.

Mr. Neville:  I seek the adjournment of the Dáil under Standing Order 31 to discuss the following matter of urgent national importance, the unacceptable situation where victims of sexual abuse are ending up on anti-depressants in psychiatric hospitals because of a lack of State funding for counselling services.

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

The Taoiseach:  It is proposed to take No. 18, Disability Bill 2004 — Report Stage (resumed) and Final Stage and Private Members’ business shall be No. 46, motion re Aer Lingus.

An Ceann Comhairle:  There are no proposals to put to the House.

The Taoiseach:  With the permission of the House and in agreement with the party leaders, I want to say a few words about the terrible bus crash yesterday and express sympathy for the victims.

Yesterday five young girls left their parents and homes to go to school. It was probably a normal day like any other school day but it was not to be so for very long. Those young women were not to return to their parents and their homes alive again. A terrible and sudden tragedy has been visited upon the families of Sinéad Ledwidge, Aimee McCabe, Deirdre Scanlon, Claire McCluskey and Lisa Callan. It is a tragedy shared by their school mates who were on that last fateful bus journey with them last evening. The local community and the whole country send their prayers and heartfelt sympathies to the families of these fine young girls.

Our thoughts too are with the injured who are not only physically but emotionally hurt by this awful event. Today is an occasion of grief for the dead and of solidarity with those who are left behind. I am sure all of us in the House are thinking of the principals of the schools, the teachers and the other pupils in the schools, the parents and everybody else who has been affected by this tragedy and, by extension, other children around the country to which this tragic event brings a certain fear today.

On my behalf and on behalf of the Government I express my sympathy again to the bereaved families and to the entire community around Kentstown and Navan.

Mr. Kenny:  I share in the condolences offered by the Taoiseach by extending my sincere sympathy and the sympathies of the Fine Gael Party to the parents of the school girls who lost their lives so tragically yesterday in County Meath. We think today of Sinéad Ledwidge, Aimee McCabe, Deirdre Scanlon, Claire McCluskey and Lisa Callan, greatly loved and sadly missed.

Many of us were in Meath recently for the by-election. It is fair to say that the royal county and its fine people will be devastated for years to come by the tragedy that struck out of blue yesterday right at the end of the school year.

I speak for the party in sending our prayers and thoughts to the families who are today keeping vigil at the bedside of their children who survived. It will be extraordinarily difficult for all those who were involved or injured yesterday to reconcile themselves with what happened to their [1717]school friends. Today I wish them every healing and full recovery in body, mind and spirit.

To lose a child must be the most unbearable loss in any parent’s life. I am sure last night after the news broke there was not a house in Ireland where parents did not look at their own children and think “What if, and thank God it wasn’t”. For that reason alone, the heart of every parent here and every parent in the country goes out today to those parents in County Meath.

Again, I offer heartfelt sympathy to all the families and I pray for comfort and healing for the hearts and lives that are broken today in Meath and beyond.

Mr. Rabbitte:  On my behalf and on behalf of the Labour Party, I join the Taoiseach and Deputy Kenny in extending my heartfelt sympathy to the parents and families of the five young teenagers. As Deputy Kenny said, to lose a child is a terrible tragedy but for five young people between the ages of 13 and 16 to have met their deaths in these circumstances is a terrible tragedy to visit one small area. It is a terrible tragedy to visit the Kentstown and Beauparc areas of County Meath. It is a terrible burden to be carried by the Loreto Convent and their fellow pupils and teachers in that school. The cause of the accident, which we do not know, will be thoroughly investigated. It is important the findings and recommendations of the investigation are followed through and implemented. However, we do not know at this stage whether any safety precautions would have avoided this terrible accident. To their families and friends, I extend our sympathy. To the 16 young people still in hospital, on behalf of the Labour Party, I wish them the earliest possible recovery.

Mr. Sargent:  On behalf of the Green Party, An Comhaontas Glas, I join with other party leaders in expressing our heartfelt sympathy on the tragic loss of life of five young teenagers. I extend our thoughts and prayers to their families and to all those injured. I spoke on the telephone to one of the young survivors, Rory O’Byrne, who was fortunate to have escaped with minor injuries — cuts and bruises. For those involved, it was a horrific crash. He said to me he wished he had been at home yesterday to avoid the scenes and what happened.

It is important we bear in mind the trauma this incident has caused the school children, staff and principals in the schools involved and those involved in the bus company and roadworks. The area has been left in a state of numb shock and grieving heartbreak. Our thoughts today are with those who must apply themselves to the work of counselling, investigation and ensuring we avoid such a tragedy ever happening again. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha go léir.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  I extend my deepest sympathy and that of my family to the families of [1718]the five children who died so tragically in the school bus crash in County Meath. To the devastated families and friends of Sinéad Ledwidge, Aimee McCabe, Deirdre Scanlon, Claire McCluskey and Lisa Callan, we offer our heartfelt condolences on their terrible loss. The thoughts of parents and children throughout the country are with these grieving families. A local community and a school community have been devastated by this tragedy and our thoughts are also with them.

Credit is due to all the emergency services for their fast and efficient response to the accident. The tragedy occurred at a time which is both poignant and stressful as pupils prepare for the start of exams and as parents invest their hopes for the future in their children. This tragedy raises many questions which will be addressed later in Dáil business. For now we can do no more than express our deepest sympathy. Comhbhrón ó chroí do na teaghlaigh uile agus suaimhneas síoraí dóibh siúd a fuair bás.

Mr. J. Higgins:  I and the Independent Deputies express profound shock at the tragedy in County Meath. The loss of a young life at any time is a huge tragedy but when five young lives are snuffed out in a calamity such as this, it scarcely bears speaking of. This tragedy has reached throughout the country to my home parish of Lispole from where Deirdre Scanlon’s father came. I am sure the other young people have friends and relatives around the country. The Independent Deputies express their sympathy to the families, loved ones, colleagues, teachers and communities appalled by this tragedy.

We must await the outcome of the investigation but it is clear that after a proper period of mourning, we should have a debate on the safety of transport for schoolgoing children and youth. Although, unfortunately, there will always be accidents, whatever investment is needed to achieve the highest safety standards for children, including the provision of seat belts and other safety measures, must be considered. From this appalling tragedy those debates will open up at the appropriate time.

Ms McManus:  The hospital consultants have withdrawn from an arrangement they had with health insurers because they have legal advice that the arrangements they have operated for approximately ten years are illegal and will be deemed so by the Competition Authority. Since this has implications for 2 million people who take out health insurance, what plans has the Taoiseach——

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

Ms McManus:  It has in terms of a legislative change that may be required.

[1719]An Ceann Comhairle:  A question to the Minister responsible would be appropriate.

Ms McManus:  I think it would be possible for the Taoiseach to reply to this.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Chair has ruled on the matter. It is not an omnibus Question Time.

Ms McManus:  There is a promised legislative change.

An Ceann Comhairle:  What legislation?

Ms McManus:  If the Ceann Comhairle insists, I will refer to legislation which may——

An Ceann Comhairle:  About which legislation is the Deputy speaking?

Ms McManus:  Will the Ceann Comhairle let me ask the question?

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Chair has ruled on the matter.

Ms McManus:  I have a question.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy will have to learn to behave in the House like other Members.

Ms McManus:  I was elected by the people of Wicklow to speak in this House and to raise issues of public concern.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Rightly so.

Ms McManus:  I am grateful to them and the people of Carlow who elected me.

An Ceann Comhairle:  We are not having a debate. If the Deputy has a question on legislation, I will hear it. If not, the Deputy should resume her seat.

Ms McManus:  In regard to the issue I raised, it may be that the legislation about which I wish to ask may offer the solution to a problem which now exists. That legislation is the Voluntary Health Insurance Board (Corporate Status) Bill. Will the Taoiseach consider using it to deal with a major problem for people who are covered by health insurance?

The Taoiseach:  The Voluntary Health Insurance Board (Corporate Status) Bill is to alter the corporate status of the VHI. I do not have a date for it but I will bring the issue to the attention of the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children.

Mr. Bruton:  I wish to ask the Taoiseach about next year’s Finance Bill. I think he would admit that introducing amendments to the Finance Bill at five minutes to midnight is not a good way to [1720]do business. Does he agree the findings of these consultancy reports into tax breaks should be made available to the Houses of the Oireachtas so that there could be timely preparation for that legislation?

An Ceann Comhairle:  That is not appropriate to the Order of Business. I suggest the Deputy submits a parliamentary question to the Minister for Finance.

Mr. Bruton:  The Taoiseach’s policy will be decided.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I agree with the Deputy but we must have a structured way to conduct business in the House.

Mr. Sargent:  Is an exceptional Finance Bill being considered prior to the budget this year which would deal with some of the loopholes——

An Ceann Comhairle:  Is legislation promised?

Mr. Sargent:  Surely it cannot be right to allow yacht renovation in the Mediterranean——

An Ceann Comhairle:  No legislation is promised.

Mr. Sargent:  ——to be written off against Irish tax liabilities. Will we not see some regularity and equity?

An Ceann Comhairle:  I suggest the Deputy submits a question to the Minister for Finance. I call Deputy Durkan. Does he have a question appropriate to the Order of Business?

Mr. Durkan:  I have two questions, both of which are appropriate. Rumour has it there could be a general election next year and if not, the year after.

Mr. O’Donoghue:  That rumour was around last year.

Mr. Durkan:  In that context and in view of the importance of the broadcasting authority Bill and the possible need to have it cleared up before the general election, will the Taoiseach arrange to bring in the legislation at an earlier date than 2006?

I refer to a similar subject, also in the context of a possible general election. The Postal (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which is very much in vogue at present——

An Ceann Comhairle:  Is legislation promised?

Mr. Durkan:  It would be good to have it cleared up before the general election. The legislation fell off the table, so to speak. Could the Taoiseach arrange to have it picked up and placed firmly on the table?

[1721]The Taoiseach:  The broadcasting authority Bill is to establish a broadcasting authority and amend the RTE provisions. The legislation is due next year. The other Bill was taken off the list.

Mr. McCormack:  What about the general election?

Mr. Brennan:  The Bill fell off the list.

Mr. Durkan:  That was a good performance.

Mr. Rabbitte:  Will the Taoiseach give the House an approximate date on which legislation will be brought into the House in respect of the sale of a majority stake in Aer Lingus?

  5 o’clock

Deputy Durkan reminds me that on Sunday a political correspondent wrote an article suggesting that before the general election to which Deputy Durkan looks forward, the Taoiseach may have to revise the constituencies again. Does he have any intention of revising the constituencies again based on the census that is fixed for 26 April 2006?

The Taoiseach:  I do not intend revising the constituencies. The decision to sell part of Aer Lingus is a matter for consultation. Aer Lingus must take advice on the matter. Strictly speaking it does not require legislation but does require regulations which would have to come before the House.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  If the Taoiseach will not revise the constituencies, does that mean he will call an early general election?

Mr. J. Higgins:  He might revise a few promises.

Mr. McCormack:  He will not call a general election. He is too fond of his seat.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  As 1 June is only a week away and the Health Service Executive has decided to withhold increases in pay due to nurses and midwives under——

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

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  It does arise. The pay increases were due under the Sustaining Progress programme and the benchmarking agreement. Does the Taoiseach propose to intervene to avoid a further escalation of the crisis in our hospital and accident and emergency services?

An Ceann Comhairle:  That does not arise on the Order of Business. I suggest the Deputy submit a question to the Minister for Health and Children.

Ms O. Mitchell:  I have raised this question several times but we are now perilously close to causing ourselves major international embarrass[1722]ment and losing the contract at Shannon Airport for an aircraft registry under the International Interests in Mobile Equipment (Cape Town Convention) Bill 2005. The Seanad has passed the legislation but it has not proceeded further. We do not know where it is. This matter is critical now. When will it come before the House? We are running out of legislative time.

The Taoiseach:  It is on Second Stage but I assume the Deputy is asking whether we can take it and finalise it.

Ms O. Mitchell:  It has not come into this House. The Seanad finished with it some weeks ago.

The Taoiseach:  It is listed for Second Stage in this House. I will ask the Government Whip to check on that. It probably has not started yet.

Ms O. Mitchell:  It is important.

The Taoiseach:  I accept that.

Ms O. Mitchell:  It is urgent.

Ms Lynch:  Is the Taoiseach concerned about the withdrawal of all the disability representative groups from the disability legislation consultation group, leaving only the service providers?

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

Mr. Gilmore:  Has the Government approved the strategic national infrastructure Bill, or whatever it is called? When will the debate on housing, which I have sought for some time, take place in the House? The last time I asked about this debate the Taoiseach said the Government was preparing proposals on the matter.

The Taoiseach:  The Cabinet has not yet dealt with the strategic national infrastructure Bill. I hope we will deal with it over the next week or two. I promised the Deputy we will have the debate on housing so I will check on a date for that debate.

Mr. Boyle:  In light of recent reports about the effect of moneylending, particularly on lone parent families, when we will have a debate on the Money Advice and Budgeting Service Bill? An order for Second Stage has been moved.

The Taoiseach:  That topic was the subject of a long question during Priority Questions today, if I heard the debate correctly.

Mr. McCormack:  We did not get as far as any questions.

The Taoiseach:  That was the question. There is an order for Second Stage so it is a matter of [1723]when it can be taken in the House. It is ready to be taken.

Mr. Boyle:  The Taoiseach might give it some further consideration.

Mr. Howlin:  In 2003 the Tánaiste and then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment promised a comprehensive Bill to revise the mechanism for the issuing of work permits, including a green card system. In the light of the litany of abuses uncovered since then, when will we see that Bill?

The Taoiseach:  The Bill is to be published in this session. It is almost ready. It is in the final stages of drafting and will be published soon.

Mr. M. Higgins:  The programme for Government includes the national monuments Bill. When will that legislation be introduced? The present Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government does not seem to accept that the Minister with responsibility for heritage should make his opinions known after the planning process.

What has happened to the diplomatic relations and immunities (amendment) Bill which has been on the list of proposed legislation for some time? Does the Government intend to drop it entirely? It could have been on the list for almost a decade.

The Taoiseach:  The heads of the national monuments Bill have been approved. Revisions and a new round of consultations were required following the enactment of the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 2004, and the reorganisation of some of the heritage responsibilities.

Mr. M. Higgins:  They are being run down.

The Taoiseach:  The Bill is to be ready next year. The diplomatic relations and immunities (amendment) Bill will be circulated in this session.

Mr. Broughan:  Will new legislation be required for the introduction of the new postal codes? Is the Taoiseach certain that the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey has done all his research into that matter given the experience we had with the introduction of electronic voting? When will the Government give relief to the An Post pensioners who have waited 27 months for their wage increases?

An Ceann Comhairle:  That does not arise on the Order of Business. I suggest the Deputy submit a question to the appropriate Minister.

Mr. Broughan:  I am sick of submitting questions. I want to ask the Taoiseach.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I will call on the Deputies who tabled questions on the tragic bus crash in County Meath to the Minister for Education and Science in the order in which they submitted their questions to my office.

  Ms O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the steps she intends to take to review the safety of the school bus fleet in view of the shocking accident involving a school bus in which five young girls lost their lives; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

  Mr. Crowe    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if she will review the safety of school transport in the wake of the bus tragedy in County Meath in which five persons died; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

  Ms O. Mitchell    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if, following the tragic accident that left five persons dead and many more critically injured she will immediately end the practice whereby one out of every three children is permitted to stand in a moving bus; if she will commence a programme of seat belt installation in all school bus services; if she will end the practice whereby buses considered unfit for normal passenger services are diverted to the transportation of schoolchildren; if she will ensure a full, speedy and transparent investigation into the cause of this accident and the lessons to be learned from same.

  Ms Shortall    asked the Minister for Education and Science    to outline the steps she will take to address the issue of safety on school buses in light of the tragic accident in County Meath yesterday.

  Mr. Sargent    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the response of the Government to the horrific school bus crash on 23 May 2005 in Navan, County Meath; the need to revisit the recommendations of measures to improve safety in school buses made in relevant reports published by various bodies including the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science between 1990 and 1999.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Miss de Valera):  I offer my sincere sympathy to the parents, families and friends of those who were killed in the appalling and tragic road accident at Cannistown yesterday. I also sympathise with those who are injured and their families. The country has been shocked by this event which has cut short the lives of five girls who had everything to live for and who were journeying from their close-knit school communities to their homes and families. It is a heart-
rending tragedy which has left no one unmoved.

[1725]I extend my gratitude to the emergency services, which responded so quickly and magnificently to this accident. Their contribution has been tremendous and has alleviated much pain and suffering. The speed of the response and the degree of co-operation between the ambulance service, doctors, nurses, the Garda and all concerned was exemplary. Similarly, the level of support the people affected have received from their communities has been a source of inspiration to everyone. It has been a terrible time for those local communities but their cohesion and sense of neighbourliness has offered real solace to the families involved.

Psychologists from the National Education Psychological Service visited the local schools affected this morning to support teachers and pupils through this traumatic period. The best advice given to us is that these pupils need a secure place and familiar surroundings in which to grieve and to come to terms with the effect this accident has had on their young minds. We are all conscious of the affect such a horrific experience would have on these young people and are doing all we can to counsel and support them. The NEPS personnel have been trained to cope with this type of situation and know the best way to deal with the various reactions such an event will evoke in young people.

In regard to the accident, its causes and the issue of safety, I must be circumspect in terms of making any premature judgment before the results of the Garda, Bus Éireann and Health and Safety Authority investigations are available. The factors which have contributed to this devastating accident must clearly be analysed and examined before we consider the appropriate action to take. The safety record of the school bus service is very good. The regulations and the underlying policy governing buses in general and school buses, in particular, take this record into account. It is also a good record because of the skill of school bus drivers and the expertise of Bus Éireann, which administers the service.

Bus Éireann operates the school transport service on behalf of the Department of Education and Science. It is a massive transport operation which covers over 40 million miles each year. More than 138,000 children, including 8,000 with special needs, are transported every day to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country. If, following the three investigations to which I have referred, it is found necessary to change existing regulations or policies because of the outcome of this incident, I assure the House that this will be done.

Existing regulations which do not require the fitting or use of seat belts in buses, including school buses, and permit seating three school children to two seats have been criticised in the past and have been the subject of recommendations for change. Having regard to these, my Department has been in discussion with Bus Éireann about its proposal to phase out the three for two arrangement in the next two or three [1726]years. This is not just in response to yesterday’s tragic accident; it has been an ongoing process. We would like to see the changes implemented, particularly because many more older students travel on school buses than did so when the policy was adopted more than 30 years ago. The fact remains that safety on school buses has been vastly superior during this period to the general level of safety of children in respect of other forms of road transport.

EU Directive 2003/20 requires seat belts to be used where they are fitted. This directive must be transposed into national law by 9 May 2006. From that date, the three for two rule will no longer apply in respect of any school buses that are fitted with safety belts. No date has yet been set for proposals which are being progressed at EU level that will extend the requirement for seat belts to be fitted to all seats in all vehicles, with the exception of buses used on stage-stop routes. When this requirement becomes law, all new school buses registered from that future date will require to be fitted with seat belts. It is not expected this directive, which is in preparation, will provide any mandatory retrofitting of seat belts in existing buses. The practicality of retrofitting on safety grounds is questionable.

In regard to the use of seat belts, the investigations to which I have referred will deal with this issue and I am reluctant to pre-empt their finding. However, the use of seat belts on school buses is not as straightforward as some people imagine. Designing seat belts to fit four year olds and 17 year olds which can be easily escaped from if a bus is inverted or on fire and ensuring compliance in the use of such belts are problematic issues which must be addressed. The existing safety record of the school bus service has provided the rationale for the existing policy. If that policy needs to be changed, this will be done.

Measures are being taken to improve safety. In January I initiated a warning flashing light pilot scheme on school buses. These lights reduce the risk of accidents in the vicinity of buses as pupils descend and where safety research has shown the majority of accidents occur. It is planned to roll out the scheme on a phased basis to other parts of the country following a successful evaluation of that pilot project. The question of introducing legislation to require motorists to slow down on approaching a school bus showing flashing lights is also being examined. This can be done by statutory instrument.

I emphasise that an older bus does not mean an unsafe bus. All buses in the school transport fleet, both those operated by Bus Éireann and those privately owned, are checked annually for road worthiness. No bus which is unsafe or dangerous is allowed on to the road to carry children. This tragic accident has been a traumatic experience for all affected.

I sincerely wish all the injured students and their families well. Our thoughts, prayers and condolences are particularly with the families of [1727]those young girls who went out to school yesterday but who, sadly, did not return.

Ms O’Sullivan:  I thank the Minister of State for her response and I acknowledge the visit by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, to the area last night. All our thoughts are with the families, the children who were in the bus, their friends, school colleagues, teachers and the communities affected.

I acknowledge that there is no indication that alterations to the school bus would have made any difference in regard to the accident. We await the results of the three investigations. However, people expect us to raise questions today. Listening to the Joe Duffy show today as I was driving to Dublin, people, while thinking of the families, were raising questions about the safety of school buses for the children who travel on them every day.

In the spirit of trying to ensure the House can collectively reach conclusions on this issue, I wish to raise some questions with the Minister of State. In reply to a question tabled on 26 April, she informed me that the review of the school transport scheme was at an advanced stage. When does she expect that review to be completed? In regard to the EU directive which is to be implemented from May 2006, I am seeking an assurance that the Government will not seek a derogation. I understand there is a possibility of derogations being allowed. People want assurances that whatever measures are proposed will be implemented.

What is the projected cost of getting rid of the three for two system, whereby three children can occupy two seats in a bus, and the related question of installing seat belts in school buses? A figure of €57 million was suggested but I am not sure where that figure comes from or whether it is the €14 million per annum suggested following the Oireachtas joint committee report in 1999. Will the Minister of State clarify whether that is the appropriate figure? I believe I echo the views of everybody in the House and of people in general when I say this is not a large amount for ensuring the safety of children in school buses. I acknowledge the points made by the Minister of State that there may be technical issues to be examined but nevertheless these should not be an obstacle to ensuring children are safe in school buses.

A letter received by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science in response to questions raised about school transport stated the average age of the fleet is 15.5 years. The committee was also informed the cost of retro-fitting seat belts would be approximately €38,000 per bus. Will the Minister of State clarify those points?

There is a strong feeling that whatever the cost, the Government would have the full backing not only of all parties in this House but also of all the people. Lessons must be learned from this tragic accident. I acknowledge it may not have made the [1728]slightest difference if changes had been made to the bus in question but it would be a fitting monument, if that is the right word, if lessons were learned from this tragic accident.

Miss de Valera:  The Deputy has raised a number of very salient points. Before I address those I wish to update the House on events in Navan. I went to Navan hospital today at 9.30 a.m. to attend a meeting with the principals of the four schools, their career guidance counsellors, hospital staff, the health professionals from the region, representatives of the vocational education committee, Bus Éireann and the National Educational Psychological Service from the Department of Education and Science. The meeting was chaired by Boyd Dodds, the child care manager for County Meath.

The first priority of the meeting was an update on the medical condition of the pupils concerned and then to draw together the counselling strands. Everyone is concerned for the siblings of the children who, sadly, have died or have been injured, their parents, the pupils who were on the bus and those in the school community who may also be affected. Concern was also expressed for the teachers, who are in the difficult position of having to show leadership while also suffering from trauma, and the members of the small community. There was a desire that the many strands to the counselling services would not be used only on a short-term basis in the school or hospital situation but would be available on an ongoing basis for as long as any individual needed that counselling. It is important to ensure that counselling is not an intrusion into the lives of families or individuals as it may suit some people and others may not wish to avail of it.

For the information of the House, 12 psychologists from the National Educational Psychological Service of the Department of Education and Science attended at the four schools this morning. Two extra counsellors will link in as a floating resource. It is proposed that not only will counselling take place within the secondary schools affected but also in local primary schools because many siblings may need that help. The question of examinations was raised at the meeting because, sadly, four of the students who died in the crash were due to sit State examinations. This will obviously impinge on their friends and colleagues within the school.

With regard to the questions raised by Deputy O’Sullivan, the directive to which I referred in my initial remarks has a bearing on both the Departments of Education and Science and Transport. The Department of Transport lays down the rules and regulations with which the Department of Education and Science must comply in running the school bus system. There is every intention that both Departments will get together on this directive and I do not believe there will be any wish for derogation but rather a wish to implement the directive.

[1729]On the question of the retro-fitting of seat belts, like the Deputy, I believed this was possible until I received oral reports from those with engineering experience in Bus Éireann. They explained it was neither possible nor wise to attempt to retro-fit buses with seat belts because this could be more dangerous and could lead to more accidents. The best way to supply seat belts on buses is at the manufacturing stage.

The issue of seat belts and the issue of the three to two system of seating are inextricably linked. As I stated in my initial reply, I and my officials have had discussions with Bus Éireann on the phasing out of the three for two seating within three years. It is a question of phasing out the seating arrangement and phasing in seat belts.

The review was referred to by Deputy O’Sullivan. The Department is awaiting clarification on ongoing issues such as the interpretation of the directive from the Department of Transport. The other issue is the information on the retro-fitting of seat belts. We want answers on those issues because they are very pertinent to the question being asked.

The age of the school bus fleet is of concern to the public. There is no question at any time of any bus being used as a school bus that is not perfectly roadworthy. An independent maintenance check is performed annually on all school buses.

There has been an increase in funding over the years for school transport. The provision of a younger batch of buses has been achieved. In 1999 Bus Éireann purchased a large number of vehicles as part of an ongoing programme for replacement of the school bus fleet. From 1999 to 2003 Bus Éireann transferred 400 large capacity buses from the general service fleet into the dedicated school fleet. The bus involved in this tragic accident was a 1993 bus. There is no question of putting any bus on the road at any time if it is not safe for the carriage of young students to school.

The Deputy referred to an amount of €57 million, but I believe it is probably in excess of €60 million at this stage. Naturally new buses will need to be brought on stream once the one seat for each passenger rule is introduced, at which time the requirement for seat belts should also be introduced. It could cost considerably more than that figure, which is merely an estimate at this stage. I hope that answers Deputy O’Sullivan’s questions.

Mr. Crowe:  I join other Deputies in expressing my deepest sympathies to the families of the five children who died yesterday. I recently spoke to a colleague of mine, one of whose children was on the bus. As other speakers have said, as well as expressing sympathy we also have a responsibility to assess what needs to be done and if possible to prevent a recurrence of such a tragedy. I welcome what the Minister of State has said about counselling for the parents, pupils etc. I accept the emergency services acted quickly. The difficulty is that for local people it is still very raw [1730]and at this stage people do not want to go into the detail of exactly what happened. They want to think more in terms of burying their loved ones and trying to come together as a community. However, we have a responsibility not only to these families but also to other families in the future.

The Minister of State spoke about the bus fleet including some 15 year old buses, which are checked annually. Is the Minister of State confident that it is sufficient to check them once a year? While it is not related to this accident, I have talked to some bus drivers who talk of the maintenance and safety record within their garages. The Minister of State should inquire as to how often inspectors from the Health and Safety Authority visit the bus garages where such maintenance takes place. A separate outside body usually checks trucks and other vehicles on the road.

However, in the case of buses, Bus Átha Cliath and Bus Éireann usually carry out their own checks. As part of the safety review, the Minister of State should consider this aspect.

I asked a similar question about safety belts in the past and we are all wondering whether this was a factor. In 2003 I asked the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, his views on the serious implications for children travelling on school buses without seat belts and he replied that after an extended consultation a large number of responses were received, which he said were being reviewed with a view to identifying a range of specific proposals for implementation. Were such proposals identified and if so which, if any, were implemented? I know I am putting the Minister of State on the spot. However, if a report was completed, I would be interested in knowing its proposals. I accept that the Minister of State has stated that seat belts will be introduced on 9 May 2006. In light of this accident will the Minister of State bring forward their introduction?

While it is not specific to this case, it is pertinent to the debate. Some drivers and their shop stewards have told me of cases where drivers who report sick, even with a letter from a doctor, may come under pressure from management to go out and drive a bus. While this may be a question for the line manager, the matter needs to be reviewed, especially in cases where children travel on those buses. If drivers express concerns about the safety of a bus in which something might not be working, does that bus go out or is it up to the management or drivers to decide whether the bus should go out? I understand the pressure on management; if a bus does not arrive the children do not get to school.

I will understand if the Minister of State needs to kick to touch today. However, as part of any inquiry, questions about health and safety in particular need to be answered. I ask the Minister of State to use her good offices to talk to the Health and Safety Authority to ascertain how often its inspectors visit such premises.

[1731]Miss de Valera:  As the Deputy will appreciate this case is under review and the Health and Safety Authority will complete one of three investigations to take place. The Deputy can be assured that safety is a priority within the Department of Education and Science, as it must be. In any general overview we will reconsider the procedures regarding testing. The survey by Bus Éireann of the seating capacity on school buses estimated that just 14% of passengers were being carried on buses with a three for two seating arrangement. I believe this statistic puts matters in a certain light in this debate. I was asked about the cost of abolishing the three for two seating arrangement. I am advised it would cost €18 million over two years.

I inadvertently failed to mention the average age of the buses in response to Deputy O’Sullivan’s question, and Deputy Crowe also asked about it. My information is that the average age of buses is 16 years. However, this is the lowest average age since 1990.

Ms O. Mitchell:  I thank the Minister of State for her initial statement. I am conscious that this is a time of intense heartbreak for the families of the girls who were killed and a time of heartbreak and huge worry for the parents of those children who were injured and whose outcomes are still unknown. I also accept the Minister of State's comment that it is far too soon to understand the circumstances that gave rise to the accident or to decide what specific action is required as a result of any investigation that might take place. However, it raises the question of the general laxity in respect of road safety, particularly in this regard.

I ask the Minister of State to refer back to the many reports both from her Department and the Oireachtas joint committee report completed by my colleague, Deputy Naughten, as far back as six years ago, which recommended the ending of the three for two arrangement. While I very much welcome the fact that the Minister of State has said that she now wants to phase it out within three years or so, if that report had been heeded we would have been ten years into that programme by the time it is now envisaged this will be completed. Many lives could have been saved if the report had been heeded at the time.

I am concerned at the suggestion that seat belts are not safe for children. When I carry passengers, including children, in my car, I have a duty of care to ensure they are strapped in. Is it not strange that the State does not have a similar duty of care when it moves children in public buses that provide school transport services? If it is regarded as safe to require me to strap children into my car, why is it suddenly suggested that it is not safe in buses? I accept that children are different sizes, but so are adults, and that applies to cars also. Whether in cars or buses, one would imagine that the same safety considerations would apply.

[1732]I would also like to refer to the question of the coming EU directive. Much has been made of it in the media, which suggested that it would require the use of seat belts in those vehicles that have them and that, in future, buses would need to be fitted with them. Since we have had many reports recommending the same thing, why should we have to wait for the EU to tell us what to do in that regard? Is it not absolutely imperative that we start now? I understand that it cannot be done overnight, but a beginning must be made. There have been various estimates of the amount that it would cost, but they were extreme, being based on the idea that 880 buses would be required. That is only if every single route were carrying the maximum number of passengers, and that is clearly not the case. A beginning could be made for far less than the media are currently suggesting.

The other point that I wished to make concerns the retro-fitting of seat belts and the age of buses being used by the school bus service. It seems perverse that what is not good enough to carry ordinary passengers in the public bus service is considered all right for the transport of children. I accept that an MOT examination is conducted each year and that the buses are mechanically safe to go on the roads, but is it not possible that, as no test is carried out on the bodywork or the vehicle cabin in which passengers are transported, they may not be of an acceptable standard? The Minister of State may recall examples of children falling out of the back of buses because they pushed out a window. Standards that might have been acceptable for bus bodywork ten, 15 or 20 years ago might not be acceptable now and would certainly not be acceptable in the cars or buses being manufactured today. Although they may be mechanically roadworthy, that is different from saying that they are safe for transporting children.

As a result of this accident, perhaps the Minister will examine the decommissioning of buses not manufactured to accept seat belts. That seems an absolute minimum move. Other moves may be required, such as the mandatory use of seat belts and the ending of the three for two system. We should remove from the roads any of the older buses unfit even for the retro-fitting of seat belts. Their bodywork would no longer be of an acceptable standard, regardless of their mechanical safety.

Miss de Valera:  Regarding the testing of vehicles, they must obviously be roadworthy. The Deputy referred to the retro-fitting of seat belts, and it is very important to make the point once again that I have been told that it is not a solution, in the sense that it is much safer to have buses with seat belts installed as part of their manufacture. I certainly take on board what the Deputy said regarding enforcement, but that is a lesser issue. On the three for two system, it is not only now in light of this tragedy that we are pushing the issue along, talks are ongoing between the [1733]Department and Bus Éireann to phase it out within three years.

The question of not having seat belts is relevant not only to school buses. There is no law to say that seat belts should be installed in any such buses, regardless of their use. I mentioned that I had brought about the flashing lights initiative because all the research told us that the greatest danger for students was not when inside the bus but when getting on and off. I contacted the Department some time ago to ask it to conduct a trial of new buses fitted with seat belts. One of the buses was manufactured in Ireland and the other in Turkey. They were run in counties Meath and Kildare and tested by the children for their suitability. The children certainly accepted that seat belts had to be worn. There did not seem to be any great problem with enforcement. There has therefore been movement on those issues.

Regarding Bus Éireann’s acquisition of other buses and lowering the age of the fleet, the company would contact various British cities to buy some of their used buses. However, that procedure is to be discontinued since those buses would obviously not be fitted with seat belts. We have decided to look elsewhere to fulfil that provision.

It has tentatively been suggested that, regarding the three for two system, the cost of replacing the Bus Éireann fleet with new school buses would be approximately €100 million. There will be additional costs when private contractors are taken into account. Another practical problem is that the sourcing of a large number of new right-hand-drive buses could present a major logistical problem, at least in the short term.

Mr. Sargent:  I thank the Minister of State for her reply to our questions. I hope that there will be an element of common purpose between all parties in learning lessons that should be clearly spelt out following the investigation, which is of course at a very early stage. This is a sensitive time, given the tragedy regarding which we expressed our sympathy on the Order of Business, the loss of five children’s lives and the injury of many others.

As is well known, in 1998 or 1999, Deputy Naughten and I put forward a large number of recommendations on behalf of the Joint Committee on Education and Science following a meeting with many interested parties from transport and education, including parents, and taking account of school children’s interests. Perhaps the Minister of State will say how many have been acted on to date. The most basic was the abolition of the three for two system. Was that taken on board at the time? Has it been the subject of debate since 1999 or was it left aside until recently? Does the Minister of State acknowledge that the report that was published in 1999, under the then chairmanship of Senator Michael Kitt, was agreed by all parties and that it was urgently [1734]requested that its recommendations be implemented? Will she indicate the extent to which the recommendation on one to one seating has been taken into account, whether the recommendation relating to adequate storage for baggage — particularly that of children attending secondary school — on buses has been taken into account and whether the recommendation on harnesses for children with special needs travelling on school buses has been fully implemented? Regardless of the financial constraints relating to the fitting of seat belts fitted to all buses, we were of the view that the provision of such harnesses should be dealt with immediately. Where stands the recommendation relating to certificates of roadworthiness? I accept the assurance of the Minister of State and that of Bus Éireann that the buses are well maintained. However, parents should, by merely looking at the windscreen of a bus, be in a position to see that recent maintenance work has been carried out and that all safety standards have been met.

The Minister of State referred to flashing lights when school buses stop. Is she aware that the recommendation in the report was to look closely at the practices in the US? When a school bus stops in the US to allow children get on or off, all traffic in the vicinity must come to a halt. Red strobe lights flash to indicate that the bus has stopped and that children may be getting on or off. When will these recommendations re-examined?

I listened carefully to what the Minister of State said about the EU directive that must be transposed into national law by 9 May 2006. She indicated that she wished that there be no derogation. I accept that her wish is heartfelt. Is she, however, in a position to indicate whether there will be a derogation? May we rest assured that there will be no derogation beyond 9 May 2006?

Miss de Valera:  There will be further discussions between my Department and the Department of Transport in respect of the directive. The position relating to regulations depends on that Department but I am aware of the feeling of the House on the issue, particularly in the aftermath of yesterday’s events.

The Deputy pointed out that there were many recommendations in the report published in 1999. One of these dealt with the age of school buses, which we are trying to reduce. I am informed that the average age of buses is 16 years, I reiterate that this remain the lowest since 1990.

A handsome budget of €117 million is provided annually for school transport and 30% of this is specifically aimed at students with special needs. Of the 138,000 school children who use school buses, 8,000, or 6%, have special needs.

The Deputy made the point that in the US, cars come to a halt behind school buses. The whole purpose of implementing the initiative with flashing lights was to remind motorists that they had [1735]to take extreme care as children would be alighting from buses. There is a mechanism that we can implement to introduce legislation to ensure that due care is taken by motorists. I will consider the point raised by the Deputy that cars should come to a full halt. As far as I am aware, the requirement to wear seat belts in school buses only applies to three states in the US.

Mr. McEntee:  As a parent of a child who attends one these schools, I would like to acknowledge the fantastic service put into place yesterday to help those who were injured in the accident. It is a traumatic time for the neighbouring parishes because there are 3,000 to 4,000 children involved. It has not been an easy morning but we appreciated the visits of the relevant Ministers last night who called to houses in the area. I encourage Members to visit the people of the area, particularly those in Beauparc.

This is the second time that a school in the Navan area has had to suffer the death of loved ones. This happened in an area where road works were taking place. Can the Minister of State ask the relevant Departments to ensure that all precautions are taken when road works are being carried out? Nobody knows what happened. However, what happened twice can happen three times. Help given to the area must be extended to the Drogheda area, as many boys from Beauparc go to school in Drogheda and they will definitely need support. Everything must be done to ensure that children sitting their exams are given adequate support. No money should be spared to facilitate these children.

Miss de Valera:  Any psychological help needed will be forthcoming in the short and long term. As the Deputy pointed out, areas further afield have also been affected. Where pupils, teachers and members of the community need counselling, it will be provided. We are not yet sure if the road works in the area had any part to play in the accident but that will be part of the investigation. I understand why the Deputy is making that point, particularly in view of the nature of the other accident to which he referred.

  6 o’clock

Mr. J. Brady:  I sympathise with the bereaved and wish the injured a speedy recovery. Yesterday was a black day for County Meath. We all recognise the effect this will have on the bereaved families and the other pupils. Like previous speakers, I compliment the staff of the emergency services on reacting so rapidly. Those to whom I spoke last night and others who were interviewed for radio had the highest praise for the services supplied by the Health Service Executive, the county council, the Garda Síochána and so on. The hospital staff, in particular, have worked tremendously through the night to tend to the injured.

[1736]I also compliment the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, and those other Ministers who travelled to Navan last night and ensured that services were in place for the students this morning. Will the Minister for State indicate when the three reports will be completed?

Miss de Valera:  The relevant investigations are under way but I am unable to say when the three reports to which the Deputy refers will be available.

Ms Enright:  I join colleagues in offering my sympathies to the five bereaved families, their communities and the schools affected by this dreadful accident. I support the point made by Deputy Olivia Mitchell that Ireland should move ahead, with or without the relevant EU directive. We should go forward in whatever way we can, particularly in regard to the seat belt issue. I accept the Minister of State’s point about the difficulties involved in retrofitting. However, I am sure that in light of modern engineering methods there are ways to circumvent these. Such methods may be more expensive but I ask the Minister of State to investigate them.

In February 2004, Deputy Naughten and I asked the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, about the review of school transportation which he was undertaking at that time. I was told in November that this review was being finalised. When is it likely to be completed? How far have discussions on the three for two seating arrangement progressed between the Department and Bus Éireann? We do not yet know the circumstances of yesterday’s accident but there is a general issue in terms of supervision on school buses. Difficulties are likely to arise in situations where the driver is the only person in authority. Will the Minister examine this issue?

The dates for the leaving and junior certificate exams are set far in advance but I ask that everything possible be done to bring some relief to those students who must endure the aftermath of yesterday’s terrible events.

Miss de Valera:  I share Deputy Enright’s concern in regard to her final point and it is the reason I have put so much emphasis on the need for counselling. All Members agree such counselling will be vital in the coming months and beyond for many of the pupils affected. The period before the State examinations is particularly difficult for students in normal circumstances.

My Department is engaged in ongoing discussions with Bus Éireann on the three for two seating arrangement. We are working towards a situation where this system, which only applies to some 14% of school buses, will be gone within three years.

[1737]The question of discipline on buses is perhaps a matter for separate discussion. It is an issue I am sure will be debated in this House in terms of our consideration of how best to ensure the provision of a satisfactory school transport service.

In regard to the report to which Deputy Enright referred, I already pointed out that we require clarification of a number of issues, not least the question of retrofitting. The issues that will undoubtedly arise out of the three investigations may well form part of that review.

Mr. Naughten:  I echo the sentiments of all Members in extending my sympathies to the families, relatives and friends of those who sadly lost their lives yesterday. We must go through due process in regard to this tragedy and it important that we do not jump to conclusions. There must be a full and thorough investigation into all the circumstances surrounding the accident.

The focus of today’s discussion relates to seating but the Minister of State is correct in her observation that the vast majority, more than 90%, of accidents happen within the vicinity of, rather than on, school buses. In this context, I ask her to consider the introduction of legislation to make it illegal for any vehicle to overtake a school bus when children are boarding or alighting.

I understand the annual maintenance check does not include the passenger area of a school bus. This is a significant weakness in terms of the maintenance of safety standards. Are any of the second-hand school buses purchased from a scrap yard in Singapore still in service? If so, is it planned to decommission them?

There has been much comment on the EU proposals in regard to seat belts. Will the Minister of State indicate how many of the 12,000 school buses currently in service, other than those catering for pupils with special educational needs, are fitted with seat belts? I understand the percentage is quite low.

The second EU proposal that is currently under consideration relates to the provision of seat belts on all newly registered school buses. I understand it is nearly 30 years since a new bus was registered for the general school service. Does the Minister of State agree that legislation is required to stipulate that all newly commissioned school buses which are transferred from the passenger fleet must have seat belts fitted retrospectively?

Dr. Cowley:  I also extend my sincere sympathy to the families bereaved by this terrible tragedy. As the father of young daughters, this accident affects me deeply. Some may argue that now is not the time to investigate the cause of this tragedy. However, we have to highlight these dangerous situations for other road users.

[1738]On 24 February, I spoke about the case of a young girl called Aisling Gallagher who was killed on 22 December 2004 in a traffic accident on a road which was covered in dense bitumen macadam, DBM, and to which no surface dressing was applied. The circumstances of the accident in County Meath are similar. Aisling Gallagher’s father informed me earlier that he had visited the scene of yesterday’s tragedy and found the setting to be a replica of that of his daughter’s accident. The road had just been tarred. It is stated in one of this evening’s newspapers that “In the hour before the crash, which happened near Kentstown at around 4.20 p.m. yesterday, there were serious rain showers and sources said the bad weather and fresh tarmacadam would have made the road surface very slippy.” Roads covered in DBM should have a surface dressing. Otherwise, they are very slippy after wet weather. There should have been clearly visible signs on this road to notify motorists that they should not exceed 50 km/h. There were no such signs on that road.

How many more people must die before something is done about this? In reply to a question I put to him on this issue, the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, said that only 2.5% of accidents are due to road conditions. I contend that this is a significant underestimation. I was told that 377 people died on our roads in 2002. If 2.5% of this figure, nine people, died for any other reason we would need to know the cause. While I am not saying road conditions were the total cause of the accident, it may well have been so. It appears that the driver braked going around a bend as two cars were travelling along the other side of the road.

Will the Minister of State review this situation and examine road conditions throughout Ireland? How many more have died and will die before this situation is resolved? While this is a time for expressions of sensitivity to the families concerned, the issue remains extremely important. A lack of action after the last incident was highlighted on the Pat Kenny show. The Minister of State, Deputy Callely, asked for more information on the accident in Mulranny, County Mayo and I gave it to him. Five died in yesterday’s accident. We do not want any further accidents, especially those which arise because somebody forgot to lay surface dressing where it was clearly required.

Miss de Valera:  To alleviate the fears of Deputies with regard to maintenance, the structure of buses is tested as part of the process of determining roadworthiness. My information is that the fleet no longer includes Singapore buses. Bus speeds are controlled in that they cannot go faster than a certain limit determined by the proper procedures for driving a school bus.

[1739]Minister for Education and Science (Ms Hanafin):  Ba mhaith liom an deis a ghlacadh chun mo chomhbhrón pearsanta a ghabháil le chuile dhuine. I pay particular tribute to all those involved with the emergency services last night, not only for the medical care they provided but also for the social concern and care that was shown to everybody at the scene of the incident and in the hospitals. My sympathies go to the families of the five young girls who tragically lost their lives and to all the injured.

As Minister for Education and Science, I particularly mention the leadership shown by the principals and the courage and strength shown by the teachers who, despite being traumatised, prepared themselves for the role they knew they must play in the schools over the next few days. They will work with the National Educational Psychological Service and the other services which are co-operating in an unprecedented manner to ensure that a co-ordinated plan is put in place. We will be happy to provide all the support we can to the school staff in their work to protect these young students.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Deputy Ó Snodaigh is not present to move amendment No. 20 and it therefore falls, amendments Nos. 21 and 22 cannot be moved, Deputy Ó Snodaigh is not present to move amendment No. 23 either so it also falls, amendments Nos. 24 to 28, inclusive, are out of order, Deputy Ó Snodaigh is not present to move amendment No. 29 either so it falls, and amendment No. 30 is out of order.

Amendments Nos. 20 to 30, inclusive, not moved.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Amendments Nos. 31, 32 and 199b may be discussed together.

Mr. Stanton:  I move amendment No. 31:

In page 9, to delete lines 32 and 33 and substitute the following:

“6.—The Minister shall—

(a) carry out a review this Act, in particular the definition of disability, within a maximum period of 2 years of operation or 3 years of enactment, whichever is the soonest,

(b) for the purpose of assisting him or her in making such a review under this section, consult any such organisations or representatives as he or she considers appropriate,

(c) where a review is carried out under paragraph (a) cause a copy of the review to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and the changes proposed in the review shall not be made until a resol[1740]ution approving the changes has been passed by each House.”.

This amendment calls for a review of the Act, particularly in the context of the definition of disability, within a maximum period of two years of operation or three years after enactment, whichever is soonest. The definition of disability contained within this legislation has been subject to considerable criticism from all sides. This is important legislation which we hope will greatly improve the situation for people with disabilities. It would be shameful if people were overlooked by the Bill. Within a few years, the majority of Members will have moved to other portfolios. The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, will have moved on. This House will change after a general election and the ensuing make-up will be unknown. An opportunity currently exists to include in this legislation a mechanism to review the Act and, in particular, the definition of disability.

The second part of the amendment concerns consulting appropriate organisations or representatives, which would happen as part of such a review. The final part calls for the review to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas. Legislation could not be changed before being approved by the Houses.

This amendment is important because the Bill may be flawed in its definition of disability. A number of years may pass before the opportunity arises to rectify the exclusion of people resulting from this definition. While amending legislation may be introduced during the interim, my amendment provides an opportunity to focus attention on this matter. The Bill, once enacted, will run for three years before a review is conducted. We would therefore have time to see whether the Bill works properly.

An issue also arose in terms of the funding envelope, which lasts five years. It is important that a review be conducted before the next round of funding comes on stream because that is when decisions are made. Having the review of the operation of the Act available when the next funding envelope is being decided will help direct the funding in an appropriate and focused manner. By this means, we could ensure that the legislation assists people who, owing to the definition, may fall through the net.

I hope the Bill will work and will not exclude people who need assistance. Many learned people have questions on the definition. I know the Minister of State is aware of these views. This is a new definition which has not yet been tested, although it forms part of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. Some claim that the definition is included to restrict the Act and exclude people. The Minister of State said that the definitions contained in the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Equality Act 2004 are different and have other functions. We will [1741]have problems if the function of this definition is to exclude people.

Will dyspraxia sufferers be covered by this legislation? Will the Minister of State explain to the House the blurring of the definitions of “illness” and “disability” in the Bill? Given that one could have a long-term illness, there may be an overlap which is where problems will arise. We will have to determine where illness stops and disability begins. We have already had references to people with multiple sclerosis and episodic conditions such as epilepsy. Many people are concerned about mental health in this context. The Minister of State has been recorded as saying — and he can correct me in a minute if I am wrong — that people with what he termed “normal depression” will not be covered by the Bill. Again, we see a blurring between illness and disability. It can be argued that people who suffer from depression have a disability under the definition in the Bill. We require clarity.

If we find in a few years that people are being omitted, we must have the facility to review and, if necessary, amend the legislation. My amendment achieves this while also making provision for consultation with organisations with an interest in and concerns about the definition set out in the Bill. I urge the Minister of State to reconsider the maximum period in which the House can review the operation of this important legislation. Time out of number, we have found legislation passed by the House to be imperfect. There is always a need to learn more and revisit provisions. Given the importance of the legislation, we must have a way to rectify it if we find it has the effect of excluding people. All Members are aware of the difficulty of introducing amending legislation. I have made my case as strongly as possible. It is important to review the provisions early.

Ms Lynch:  The review period, which was discussed at great length on Committee Stage, is still too long. It should begin after a three-year period. Legislation of this magnitude, which covers in great detail how people will live their lives and have services delivered, will require a 12 to 18-month period to review. Amendment No. 32 seeks to provide that a review would commence in year three and, possibly, be completed by year five. This reasonable proposal would ensure that, whatever occurred in the first three years of the operation of the legislation, problems could be rectified more quickly than if one were required to wait for a five-year period to elapse.

Except in the case of public bodies, the delivery and accessing of services is very much time related. While the Minister of State will contend the Bill contains no flaws, we should assume we are not all perfect. The Minister of State may find it hard to believe but it may have a flaw which even the combined brains of the Opposition have failed to identify. In that context, a five-year [1742]period is too long for a person to wait for a service to be delivered. Even if the period is amended to three years, it will still be five years before changes can be made as a thorough review will take at least 18 months. Amendment No. 32 would ensure the legislation would be under continuous review, which all ground-breaking legislation on services should be anyway. I do not understand why the Minister of State will not agree to a reasonable amendment which would provide the safety net we all seek. Amendment No. 32 would achieve the aims shared by Government and Opposition.

While the Minister of State has reassured Members and is probably as sick of the matter as I am, I remain unconvinced that the wording of the definition of “disability” will serve to include those people I believe will be excluded. Given the Bill’s provisions, if one can carry on a profession, hold a job, participate in cultural and social events and live what most of us would consider to be a normal life, one cannot be included. How could Cearbhall Ó Meadhra, whose example we have constantly used, be determined to be disabled under the current provisions of the Bill?

I was at a meeting yesterday with two people who were very passionate about a document they had produced with which I disagreed. At the end of our discussion, we could still not agree and one of them asked if I could not simply trust them. That is what the Minister of State is asking me to do in this instance. Unfortunately, I cannot as we are dealing with absolutes. If we are operating at the level of detail at which we table amendments to move apostrophes and indefinite articles, it cannot be about trust. Our approach must be based on the content and effect of the Bill’s provisions. I have yet to understand how people who clearly have disabilities but participate in society can be recognised under the legislation as people with disabilities.

The definition in the Bill is too narrow and fails to provide for the flexibility we need as human beings. A person with a mobility difficulty may not necessarily be in a wheelchair and may not suffer from the difficulty on a permanent basis. How are people with multiple sclerosis, for example, included under the legislation? While the Minister of State has informed us repeatedly that they are, I cannot understand how the effect is achieved. If such people are included, I should be able to understand how. I do not understand how the Minister of State can read in legislation that they are included when it clearly excludes people.

I reiterate that the amendment to provide for a three-year review period is a sensible proposal. Will the Minister of State do his best to explain how the legislation can include the people its provisions clearly exclude?

Aengus Ó Snodaigh:  I support this amendment. It is similar to one I had tabled but was not [1743]present in the House to move. It has the same purpose, namely, to call for a review, especially a review of the definition of disability which has been a bone of contention with most of the groups that have made recommendations to amend the legislation to make it a rights-based Bill, which so far is not the case and it is unlikely at this stage that it will so become. If the Minister of State were to accept the amendment, it would give us hope that we could revisit some of the major wrongs that are part of the current wording of the Bill. It would also provide an opportunity for us to revisit the definition of disability and bring it more into line with that in our equality legislation which is inclusive rather than exclusive and therefore encapsulates that under which most people who suffer with disabilities wish to be covered.

I tabled an amendment which was in line with the definition of disability which appeared in the equality legislation. Amendment No. 12 was disallowed because it would place a cost on the Exchequer. The cost would not have been disproportionately greater than that to which the legislation will give rise and it would have meant that we would have an inclusive definition of disability which took account of all disabilities and allowed the services to flow from it which were appropriate to those disabilities. Not all disabilities are the same. The same level of services and resources are not required by everyone with a disability. It would have been preferable if the broader definition had been taken on board, which has not been the case up to now, but it could happen if the Minister of State were to accept amendment No. 31. I urge him to take on board the time period proposed by Deputy Stanton and Deputy Gerard Murphy. Deputy Lynch’s amendment would have the same effect.

I recognise that the Minister of State has allowed an amendment in the past for a review of portions of the legislation after five years. That was a welcome improvement but I want him to go further and adopt these amendments to ensure that the fundamental flaws identified by the disability legislation consultation group regarding the absence of adequate provision for a review of this Bill are addressed. These amendments go some way towards addressing that flaw. It would be a good day’s work if we managed to address that part and it would reflect that the Minister of State was in good humour this week and was willing to listen to what the Opposition proposed.

As I said on the two occasions on which we discussed this Bill, it would bring the proposed legislation more in line with rights-based legislation rather than legislation that is dependent on the whim of the Minister for Finance. The amendment provides the Minister with the opportunity to begin to rein in the Minister for Finance.

[1744]Mr. F. McGrath:  I strongly support amendment No. 32 which states that: “the Minister shall not later than 3 years after the commencement of this Act, carry out a review of the operation of this Act”. It is a most important amendment that would add to the legislation. Not alone does it have the support of Deputy Lynch and the other parties and groups, it also has the support of the disability groups, especially disabled people themselves. In recent months we have spoken to them and have listened to them. I wish the Government had also listened to them. I accept that a series of meetings took place but I would like to see more listening on the part of the Government and the Minister of State. Amendment No. 32 is an important amendment.

From talking to disabled people in recent days, it is apparent that many of them are becoming cheesed off. They wonder if there is any point in amending the legislation and that perhaps it should be rejected in total. For what it is worth I will plough ahead. We will make our decision based on the product that appears at the end of the process. It is important to put on record that all the disability groups and disabled people themselves have major concerns about the legislation. They want us to strongly support amendment No. 32. I am very much in favour of a review being carried out. I spoke last week to some party colleagues of the Minister of State who supported this amendment. They said this to me in private so I will not declare who they are. They strongly urged those in Opposition to support this amendment.

Flaws and gaps already exist in this proposed legislation. I predict that if we do not provide for a review, major problems will appear later. It is important that we try to pre-empt this. In dealing with amendment No. 32, we are talking about the 8% of the population which comprises people with physical and intellectual disabilities. Their concerns are reflected in the amendment. There are also major concerns about the definition of disability.

In terms of services and rights for people with disabilities, I received a phone call from a parent of an autistic child on whose behalf I made representations to the Department of Education and Science four or five weeks ago, I was annoyed to find out that there has still not been any progress towards getting the child a school place next September. During the debate on the Bill in recent weeks, speakers referred to gaps in the provision of services, but what I have referred to is a disgraceful situation. The family of this autistic child is trying to get a guaranteed place in a school for their child. They are planning ahead. They are very creative and sensible people, yet they are getting all this grief.

The battle for rights goes on. When we use the term “rights” we should remind ourselves what we are talking about: our people, citizens, taxpayers, children, parents, friends and relations. It [1745]is not a grandiose term nor is it what some people see as an attempt to introduce soft, liberal, left phraseology into legislation. As I stated last week, we have an opportunity to do something for people with disabilities and it is important that we do so.

We should also reflect on the negativity that exists in certain sections of the community towards people with intellectual disabilities. Residents groups have lobbied against community houses being set up in some areas. These issues should not be taken lightly. Disabled people, especially those with intellectual disabilities, appear to get into difficulty in certain communities. I challenge politicians and those involved in residents groups who object to community houses being built. These houses provide an excellent service which we should all support. Amendment No. 32 proposes that a review should take place three years after the commencement of the legislation. Rights for people with disabilities mean the provision of services and the bringing of real meaning to the definition of the word “inclusion”.

The legal eagles in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform appear to believe that all the difficulties have been sorted out legally and constitutionally for the future. That is not the message we received over the weekend. I believe a number of legal experts in the native county of the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, have stated that there could be trouble in future with the rights issue. They have expressed concerns about the legislation. I remind people about Article 34.1 of the Constitution. I also warn the Minister of State about Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights and also Article 42.4 of the Constitution which deals with appropriate education. Genuine concerns exist in regard to these issues. The Minister of State should accept amendment No. 32. It is progressive and adds teeth to the legislation.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. Fahey):  On Deputy Finian McGrath’s point that the battle for rights goes on, I suggest that the battle for services goes on. I agree with him that there are gaps in the service.

Mr. F. McGrath:  It happens every day.

Mr. Fahey:  I come across them every day.

Mr. F. McGrath:  Where is the €300 million?

Mr. Fahey:  The objective is to provide those services, not to provide rights. The provision of rights does not guarantee that services will be provided.

The Opposition is being a little disingenuous in respect of this amendment. Following what was said on Committee Stage, I introduced an amendment to allow for the review of the operation of the legislation within five years of its commence[1746]ment. In setting that five-year timeframe, I decided to link the timing of the review with the end date for the multi-annual investment programme in 2009. That was in response to the very cogent points that were made by Members and also by the DLCG.

Amendments Nos. 31, 32 and 199b would require a review within three years. As I pointed out on Committee Stage, the legislation, as amended, would allow the review to take place not later than five years after its commencement. I was being specific by including the term “not later than five years” to address the point being made by Deputy Lynch, namely, that the review, if it is felt necessary, should start within three years.

I do not know why there is such concern. I have responded magnanimously to the proposal made on Committee Stage. I am satisfied that I have responded adequately in settling on the wording of the amendment, which states the review must take place not later than five years from the commencement of the Act.

A number of other issues were raised which we dealt with in great detail on Committee Stage. I do not intend to address them again in detail but I will certainly furnish what I have already said to the Deputies concerned. Let us consider, however, two points that were made, one by Deputy Stanton on the definition of mental illness and episodic illness. We have widened the definition to ensure that all forms of disability, including mental illness, are covered. The Deputy referred, for example, to depression. Clinical depression, which is curable medically, is not included in the definition of disability, whereas continuous forms of depression, including bipolar depression and schizophrenia, are covered. It is as simple as that and there is no rocket science involved.

Ms Lynch:  Does the Minister of State mean treatable rather than curable?

Mr. Fahey:  I am using the example of clinical depression, which is treatable and curable. It is not, and was never intended to be, included in the definition of disability. Clinical depression is not a form of disability, whereas the more continuous forms of mental illness, such as those I have mentioned, are disabilities according to the definition. We have widened the definition to ensure that no issue will arise in this respect.

I have dealt with the issues raised by Deputy Lynch in great detail on Committee Stage and do not intend to revisit the debate. I have explained, as well as I can, what is involved in respect of the issues she raised. She gave the example of a person who is able to participate fully in life and implied that he would not be covered by the definition. He would be covered because he still has a disability. The person in question is participating fully in life — we all admire him for this [1747]— but he still has a disability in that he is blind. This includes him in the definition and there is no argument about that. I do not know how many times I will have to explain that conditions such as his are covered by this legislation.

We have been most anxious to respond to the points made by the Deputies and have done so to the greatest extent possible. On Deputy Finian McGrath’s points, there will be lawyers who will want to find this Bill unconstitutional. Some lawyers earn a great deal of money in this way and good luck to them. Some lawyers surprised me in that they earned much money by giving advice to disability groups. If they were genuinely interested, they would surely have provided their services free of charge.

Mr. F. McGrath:  Some are doing that. The Minister of State’s comment is untrue.

Mr. Fahey:  I am quite satisfied with the legal advice available to me to the effect that this Bill is sufficiently robust to withstand any constitutional challenge.

Mr. Stanton:  I have a friend who cannot walk and who is, therefore, in a wheelchair. He has a job and is actually making more money than me because he is highly gifted. He is able to carry on a profession, business or occupation in the State. If one were in this man’s company at night, one would note that he is well able to participate in the social and cultural life of the State. He is great craic and great fun. He receives no services because he does not need them.

Ms Lynch:  Yet.

Mr. Stanton:  He does not need them yet. According to the definition in the Bill——

Mr. Fahey:  When he requires them, he will get them.

Mr. Stanton:  ——he does not have a disability. The legislation states that a disability, in respect of a person, means “a substantial restriction in the capacity of the person to carry on a profession, business or occupation in the State or to participate in social or cultural life in the State”. This does not arise in the case in question. According to the Minister of State’s definition, a man in a wheelchair who cannot walk does not have a disability. That is cockeyed.

The gentleman about whom my colleague Deputy Lynch spoke is adamant, having studied this Bill and being very intelligent, that he is not covered by the definition either.

Mr. Fahey:  He is wrong.

Mr. Stanton:  He says that he is not wrong.

[1748]Mr. Fahey:  The Deputy is wrong to suggest that a person in a wheelchair does not have a disability.

Mr. Stanton:  If the Minister of State is getting upset because we are proving him wrong, I am sorry for him.

According to those who have studied the Bill, the definition excludes people more than it includes them. It excludes many people and is specifically designed to do so. We want the legislation to be reviewed earlier than is proposed. Does the Minister of State want the review to be completed——

Ms Lynch:  Or started.

Mr. Stanton:  ——not later than five years after the commencement of the Act? Will it be started or completed by then? Will the review be completed and on the Minister of State’s desk not later than five years after the commencement of the Act?

Ms Lynch:  When the dual mandate was abolished — one might question what this has to do with the Disability Bill — the relevant legislation stated that local authority management would have to meet, consult and inform Members of the Oireachtas within a 12-month period. The manager of Cork City Council called the relevant Deputies in for consultations on Christmas Eve. He gave us mince pies and mulled wine and told us what was happening in the city. He did so just before the deadline and fulfilled his obligation under the legislation, although I would argue that he did not fulfil his obligation to us. The county manager was somewhat better because he called us in during Christmas week.

The Minister of State said that he has conceded regarding the timeframe and that he expects the review to start not later than five years after the commencement of the Act. Perhaps I am wrong and have a cynic’s view of the world — I do not believe that to be the case — but it is my opinion that those charged with implementing this legislation and providing services will start the review a week before the five years have concluded. That is what concerns me. That is why I would much prefer the Minister of State to say the review should begin after three years from the implementation of this particular legislation. He can understand my position on that. My experience of the legislation abolishing the dual mandate assures me that people will not do something that is against their will unless they absolutely have to and, in the event, it will be at the very last minute. That is why this amendment is important. I accept that the Minister of State has listened to our arguments on Committee Stage. I still believe he needs to set a time well before the five years have concluded.

[1749]Aengus Ó Snodaigh:  I concur with Deputies Stanton and Lynch on this. It is not unreasonable that a review should begin at the end of the third year, on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. It should begin within a maximum of two years of operation or three years from enactment. I would go further and argue that the review should be completed within a set timeframe. We do not have that luxury at this stage, but the review should cover specific areas which the Minister of State has not allowed, as yet. In particular, I have in mind the definition of disability, as mentioned previously.

It is not I or some highly paid lawyer who has come up with the great fact that the disability definition contained within this legislation is at odds with the definition contained within the Equal Status Act or in the employment equality legislation. It is ridiculous that we have several definitions of disability. The definition should be the same across the board. That is what the Opposition, those who took part in the consultative process as well as other organisations such as the Equality Authority sought when this Bill was being put together.

In the February 2003 document, Equal Citizens: Proposals for Core Elements of Disability Legislation, it was felt at that stage that there should be a review within two years of operation or three years since enactment. It also said that there should be a review of the definition of disability using the proposed legislation as well as other provisions. The Minister of State should listen at this stage, take this on board and I hope we can come back in two or three years and correct the wrong he is about to put in place this week.

Mr. Fahey:  A review to take place not later than five years means that it could happen within one month after the legislation being passed.

Ms Lynch:  However, it need not take place for four and a half years.

Mr. Fahey:  That is correct, but the amendment I have brought in allows a review to take place, should that be necessary. The spirit of this amendment is that a review should take place and be completed within five years.

Ms Lynch:  Is that why it says it will be completed within five years?

Mr. Fahey:  If it is to take place not later than five years, then certainly we expect that it will be completed within that time.

Ms Lynch:  No, that is not correct.

Aengus Ó Snodaigh:  No, that is not correct. It looks as if it will be going on for ever and ever.

[1750]Mr. Fahey:  We are beginning to get absurd again with the responses.

Mr. Boyle:  It is the Minister of State’s Bill.

Mr. Fahey:  I will again clarify for Deputy Stanton that a person in a wheelchair who can enjoy full life benefits, as he described, is included in this Bill. That person is limited in his or her capacity because of being in a wheelchair. Such persons are covered by this Bill and it is absurd to assert that someone in a wheelchair is not disabled, as he suggests.

Mr. Stanton:  I do not suggest it. I am just setting out the definition of disability as contained in the Bill. It talks about a “substantial restriction” in the capacity of a person to carry out a business, profession or occupation. If a person can carry out a business, profession or occupation, he or she does not have a substantial restriction and as such is not covered. If the person can enjoy life and is able to become involved in the social or cultural life of the State, then he or she is not provided for in this Bill. The definition says there must be a substantial restriction in the capacity of the person to carry out a business, profession or occupation. I know quite a number of people with impairments, who hold down well paid jobs and who are quite independent. These are not covered in the Bill and they are concerned about this because they see themselves as being excluded and omitted.

The Minister of State did not answer my question, either, about people with dyspraxia, epilepsy and so on. This trend shows that the answers are not available when the questions are raised. For those reasons I am pressing this amendment.

Question, “That the words proposed to be deleted stand”, put and declared carried.

Amendment declared lost.

Amendments Nos. 32 to 37, inclusive, not moved.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Amendments Nos. 38 and 40 are related and will be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Stanton:  I move amendment No. 38:

In page 10, to delete line 6.

I suggest the introduction of a new officer, called the needs officer. We have discussed this already and many people are concerned at what they regard as a major build-up of bureaucracy. There is an assessment officer and a liaison officer. I suggest that both functions could be carried out by the same person. There is no reason this should not happen. On reading the legislation it is clear that the Health Service Executive could appoint one person to do both jobs. One person must carry out an assessment and draw up a state[1751]ment which is presented to a second person who must find out what services are available from the Health Service Executive in the face of all types of restrictions. It is difficult to see how this liaison officer can reconcile the needs of the person with the resource constraints and the Bill fails to set out a method or criteria for doing this.

I would like if the Minister of State could come back to me on this as it is an important point. How is the liaison officer to reconcile the needs of the person with the resource constraints imposed? The Bill is silent on this. The liaison officer must find out from the Health Service Executive what money or resources are available. How can he or she do that, especially if a number of liaison officers are working together? How are they to know what is available? We are putting this into the legislation and it is not clear how it will operate. The resources should be defined by reference to needs rather than the other way around. The latter is happening and is another major flaw in the legislation. I know we are up against time, but I want to challenge the Minister of State on this. Perhaps he could deal with it tomorrow morning. I want him to tell me how the liaison officer is supposed to reconcile the needs of the person exactly with the resource constraints. Liaison officers will be told they can only provided a limited amount, as specified in the budget. How is that going to work? It is written into the legislation very tightly.

Debate adjourned.

Mr. Crowe:  I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

—recognising the enormous contribution to the Irish economy made by the national airline, Aer Lingus, since its establishment;

—commending the workforce in Aer Lingus for building up the company over many years as one of the foremost airlines globally, and for their major contribution in returning the company to record profitability since 2001;

—noting that State funds, through the national pensions reserve fund, are currently being invested in aviation companies throughout the world, while the Government refuses to invest State funds in Aer Lingus;

—affirming the need to retain the national airline in public ownership as [1752]a vital strategic element of Ireland’s infrastructure;

—asserting the responsibility of the Oireachtas to serve the public interest, including the convenience and safety of the travelling public and the livelihoods of workers in the national airline; and

—deplores the decision of the Government to sell the majority stake in Aer Lingus held by the State on behalf of the Irish people, thus leaving the company and the workforce open to exploitation by private commercial interests who will profit from the decades of investment by the Irish taxpayer in building up Aer Lingus and from the sacrifices of the workforce who saved the company in recent years;

calls on the Government to:

—retain the national airline, Aer Lingus, in State ownership;

—invest in Aer Lingus as required and on the basis of a business plan to secure the future of the airline, given that there is no impediment under EU competition rules to such investment;

—safeguard the employment, pay and conditions of all Aer Lingus workers; and

—develop Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports and the regional airports as part of an integrated all-Ireland transport policy, and in doing so fully comply with the agreement reached between the Taoiseach and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in the context of the 2004 pay talks so as to ensure that pay and conditions won by workers at Dublin Airport are fully applicable to workers in the new terminal or terminals there.

I wish to share time with Deputies Morgan, Ferris, Sargent, Gregory, Finian McGrath, Cowley and Boyle.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  That is agreed.

  7 o’clock

Mr. Crowe:  Sinn Féin, in proposing this motion, is conscious that until now there has been no real opportunities for Deputies to discuss the cases for and against the privatisation of Aer Lingus and the ramifications it will have for Irish taxpayers, the airline workers and our island economy. It is in this spirit that Sinn Féin proposes to open this debate and give everyone, regardless of the dogma of his or her party leadership, a chance to put his or her position on record as to whether he or she supports the privatisation and sell-off of Aer Lingus.

[1753]I want to be clear on the Sinn Féin position. We believe that privatisation will not work for Aer Lingus. We have listened carefully to the arguments of those in favour of the privatisation route but believe they have got it wrong once again. In the long run privatisation costs the taxpayer more money. It results in a loss of jobs throughout the economy not only in the company that ends up being asset-stripped and sold off but in other economic sectors.

It has been amply demonstrated in the cases of Eircom and now the ESB that privatisation leads to higher costs, increased prices and a complete absence of the promised benefits of competition. In the Eircom case, we are witnessing a slow decline towards failure. Today, more than five years after the privatisation hype that accompanied the Eircom share launch, the company is clearly in difficulty. For the customer, privatisation has meant a more costly service, particularly in line charges, hand-sets and being levied for maintenance by Eircom.

The company has been on and off the Stock Exchange as its new owners found innovative ways to cash in on its value. They sold off the Eircell mobile phone licence to Vodafone. This is a company whose profits run to hundreds of thousands of euro daily and whose Irish customers pay more money into Vodafone’s coffers than mobile users in any other Vodafone market. Eircom’s new management then sold off the Golden Pages and the company’s websites. Its members paid themselves a €500 million dividend but were unable to find the money to invest in a nationwide broadband roll-out. When the Government begged the company to run the broadband service, not being a public sector company, it was able to say “no”. When the Taoiseach and other Cabinet Ministers offered to subsidise a State broadband roll-out programme, the privatised board of Eircom was again able say “no”. Its members also tried to say “no” to their public service obligation to provide fixed line services to all households which was costing them €40 million a year. Last year leaked documents, prepared by Eircom’s consultants and senior managers, showed the firm needed to spend at least €1 billion on upgrading its network, which was reporting up to a million line faults annually.

This is the reality of the privatisation of Eircom. A lucky few, like Tony O’Reilly, have been enriched while the original infrastructure is in decay and new investment in broadband is only emerging in a piecemeal way. I give the Government and Eircom credit for one aspect, the advertisements were good but it is a pity about the service.

There is the case of the ESB, not yet privatised but being prepared for sale, and the introduction of new private sector power stations. For the customer, this has meant four years of year-on-year price increases. That represents a 40% increase since the Government decided to privatise the electricity markets. These price increases were [1754]needed, according to the ESB regulator, to make the market more attractive for the private sector. That is a remarkable statement. A successful, profitable and efficient State company has to artificially increase its prices, screwing its customers in the process, to facilitate the entry of private profiteers to the market. That is nonsense.

This is the reality of the mad march towards privatisation in Ireland, spearheaded by the Progressive Democrats and their cheerleaders and bank-rollers, resulting in higher profits for the greedy select few and higher prices for customers. Where does that leave Aer Lingus? Will its privatisation be a different story? What safeguards have we that four or five years down the tarmac we will not have a repeat of the Eircom fiasco?

SIPTU tells us that the sale is a “grave strategic error”. It highlighted the promise made to it over a year ago that the company needed a full business plan to grow its routes and passenger numbers, then plan the type of aircraft needed and the level of financial investment for the company.

At present, Aer Lingus management does not know what is needed because there is no business plan. The new chief executive will not take up his post until August. If the company does not know what is needed in terms of investment, what hope is there that the Government knows? The answer is none. However, this is not about investment in the airline, securing the future of Aer Lingus or the best interests of the travelling public or the Irish taxpayer, it is about giving in to the insatiable demands of the privatisation lobby.

Government members have a chance tonight to stand up and say whether they are planning a Ryanair mark II or whether they believe there is a future for Aer Lingus as a national carrier, handling cargo and playing a central role in the future of the Irish economy.

IMPACT has raised the issue of Ireland’s status internationally in the airline market. It has pointed out that “very few countries of Ireland’s size have direct flights to so many important destinations”. According to IMPACT, huge strategic interests are at stake, especially in the tourist and investment sectors, if Ireland’s ability to have direct flights internationally is not maintained. However, as of yet we have had no details or guarantees from Government, not even a hint that it has given these issues a moment’s thought.

Another issue raised by IMPACT is that Aer Lingus could go the way of Manchester United, bought in a hostile take-over and saddled with debt to pay for the take-over.

There is the disclosure by ICTU that €27 million of taxpayers’ money has been invested in airlines around the world through the pension reserve fund. Therefore, it is all right to invest in Air France, BA or even Ryanair. I am sure the strategic business plans of these airlines were checked out before any investment was made, or maybe they were not, as €7 million was invested in Ryanair without yet receiving a dividend from [1755]this firm. Perhaps it was all spent on the newspaper advertisements attacking the Taoiseach.

These are all cogent arguments as to why Aer Lingus should not be privatised. Aer Lingus is the airline of choice for Irish people, not only for those living in Ireland but throughout the world. For them, it is a symbol of safety, good customer care and value for money, and there is incredible goodwill from the people towards the airline because of this. Given a choice, I believe this is the airline on which most Irish people would choose to travel. That is not to say that an airline can be run on goodwill alone. Aer Lingus is in the successful position it is in today much to the sacrifices made by its workforce. It has adapted to the new challenges that emerged following 11 September and has come through where others failed.

There is the question why Aer Lingus exists in the first place. The answer is that there were no private sector investors willing to take the risk in setting up the company. There was no one with the long-term strategic view of how important the airline industry would become to the Irish economy not only in terms of tourism but of importing and exporting goods. We are, after all, the most globalised economy in the world.

Aer Lingus became a vital part of the economic infrastructure of the State, and it still is today. As was the case in the 1930s, there are still no private sector businesses, domestically or internationally, with the long-term strategic view needed to secure the future of this company. There are the carpet-baggers who will gladly assist in the asset-stripping and dismembering of this company, turning it into a pale imitation of Ryanair. There is even a greater breadth of vision needed for Air Lingus in the time ahead. It needs to be developed in the context of a strategic direction for all the airline industry in Ireland that would include, on an all-Ireland basis, international and regional airports. However, unfortunately, unless Members support this motion none of this will ever come to pass. Instead we will have a quick sell-off and glossy advertisement campaign but no real thinking about the long term and no national strategy for the airline industry. Therefore, Members should get ready for another bumpy ride, lots of turbulence, jobs lost and, ultimately, a crash landing.

Mr. Morgan:  The decision to privatise Aer Lingus is scandalous, as Deputy Crowe outlined. It has the ability to seriously undermine the long-term strategic interests of this State. The decision is a slap in the face to the employees who are working to sustain the company’s growth and profitability. This decision to sell a majority share in the State airline has been accurately described by SIPTU’s national industrial secretary, Mick Halpenny, as a grave strategic error for the workforce and the country, and he is right.

[1756]Sinn Féin commends the workforce past and present for building that company over many years and making it one of the foremost airlines globally and a valuable State asset. This State should be very proud of its national airline and should realise what an asset it is to the country. Once we lose control of the national carrier, there is no guarantee that in an economic decline any airline would continue to serve the State if it deemed it was not profitable to do so.

What is the reason behind the sale of Aer Lingus? The truth is it is purely ideological. Opposition to public ownership of any kind is a core principle of the current Government, regardless of economic and social consequences of such actions. It does not even matter if such actions have the potential to seriously undermine the strategic interest of the State. We are told every other state is privatising its airline so we must do the same. That is absolute nonsense.

Many of those who salivate with desire to privatise Aer Lingus seek to emulate Ryanair. There is nothing glorious about an airline which treats its workers and, indeed, its customers with contempt, as Ryanair does. There is nothing to aspire to in its anti-union practices or its discriminatory policies towards the disabled. Workers at Aer Lingus, who have committed to restructuring the company and making it profitable once again, are now faced with the serious implications which this decision poses for job security and working conditions.

There is serious concern regarding reports that there is a deficit in the company’s pension scheme which is shared with the Dublin Airport Authority. Media reports have claimed that this deficit was of the order of €243 million. I understand this was never signalled to the Aer Lingus unions and that they received an assurance from Willie Walsh that all was well with the pension fund. What happens to pension entitlements in the event of privatisation if there is this level of debt? I ask the Minister for Transport to clarify the status of the pension fund, if and when the Government intends to set up a separate Aer Lingus pension fund and how such a fund will be financed.

In 2003 my colleague, Deputy Crowe, correctly warned that the Aer Lingus Bill was paving the way for the break-up of a successful company, the loss of thousands of jobs and the destruction of a strategic pillar of the economy. That Bill enabled the Minister for Finance to sell the State’s shares in Aer Lingus at any time. The Bill also provided for the employee share ownership plans at Aer Lingus. The Aer Lingus ESOP was disguised by the Government as a reward for the effort of the workers in Aer Lingus in turning the company around. The State has used employee ownership as a key element of its privatisation programme for Aer Lingus. It has been clearly stated by those who promote ESOPs that they offer a practical means to jump start the privatisation process by [1757]organising a shareholder group which has a vested interest in working for the full privatisation of the enterprise.

Sinn Féin will continue to oppose fully all plans to privatise Aer Lingus which, in the common good, must remain in public ownership.

Mr. Ferris:  Those who favour the privatisation of State companies often accuse their defenders of being purely driven by ideological motives. In fact, it is clear that ideological motivation is more often to be found on the side of the supporters of selling off State assets in combination, of course, with the desire to provide plump pickings for their friends in private companies who wish to take over successful public enterprises. They neglect the fact public ownership of utilities like transport was most often begun by Governments which were not ideologically of the left, including those in this State. They created those companies for the practical reason that private enterprise was unwilling or unable to do so because it did not believe essential public services could provide them with a profit.

On a basic level, the quality of life for ordinary people improved immensely when municipal and State authorities began to supply those services. That is why this State financed the building of local authority housing and established bodies such as the ESB, CIE, Bord na Móna, the sugar companies and Aer Lingus. The people who controlled the bulk of the wealth created in this State had no interest in long-term investment or in the development of State industry. Instead, they were happy to put their money into the London Stock Exchange. Now that those State enterprises have proved successful, we are faced with demands that they be privatised.

We have been here before with Irish Shipping. A Government made up of parties opposite decided that an island nation dependent on exports and imports could not run a shipping company. It did not need Irish Continental Lines and B&I. Where does that leave us today? In recent months, we saw another example of this kind of privatisation whereby employers have their ships registered under flags of convenience so they do not have to adhere to Irish or even EU labour laws. The workers on those ships work longer hours and get paid the princely sum of €1 per hour, as we saw only a few weeks ago. Is that what we want for Aer Lingus? If that happens, it will have all the effects described by my colleagues and it would also have implications for the provision of services.

What guarantees will there be that regional airports will be maintained if a private sector does not feel it is guaranteed sufficient returns? Not only would that affect tourism in areas dependent on airports, such as Counties Kerry, Mayo and Donegal, but it would also affect the local economy in other ways which would give rise to job losses. Kerry Airport at Farranfore is an example [1758]of a regional facility which provides excellent service to the county and the south west in general. It is an important access point for inward tourism but, more importantly, it is an amenity for local people who for personal or employment reasons are able to avail of the convenience of air travel in place of long, tedious road or rail journeys or, indeed, to connect from other airports.

I know the value of a regional airport as I use it continually coming to and from the House. It takes me approximately 40 minutes to get from Farranfore to Dublin Airport whereas it takes me over four hours to drive to Dublin. On a practical level, this means that a person flying from Farranfore can be in Manchester or London in an hour and a half. It could be pointed out that the London provider is a private company but I doubt very much if a private company could have built and maintained the airport. That is one of the points of this motion. The airport facilities need to be retained in State ownership and developed to provide what is overall a profitable enterprise but one where, like other public utilities, profit should not be the prime motivator.

Another issue which needs to be borne in mind when discussing the need to retain a State airline and overall authority in the sector is that private companies would have no interest in promoting an all-island approach to the provision of air travel. The overall long-term development of tourism and industry in a region like the north west requires co-operation on numerous levels, including transport, and that should be one of the factors taken into consideration in framing a strategy for the Irish aviation sector as a whole.

Mr. Sargent:  I am glad to speak on this motion and I thank Sinn Féin for tabling it. It is an issue of considerable concern and a talking point for many people in my constituency of Dublin North. The company is very much at the heart of the economy of north County Dublin and has provided livelihoods for many people over a number of generations. People have a keen interest in Aer Lingus even though no member of the family may work in the airline. They understand its importance as the economic heart of Dublin Airport where much of Aer Lingus’s activity is based. Why if that heart is pumping so well and is in such a healthy state is it necessary to undertake heart surgery? Neither the Government nor Aer Lingus management has fully explained why it is taking this course of action.

According to Aer Lingus executives who have appeared before various Oireachtas committees, there has been no specific evaluation of the fleet replacement needs of the company, no assessment of the capital needs for such a replacement when that is outlined in detail and no explanation of the options available to acquire the necessary capital. The Government has taken this course to dilute irreparably the State holding in the national airline to the point where it will perhaps [1759]be in more difficulty if, as is forecast, there is turbulence in the airline industry.

It would be right to make the investment with the State shareholding in place. The Green Party takes the line “if it ain’t broke why fix it?” That is why we believe there is an ulterior motive behind the Government’s decision. Some members of the media are infected by the prospect of nirvana if Aer Lingus is in private hands. They believe if the airline is in private hands it will somehow work better than if it is in State hands. There is no basis for this belief.

The Minister for Finance has outlined why Ireland is distinctive in so many areas, in terms of taxation and the particular needs of an island nation and an open economy. We should bring the same critical assessment to this issue rather than say that other countries have divested their State involvement in a national airline and therefore we must do so too. The only clear argument I have heard is that this move follows the example of others. The argument is insufficient given the serious implications for the staff of Aer Lingus and the economy as a whole of the Government’s dilution of its shareholding.

The people who worked in Aer Lingus and with whom the Minister was closely involved at the time of the Cahill plan are angry about the pain they endured to put in place the necessary reorganisation. This is now to benefit profiteers, not people who regard the airline as integral to our national well-being and economic development.

This motion is tabled with sadness. I urge the Government to take on board the concerns expressed and recognise that Aer Lingus is more than a company or a national airline, it is at the heart of the country’s economic development, and if it is damaged the country will be damaged. The Government should not take lightly its responsibility for that fate.

Mr. Gregory:  Tugaim tacaíocht iomlán don tairiscint thábhachtach seo atá curtha os ár gcomhair ag Páirtí Shinn Féin, is é sin, cur i gcoinne na bpleananna atá beartaithe ag an Rialtas tromlach Aer Lingus a dhíol le comhlachtaí príobháideacha. Táim glan i gcoinne a leithéid de rud a dhéanamh. Ba chóir an aerlíne náisiúnta a choimeád in úinéireacht an Stáit, agus ba chóir don Stát Éireannach cibé infheistiú atá ag teastáil a chur ar fáil d’Aer Lingus.

I wholeheartedly support the motion before us which seeks to retain and defend the national airline as an important State asset. I deplore the recent Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats decision to sell off 60% of the national airline which, as the motion states, is “held by the State on behalf of the Irish people”. If this majority stake sell-off goes ahead it marks the beginning of the end of Aer Lingus. Despite all the talk about setting down certain conditions for the sale of the [1760]national asset, no doubt in time reasons will be found to sell off the remaining minority stake and in due course Aer Lingus will be stripped of its assets for the profit of private interests.

The Government’s amendment with its grandiose words about “commitment to ensuring that Aer Lingus continues to make a significant and valuable contribution to the economic and tourism development of the country” rings hollow when we recall the sell-off of Telecom Éireann. In that sale a Fianna Fáil Government conned 500,000 people into believing that they would watch their investment grow in the privatised Eircom. Where is Eircom now? Who owns that great national asset and watches that investment grow? It is not the Irish people.

Anything the Government parties say about their comprehensive plan for the long-term success and growth of Irish aviation should be treated with the contempt it deserves. For an island nation in which the tourism industry plays such a critical economic role it defies logic to sell off the national airline, particularly when Aer Lingus has shown that, with a dedicated workforce, it can compete with low-cost airlines and make a significant profit.

I join those who proposed this motion in commending the workers in Aer Lingus who, over many years, built up the company and whose future may soon be in the hands of individuals who care nothing for workers’ rights and less about public interest.

Mr. F. McGrath:  I commend Deputy Crowe and the Sinn Féin Members for bringing this important debate before the House. I totally oppose the privatisation of our national airline, Aer Lingus. The privatisation of Eircom in 1999 was, and the privatisation of Aer Lingus would also be, a strategic mistake. Aer Lingus is a strategic national asset, and I do not say that lightly.

I challenge those who spin privatisation as a solution to all our economic problems. We must deal head-on with this neo-conservative view of the economy and the world in tonight’s debate. They are a pack of chancers, tax dodgers and gombeen men.

An Ceann Comhairle:  It is not appropriate to make derogatory remarks about people.

Mr. F. McGrath:  I apologise but I am deeply annoyed with the numerous scams in our society today, where regular taxpayers are punished while other people get away with dishonesty.

To return to the debate, I urge everybody involved to look at the facts and deal with the reality. When the State company, Eircom, was privatised 500,000 small investors lost one third of their investment. The loss to our economy and society from the privatisation of that company in a vital strategic area, which held a monopoly in many areas of its operations, had a greater long-term impact than the combined personal losses [1761]of those investors. At privatisation, Eircom was highly profitable, had no debt, was investing heavily in Ireland, reducing prices and providing an increasing variety of services. Today it is loss making and has cut its investment dramatically because it is heavily in debt as private investors extracted much capital from it.

Ireland is an island economy. Our largest trading partner across the water, the UK, and Heathrow is vital to Irish business. It is the key connection point for our much travelled people. Aer Lingus has valuable slots at Heathrow that the new owners will inevitably sell off to reduce the debt incurred by buying the airline. The new owners of Eircom sold off its fastest growing subsidiary, Eircell, to Vodafone, and many other assets shortly after privatisation. A pair of slotsin Heathrow sold recently for £10 million sterling and Aer Lingus has many of them, which are as vital as the airbridge between Dublin and London. They are more valuable for long distance operations. Business and other travellers will be ejected and have to use Gatwick and Stansted.

Ryanair has no particular commitment to Ireland and has demonstrated this again and again. Michael O’Leary makes a higher profit on his Irish routes than on any others and that is the main attraction to Ireland for him. He would be gone in the morning if it suited him. The venture capitalists and management will sell on Aer Lingus to the highest bidder within a few years of taking their gains. The new owner, and not necessarily an airline, could close Aer Lingus Irish headquarters and run it from offshore, ignoring the strategic concerns of Irish business, consumers and its workforce. These are important issues.

I support the motion because it is about Aer Lingus. It is also about the future of our island economy. It is about people and taxpayers but above all it is a commonsense motion about the future of the economy and the aviation industry.

Dr. Cowley:  I thank Sinn Féin for tabling this motion and particularly its call on the Government to develop the regional airports as part of an integrated all-Ireland transport policy. International research has proven that airports stimulate regional development. They are a strong catalyst and are a major economic driver in the western region, in particular. That is demonstrated by the fact that they supported 546,000 bed nights in the region in 2004. While Knock Airport continues to have international runway length capacity of 2,300 metres its potential will not be fully realised until the investment is made.

The Government should have supported Knock Airport in the same way as it has supported Aer Rianta airports. The Government provides approximately €3 per passenger to Aer Rianta airports each year while the European norm is as high as €8 or €10. If the minimum Aer [1762]Rianta standard had been applied to Knock Airport it would have received a capital investment of between €115 million and €190 million in the past decade. Instead it has received investment of less than €5 million.

The Minister for Transport needs to have a vision for Knock Airport. The actions taken up to now have not addressed the problem and will not do so if they continue. It is obvious the western region has been deprived of funding of €2 million, which will have to be made up. When the Government puts together its capital envelope it should include the €2 billion deficit and ring fence whatever else is for the BMW area under the national development plan, otherwise it will go elsewhere.

Given that, say, 20 million passengers land on one side of the country and only 0.5 million on the other side, it is in the interests of balanced regional development that the Government would put this €30 million to €40 million investment into Knock International Airport. Knock International Airport is Ireland’s fourth international airport, serving up to 13 counties. Some 21 million passengers per year travel through airports in the south and east, 6 million passengers travel through airports in Northern Ireland, which has almost the same population as the border midlands and west region. Knock Airport, however, with a projected figure of 500,000 passengers this year is the starkest example of the failure to develop the BMW region. It is an example of unbalanced regional development and we are paying for it. Knock Airport has a longer runway than Cork Airport yet it has been the poor relation for Government investments.

In the south and east, airport investment is directed towards expanding the existing airports rather than airport safety and security as at Knock. For years Dublin has benefited from public sector support and is now capable of supporting substantial investment in other airports, such as Cork and Shannon. Knock has no such relationship with the large cash cow. Between now and 2007 an investment of at least €18 million is required at Knock to provide the airport with category 2 status, which would greatly reduce any chance of plane diversions. A total investment of €40 million would also provide an expanded airport apron so that there would be adequate space for large aircraft such as Airbus, which now uses Knock Airport. This apron would ensure airplanes with a fast turnaround time were not delayed and therefore schedules would be kept. In that way Knock could compete with other airports and those millions of passengers could be diverted to the west.

Given that Knock is well-placed, being less than a one-hour drive from nine regional urban centres or gateways, it the only effective international airport for most of them. Traffic numbers at Knock Airport in January and February 2005 grew by 101% compared to the [1763]same period last year. During the past six months, two new Gatwick routes, a Liverpool route and a second Birmingham route have been added to the existing routes at the airport. Despite this the Government intends to provide a second terminal and even a third terminal at a cost of €150 million plus, say €250 million, which is projected to suck in 38 million passengers by 2025 and will further congest Dublin where already traffic is at ass and cart pace. This is madness when one considers the wonderful international airport at Knock lying under-developed and under-utilised with one-fortieth of the passenger numbers of Dublin Airport. It does not make sense.

There is a need also for the 5,000 new jobs to be created at Knock rather in Dublin, which already has too many people and has half our graduates. Surely those jobs should be at Knock where net industrial output grew by 3.7% annually between 1990 and 1997 in the BMW area compared to 12.7% growth nationally elsewhere. Bed nights and tourist accommodation are down by 20% in the west although tourist numbers rose by 6% nationally. There is a great need for proper investment and a tax incentive scheme in Knock. I hope the Minister will look at all this area. I support the motion.

Mr. Boyle:  On the airport aspect of the motion, the Taoiseach on Leaders’ Questions told the House that he had not been informed of any change in Government policy on the issue of the transfer of debt to Dublin Airport in regard to developments at Shannon Airport and most particularly at Cork Airport. That may well be the case. In Cork the south-west regional authority holds regular meetings and there is an airport consultative committee that holds meetings of local Deputies and management of airport staff. We have been told in the past fortnight that the business plan being prepared by Cork Airport management committee that will be presented to the Dublin Airport Authority must include a proviso that the operation of Cork Airport takes into account a starting debt of €160 million in respect of the new terminal development at the airport. Either the airport authorities, the meetings at which we are informed as constituency Deputies or the Taoiseach is misinformed. The Minister for Finance needs to clarify that aspect of the debate.

Not only is there confusion about that but there is an imbalance in terms of passenger numbers between our international airports and national and regional airports. Cork Airport suffers as it is not included in the EU-US agreement in terms of landing rights and schedule flights between Cork Airport and locations in North America. There has been an attempt to use charter flights to overcome that difficulty. The lack of a real national aviation policy means Dublin Airport is over burdened and that resources at Cork, Shannon and the regional airports are not being [1764]properly used. The Government appears unwilling to tackle this imbalance, possibly because it is preoccupied in straddling the two ideological horses within the two Government parties.

We have an agreement to build a second terminal in Dublin Airport. According to the Taoiseach, it may happen in 2009 but according to the Dublin Airport Authority it may happen in 2010. Given Ireland’s recent history in the area of infrastructure none of us can be confident this terminal will be built in the next decade. Even if that building is finished on time and within budget there is the tantalising prospect of the ideologically pure third terminal which appears to be sating the Progressive Democrats in particular. Where it is supposed to be located and who will run it are questions being left float in the ether for us to interpret. Will it be a new airport authority? Is it a Dublin Airport plus authority which will run this new third terminal? Will national aviation policy be determined by an interminable number of terminals at Dublin Airport before we have any degree of balance between Dublin Airport and the other international airports in this country?

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  On behalf of the Minister for Transport, I welcome this opportunity to address the recent Government decision on key aviation matters. In particular, I wish to rebut the distortions and scare tactics of some members of the Opposition. Unlike them, the Government has confidence in the future of our aviation sector and for that reason has set out a clear strategic direction and an unambiguous mandate for growth. The net result will be a stronger aviation sector and a better future for the economy, customers and staff.

I will first deal with Aer Lingus. Last Wednesday, the Government decided in principle to allow the sale of a majority shareholding in Aer Lingus while retaining a significant stake in the company to protect the State’s key strategic interests. The Government also decided to appoint advisers to advise on the size, type and timing of the Aer Lingus sale transaction. This decision is the culmination of detailed and comprehensive consideration of the various options facing the company that has taken place over the past year.

The Minister for Transport and I will move quickly to engage advisers and to consult with the company and staff as appropriate. In selecting the most appropriate transaction mechanism, regard will be had to a range of key issues including the price achievable. The timing of a transaction will be dictated by the company’s needs, its performance, the state of the aviation sector and market conditions.

A key part of the decision is the mandate to the board of Aer Lingus to prepare and submit a plan for future profitable growth as soon as possible on the basis that additional equity capital [1765]will be available within a reasonable timescale. This decision allows Aer Lingus to secure funding for new aircraft and in turn to open and compete on new, particularly long haul, routes.

For many years Aer Lingus was the main provider of air services between Ireland and the outside world. It led the way in selling and promoting Ireland, making it the major tourism destination it is today. With access to funds and a competitive cost base, Aer Lingus can continue to make a major contribution, flying to more destinations, offering more choice to consumers and opening new markets for tourism and employment.

Over its history Aer Lingus has had its share of crises and has come close to failure. That this did not happen is a testimony to the efforts of successive management and dedicated staff. However, the Minister for Transport wants to end these crisis cycles where every few years a crisis is followed by survival followed by stagnation and back to crisis again. The Government decision means that for the first time, there can be investment for growth and not just a short-term response to a crisis.

I firmly rebut any suggestion that the transaction will result in a debt-laden Aer Lingus. This is untrue. The investment will result in a strengthening of the Aer Lingus balance sheet and will ensure that equity funds are available to Aer Lingus as part of its overall funding mix. This is a key issue. It is clear that to compete effectively, Aer Lingus must have the same funding flexibility as its competitors. This was clearly identified in the Goldman Sachs report as being crucial to the future success of the airline and essential for financial stability.

In the motion put forward by the Opposition, mention is made of the fact that State funds, through the national pensions reserve fund, are currently being invested in aviation companies throughout the world. I wish to make it absolutely clear that investment decisions are solely a matter for the National Pensions Reserve Fund Commission, having regard to its statutory remit. Decisions on investment are made by the independent commission which is required to invest for maximum return, subject to risk. The commission could not in fact invest in Aer Lingus at present because it is not publicly quoted. Were it publicly quoted, that option would be open to the commission.

I also wish to make it clear that for Aer Lingus to maximise its growth potential, in addition to having access to funds, it must have a competitive cost base. It is, therefore, vitally important that the existing business plan is implemented in full. Since 2001, 30% has been taken out of the cost base of the company. This will ensure that the airline has an appropriate cost base to support the growth plan which the board has been mandated to complete. It will be critical over the next few months that management and staff work together to achieve this objective. With access to [1766]funds and continued progress toward greater productivity, Aer Lingus will be able to compete aggressively and grow profitably both on short haul and long haul routes.

The history of Aer Lingus demonstrates clearly the massive challenges in the sector and the ongoing need to reposition and change in order to survive. It is imperative that airlines try to anticipate and plan for those changes over which they have some element of control because, as has been clearly demonstrated, there will be many events impacting on performance such as terrorist attacks and global downturns over which airlines have no control. That is why it is so important to put in place a forward-looking strategic plan for growth based on a sound cost foundation.

From an operational point of view, Aer Lingus has been performing well in recent years in a difficult climate for aviation. However, given that this is a sector where nothing can be taken for granted, there must be ongoing focus on the key issues that will ensure the success of the airline. The success of any airline is not guaranteed as is shown in the examples of the amalgamation of KLM and Air France, the loss of Sabena, Swissair gone to the wall, Alitalia in serious difficulties and thousands of jobs being lost in Iberia Airlines in Spain. To ensure the success of the airline two key issues are funding and flexibility which the Government is now addressing. This means access to equity from private funds which is available to its competitors and the company’s cost base is being addressed by management and staff.

Concerns have been expressed about strategic issues in the context of the State exiting from ownership of Aer Lingus. These concerns relate to issues such as the Aer Lingus brand, direct transatlantic services and the slots at Heathrow. Apart from maintaining a significant minority shareholding, options such as specific shareholder agreement covenants or commercial arrangements between the State and the company will be examined to ensure key concerns are addressed where necessary.

The Minister for Transport and I do not, however, share the doomsday thinking on the future expressed by the Opposition this evening. Have they no confidence in the airline and its ability to serve a growing market? The Minister for Transport has no concerns that any prudent investor would want to destroy a premium brand such as Aer Lingus or would cease to operate profitable direct transatlantic services to and from Ireland. New investors will want to see Aer Lingus flourishing in all its existing markets as well as exploiting the potential which new long haul routes present.

However, both the Minister for Transport and I accept there are some legitimate concerns. I assure the House that these issues will be addressed in the context of the selected transaction. I also want to clarify the issue in respect of [1767]the minority shareholding which the Government will retain. The rights attached to this will be no more or less than that which applies to any shareholder under company law. This means that with the ownership of 25%, the Government cannot be forced to sell its shares and can also deny other shareholders the ability to pass special and extraordinary resolutions such as making changes to the memorandum and articles of association of the company.

I am also aware that increasing the commercial opportunities for Aer Lingus in terms of services between Ireland and the US is an important element in the overall strategic future for the airline. My colleague, the Minister for Transport, will endeavour to achieve this outcome over the coming months. Aer Lingus has stated it could double traffic on US routes within a three to five year period if the market is opened up. Currently, Aer Lingus can only operate scheduled services to five US points under the bilateral agreement, namely New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Baltimore. This restriction, which has been in place for many years, is the response of the US authorities to the requirement in the bilateral agreement that all airlines serve Shannon as often as they serve Dublin. Addressing this issue involves making adjustments to the bilateral aviation agreement between Ireland and the US. In doing so, we must seek to secure the best outcome for Aer Lingus, our national tourism industry, Shannon Airport and the Shannon region. In particular, I am conscious that the new board of the Shannon Airport Authority is producing a business plan for the airport and that clarity on future transatlantic aviation policy would be very helpful to that business planning process. While negotiations between the European Union and the US on an aviation agreement, which would introduce “open skies” across the Atlantic, are not active at present, it is likely they will resume after the June Transport Council where the Council will review the possible elements of an EU-US agreement. In the meantime, the Minister for Transport is keeping the Ireland-US aviation agreement under review, having regard to the EU-US negotiations.

Deputy Morgan raised the issue of pensions. Obviously Aer Lingus has two pension schemes, one for pilots, with which no difficulties exist, and one for general employees in the company. The pension scheme is a multi-employer scheme, which involves the Dublin Airport Authority and a private company, SR Technics, formerly TEAM Aer Lingus. The administration of that general scheme is a matter for the trustees of the scheme and the company concerned having regard to the rules of the scheme. The problem with the scheme is that because it is a multi-employer scheme it cannot be amended without the consent of all participating employers and a majority of members so that no employer is in a position to [1768]negotiate exclusively with employees as to his or her pension entitlements.

Actuarial valuations on the scheme are carried out every three years, with the last valuation completed in March 2003. At that time the scheme satisfied the minimum funding standard included in the Pensions Act 1990. The valuation due in 2006 has been brought forward by a year and is expected to be completed by the end of June. Unions and others have been speculating that the scheme is in deficit. However, indications are that a deficit does not arise under the terms of the present scheme. If the rules were changed to allow for mandatory CPI increases it is likely that a deficit would arise. The Aer Lingus Act 2004 contains enabling provisions which allow Aer Lingus to establish new pension schemes for its employees and pensioners. The Act also ensures that the benefits granted under such a scheme or schemes shall not be less favourable than those granted under the existing scheme. It is a matter for Aer Lingus to decide if and when a new pension scheme or schemes should be established, and the terms of any scheme would be a matter for negotiation with unions. Discussions are ongoing between management and unions on the existing pension scheme as well as a new pension scheme.

I express my appreciation and that of the Minister for Transport to the chairman and board for their ongoing efforts in directing the airline. The staff in particular are due our thanks for their efforts. They work in a difficult industry and have had to continually adjust to change. I assure them that we will engage with the unions and the ESOT in a spirit of partnership to progress the Government decision to ensure a viable future for Aer Lingus with the maximum number of sustainable jobs.

I will now deal with State and regional airports. The decisions on terminal capacity at Dublin form a key part of the aviation action plan announced last week. In terms of access, inward investment, economic development and tourism generally, Dublin Airport is, and will remain, the metropolitan gateway to the State. Ireland’s island status creates a greater dependency for the country and a much greater requirement for adequate modern airport infrastructure, with associated air services, than in the case of other European countries with significant land borders. The national spatial strategy has acknowledged that the expansion of the level of air services from Dublin Airport to a wider range of destinations is essential in the interests of underpinning Ireland’s future international competitiveness. Notwithstanding the greatly welcome increase over recent years in traffic at Shannon and Cork airports, and indeed at some of the regional airports, Dublin Airport will remain crucial to the national economy as a vital strategic component of national infrastructure.

[1769]At its meeting last week, the Government recognised the urgent need to provide for additional terminal and pier capacity at Dublin Airport. It agreed that the Dublin Airport Authority would build and own the new second terminal and the objective is to have the new facility operational in 2009. Following consultation with its customers, the Dublin Airport Authority will develop the most cost-effective options for the design, building, financing and operation of the terminal. Recognised independent experts with appropriate aviation and financial expertise will be approved by the Government to verify the proposal on its behalf.

Under current legislation, the operator of the new terminal will be selected through a fully open competition, which will be organised by an appropriate independent group or body. Selection of the successful tenderer will be on the basis of the most economically advantageous proposal. The agreement between the Government and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which formed part of last year’s mid-term review of Sustaining Progress, will also be reflected appropriately in arrangements for the conduct of the competition. The Commission for Aviation Regulation will of course also ensure that the level of investment is appropriate through its statutory role in setting airport charges.

In the longer term, the Government recognises that, based on current projections for growth in passenger numbers, further terminal capacity will be required at Dublin Airport by around the middle of the next decade. In this regard, the Government decided that preparatory work should begin on examining the current legal and regulatory framework governing the airport for the purpose of identifying changes that may be necessary to facilitate the delivery of the next tranche of terminal capacity, namely, terminal 3. It is the objective of Government policy to underpin the most cost-effective, efficient and timely delivery of that terminal in line with emerging aviation trends through an open, transparent and competitive process. With regard to contact stands for aircraft, the Government recognises the priority associated with the provision by the Dublin Airport Authority of new pier capacity at Dublin Airport and in this regard the Minister for Transport has ensured that the Dublin Airport Authority has the necessary flexibility to respond appropriately to customer requirements in this area.

The Government also agreed that proceeding to finalise the independence of Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports on the basis of viable business plans is critical to achieving the strategic goals of aviation policy. The Minister for Transport and I will progress the restructuring of State airports on foot of assessment of the business plans currently being prepared by the airport authorities. The Dublin and Shannon airport authorities have been working intensively to identify new business [1770]opportunities for Shannon and concluded an agreement last year with Ryanair that will result in significant new business on European routes. Securing access from Shannon to additional destinations can provide new business opportunities for Shannon, and this is one pillar of the approach to future growth by the Shannon Airport Authority.

The two authorities have also indicated that addressing the long-standing unsustainable cost base at Shannon is an essential precondition for the future viability and development of the airport. The authority is satisfied that necessary cost savings can be achieved and in this regard I expect that discussions with the trade unions will begin shortly. In consultation with his colleagues and in the context of the business planning process provided for under the State Airports Act, the Minister for Transport will consider how best to enable the Shannon Airport Authority to carry out its commercial mandate and to maximise its contribution to regional development in the mid-west.

Cork Airport is one of the fastest growing airports in Europe. Since 1994, Cork Airport’s traffic has risen nearly threefold to 2.25 million passengers last year. With its relatively large catchment area, it has good growth potential as evidenced by new routes launched last year and this year. Cork Airport will also benefit from the major capital development under way, including the construction of a new terminal, which will have a capacity of 3 million passengers per annum, with the facility to expand to 5 million passengers as demand requires. New multi-storey and surface level car parks are also being provided and a new internal road system is being developed. Cork Airport will therefore be well positioned to respond to the region’s growth potential.

The business planning process currently under way will provide a basis for effecting the restructuring and separating of Shannon and Cork as fully independent airports. As required under the State Airports Act, the ability of both Shannon and Cork to operate on a completely commercial basis will be fully assessed as part of this process and will be factored into the decisions made.

The Minister for Transport and I believe that when taken together, this package of measures will position the State airports, as well as Aer Lingus, to realise their full potential in delivering international air access to the country. I am sure many will agree that this strategic approach is necessary to underpin Ireland’s competitiveness, industry and tourism, and to enable the economy to maximise sustainable employment opportunities. With regard to the smaller regional airports, the Department of Transport’s policy is to assist in optimising the contribution they can make to balanced regional development.

The three State airports, which operate to a commercial mandate, currently account for 97% [1771]of all air traffic and are capable of serving the country’s primary air transport needs. The size and scale of the State airports mean they inevitably attract a range of airline services commensurate with their location and catchment areas. The reforms introduced in the State Airports Act 2004 are intended to strengthen and stimulate those airports in achieving greater efficiency and promoting further air traffic development. That strategic role for the State airports is complemented by the regional development role of regional airports, and the current grant assistance schemes operated by the Department of Transport are therefore targeted towards the latter.

  8 o’clock

Exchequer support for the six regional airports in Donegal, Sligo, Knock, Galway, Kerry and Waterford falls under two categories. First, support for essential, safety-related capital investment is available under the BMW and southern and eastern regional operational programmes of the national development plan. It is expected that total capital assistance for the six regional airports will amount to approximately €20 million by the end of the current NDP. Grants are also available towards operational expenditure incurred by the airports on marketing, safety and security, and approximately €2.24 million is allocated for that purpose each year. The Department of Transport also supports regional air access through the public service obligation regime by providing financial compensation to air carriers on regional routes where carriers would not otherwise be prepared to operate to the required standards on a commercial basis. The outcome of a recent procurement process for the next round of PSO contracts for the period July 2005 to July 2008 will be announced shortly.

Regarding suggestions of a wider, all-Ireland, strategy on aviation, Deputies will appreciate that, since the full liberalisation of the European aviation market in the 1990s, there have no longer been any Government or EU controls in the Irish aviation market. That obviously influences the overall approach to that market. Liberalisation of the European air transport sector has ensured that fares, routes and frequency of services operated by carriers at all airports on the island of Ireland are entirely commercial decisions for each airline in consultation with the relevant airport authorities. That basic fact has not been incorporated into the rationale or argument I have heard from the Opposition benches regarding the motion they are proposing to the House.

However, the Government has a long-standing policy of assisting, for example, Derry Airport, in the interests of North-South co-operation and recognition of the fact that the natural catchment area of the airport includes east Donegal. The Government, at my suggestion, recently approved proposals for the allocation of capital funding for [1772]City of Derry Airport in co-operation with the British Government. A joint funding package totalling €15 million was approved in principle in response to requests from Derry City Council. Since 2001, the Department of Transport has been supporting scheduled air services between Derry and Dublin through the PSO air service programme, and proposals for the operation of services on the route for the next three years will be announced shortly.

The Minister for Transport and I are delighted that an outcome to the aviation issues has been decided in an inclusive way. The Minister for Transport’s approach has been to engage with all stakeholders, listen to all views and put forward a proposal that best delivers for the country. As a result of the Government’s recent decisions, for the first time Irish aviation is positioned for long-term growth.

I was Minister for Transport in 1993 and 1994. I recall when Aer Lingus was in very serious difficulties and the future of the company was at risk. When the Government obtained a once-off State investment for the company in compliance with EU rules, dealing with Commissioner van Meert at the time, many continued to say that the company could not flourish. In recent years, when one sees what has happened to long-standing brands in international aviation on both sides of the Atlantic and in Asia, one must recognise that the company is operating in a totally new environment. None of us is here to argue for the demise of a company that has served us well.

People quite rightly spoke of the vision of the pioneers who founded these companies when there were no capital formation markets in this country — a development with which my party was particularly associated — but it is incumbent on us, given contemporary realities, not to allow policy to be driven by sentimentality or emotion. If we allow that to happen, we put at risk those very jobs that we argue we must protect and expand. We must ensure that Aer Lingus can get out in that more liberalised aviation environment in which it now operates, with dog-eat-dog competition on short-haul routes.

There is now also the real prospect of long-haul route expansion following changes to the air transport agreements between the European Union, which now has that competence, and the United States, opening us up to far more than the existing five routes. We all know that, given the goodwill that exists towards Ireland, the knowledge of the country, the diaspora throughout the United States, and the ability to develop working with the hub structure of American airlines in the myriad airports of the country, we can greatly increase the number of tourists that come to this country. The role that transatlantic tourism has played in the development of the business across the country is something of which we must be cognisant.

[1773]Looking east, there are very ambitious and visionary proposals that could come to a successful conclusion. The concepts must be robustly analysed so we can determine how we can develop those routes. However, there can be a role for Aer Lingus in all that, once again with a resultant benefit to the economy, our competitiveness and our reach throughout the world when getting more people to visit this country and experience our tourism products developed over many years. That is what we can do.

We must face the challenges and ensure we minimise the risks, robustly analyse the options, tread carefully as we move forward, work with stakeholders, and all try to reach a common analysis of what is in the interests not only of the company and the workers but the country and tourism. That means that we must open our minds to new avenues, approaches and possibilities not based on the capital formation of a company whose origins lie in the 1940s and 1950s. We must deal with competitors which have access to such funds in private markets, putting Aer Lingus at a disadvantage as matters stand.

That Aer Lingus is not publicly quoted may deny an opportunity to some pension funds in this country to consider investing in the company to obtain a long-term return. Such funds should at least have that option, given their statutory obligation to get the best possible return for the pension scheme members for whom they hold money in trust. The arguments are precisely those that I heard ten years ago, all doom and gloom and an inability to recognise that Irish business management and the Irish trade union movement are capable, under the social partnership model and maintaining its principles, of developing a world-class infrastructure in all our airports, providing for a commercial remit and giving them an opportunity to expand. That will bring more growth and more employment, not only directly in the airline business but in subsidiary businesses too.

Ultimately, airports are about a myriad of services that must be integrated. That is why the Dublin Airport Authority must retain operational autonomy and responsibility for developing the airport in an integrated fashion. However, in doing so, we must ensure we develop an infrastructure that is commensurate with the needs of customers and airlines, remains competitive, levies cheap and competitive charges, ensures more airlines are interested in doing business in this country, and allows Aer Lingus to expand its commercial horizons and opportunities by accessing funds that, under EU rules — when one talks about rational investment by the State — can be provided only in good times. We need to factor in these new parts of the equation. We cannot continue a discussion which does not provide the comprehensive range of options available by suggesting that those committed exclusively to State ownership have the interests of workers or the country at heart. Those who [1774]recognise the commercial realities agree with the retention of a minority shareholding for the State so that we can retain those strategic interests but can enable the company to access other funds from private equity sources. The ultimate transaction will be dependent upon the best available aviation and financial advice available to the Government and will be of a world class standard.

Despite the barbs from the Opposition, we have treaded carefully in recent months——

Ms O. Mitchell:  We have not said anything.

Mr. Cowen:  I am not referring to the debate tonight. We have treaded carefully in recent months because of the strategic interests at stake.

Ms O. Mitchell:  The Government has been treading carefully for three years.

Mr. Cowen:  We proceed on the basis that the airline——

Mr. Durkan:  The Offaly hurlers do not tread carefully.

Mr. Cowen:  ——will continue to serve us well. Swissair is no longer in a position to serve Switzerland well. Sabena is no longer in a position to serve Belgium well. We allowed ourselves to be blinkered in our approach and we did not see what was happening in the market. If we do not take cognisance of the market, we will put at risk the great contribution that has been made thus far and we will deprive workers of jobs. Those workers are as good at their job in the company as any other that I know, and I flew with quite a few airlines in my role as Minister for Foreign Affairs. We can give the direction for people to work together co-operatively. We must avoid phoney confrontations and focus on the business of building an airline and airports, increasing tourism, creating jobs and making sure that people see that these were the correct choices made after robust analysis and careful consideration, and after ensuring a co-operative approach all round.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

“—notes the Government’s commitment to ensuring that Aer Lingus continues to make a significant and valuable contribution to the economic and tourism development of the country;

—recognises the significant contribution made by the board, management and staff in the continuing turnaround in Aer Lingus’ finances;

—notes that Aer Lingus can only continue to make this contribution if it can [1775]compete successfully on a level playing field, operate profitably and has access to a variety of funding sources to facilitate growth and provide financial security;

—recognises that decisions on investment by the national pensions reserve fund are solely matters for that board having regard to their statutory remit;

—welcomes the Government’s recent decision in principle for the sale of a majority shareholding in Aer Lingus to provide the funds needed by the company;

—welcomes the Government decision to maintain a significant minority stake in the airline to protect the State’s key strategic interests;

—notes that Government also decided to appoint advisors to advise on the size, type and timing of the Aer Lingus sale transaction;

—welcomes the Government’s strategic approach which gives Irish aviation a clear direction for the future and an unambiguous mandate for growth;

—notes that these decisions are part of a comprehensive plan which will allow for the long-term success and growth of Irish aviation, the result of which will be a stronger aviation sector and a better future for the economy, customers and staff;

—notes that the Minister for Transport will progress the restructuring of the State airports and further notes that the national network of State and regional airports is contributing to a thriving aviation sector for the benefit of trade, business and tourism development; and

—notes that the agreement between the Government and the ICTU, which formed part of last year’s mid-term review of Sustaining Progress, will be reflected appropriately in the arrangements for the tender competition to select the operator of the second terminal at Dublin Airport.”

Ms O. Mitchell:  I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate, although I find myself unable to support the motion or the amendment. I agree with the statement that an airline is a vital strategic element of our infrastructure. However, I do not believe that, to be that, the airline needs to be State owned. The Oireachtas should serve the public interest, as stipulated in the motion, but I do not believe that the interest of the public, [1776]the workers or the aviation sector is best served by State ownership. I do not know how anyone could think that such is the case after the experience of the past few years and the manner in which the airline has been abused under State ownership. Its performance has been hobbled and its future prosperity jeopardised by the absence of the willingness of the State to make decisions about the future of the airline.

I have no problem with the investment of the national pension fund in low risk public projects. If this airline was publicly quoted, I would have no objection to the national pension fund being invested in it. However, investing in an airline is extremely risky and I would not like to see my pension dependent on the future of something as liable to market fluctuations as an airline.

I have no problem with most of the Government's amendment to the motion. However, I cannot agree to that part of the amendment that welcomes the Government’s strategic approach that allegedly gives Irish aviation a clear direction for the future and an unambiguous mandate for growth. That really makes me despair. We have witnessed a classic example of the Government’s inability to make a decision or give clear direction to this industry in recent years. That part of the amendment must have been written by someone with a great sense of humour, or it is an indication that the Government has lost touch with reality.

For the past three years, the Government has prevaricated, procrastinated and obfuscated. It has done anything but make a decision. The result is that the airline has lost its management, growth opportunities and approximately 25% of the value of the airline, according to the market. The restructuring planned for the airline and essential for its future has completely stalled. The business plan has gone to ground because there has been no clear direction about where the company was going.

To call this a strategic approach is to stretch the imagination. The indecision about the terminal is similar. The aviation sector must grow if it is to survive and prosper. It must get new routes, and to do that, we need a bigger runway to take larger aeroplanes that do not require load constraints when they take off. We must have growth capacity and we do not have that. We do not have the runways, we do not have the terminals and we do not have an airline with enough aeroplanes. We have no chance to capitalise on the opportunities afforded to other airports and other airlines with the coming open skies policy. The industry is moving on. Other airlines and airports are making decisions. They are moving in and capturing routes that are being lost to us as our airlines and terminals are not in a position to respond to market conditions.

The sale of Aer Lingus is essential and it will serve everyone’s interest well. An airline must be able to react to market conditions in an industry that is volatile. It must have commercial freedom. [1777]Over the past few years, it has been unable to make decisions on facing changes in market conditions, and that cannot be tolerated. We have been very lucky that Aer Lingus has survived this difficult few years. However, it is not out of the woods yet. The airline also needs equity capital. It cannot carry any more debt as an airline. It has already invested heavily in the replacement of its short-haul fleet. The State could invest in it now, but not if the airline got into trouble. Its long-haul fleet needs to be replaced. Some Deputies have stated that nobody knows how much that will cost, but the company has been negotiating for a long time with aircraft providers and it should have a fair idea of the cost. The chairman of the company indicated that about €1 billion would be needed. Another €1 billion is required for expansion if the airline is to develop new routes. Aer Lingus operates in an environment in which there is a significant demand for travel services. Passenger growth for the company is 6% compared with Ryanair’s figure of almost 50%. An increase in business of the order enjoyed by Ryanair is required if Aer Lingus is to compete successfully. The company is currently profitable but this has been achieved largely on the basis of downsizing and it cannot continue with this approach indefinitely. There must be investment for growth. The business plan, which is the only game in town, requires Aer Lingus to expand and that requires equity capital.

Members who spoke for the motion argued that State ownership of Aer Lingus is essential for tourism and the economy. However, the reality is that tourism and the economy do not depend on the existence of a complacent terminal-provider or a State-owned airline. What is required is an aviation sector in which airline operators are aware they must compete not only with other airlines, terminals and airports but with other states. We must compete and prosper on a European and worldwide scale and we must aggressively seek new business. New airlines must be encouraged to use our airports and existing airlines must provide new routes. That is the best hope for tourism and the economy but it cannot currently be achieved.

Our experience in regard to Telecom Éireann gives us every reason to pause for thought and does not inspire confidence as we contemplate the future of Aer Lingus. There are no guarantees in respect of either State or private ownership. State ownership is not a guarantee of a company’s survival even if the taxpayer could prop it up when it gets into trouble. Good management and the ability to grow are the best prospects we can offer to Aer Lingus. We must afford the airline the opportunity to make its own commercial decisions, give it access to capital and allow it to expand into new markets.

I despair in regard to the decision on a second terminal. Reports were commissioned at great cost from all quarters which examined every [1778]criteria upon which that decision should be made. None of those reports was considered when it came time to make the decision. The only criterion was the question of party political interests. The Government has badly served the aviation industry in this regard. One wonders about the purpose of the protracted and painful debate and the associated hype when one considers that the Taoiseach had apparently already negotiated away even the possibility of a competing terminal when he promised conditions and pay in the new facility would be similar to those in the existing and dismally failed terminal. How are we expected to believe there was ever a possibility of a competing terminal if the Taoiseach had already decided the pay and conditions that must prevail?

This is a sorry saga of the mistreatment and abuse of both the airports and Aer Lingus. I cannot in conscious support either the motion or the Government’s amendment.

Mr. Durkan:  I thank my colleague, Deputy Olivia Mitchell, for affording me the opportunity to speak on this motion. Like many other Members, my constituency consists of many Aer Lingus workers with a long history of support for the State airline. It is important that we encourage competition. Any State or semi-State body should be able to accept competition and compete effectively in a commercial environment by providing a service that is efficient and cost-effective.

I am confused about the outcome of the discussions which took place within the Cabinet in recent weeks. The Minister for Finance said in his reply that the Government decided in principle last Wednesday to allow the sale of a majority shareholding in Aer Lingus while retaining a significant stake in the company to protect the State’s key strategic interests. The last time I heard something similar was when the Minister spoke in this House some years ago about Irish Sugar. That issue involved discussion of the golden share and strategic interests. In that instance, great hope and confidence were placed in the reassurances given that such an approach would provide the security necessary to allow us move forward.

This approach worked up to a point and until the recent events of which we are all aware. We all acknowledge that changing times have affected the situation of Irish Sugar. I have no problem with the reasoning now prevalent in the commercial arena that the public sector must compete effectively with the private sector and must be capable of meeting on an ongoing basis all the relevant commercial challenges. The discussions which took place over the last number of weeks between the two Government parties have been reflected in daily discussions on “Morning Ireland” of the competing merits of the [1779]opposing cases. One wonders which party won the debate.

It appears the proposal put forward for a second terminal in private ownership has lost out. At the same time, we are told a third terminal may be built after the next general election. The public will not know in the forthcoming election what will eventually transpire in this regard. Will the second terminal compete against the third or the first terminal? I simply do not know. The Minister for Finance is a hurling fan from a strong hurling county where the players are exponents of ground hurling. A good deal of ground hurling must have taken place in Cabinet when this issue was discussed. I am somewhat askance at the outcome because it came almost as a heave against the head. It seemed initially there would be a second terminal which would be in private ownership and would compete with the existing facility, and that the customer would be the beneficiary. I am not convinced that will be the case and I am not sure such an outcome will prevail in the future.

I must declare an interest in view of the references made to the criticisms of the Government’s plan by Mr. Ulick McEvaddy who is a relative of mine. I listened with interest to the proposal put forward by Mr. McEvaddy and could see nothing wrong with it economically or commercially. All the indicators suggested it was a solid and sound proposal. I do not know what happened to change the Government’s attitude in this matter. The sound approach is to take account of the economics of the situation and the fact that all international airlines and airports must operate under the dictates of the requirement for profitability and competitiveness.

Looking to the future, I cannot say how Mr. McEvaddy’s proposal will weigh up against the proposal before the House in terms of the Government’s amendment. Economists abound in this country and they usually tell us ten or 15 years later how we all went wrong in regard to some particular matter. I have much more to say on this matter but there is no time to do so.

Debate adjourned.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  The Select Committee on Agriculture and Food has completed its consideration of the following Revised Estimates for the public services for the service of the year ending 31 December 2005: Vote 31. The Select Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights has completed its consideration of the following Revised Estimates for the public services for the service of the year ending 31 December 2005: Votes 36 and 37.

Mr. P. Power:  In January 2004, a state-of-the-art six-unit residential complex, custom-built to cater for young Limerick people with moderate to severe mental handicaps, was completed at St. Vincent’s, Lisnagry, County Limerick, at a cost of €4.25 million. It remains closed one and a half years later. Tonight, the Department of Health and Children stands indicted for failing to provide the staff to properly operate this vital facility for young Limerick people.

I raise this matter to discover why this situation was allowed to develop and continue to the present. The children who should have been accommodated in this modern facility are tonight languishing in sub-standard facilities, cared for by dedicated Daughters of Charity staff, who look out the window with envy and disbelief at a modern facility which was custom-built to their needs and ask how this situation arose at a time of unprecedented resources.

The boys with challenging needs are currently accommodated in this facility in large groups, which is contrary to best international practice. Bowls, sink units and hand basins have been dismantled by some of these patients. The new unit was designed to accommodate fewer numbers in each group and the materials used in its construction stand up to any attempt to dismantle the unit. This flagship project backed by the best available expertise is, regrettably, deteriorating before our eyes for want of a commitment from the Department to employ staff to run it.

Mental hospitals have been closed because the system of care was repressive. Locked wards have no place in the treatment of persons with learning disabilities. The Daughters of Charity have developed an effective holistic treatment for their patients. Nurses there are professionally trained to administer this therapy. Patients require nursing care rather than care workers. I am looking for answers and a commitment from the Department that it will ensure this important facility in Limerick is opened as soon as possible.

Minister of State at the Department of Transport (Mr. Callely):  I am pleased, on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children with responsibility for services for people with disabilities, Deputy Tim O’Malley, to have this opportunity to clarify the current position in the provision of funding to staff a new six-unit residential complex at St. Vincent’s, Lisnagry, County Limerick. I thank my good friend and colleague, Deputy Peter Power, who expressed to me his deep frustration and anxiety about this unit.

The Health Act 2004 provided for the Health Service Executive, which was established on 1 [1781]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 funding new or enhanced levels of health and personal social services. I understand from the Department of Health and Children that the Health Service Executive is examining the proposals it received from the various areas, including the mid-western area, on new and enhanced service provisions that have been agreed within those areas.

The Minister of State, Deputy Tim O’Malley, has asked the executive to provide him with details of the services which will be put in place nationally with the additional funding available for 2005 as soon as decisions regarding these matters have been finalised. The Minister of State has also asked the executive to inform Deputy Peter Power of the outcome of the particular matter he raised. I assure the Deputy that, as a result of the forthright representations he has brought to my attention regarding his concerns about the residential complex at St. Vincent’s, I will also be happy to pursue this matter with my ministerial colleague with a view to a successful conclusion and the opening of the unit as soon as possible. I will keep Deputy Power informed of developments.

Mr. Naughten:  I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the lack of an audiology service in the west, particularly in the west. At present, approximately 750 adults and 210 children in the west await the services of an audiologist. This figure includes new referrals and recalls. The average waiting time for child audiology services in County Roscommon is four years. A child who, due to hearing difficulties, requires speech and language therapy cannot progress until a hearing aid is provided. This is disgraceful and it should not be tolerated. I ask the Minister of State to take up this issue to ensure that this pathetic situation is addressed immediately.

People cannot take up employment because of the liability associated with their limited hearing, and they cannot get an appointment for a hearing aid. It takes some time from ordering to delivery of the hearing aids and when people eventually get them they may not fit.

In 2003, I raised this issue with the relevant health board. After transferral of the service to the community services in County Roscommon, I was told that arrangements were being put in place to restore the service as quickly as possible — the people of County Roscommon never had an adequate service — but to date, no action has been taken. In August 2004, I was told that the service would resume in mid-September. In January 2005, I was told that an audiologist was not available but that efforts were being made to appoint one to provide a service. Last month, I was told that, following interviews, a shortlist had [1782]been compiled for an audiologist for adult services and that it was hoped the service would be operational soon.

I have been told that the recruitment of an audiologist for children is being actively pursued. Due to the scarcity of this grade of workers, a number of past attempts to recruit to this position were unsuccessful. The reality is that the health service has let these children and adults down. They are being ignored simply because they reside in the midlands and County Roscommon. The health service is washing its hands of this matter by claiming that it cannot recruit for the position. If a recruitment cannot be made on the salary offered by the health service, an enhanced salary should be paid or other incentives put in place to ensure that the post is filled.

A person’s physical location should not be a cause for discrimination. Nobody should have to tolerate the situation where he or she must wait four years for an appointment with an audiologist. The Minister of State should ensure that this issue is addressed and that we are no longer fobbed off on this issue. These circumstances have obtained for the past two and a half years, but nothing has happened. No one has been recruited and the backlog has not been addressed. The lack of hearing aids means people cannot find jobs and children cannot access proper speech and language therapy. The Government must do something immediately.

Mr. Callely:  I am happy to have the opportunity to address on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, the issue raised by Deputy Naughten. As the House will be aware, the Health Act 2004 provided for the establishment of the Health Service Executive on 1 January 2005. Under the Act, it is the responsibility of the executive to manage and deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services, including audiology services. I am happy to set out the development of policy in this area and to convey the information provided by the chief officer of the executive’s western area on the specific question raised by the Deputy Naughten.

The chief officer of the western region of the HSE has informed the Department of Health and Children that there are approximately 750 adults awaiting appointments as new referrals and recalls in the western region. The number of children waiting for appointments is 210. I concur with Deputy Naughten’s view that 950 is an unacceptable number of people to be waiting. While waiting times for tests in Mayo are relatively short at up to four months, there are difficulties in Roscommon and Galway. Excessive waiting times of up to four years obtain in the two counties due to difficulties in recruiting the necessary specialist staff. Deputy Naughten will support my view that early intervention is the best policy by far, especially in relation to chil[1783]dren. If one does not intervene early, one finds one has to provide other support services at a later stage. I would like to see the earliest possible intervention and appropriate services being made available as quickly as possible.

The chief officer has advised the Department that the main difficulty giving rise to delays relates to the recruitment of audiological scientists. While audiological scientist and senior audiologist posts have been advertised on three separate occasions, the HSE has been unsuccessful in recruiting the required specialists due to their scarcity in the workforce. The posts are being re-advertised in Ireland and an advertising campaign is also being carried out in the UK. The HSE’s western area has informed the Department that in some areas it has engaged a part-time audiological scientist to deal with the most urgent cases. In other areas, the HSE has received support from the audiology department of University College Hospital Galway. In addition, the services of an audiologist from the royal group of hospitals and dental hospitals in Belfast have been employed. He is contracted to provide services to Mayo as he can only undertake services in one county. This accounts for the improved position of Mayo compared to the other two counties.

Since 1 January 2005, 35 adult clinics have been held in the audiology department of Galway community services. A total of 714 clients have been called for hearing assessment and the fitting of hearing aids during these clinics. In addition, 18 children’s clinics have been held, during which 207 children, including those aged from four years down, have been called and assessed. In Mayo, approximately 100 adults and 30 children are seen and assessed each month. The average waiting time in Mayo for audiological treatment is from six to eight weeks for children and from two and four months for adults.

In January 2004, following an evaluation of the posts of scientist and senior scientist on foot of the Labour Court recommendation, the posts of audiology and senior audiology scientist were upgraded. The upgrade linked the posts to those of physicist and senior physicist and provided for significant increases in salaries. In addition, the appointment of a chief audiologist was sanctioned for a number of HSE areas. The regrading of posts is expected to enhance their attractiveness to future recruits.

The Department of Health and Children is committed to the development of community audiology services, for the development of which it has provided since 2000 additional ongoing funding in excess of €2.6 million. The funding has been allocated to provide for the development of services and capital funding for the improvement of facilities in Health Service Executive areas. In addition, the Department provided once-off [1784]funding of €407,000 in 2004 and €329,000 in 2003 for the purchase of hearing aids.

I assure Deputy Naughten that the Department of Health and Children has taken steps to provide an attractive grade structure for audiologists and funding for improved community services. Unfortunately, recruitment of audiological scientists to work in the western area of the HSE has proven difficult. The Department will continue to impress on the HSE the need to address this matter as a priority in service delivery and is optimistic that an improvement in services will be witnessed.

Ms Burton:  I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important issue. Life is cheap in Dublin West where gun crime has reached epidemic proportions. I draw the attention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the recent, savage killing of Mr. Joseph Rafferty who was shot twice by a lone gunman as he left his apartment in the Ongar Park housing estate near Clonsilla at approximately 9.15 a.m. on 12 April. The shooting took place in broad daylight in a residential part of west Dublin. The brazen and casual manner in which the murder was carried out is especially horrific and demonstrates the extent to which gun crime has become an unavoidable part of life in Dublin West.

The Star newspaper reported on 19 May that the family of Mr. Rafferty had asked Sinn Féin councillor, Mr. Dathaí Doolan, to help them address the IRA death threat against their relative. The death threat originated with a dispute between Mr. Rafferty and an IRA member from the south inner city of Dublin about a relatively minor row at a 21st birthday party. What does the Minister have to say about this case and its chilling comparisons with the murder of Robert McCartney in Belfast?

Firearms are in plentiful supply and guns are being used to settle scores as never before. The fact that personal disputes are being addressed through fatal gun attacks is evidence that a gun culture has developed in Dublin. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform made the bold claim six months ago that he did not believe there was new energy in crime in Dublin and that events were, to some extent, the sting of a dying wasp. The Minister has been stung by the stupidity of that assertion. The recent spate of killings in Dublin West demonstrates the degree to which the Minister has been divorced from reality.

While the Minister has been in never-never land denying the reality of gun crime, gangs have steadily reasserted themselves in Dublin West. While the Garda has recently launched Operation Anvil to target the significant surge in gun crime, which is welcome, Dublin West continues to show signs of chronic under-policing. It is still awaiting the establishment of a proper com[1785]munity Garda force based in the area and armed with local knowledge. I was stunned at the end of 2004 when the Minister revealed to me that the number of community gardaí in Dublin West had fallen to 17 from 19 in 2003. In 1997, there were 18 community gardaí serving Dublin West and Blanchardstown. In the intervening eight years, the population of Dublin West has grown dramatically to reach 80,000 and is now much larger than Limerick or Galway.

While the Minister appointed 20 recent graduates of the Garda College at Templemore to work in Dublin West, is he able to confirm that they will remain in the area for at least two years? It is usually the case that they come, go and are never seen again. The failure of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to supply adequate numbers of community gardaí to urban areas, especially those which are under siege from gangs, guns and drugs, is a shameful indictment of the Government’s failure on policing. We need real community and neighbourhood policing in Dublin West. That means communities being policed with gardaí back on the beat, not just cruising in squad cars. More effective training, longer assignments to the task and greater recognition for promotion purposes of the qualities required for successful community police are essential if the community garda service is to be successful.

International evidence shows that putting the police back into the community is the best solution to tackling the epidemic of gun crime and anti-social behaviour. Two years ago I told the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to travel to Boston to see how community policing operates there. It has taken him nearly two and a half years to get there. He has already been around the world before he managed to go there and have a look at what it means on the ground.

No issue is as important as this for the local community. The lawless operation of criminal gangs destroys the efforts of individual families and the whole community to create an environment where parents can feel secure for the safety and welfare of their children. I want the Minister to come back to Dublin West very soon to meet those who heard his assurances last year about the death of the gangs. They will give him an earful he will not forget for a long time but maybe he will learn enough to rise above his usual rhetoric and start to come to grips with the reign of terror currently operated by gangs in west Dublin under his nose.

I do not want to continue receiving e-mails from mothers and fathers who have just bought an expensive house in west Dublin, asking what they are to tell their four year old child about a man being shot down in cold blood at the end of their street. In the past six months that has happened four times with fatal consequences in Dublin West and many other times with less serious results. It is an epidemic.

[1786]Mr. Callely:  I thank Deputy Burton for raising this matter. I am deputising for my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, who would like to be present but is unable to be here as he is committed to other business.

As the Minister made clear in the House last week, he considers gun crime to be a matter of the utmost gravity. As a Dubliner I am concerned about this matter. The Minister has been concerned for some time that serious offences taking place have pointed to the emergence of a gun culture in Dublin. This, sadly, has been manifest in the number of fatal shootings, including the shooting referred to by Deputy Burton, which have taken place in recent weeks.

The Garda has amassed a considerable amount of intelligence about gun crime in Dublin and it has a very clear picture of what is going on. In the view of both the Minister and the Garda Commissioner, Noel Conroy, the time is right to strike at this emerging gun culture. Consequently, the Minister reported to the House on 17 May that the Garda Síochána had launched Operation Anvil, specifically targeted at those involved in gun crime.

The Minister, my Government colleagues and I will put renewed energy and vigour into stamping out any gun culture that may exist. A clear message must be given to criminals of this nature that there will be no safe houses for them. This is one of the most intensive special policing operations ever undertaken in the State. It is intelligence-driven and is aimed at those involved in gun crime of any kind in the Dublin metropolitan region. Its cost will amount to €6.5 million, which the Minister has made available from his Department’s allocation for this year. It is intended that it will involve about 15,000 additional hours overtime being worked each week by Garda in the Dublin area. I should emphasise that this expenditure will not adversely affect existing agreed overtime allocations across the Garda divisions, including those for the Dublin metropolitan division.

Operation Anvil will involve divisional uniform and detective patrols throughout the region, backed up by national units, overt and covert operations, mobile and foot patrols, random checkpoints at specific locations, searches, execution of warrants and gathering and collation of high quality criminal intelligence.

A feature of the gun culture that has emerged is the apparent belief on the part of some criminals that they have immunity from the laws of the land. While our legislation for tackling organised crime is one of the toughest in Europe, the Minister is proposing that it be strengthened further. As Deputies will be aware, the Criminal Justice Bill 2004, which is currently on Second Stage in the House, provides for a comprehensive package of anti-crime measures that will enhance the powers of the Garda in the investigation and [1787]prosecution of offences. These include a general power in regard to the issue of search warrants, including a provision to allow a superintendent to issue an emergency search warrant in certain circumstances, increased detention powers of up to 24 hours for arrestable offences and a statutory power to preserve a crime scene.

In addition, Part 3 of the Bill makes provision for the admissibility as evidence in court of statements by witnesses who subsequently refuse to testify or who retract their original statements. Furthermore, the Minister is considering bringing forward a number of amendments to the Bill, including a proposal to provide for criminal offences in regard to participation in a criminal organisation.

There is a particular overriding necessity, in view of the recent increase in violent crime involving firearms to which Deputy Burton has referred, to ensure that public safety and security are given priority in any review of policy and legislation in regard to firearms. With this in mind the Minister has decided to bring forward at an early stage certain proposals for inclusion in the Criminal Justice Bill. The Bill as published contains one of those proposals, to provide for the secure custody of firearms. The Minister is increasing the sentences for the more serious range of firearms offences, including the possibility of mandatory minimum sentences in some cases, as well as new offences of illegally modifying a firearm, for example, sawing off a shotgun barrel, and the imposition of severe penalties for this offence. The Minister has already asked all sides of the House to assist in the early enactment of this legislation. We look forward to the support of all Deputies in that regard.

The Garda authorities have informed the Minister that the incident to which the Deputy refers is the subject of a major, ongoing Garda investigation that encompasses several Garda divisions and specialised Garda units. The Minister is further informed that this investigation has, to date, led to a number of arrests and that it is anticipated that more arrests will follow as further progress is made. The Garda investigation team is aware, as reported in the national press, of allegations that unlawful organisations were involved in this incident. Garda inquiries are continuing in this regard.

The Garda authorities have also informed the Minister that the level of both foot and mobile patrols in the Dublin 15 area has been increased and that the area is also the subject of intensive policing activity, in accordance with the operational goals of both Operation Crossover and Operation Anvil. Moreover, local gardaí will continue to liaise with residents and residents groups in the area to ensure that their concerns are being met. I hope that is somewhat helpful to Deputy Burton.

Dr. Cowley:  I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise this important matter on the Adjournment and I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for that.

People in Westport are taking to the streets. They intend to march locally and to Dáil Éireann. These are people who would not be interested in doing something like this unless they were desperate, which they are. Gaelscoil na Cruaiche has been in existence since 1995 and the school has gone from strength to strength. It now has almost 200 pupils. For the past nine years 30 pupils and another teacher have been added each year. The school is most impressive.

The problem is that the school is on a temporary site in five prefabricated classrooms. As the lease will soon expire it will have to prepare for another move. It has already moved three times. The position is desperate because almost 200 pupils and nine teachers will be out on the road. The school has received notice to quit from the site by 2006 and the lease is not renewable. On 31 May 2006 the school will have to vacate the site. Unless alternative accommodation is provided those 200 pupils will be on the street in one year’s time.

I have been pursuing the matter with the Minister and the reply to a question I tabled in December 2004 was that the OPW was examining the site. In 2001 the OPW was asked to examine the site and it was decided in 2004 that it was not successful in finding one. This is a major problem which is causing great worry for these children who are being educated through Irish and their parents. The matter requires urgent attention.

A shocking report exists on the conditions in the school in terms of health and safety, which was commissioned by the board of management. It paints a terrible picture of dry rot, wet rot and so on. The five prefabricated buildings were bought second-hand six years ago and are falling apart. The position is critical, taking into account eviction notices, dry and wet rot and so on.

  9 o’clock

I raised the matter with the Minister for Education and Science again in February and was informed that the property management section of the OPW was exploring the possibility of acquiring a site for the school. The Minister was unable to give me more information because of commercial sensitivities. The OPW was to select a site and the Minister had no news thereon at the time in question. The OPW has made its final assessment and has told the school that the result would be available soon. However, that was four months ago and the school has heard nothing. Nothing has been done about the provision of a school site, the shape of the school to come or the financial allocation, yet it has to be open by 1 June 2006.

The Department says it can do nothing until it receives a report from the OPW. So far there are [1789]no signs of progress at the design or planning stages. On 26 April 2005, I asked the Minister, further to her statement in Dáil Éireann that Gaelscoil na Cruaiche would be provided with a site, the reason for the delay by the OPW in finalising the site arrangements, given that a site is now available. I am aware that a site is available. I asked her if she would fulfil her promise that a school would be built when needed. Furthermore, I asked when the school would be built and if she would make a statement on the matter. She replied:

The property management section of the Office of Public Works, which acts on behalf of my Department in relation to site acquisitions generally, is continuing to explore the possibility of acquiring a site for the school referred to by the Deputy. The technical suitability of seven sites is under consideration . . . . The question of the development of a new school building will be considered further in the context of the multi-annual budget when the site has been acquired.

I know many buildings and much funding has been provided by the Department, but I refer to desperate circumstances because the people involved need to be in a new, permanent school within one year. The conditions are desperate. I asked the Minister to prioritise the case of the school. There is a site available and there is nothing commercially sensitive about it.

People are saying the Minister is not interested in doing something because she is not prepared to commit money to the west. The situation is desperate and I am not exaggerating by saying that people are taking to the streets. They are desperate for an answer and I hope the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Callely, can give me one tonight.

Mr. Callely:  I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the proposals of the Department of Education and Science on the provision of a new facility for Gaelscoil na Cruaiche in Westport, County Mayo. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, would like to be present, but unfortunately she is unable to attend. I thank Deputy Cowley for his kind remarks on the good work of the Minister and her Department.

Since the beginning of the year, in addition to her having done much good work, the Minister has made a number of announcements relating to the schools building and modernisation programme. This year alone, €270 million will be allocated to primary schools and €223 million to post-primary schools just for building works. This represents an increase of 14% on the 2004 allocation.

The programmes supported will include 141 major building projects already on site and more due to go on site in the near future, 122 major school building projects countrywide, which will [1790]go to tender and construction during 2005 or early 2006, 192 primary schools which have been invited to take part in the small and rural schools initiative and the devolved scheme for providing additional accommodation, up to 120 schools which have been given approval to rent temporary premises pending delivery of a permanent solution to their long-term accommodation needs, 43 schools which have been authorised to start architectural planning of their major projects, 590 schools which were recently given approval to complete essential small-scale projects under the summer works scheme and 124 schools to progress through architectural planning.

The new Schools Building and Modernisation Programme 2005-2009 will be underpinned not just by a significant increase in overall funding but also by major improvements in the administration of the funding.

Dr. Cowley:  What about Westport?

Mr. Callely:  Devolving more funding to local level through the summer works scheme and the small and rural schools initiative will allow schools to move ahead more quickly with smaller projects.

Gaelscoil na Cruaiche opened in September 1996 with provisional recognition and was granted permanent recognition in 2000. As Deputy Cowley stated, the school is accommodated in prefabricated classrooms on a three quarter acre site in Westport. The cost of site and classroom rental is grant-aided by the Department of Education and Science at the rate of 95%.

The property management section of the Office of Public Works, which purchases sites for new schools on behalf of the Department, was requested to explore the possibility of acquiring a site for the school in question. Following the most recent advertisement placed by the OPW seeking proposals of possible sites, a number of responses were received. Seven sites have been visited and their technical suitability as locations for the Gaelscoil are being considered.

I am sure the Deputy can appreciate that, due to commercial sensitivities, the Department is unable to comment further on specific site acquisitions. I assure him that the permanent accommodation needs of this school are being addressed as expeditiously as possible and that the provision of a permanent building for the school will be considered——

Dr. Cowley:  They are not being considered and the people affected are going to march on the Dáil because they are so fed up.

Mr. Callely:  ——in the context of the schools building and modernisation programme when a site has been acquired.

It is unfair for the Deputy to make that comment given that I just said the Office of Public [1791]Works, which is responsible for purchasing sites for new schools on behalf of the Department, was requested to explore the possibility of acquiring a site for Gaelscoil na Cruaiche in Westport. The feasibility of sites is being considered. Following a recent advertisement placed by the OPW seeking proposals of possible sites——

Dr. Cowley:  I know all that. I heard it all before.

Mr. Callely:  ——a number of responses were received.

Dr. Cowley:  They were considered and there is one very good site.

Mr. Callely:  Seven sites are being considered.

[1792]Dr. Cowley:  There is a delay and nothing is happening.

Mr. Callely:  The Minister would be very happy to process all the information very rapidly but the Deputy will agree that due process must be adhered to.

Dr. Cowley:  Due process since 2001.

Mr. Callely:  There are commercial sensitivities and we must adhere to normal procurement procedures. I have no doubt that the Minister will be happy to inform the Deputy about further progress as it is made.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 May 2005.

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

Questions Nos. 1 to 25, inclusive, answered orally.

Questions Nos. 26 to 47, inclusive, resubmitted.

Questions Nos. 48 to 53, inclusive, answered orally.

  54.  Dr. Twomey    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if and when he intends to introduce new regulations for the diet supplement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17186/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  Diet supplements are provided through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme administered on my behalf by the community welfare division of the Health Service Executive. Any person receiving a social welfare or health service executive payment, who has been prescribed a special diet as a result of a specified medical condition and who is unable to provide for his or her food needs from within his or her own resources, may qualify for a diet supplement under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme.

Diet supplements are subject to a means test. Under the existing scheme, the amount of supplement payable in individual cases depends on which of two categories of diet, low cost or high cost, has been prescribed by the applicant’s medical adviser and the income of the individual and his or her dependants. The basis for calculating the amount of diet supplement remained unchanged between 1996 and 2004. Increases in social welfare rates and in the cost of special diets since 1996 had not been taken into account in assessing entitlement in individual cases.

With effect from 1 January 2004, the diet supplement scheme was restructured to take account of increases in both social welfare payment rates and the rate of food inflation since 1996. In the case of new applicants for diet supplement, the amount of supplement payable is based on up-to-date diet costs, that is, €44 for lower cost diets or €57 for higher cost diets, less one third of the applicant’s income or one sixth of the joint income in the case of a couple.

As increases in the social welfare payment rates were higher than food price inflation since 1996, the shortfall needing to be met by diet supplement is less than what it was in the past. People who were in receipt of a diet supplement prior to the introduction of the revised regulations on 1 January 2004 continue to receive [1794]their existing rate of supplement until such time as there is a change in their circumstances that would warrant a review of their cases. Pending any changes I will make to the scheme, similar arrangements continue to apply this year for existing and new cases, taking account of 2005 rates of social welfare payments.

To inform my consideration of the scheme, my Department commissioned a study by an expert from the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute. The study examined the special diets prescribed in legislation for which assistance is available through the existing diet supplement scheme. The study also considered the appropriate level of assistance required to cater for any additional costs involved in providing for necessary special diets, relative to the cost of a normal healthy eating diet. The findings of this research study are being assessed by my Department to determine how the diet supplement scheme should be developed. Development of the scheme is complex, as the report points out that certain diet conditions covered under the scheme could be adjusted to reflect the latest medical and dietary thinking and the fact that many standard food products are more healthy now in any event.

I will introduce regulations to update the scheme as appropriate as soon as the revised diet supplement range and payment rates have been determined, taking account of the study findings. As part of this process, I have asked my Department to analyse recent patterns of diet supplement payment levels under the existing scheme structure as I wish to make sure that any new supplement coverage and payment rates put in place continue to enable people to meet the cost of additional special dietary items if they need them. In the meantime, diet supplements continue to be provided for existing recipients and new applicants as heretofore.

  55.  Mr. Crawford    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the number of persons receiving the rent supplement for 18 months or more who have been passed on to a local authority for a housing assessment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17171/05]

  72.  Mr. Coveney    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the number of persons who have been availing of the rent supplement for 18 months or more; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17169/05]

  85.  Mr. Crawford    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the number of persons in receipt of the rent supplement for 18 months or more who were passed on to the local authority for a housing assessment and who have had their housing needs met; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17172/05]

  107.  Ms C. Murphy    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the arrangements which have been put in place between his Depart[1795]ment and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to satisfy the recently announced criteria that a person in receipt of rent assistance for a period of 18 months will be offered a local authority property. [16951/05]

  122.  Mr. Coveney    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the progress made on the long-term initiative for rent supplement tenants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17168/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 55, 72, 85, 107 and 122 together.

The supplementary welfare allowance scheme is administered on my behalf by the community welfare division of the Health Service Executive. It provides for the payment of a weekly or monthly rent or mortgage interest supplement to assist eligible people who are unable to provide for their accommodation costs from their own resources and who do not have accommodation available from any other source.

As of 13 May last, there were 58,308 households in receipt of assistance under the rent supplement scheme. Just over half of these, almost 30,000 tenants, have been on the scheme for 18 months or more. Expenditure on rent supplements was almost €332 million in 2003 and just under €354 million in 2004. I have provided €369 million in this year’s Estimates for this scheme.

As a significant number of people have come to rely on rent supplements on a long-term basis over recent years, the Government announced an initiative in July 2004 aimed at meeting these long-term housing needs. The new system gives local authorities responsibility for meeting long-term housing assistance needs, including the needs of those people on rent supplements for 18 months or longer.

These needs will be met through a range of approaches, including the traditional range of social housing options, the voluntary housing sector and, in particular, a new public private partnership type rental accommodation scheme. A sum of €19 million has been transferred from my Department’s Vote to that of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government this year to help finance this initiative. The new arrangements are currently being implemented in seven local authorities, including Dublin, Galway and Limerick City Councils and South Dublin County Council. These seven lead authorities include some of the most extensive urban areas in the State.

My Department and the Health Service Executive actively assist the local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in this process, for example, that Department has been supplied with full information on the 30,000 people who have been on rent supplement for 18 months or more. My Department has also provided details to each of [1796]the seven lead local authorities of people in this category who reside in the relevant local authority functional area.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has appointed programme managers to assist these lead authorities with the implementation of the new arrangements. Thereafter these managers will be available to support other authorities over the implementation period. Implementation groups in the seven lead authority areas have been established to ensure effective ongoing liaison and co-operation locally between housing authorities, Health Service Executive areas and other agencies. The Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government has indicated that the lead local authorities are on target to transfer the first eligible rent supplement recipients to the rental accommodation scheme within the next few weeks. The new arrangements will be initiated in all local authority areas by the end of 2005.

The aim of the new system is to minimise ongoing dependence on rent supplement by progressing to a situation where suitable long-term accommodation is available for all who need it and where the rent supplement scheme is not necessary other than for short-term support. This will be achieved within a period of three years from commencement of the new arrangements in each local authority and in any event no later than September 2008.

These new arrangements will provide an additional source of good quality accommodation to meet long-term housing needs. The scheme will involve structured arrangements to secure long-term availability of privately rented accommodation, particularly accommodation currently occupied by tenants in receipt of rent supplement under the SWA scheme and to encourage the supply of additional accommodation. Overall, the new rental assistance arrangements represent a major step forward in supporting people with long-term housing needs. All the relevant agencies are co-operating actively to make the system work successfully.

The supplementary welfare allowance rent supplement scheme will continue to provide short-term income support for eligible people who are unable to meet their immediate accommodation needs through their own resources.

  56.  Mr. Sargent    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the proactive educational measures his Department has taken to advise persons of the dangers of excessive indebtedness; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17142/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  My Department has overall responsibility for the money advice and budgeting service, MABS, which provides assistance to people who are over indebted. The service is targeted at those who are on low income or in receipt of social wel[1797]fare payments and also those with poor literacy and numeracy skills. There are 52 MABS companies located in 65 offices throughout the country. More than 16,000 new clients approach the MABS annually and the service deals with 30,000 clients on an ongoing basis. This year, funding of over €13.6 million is being provided for the MABS.

The money advice and budgeting service has a close and ongoing involvement with my Department at local level. Representatives of the Department are on the boards of management of MABS. The management committees members are also drawn from statutory and voluntary bodies such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, credit unions, citizens information centres and community welfare officers. These representatives in turn raise awareness of issues around over indebtedness in their parent bodies.

The money advice and budgeting service is advertised in many post offices and credit unions as well as in local health centres. New posters with local contact details are about to be circulated to all the MABS offices. These posters will be displayed in all social welfare offices and health centres as well as other appropriate locations. One of the objectives of the MABS is to facilitate low income families to develop the knowledge and skills they need to avoid getting into debt and to deal effectively with debt problems that arise.

A new company, MABS National Development Limited or MABS ndl, was established in 2004 to support, promote and develop the service. MABS ndl has recruited a national development team comprising a social policy-communications officer, a community education officer and three casework technical support officers. The community education officer is currently working on the development of a national strategy in community education which will be implemented by the 52 local services. This strategy will seek to empower individuals and communities in developing the skills necessary to deal with debt situations as they arise. Work on this strategy will proceed on a partnership basis, in co-operation at national and local levels with education providers. Contact has commenced with the Department of Education and Science to explore areas of co-operation and the MABS will work at local level with the existing network of adult literacy services and community education facilitators funded by that Department.

The community education officer has recently undertaken a survey of the MABS, entitled “What are we doing in Community Education”. The responses showed a high level of activity and the excellent work that has been put into developing materials and programmes which, for the most part, are very good quality.

I recently had the pleasure of officiating at the launch of “Let’s Talk Money”, a resource pack for money advisers and facilitators. This pack will be a resource to staff in the money advice and budgeting service and also to those who are [1798]involved in the education of community groups. It will support the work of MABS as a preventative measure and enable those who are most vulnerable to develop the knowledge and skills required to avoid getting into debt and to deal effectively with debt situations as they arise.

  57.  Mr. English    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he is considering changing the dual eligibility rule for persons in receipt of the carer’s allowance, for example, a person who has been in receipt of the carer’s allowance and who qualifies for the old age pension but only receives one social welfare payment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17184/05]

  104.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the number of carers currently in receipt of a payment; the number of applications received in the past two years; the number approved, rejected and pending; if he will consider extending the scheme to a wider group in view of the number of persons now caring for others and not in receipt of a payment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17129/05]

  113.  Ms Lynch    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the reforms he has recently introduced to the annual grant for full-time carers of older or disabled persons; if he proposes to introduce further reforms or benefits for payments to carers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17123/05]

  126.  Mr. Costello    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he has received a copy of the recently launched national carers strategy by the National Carers Association; if he has plans to review the payment system for carers in order that they receive the same salary as health workers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17119/05]

  246.  Mr. McHugh    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he will review the respite care grant in order that parents who provide full-time care for a special needs child by sharing the caring and who both work part-time for more than ten hours per week outside the home will qualify for same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17025/05]

  258.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his proposals to improve the qualifying conditions for the carer’s allowance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17430/05]

  259.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the potential costs of extending the carer’s allowance to an extra 5,000 carers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17431/05]

  260.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he will consider an extension of the carer’s allowance to all persons pro[1799]viding full-time care; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17432/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 57, 104, 113, 126, 246 and 258 to 260, inclusive, together.

The carer’s allowance is a social assistance payment which provides income support to people who are providing certain elderly or incapacitated persons with full-time care and attention and whose incomes fall below a certain limit. The primary objective of the social welfare system is to provide income support and, as a general rule, only one weekly social welfare payment is payable to an individual. This ensures resources are not used to make two income support payments to any one person. Persons qualifying for two social welfare payments always receive the higher payment to which they are entitled. Any changes would involve additional expenditure which could only be considered in a budgetary context. However, I continue to carefully examine the issue as part of an ongoing review of supports for carers.

The overall number of persons receiving a carer’s allowance at week ending 13 May 2005 was 23,307. A total of 15,050 claims were received during 2003 and 2004; 9,740 of these claims were awarded and 4,040 were refused. Approximately 1,000 claims were on hand at the end of 2004. The balance of claims was withdrawn. In addition, there are 711 carer’s benefit claims in payment and a further 1,839 claims that were previously in payment have been closed for a number of reasons, such as the carer is no longer providing care.

It is estimated that the annual gross cost of extending the carer’s allowance to an additional 5,000 carers and giving them the full package of free schemes would be in the region of €48 million annually. However, there would be some savings where these additional carers may currently be in receipt of another payment from my Department and may already be in receipt of the free schemes.

I introduced a number of improvements for carers in the last budget which will benefit existing recipients of carer’s payments and will also serve to extend support to carers who are not eligible for carer’s payments. The most significant of these relates to the respite care grant. I have made provision for increasing the respite care grant to €1,000 and the extension of it to all persons providing full-time care and attention, regardless of their means. This means the respite care grant will now be paid to persons providing full-time care but who are on another social welfare payment, excluding unemployment assistance and benefit. It will also be paid to carers who do not currently receive a weekly social welfare payment from my Department. The grant will continue to be paid automatically to those who are in receipt of carer’s payments.

[1800]This arrangement is being introduced to recognise the valuable role of carers and to acknowledge the needs of carers, especially for respite care. It is estimated that, overall, almost 33,000 carers will receive a respite care grant in June. As this is the first year of this new extended grant, I will keep it under review, particularly with regard to the qualification conditions.

With regard to the Carers Association’s national strategy, I presume the Deputy is referring to the document, Towards a Family Carers Strategy. I am honoured that the Carers Association has invited me to officially launch this document next Monday. I am particularly interested in the views expressed in the strategy about encouraging carers to participate in the labour force. My officials are currently examining proposals regarding care sharing. The details are still being teased out but I hope to be in a position to make progress this year. I am always prepared to consider changes to existing arrangements and, in this context, I will continue to review the issues raised by the Carers Association and other bodies representing carers.

  58.  Mr. Gogarty    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the aspects of the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s campaign on social welfare which he supports; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17136/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I recently met representatives of the National Women’s Council of Ireland to discuss their proposals for reform of the social welfare system so as to better reflect the position of women. The comprehensive set of proposals are based on research commissioned by the council and entitled “A Woman’s Model of Social Welfare Reform”. It was not possible to deal directly with all aspects of the report but I indicated to the council that I shared the view that the social welfare system should reflect to the greatest extent possible the principle of inclusiveness, and that within the resources available I would seek to address the priority issues raised within the report.

The council identified three priority areas for reform. These are: the provision of recognition of unpaid care work which tends to be undertaken largely by women; the recognition that women’s participation in the labour market can often be on the basis of atypical employment which has implications for coverage for social welfare benefits; the issue of access for older women to pension payments on an individual basis.

Under the first heading, the council addressed issues relating to maternity benefit and carer’s allowance. The maternity benefit scheme has been significantly improved over the past four years, in terms of both the duration of payment and the level at which it is paid. The means test for the carer’s allowance has been eased significantly in the past few years, notably with the introduction of a substantial disregard of spouses’ earnings.

[1801]With regard to atypical employment, the council put forward arguments for a new part-time unemployment payment and reforms to the legislation dealing with relatives assisting in family businesses. My Department is examining the issues relating to a part-time unemployment payment and how the information on treatment of family employments under the social insurance system could be improved.

As regards older women and pension rights, I indicated that both the programme for Government and Sustaining Progress include a commitment to increase the payment for qualified adults aged 66 years or over to the same level as the personal rate of the old age non-contributory pension. More generally a significant number of the proposals put forward by the council are already being closely examined and actively considered by my Department.

I indicated to the National Women’s Council of Ireland that I would consider seriously practical proposals that would lead to more equitable treatment of women within the social welfare system.

  59.  Mr. P. Breen    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if, as promised in the NAPS, child poverty will be substantially reduced or eliminated by 2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17152/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  Tackling child poverty has been and continues to be among my key priorities. Strategies to address child poverty and the measures to give effect to them are set out in the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion and in the national children’s strategy. The importance of tackling child poverty is reflected in the fact that “Ending Child Poverty” is one of ten Sustaining Progress special initiatives.

The overall target is to reduce the number of children who are defined as consistently poor to below 2% by 2007 and, if possible, to eliminate consistent poverty amongst children by then. The Living in Ireland survey, LIIS, which is the only current relevant survey allowing multiple years analysis, showed that from 1997 to 2001, the number of children who are consistently poor fell from 15.3% to 6.5%. The LIIS was discontinued and has been replaced by the EU survey of income and living conditions, EU SILC.

The EU SILC, based on a different methodology, indicated a consistent child poverty rate of 14.6%. In consideration of the previous continuous falls in the consistent child poverty rates and the ongoing substantial increases by this Government in child and family supports, the EU SILC rate does not suggest that child poverty has increased. It is a fact that different surveys give different results.

However, despite the extremely positive and targeted action taken by the Government and the record levels of spending on social welfare, there [1802]are vulnerable groups, including children, who struggle on the margins of society. It is, therefore, necessary to intensify the efforts made to eradicate poverty and social exclusion, particularly among persons in these vulnerable groups. One of the key factors underpinning the reduction in child poverty is the reduction in the numbers of parents who are unemployed. Our aim is to continue to maintain high levels of employment and to remove obstacles to taking up employment, especially for lone parents and parents with large families.

The most significant measure to date to tackle child poverty by my Department has been the substantial increases in child benefit payment rates. Between 1997 and 2005, the rate of child benefit rose from €38.09 per month for the first two children and €49.52 for each child thereafter to €141.60 per month for each of the first two children and to €177.30 per month for the third and each subsequent child. Child benefit is paid to more than 540,000 families in respect of approximately 1 million children, at an estimated cost of €1.916 billion in 2005. It delivers a standard rate of payment in respect of all children in a family regardless of income levels or employment status.

Through the family income supplement scheme, my Department provides cash support by way of weekly payments to families, including lone parent families, at work on low pay. Recent improvements to the scheme, including the assessment of entitlements on the basis of net rather than gross income and progressive increases in the income limits, have made it easier for lower income households to qualify under the scheme.

I await completion of a study being carried out by the NESC on amalgamating social welfare child dependant allowances with family income supplement payments, as a second tier of support to channel extra resources to low income families without creating disincentives to employment. In addition, a sub-group of the senior officials group on social inclusion has commenced examining obstacles to employment for lone parent families. My Department is also participating in an interdepartmental working group on early child care and education, chaired by the National Children’s Office. The work of this committee is at an advanced stage and the outcome will make an important contribution to finding the right mix of services and income support to facilitate employment take up and care for children.

The causes of poverty among children and its effects are multi-faceted and require a multi-policy response. A wide range of data are required in effectively monitoring, evaluating and further developing such policies. It is for that reason that my Department and the Department of Health and Children, through the National Children’s Office, are jointly funding a national longitudinal study on children. The study will be the most significant of its kind to be undertaken here, particularly in terms of the cost, scope and [1803]length of study period. It is anticipated that 10,000 children from birth and 8,000 children aged nine years will be selected to participate in the study, which is expected to commence later in 2005.

Assisting and supporting vulnerable families and their children and older people is one of our main challenges as a society. Through the initiatives it is taking under its strategy to combat poverty and social exclusion, the Government is giving priority to working to ensure that vulnerable families and their children have a fair share of life chances and quality of life.

  60.  Mr. G. Murphy    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the legislative provision by which he can ensure that workers in the construction industry receive their pension entitlements; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17210/05]

  68.  Mr. G. Murphy    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the outcome of his meeting with workers in the construction industry about their pension entitlements; the steps he has taken or intends to take; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17209/05]

  117.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he will report on his recent meeting with SIPTU representatives concerning the large scale abuses of the construction industry pension scheme; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that up to 50% of building workers are not covered by the scheme due to the failure of certain employers to make compulsory contributions; the plans he has to address this issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17112/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 60, 68 and 117 together.

The construction federation operatives pension scheme is constituted as a registered employment agreement under the Industrial Relations Act 1946. The agreement was put in place in 1969 and it requires employers in the industry to provide specific pension benefits for their direct employees. Responsibility for various aspects of the scheme is divided between a number of agencies, including the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Labour Court, the construction industry monitoring agency and the Pensions Board.

The issues associated with this scheme are many and complex. The SIPTU representatives, at my recent meeting with them, reported a high level of non-compliance and, in this regard, anyone familiar with the particular scheme will accept that there are serious problems to be addressed. Employers are not registering for the scheme; where they are registered, in many cases, they are not paying contributions for all their [1804]employees and, in some cases, deductions are being made and are not being remitted to the scheme trustees. With regard to the latter, failure to remit deducted contributions is an offence under the Pensions Act and the Pensions Board investigates any cases brought to its attention.

My Department and the Pensions Board are aware of the problems with the scheme and, while many of the problems are not within its remit, the Pensions Board has facilitated an examination of the situation by Mercer Human Resource Consultants. The brief for this exercise covers, among other things, identifying the areas of non-compliance and making recommendations on methods of addressing the problems which are likely to be successful in achieving the scheme’s objective. I understand that the Mercer report will be completed in July and it will be examined in detail thereafter by all concerned with a view to implementation, as appropriate. SIPTU has put forward proposals on the compulsory deduction of contributions and these will be considered in the context of the review.

I am firmly of the view that only contractors that are fully compliant on their pensions and benefits obligations should be awarded public sector contracts. Ideally, I would like an arrangement, such as the tax clearance requirement, to be put in place to cover pensions and benefits. I intend to bring this issue to the attention of my Cabinet colleagues shortly.

  61.  Mr. Crowe    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if, in view of the anomaly whereby persons claiming disability benefit are not entitled to a Christmas bonus, he will review and consider the financial implications of including this sector prior to next year’s payment. [12164/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  A special Christmas bonus payment was first introduced in December 1980 for social welfare pensioners and people who depend solely on their social welfare payments for income support. There have been a number of developments in this scheme since its inception, including changes in the level of the bonus payments, the introduction of a minimum payment and the extension of the categories of eligible claimants.

The focus of the bonus has always been on persons who rely on the social welfare system for financial support over the longer term. These include recipients of retirement, old age contributory and non-contributory pensions, widow’s, widower’s and invalidity pensions, one-parent family payment, carer’s allowance, disability allowance, long-term unemployment assistance, farm assist and people on employment support payments. The bonus is also payable to participants in the rural social scheme, which was introduced in 2004 and operates under the aegis of my colleague, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

[1805]There are no plans at present to amend or extend entitlement to the bonus payment to recipients of short-term schemes such as disability benefit. However, I will continue to keep the matter under review. It is open to persons who have been in receipt of disability benefit for at least a year to apply for invalidity pension and, if they qualify for that pension, they would also qualify for the Christmas bonus payment.

  62.  Mr. Gormley    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his plans for the next six months to move towards fulfilling objectives two and three in the Combat Poverty Agency’s strategic plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17138/05]

  92.  Mr. Bruton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the efforts he is making to reduce poverty and social exclusion in rural areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17155/05]

  116.  Mr. Eamon Ryan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the way in which he intends to ensure that local anti-poverty plans complement national initiatives; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17140/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 62, 92 and 116 together.

The current national action plan against poverty and social exclusion, which covers the period 2003 to 2005, sets out in detail the actions being taken by Government to give effect to its strategy to combat poverty and social exclusion. The plan sets out commitments and targets for all relevant Departments to work towards meeting the Lisbon pledge “to make a decisive impact on the eradication of poverty” by 2010. It also reflects the social inclusion commitments agreed in Sustaining Progress. As Minister for Social and Family Affairs, I have lead responsibility for this process, working closely with my ministerial colleagues and through the Cabinet committee on social inclusion. The office for social inclusion, based in my Department, co-ordinates the process.

The national action plan recognises that the causes of poverty and its effects are multi-faceted and require an integrated response for application at national, regional and local levels. The plan contains explicit actions which target each of these levels. Examples of these actions include the following: local authorities are now required to ensure that social inclusion is addressed in their corporate plans and supporting annual operational plans; in 2002, pilot social inclusion units were established for a three year period in seven local authorities and it was decided this year to extend the programme for one more year to enable its future operation to be assessed; county and city development boards, CDBs, were established in 2000 to bring about a more co-ordinated [1806]delivery of public and local development services at local level; the local government anti-poverty learning network, representative of elected members and officials, was established in 2000 to provide a forum for sharing information and exchanging different local experiences and best practice on anti-poverty measures; the most disadvantaged rural areas are being targeted through the CLÁR programme, which addresses the issue of access to services in the areas most affected by population decline.

A number of local authorities have published local anti-poverty strategies, including Cork and Dublin City Councils. Ensuring that there are links between these local and national strategies is an essential part of the overall national action plan. The Combat Poverty Agency plays a key role in this process, working closely with the office for social inclusion. The agency’s strategic plan sets out goals across three main areas: distribution of income and employment; access to health and education services of high quality; the further development of and local and regional level responses to poverty.

Full account will be taken by the office of social inclusion of the agency’s strategy, its views and advice on policy, and of its experience and expertise, in monitoring and evaluating progress in achieving the objectives of the national action plan and in the development of the next plan during 2006.

  63.  Mr. Bruton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his estimate of the likely increase in the Exchequer’s exposure with regard to social welfare pensions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13276/05]

  265.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if adequate provision is being made to meet pension payments in 2010, 2030 and 2040; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17437/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 63 and 265 together.

In common with other European countries, the population of Ireland is aging as a result of a combination of increasing life expectancy and a declining birth rate. The decline in the birth rate is relatively recent and this, coupled with the effects of high emigration for much of the period up to the 1990s, has resulted in Ireland having the lowest proportion of older people in the EU, with 11.2% aged 65 years and over compared to the current EU average of 16.1%. The proportion of older people in Ireland will remain at broadly the same level for the next ten years, after which it is projected to increase rapidly to 15% in 2021, 19% in 2031 and 28% in 2056. A similar situation exists with the number of pensioners relative to the number at work.

The increase in the number of older people in the population will, of course, impact on pension [1807]costs in the years to come. An actuarial review of the social insurance fund published in 2002 suggested that the cost of the main pension schemes will rise, by 2056, from a current level of about 1.5% of GNP to 2.1% of GNP, if payments increase in line with prices, or 6.5% GNP, if they are indexed in line with earnings.

However, the implications of the extra costs for the Exchequer will depend on a number of factors, including the level of PRSI contributions being paid in the future, the way in which pension rates grow and the contribution of the National Pensions Reserve Fund towards the extra costs. The latter will not be used until 2025 and the manner in which it is to be disbursed will not be decided until nearer that time. The position will be kept under examination, with the next actuarial review being due for completion in 2007.

  64.  Mr. G. Mitchell    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs,    further to his comments (details supplied), the reason families with incomes of between €30,000 and €40,000 per annum are now classified as the new working poor; the further reason 16,000 families approach the MABS on an annual basis to seek advice for debt problems; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17206/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The 2003 EU survey of income and living conditions, EU-SILC, indicates that 3.5% of people at work fell into the consistent poverty category, compared to 9.4% of the population generally. The survey further shows that 9.2% of people in Ireland who were at work were at risk of poverty, compared to 22.7% of the population generally. It is clear from these figures that being at work significantly reduces the risks of poverty and deprivation. However, despite the economic advances of recent years, some families who find themselves dependent on low wage employment are sometimes classified as the working poor.

The continued reduction of poverty is a core objective of this Government. In this regard, accepting and keeping a job is seen as the most important route to escape poverty and to ensure social inclusion. However, it is important to ensure that work “pays” and a number of policy instruments crossing a range of Government Departments are used as a way of preventing poverty among the working poor. These include changes to the taxation system, the introduction of a national minimum hourly wage, provision of training and access to lifelong learning opportunities, assistance with job search and placement, the introduction of flexible working arrangements and increased access to affordable child care and changes to the social welfare system to support the transition to employment and improve the retention of non-cash benefits during that transition.

[1808]One of the main policy responses in my Department, designed to address the problem of low income working families, is the family income supplement, FIS, scheme. The scheme provides cash support amounting to a minimum of €20 per week for employees who work a minimum of 19 hours per week or 38 hours per fortnight. This preserves the incentive to remain in employment in circumstances where the employee might only be marginally better off than if he or she were claiming other social welfare payments. Budget 2005 increased the FIS earnings thresholds by €39 in respect of each family size. This increase was unprecedented since the introduction of the scheme in 1984 and added €23.40 to the weekly payments of most existing FIS recipients from January 2005. The current average FIS payment is almost €94. The cost of this measure is estimated at €15.53 million in 2005.

Arising from the increased thresholds, it is estimated that 2,600 additional families became eligible for a FIS payment. The ongoing development of the FIS scheme has resulted in current levels of both applications and claims in payment being at an all time high. In 2004, some 21,000 applications for the scheme were received. Over 15,000 claims were in payment in 2004. Effective and adequate support for making work pay will continue to be a major priority for this Government and for me as Minister for Social and Family Affairs.

The money advice and budgeting service, MABS, is another resource for assisting people in poverty. My Department has overall responsibility for this service which provides assistance to people experiencing difficulty in meeting repayments on borrowings. There are 52 independent companies nationwide operating the service. More than 16,000 new clients approach the MABS annually and the service deals with 30,000 clients on an ongoing basis.

The MABS programme provides an independent, free and confidential money advice and budgeting service mainly to low income individuals and families who are in debt or at risk of getting into debt. Of the people who come to the MABS, the majority are people on social welfare and on low incomes who find difficulty in making ends meet and are excluded from mainstream credit. The MABS programme emphasises practical measures to remove people from dependence on moneylenders and open up alternative sources of credit for them. The programme has been very successful in that regard, and in budget 2005, I provided a total of €13.6 million for MABS.

  65.  Mr. Boyle    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the reason for the anomaly whereby a lone parent engaged in a community employment scheme is at a disadvantage of more than €45 a week when compared to a lone parent in part-time work and accessing family income supplement. [17131/05]

[1809]Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  Community employment is a part-time, publicly funded transitional programme designed to progress the long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged groups towards re-entering the labour market. CE participants receive payments which are in excess of their entitlements under the social welfare system and retain entitlement to secondary benefits, where applicable. Participants are free to supplement their payment through earnings from work outside of the programme hours. In addition, a lone parent may continue to receive a reduced one-parent family payment while participating on a CE programme, for example, the one-parent family payment is reduced by approximately €22 per week in respect of a lone parent with one child receiving €190 per week on a CE scheme.

The purpose of the family income supplement scheme is to create an incentive for full-time workers with dependent children to take up or remain in employment in circumstances where it might not otherwise be more attractive financially than the appropriate social welfare payment. Consequently, the provision of additional family income support via the family income supplement to participants in a programme which is already 100% publicly funded would not be consistent with FIS policy objectives as currently structured and is not considered appropriate in the circumstances.

However, I am involved in examining a range of comprehensive reforms in the area of lone parents, including income supports and removing obstacles to returning to work and education. A steering group, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach, is also addressing obstacles to employment faced by lone parents.

  66.  Ms Enright    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    when he intends to introduce the advocacy service for persons with disabilities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17187/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The introduction of a personal advocacy service, aimed specifically at people with disabilities, is provided for in the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 published last September in conjunction with the Disability Bill 2004. The Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 is intended to confer additional and enhanced functions on the national information agency, Comhairle, which will enable that agency to introduce a personal advocacy service specifically for people with disabilities.

The new service will provide for the assignment of a personal advocate to assist, support and represent the person with a disability in applying for and obtaining a social service and also in pursuing any right of review or appeal in connection with that service. As announced in this year’s budget package, additional funding of €1 million has [1810]been provided to Comhairle this year to enable the groundwork to commence on the introduction of the new service. It is envisaged that the new personal advocacy service will be introduced in early 2008.

  67.  Mr. Quinn    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if his attention has been drawn to a report (details supplied) which shows that the number of persons from accession countries using its food and night shelters has increased; if his Department has conducted any research into welfare services for EU immigrants coming here; if Ireland needs to develop more social supports for these persons when they first come here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17113/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I am aware that the director of Crosscare referred to persons from the new member states seeking assistance at its food and night shelters when he spoke at a press conference to launch the Crosscare 2004 annual report. The director also stated that Crosscare would commission a study to establish how such people were faring when they came to this country. I understand this report should be available later in the year.

From 1 May 2004 the requirement to be habitually resident in Ireland was introduced as a qualifying condition for certain social assistance schemes and child benefit. The basis for the restriction contained in the new rules is the applicant’s habitual residence. The restriction is not based on citizenship, nationality, immigration status or any other factor. The effect of the restriction is that a person whose habitual residence is elsewhere is not paid certain social welfare payments on arrival in Ireland. The question of what is a person’s “habitual residence” is decided in accordance with European Court of Justice case law, which sets out the grounds for assessing individual claims.

Each case received for a determination on the habitual residence condition is dealt with in its own right and a decision is based on application of the guidelines to the particular individual circumstances of each case. Any applicant who disagrees with the decision of a deciding officer has the right to appeal to the social welfare appeals office.

It appears from information held in my Department that the majority of persons who came here from the new member states took up employment and did not make social welfare claims. Arrangements are, however, being made to review the operation of this condition. The review will take into account the issues that have come to light since the condition came into effect in May 2004 and views received from the EU Commission and from various groups and organisations who have an interest in this area. I expect the review to be completed later this year.

[1811]Question No. 68 answered with Question
No. 60.

  69.  Mr. English    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if, when a person reaches the age of eligibility for the old age pension, his Department informs that person by letter that they are eligible and that they should contact the Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17185/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  A person approaching pension age who is in receipt of a social welfare payment is advised to apply for the pension three months in advance of reaching pension age. The onus remains on the person to complete the application form and submit this to the Department. About 30% of all those who apply for an old age pension are notified under this process.

Last year, to enhance early application for pensions, I initiated a series of radio advertisements to bring people’s attention to the availability of pension entitlements and to remind them to apply in good time for their benefits. The campaign was followed up with interviews on local radio shows and articles in national and regional newspapers.

Staff in my Department’s network of local offices and branch offices promote the availability of pensions as part of their normal work. Claim forms and pension information leaflets are available through my Department’s offices throughout the country, at citizen’s information centres, Comhairle and post offices. Information is also available from my Department’s information office in Dublin and from the pensions services office, Sligo. Claim forms and information leaflets are also available by telephoning LoCall 1890 20 23 25 or from my Department’s website at www.welfare.ie.

My Department is developing new generation IT systems which will facilitate more customer centred services. As part of this, my Department is developing methods to invite customers in advance to claim their pension entitlements. Pending the introduction of these new arrangements, my Department is actively considering a number of approaches to improving this service. These include better use of existing arrangements, such as increased advertising and targeting of groups of customers likely to qualify for a pension.

  70.  Mr. Hogan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the efforts his Department makes to encourage and assist persons with disabilities and long-term illnesses to identify and take up available employment, training, educational and other self-development opportunities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17190/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  My Department tries to assist and encourage long-term unemployed, people with disabilities and other long-term welfare recipients [1812]to return to work, training or further education through a range of measures administered by my Department’s social and family support service.

The back to work allowance scheme incentivises and encourages long-term unemployed people, lone parents and certain persons with disabilities to return to work by allowing them to retain part of their social welfare payment for a period when they take up employment or self employment. My Department also administers the back to education allowance programme which is available to people who need to obtain educational qualifications before re-entering the labour market. It also operates a special projects fund, administered by facilitators based in social welfare local offices, which enables facilitators to provide enhanced supports to people who need additional help to progress to further training and employment. The groups who may need special help of this nature include the long-term ill and people with disabilities. In 2004, 23 special projects catered for people with disabilities at a cost of more than €500,000.

The Department also operates a small scale family services project in certain areas, which is designed to focus supports towards specific target groups with complex needs, including people with disabilities. The provision of this additional support, involving individual attention, customised information and enhanced access to services, can increase the capacity of those in the most difficult circumstances, including people with disabilities, to improve their self esteem and personal situations through access to basic education, training and developmental opportunities.

It is hoped that by encouraging customers with disabilities to participate in self development programmes and, in some instances, “taster” educational programmes facilitated through FSP funding, co-funding or part funding, that they will move on to more formalised training and educational programmes. In 2004, six projects catered for people with disabilities and their families at a cost of €66,240. The special projects and family services initiatives are based on the application of a partnership approach between my Department, the voluntary and community sector, the private sector and other local players in identifying and addressing local needs in terms of training and development for people dependent on social welfare payments, including people with disabilities.

Customers in receipt of certain illness related payments, such as disability allowance, disability benefit and invalidity pension, are not debarred from working while in receipt of these payments subject to meeting certain criteria. Disability allowance is means tested and any income received would be assessed as means subject to the current means disregards of €120 per week. Disability benefit and invalidity pension customers may, in certain circumstances, be allowed to undertake work for therapeutic or rehabilitative reasons with a view to improving [1813]their prospects of returning to full-time work at a future date.

  71.  Mr. Hayes    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his plans to encourage more women to take up pensions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17189/05]

  73.  Ms B. Moynihan-Cronin    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he plans to introduce a new pensions scheme to encourage persons who have opened SSIA accounts to continue saving their money as pensions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17125/05]

  87.  Mr. McGinley    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if, with regard to the current review of the pension system here, his Department has come to any decision; if not, when he expects decisions to be made on the incentives or measures which will be put in place to encourage the 400,000 women in the labour force who do not have any pension payments system in place to open pensions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17201/05]

  98.  Mr. Gilmore    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if his attention has been drawn to a new study by the Economic and Social Research Institute showing that Irish pensioners have the worst deal in Europe and that the entire pensions system is in need of serious reform; if he has plans to conduct serious reform of the pensions system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17120/05]

  112.  Mr. Penrose    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if his attention has been drawn to recent comments from the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions that thousands of workers are sleepwalking into old age poverty due to not having a pension; if he has plans to address this situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17111/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 71, 73, 87, 98 and 112 together.

It is Government policy to encourage people to participate in occupational and private pension arrangements so that they can, when they retire, maintain their pre-retirement standard of living. To this end a range of measures have been introduced in recent years, including personal retirement savings accounts, PRSAs, mandatory employer PRSA access where occupational schemes are not available and an ongoing national pensions awareness campaign.

In terms of overall occupational and private pensions coverage, CSO figures for the first quarter of 2004 show that 52.4% of persons in employment have a supplementary pension. Out of a national workforce of some 2 million people, an estimated 900,000 do not have a private or occupational pension to boost their incomes in retirement. The coverage rate for women is 46.8% [1814]against 56.3% for men. We must improve on this situation and, in that regard, I share the concerns of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions about people who have not made adequate provision for their retirement.

The key target group for Government action in the supplementary pensions area is those who are 30 years of age and over. The national pensions policy initiative suggested that up to 70% of this group will need to supplement their social welfare pension to maintain living standards in retirement. The most recent CSO figures suggest that 59.1% of people in this group have the necessary pensions cover and this is a small increase on the 2002 figure of 57.4%.

Over the past three years the Pensions Board has run a national pensions awareness campaign which is designed to increase awareness of pensions issues among the public and to encourage pensions take up. A total of €1 million was spent on the campaign through 2003 and 2004 and further resources have been allocated to facilitate the campaign in the current year. As well as raising general awareness, the campaign has also focused on areas of the country and sections of the population with lower levels of pensions take up. The 2004 campaign featured a number of special promotions aimed specifically at women.

There is no doubt that progress on pensions coverage is being made as, in recent years there has been a steady increase in the number of people taking out PRSAs and in those participating in occupational schemes. However, at this stage, it has to be accepted that at the present rate of progress we will not achieve our targets within any kind of reasonable timescale. Review of pensions coverage and related issues is required to be completed by September 2006. As coverage is unlikely to improve dramatically over the next year, in February, I asked the Pensions Board to commence work on a comprehensive review of our overall pensions strategy.

A one size fits all retirement regime may not best reflect the needs and wishes of Irish people in the 21st century. The review will be wide ranging and will include an examination of the appropriateness of the original coverage targets suggested in the national pensions policy initiative, scheme management, aspects of funding, incentives available to encourage pensions take up and possible alternatives to our present arrangements. With regard to the latter, I have not ruled out some type of mandatory regime and the Pensions Board is examining the options available with particular regard to the position in other countries. The role the State might have in future pension provision is also being examined.

With regard to incentives generally, I am aware of the potential of maturing SSIAs as a way of increasing pensions coverage and I have asked the Pensions Board to look at how we might take advantage of that. Work on the review is ongoing and I am anxious to ensure that it is completed in the shortest possible timescale so that I can review the situation and decide what further [1815]action is required in this area. At this stage I expect to receive the report of the Pensions Board in September. This report will take account of the various submissions made to the board and the recent ESRI report.

Internationally, Governments are trying to deal with the challenge of funding pensions for an older population that is generally living longer and healthier lives. It is essential that we take action sooner rather than later so that we can deliver on our commitment to ensure an adequate retirement income for all.

Question No. 72 answered with Question
No. 55.

Question No. 73 answered with Question
No. 71.

  74.  Mr. M. Higgins    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if his attention has been drawn to a recent survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showing that Irish pensions, on average, are among the lowest in the developed world at less than one third of final income; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that this survey states that Ireland has the lowest pension rate at average earnings at 30.6%; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17121/05]

  111.  Mr. O’Shea    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if his attention has been drawn to the fact that the State pension here is among the worst in the western world and that the average State pension amounts to only 31% of average earnings before retirement; if he has plans to reform the pensions system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17126/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 74 and 111 together.

The Irish pensions system is unique, combining as it does a flat rate State payment and a voluntary supplementary pensions sector designed to provide the earnings related element of retirement income. The comparisons in the OECD survey are valid in so far as they focus on income from State cash payments. However, they do not provide a full picture of pensioners’ incomes because they exclude very important elements of the overall pensions system. In particular, income from occupational and private pensions, which is extremely important in the Irish context, as well as the non-cash supports provided through the household benefits scheme are not counted. A recent ESRI report on pensioners’ incomes and replacement rates in 2000 estimated that the income of older couples was 51% of pre-retirement income with single pensioners achieving a rate of 43%.

Since first taking office, the needs of older people have been a priority for this Government. The Government has sought through significant [1816]increases in pensions and changes to other schemes to improve the position of older people. Since 1997, we have increased pensions by up to €80.26 per week or 81%. Over the same period the increase in the consumer price index was 30.7%, while average earnings increased by
51%. At the same time we have eased qualifying conditions so that more people can now receive contributory pensions. The free schemes have also been made available to all those over 70 years of age regardless of their income or household composition.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to increase the basic State pension to €200 by 2007 and further progress will be made in the 2006-07 period. The maximum rate of contributory old age pension now stands at €179.30. Under the national pensions policy initiative, published by the Pensions Board in 1998, the board proposed a rate of 34% of gross average industrial earnings for contributory pensions based on average earnings for the previous year. On that basis the current rate of pension is equivalent to almost 32%.

A statutory review of pensions coverage and related issues is required to be completed by September 2006. In February I asked the Pensions Board to commence work on a comprehensive review of our overall pensions strategy. Work on the review is ongoing and will include an examination of the appropriateness of the original targets suggested in the national pensions policy initiative for social welfare pensions and the total income of pensioners. I am anxious to ensure that the report is completed in the shortest possible timescale so that I can review the situation and decide what further action is required in this area. At this stage I expect to receive the report of the Pensions Board in September.

  75.  Mr. Connaughton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the measures he has taken to tackle food poverty; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17156/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  Weekly payments through the various social assistance schemes are intended to provide income to meet the basic living needs of recipients, including food, clothing, heat and light. Supplements are also payable in certain circumstances for specific needs, for example, fuel allowances, rent supplements, living alone allowance for older people or the household benefits package for pensioners, eligible disabled people and carers. Where people on low incomes have particular medical conditions or dietary requirements, diet supplements are available through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme which is administered on my behalf by the community welfare division of the Health Service Executive.

My Department also provides funding for school meals under two strands, namely, the [1817]urban school meals scheme and the local projects scheme. The urban school meals scheme operates in conjunction with certain local authorities and is co-funded by my Department. The local projects scheme provides funding to secondary, national, pre-schools and community groups in both urban and rural areas who provide school meals. For families with schoolgoing children, school meals can make a real and important contribution to ensuring that children receive better nutrition. Such services can also contribute to improved school attendance and quality of learning.

While considerable progress has been made in recent years in tackling consistent poverty, some studies have focused on specific aspects such as fuel and food poverty in particular. The report entitled “Food Poverty and Policy”, published recently by Crosscare, the Combat Poverty Agency and the Society of the St. Vincent de Paul, defined food poverty as “the inability to access a nutritionally adequate diet and the related impact on health, culture and social participation”. This is a broad ranging issue and is affected by dietary and nutritional awareness, cultural attitudes and access to good quality grocery shopping, as well as to the adequacy of social welfare income supports.

In recent years, budgetary increases in social welfare payment rates have consistently exceeded increases in the cost of living. This key policy is the primary focus of budget allocations to my Department each year and it has helped ensure that those depending on social welfare experience real improvement in their ability to meet their basic needs, including provision of adequate food, heating and so forth. I consider this to be the most effective way overall of improving the standard of living of those who depend on social welfare income, along with measures to support and encourage people of working age to take up employment or educational opportunities to help improve their financial position.

At a broader level, I endorse recent calls for the food industry to take an active and responsible attitude in improving the nutritional quality of food and to inform and educate people generally about better nutrition and healthy eating options at affordable prices. I will continue to keep this issue under review, particularly in the context of the recent task force report on tackling obesity.

  76.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if refunds made to pensioners under the nursing home repayments scheme will impact on current pension entitlements; if pensioners who have already had illegal charges levied on them will not be further penalised by having pensions reduced in this manner; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17117/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The Government recently agreed the key elements of a scheme for the repayment of [1818]long-term stay charges. I confirm that, in the case of those who were charged, such repayments will not impact on current pension entitlements and I will make the necessary legislative changes to bring this provision into effect when full details of the repayment scheme have been finalised. The normal means assessment arrangements will continue to apply to those who benefit from repayments to estates.

  77.  Mr. Allen    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the efforts he is making to tackle the new phenomenon of the working poor; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17150/05]

  90.  Mr. G. Mitchell    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the supports, programmes and measures his Department intends to take to address the problem of the working poor; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17205/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 77 and 90 together.

The two main methods of measuring poverty in Ireland are the national “consistent poverty” measure, based on a relative income threshold of 60% of median income and enforced deprivation of certain items, and the EU “at risk of poverty” measure, which is simply based on 60% of median income. The 2003 EU survey of income and living conditions, EU-SILC, indicates that 3.5% of people at work fell into the consistent poverty category compared to 9.4% of the population generally. The survey further shows that 9.2% of people in Ireland who were at work were at risk of poverty, compared to 22.7% of the population generally. It is clear from these figures that being at work significantly reduces the risks of poverty and deprivation.

However, despite the economic advances of recent years some families find themselves dependent on low wage employment, leading to the phenomenon mentioned by the Deputy — the working poor. The reduction of poverty is a core objective of this Government. In that regard, accepting and keeping a job is seen as the most important route to escape poverty and to ensure social inclusion.

However, it is important to ensure that work “pays” and a number of policy instruments crossing a range of Departments are used as a way of preventing poverty among the working poor. These include changes to the taxation system, the introduction of a national minimum hourly wage, provision of training and access to lifelong learning opportunities, assistance with job search and placement, the introduction of flexible working arrangements and increased access to affordable child care and changes to the social welfare system to support the transition to employment and improve the retention of non-cash benefits during that transition.

[1819]One of the main policy responses in my Department, designed to address the problem of low income working families, is the family income supplement, FIS, scheme. The scheme provides cash support amounting to a minimum of €20 per week for employees who work a minimum of 19 hours per week or 38 hours per fortnight. This preserves the incentive to remain in employment in circumstances where the employee might only be marginally better off than if he or she were claiming other social welfare payments.

Budget 2005 increased the FIS earnings thresholds by €39 in respect of each family size. This increase was unprecedented since the introduction of the scheme in 1984 and added €23.40 to the weekly payments of most existing FIS recipients from January 2005. The cost of this measure is estimated at €15.53 million in 2005. Following the increased thresholds, it is estimated that 2,600 additional families became eligible for a FIS payment. The ongoing development of the FIS scheme has resulted in current levels of both applications and claims in payment being at an all time high. In 2004, there were 21,000 applications and 15,000 claims in payment. The current average FIS payment is almost €94.00.

Effective and adequate support for making work pay will continue to be a major priority for this Government and for me as Minister for Social and Family Affairs.

  78.  Ms C. Murphy    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the amount which was awarded in rent assistance by his Department, and the number of families or persons awarded rent assistance, on a county basis for the years 2003 and 2004. [16950/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The supplementary welfare allowance scheme is administered on my behalf by the community welfare division of the Health Service Executive. It provides for the payment of a weekly or monthly rent or mortgage interest supplement to assist eligible people who are unable to provide for their accommodation costs from their own resources and who do not have accommodation available from any other source.

As of 13 May last, there were 58,308 households in receipt of assistance under the rent supplement scheme. Just over half of these, almost 30,000 tenants, have been on the scheme for 18 months or more. Expenditure on rent supplements was almost €332 million in 2003 and just under €354 million in 2004. I have provided €369 million in this year’s Estimates for this scheme.

I propose to include a tabular statement in the Official Report today setting out the number of household recipients of rent supplement for the years 2003 and 2004 on a county by county basis, as the Deputy requested. In that table, I have also summarised expenditure on the scheme for the years 2003 and 2004 for each of the former health [1820]board areas. Expenditure information is not maintained by my Department on a county by county basis.

(a) Number of recipients of rent supplement by county December 2003 and December 2004

County 2003 2004
Carlow 849 849
Cavan 435 399
Clare 1,228 1,207
Cork 7,257 6,818
Donegal 1,976 1,915
Dublin 21,769 21,920
Galway 4,236 3,718
Kerry 1,728 1,721
Kildare 2,263 2,237
Kilkenny 771 732
Laois 491 379
Leitrim 203 186
Limerick 2,359 2,241
Longford 427 376
Louth 1,872 1,479
Mayo 1,713 1,705
Meath 690 651
Monaghan 377 347
Offaly 425 484
Roscommon 550 519
Sligo 559 434
Tipperary 1,907 1,792
Waterford 1,563 1,578
Westmeath 976 851
Wexford 1,861 1,782
Wicklow 1,491 1,554
Total 59,976 57,874

(b) Expenditure on rent supplements by (former) Health Board, 2003 and 2004.

Health Board 2003 2004
€m €m
ERHA 176.497 197.948
Midland 11.158 10.638
Mid Western 18.767 19.711
North Eastern 15.962 14.442
North Western 9.364 9.869
South Eastern 28.553 29.552
Southern 41.531 42.249
Western 29.638 29.353
Total €m 333.471 353.762

  79.  Mr. Howlin    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the efforts he has made to date to combat welfare fraud; the areas which are most vulnerable to fraudulent claims; the amount of money lost to fraudulent claims in the past [1821]year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17122/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The prevention of fraud and abuse of the social welfare system is an integral part of the day to day work of my Department. In this regard all staff engaged in claims processing are concerned with preventing and detecting fraud and abuse.

More than 600 staff at local, regional and national level are engaged on a full or part-time basis on work related to the control of fraud and abuse of the social welfare system. Controls are exercised at both the initial claim stage and at subsequent stages during the claim life cycle. Claims are reviewed on a regular and targeted basis.

Fraud against the social welfare system arises in a number of different ways. In some instances persons claiming social welfare payments make false declarations or conceal material facts to obtain payment. In other cases there is deliberate failure to notify the Department of a change in circumstances or failure by an employer to comply with PRSI regulations.

A key objective of my Department’s control strategy is to ensure that we pay the right person the right amount of money at the right time. A four pronged approach has been adopted by the Department to meet this objective, namely, prevention of fraud and error at the initial claim stage, early detection through effective review of claims in payment, measures to deter fraud and the pursuit and recovery of overpayments. Systematic risk analysis is a key element of the control strategy. Scheme managers are responsible for identifying areas of high risk of fraud and abuse and for putting in place appropriate measures to address these risks in a systematic way. This approach ensures that review activity is targeted in the most effective manner.

During 2004, my Department undertook a number of specific control initiatives across its regions. The outcomes of these initiatives are currently being evaluated with a view to identifying best practice and to implementing successful initiatives in other areas of the country. These initiatives will feed into the process of refocusing control activity to those areas and types of cases which present the highest risk of fraud and error. My Department, as an integral part of its control strategy, is committed to undertaking at least two surveys annually to establish the levels of fraud and error arising. This enables us to identify the types of claims which should be prioritised for review purposes.

In addition to the specific control initiatives outlined above, staff in my Department during 2004 carried out some 306,000 reviews of entitlements. They also inspected the records of some 6,600 employers to ensure compliance with the Department’s regulations and, in particular, to prevent and detect abuses of the system.

[1822]The total amount of overpayments set up as a result of detected fraud or suspected fraud during 2004 was €18.63 million, 50% of which was as a result of customers concurrently working and claiming. Fraud overpayments also arose in situations such as an undisclosed change in marital status, failing to disclose full means or increases in means, customers absenting themselves or their dependents from the State and failing to disclose the employment or residential status of their spouse, partner or dependents.

The prosecution of offenders is a key element in my Department’s overall control approach. My Department’s policy is to consider all cases of fraud for prosecution. During 2004, 503 cases were referred to the State Solicitor’s office to initiate prosecution proceedings. A total of 282 cases were finalised in court, of which ten were served with prison sentences, 26 received suspended sentences, 158 were fined and 43 received the benefit of the Probation Act.

I am committed to ensuring that social welfare payments are available to those who are entitled to them and that they are delivered in an effective and efficient way. I am also determined to ensure that abuse of the system is prevented and is dealt with effectively when detected. I will take whatever steps are necessary to achieve this.

  80.  Mr. Cuffe    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the consideration which he is giving to the social welfare treatment of former members of religious congregations. [17133/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I understand the Deputy’s inquiry relates to instances concerning former members of religious congregations who are absent from work on the grounds of illness and who, owing to their previous employment history, have insufficient PRSI contributions to qualify for social insurance benefits.

People in such circumstances who have an injury, disease or illness which has continued, or is expected to continue, for at least one year could be eligible for support through the means tested disability allowance scheme operated by my Department. If this scheme is not appropriate in their situation, they could apply for financial assistance under the terms of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme which is administered on my behalf by the community welfare division of the Health Service Executive.

The objective of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme is to provide financial assistance to an eligible person whose means are insufficient to meet his or her basic needs and those of his or her dependants. Any person habitually resident in the State who satisfies a means test and who has applied for any other benefit, assistance or allowance to which he or she may be entitled may be eligible to receive assistance under the terms of the scheme. In addition to a basic weekly allowance, assistance may be pro[1823]vided in the form of supplements which may be paid in respect of such needs as rent, mortgage interest and special dietary or heating needs.

The legislation governing the supplementary welfare allowance scheme also provides for a single payment, known as an exceptional needs payment, to help meet essential, once-off, exceptional expenditure which a person could not reasonably be expected to meet out of his or her household income or other sources. There is no automatic entitlement to this; payments are issued at the discretion of the Health Service Executive and every decision is based on consideration of all the circumstances of each individual case taking account of the nature and extent of the need.

An application for assistance under the terms of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme may be made by contacting the community welfare office at the local health centre. The community welfare officer will carry out an assessment of the applicant’s circumstances in order to determine the level of assistance, if any, payable in any particular case.

  81.  Mr. Neville    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he will give recognition to the importance of the post office to rural communities by desisting from his campaign to force social welfare recipients to transfer to receiving their payments through the commercial banks. [16883/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  My Department’s policy is to ensure that a range of payment options is available to customers and that service is continually improved by providing access to the wide range of payment options and new services and facilities now available. In this regard I recently announced a strategic review of my Department’s future payment requirements with a view to the customer receiving the most modern payment delivery service which suits their needs.

Current payment methods include payment at post offices by means of a pension order book, electronic or manual post draft issued to the customer’s designated post office each week, payment by cheque and direct payment to customers’ bank or building society accounts by electronic fund transfer. Where possible, my Department provides a payment option which best suits the needs of customers. Customers opting for a particular payment method do so on a voluntary basis having regard to their own circumstances and particular needs. There is no compulsion involved and there is no campaign to force customers to move to a payment method that does not suit them.

Some 58% of customers currently receive payment through their local post office, 10% are paid by cheque through the postal system and 32% receive an electronic fund transfer, EFT, payment to their bank or building society account. The [1824]growth in the number of customers opting for the direct payment option can be attributed to a number of reasons such as the growing use of electronic payments in business and society generally, the increase in the use of electronic banking and debit-credit cards at the personal level and the changing profile of our customer base across all schemes.

The Government recognises the importance of the post office network and is committed to maintaining a viable network throughout the country. My colleague, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, who is the Minister responsible for An Post, and I have already met on this matter and I will continue to liaise with him as appropriate.

  82.  Mr. Sargent    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if his attention has been drawn to the poverty levels, relative, consistent and otherwise, among persons with disabilities; the action his Department is taking to alleviate poverty among persons with disabilities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17141/05]

  108.  Mr. J. O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his views on whether the risk of being in poverty has increased substantially for the ill and disabled over the past ten years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17154/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 82 and 108 together.

The extent of measured poverty among persons who are in receipt of illness and disability payments was considered by my Department as part of a broader review of illness and disability income support programmes. The review was carried out as part of my Department’s ongoing programme of expenditure reviews and subsequently published.

In its analysis of the effectiveness of the income support system in tackling poverty, the review found that using data up until 2001 for persons in receipt of illness and disability payments, there had been a significant decline in consistent poverty from almost 23% in 1994 to just over 16% in 2001. Significantly, this fall reflected an almost halving in the proportion of those experiencing basic deprivation. The decline in those experiencing consistent poverty amongst those in receipt of illness or disability payments was reflected in the decline in consistent poverty in the population generally, from 14.5% in 1994 to just under 5% in 2001.

Subsequent to the publication of the review, the recent EU survey on income and living conditions, EU-SILC, reported the percentage of persons in “consistent poverty” classified as ill or disabled was 20.9% in 2003. The CSO indicated that because of a major discontinuity between the surveys in the measurement of deprivation and [1825]consistent poverty, no conclusions could be drawn regarding the direction or scale of any real changes between 2001 and 2003.

The expenditure review drew attention to the fact that despite falling over time, probably reflecting the substantial real increase in social welfare rates, the rate of consistent poverty for those in receipt of an illness or disability payment was more than three times higher in 2001 than the population generally and significantly higher than most other categories of social welfare recipients such as old age pensioners and unemployed persons.

The report identifies a number of factors which could be considered as affecting these trends including: the lack of employment opportunities for people with disabilities; issues related to additional costs of disability; the impact of extended durations on the social welfare system compared with persons on shorter durations; differences in household composition among the group.

With regard to social welfare rates, Government policy is to increase the real level of social welfare over the period to 2007 and this commitment will be delivered. This will benefit all social welfare recipients, including those in receipt of illness and disability payments.

The report also identified a number of areas where employment support could be strengthened within the social welfare system and across Departments generally. The report will provide guidelines for my Department’s future strategy in this area. With regard to the additional costs associated with disability, a working group established under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness and chaired by the Department of Health and Children, is examining the issues associated with the introduction of a costs of disability payment.

The report also highlights the need for better data and more research to strengthen our understanding of the links between poverty and disability. I will pursue this as part of my Department’s research agenda.

  83.  Mr. Gormley    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his views on the recommendations made in CORI’s “Pathways to Inclusion” that are relevant to his Department; the recommendations he plans to implement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17137/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The recently published review by CORI “Pathways To Inclusion” outlines policies needed to ensure economic development, social equity and sustainability in Ireland. I welcome the publication of this comprehensive report. The Deputy will be aware that it was only published earlier this month and my Department will review the report in detail over the coming weeks and months.

The Government’s acknowledgement of the serious and unacceptable nature of poverty in [1826]Ireland is reflected in the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion which provides a clear and strategic basis for tackling the multi-dimensional problem of poverty and social exclusion. This plan contains ambitious targets across a number of areas, the implementation of which will ensure that we are brought further along the road to our overall goal of building a fairer and more equal society.

Between 2001 and 2005 spending on social welfare has increased from €7.8 billion to €12.2 billion. During the same period there have been substantial real increases in social welfare rates, with the lowest social welfare rates increasing by 40% while the consumer price index has increased by just over 13%. As a result of budget 2005, welfare payments have increased by three times the expected rate of inflation.

I have made a number of strong statements in recent months about my commitment to ending child poverty. This is also one of the special initiatives under the partnership agreement Sustaining Progress. The most significant measure by my Department to tackle child poverty in recent years has been the substantial increases in child benefit payments, in line with the general thrust of the CORI report. Child benefit is paid to more than 540,000 families in respect of approximately 1 million children, at an estimated cost of €1.916 billion in 2005. As it is tax free and employment neutral, it does not distort parental choice in respect of labour force participation and contributes towards alleviating child poverty. Over the period since 1997, the monthly rates of child benefit have increased by €103.51 at the lower rate and €127.78 at the higher rate, increases of 272% and 258% respectively. This level of increase is unprecedented and delivers on the Government’s objective of providing support for children generally while offering real choice to all parents.

To address the situation of those children who are most at risk of poverty I will give consideration to the introduction of a second tier of supports, combining child dependant allowance and family income supplement when the report of the NESC is complete. While details have yet to be worked out this is likely to be in addition to the child benefit and other support entitlements, targeted specifically at families in greatest need.

Supporting carers in our society has also been a priority of the Government since 1997. Over that period weekly payment rates to carers have been greatly increased, qualifying conditions for carer’s allowance have been significantly eased, coverage of the scheme has been extended and new schemes such as carer’s benefit have been introduced. I announced a number of improvements for carers in the last budget which will benefit existing recipients of carer’s payments and will also serve to extend support to carers who are not eligible for carer’s payments. I have made provision for the extension of the respite care grant of €1,000 to all persons providing full-[1827]time care and attention, regardless of their means. I am keeping the operation of the grant under review and any further improvements will be considered in a budgetary context.

With regard to measuring deprivation and poverty, my Department is currently re-evaluating this issue in the context of the data strategy of the office for social inclusion. There are many other initiatives ongoing in my Department and other Departments to address issues raised in this report. I look forward to bringing these to the attention of the Deputies in due course.

  84.  Mr. Allen    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his views on whether the NAPS has not lived up to its potential as an instrument to identify and remove, in a systematic way, barriers to persons trying to break out of social exclusion into full participation in society; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17151/05]

  96.  Mr. Crowe    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the progress which has been made to date following his commitment in January 2005 to tackle poverty in a co-ordinated and joined up way and his promise to review the way in which the Government measures and reports poverty; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17212/05]

  123.  Ms O. Mitchell    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    , further to his reported comments (details supplied), his views on the success of his measures and supports in providing the resources to help those in society who need it most in view of the rise in the percentage of the population who are at risk of poverty; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17208/05]

  127.  Ms O. Mitchell    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    , further to his comments (details supplied), the reason the number of children and others living in consistent poverty has increased in recent years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17207/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 84, 96, 123 and 127 together.

The Government’s acknowledgement of the serious nature of poverty in Ireland is reflected in the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion, NAP/Inclusion, which provides a clear and strategic basis for tackling the multi-dimensional problem of poverty and social exclusion. This plan contains ambitious targets across a number of areas, the implementation of which will ensure that we are brought further along the road to our overall goal of building a fairer and more equal society. Progress on the implementation of the plan was reported in the first annual report of the office for social inclusion, OSI, which I launched last December. Since then, my officials have held a series of bilateral meetings with the relevant Departments to [1828]examine progress on the implementation of targets contained in the plan. A report to the European Commission evaluating the implementation of the plan is currently being prepared by OSI for submission in June 2005.

The most recent statistics on poverty levels in Ireland are derived from the 2003 EU survey on income and living conditions, EU-SILC, which were released earlier this year by the Central Statistics Office. The results from this survey are comparable to the previous Living in Ireland survey, LIIS, in the “risk of poverty” measure but are not for the “consistent poverty” measure due to methodological differences between EU-SILC and LIIS. Both the CSO and the Economic and Social Research Institute, which conducted the earlier surveys, have assured me that the results of the consistent poverty measure are not comparable. It is, therefore, not possible to conclude from them how consistent poverty changed and there is no reason to believe that there has been a worsening in poverty levels in recent years.

However, both surveys identify the groups at risk of poverty, including families with children, especially lone parents and large families on low incomes, those with disabilities, the long-term unemployed and the elderly, especially those living alone, and the extent of consistent poverty among these groups. It should be noted that no one measure will give a perfect picture regarding deprivation, poverty and social inclusion. While the “risk of poverty” rate does allow for comparisons to be made across countries, it is the case that when countries experience rapid economic growth — as in the case of Ireland in the 1990s — relative poverty measures on their own can sometimes be misleading.

Using the risk of poverty measure, for example, relative income poverty in Ireland rose 11.4% between 1994 and 2000 but if we use the same measure and timeframe and increase the poverty line only by consumer prices — the “anchored poverty line approach”— Irish poverty falls by 55.9%. This clearly indicates that, when economic conditions change rapidly, relative poverty trends are not always giving a complete picture of the way that economic change affects people’s lives. Similarly, this measure does not take account of the high level of home ownership, especially among the elderly, and consequently the value to households of owning their own home. It also does not reflect access to household allowances in kind such as electricity, fuel, telephone rental and TV licence.

In fact, all incomes have grown significantly, although low incomes have grown at a slower rate than higher incomes. In particular, social transfers rose substantially in real terms, so pensioners, for example, saw their living standards improve markedly but still lagged behind rapidly rising incomes from employment and profits. This is reflected in increases in social welfare spending which grew from €7.8 billion to €12.2 billion between 2001 and 2005. During the same period [1829]the lowest social welfare rates have increased by 40% while the consumer price index has increased by just over 13%.

As a result of budget 2005, welfare payments have increased by three times the expected rate of inflation. This demonstrates that considerable progress has been and is being made in alleviating poverty. While the EU SILC results highlighted the problems associated with the measurement of poverty, prior to the release of these results the Cabinet committee on social inclusion had approved the re-evaluation of poverty indicators and this work is now being developed as part of the OSI data strategy.

Question No. 85 answered with Question
No. 55.

  86.  Mr. Hogan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the outcome of his discussions with the Irish Bankers Federation regarding access to bank accounts for persons on low incomes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17191/05]

  103.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if, in view of his proposed meeting with the Irish Bankers Federation following the publication of the “Do the Poor Pay More?” report, he will also meet the Departments of Finance and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to plan a strategic initiative to tackle the issues of debt and poverty in households here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17211/05]

  120.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the measures he intends to take to improve access to bank accounts for persons on low incomes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17192/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 86, 103 and 120 together.

The report “Do the Poor Pay More?”, a study of lone parents and debt, shows that many lone parents do not have access to mainstream banking and are, therefore, more likely to be indebted to high interest lenders such as moneylenders and hire purchase companies. On publication of the research I met with the Irish Bankers Federation, IBF, and the Irish Payment Services Organisation, IPSO, to explore ways in which those in the low income bracket could access financial services.

The meeting identified a number of areas where it was felt that significant progress could be made in facilitating wider access to financial services, for example, the issues associated with identification documentation required to open a bank account and the potential for universal bank accounts were discussed. With regard to customer identification, the IBF has agreed to raise with its member retail banks the issue of customer identification requirements and to ensure that their [1830]office staff are aware of the range of documentation which is acceptable as forms of identification when opening an account. It has further committed to liaising with the financial regulator, IFSRA, about how the banking sector can assist in this regard.

The guidance notes on money laundering set out, as good industry practice, the measures to establish identity that might reasonably be expected of credit institutions. However, they state that any measures adopted should not deny a person access to financial services solely on the grounds that they do not possess certain specified identification documentation.

On the issue of universal bank accounts, the banking industry has proposed the development of an universal bank account as an integral part of a national payment strategy. The issue of a universal bank account will be considered by my Department as part of its review of current payment strategies. The IBF has assured me of its commitment in helping to deliver real progress on these and related issues. Since the introduction of the money advice and budgeting service in 1992 a good working relationship has been developed between that service and the Irish Bankers Federation.

The “Do The Poor Pay More?” report found that 59% of lone parents involved in the study were in arrears to the ESB. It also found that utility companies were not seen as being totally transparent in their dealings with low income families using pre-payment meters. People who receive their social welfare payments through the electronic payment option operated by An Post can opt to avail of its household budget scheme. Under this scheme, An Post make regular deductions of up to 25% of a persons social welfare payment towards their household costs, such as rent-mortgage payments to local authorities, ESB, Bord Gáis and Eircom. This ensures that people are not faced with a single large bill for these services.

I have invited the ESB to meet with me to discuss research carried out by OPEN. I also intend to meet with the Irish League of Credit Unions shortly on these issues.

My Department has overall responsibility for the money advice and budgeting service, MABS, which provides assistance to people experiencing difficulty in meeting repayments on borrowings. The MABS programme provides money advice to individuals and families who have problems with debt and who are on low income or in receipt of social welfare payments. The service places an emphasis on practical budget based measures that help people to move permanently from dependence on moneylenders and to access alternative sources of low cost credit.

The MABS has been allocated €12.62 million to ensure the continued development of the service in 2005. This represents an increase of €1.22 million or more than 10% on the 2004 allo[1831]cation and will help ensure that the service continues to be promoted in an effective way.

I intend to hold a series of meetings regarding the OPEN report with financial institutions, creditors and other interested parties. As part of my examination I will engage with my Cabinet colleagues to explore the potential for developing a broad based strategic response to the issues which have been raised.

Question No. 87 answered with Question
No. 71.

  88.  Mr. McGinley    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs,    further to his comments on the back to work allowance (details supplied), if his Department has made any decision on the way in which it intends to expand this allowance; the further length of time he intends to allow persons to claim the allowance once they have returned to work; the criteria his Department will use to determine the persons who will be eligible for an extension of the time limit on the allowance; and the way in which this will be regulated. [17200/05]

  100.  Ms O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the steps he plans to take to double the number of persons on the back to work allowance scheme to 22,000 by the end of 2005; if his Department has costed this proposal; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17127/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 88 and 100 together.

The back to work allowance scheme which was introduced in September 1993 is part of my Department’s programme of initiatives designed to assist long-term unemployed people, lone parents and other social welfare recipients to return to the active labour force. There are two strands to the scheme, the back to work enterprise allowance for self employment and the back to work allowance for employees.

The scheme was reviewed in 2002 in the light of economic and labour market changes and, in particular, the drop in unemployment levels since the introduction of the scheme in 1993. This review also took account of an evaluation of the scheme by independent consultants. They recommended that the scheme should be restructured in the light of the changes in the labour market. In particular, the review recommended that the scheme be refocused on the longer-term unemployed, that the non-financial supports be enhanced and that the overall numbers on the scheme be reduced.

In January 2003, therefore, the qualifying period for persons on unemployment benefit-assistance was increased to five years. In recognition of the particular difficulties faced by lone [1832]parents and persons on sickness related payments, recipients of other social welfare qualifying payments were not affected by the change.

The scheme is continually monitored to ensure its relevance to current labour market and economic conditions. It was recognised that there was some difficulty being experienced by persons wishing to enter self employment after five years attachment to the live register. Therefore, in budget 2004 the qualifying period for access to the self-employed strand of the scheme was reduced to three years. Effectively, from March 2004 persons in receipt of unemployment benefit or assistance accessing the self employed strand of the scheme only require three years on their unemployment payment to qualify for participation in the scheme.

Earlier this month I launched a new national edition of “Toil and Trouble”, a comprehensive user friendly guide for those thinking of setting up a business. I am aware that in certain parts of the country employment is difficult to come by and an alternative to this is for persons to participate in self employment and create opportunity and self reliance.

The back to work scheme, administered by my Department’s social and family support service, SFSS, and through the network of locally based facilitators, has demonstrated that the right mix of financial and other supports delivers a smooth integration into the regular labour force. There are 10,388 participants on the scheme at present, over 6,000 of whom are engaged in self employment. I am committed to ensuring that these supports continue to be effective and relevant to labour market needs and I aim to maximise take up of the back to work allowance.

I will continue to monitor the scheme to ensure that it continues to assist those furthest from the labour market to gain a foothold into sustainable employment or self employment. However, I have no plans to change the qualifying criteria at this point.

  89.  Ms Enright    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the number of schools receiving assistance from his Department in the provision of school meals; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12951/05]

  93.  Mr. Boyle    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the changes which will be proposed to the school meals programme operated by his Department after the recommendations of the Government task force on obesity. [17132/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 89 and 93 together.

The school meals programme operated by my Department gives funding towards provision of food services for disadvantaged school children through two schemes. The first is the statutory [1833]urban school meals scheme currently operated by 36 local authorities. The Department jointly funds the food costs with these local authorities, which also manage and fund the administration of the scheme. The second is the school meals local projects scheme. This provides funding to participating schools and voluntary community groups in both urban and rural areas for specific school meals projects. This has recently been expanded to include pre-schools that are community based and which operate on a not-for-profit basis.

In the case of these local projects, my Department funds the food costs based on a rate per meal per child. The amount of funding allocated to a project depends on the type and number of meals provided. The current rates of funding for the various meal types are as follows: breakfast, 60 cent; light meal, €1.40; and dinner, €1.90. Expenditure on the school meals programme was €4.65 million in 2004. A total of 41,300 children benefited in 451 schools under the local projects scheme at a cost of €3.56 million. During the current school year from September 2004 to June 2005, some 47,400 children in 572 schools and 53 pre-schools are benefiting.

In 2004, the local authorities’ urban school meals scheme provided support for 386 primary schools, covering 50,817 pupils, at a cost to my Department of €1.09 million. Local authorities themselves contributed a matching amount and also met the administrative costs involved in that scheme. I expect a similar number of children to benefit through this scheme in 2005.

The school meals programme aims to provide regular nutritious food to children to help improve their daily diet. Apart from the nutritional gain, it is an important component of policies to encourage school attendance and extra educational achievement by the children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The type and range of meals provided, as well as the method and logistics of supplying the meals, are decided by the individual local groups and schools that operate the projects. In this regard, I encourage participating schools and community groups to use healthy food items to the greatest extent possible in the preparation of school meals.

My Department will study the task force report on obesity to see if there is further scope for the scheme to assist in tackling this problem amongst children. More widespread take-up of the school meals scheme would obviously help significantly in this regard. Funding is available from my Department to expand participation in the scheme and I would encourage any school or community group working in disadvantaged areas to avail of this funding to start providing this service for their children.

Question No. 90 answered with Question
No. 77.

  91.  Mr. J. O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if payments of social welfare contributions by the self employed are not recorded on the computer system; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that this causes complications and delays in the payment of benefits to the self employed; and if he will take steps to remedy the situation. [16887/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  Pay related social insurance, PRSI, contributions for the self employed are collected by the Revenue Commissioners under the self assessment system. PRSI details are transferred to my Department by electronic tape exchange. Records for fully paid up self employed contributors are recorded on my Department’s central records computer system. Records in cases where the self employed contributor has partly paid PRSI are recorded on a separate computerised data base.

Self employed contributors pay class S contributions which provide cover for widow’s and widower’s contributory pension, orphan’s contributory allowance, old age contributory pension, maternity benefit, adoptive benefit and bereavement grant. Old age contributory pension applications in respect of self employed contributors cannot be awarded until all self employed PRSI contribution liabilities have been met.

Where a self employed contributor applies for pension and their PRSI record is in order there is no delay in determining pension entitlement. However, if PRSI records are not up to date it is necessary for all outstanding PRSI payments to be made by the self employed contributor before entitlement to pension can be determined. It may be necessary to contact the Revenue Commissioners to establish the exact position in individual cases. Self employed contributors are advised that it is very important to ensure that all PRSI liabilities have been fully met and that their annual returns are submitted to the Revenue Commissioners on time. They are also advised of the importance of applying for pension in good time.

Officials of my Department and the Revenue Commissioners meet regularly to ensure continued operational efficiency in the transfer of PRSI contributions data. The Revenue Commissioners are aware of the importance of the timely submission and processing of annual PRSI returns by self employed contributors. As part of a major programme of modernisation under way in my Department’s pensions services, a new unit has been set up to examine the insurance records of people approaching pension age so that any problems will be identified and addressed before an application for pension is due to be lodged with my Department.

Timely submission of annual PRSI returns to the Revenue Commissioners by self employed people will help to ensure that entitlements can be determined promptly by my Department and [1835]payment of benefit or pension can be made without delay.

Question No. 92 answered with Question
No. 62.

Question No. 93 answered with Question
No. 89.

  94.  Mr. McCormack    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the efforts his Department intends to make to publicise the change to the means test criteria for non-contributory social welfare benefits (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17199/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The changes in the arrangements for the assessment of capital for social assistance schemes, as announced in budget 2005, will be advertised in the national and provincial newspapers in the coming weeks. In addition, use will be made of television screen advertising in credit unions throughout the country. My Department’s information officers in our social welfare local offices will be available to assist people who wish to make any inquiries regarding the assessment of their capital as it affects their payments.

My Department is fully committed to ensuring that the general public and, in this instance, pensioners who are currently in receipt of a reduced pension because of capital assessment are made aware of the new capital assessment formula. In that regard the pension services office has commenced a review of the entitlements of some 6,000 people who applied for old age non-contributory pension and 1,300 people who applied for widow’s or widower’s non-contributory pension. Where the review indicates that an increase in payment is warranted, the increase will be put into effect immediately and backdated to the start of June 2005.

All disability allowance claims affected by the new arrangements are currently being reviewed and the customers concerned will be notified of any change in their weekly rate of payment arising from the review. In the case of recipients of carer’s allowance, the improvements in capital assessment came into effect in April 2005 in line with other improvements introduced in that scheme. All relevant claims are currently being re-assessed and customers will be notified of the outcome of those re-assessments. All relevant one-parent family payment claims that were refused on grounds of capital assessment have been identified and we are in the process of notifying the customers concerned of any change in their entitlements. In the case of unemployment assistance and pre-retirement allowance recipients, instructions have been issued to all local offices of my Department to review all relevant claims and to re-assess the means in accordance with the new formula.

[1836]My Department produces a comprehensive range of information booklets covering each social welfare payment. Our main information publication, entitled “Guide to Social Welfare Services”, is currently being updated to include the new arrangements for capital assessment as well as all other changes to our schemes. In addition, our range of information leaflets about the various schemes affected is being updated. Our information booklets are available from our network of social welfare local offices, the network of citizens information centres, CICs, throughout the country and from our LoCall leaflet line: 1890 20 23 25.

  95.  Mr. Ring    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he intends to reduce the qualifying period for the back to education allowance to nine months; if so, when he will introduce this change; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17183/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The back to education allowance is a second chance education opportunities programme designed to encourage and facilitate people on certain social welfare payments to improve their skills and qualifications and, therefore, their prospects of returning to the active workforce.

The conditions for entitlement to the third level option of the back to education allowance were revised with effect from 1 September 2004. From that date, the qualifying period was increased from six months to 15 months for new applicants intending to commence third level courses of study. The BTEA scheme was always intended to benefit people who had difficulty finding employment because of a lack of education qualifications. In many cases, people who have not completed second level education are held back in their efforts to obtain employment because of this. The qualification period for people who wish to pursue second level education has remained at six months and the numbers taking second level education with the support of BTEA are increasing.

I reduced the qualifying period for access to the third level option of the scheme to 12 months in the recent budget. I also increased the annual cost of education allowance, paid to people on BTEA, from €254 to €400. These changes will take effect from 1 September 2005. I am satisfied that, overall, the current arrangements ensure that the scheme supports those people who are most distant from the labour market and whose need is greatest. As I have undertaken to the Dáil and the social affairs committee, I will continue to keep the qualifying period for this scheme under regular review.

Question No. 96 answered with Question
No. 84.

[1837]

  97.  Mr. Deenihan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the progress to date on his review of the second tier payment for children; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17181/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  My Department provides child income support in a number of ways. The principal support is child benefit, which is neutral vis-à-vis the employment status of the child’s parents and does not contribute to poverty traps. Over the period since 1997, the monthly rates of child benefit have increased by €103.51 at the lower rate and €127.78 at the higher rate, increases of 272% and 258% respectively. Child benefit rates now stand at €141.60 per month for each of the first two children and €177.30 per month for the third and each subsequent child.

Child dependant allowances are paid in addition to weekly social welfare payments. Since 1994, successive Governments have held the rate of child dependant allowances constant while concentrating resources for child income support on the child benefit scheme. It is important to recognise that over that period, the combined child benefit-child dependant allowance payment has increased by more than double the rate of inflation.

In addition, my Department provides cash support by way of weekly payments to families, including lone parent families, at work on low pay, through the family income supplement scheme. A number of improvements have been made to the scheme over the years, including the assessment of entitlement on the basis of net rather than gross income and progressive increases in the income thresholds, making it easier for lower income households to qualify for payment. The National Economic and Social Council is examining the merging of child dependant allowances with the family income supplement scheme, as a way of addressing the issue of child poverty by channelling resources to low income families without creating disincentives to employment. I look forward to receiving the NESC report in the near future.

Question No. 98 answered with Question
No. 71.

  99.  Mr. Deenihan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    when the review of the habitual residence condition will be finished; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17180/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The requirement to be habitually resident in Ireland was introduced as a qualifying condition for certain social assistance schemes and child benefit with effect from 1 May 2004. The basis for the restriction contained in the new rules is the applicant’s habitual residence. The effect is that a person whose habitual residence is [1838]elsewhere is not paid certain social welfare payments on arrival in Ireland.

The question of what is a person’s “habitual residence” is decided in accordance with European Court of Justice case law, which sets out the grounds for assessing individual claims. Each case received for a determination on the habitual residence condition is dealt with in its own right and a decision is based on application of the guidelines to the particular individual circumstances of each case. Any applicant who disagrees with the decision of a deciding officer has the right to appeal to the social welfare appeals office.

The habitual residence condition is being operated in a careful manner to ensure that Ireland’s social welfare system is protected, while at the same time ensuring that people whose cases are appropriate to the system have access to it when they need it. The bulk of claims are in respect of unemployment assistance and child benefit. In the period May 2004 to May 2005, 72% of such cases were found to satisfy HRC.

Arrangements are being made to review the operation of the condition. This review will take account of the operation of HRC to date, together with views received from various groups and organisations who have an interest in this area. I expect the review to be completed later this year.

Question No. 100 answered with Question
No. 88.

  101.  Mr. Connaughton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he will consider extending the fuel allowance to mid-May; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17166/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The aim of the national fuel scheme is to assist householders who are in receipt of long-term social welfare or Health Service Executive payments towards meeting their additional heating needs during the winter season. The season was extended from 26 weeks to 29 weeks in 2001 and now covers the period from end September to mid-April each year.

Under the scheme, a fuel allowance of €9 per week is paid to eligible households during this 29 week winter heating period, with an additional €3.90 per week being paid in the designated smokeless fuel zones, bringing the total amount in those areas to €12.90 per week. I expect some 274,000 households to benefit under the fuel allowance scheme in 2005 at a cost of some €85.4 million. In addition, more than 300,000 pensioner and other households qualify for electricity or gas allowances through the household benefits package, payable towards their heating, light and cooking costs throughout the year. There is also a facility available through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme to assist people in certain circumstances who have special heating [1839]needs. An application for a heating supplement may be made by contacting a community welfare officer at any local health centre.

Pensioners and other groups have received significant increases in their primary social welfare payment rates this year and in recent years. This has improved their income situation considerably in real terms relative to fuel cost increases and to price inflation generally. It is also more beneficial to the individual as these higher rates of primary payments are payable for a full 52 weeks of the year. I have no plans at present to extend the duration of the fuel allowance period into May each year, as this would have significant cost implications and could only be considered in a budgetary context and in the context of other priorities.

  102.  Mr. Penrose    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he has received a copy of the Combat Poverty Agency’s recent report, Irish Social Expenditure in a Comparative International Context: Epilogue; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that despite strong economic growth, Ireland continues to be among the nations with the lowest social spending which contributes to high poverty rates; his views on whether it is possible to combine high economic growth with high social spending; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17110/05]

  124.  Mr. Gogarty    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his views on the recent report (details supplied), Irish Social Expenditure in a Comparative International Context: Epilogue; and if he intends to implement any of its policy recommendations. [17135/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 102 and 124 together.

The report to which the Deputy refers, “Irish Social Expenditure in a Comparative International Context: Epilogue”, compares social expenditure in Ireland with that of other European and developed countries. While the level of expenditure on social protection in Ireland appears low by EU standards, the discrepancy can partly be explained by demographic differences and by the way the Irish social protection system has evolved and is currently constituted.

There are a number of specific factors which account for the relatively low level of social expenditure recorded for Ireland. Gross measures of expenditure can distort the real picture, as they do not take account of social charges or taxes which are levied on benefits in some countries nor do they include transfers made by means of tax concessions, as opposed to direct cash payments. In addition, social expenditure is usually given as a proportion of GDP which in the case of Ireland includes a high proportion of repatriated profits. A better measure of the actual income available is GNP which in Ireland [1840]is significantly lower than the figure for GDP, by up to 15%.

The level of expenditure is also significantly influenced by the age profile of the population. Currently Ireland, with one of the youngest populations in the EU, needs to spend less on pensions and health care and care of the elderly than most other member states. Ireland’s elderly population, over age 65, is a third lower than the EU average, requiring much lower expenditure on pensions and health care, for example, Ireland’s old age expenditure in 2001 amounted to only 28% of the average old age expenditure in the EU.

The extent to which the State directly provides supplementary pensions is also an important factor to consider. Social insurance was only extended to the full working population in recent decades, as a result of which a high proportion of current pensioners still only qualify for pensions under social assistance. Expenditure on private pension schemes provided by private insurance, including personal retirement savings accounts, is not included in the Irish social expenditure figure.

Ireland’s current level of unemployment, at about 4.4%, is among the lowest in the EU, requiring less expenditure on unemployment related supports. This low level of unemployment is due in part to strong active labour market programmes, including education and training, to facilitate integration into the labour force of those formerly excluded.

Working to eradicate poverty requires action across a range of different policy areas. A central aim of this Government is to build an inclusive society. The principle strategy for achieving this is the national action plan against poverty and social exclusion. The plan incorporates the strategic approach to tackling poverty which was set out in the earlier national anti-poverty strategy and also reflects the social inclusion commitments agreed in Sustaining Progress.

The report in question makes recommendations on employment policy, lower income earners and the family income supplement, FIS, scheme. A number of policy instruments crossing a range of Departments are used as a way of preventing poverty amongst those in employment who are at risk of poverty. These include changes to the taxation system, the introduction of a national minimum hourly wage, provision of training and access to lifelong learning opportunities, assistance with job search and placement, the introduction of flexible working arrangements and increased access to affordable child care and changes to the social welfare system to support the transition to employment and improve the retention of non-cash benefits during that transition.

The FIS scheme preserves the incentive to remain in employment in circumstances where the employee might only be marginally better off than if he or she were claiming other social welfare payments. Budget 2005 increased the FIS [1841]earnings thresholds by €39 in respect of each family size. This increase was unprecedented since the introduction of the scheme in 1984. The specific recommendations relating to the tax system are the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Finance.

The report recommends increases in spending on social services and mechanisms for linking benefit incomes to earned incomes. Expenditure on social services involves a number of Departments. In my Department, between 2001 and 2005, spending on social welfare has increased from €7.8 billion to more than €12.2 billion. During the same period, the lowest social welfare rates have increased by 40% while the consumer price index has increased by just over 13%. As a result of budget 2005, welfare payments have increased by three times the expected rate of inflation. With economic growth, as measured by GNP, averaging 5.8% over the six years from 1998 to 2003 and the outturn for 2004 expected to be 5.3%, Ireland continues to successfully combine high economic growth with increased social spending.

Question No. 103 answered with Question
No. 86.

Question No. 104 answered with Question
No. 57.

  105.  Mr. Ring    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his views on the recent protest by the Irish Farmers Association who claim that most farming women have no social welfare or pension entitlement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17182/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I am aware that this has been an issue of concern for the farming sector and have discussed the issue with the farming organisation when I met its representatives before budget 2005. Access to the main weekly social welfare payment can be solved through either building up a social insurance record or through a means test.

I understand that the Irish Farmers Association is referring to access to social insurance coverage. Under social welfare legislation, the social insurance status of spouses and relatives assisting in a family business, including farming, can vary. If spouses and relatives are engaged in a business partnership, they are treated as individual self-employed contributors and are liable to social insurance contributions. These contributions enable them to build up an insurance record in their own right and receive accruing benefits. Where a family business is incorporated as a limited company, spouses and assisting relatives involved in the business can establish a PRSI record either as employees or as self-employed contributors depending on whether a contract of service exists.

[1842]However, a person employed directly by his-her spouse cannot establish a PRSI record, as they are “excepted” contributors under social welfare legislation. The exceptions apply to both men and women in family employments and recognise the practical difficulties in establishing the existence of a genuine employment relationship in such circumstances. Where formal employment relationships are intended between spouses or assisting relatives, the legislation provides the scope necessary, as outlined, to allow parties enter into formal arrangements for a contract of employment or self employment whereby PRSI contributions will be payable.

The issue of the insurability of farm spouses for social insurance purposes has been considered on a number of occasions. An interdepartmental group chaired by the Department of Agriculture and Food, which reported in 2002, considered a number of alternative solutions to resolving this issue. It concluded that “the formation of business partnerships offers an immediate route of access to social insurance cover as it is based on existing legislation”.

A social partnership group, which included representatives of the farming organisations, considered how the social insurance system should develop to be more inclusive and re-examined the issue. The report of the group, which will be published shortly, acknowledged the significance of the partnership option and recommended that more information on the tax and social welfare implications of families working in a partnership or as a limited company should be available. The provision of more information on these issues will bring further clarification on the issue. I urge families working together to consider the options available to maximise the level of social protection available to them.

There are no specific data available on the level of coverage for social welfare benefits and pensions among different sectors of workers, including the agricultural sector. However, we know that those engaged in farming are increasingly taking off-farm employment. This enables workers who might otherwise not be insured to build a social insurance record on the basis on their off-farm earnings. A person who has previously been employed would also be able to maintain his or her social insurance coverage in the long-term by contributing to the voluntary PRSI contribution scheme.

  106.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he has issued any policy directive with the objective of restricting the availability of the rent allowance; if his attention has been drawn to the consequent hardship caused or likely to be caused; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17130/05]

  262.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the extent to which rent allowance has been discontinued arising from depart[1843]mental cutbacks in the past 12 months; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17434/05]

  263.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the number of evictions which have occurred following the reduction or termination of rent allowances arising from cutbacks in his Department in the past 12 months; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17435/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 106, 262 and 263 together.

Rent supplements are provided through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme administered on my behalf by the community welfare division of the Health Service Executive. The changes to the rent supplement scheme in January 2004 were made in the context of budget policy at that time and in response to a marked growth in rent supplement numbers in the preceding years. These changes were made on the basis that people on low incomes with longer term housing needs required a housing solution rather than ongoing cash supports and that the scheme should be refocused on its original objective of providing short-term income support to individual tenants in immediate need.

Specific details of applications refused on grounds of failure to meet the conditions for receipt of rent supplement are not maintained in my Department. However, a working group was established under the Sustaining Progress agreement, in co-operation with the social partners, to monitor the impact of the changes made to the scheme. The group concluded that the design of the measures introduced, including the operation of the appropriate levels of discretion by the community welfare officers, was not having any significant adverse impacts.

Surveys carried out on the impact of the changes show that the number of refusals arising from changes in the qualification criteria were negligible in the context of the level of rent supplement awards in 2004, which was some 41,800. On each occasion the majority of refusal decisions were made for reasons such as means, habitual residency or for reasons relating to the accommodation involved. None of the cases identified involved people who were evicted from their rented accommodation.

After extensive consultation, I made changes to the regulations specifying the conditions for receipt of rent supplement, with effect from 31 January 2005, to address specific concerns. These changes removed the six month rule, extended the scheme to provide coverage for bona fide existing tenants who become unable to meet their rent or mortgage interest payments through illness, unemployment and so forth, and extended from two to three the number of refusals of local authority offers of accommodation a person may make before becoming ineligible for rent supplement.

[1844]On each occasion where changes have been made to the rent supplement scheme a formal circular has been issued from my Department to the community welfare officers, who administer the scheme on my behalf, setting out the amended qualification criteria. There is no question of any direction to officers to restrict the availability of, or entitlement to, rent supplement arising from the changes to the scheme. Supplements remain available to all eligible people who are unable to meet their immediate accommodation needs from their own resources and who do not have accommodation available from an alternative source. In addition, the discretionary scope of the scheme remains available to community welfare officers to award rent supplement where there is an individual exceptional or special need, beyond the normal eligibility conditions of the scheme.

Overall, the indications from Health Service Executive staff are that the new arrangements are working well and are sufficiently flexible to meet the genuine accommodation needs of tenant applicants adequately.

Question No. 107 answered with Question
No. 55.

Question No. 108 answered with Question
No. 82.

  109.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    when he intends to publish the results of his Department’s review of lone parents; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17193/05]

  125.  Mr. McCormack    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his views on the fact that, despite the introduction of the one-parent family payment in 1997, the number of lone parents in consistent poverty has increased significantly since the implementation of the scheme (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17198/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 109 and 125 together.

The number of lone parent families in the “consistent poverty” category as a percentage of all lone parent families fell from 42.8% to 24.4% between 1994 and 2001. During this period households in the “consistent poverty” category overall declined from 14.5% to 4.9%. However, it remains a fact that lone parents can be particularly vulnerable when it comes to poverty, as they have to combine the roles of both care giver and main income provider.

For people in working age households, the main route out of poverty is employment. Despite the huge increases in employment participation in Ireland in recent years and in employment opportunities generally, the proportion of lone parents in employment is low compared to other [1845]developed countries. This was borne out by an OECD report on reconciling work and family life, published in 2003, which found that employment participation among lone parents at 45% in this country is among the lowest in the OECD. This is despite the huge employment growth and increasing female participation in the workforce in recent years.

The earnings disregard introduced in 1997 under the one-parent family payment, OFP, has helped to increase employment participation but many lone parents who avail of this disregard engage in part-time employment and retain entitlement to the one-parent family payment. This is understandable as for many the benefit represents stable income security for themselves and their children, although at a relatively low level compared to the incomes a majority of other families derive from employment. Many lone parents, especially those who became parents at an early age, are also disadvantaged by low levels of educational attainment.

A first objective is to replace what may, in practice, be disincentives to full employment in the current schemes with more positive incentives to take up employment and avail of opportunities for education and training that can greatly increase the chances of obtaining more secure and well paid jobs. One of the key tasks in the “Ending Child Poverty” initiative is to address obstacles to employment for many lone parents. The senior officials group on social inclusion has been mandated to examine this issue and report back to the Cabinet committee on social inclusion with specific proposals.

A steering group has been established to progress the work, comprised of the Department of the Taoiseach, Department of Finance and the office for social inclusion in my Department. Other relevant Departments and agencies are briefing the group on the areas for which they have responsibility. The group will present its report to the senior officials group on social inclusion by mid-year and a report will be presented to the Cabinet committee on social inclusion before end July.

Specific policy areas are being examined to assess how they impact on employment opportunities and family circumstances. These include: income supports, employment, education, child care and support programmes and information. A separate working group has been set up in my Department to review specifically the income support arrangements for lone parents. This review will feed into the work of the steering group and I anticipate the work of this group should be completed by the end of June.

  110.  Mr. Deasy    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the number of persons refused the carer’s allowance on the grounds of the means test in 2004; the number of persons refused the carer’s allowance on the grounds of the medical [1846]assessment in 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17177/05]

  114.  Mr. Deasy    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his views on the approximately one in three persons who applied for the carer’s allowance in 2004 who were refused the payment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17174/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 110 and 114 together.

The principal eligibility conditions for receipt of the carer’s allowance are that full-time care and attention is required and is being provided and that the means test that applies is satisfied. The number of applicants refused payment as a proportion of claims received has declined in recent years arising from various improvements introduced to the scheme. There are currently 23,307 persons receiving carer’s allowance. In 2004, my Department received 7,817 applications for carer’s allowance and of these 1,713 were refused the allowance.

A total of 987 applications were refused on medical eligibility grounds and 187 refused due to their means exceeding the prescribed income limit. The balance, 539 cases, were refused for a number of other reasons mainly because full-time care was not being provided. All persons who apply for carer’s allowance are informed of the decision on their entitlement and the reasons for it. Additionally, where a person is refused the allowance, they also are advised of their right of appeal to the social welfare appeals office.

Payments to carers have been greatly improved since its introduction. Qualifying conditions for carer’s allowance have been significantly eased, coverage of the scheme has been extended and new schemes such as carer’s benefit and the respite care payment have been introduced. Provision has been made in successive budgets for substantial increases in the income disregards which apply in the means test. From April 2005, the weekly income disregards have increased to €270 for a single carer and to €540 for a couple. This increase has ensured that a couple with two children, earning a joint income of up to €30,700, can qualify for the maximum rate of carer’s allowance while the same couple, if they had an income of €49,200, could still qualify for the minimum carer’s allowance and the associated free schemes and respite care grant.

I have made provision for the introduction of a universal respite care grant payment of €1,000 payable to carers providing full-time care. This grant may be made in respect of each care recipient and is not subject to a means test. In introducing this measure I am continuing to enhance the provision of supports for carers. My Department has already undertaken an extensive publicity campaign, including the provision of a dedicated freephone line, to ensure that all those eligible for the payment will avail of it. The development [1847]of support for carers continues to be a priority for me and for the Government.

Question No. 111 answered with Question
No. 74.

Question No. 112 answered with Question
No. 71.

Question No. 113 answered with Question
No. 57.

Question No. 114 answered with Question
No. 110.

  115.  Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    when he proposes to introduce changes to allow lone parents to receive maintenance from absent fathers without it affecting their welfare payments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17204/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The one-parent family payment of my Department acts as a safety net for people who receive inadequate maintenance, where maintenance payments are irregular or where efforts to secure maintenance in the first place fail. Applicants for one-parent family payment are required to make ongoing efforts to seek adequate maintenance from their former spouses or, in the case of unmarried applicants, the other parent of their child. They must satisfy my Department that they have made reasonable attempts to obtain such maintenance. The one-parent family payment thus guarantees a lone parent a regular weekly income, while placing reasonable onus on both parties concerned to resolve appropriate maintenance support.

Separated OPFP claimants must demonstrate that they have made reasonable efforts to obtain support before their lone parent payment is awarded. Unmarried OPFP claimants must demonstrate similar efforts after their claim is awarded. Normally, this maintenance is obtained by way of negotiation or by court order, though separated couples are increasingly using my Department’s family mediation service which is being progressively extended countrywide.

From the introduction of the one-parent family payment in January 1997, all maintenance received by a claimant was regarded as means. Housing costs incurred by a claimant, that is rent or mortgage payments up to a maximum of €95.23 per week were disregarded. From 2001, however, one-parent family payment claimants were allowed to retain 50% of any maintenance received without reduction in their social welfare payment. The housing disregard of up to a maximum of €95.23 also remains in place.

My Department’s records indicate that approximately 9,600 one-parent family payment recipients are in receipt of maintenance from their spouse or the other parent of their child/ren. [1848]However, many other recipients could be in receipt of maintenance and still qualify for the maximum rate of one-parent family payment as a result of the provision allowing one-parent family payment claimants to retain 50% of any maintenance received.

On the issue of absent parents, legislation provides that where social welfare support is being provided to a one-parent family, the other parent is legally obliged to contribute to the cost of this payment. In every case where a one-parent family payment is awarded, the maintenance recovery unit of my Department seeks to trace the other parent, referred to as the liable relative, to ascertain whether he or she is in a financial position to contribute towards the cost of the one-parent family payment. This follow-up activity takes place within two to three weeks of award of the payment.

All liable relatives assessed with maintenance liability are notified by my Department and they are issued with a determination order setting out the amount of contribution assessed. The amount assessed can be reviewed where new information comes to light about the financial or household circumstances of a liable relative. Decisions on the amounts assessed can be appealed by liable relatives to the social welfare appeals office.

There are currently 1,980 liable relatives contributing directly to my Department. As a result of maintenance recovery unit activity, savings of €8.5 million were achieved in 2002 and €14.2 million in 2003. Savings of €16.6 million were achieved in 2004. These savings are composed of direct cash payments by the liable relative to the Department and of scheme savings. Savings on scheme expenditure arise where maintenance recovery activity leads to the liable relative beginning to pay maintenance in respect of a spouse and/or children leading to a consequent reduction of a one-parent family payment. In 2004, a total of 722 one-parent family payments were cancelled while a further 512 payments were reduced as a result of maintenance recovery activity.

In implementing maintenance recovery provisions to date my Department has concentrated on cases where the liable relatives concerned, being in employment or self employment, would be in a financial position to make a contribution towards the relevant benefit or allowance being paid to their families. My Department also seeks recovery from liable relatives through the courts in appropriate cases. A total of 182 cases has been submitted for court action from 2001 to date. The majority of these cases have resulted either in orders being written against the liable relative in court or alternatively in the liable relative agreeing to pay a contribution to the Department or to the lone parent.

Question No. 116 answered with Question
No. 62.

Question No. 117 answered with Question
No. 60.

  118.  Mr. Eamon Ryan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if his Department has information on levels of social mobility here, compared to other countries; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17139/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  Analysis of the levels of social mobility in Ireland has been undertaken in recent years most notably by the Economic and Social Research Institute. In a 2004 paper, entitled “Economic Change, Social Mobility and Meritocracy: Reflections on the Irish Experience”, the ESRI outlines the scale of change in the Irish class structure for men aged between 20 and 65 years. Over the period from 1973 to 2000, this has seen the professional and managerial class rise from 12.9% of population to 23.3% of population; the routine non-manual class rise from 8.3% to 14.1%; the self-employed class rise from 8.2% to 9.9%; the skilled manual class rise from 19.4% to 25.3%; the farming class fall from 20% to 8.2%; the semi-skilled and unskilled class fall from 24.1% to 16.6%; and the agricultural labourer class fall from 7.2% to 2.6%.

The upward shift in the class structure which these figures portray has been responsible for the majority of social mobility in Ireland over recent decades. The number of available higher level positions has had a major effect across the social structure in terms of absolute mobility, understood as the proportion of individuals who have been mobile from their class of origin. However, this has been accompanied by only small changes in the meritocracy of Irish society in terms of access to desirable positions.

This other element, encompassing the idea of meritocracy, to the examination of social mobility is relative mobility or equality of opportunity, which is concerned with the chances people from different backgrounds have of attaining different social positions. Many sociologists have argued that globalisation, as typified in recent Irish economic development, fuels economic inequality and would thereby lead to reduced equality of opportunity. However, the Economic and Social Research Institute and others conclude that, while changes in relative mobility have been slow to manifest themselves, they have been in the direction of increased openness and equality. In other words, the research shows that the Celtic tiger era has increased equality of opportunity in Irish society.

In comparative terms this progress has, according to Breen in his 2004 book “Social Mobility in Europe”, brought Ireland from a very low base to rank alongside countries such as Germany, Italy and France but behind Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, in terms of equality of opportunity. Given that changes in relative mobility happen very slowly our progress in comparative terms is heartening.

It is my hope that, over the medium to long term, targeted initiatives such as the national anti-[1850]poverty strategy will bring about further progress in this regard.

  119.  Mr. Naughten    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his plans to review the means test for farmers applying for the old age non-contributory pension; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16885/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I understand that the Deputy is concerned in particular about the current arrangements applying in the case of old age pension where a landholder leases land or is otherwise in possession of land which is lying fallow or idle.

Where land is let on short-term lettings such as the 11 month system, the income from such lettings is calculated as cash income for the purpose of the means assessment for old age pension. Necessary expenses incurred by the owner, such as auctioneer fees, fencing or fertilising between lettings, are deducted from the gross letting income.

Where land is lying fallow or idle, there are two options for the assessment of means. If the Department is satisfied that the pension claimant is depriving himself or herself of an income in order to qualify for a pension or a pension at a higher rate than would otherwise be the case, the relevant assessment is the income which would be received if the land was let. Where the Department is satisfied that this is not the case, the value of the land is obtained from the Valuation Office and is assessed as capital for means purposes.

There are no plans to change the present arrangements in this regard. Any change in these assessment arrangements could only be considered in a budgetary context.

Question No. 120 answered with Question
No. 86.

  121.  Mr. P. Breen    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his views on whether the risk of being in poverty has increased substantially for elderly persons over the past ten years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17153/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  In the period 1994 to 2003, industrial earnings grew by 56% with prices increasing by 32%. At the same time, improvements in the old age contributory pension saw the payment grow by 74%, well ahead of both earnings and prices. However, average household income grew by 122%, driven by income tax reductions and increased workforce participation, and this has resulted in a relatively worse income position for older people and other groups.

Since first taking office, the needs of older people have been a priority for this Government. The Government has sought through significant increases in pensions and changes to other [1851]schemes to improve the position of older people. Since 1997, we have increased pensions by up to €80.26 per week or 81%. At present, the maximum rate of the old age contributory pension stands at €179.30. We are committed to increasing the rate to €200 per week by 2007 and significant progress towards this target has already been made.

Question No. 122 answered with Question
No. 55.

Question No. 123 answered with Question
No. 84.

Question No. 124 answered with Question
No. 102.

Question No. 125 answered with Question
No. 109.

Question No. 126 answered with Question
No. 57.

Question No. 127 answered with Question
No. 84.

  128.  Mr. F. McGrath    asked the Taoiseach    if he will seek advice on the Government taking a case against the UK Government to the European Court of Human rights in the event of its refusal to establish an inquiry and to report further on developments in respect of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. [17027/05]

The Taoiseach:  The Government has established a commission of investigation to look at certain aspects of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974 and we continue to press the British Government for action in providing further information that would shed light on the atrocities. These actions are in keeping with the recommendations of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Womens’ Rights and I hope they will yield further insights. The committee identified a number of possible further actions that could be taken and, if necessary, I will seek legal advice at the appropriate time.

  129.  Mr. Allen    asked the Taoiseach    if he proposes to mark the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki city which will occur at 11.02 on 9 August 2005 in view of the fact that it is the occasion of the last major humanitarian disaster of the Second World War; if he will consider it appropriate that there should be one minute of peace to honour the dead of all wars and to reflect on if enough is being done to build a culture of peace to make wars a rare occurrence. [17232/05]

[1852]The Taoiseach:  Consideration of special commemorative events has regard to the unique status of the National Day of Commemoration each July being the sole, annual event organised by the State. It is dedicated to the memory of “all those Irishmen and Irishwomen who died in past wars or on service with the United Nations.” It was introduced with a specific purpose to be inclusive and all embracing. The National Day of Commemoration is established alongside many other commemorations, organised by groups and societies, which often receive official recognition with office holders in attendance.

Special events are organised from time to time in respect of the anniversaries of signal events of historic importance. As each year contains so many anniversaries, an official commemoration would usually only be considered for a 25th, 50th, 75th or 100th anniversary, with even longer intervals thereafter.

At the invitation of President Putin, I attended a commemoration on the 60th anniversary of the defeat of fascism on 9 May in Moscow. Having regard to the 60th anniversary this year of the liberation of the death camps, I also attended Ireland’s third annual Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration ceremonies in January. I recognise the special significance of such remembrance events to those survivors still with us.

I do not envisage an official event being organised in Ireland for the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, 6 August, or of Nagasaki, 9 August. I am aware that there has been a commemorative event held annually at Merrion Square, Dublin, usually on Hiroshima Day, which I would commend to all people concerned.

The United Nations General Assembly resolution 55/282 of 7 September 2001 established 21 September as the International Day of Peace to be observed as a day of global ceasefire and non-violence, an invitation to all nations and people to honour a cessation of hostilities. We also have large official and public attendance in Dublin each January to join in prayers for peace, in association with the annual message from the Pope for the celebration of the World Day of Peace. I believe that these events provide an opportunity for all to reflect on what can be achieved.

  130.  Mr. Haughey    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if she will consider making a grant available to persons who adopt children from abroad; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17077/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. B. Lenihan):  I have no plans to make a grant available to persons who adopt children from abroad.

  131.  Mr. Stanton    asked the Tánaiste and Mini[1853]ster for Health and Children    her views on the use of aspartame in food and drink products; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17411/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. S. Power):  Sweeteners such as aspartame are strictly controlled by European Union legislation which requires that only authorised additives may be used in the manufacture or preparation of foodstuffs. A new additive which requires authorisation in the EU must go through an exhaustive safety assessment by the EU scientific committee on food, SCF. Following evaluation of a particular additive, it is placed on the EU “positive list” of approved additives. If there were any doubts about the safety of an additive, that substance would not be approved.

Aspartame has, therefore, only been authorised for use and included on the EU “positive list” of approved additives after a careful evaluation by the SCF, initially in 1984, then in 1988 and again in 2002. It has also undergone rigorous safety assessments by other regulatory bodies, such as the joint Food and Agriculture Organisation-World Health Organisation expert committee on food additives, the UK Food Standards Agency and the United States Food and Drug Administration, FDA.

In Ireland, the use of sweeteners in foodstuffs is controlled by the European Communities additives, colours and sweeteners in foodstuffs regulations, S.I. No. 437 of 2000. These regulations implement European Council Directive 94/35/EC and an amending directive 96/83/EC, which harmonise controls on the use of sweeteners throughout the European Community. The safety of aspartame has been extensively studied over the years and experts worldwide agree that aspartame is safe for use. In terms of types of studies and the amounts given to human subjects in controlled studies, aspartame is one of the most thoroughly tested food additives.

The approval of aspartame will continue to be kept under review by bodies such as the European Commission and its SCF, the FDA and so forth as new scientific information becomes available. If this information shows that the conclusion that aspartame is safe for use is no longer valid, action will be taken immediately to review its authorisation. I am satisfied that all appropriate measures have been taken to ensure that there are no issues of concern with regard to aspartame. I am also satisfied that the issue is being kept under review.

  132.  Mr. McGinley    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if her attention has been drawn to the dilapidated state of Killybegs health centre; if there are plans to have refurbishment works carried out; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16888/05]

[1854]Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the establishment of the Health Service Executive 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 centres. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer of the executive’s north-western area to investigate the matter raised and reply directly to the Deputy.

  133.  Mr. F. McGrath    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if urgent assistance will be given to a person (details supplied) in Dublin 9 on the nursing home charges issue, and the maximum support and advice. [16891/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Government has agreed the key elements of a scheme for the repayment of long-stay charges. All those who were illegally charged for publicly-funded long term residential care and are alive and the estates of all those who were charged and died in the six years prior to 9 December 2004 will have the charges repaid in full. The scheme will not provide for repayments to the estates of those who died more than six years ago. The repayments will include the charge paid and an amount to take account of inflation — using the consumer price index — since the time the person involved was charged. Legislation will be brought before the Oireachtas as soon as possible to provide a clear legal framework for the scheme.

In the cases of those who were charged and are still alive, repayments will be exempt from tax and will not be taken into account in assessing means for health and social welfare benefits. The normal tax and means assessment arrangements will apply to those who benefit from repayments to estates. An outside company with experience in handling mass claims will be engaged to design and manage the scheme within the parameters of the key principles approved by Government. A national steering committee will be appointed to provide an independent input into the design of the scheme and to monitor its operation to ensure it is implemented quickly and in the most equitable and effective way possible. The scheme will be designed and managed with the aim of ensuring that those who are eligible for repayments receive them as soon as possible and with the minimum possible imposition in terms of bureaucracy.

Priority will be given to those who are still alive. Many of those eligible for repayments have already been identified under the ex gratia payments process. The scheme will include a transparent and thorough appeals process. The legislation will include appropriate safeguards to prevent exploitation of those who receive repay[1855]ments and are not in a position to manage their own financial affairs. The scheme will include a provision to allow those eligible for a repayment to waive their right to a repayment and have the money assigned to fund one-off service improvements in elderly, mental health and disability services. It is estimated that about 20,000 people who are still alive and a further 40,000 to 50,000 estates will benefit.

It is estimated that the scheme will cost approximately €1billion. The decision to limit payments to the estates of those who died in the past six years reflects the reference in the Supreme Court judgement to the Statute of Limitations. While the national helpline set up by the Health Service Executive to allow people to register if they believe they are due a repayment will continue to operate, there is no need for anyone who has already registered using this facility to make contact with the HSE again to register for the scheme. Any person who considers he, she or a family member may be eligible for repayment may register an interest in advance with the Health Service Executive by writing to the National Refund Scheme, HSE Midland Area, Arden Road, Tullamore, County Offaly, sending an e-mail to refundscheme@mailq.hse.ie, or by calling the helpline 1800 777737 during office hours.

  134.  Mr. McGuinness    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the frequency with which patients (details supplied) or their representatives receive statements of their accounts which are in the control of the HSE; when the last statement was issued; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16892/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the establishment of the Health Service Executive 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 administration of patients’ property accounts. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer of the Health Service Executive’s south-eastern area to investigate the matters raised and reply direct to the Deputy.

  135.  Mr. McGuinness    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if an appeal against the decision not to issue a medical card to a person (details supplied) in County Kilkenny will be expedited; and if the card will be issued. [16893/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the establishment of the Health Service Executive on 1 January 2005. Under the Act, the executive [1856]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 assessment of applications for medical cards. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer of the Health Service Executive’s south-eastern area to investigate the matters raised and reply direct to the Deputy.

  136.  Mr. Penrose    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if the recent decision taken by the Government to repay persons who were patients of nursing homes and had been illegally charged applies to those who have been in receipt of contributory pensions, even of a reduced nature, in the same way as it applies to persons who were in receipt of non-contributory pensions; the way in which it is proposed to ensure that all those persons who had money illegally charged to them, will be treated in respect of refunds; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16922/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Government has agreed the key elements of a scheme for the repayment of long-stay charges. All those who were illegally charged for publicly-funded long term residential care and are alive and the estates of all those who were charged and died in the six years prior to 9 December 2004 will have the charges repaid in full. The scheme will not provide for repayments to the estates of those who died more than six years ago. The repayments will include the charge paid and an amount to take account of inflation — using the consumer price index — since the time the person involved was charged. Legislation will be brought before the Oireachtas as soon as possible to provide a clear legal framework for the scheme.

In the cases of those who were charged and are still alive, repayments will be exempt from tax and will not be taken into account in assessing means for health and social welfare benefits. The normal tax and means assessment arrangements will apply to those who benefit from repayments to estates. An outside company with experience in handling mass claims will be engaged to design and manage the scheme within the parameters of the key principles approved by Government. A national steering committee will be appointed to provide an independent input into the design of the scheme and to monitor its operation to ensure it is implemented quickly and in the most equitable and effective way possible. The scheme will be designed and managed with the aim of ensuring that those who are eligible for repayments receive them as soon as possible and with the minimum possible imposition in terms of bureaucracy.

Priority will be given to those who are still alive. Many of those eligible for repayments have already been identified under the ex gratia payments process. The scheme will include a trans[1857]parent and thorough appeals process. The legislation will include appropriate safeguards to prevent exploitation of those who receive repayments and are not in a position to manage their own financial affairs. The scheme will include a provision to allow those eligible for a repayment to waive their right to a repayment and have the money assigned to fund one-off service improvements in elderly, mental health and disability services. It is estimated that about 20,000 people who are still alive and a further 40,000 to 50,000 estates will benefit.

It is estimated that the scheme will cost approximately €1billion. The decision to limit payments to the estates of those who died in the past six years reflects the reference in the Supreme Court judgement to the Statute of Limitations. While the national helpline set up by the Health Service Executive to allow people to register if they believe they are due a repayment will continue to operate, there is no need for anyone who has already registered using this facility to make contact with the HSE again to register for the scheme. Any person who considers he, she or a family member may be eligible for repayment may register an interest in advance with the Health Service Executive by writing to the National Refund Scheme, HSE Midland Area, Arden Road, Tullamore, County Offaly, sending an e-mail to refundscheme@mailq.hse.ie, or by calling the helpline 1800 777737 during office hours.

  137.  Mr. Perry    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if he will identify the committee of An Bord Altranais which recommended dropping the requirement of having a general nursing qualification prior to a person’s qualifying as a public health nurse; and the nature of the involvement with stakeholders such as nursing union representatives prior to the taking of this decision. [16939/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The issue raised by the Deputy is a matter for An Bord Altranais, the statutory body charged with the regulation of the nursing and midwifery professions, including the setting of requirements and standards in relation to the education programmes for registration. Membership of the board is representative of all divisions of the register of nurses. I understand, however, that the board decided at a recent meeting to establish a consultation process in respect of the matter raised.

  138.  Ms Lynch    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the reason the application for the appointment of a consultant haematologist at the Mercy University Hospital Cork has to date not been approved; if her attention has been drawn to the fact that the current con[1858]sultant to the children’s leukaemia unit at the Mercy Hospital is due to retire in 2005 and that any undue delay in the advertising and filling of this post will have major consequences for children suffering from cancer in the Munster area and for the long term future of the unit; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16946/05]

  144.  Mr. N. O’Keeffe    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the reason for the delay in a response issuing in relation to the appointment of a consultant haematologist with an interest in child haematology to the Mercy University Hospital in Cork in view of the retirement of the present consultant in May 2005; if she will further investigate this matter with the chief officer of the Health Service Executive’s southern area; if her attention has been drawn to the huge concerns being expressed at this post not being filled on time. [17018/05]

  167.  Ms McManus    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when the HSE will appoint a new consultant haematologist in the leukaemia unit at Mercy University Hospital Cork to replace the person retiring (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17249/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 138, 144 and 167 together.

The Health Act 2004 provided for the establishment of the Health Service Executive 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 cancer services and the recruitment of consultant staff. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer of the Health Service Executive’s southern area to investigate the matters raised and reply direct to the Deputy.

  139.  Mr. P. Breen    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children,    further to Question No. 115 of 1 February 2005, when an assessment of the needs for equipment of a person (details supplied) in County Clare will be carried out; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16947/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. S. Power):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the establishment of the Health Service Executive 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 County Clare. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer of the executive’s mid-western area to investigate the matter raised and reply direct to the Deputy.

  140.  Mr. G. Mitchell    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if the Health Service Executive will fund the stay of a person (details supplied) at a nursing home. [16959/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. S. Power):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the establishment of the Health Service Executive 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 County Kildare. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer of the executive’s eastern area to investigate the matter raised and reply direct to the Deputy.

  141.  Dr. Twomey    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the terms of remuneration and conditions pertaining to a person (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16975/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  I am advised by the organisation concerned that the individual is retained on a consultancy basis. Total fees paid in the year to February 2005 amounted to €378,000 compared to €353,000 in the year to February 2004.

  142.  Mr. Neville    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the reason the Mid-Western Regional Hospital has failed to introduce the children for children telemedicine link between the hospital and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, to enhance the treatment of cancer in children. [16980/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the establishment of the Health Service Executive 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 issue raised by the Deputy. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer of the executive’s mid-western area to investigate the matter raised and reply direct to the Deputy.

  143.  Mr. Connolly    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the reason for the delay in the provision of a national cervical screening programme; the proposed timescale for the programme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16990/05]

[1860]Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  I am committed to the national roll-out of a cervical screening programme in line with international best practice. International evidence demonstrates the proven efficacy of programmes that are effectively managed and meet quality assurance standards. Careful planning and consultation with relevant professional and advocacy stakeholders is required in advance of a national roll out. The former Health Board Executive commissioned an international expert in cervical screening to examine the feasibility and implications of a national roll out of a cervical screening programme. The examination included an evaluation of the current pilot programme in the mid-western area, quality assurance, laboratory capacity and organisation and the establishment of national governance arrangements. The expert’s report was published on 14 December 2004.

My Department is now consulting with the Irish College of General Practitioners, An Bord Altranais, the Academy of Medical Laboratory Science, the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, the faculty of pathology of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, the Women’s Health Council, the Irish Cancer Society and the Dublin Well Woman Centre. Consultation with these key stakeholders is well advanced and will be completed shortly.

Question No. 144 answered with Question
No. 138.

  145.  Mr. Kirk    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when the new health centre proposed for Ardee, County Louth, will be built; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17023/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the establishment of the Health Service Executive 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 centres. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer for the executive’s north-eastern area to investigate the matter raised and reply directly to the Deputy.

  146.  Mr. Neville    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when a medical card will be granted to a person (details supplied) in County Limerick. [17037/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the establishment of the Health Service Executive on 1 January 2005. Under the Act, the execu[1861]tive 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 assessment of applications for medical cards. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer of the Health Service Executive’s mid-western area to investigate the matter raised and reply directly to the Deputy.

  147.  Ms McManus    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the current number of staff vacancies at Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin; the current staff turnover figures at the hospital; the current waiting list times; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17044/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the establishment of the Health Service Executive 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. Services at Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin, are provided under an arrangement with the executive. My Department has requested the chief officer for the executive’s eastern regional area to examine the issues raised and reply to the Deputy directly.

  148.  Ms McManus    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the number of recommendations of the report reviewing the events surrounding the death of Róisín Ruddle which have been implemented; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17046/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The report of the review panel examining the circumstances surrounding the death of Róisín Ruddle made 13 recommendations. The implementation of most of the recommendations is a matter for Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin, in conjunction with the Health Service Executive. I am advised that four of the recommendations have already been implemented in full by the hospital. Plans have been developed for the implementation of a further five of the recommendations and proposals to address two other recommendations are being explored by the hospital with the Health Service Executive. I will bring proposals to Government shortly on two recommendations on paediatric nurse recruitment and training. Róisín’s family is being kept informed of the position.

  149.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    her views on the flu[1862]oridation of public water systems; the levels that apply; if her attention has been drawn to a substantial body of professional work which is of the view that fluoridation is no longer necessary due to advances in oral and dental hygiene; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17060/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the establishment of the Health Services Executive 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 fluoridation. Fluoridation of public water supplies as a public health measure is accepted as being one of the most effective methods to combat tooth decay. The World Health Organisation recommends fluoridation of public water supplies and has stated that “fluoridation of water supplies, where possible, is the most effective public health measure for the prevention of dental decay”. The WHO has also stated that “people of all ages, including the elderly, benefit from community water fluoridation”.

The recently completed survey of oral health, which covered the whole island of Ireland, shows that fluoridation of public water supplies continues to be a highly effective public health measure. It has contributed significantly to a major reduction in the incidence of dental decay in the Republic of Ireland. This compares favourably with the incidence of dental decay in Northern Ireland, which has significantly higher rates of dental decay and which does not have fluoridated water supplies. The oral health survey also shows that fluoridation of public water supplies has a significant impact on dental decay in disadvantaged areas. The gap, in terms of levels of decay, between non-disadvantaged and disadvantaged areas in the Republic of Ireland is significantly less than the gap between such areas in Northern Ireland.

As the Deputy is aware, a forum on fluoridation was established to review the fluoridation of public piped water supplies in Ireland. The main conclusion of the forum’s report was that the fluoridation of public piped water supplies should continue as a public health measure. In all, the report of the forum on fluoridation made 33 recommendations covering a broad range of areas such as research, public awareness, policy and technical aspects of fluoridation. It also proposed the establishment of an expert body to oversee the implementation of the recommendations. The Irish expert body on fluorides and health held its inaugural meeting in April 2004.

The terms of reference of the expert body are to oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the forum on fluoridation; advise the Minister and evaluate ongoing research, including new emerging issues, on all aspects of fluoride and its delivery methods as an established health technology and as required; and to report to the Minister on matters of concern at [1863]his or her request or on its own initiative. The expert body has broad representation which includes personnel from the areas of public health medicine, engineering, management, environmental protection, environmental health, dentistry, and health promotion. I am pleased to inform the Deputy that the body has a strong consumer input in terms of members of the public and representatives of consumer interests, in addition to the necessary scientific, managerial and public health inputs.

The expert body will oversee the implementation of the wide-ranging recommendations of the forum and advise me on all aspects of fluoride going forward. In addition, the expert body on fluorides and health is examining the regulations governing fluoridation of public piped water supplies with the aim of making proposals to the Minister for the purpose of implementing the recommendation of the forum to reduce the level of fluorine in public piped water supplies from between 0.8 parts per million and 1 part per million to between 0.6 parts per million to 0.8 parts per million. As part of this exercise the expert body is carrying out a census of public piped water supplies. When this work is complete, the body will make recommendations to the Minister on the updating of the current regulations.

  150.  Mr. Perry    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if vouchers for travel will be made available to a person (details supplied) in County Sligo to use a taxi service; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that this person is in receipt of welfare, has a learning difficulty and has secured a placement on a rehabilitative programme. [17080/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. T. O’Malley):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the establishment of the Health Service Executive 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 transport to a rehabili[1864]tative training programme. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer for the executive’s north-western area to investigate the matter raised and reply directly to the Deputy.

  151.  Mr. Connolly    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    her plans to address the serious problem of obesity; the extent to which she proposes to implement the recommendations of the national task force on obesity; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17081/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. S. Power):  The national task force on obesity presented its report, Obesity: the Policy Challenges, to the Taoiseach on 16 May 2005. The report contains 93 recommendations for actions across six broad sectors including high-level Government, education, social and community, health, food commodities, production and supply, and the physical environment. The report highlights the need for joined-up policy, cross collaboration between all key stakeholders and real practical engagement by both the public and the private sectors. As Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children with responsibility for health promotion, I will be presenting the report to Cabinet.

  152.  Mr. Lowry    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the number of deaths by suicide in each county between 1997 and 2004; the number of attempted suicides in each county between 1997 and 2004; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17097/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. T. O’Malley):  Data on mortality are compiled by the Central Statistics Office and published in the annual and quarterly reports on vital statistics. The latest period for which data is available is January to September 2004 and this data is set out in the following table in addition to the data for 1997 to 2003 as requested by the Deputy.

Number of deaths from suicide by county, 1997 to 2004.

County 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 Jan to Sept 2004
Carlow 10 5 2 2 8 3 6 2
Cavan 11 4 4 7 9 10 8 2
Clare 10 15 12 8 13 16 13 12
Cork 82 74 53 67 100 62 64 47
Donegal 17 14 14 13 15 20 14 9
Dublin 105 118 120 115 120 103 111 53
Galway 33 28 23 20 23 26 21 10
Kerry 17 26 19 20 20 13 9 12
Kildare 19 12 8 20 12 21 18 10
Kilkenny 6 13 14 17 15 11 11 9
Laois 5 9 5 6 7 6 4 2
Leitrim 6 5 4 4 6 7 3 0
Limerick 18 28 26 32 16 30 24 13
Longford 2 3 6 3 6 4 2 2
Louth 12 16 11 13 7 14 16 7
Mayo 16 16 13 17 17 18 10 9
Meath 13 11 16 11 19 19 11 13
Monaghan 7 8 5 11 2 4 8 4
Offaly 6 10 9 18 12 11 7 8
Roscommon 7 7 6 6 5 4 3 1
Sligo 3 12 6 3 10 4 7 2
Tipperary 16 20 22 20 23 22 26 10
Waterford 18 11 11 12 17 12 8 8
Westmeath 4 13 13 9 9 6 6 5
Wexford 21 18 16 23 19 17 23 4
Wicklow 14 18 17 9 9 15 11 7
Total 478 514 455 486 519 478 444 261

[1865]Data on the number of persons presenting to hospitals following deliberate self harm has been collated by the National Parasuicide Registry since its establishment in 2000 and published in its annual report. The third annual report published in December 2004 indicates that there were approximately 11,200 presentations due to deliberate self harm in 2003. As information is not available from all hospitals, it is not possible to provide data on a county-by-county basis as requested by the Deputy. The National Parasuicide Registry has however secured approval to collect data from all acute hospitals in the country from 2004.

As the Deputy is aware, work is now well under way on the preparation of a national strategy for action on suicide prevention. The strategy, which involves the project management unit of the Health Service Executive in partnership with the national suicide review group supported by the Department of Health and Children will be action-based from the outset and will outline the priority initiatives for suicide prevention and mental health promotion across the country for the coming years. All measures aimed at reducing the number of deaths by suicide will be considered in the preparation of the strategy which will be published in September of this year.

  153.  Mr. Lowry    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the number of deaths by suicide of persons under 25 between 1997 and 2004 in County Tipperary and nationally; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17098/05]

  154.  Mr. Lowry    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if her attention has been drawn to a recent trend in County Tipperary (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17099/05]

[1866]

  155.  Mr. Lowry    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the action she is taking to tackle the unusually high rate of suicide in County Tipperary; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17100/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. T. O’Malley):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 153 to 155, inclusive, together.

The number of deaths by suicide of persons under 25 in County Tipperary and nationally 1997-2004 as requested by the Deputy are as follows.

Year Tipperary Ireland
1997 6 130
1998 9 130
1999 6 109
2000 3 110
2001 7 108
2002 5 108
2003 5 112
January to September 2004 3 51

Suicide is a serious social problem here and every suicide and attempted suicide is a tragic event. As the Deputy is aware, work is now well under way on the preparation of a national strategy for action on suicide prevention. This strategy, which involves the project management unit of the Health Service Executive in partnership with the National Suicide Review Group supported by the Department of Health and Children will be action-based from the outset and will outline the priority initiatives for suicide prevention and mental health promotion across the country for the coming years. All measures aimed at reducing the number of deaths by suicide will be con[1867]sidered in the preparation of this strategy which will be published in September of this year.

  156.  Mr. Lowry    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if a scheme exists within her Department for a group (details supplied) in County Tipperary; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17101/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. S. Power):  The Department of Health and Children provides funding to voluntary organisations under a national lottery funded grant scheme. This funding is discretionary. There is a set protocol in place in the Department for dealing with applications and requests for grants from discretionary national lottery funds. An application form is made available to any individual, group or agency which requests a grant. When the completed application form is received in the Department it is registered in the finance unit and forwarded to the relevant services division for its assessment, evaluation and recommendation. All applications are then considered in the context of the recommendation and the overall level of funds available to the Tánaiste and each organisation is then informed of the decision reached in relation to its application.

  157.  Mr. Lowry    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the support services available in County Tipperary for young persons suffering from mental illness; the support groups in the county which assist persons with mental illness; the plans which agencies under her Department have to improve the facilities and increase funding in this area; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17102/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. T. O’Malley):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the Health Service Executive, 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 support services for young persons suffering mental illness in County Tipperary. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer, Health Service Executive south-eastern area to investigate the matters raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  158.  Mr. Lowry    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    further to Parliamentary Question No. 134 of 17 May 2005, when a full service, excluding mobile services, will be available in County Tipperary; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17103/05]

[1868]Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The national breast screening programme, BreastCheck, provides a scheme of early diagnosis and primary treatment of breast cancer in women in the 50 to 64 age group. The programme is currently available to women in the target group in the eastern, north-eastern, midland and part of the south-eastern regions. Two static clinical units operate in these regions, one at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin and the other at the Mater Hospital, Dublin. Mobile units provide screening for the target population in the counties throughout these regions.

BreastCheck is preparing for national extension of the programme which will require a further two centres. The centre in the south will be located at the South Infirmary/Victoria Hospital, Cork, with three associated mobile units. The area of coverage will be counties Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Waterford and Tipperary South Riding. The centre in the west will be located at University College Hospital, Galway with two associated mobile units. The area of coverage will be counties Galway, Sligo, Roscommon, Donegal, Mayo, Leitrim, Clare and Tipperary North Riding. I am confident that the target date of 2007 for the commencement of the roll out of the BreastCheck programme to the regions will be met.

As regards the symptomatic breast disease services, the report on the development of cancer services for symptomatic breast disease recommended the development of a limited number of specialist units. The report recommended the development of four specialist units to cover the southern, south-eastern and mid-western regions. These units are located at the South Infirmary/
Victoria Hospital, Cork, Cork University Hospital, Waterford Regional Hospital and Limerick Regional Hospital. Considerable investment has been made in implementing the recommendations with most of the units now operational or at advanced stages of development.

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.

  159.  Mr. McGuinness    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if an application for a medical card under appeal in the name of a person (details supplied) in County Kilkenny will be expedited. [17147/05]

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, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for the assessment of applications for medical cards. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer of the Health [1869]Service Executive’s eastern regional area to investigate the matter raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  160.  Mr. Ring    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    her views on whether it is right for invasive and personal questions to be asked of persons applying for non-medical positions in the Health Service Executive; if this type of form is necessary for the type of position for which they are applying; the number of persons required to draft this pre-employment health questionnaire form; the number of person who have to process this form before an applicant is given a job; and if it is necessary for the HSE to be able to access a person’s private health file at any time. [17149/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the Health Service Executive, HSE, which was established on 1 January 2005. Under the Act, the executive is required to manage and deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for human resource management and I would expect the HSE to adhere to good practice in appropriate pre-employment health screening in the interest of staff and patients.

As this is a matter for the HSE, my Department has requested the national director of human resources in the HSE to reply directly to the Deputy in regard to the issues raised.

  161.  Mr. Sherlock    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when she proposes to give approval for the proposed developments of a hospital (details supplied) in County Cork. [17165/05]

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 is required to manage and deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services.

This project is in the capital investment framework, CIF, 2005 for the Health Service Executive. A design team was appointed in February 2004 for phase 2A of the redevelopment of Fermoy Community Hospital. The HSE is currently progressing the project through the various detailed planning stages, with the view to bringing the project to tender stage in due course.

  162.  Mr. J. Breen    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the reason the HSE in the mid-west refused to sign up to the international children for children project; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17224/05]

[1870]Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. B. Lenihan):  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 child welfare issues. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer of the Health Service Executive, mid-western area to investigate the matter raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  163.  Mr. J. Breen    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the status of Ennis General Hospital when the national forum on health is implemented; if it will remain an acute surgical hospital; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17225/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The Health Act 2004 provides for the convening of a national health consultative forum to advise on matters relating to the provision of health services. A gathering of this nature has been an annual event since the publication of the national health strategy and it is my intention to convene a forum, in accordance with the Act, later on this year.

The Health Act 2004 also provided for the Health Service Executive to manage and deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility, through the National Hospitals Office, for the arranging of acute hospital services at a national, regional and local level.

Services to be provided, in the future, at Ennis General Hospital will be developed based on the principle of regional self-sufficiency and the organisation of services through regional hospital networks.

  164.  Mr. Allen    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if, in relation to the development of health policy and services for individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing, she will indicate the scope of the services available and the number of beneficiaries of such services on a national and a county basis. [17233/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. T. O’Malley):  The national disability strategy provides a framework of positive action measures to support participation by people with disabilities in Irish society. The strategy consists of four elements; the Disability Bill 2004; the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004; six outline sectoral plans, and a commitment to a multi-annual investment.

The strategic review of services being undertaken by my Department is examining the significant level of service provision which is already in place, focusing on specific issues which are of [1871]concern to people with disabilities and their families and carers, together with statutory and voluntary bodies in this area, with an opportunity to input into the planning and delivery of services over the coming years.

The Government announced on budget day a special disability multi-annual funding package with a total value of close to €900 million over the years 2006 to 2009 which includes an allocation of €300 million out of the revised capital envelope to these high-priority disability services.

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 development and provision of such services for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Accordingly, my Department has requested the Health Service Executive’s national director for primary, community and continuing care to investigate the matter raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  165.  Mr. Naughten    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when a person (details supplied) in County Roscommon will be called for a cataract operation; the reason for the delay; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17236/05]

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, health and personal social services. As the person in question resides in County Roscommon, my Department has requested the chief officer for the executive’s western area to investigate the matter raised, and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  166.  Mr. J. Breen    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    further to Parliamentary Question No. 201 of 19 April 2005, when the HSE will answer; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17248/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. T. O’Malley):  The Health Act 2004 provided for the Health Service Executive, 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 speech and language services. Accordingly, my Department has again requested the chief officer of Health Service Executive’s mid-western area [1872]to investigate the matter raised and to reply directly to the Deputy as a matter of urgency.

Question No. 167 answered with Question
No. 138.

  168.  Ms McManus    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if, in view of the fact that the four midland counties of Longford, Westmeath, Offaly and Laois do not have access to a consultant endocrinologist or a quality diabetes service, when a endocrinologist and diabetologist will be appointed in the local Mullingar, Tullamore and Portlaoise hospitals; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17250/05]

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, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for the provision of hospital services. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer for the executive’s midland area to investigate the matters raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  169.  Ms McManus    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if she will provide a national health screening service for older people of both sexes for diabetes, breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17251/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  A new national cancer strategy is currently being finalised by the National Cancer Forum, a multidisciplinary group of experts in oncology. As part of this work, the forum has reviewed all issues relating to screening, including examining specific diseases such as prostate and colorectal cancer.

In relation to screening for prostate cancer, I understand the forum has concluded that there is currently insufficient evidence to recommend the introduction of a population based prostate screening programme here and that this issue should be reassessed when the results are available from randomised trials currently being conducted.

This position is consistent with the recommendations adopted by the European Union which advocate the introduction of cancer screening programmes which have demonstrated their efficacy having regard to professional expertise and priority setting for healthcare resources. The proposals do not provide for specific recommendations in respect of screening for prostate cancer.

The national roll out of the breast screening programme is a major priority in the development of cancer services. This will ensure that all [1873]women in the relevant age group of 50 to 64 years in every county will have access to breast screening and follow up treatment where appropriate. I recently gave approval to BreastCheck to advertise for the appointment of a design team to work up detailed plans for the design and construction of clinical units at Cork and Galway. Tender notices have already been advertised in the EU Journal to expedite this major project.

The current priority of BreastCheck and my Department is to progress the roll out of breast screening to women in target group in the rest of the country. Following the national roll out and when the programme is sufficiently developed and quality assured, consideration will be given to extending the upper age limit.

A pilot project for diabetic retinopathy screening is ongoing in the Health Service Executive north-western area. The results of this pilot will be evaluated and will inform subsequent consideration of an extension of this programme.

  170.  Ms McManus    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when a radiotherapist will be appointed to Letterkenny Hospital; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17252/05]

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, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for the recruitment of radiotherapy staff. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer of the executive’s northern area to investigate the matter and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  171.  Mr. Ring    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when the name of a person (details supplied) on his birth certificate will be changed. [17272/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The administration of the system for the registration of births is a matter for An tArd-Chláraitheoir, the Registrar General of births, deaths and marriages, and for local registrars who operate under his general direction.

I have been informed that an application to re-register the surname details of the person (details supplied) has been processed and approved by an tArd Chláraitheoir and the re-registration was effected by the office of the superintendent registrar of the western area of the Health Service Executive, which covers the County of Mayo, on May 20, 2005.

  172.  Mr. Neville    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when a medical card [1874]will be granted to a person (details supplied) in County Limerick. [17273/05]

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, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for the assessment of applications for medical cards. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer of the Health Service Executive’s mid-western area to investigate the matter raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  173.  Mr. Fleming    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when a person (details supplied) in County Laois will be called for urgent treatment. [17275/05]

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, health and personal social services. As the person in question resides in County Laois, my Department has requested the chief officer of the executive’s midland area to investigate the matter raised and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  174.  Mr. Wall    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when a person (details supplied) in County Kildare will receive an appointment date for a hearing aid; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17276/05]

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, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for audiology services. 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.

  175.  Mr. Ring    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when a person (details supplied) in County Mayo will be seen by an eye specialist in Galway. [17279/05]

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 [1875]deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services. As the person in question resides in County Mayo, my Department has requested the chief officer for the executive’s western area to investigate the matter raised, and to reply directly to the Deputy.

  176.  Mr. Naughten    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    further to Question No. 334 of 26 January 2005 if the child care report has been finalised; if training issues for pre-school inspection staff will arise as a result of the requirements of the revised regulations; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17340/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. B. Lenihan):  The report on the review of the Child Care (Pre-School Services) Regulations 1996 and the Child Care (Pre-School Services) (Amendment) Regulations 1997 has been completed subject to clarification of a small number of legal and technical issues which are still being progressed. Training issues for pre-school inspection staff which may arise as a result of the requirements of the revised regulations will be a matter for the Health Service Executive as part of the implementation of the revised regulations.

  177.  Mr. Connaughton    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    when a decision will be made on a nursing home subvention appeal in the name of a person (details supplied) in County Galway; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17370/05]

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 is required 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 nursing home subvention scheme in County Galway. Accordingly, my Department has requested the chief officer for the executive’s western area to investigate the matter raised and to reply direct to the Deputy.

  178.  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    if the HSE will withdraw its threat of non-payment of increases due to nurses and midwives under Sustaining Progress and benchmarking; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17413/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  The current phase of performance verification for the health sector is the fourth [1876]phase of the process set out in the Sustaining Progress agreement. The public service pay agreement provides that the final two phases of the benchmarking increases and the general round increases are dependent on verification of satisfactory achievement of the provisions on co-operation with flexibility and ongoing change; satisfactory implementation of the agenda for modernisation set out in sections 20 to 26 of Sustaining Progress; and the maintenance of stable industrial relations and the absence of industrial action in respect of matters covered by the agreement. The fourth phase sectoral report received by the Secretary General of the Department of Health and Children from the Health Services National Partnership Forum cited the Irish Nurses Organisation in respect of its non-co-operation regarding the development and implementation of the health care assistants training programme.

In accordance with the procedures laid down in Sustaining Progress, the Secretary General referred the matter to the health service National Joint Council for its views on the matter. The referral emphasised the need for the INO to commit to full co-operation with the introduction of the health care assistants training programme, which represents a key skill mix initiative in the health sector, and is a key component of the Sustaining Progress agreement.

The matter remained unresolved following a special meeting of the National Joint Council on 11 May 2005 and the Secretary General informed the chair of the performance verification group that he had deferred making a decision until 31 May 2005. I understand that the national implementation body, which is provided for in Sustaining Progress, invited both parties to discuss the outstanding issues on Friday, 20 May and that a set of proposals is currently being drafted following that intervention. I hope the issues in dispute can be resolved, thus allowing nurses to receive their pay increases with effect from 1 June next.

  179.  Mr. Hayes    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    her plans to reduce the unacceptably long waiting list for audiology services in south Tipperary (details supplied). [17414/05]

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, health and personal social services. This includes responsibility for audiology services. 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.

  180.  Mr. O’Dowd    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the progress made since a recent meeting (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17427/05]

Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children (Ms Harney):  I met a delegation from Dundalk Town Council and local Oireachtas Members on 18 May last, at which a number of service issues relating to Louth County Hospital were raised and discussed.

Subsequent to the meeting, the Department apprised the Health Service Executive, north eastern area, with regard to the issues discussed.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Health Service Executive is required 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 Louth County Hospital. I indicated to the delegation that I would be visiting the hospital at an early date.

  181.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children    the part now being played by the Peamount Hospital, Newcastle, County Dublin, in the alleviation of bed shortages throughout the greater Dublin area; if the discontinued tuberculosis and respiratory facilities have been relocated; if so, the location to which they have been relocated; if tuberculosis and respiratory patients are being referred to other hospitals in which isolation facilities are available; the number of such referrals to date; the current and future use of the hospital; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17429/05]

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, health and personal social services.

Services at Peamount Hospital are provided under an arrangement with the executive. My Department has requested the chief officer for the executive’s eastern regional area to examine the issues raised and to reply to the Deputy directly.

  182.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Minister for Finance    his views on whether it is appropriate that child care providers should be liable for commercial rates in cases in which such provision is community based and provided as a consequence of local co-operation and local interest together with public funding under community crèche prog[1878]rammes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17163/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The Valuation Act 2001 provides that commercially operated child care facilities such as play schools, pre-schools, crèches and Montessori schools are liable for rates unless specific criteria for exemption are met.

Schedule 4 of the Valuation Act 2001 outlines the categories of property and the various uses that are deemed to be non rateable under the Act. Paragraph 10, pertaining to education, and paragraph 16, pertaining to charitable purposes, are two areas in that Schedule which may be relevant to the rateability of child care facilities.

In the area of education, under paragraph 10 of Schedule 4, exemption is limited to educational institutions not established and whose affairs are not conducted for making profit or funded wholly or mainly from funds provided by the Exchequer, and which in either case are open to the general public.

Paragraph 16 of Schedule 4 provides exemption for charitable organisations which occupy and use their facilities exclusively for charitable purposes and otherwise than for profit. Consequently, child care facilities established on a profit-generating basis, irrespective of whether they are in receipt of public funding, are liable for rates.

The basis of rateable valuation of commercial property, including crèches, is net annual value, NAV, that is, the rental value of the property. Any ratepayer dissatisfied with the rateability of a property, the valuation assessed on a particular property or the method of calculation can appeal to the Commissioner of Valuation in the first instance and subsequently to the independent valuation tribunal. There is a further right of appeal to the High Court and ultimately to the Supreme Court on a point of law.

  183.  Ms Cooper-Flynn    asked the Minister for Finance    if there has been any change in the eligibility criteria for the primary medical certificate. [17223/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I assume the Deputy is referring to the disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concessions scheme which is open to people with disabilities who meet the specified criteria and have obtained a primary medical certificate to that effect from the local Health Service Executive.

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. The six types of disablement are as follows: persons who are wholly or almost wholly without the use of both legs; persons who [1879]are wholly without the use of one leg and almost wholly without the use of the other leg such that the applicant is severely restricted as to movement of the lower limbs; persons without both hands or without both arms; persons without one or both legs; persons wholly or almost wholly without the use of both hands or arms and wholly or almost wholly without the use of one leg; and persons having the medical condition of dwarfism and who have serious difficulties of movement of the lower limbs.

An individual who qualifies under the medical criteria, as set out above, is issued with a primary medical certificate. Possession of a primary medical certificate qualifies the holder for remission or repayment of vehicle registration tax, VRT, a 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 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.

  184.  Mr. McGuinness    asked the Minister for Finance    if, as part of the reconstruction of the fish pass at Lacken Weir, Kilkenny, he will carry out a survey of the base of the complete weir which is now being subject to churning; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16910/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Parlon):  The extension to Lacken weir, which was constructed as part of the Kilkenny flood relief scheme, is built on rock. The base of the original weir was protected with rock armour as part of the scheme. While churning is a normal feature of weirs, a precautionary inspection to establish the stability of the weir will be carried out.

  185.  Mr. G. Mitchell    asked the Minister for Finance    if a pension declaration form (details supplied) will be reviewed with a view to making it more informative and clearer to understand; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16911/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  It is accepted that the recently issued pension declar[1880]ation form confused some pensioners. In light of this, the form will be reviewed, and consideration will also be given to the attachment of an explanatory covering letter with any further issues of this form.

  186.  Ms O. Mitchell    asked the Minister for Finance    the public projects which have been funded using the National Pensions Reserve Fund to date; the name, location, cost and amount invested by the National Treasury Management Agency in each project; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16920/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  As the Deputy will be aware, the National Pensions Reserve Fund Commission is independent of Government in the exercise of its functions. 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 subject to prudent risk management.

I understand that in 2003 the commission made an initial allocation of €200 million for investment in public private partnerships in Ireland and will increase this allocation should suitable opportunities arise. While steps have been taken to advance the decision to invest in public private partnerships in Ireland, to date no moneys have been invested in any such project.

  187.  Mr. Penrose    asked the Minister for Finance    if a C2 certificate has issued to a company (details supplied) in County Westmeath; if not, the reason therefor; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16921/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that no company or entity as outlined in the details supplied is known to them. Accordingly, no certificate of authorisation under section 531 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 — otherwise referred to as a C2 — has issued to any such company or entity.

However, the tax reference number furnished refers to a private individual from whom an application for a C2, dated 27 March last, was received by the Revenue Commissioners on 18 April 2005. Significant further information was sought by Revenue in a letter to the applicant’s tax agent dated 20 April 2005 in relation to this application. However, no reply has been received to this request and until the information requested is provided the application cannot be processed further.

  188.  Mr. Connaughton    asked the Minister for Finance    when it is proposed to lay down flooring boards on the upper floor of Portumna Castle in County Galway; the total expenditure on the castle from 1968 to 2004; the contribution from the EU to the restoration of the castle; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16931/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Parlon):  As only work of a routine maintenance nature was undertaken during the period 1968 to 1989, the information sought by the Deputy for these years is unavailable.

The EU programme of works at Portumna Castle was undertaken during the years 1990 to 2000 and eligible expenditure under the EU programme during this period amounted to some €3,643,880, of which €2,318,200 was contributed by the EU.

Under the National Development Plan 2000-2006, some €236,000 was expended on Portumna Castle during the period 2000 to 2003. There has been no capital expenditure on the castle since 2003 but routine maintenance works continue to be undertaken.

It is not proposed to undertake further works, including additional flooring, at Portumna Castle. The significant investment made to date at Portumna Castle has resulted in a distinctive tourist amenity for the region. The major objectives for Portumna Castle, which were to provide extended public access and an enhanced exhibition for visitors, have been achieved.

  189.  Mr. F. McGrath    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will consider reducing VAT on heating oil in order to assist families; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17008/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The position is that heating oil is already subject to the reduced VAT rate of 13.5% and I do not have plans to change that. The VAT rating of goods and services is subject to the requirements of EU VAT law with which Irish VAT law must comply. The VAT treatment of heating oil is based on the fact that, on 1 January 1991, it was taxed at the reduced rate. Under EU law member states can continue to apply reduced rates in such cases only where they were applied prior to that date. The rate may not in any event be set below 12%.

  190.  Mr. Bruton    asked the Minister for Finance    if his attention has been drawn to the fact that level term assurance policies are not allowable for tax purposes against rental income, whereas standard mortgage protection policies are so allowable; if he has plans to change the legal framework or the conventions used in order that these [1882]policies be tax allowable; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17042/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  Allowable deductions under the tax law relating to rental income are provided for in section 97(2) of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997. Section 97(2)(d) authorises a deduction in respect of “the cost
of . . . management of the premises borne by the person chargeable and relating to and constituting an expense of the transaction or transactions under which the rents or receipts were received, not being an expense of a capital nature”.

I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that in strictness mortgage protection policy premiums are arguably not part of the cost of management of the premises but relate more to the management of the landlord’s financial affairs than to the management of the premises. Such expenditure could also be argued to be capital in nature. However, the Revenue Commissioners recognise that financial institutions insist that such policies are put in place when sanctioning borrowings. Accordingly, the Revenue Commissioners, having reviewed the position, decided some time ago to treat mortgage protection policy premiums paid as an allowable deduction in computing rental income for income and corporation tax purposes.

The new treatment was applied in respect of mortgage protection policy premiums paid on or after 1 January 2002. It is confined to mortgage protection policy premiums only. A mortgage protection policy is aimed at covering the full amount left outstanding on a person’s mortgage should they die. Such policies are often referred to as decreasing term insurance as the amount that needs to be covered reduces every time a payment is made. Because of the reducing cover required, mortgage protection policy premiums are lower than those of other products offered by life assurance companies. The new Revenue treatment does not extend to premiums payable under these other types of product. It does not, therefore, apply to premiums payable under a level term assurance policy where the amount of cover is fixed from the outset and does not reduce over the term of the mortgage.

  191.  Mr. P. McGrath    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of prize bonds currently in circulation; if the results of the draws are published annually; the administration costs incurred in the running of the draws annually; the body which administers the draws; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17047/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  There are currently almost 83.5 million prize bonds outstanding, worth approximately €526 million. Prize bonds are operated by the Prize Bond Company Limited, a joint venture between An Post and Fexco, under a ten-year contract with the [1883]National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, from 1 November 1999. The Prize Bond Company Limited holds the prize bond draw at 12.30 p.m. every Friday in the GPO, O’Connell Street, Dublin. The draws are open to the public. The results are presented live on the website of the Prize Bond Company, www.prizebonds.ie, and are available weekly on 3Text, TV3’s text service, on page 699. All winners are written to by the Prize Bond Company at the last address notified to the company.

A list of each week’s top prize-winning numbers is available in all main Post Offices, and the draw results for the previous seven months are available on the Prize Bond Company’s website. The number and value of prizes awarded each year are included in the annual report of the Prize Bond Company.

Prizes in respect of more than 7,000 prize bonds amounting to more than €1 million in value remain unclaimed. A list of these prize bonds is available on the Prize Bond Company’s website. A booklet listing unclaimed prize bonds is published from time to time and is available in post offices nationwide.

The total fee paid by the NTMA to the Prize Bond Company for the administration of the prize bond scheme in 2004 was €6.9 million, of which approximately €350,000 relates specifically to the running of the draw.

The prize bond draw is fully computerised, and the draw software has been verified by independent statistical consultants. The consultants also analyse the results of every draw to check for randomness and their reports are submitted to, and evaluated by, the NTMA on a regular basis. In addition, a representative of the NTMA attends every draw so as to ensure strict adherence to the operational procedures set down for the conduct of the draw.

  192.  Mr. Perry    asked the Minister for Finance    the criteria for VAT registration of a B&B with regard to financial turnover; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17068/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The position is that traders making supplies in the State are obliged to register for VAT where certain turnover thresholds are exceeded or are likely to be exceeded in any continuous period of 12 months. The current threshold for a person supplying services is €25,500.

Therefore, B&Bs must register for VAT when the turnover of the business exceeds or is likely to exceed €25,500. However, businesses with turnover below these thresholds can of course register for VAT and those in the service sector in particular frequently choose to do so for business reasons.

[1884]

  193.  Mr. Haughey    asked the Minister for Finance    if a civil servant who works only every second week due to illness and is paid every second week by his or her Department but who is claiming disability benefit for every week, must give the said Department the disability benefit claimed for the week worked, even though he or she is paying a full stamp; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17069/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The Department of Finance has issued a circular, number 6/95, to Departments regarding the treatment of social welfare benefits received by civil servants who are also in receipt of sick pay while out of work on certified sick leave.

The general principle set out in the circular is that a person is entitled to a single payment only in respect of any one week whether this is sick pay or disability benefit. Where more than one payment arises, arrangements for recoupment apply.

In the special circumstances outlined by the Deputy, where a civil servant works one week in every two and receives a salary for that week and is entitled to claim disability benefit for both weeks, it is likely that similar recoupment arrangements would be appropriate.

  194.  Mr. Perry    asked the Minister for Finance    if a person (details supplied) in County Sligo should have paid taxes on building society shares; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17070/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  A charge to capital gains tax arises in respect of chargeable gains accruing on the disposal of assets. Such gains are computed in accordance with the provisions of the Capital Gains Tax, CGT, Acts. The charge extends to individuals, companies and unincorporated bodies of persons. CGT has no connection with income, which is the basis for income tax.

The Revenue Commissioners inform me that, according to their records, the person referred to by the Deputy is an old age pensioner. I assume this is the basis for the Deputy’s question. There is no provision in the Capital Gains Tax Acts to exempt individuals from capital gains tax on the basis that they are old age pensioners. Gains arising on the shareholdings of old age pensioners are liable to CGT in the same manner as gains arising to other individuals. Shares in the company concerned, First Active, were chargeable assets and the gain realised, on their sale for cash, is a chargeable gain in the hands of the shareholder.

I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that, as many shareholders would not ordinarily be expected to be familiar with CGT provisions, they decided to write to each of them informing them of a potential tax liability arising from the [1885]disposal of the shares and how to make such payment. They have further advised me that the taxpayer concerned received such a letter, which set out an estimate of the amount of CGT due. The [1886]taxpayer has made the relevant payment to Revenue, which equates to a total of €304 from a total of €2,790 received from the sale of the shares. His CGT liability was calculated as follows:

Cash Received €2,790
Allowable Costs Nil (as the shares were acquired at no cost they have a nil base)
Chargeable Gain €2,790
Less Personal Exemption (€1,270)
Net Chargeable Gain €1,520@20%=€304

[1885]The chargeable gain above can be reduced by any allowable losses arising in 2004 together with any unused allowable losses from disposals of assets chargeable to capital gains tax in any previous year.

The documentation that has been issued to the person referred to by the Deputy includes a special Revenue helpline number should any further assistance be required.

  195.  Mr. Perry    asked the Minister for Finance    the plans in place for the use or sale of a premises (details supplied) in County Sligo; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17071/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Parlon):  The Commissioners of Public Works have been advised by the Revenue Commissioners that all their premises in Sligo, including the Customs and Excise building, The Quays, are being fully utilised and therefore this property is not for sale at this time.

  196.  Mr. Haughey    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will grant tax relief with regard to [1886]expenses incurred by persons who adopt children from abroad; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17078/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I have no plans at present to put in place a special tax relief for expenses incurred in the adoption of children from abroad. The Deputy will appreciate that I receive a significant number of requests for the introduction of new tax relief schemes. However, tax reliefs, no matter how worthwhile in themselves, narrow the tax base and make reform of the tax system more difficult.

  197.  Mr. Crawford    asked the Minister for Finance    the excise duty now charged on a litre of diesel and a litre of petrol; the total revenue gained to the State from this source; if he will consider reducing this tax in view of the serious increase in fuel generally in order that business and tourism here can compete; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17091/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The rate of mineral oil tax on a litre of petrol and diesel is 44.3 cent and 36.8 cent respectively. The total revenue to the Exchequer from petrol and diesel in 2004 was as follows.

Mineral Oil Tax VAT Total
€ million € million € million
Petrol 971 339 1,310
Auto Diesel 872 40 912
Total 1,843 379 2,222

[1885]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

As the Deputy will be aware, changes in taxation are made in the context of the annual budget and, accordingly, any requests made regarding changes in tax rates are considered in the period leading up to the budget. The Deputy will appreciate that it is neither practical nor prudent to adjust tax rates between budgets. However, it should be noted that Ireland’s mineral oil tax on petrol and diesel is below that of our main EU trading partners.

  198.  Mr. Lowry    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will exclude persons over the age of 66 from the €40 credit card and the €10 ATM Government levy; the cost of such a measure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17106/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr Cowen):  Stamp duty exists on various financial cards in order to provide Exchequer revenue. The stamp duty on cheques, bills of exchange and promissory notes has existed for many years and when electronic means of money transfers were subsequently introduced, stamp duty was gradually extended to [1887]these products to ensure that the stamp duty from cheques etc. was not eroded.

The current annual rates of stamp duty are as follows: credit card account and charge card —€40; ATM card without a laser function —€10; laser card without an ATM function —€10; and combined ATM and laser card —€20. The stamp duty arises irrespective of the age of the person who holds the account. I do not believe that these charges are excessive and there is no evidence that they significantly discourage people from using these forms of transaction.

I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that, as the stamp duty charge on credit and ATM cards is not affected by the age of account holders, such information is not provided by financial institutions in their annual returns to Revenue. There is, therefore, no statistical basis on which the estimate requested by the Deputy can be provided. Stamp duties on credit cards and ATM cards are significant contributors to the Exchequer, help to fund public services, such as health and education, and are in accordance with the overall taxation policy of widening the tax base in order to keep direct tax rates low. In 2004, the stamp duty on all financial cards contributed €94.3 million to the Exchequer. There are no plans to introduce exemptions from stamp duty on such cards for any category of individual.

As the Deputy knows, this Government has done much to help those aged 65 and over. The income tax age exemption limits have been increased by about 150% since 1997 removing 75,500 elderly people from the tax net. In addition, the current rate of payment for old age pensions has increased by more than 80% over the rate payable in 1997. This is well ahead of the rate of inflation and represents a very significant improvement in provision for our older citizens.

  199.  Mr. McGuinness    asked the Minister for Finance    the extent and cost of the works being undertaken at Dunmore Cave, Kilkenny; the timeframe for completion of the works; when the facility will be open to the public; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17259/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Parlon):  The current works at Dunmore Cave comprise essential electrical and lighting upgrading works to the cave to provide safe access and improved presentation compatible with the conservation of the cave; and a native-stone paving project to illustrate Ireland’s geological history, putting the cave formation in context. The paving also complements the exhibition at the visitor centre. To date the paving project and electrical installation have cost €167,724.54. Works on the electrical cabling have now been completed and the only outstanding work is the installation of the light fittings designed to improve visibility and presentation within the cave. Dunmore Cave will open to the public at [1888]the end of May in a limited way and will be fully reopened in mid-June.

  200.  Mr. Penrose    asked the Minister for Finance    if the persons who have invested in a single life insurance premium policy whereby the source of such investments are clearly identifiable such as arising from an injury compensation or from PAYE earnings saved over a number of years or the sale of a legitimate product such as land, property or other items do not have to be concerned with the deadline of 23 May 2005; if assurances will be given to elderly persons (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17260/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that the investigation into the source of moneys invested in life assurance products is concerned with tax evaders and not with compliant taxpayers. Revenue has made it clear that the investigation applies only to those who invested in insurance products using money that should have been but was not disclosed to Revenue, money colloquially known as “hot money”.

I am further advised by the Revenue Commissioners that individuals who are satisfied that they invested in these products with money, which was not taxable, or with money which came from savings out of previously taxed income or gains should not have to make any disclosure. In general, this would include individuals who invested the proceeds of redundancy payments, accident compensation, lump sums received from a pension fund on retirement. However, compensation for loss of earnings and profits from the sale of lands, property and other items may, depending on the circumstances, be taxable. Where investors have paid tax on profits or gains from these sources and have subsequently invested the taxed proceeds in life assurance investment products, no further tax issues should arise.

Additionally, while the moneys were with the insurance companies the funds in which they were invested were taxed and therefore the individual investors should have no further liability to pay on those profits. Anyone who received a letter from a life assurance company and who has no tax issues should have no need to contact the Revenue Commissioners.

  201.  Mr. Penrose    asked the Minister for Finance    if a person is entitled to the one-parent family tax credit if they are separated and have a child in full-time education; the age this continues to apply to in respect of the tax credit for the parent; if, during the currency of the education, the person becomes disabled and qualifies for the disability allowance, if the parent can still retain the one parent family tax credit (details supplied); [1889]and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17261/05]

Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen):  The one-parent family tax credit is provided for in section 462 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, as amended. In the circumstances described by the Deputy, a separated parent is entitled to the one-parent family tax credit in respect of such a child who is over 18 years of age at the commencement of the tax year provided that: (a) the parent is not cohabiting with a person as man and wife, and the parent is not entitled to the married person’s tax credit, which can, in certain circumstances, be due to separated spouses who maintain their spouse; and (b) the child is resident with the parent for the whole or part of the tax year and is either (i) receiving full-time education; or (ii) permanently incapacitated by reason of mental or physical infirmity from maintaining himself or herself and became so incapacitated either before he/she reached the age of 21 years; or if he or she had attained the age of 21 years, had become permanently incapacitated while he or she had been in receipt of full-time instruction.

As regards the continuation of the one-parent family tax credit as the child gets older, once the tax credit is due by reason of the criteria at (b)(ii) above, the tax credit will continue to be granted irrespective of the age of the child, and regardless of whether the child is in receipt of the disability allowance.

I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that if the Deputy has a particular case in mind, they will examine it to determine whether or not the individual is entitled to the one-parent family tax credit. If the Deputy wishes to provide details of the case to my office, I will be glad to forward them on to the Revenue Commissioners.

  202.  Mr. F. McGrath    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    if there are any major health concerns regarding mobile phone masts, ESA pylons or ESB sub-stations backing on to residential areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17216/05]

Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. N. Dempsey):  My responsibility as regards health issues of mobile phone masts, electricity pylons and sub-stations relates solely to the electromagnetic fields emanating from these facilities. My Department maintains a watching scientific brief in this regard and there is no scientific or medical evidence that electromagnetic fields from such installations, below the level of internationally recognised guidelines, are injurious to health.

Ireland has adopted the guidelines established by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection and participates in the work of the International Committee on Electromagnetic Safety which sets standards in this area. These bodies continually review the relevant [1890]research, and periodically meet to decide whether or not the guidelines continue to be appropriate in light of the most up-to-date reports.

  203.  Mr. J. O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    if the review of aquaculture operations at Ardgroom Harbour in Beara, west Cork, has been completed; and if the outstanding application for a licence in that area will be processed. [16956/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher):  The review of aquaculture operations in Ardgroom Harbour is continuing and the Department proposes, as part of this process, to meet operators from the harbour in the next few weeks. The objective of this meeting will be to finalise arrangements aimed at ensuring that aquaculture in this area is conducted in accordance with relevant regulatory requirements and best practice. The person who made the licence application to which the Deputy refers has been advised that consideration of the application cannot be advanced until the general issues relating to aquaculture in the area have been finalised.

  204.  Mr. J. O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    the position in relation to the grant aid of €2.54 million, approved in relation to the provision of a breakwater at Baltimore Harbour on 26 April 2002; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16958/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher):  Unfortunately, owing to budgetary constraints, no funding is available within the Department under the seaports measure of the National Development Plan 2000-2006 to progress the development of the harbour. The very limited resources at my disposal are to be concentrated on urgent safety works to protect the public and the fabric of the regional harbours. An official from the engineering division of the Department inspected Baltimore and Skibbereen harbours in June 2004 to carry out an assessment of its condition and no works requiring immediate attention were identified during that inspection.

  205.  Mr. Eamon Ryan    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    if his attention has been drawn to the ongoing administrative and accounting problems at the Irish Domain Registry; and when he will bring forward legislation to provide for oversight and scrutiny of the management at same. [16960/05]

[1891]Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. N. Dempsey):  The Irish Domain Registry, more commonly known as the IEDR, is a private sector not-for-profit company which manages the top-level domain name, “.ie”. I have no function in relation to the day to day management of the IEDR and I am not aware of any ongoing administrative and accounting problems at the company. As regards the oversight of the domain registry, I intend to bring proposals forward to the Oireachtas in the forthcoming Electronic Communications (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

  206.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Minister for [1892]Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    the funding which has been allocated for the development, upgrade or improvement of piers by his Department each year from 2002 to date in each of counties Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Donegal, Clare and Kerry; if he will provide details of each of these projects; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16979/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher):  Details of total expenditure and the funding provided by the Department for the development, upgrade or improvement of piers in counties Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Donegal, Clare and Kerry are as follows:

Fishery Harbour Expenditure 2002.

Location Project Total Expenditure 2002 DCMNR 2002
Donegal
Killybegs FHC Harbour Development 14,796,488.73 14,796,488.73
Killybegs FHC Maintenance 363,199.58 363,199.58
Killybegs FHC New Slipway 95,167.22 95,167.22
Killybegs FHC Site Investigations 18,809.47 18,809.47
Killybegs FHC Construction wages 10,150.12 10,150.12
Killybegs FHC Purchase of Launch 50,445.11 50,445.11
Killybegs FHC Refurbishment of Residence 2,047.50 2,047.50
Killybegs FHC Fenders Blackrock Pier 38,092.14 38,092.14
Greencastle Harbour Development 767,401.11 575,550.83
Burtonport Channel Dredging 1,081,115.00 810,836.35
Burtonport Dredging 3,276.75 2,457.56
Buncrana Pier Improvements 732,649.68 549,487.26
Buncrana Berthing Facility/Dredging 23,227.12 17,420.34
Mountcharles Slipway 35,136.18 26,352.14
Mountcharles Repointing/Lighting 16,110.72 12,083.04
Moville Pier Reinstatement 3,166.35 2,374.76
Moville Slipway & Pier Improvements 6,488.75 4,866.56
Portsalon Repairs to pier head 15,175.61 11,381.71
Portnablagh Quay Wall 9,204.82 6,903.62
Portaleen Repairs to Pier Head 96,157.85 72,118.39
Portaleen Purchase of Crane 98,919.75 74,189.81
Portaleen Slipway 26,308.71 19,731.53
Casson Sound Quay Wall 57,091.11 42,818.33
Port Inver Study 34,357.05 25,767.78
Portmore Pier Extension 478,087.53 358,565.65
Portmore Slipway 37,682.99 28,262.24
Binwee Pier Extra Width at Pier Head 35,786.71 26,840.03
Binwee Pier Pier Improvements 33,822.60 25,366.95
Moville & Carrickaroary Studies 36,441.20 27,330.90
Bonagee Rock Removal & Storm Wall Works 45,610.55 34,207.91
Inch Fort Investigations 15,938.76 11,954.07
Portnoo Harbour Studies 86,844.35 65,133.26
Portnoo Harbour Slipway 386.02 289.52
Ballyshannon Estuary Study 14,595.69 10,946.77
Ballyshannon Estuary Quay Decking 4,691.10 4,691.10
Ballywhoriskey Harbour Development 63,486.90 63,486.90
Kerrykeel Slipway 4,973.65 3,730.24
Carrickaroary Structural Works 59,531.93 44,648.95
Bundoran Pier Improvements 37,590.55 28,192.91
Bundoran Study Wave Modelling 36,823.93 27,617.95
Bundoran Pier Improvements 1,000.49 750.37
Port Arthur Strengthening of Pier 125,111.00 125,111.00
Galway
Rossaveel FHC Minor Works & Renewals 418,449.14 418,499.14
Rossaveel FHC Complete Rockfill Contract 1,234,586.10 1,234,586.10
Rossaveel FHC Gear Store 208,960.46 208,960.46
Rossaveel FHC Purchase of launch 21,051.29 21,051.29
Trá Bhán Pier & Slipway 768,941.31 576,705.98
Tarrea Pier Repair work & concrete slab 94,608.63 70,956.47
Maree Slipways 519,026.92 389,270.19
Claddagh Quay Improvements 48,105.26 36,078.95
Spiddal Sean Ceibh Improvements 23,395.14 17,546.36
Killary Site Investigation 7,901.33 7,901.33
Roundstone Pier Repairs & Improvements 18,093.81 13,570.36
Ceibh na gCasla Widen Pier Access & Extend Pier 187,866.25 140,899.69
Ard Thoir, Carna Pier & Slipway 2,937.32 2,202.99
Ervallagh Pier Repairs & Improvements 15,232.99 11,424.74
Ceibh Ailwee Pier Improvements 91,720.33 68,790.25
Dohulla Pier Improvements 21,537.51 16,153.13
Ceibh na Phurtaigh Improvements 11,063.47 8,297.61
Inishboffin Pier Works 3,054.29 2,290.72
Dunloughan, Ardmore, Bunowen Studies 4,205.37 4,205.37
Eanach Mheain Study 900.00 900.00
Crompan an Chonoch & Crompan Mor Dredging & Access 69,998.29 69,998.29
Barna Improvement Works 69,713.25 69,713.25
Aughrasmore Pier Improvements 87,727.58 87,727.58
Ceibh na hAirde Quay Repairs 145,800.66 145,800.66
Cashla Pier Repair Works 67,608.66 67,608.66
Clifden Harbour Harbour Works 3,659.57 3,659.57
Kilbricken, Rosmuc Improvements 190,208.49 190,208.49
Cleggan Provision of Crane 85,520.00 85,520.00
Derryinver Pier Repairs 15,792.00 11,844.00
Ceibh Cashla, Derrynea Pier Improvements 101,206.00 101,206.00
Mayo
Purteen Harbour Improvement Design 94,434.00 70,825.50
Roigh Pier Work Area 25,000 18,750.00
Killala Slipway 500,000.00 375,000.00
Blacksod Pier Contribution to Development 375,021.82 375,021.82
Belmullet & Frenchport Lights & Barriers 51,000.00 38,250.00
County Mayo Assessment of Piers 100,000.00 33,000.00
Darby’s Point Re-Decking of Pier 19,411.88 14,558.91
Sligo
Mullaghmore Harbour Breakwater Works 313,000.00 234,750.00
Kerry
Dingle Slipway 26,896.38 26,896.38
Dingle Safety & Maintenance 217,752.64 217,752.64
Dingle Breakwater Works 128,416.60 128,416.60
Dromatoor, Ballyheigue Pier Improvements 277,968.99 208,476.74
Blackwater Removal of Rock Outcrop & SI 7,111.08 5,333.31
Bunanear Slipway 27,988.50 20,991.38
Bunanear 2001 Slipway 53,282.69 39,962.02
Oysterbed, Sneem Renew Pier Fenders 13,029.47 9,772.11
Kilmackillogue Improvement Works 28,567.89 21,425.92
Meenogahane New Slipway/Raise Stormwall 2,080.71 1,560.53
Portmagee New Berthing Face 101,160.11 75,870.08
Cromane Studies 58,914.95 44,186.21
Clare
Kilkee Slipway Upgrading 70,000.00 52,500.00

Fishery Harbour Expenditure 2003.

Location Project Total Expenditure 2003 DCMNR 2003
Donegal
Killybegs FHC Harbour development project 24,272,450.53 24,272,450.53
Killybegs FHC Safety and maintenance 293,508.43 293,508.43
Killybegs FHC Construction wages 601.69 601.69
Greencastle Design work 185,908.31 139,431.23
Burtonport Dredging 337,281.03 252,960.77
Buncrana Pier improvements 28,966.60 21,724.95
Portaleen Repairs to pier head 22,941.26 17,205.95
Portaleen Purchase of crane 10,500.00 7,875.00
Portmore Pier extension 60,000.00 45,000.00
Port Arthur Strengthening of Pier 13,363.00 13,363.00
Galway
Rossaveel FHC Safety and maintenance 265,426.63 265,426.63
Rossaveel FHC Development 20,390.13 20,390.13
Tír an Fhia Pier repair works 267,815.32 200,861.49
Ceibh na gCasla Widen pier access/extend pier 166,540.69 124,905.52
Inishboffin Repair of pier fenders 2,518.88 1,889.16
Trá Bhán Pier and slipway 8,882.89 6,662.17
Killary 2,171.64 1,628.73
Ceibh na hAirde Quay repairs 34,000.00 34,000.00
Barna Improvement works 15,000.00 15,000.00
Aughrismore, Claddaghduff Pier improvements 162,000.00 162,000.00
Clifden Harbour Improvement works 40,000.00 40,000.00
Cleggan Install crane on pier 58,605.00 58,605.00
Cleggan, Derryinver 4,355.00 3,266.00
Interim repairs 16,000.00 11,000.00
Sligo
Mullaghmore Harbour breakwater works 899,436.00 674,577.00
Mayo
Killala Slipway 152,524.00 114,393.00
Kerry
Dingle Fender repairs 4,390.89 4,390.89
Dingle Navigation light, add. Pontoon 12,000.00 12,000.00
Dingle Breakwater 8,738.45 8,738.45
Cromane Pier development 2,420.00 1,815.00
Bunanear Slipway 22,016.79 16,512.59
Dromatoor, Ballyheigue Pier improvement works 179,525.18 134,643.89
Clare
Kilkee Slipway upgrading 27,447.39 20,585.54
Liscannor Pier Safety works 6,407.00 4,805.00

Fishery Harbour Expenditure 2004.

Location Project Total Expenditure 2004 DCMNR 2004
Donegal
Killybegs Harbour Development Project 8,593,896.94 8,593,896.94
Killybegs Safety & Maintenance 270,833.33 270,833.33
Greencastle Harb. Dev. Project — Design/Planning 113,638.11 85,228.58
Ballyederland Raising deck level of pier 84,951.44 63,713.58
Buncrana Pier Dredging at pier 170,000 127,500.00
Mulroy Bay Navigational Aids 25,000 18,750.00
Ballyshannon Navigational Aids 50,000.00 37,500.00
Portsalon Remedial Works 70,000.00 52,500.00
Burtonport Provision of fenders 12,000.00 9,000.00
Portmore 885.78 885.78
Carrickaroary 604.58 604.58
Galway
Rossaveel Development 40,868.82 40,868.82
Rossaveel Safety and Maintenance 292,938.66 292,938.66
Rossaveel New storage Unit at RV-Advance Works 16,093.00 16,093.00
Rinville Pier, Oranmore New slipway, breakwater, pier deck 102,311.79 76,733.84
Kilbricken Repairs 13,625.25 13,625.25
Ard Thoir 734.34 734.34
Ceibh na hAirde 54,557.61 54,557.61
Tír an Fhia 114,778.34 114,778.34
Derryinver 16,533.33 16,533.33
Mayo
Blacksod D/CRGA project 500,000.00 500,000.00
Newport 70.64 70.64
Clare
Ballyvaughan New slipway, Berthage clearance, pier repairs 16,298.81 12,224.11
Seafield, Quilty Raise storm wall, place rock armour 191,721.19 143,790.89
Liscannor Car Parking, surfacing & ladders 33,165.33 24,873.00
Doolin 1,875.50 1,875.50
Kerry
Dingle Dredging Site Investigations 201,026.77 201,026.77
Dingle Weighbridge 84,932.42 84,932.42
Cromane Pier Development Design Review Rd Access 83,923.82 62,942.86
Scraggane Survey 7,730.53 5,797.90
Oysterbed, Sneem Working/storage area 81,385.08 61,038.80
Tahilla, Sneem Pier works 108,758.77 81,569.08
Knightstown D/CRGA project 63,567.99 63,567.99
Tarbert Pier repairs 81,915.08 61,436.31
Reenard Slipway underpinning 41,035.25 30,776.44
Dromatoor, Ballyheigue Channel marking 20,486.65 15,364.99
Portmagee/Caherciveen Pier-Repairs to fenders/ladders 15,177.29 11,382.97
Sligo
Nil

  207.  Mr. Connolly    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    his proposals for the introduction of digital television services and phasing out of existing analogue services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16983/05]

Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. N. Dempsey):  Digital television services are available in Ireland through a number of cable and satellite networks. The terrestrial broadcasting system is an analogue platform and it will be necessary to upgrade this platform to a digital terrestrial platform over time. I am examining options in this regard, and I have asked my Department to develop a digital terrestrial television pilot to explore further opportunities around the platform. Specific analogue switch-off dates will be considered in light of overall progress in upgrading to a national digital terrestrial platform.

  208.  Mr. Connolly    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    if he plans to computerise the full post office network to provide for electronic transfers and transactions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16984/05]

Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. N. Dempsey):  I share with An Post the view that, for our post offices to continue to remain attractive to customers, the company must upgrade its IT systems. Such an upgrade would offer an enhanced suite of financial and other services and high grade electronic funds transfers, EFT, functionality to social welfare customers via post offices. Accordingly, An Post development strategies for the post office network will take full account of the need to deliver quality customer services through enhanced IT capability.

  209.  Mr. Connolly    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    the way in which he proposes to maintain the postal network of post offices and sub-post offices, while continuing the social commitment to the public; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16985/05]

Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. N. Dempsey):  I refer the Deputy to Question No. 234 answered on 18 May 2005.

  210.  Mr. Connolly    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    his views on the place of wind energy in future energy production; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16986/05]

Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. N. Dempsey):  The promotion of renewable energy technologies in elec[1900]tricity production is a key priority of this Government. This priority is shared by European Community institutions that have addressed Directive 2001/77/EC — the renewables directive — to all member states to increase the consumption of green electricity by 2010. The obligation addressed to Ireland is to deliver a programme capable of increasing the amount of electricity from renewable energy sources to 13.2% of total consumption by 2010.

Existing hydro facilities, together with the current AER support programme operated by my Department and activity in the liberalised green market, are capable of delivering significantly on the target in the directive. Additional capacity will be supported under a new support mechanism that I announced recently. I will return to this point later in my reply. In 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, 1.7% of the total electricity consumed came from wind-powered electricity generating plant. At that time there were 189 MW of wind power connected to the electricity network. This figure is growing and, of the 624 MW of renewable energy sourced electricity-generating plant currently installed, 362 MW is wind-powered This is an increase of 173 MW, or over 91%, since the latest statistics were calculated.

The target of 13.2% approximates to 1400 MW to be connected to the electricity network by 2010. It is acknowledged at EU level as a challenging target. It will require us to more than double existing capacity within five years. This is the minimum target I am demanding. My overall target is to optimise the amount of renewable energy technologies, which can be connected to the network while maintaining safe and reliable supply and reasonable retail charges for consumers.

The amount of wind-powered stations, which can be usefully connected to the network in the future, is dependent on future technological developments within the technology, future electricity demand, the size and future mix of technologies on the electricity network and the development of interconnectors. It is only by monitoring these variables over time that realistic further targets can be set. In addition to the environmental benefits, it is important that the State reduces its dependency on fossil fuels, whose prices are subject to the vagaries of the global markets and geopolitical developments that can adversely affect both the price and availability of supplies. From a national economic perspective and not just an energy policy perspective, increasing the amount of renewable energy in the system will be helpful in substituting costly fuel imports and in dealing with levels of uncertainty in the future evolution of energy prices.

Wind-powered plant is the most competitively priced of all renewable energy technologies. It is therefore the dominant renewable technology at this time. However, because wind is an intermittent fuel source, it presents particular challenges for the networks’ operators as penetration levels grow. Future challenging targets to increase wind-powered stations will require the co-operation and co-ordination of my Department, Sustainable [1901]Energy Ireland, SEI, the market regulator, CER, the electricity networks’ operators and developers.

All these key players, and more, have participated in a consultation process launched in December 2003 and in the work of the subsequently established renewable energy development group. The group’s report will form the basis of my future policy decisions on the increased penetration of renewable energy technologies in the electricity market and will seek to ensure that developers can make a reasonable rate of return on renewable energy projects while ensuring that the interests of national competitiveness and the ultimate burden of cost to the final consumer are all fully taken into consideration.

Although the report of the renewable energy development group is not yet completed, I have received updates on the work in progress. On 7 April 2005, I was able to announce the outline of a future support mechanism, AER VII. This revised system will move away from competitive tendering to a fixed price proposal. In addition the support, which was previously tied to contracts with the ESB, will now be available for supply contracts with any licensed supplier. I also indicated, in my announcement, that wind-powered technology will remain the dominant technology in delivering this target.

AER VII will contain a quantitative limit and a competitive element therefore remains. The actual capacity limit in AER VII will be a specific term of major interest to all potential applicants. It is appropriate that it is made accessible to all potential applicants simultaneously. I am not in a position, therefore, to announce a specific quantitative target until AER VII is formally launched. My Department is in consultation with suppliers about the practical implementation of the new arrangements announced on 7 April. I expect these consultations to conclude shortly. Publication of the detailed terms and conditions of the future support mechanism, AER VII, will be published shortly after those contacts with suppliers finish.

  211.  Mr. Connolly    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    if his attention has been drawn to an EU EUROSTAT survey which placed Ireland third last of 19 countries in terms of broadband connectivity; his views on the survey findings; the way in which broadband speed compares with countries such as Sweden; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16987/05]

Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. N. Dempsey):  I have read the latest figures from EUROSTAT, which indicate that the level of Irish households with Internet access is 40%. The same EUROSTAT report shows that 32% of all enterprises have a [1902]broadband connection, 92% of enterprises have Internet access — the figure for large enterprises is 100% — and 27% of individuals regularly use the Internet.

The provision of broadband is a matter in the first instance for the fully liberalised private sector, but the level of investment by the sector has failed to keep pace with the demand for broadband. Although 3% of Irish households have a broadband connection today, that figure is rising rapidly as broadband connectivity becomes more widely available, mainly as a result of my Department’s regional broadband programme which is rolling out high-speed infrastructure to all parts of the country. During the past year the number of broadband customers has risen from 32,000 to more than 140,000. I have set the industry a target of 500,000 customers by 2007 and I am confident that this can be achieved.

  212.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    his proposals for the future of the drift netting industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17056/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher):  Since 1996, the Department has introduced and maintained a range of conservation measures which have seen considerable advancements made in salmon policy and in particular the management of the commercial salmon fishery. As part of these measures, the drift net season is confined to a two-month period in June and July on a four-day week basis. Fishing is only allowed during daylight hours and is confined to the area within the six-mile limit. The regional fisheries boards operate the wild salmon and sea trout tagging scheme which, inter alia, limits the total allowable commercial catch of salmon by drift nets on a district basis.

Since 2002 the Government has promoted the application of quotas on commercial fishing and bag limits on angling to achieve catch reductions as the best instrument available to achieve the restoration of salmon stocks. The overriding objective of the Government is to preserve the salmon resource in its own right and for the coastal and rural communities that it helps to support. The economic goals for a sustainable commercial salmon fishery, based on quality and value rather than volume, and the development of salmon angling as an important tourism product, are both fully compatible with the Government’s primary objective.

A quality and value strategy consists of improving how fish are handled post-catching to ensure that the maximum price per fish is obtained. This approach maintains or increases the overall income derived from the fishery even when the total catch is reduced. I am advised that Bord [1903]Iascaigh Mhara is working, with some success, to yield an improvement in the price of salmon through the Irish wild salmon quality and marketing programme. In the circumstances I have no plans to provide compensation for salmon fishermen arising from necessary reductions in total allowable catch required to sustain and rebuild salmon stocks. Nor have I plans to introduce proposals to purchase commercial drift net salmon fishing licences. The Government has consistently ruled out buy-out as an effective means of achieving the restoration of salmon stocks. Moreover, no convincing case has been advanced as to the public good that would be acquired by the State in the context of a publicly funded buy-out.

As I have previously indicated to the House, I am prepared to keep the matter under review. I would be open to any relevant proposals presented to me whereby stakeholders benefiting from any reduction in commercial catch would identify themselves and indicate a willingness to fund any compensation that might arise.

  213.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    his proposals to protect and develop wild Atlantic salmon stock; the estimated return to spawn for each of the past ten years of the species; the catch returned for each fishery board area for the past ten years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17057/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher):  The overriding objective of the Government is to preserve the salmon resource in its own right and for the coastal and rural communities that it helps to support. The economic goals for a sustainable commercial salmon fishery, based on quality and value rather than volume and the development of salmon angling as an important tourism product, are both fully compatible with the Government’s primary objective.

Since 2002, the Government has implemented a strategy to ensure, through progressive reductions in the commercial salmon catch, that the conservation limits recommended by the National Salmon Commission are being reached. This policy of promoting the application of quotas on commercial fishing and bag limits on angling has delivered significant overall catch reductions aimed at achieving the Government’s prime objective of restoration of salmon stocks.

The Government believes that the current strategy of developing a sustainable commercial and recreational salmon fishery through aligning catches on the scientific advice holds out the strong prospect of a recovery of stocks and of a long term sustainable fishery for both sectors.

The estimated return of wild salmon to spawn for each of the past ten years is set out in table I.

[1904]Table I

Year Returns Spawners
1995 504,900 171,322
1996 515,475 224,108
1997 456,065 209,784
1998 493,988 207,925
1999 444,055 215,093
2000 549,022 264,338
2001 561,218 301,317
2002 503,337 267,815
2003 486,784 293,473
2004 359,002 191,579

The declared catch of wild salmon and sea trout for each fishery board area for the past ten years is set out in table II. Figures for catch by rod are excluded for 2004 as they are not yet available.

Table II

Declared catch of salmon and sea trout.

Region and Fishery District Year No. of fish
Eastern Region
Dundalk 1995 1,881
Dundalk 1996 1,463
Dundalk 1997 1,325
Dundalk 1998 2,800
Dundalk 1999 1,601
Dundalk 2000 2,480
Dundalk 2001 1,350
Dundalk 2002 876
Dundalk 2003 701
Dundalk 2004 731
Drogheda 1995 5,171
Drogheda 1996 6,675
Drogheda 1997 2,190
Drogheda 1998 8,256
Drogheda 1999 4,959
Drogheda 2000 3,406
Drogheda 2001 2,632
Drogheda 2002 1,750
Drogheda 2003 1,875
Drogheda 2004 1,850
Dublin 1995 279
Dublin 1996 310
Dublin 1997 865
Dublin 1998 802
Dublin 1999 805
Dublin 2000 657
Dublin 2001 71
Dublin 2002 64
Dublin 2003 321
Dublin 2004 322
Wexford 1995 3,332
Wexford 1996 3,098
Wexford 1997 2,365
Wexford 1998 4,155
Wexford 1999 4,651
Wexford 2000 1,836
Wexford 2001 1,302
Wexford 2002 1,151
Wexford 2003 1,601
Wexford 2004 1,349
Southern Region
Waterford 1995 10,954
Waterford 1996 9,390
Waterford 1997 13,030
Waterford 1998 10,162
Waterford 1999 13,789
Waterford 2000 14,160
Waterford 2001 18,361
Waterford 2002 17,150
Waterford 2003 15,709
Waterford 2004 11,944
Lismore 1995 17,436
Lismore 1996 20,332
Lismore 1997 14,422
Lismore 1998 16,486
Lismore 1999 16,298
Lismore 2000 20,446
Lismore 2001 16,914
Lismore 2002 15,126
Lismore 2003 10,989
Lismore 2004 9,369
South Western Region
Cork 1995 26,230
Cork 1996 19,879
Cork 1997 18,184
Cork 1998 25,121
Cork 1999 17,474
Cork 2000 38,036
Cork 2001 41,983
Cork 2002 30,028
Cork 2003 26,232
Cork 2004 22,177
Kerry 1995 37,303
Kerry 1996 31,733
Kerry 1997 31,024
Kerry 1998 43,213
Kerry 1999 36,800
Kerry 2000 43,038
Kerry 2001 31,084
Kerry 2002 32,818
Kerry 2003 31,307
Kerry 2004 24,347
Shannon Region
Limerick 1995 21,614
Limerick 1996 19,112
Limerick 1997 9,535
Limerick 1998 12,714
Limerick 1999 14,658
Limerick 2000 15,749
Limerick 2001 28,052
Limerick 2002 19,338
Limerick 2003 14,977
Limerick 2004 11,192
Western Region
Galway 1995 5,660
Galway 1996 4,131
Galway 1997 4,628
Galway 1998 6,602
Galway 1999 9,151
Galway 2000 4,648
Galway 2001 6,987
Galway 2002 6,490
Galway 2003 5,307
Galway 2004 3,799
Connemara 1995 3,198
Connemara 1996 3,143
Connemara 1997 3,992
Connemara 1998 3,168
Connemara 1999 2,629
Connemara 2000 4,703
Connemara 2001 3,425
Connemara 2002 4,359
Connemara 2003 3,098
Connemara 2004 2,626
Ballynakill 1995 12,907
Ballynakill 1996 4,926
Ballynakill 1997 8,314
Ballynakill 1998 8,938
Ballynakill 1999 7,881
Ballynakill 2000 11,366
Ballynakill 2001 9,684
Ballynakill 2002 10,556
Ballynakill 2003 7,683
Ballynakill 2004 4,381
North Western Region
Bangor 1995 23,560
Bangor 1996 19,609
Bangor 1997 9,909
Bangor 1998 11,923
Bangor 1999 6,212
Bangor 2000 6,684
Bangor 2001 10,944
Bangor 2002 9,402
Bangor 2003 6,686
Bangor 2004 5,519
Ballina 1995 39,282
Ballina 1996 42,440
Ballina 1997 34,249
Ballina 1998 41,034
Ballina 1999 24,895
Ballina 2000 26,003
Ballina 2001 34,541
Ballina 2002 36,749
Ballina 2003 27,306
Ballina 2004 21,050
Sligo 1995 5,809
Sligo 1996 6,343
Sligo 1997 8,936
Sligo 1998 7,465
Sligo 1999 5,721
Sligo 2000 7,887
Sligo 2001 9,138
Sligo 2002 9,451
Sligo 2003 6,026
Sligo 2004 2,701
Northern Region
Ballyshannon 1995 13,309
Ballyshannon 1996 8,889
Ballyshannon 1997 14,331
Ballyshannon 1998 10,428
Ballyshannon 1999 10,801
Ballyshannon 2000 17,330
Ballyshannon 2001 17,087
Ballyshannon 2002 15,829
Ballyshannon 2003 10,486
Ballyshannon 2004 7,249
Letterkenny 1995 42,344
Letterkenny 1996 28,056
Letterkenny 1997 28,255
Letterkenny 1998 26,747
Letterkenny 1999 10,819
Letterkenny 2000 18,019
Letterkenny 2001 25,959
Letterkenny 2002 21,847
Letterkenny 2003 16,086
Letterkenny 2004 14,647

  214.  Mr. Stagg    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    if the review of the operation of the fishery boards and related matters has been completed and received by him; when the report will be published; and the procedures he proposes for consultation on the report and its implementation. [17063/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher):  As previously confirmed to the House, I have recently received the report of the first stage of the high level review of the inland fisheries sector in Ireland from the consultants and I am considering its findings. It is my intention to bring this report to Government in the near future and to have it published as soon as possible thereafter. Until such time as the report is presented to Government, I am not in a position to comment on its recommendations or implementation.

  215.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Minister for [1908]Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    his views on the increase in chironomid buzzer fly life on western lakes; the increased weed growth and increased algae blooms and growth; his views on the water quality as a result; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17157/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher):  While water quality is primarily a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, my interest is centred on the impact that this might have on inland fisheries stocks. The Central Fisheries Board and the regional fisheries boards are responsible for the conservation, protection, management and development of inland fisheries. The fisheries boards have not drawn my attention to an increase in chironomid buzzer fly life on the western lakes. I understand that chironomid are a natural part of the invertebrate fauna on our lakes.

I am advised anecdotally that in summer 2004, extensive growths of filamentous algae, blanket weed, developed over much of the Owenriff river and extended out into Oughterard Bay in Lough Corrib and that serious nuisance growths of filamentous algae on Lough Mask are growing profusely along the Inisard shoreline of the lake and along the Cong canal. The fisheries boards have not, however, attributed the increase in these phenomena to any particular or definite cause.

A non-native or introduced plant species called lagarosiphon major, curly leaved waterweed, was reported from various bays in Lough Corrib and advised to the Department in recent weeks. The Central Fisheries Board is considering measures to avoid the spreading of the plant and the need for further research.

While I share the concerns expressed by the fisheries boards and other stakeholders about the impact of water quality on inland fisheries stocks, I take confidence from the assurances given by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the agencies operating under the aegis of his Department to work in partnership with local interests to find practical and effective solutions to address the matter.

  216.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    his views on the concern regarding the growing zebra mussel threat in the freshwater system; if he will report on the areas and locations now infested with zebra mussel; the measures being taken to deal with this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17158/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher):  I am advised that the lead role in co-ordinating and introducing measures to deal with the threat posed by this particular species is being taken by the Department of the Envir[1909]onment, Heritage and Local Government. As part of this approach, I understand that at the request of this Department, the Marine Institute has been carrying out a monitoring survey on the distribution of zebra mussels in Ireland in recent years. I am advised that the results of this survey have been made widely available and I have asked the Marine Institute to forward a copy of these results directly to the Deputy.

This survey has been carried out on an annual basis each year since 1998, focusing on the Shannon-Boyle navigation system. The results show that the zebra mussel has spread throughout Shannon-Boyle-Suck navigation as well as to a number of midland lakes such as Lough Erne, Arrow, Gara and Sheelin and to the Grand Canal system. The zebra mussel continues to expand its known range in Ireland. Zebra mussels attach to a wide range of aquatic plants, native freshwater mussels and hard surfaces. Their densities at stations on flowing rivers are consistently low, whereas in lakes they are highly variable but may attain high concentrations.

Once an area has been colonised by zebra mussels, international experience has shown that it is virtually impossible to eradicate the species. The most effective measures are preventive.

I am advised by the chief executive officer of the Western Regional Fisheries Board that, to date, the zebra mussel has not become established in the western fisheries region. Last year the board launched a zebra mussel control initiative in conjunction with Galway County Council. This initiative involves a major education drive to educate anglers of the risk posed by the possible introduction of this pest to western lakes and rivers from the waters already infested.

The central and regional fisheries boards, working with the local authorities and angling groups, are carrying our information campaigns to advise boat owners of the risks in moving boats to non-affected areas.

I can assure the Deputy that the State agencies under the aegis of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, will continue to work with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the relevant local authorities in dealing with the threat posed by this species.

  217.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    his views on the extent of conifer forestation in many of the river catchment systems in the west of Ireland; if he has received reports of pollution prevention of hatching alevin from escaping spawning beds as a consequence; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17160/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher):  I am aware, through the Western Regional Fisheries Board, that coniferous for[1910]ests are widespread in the western fisheries region, some of which straddle the upland section of salmonid fisheries. I am also aware of the concerns held by local stakeholders about the impact of forestation on fisheries.

The Western Regional Fisheries Board seeks to minimise the impact of forestry on inland fisheries by liaising with the Forest Service, Coillte Teoranta staff and subcontractors, and inputting to the draft protocols being developed in the context of the forestry pressure technical working group of the western river basin district.

I am advised that there are now guidelines in place to cover the various aspects of afforestation and while these will help minimise damage to fisheries, they will not prevent such damage, which can and does occur.

I am advised that while run-off of silt from a forestry site could impact on spawning beds, thus preventing successful hatching of ova, it would be difficult to say for sure that this was happening without specific studies being carried out at a location.

I understand that with regard to the impact on hatching alevins, particular concerns arise in the more afforested catchments such as the Owenboliska, the upper reaches of which are heavily afforested. This phenomenon was scientifically described and assessed by the duQuesne Limited and Eolas funded reports in 1990s. In response to concerns, I am advised that Coillte Teoranta has prepared a master plan for the forest within the catchment.

While I share the concerns expressed for the stocks of salmonids, I take confidence from the assurances given by the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the agencies operating under the aegis of her Department to work in partnership with local interests to find practical and effective solutions to address the matter.

  218.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    if he has received and replied to communications from interested parties on the closure of postal services at Castleknock, Dublin 15; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17161/05]

Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. N. Dempsey):  Issues pertaining to operational matters are the responsibility of An Post. I have no statutory function in this area.

  219.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    the proposals being implemented to ensure that Lough Carra, County Mayo, retains its position as a marl lake of pristine quality; his views on reports of some euthrophlication due to phos[1911]phorus overload in this lake; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17202/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher):  I am advised by the Western Regional Fisheries Board of its ongoing concerns about Lough Carra. This lake is a proposed special area of conservation because of the natural plant communities it contains. Lough Carra is currently the subject of a detailed EU funded scientific study. I am informed that in recent years the poor mayfly hatch coupled with the occurrence of shoreline filamentous algal blooms in the Moorhall zone have contributed to the perception that the lake is beginning to decline. Reports for this season suggest, however, that the mayfly hatch has improved.

The chief executive of the Western Regional Fisheries Board has advised me that the board is implementing the following measures: continuation of the mid-lake monitoring programme; a survey of two thirds of the farms in the catchment in 2004 in conjunction with the Farm Development Service and Mayo County Council; the conduct of brown trout redd counts on Lough Carra streams; maintenance of in-stream rehabilitation works; and co-operation with the western river basin initiative in the context of the water framework directive.

While I share the concerns expressed by the fisheries board and other stakeholders about the impact of water quality on inland fisheries stocks, I take confidence from the assurances given by the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the agencies operating under the aegis of their Departments to work in partnership with local interests to find practical and effective solutions to address the matter.

  220.  Mr. Ferris    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    if his attention has been drawn to the terrible state of disrepair of Portsalon Pier (details supplied); and when money will be made available for this work to take place. [17242/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher):  Portsalon Pier is owned by Donegal County Council and responsibility for its repair and maintenance rests with the local authority in the first instance. In July 2004 Donegal County Council submitted a proposal to the Department for the complete reconstruction of the dogleg section of the pier at an estimated cost of €550,000, which includes construction, consultancy and administrative costs. In December 2004, the Department provided funding of €52,500 to Donegal County Council towards [1912]remedial works to protect the structure. The question of providing funding for the reconstruction of the pier will depend on the amount of Exchequer funding available for works at fishery harbours generally and overall national priorities.

  221.  Mr. J. O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources,    further to Question No. 180 of 17 May 2005, if heads of agreement have been signed or agreed between the Dublin Port and Docks Board and the private consortium; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17268/05]

  222.  Mr. J. O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    when his attention was drawn to information causing him to request the Dublin Port Company to provide information in relation to the company facilitating one private consortium in a tendering process for the national conference centre; and his views on whether the company in so doing is complying with the code of practice for the governance of State bodies. [17269/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 221 and 222 together.

On 22 March 2005, the Department received a press query by electronic mail regarding the use of land in the ownership of Dublin Port Company in connection with a proposal for the national conference centre. On 23 March, the Department requested Dublin Port Company to provide it with relevant information in regard to the proposal. On 1 April, Dublin Port Company replied to the Department stating that it is facilitating a consortium in a tendering process for the national conference centre. On 1 April, the Department requested the company to provide a note setting out the involvement of the company in, and implications for the company of, the consortium’s proposal and a clear statement of what was meant by the company facilitating the consortium.

On 7 April, the company replied stating that it has been facilitating one of the consortia bidding for the national conference centre in so far as it has consented to the inclusion of a site in the ownership of the company in the submission of the consortium to the Office of Public Works as being potentially a suitable site for the national conference centre. The company stated that it had entered into non-binding heads of agreement with the consortium, that it had not concluded a formal contract with the consortium and that it had not concluded any agreement for the disposal of company assets or to provide access to those assets in favour of any third party.

The principal issue at stake from the point of view of the Department is compliance by the company with the applicable legislation and the [1913]code of practice for the governance of State bodies. The primary responsibility for compliance rests with the company. In this regard, the company has confirmed to the Department that it is adhering to the code of practice. In my reply to Question No. 180 on 17 May, I stated that based on the information provided to the Department, I had no reason, at that time, to request further information from the company in relation to this matter.

On 18 May, the Department received a letter from Dublin Port Company requesting ministerial approval for its proposal to enter into an arrangement with a consortium as detailed in draft heads of terms attached to the letter. The company states that, in essence, the proposal provides that, in the event that the consortium is successful in its bid for the development of the national conference centre and appropriate planning and other consents issue in respect of the national conference centre, Dublin Port Company will make available a site in order to facilitate the development of the national conference centre together with further and complementary commercial development. The company’s letter is being considered by the Department at present.

  223.  Mr. Morgan    asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources    if he will make a statement on the fact that his Department announced a £3 million grant to a company (details supplied) in County Louth in May 1999 and also granted a foreshore licence to the same company at a time when complaints of illegal dumping by this company were being considered by his Department, Louth County Council, and the Ombudsman; and the correspondence his Department had with the company in relation to the illegal dumping mentioned by the European Court of Justice’s ruling against Ireland. [17286/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher):  A foreshore lease was granted to the company in question in February 2002 in connection with proposed quay wall renovation works and associated berth dredging works. The area covered by this foreshore lease included an area in which the company had deposited material without prior foreshore authorisation and in respect of which complaints had been made to the Department.

The foreshore lease was granted in accordance with normal procedures and after full consideration of all relevant issues and concerns. There has been no correspondence between the Department and the company on the question of illegal dumping in the meantime.

The company made an application in February 1999 for grant aid under the operational prog[1914]ramme for tourism 1994-99 in respect of refurbishment of the company’s port facilities. In May 1999, the company was informed that its application had been successful and that a total project cost of €3.858 million was approved for up to 48% grant aid on eligible expenditure. This approval was subject to compliance by the company with specified conditions, including relevant environmental and other regulatory requirements. A total of €1.852 million in grant aid was paid to the company under the programme.

  224.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs    the progress made since a recent meeting with the Spanish Prime Minister in regard to making the Irish language an official working language of the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17061/05]

Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern):  On 13 December last, I outlined to my counterparts at the General Affairs and External Relations Council the reasons for Ireland’s proposal that official and working status in the EU be accorded to the Irish language. This followed the formal tabling of our proposal in Brussels on 24 November. Regulation 1 of 1958 governs the Union’s language regime. The unanimous approval of member states is required to amend this regulation.

Contacts have been ongoing at political and official level with partners in Brussels and in capitals with a view to advancing our proposal. These contacts have included the meeting between the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Zapatero in Madrid on 28 April at which the European Union’s language regime was among the issues discussed. The Government is satisfied that we are continuing to make good progress. We hope to put the issue on the agenda of the Committee of Permanent Representatives shortly with a view to further progressing the matter.

  225.  Mr. Quinn    asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs    the percentage and amount of the promised aid for the countries affected by the tsunami of 26 December 2004 which has been handed over to the relevant organisations or Governments; the split between the amount given bilaterally and the amount given to aid agencies; the aid agencies to which moneys were given; the amounts given; the Governments to which moneys were given; the amounts given; the preconditions required of Governments before moneys were transferred; if he will report on the work of the special envoy for the tsunami disaster, Mr Flood, to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16972/05]

[1915]Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Mr. C. Lenihan):  Ireland was one of the first countries to respond to the tsunami disaster. Within a few hours of the onset of the tsunami, Ireland pledged €1 million in emergency assistance and this amount was quickly doubled as the death toll rose. When the full scale of the disaster became evident, the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, and I jointly announced that our funding would rise to €10 million. In addition, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, visited the affected region in early January with the heads of Concern, GOAL, the Irish Red Cross and Trócaire. On that occasion, he pledged a further contribution, doubling Ireland’s pledge to €20 million, to address longer-term recovery and reconstruction, as well as immediate needs. The Irish public has also responded generously to the plight of the tsunami victims, through direct contributions to Irish and other aid agencies.

To date, approximately €11.3 million, or 57%, of the pledge has been committed towards meeting the needs of those most affected in the aftermath of the disaster. Assistance is being made available to non-governmental organisations, NGOs, UN agencies and other international [1916]organisations such as the Red Cross family. The Defence Forces provided a number of skilled personnel in the area of logistics to help with the recovery efforts. To date no funding has been delivered directly to Governments. A list of organisations and programmes which are being supported, and the breakdown of this support is set out below for the Deputy’s information.

The special envoy to the tsunami-affected region appointed by the Government, former Minister of State and current chairman of the Advisory Board for Development Co-operation Ireland, Mr. Chris Flood, has made two visits to the region. During his visits, the envoy met with a wide range of organisations and individuals, including senior Government representatives. The envoy’s mandate is to oversee the disbursement of Ireland’s assistance and to ensure it is carried out in line with best international practice.

Ireland remains closely engaged with ongoing developments in relation to the aid effort in the tsunami affected countries. The reconstruction planning and implementation tasks ahead are enormous. We are in constant liaison with all stakeholders, including our partners in the NGOs and UN and international agencies, and this engagement will be actively maintained.

Tsunami Commitments as at 17 May 2005.

Country Agency Description
Burma International Committee of the Red Cross Emergency Assistance 500,000.00
Total Burma 500,000
India Christian Aid Emergency Humanitarian/Basic Needs Assistance 250,000
India Concern Worldwide Emergency Relief for Tamil Nadu & Pondicherry 435,993.00
India GOAL Emergency Relief for Tsunami affected populations of Tamil Nadu 485,000.00
India Oxfam Ireland Non-Food Items for Tsunami Victims 250,000.00
India Gorta Emergency Relief Programme 100,000.00
India Hope Foundation Tsunami Disaster Relief 200,000.00
Total India 1,720,993
Indonesia Christian Childrens Fund Care & Protection of Children in IDP Camps 165,500.00
Indonesia Oxfam Ireland Non food items for Earthquake affected populations in Aceh 250,000.00
Indonesia Trocaire Tsunami Emergency Relief 300,000
Indonesia Mercy Corps Midwives Livelihoods Recovery Programme 278,784.00
Total Indonesia 994,284.00
South Asia Region International Organisation for Migration Health Care Assistance 100,000.00
South Asia Region OCHA* Immediate Relief Assistance 1,000,000.00
South Asia Region UN High Commission for Refugees Programmes in Indonesia & Sri Lanka as per 2005 UN Flash Appeal 500,000.00
South Asia Region UNICEF Basic Needs & Caring/Protecting Children Separated from their families 1,000,000.00
South Asia Region World Food Programme (WFP) Food Assistance 2,000,000.00
South Asia Region World Health Programme (WHO) Health Care Assistance 500,000.00
Total South Asia Region 5,100,000.00
Sri Lanka GOAL Emergency Humanitarian Assistance for IDPs 400,000.00
Sri Lanka International Federation of the Red Cross Bay of Bengal: Earthquake & Tsunami Appeal 750,000.00
Sri Lanka Plan Ireland Rehabilitation of Basic Infrastructure in Hambantota District 200,000
Sri Lanka Trocaire Short to Mid Term Response to the South Asia Crisis 200,000
Sri Lanka World Vision Ireland Food, Non-Food and Dry Rations 200,000
Sri Lanka Habitat for Humanity Housing Programme 249,500
Sri Lanka Concern Worldwide Emergency Rehabilitation and Livelihood Dev. Project 500,000
Total Sri Lanka 2,499,500.00
Thailand Home Life Foundation Aids care programme 100,000.00
Thailand Funding to be disbursed to the Disaster Victim Identification Centre, 400,000.00
UNDP livelihoods programmes and local small scale projects
Total Thailand 500,000.00
Total Disbursed/Committee 11,314,777.00

  226.  Mr. P. Breen    asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs    if he will increase financial support for Irish centres in Britain to enable organisations and agencies operating there to meet increased demands for Irish emigrant services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17246/05]

Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern):  Frontline organisations in Britain that provide critical services to our community there, including Irish centres, are financially supported by the Government through the DÍON fund. Since it was established in 1984, more than €22 million has been distributed from this fund.

In 2004, DÍON grants totalled €4.3 million. This represented a 68% increase on the 2003 figure. This year, €8.273 has been made available for emigrant services, of which I expect some €7 million will go to organisations in Britain. Applications for grants are currently receiving consideration, and I will be announcing the outcome very shortly.

The very significant increase in funding in this area in recent years reflects, in the clearest possible way, the strength of the Government’s firm and sustained commitment to our community in Britain.

  227.  Mr. Naughten    asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism    if funding will be approved for an application for a club (details supplied) in County Roscommon; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16899/05]

Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism (Mr. O’Donoghue):  The national lottery-funded sports capital programme, which is administered by my [1918]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 last. The closing date for receipt of applications was 4 February 2005. All applications received before that deadline, 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.

  228.  Mr. Neville    asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism    when grants under the sports capital programme 2005 will be announced to the successful applicants. [17030/05]

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 last. The closing date for receipt of applications was 4 February 2005. All of the 1,362 applications received before that deadline 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 prog[1919]ramme as soon as possible after the assessment process has been completed.

  229.  Mr. Wall    asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism    the discussions he has had with or representations he has received from the proposers or HRI in regard to a proposal (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17085/05]

Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism (Mr. O’Donoghue):  Under the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act of 2001, Horse Racing Ireland, HRI, was established as the statutory body with responsibility for the horseracing industry. The general functions of HRI include the development and promotion of the Irish horse racing industry, including the development of authorised racecourses and the making of grants, loans and other disbursements to authorised racecourses.

In November 2004, the board of HRI considered the question of an all-weather track. The board concluded that Dundalk was the only location with the potential for the development of such a track within a realistic timeframe and being in a position to meet other requirements of HRI, including ownership of a suitable site and having the necessary local funding available. The board also considered the proposal referred to by the Deputy and I recently had a discussion with the proposers concerned on the matter. I consider that it would not be appropriate to include the proposal for an all-weather racecourse in phase one of the campus project, which is under consideration and will shortly be presented to the Government. Proposals for further phases of the development of sports facilities at Abbotstown would not leave an appropriate space on which to develop an all-weather racecourse.

I hope to present to Government shortly proposals based on the development control plan for the sports campus at Abbotstown.

  230.  Mr. S. Ryan    asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism    his proposals to introduce a new scheme for grant aid to local authorities and bodies supported by local authorities towards the cost of providing new swimming pools or refurbishing existing pools. [17128/05]

Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism (Mr. O’Donoghue):  The question of re-opening the programme will be considered following an expenditure review of the programme which is being carried out by my Department and which is expected to be completed later this year. The review is examining issues such as how the programme has worked to date, the benefits which have accrued to the areas where pools have been built and what amendments, if any, are required [1920]to ensure the effective and efficient delivery of the programme.

  231.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism    if, in relation to the moneys voted by his Department, he has given any policy directive in respect to the spending of funds he has allocated to the various arts, sports and tourism groups; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17194/05]

Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism (Mr. O’Donoghue):  All programmes and schemes administered by my Department under which funding is provided to arts and sports groups are aimed at achieving overall policy objectives which underpin my Department’s mission and high level goals as set out in its statement of strategy. These are reflected in the specific terms and conditions laid down in each case. Draw-down of funding in all cases is subject to my Department being satisfied that such terms and conditions are met by the successful applicants. My Department does not provide funding direct to tourism groups.

The national lottery-funded sports capital programme, which is administered by my Department, is the primary means of providing funding for capital sporting facilities to clubs and voluntary and community organisations throughout the country. The main objectives of the programme are to facilitate increased participation in sport through the provision of facilities throughout the country with a particular focus on disadvantaged areas. Successful applicants are informed by letter from my Department of the terms, conditions and requirements to be met before they can draw down the funding allocated to them. No payment is made until such time as all of the required documentation is submitted to, and approved by, my Department.

Under the local authority swimming pool programme grant-aid is allocated towards the capital costs of new pools or the refurbishment of existing pools owned, controlled or supported by local authorities. It is a matter for the local authorities to ensure that public pools have a high level of public access and at reasonable hours and prices. Swimming pools which are not owned or controlled directly by the local authority, for example, pools operated by community groups, can be grant aided under the programme but in such cases the proposals must be submitted through and supported by the relevant local authority. In these cases, specific requirements are set out in the terms and conditions of grant approval to the effect that, in addition to the normal public access expected under the programme, access at reasonable times and at reasonable cost must be made available for disadvantaged groups, any membership arrangements must not result in the exclusion of “pay and play” users and access arrangements to address social inclusion objec[1921]tives are confirmed by the relevant city-county development board as being consistent with its strategy for economic, social and cultural development. My Department operates a scheme of capital grants for the development of arts and culture infrastructure projects aimed at increasing participation in the arts on a broad geographical basis. These grants can be used only for the purposes specified in the grant approvals, and accepted by the applicants from the outset. Various other specific allocations are made from time to time on the same basis.

The funding for the National Aquatic Centre and the Lansdowne Road Stadium redevelopment projects is expended on the basis of Government decisions and I have directed that such moneys be expended on the basis of the terms and conditions directed by Government in those decisions.

  232.  Mr. Coveney    asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the investigations which have been carried out on the possible adverse effects on SMEs and on small or start-up software houses here of legislation being proposed by the European Council for the adoption of a common position on the issue of software patenting; his views on whether the introduction of software patenting will have any possible implications due to the fact that the world’s leading open source software company currently maintains its European, Middle East and African financial and global logistical headquarters here. [17235/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. M. Ahern):  My Department consulted a wide range of stakeholders on the proposed European Commission directive on computer implemented inventions when it was published in 2002. Broad support was expressed in the replies. ICT Ireland, which represents the information and communications technology sector, welcomed the measure when the European Council formally adopted its common position on the proposal in March 2005. It views the measure as providing valuable clarification of existing patent law and rights with regard to computer implemented inventions across the European Union.

The issue for the Commission in its proposal arises from the differing interpretations of the statutory provisions governing patenting of computer implemented inventions involving software. At the moment, it is possible to patent a particular computer implemented invention in one member state and not in another. Many thousands of such patents have already been granted within the EU. The proposed directive is aimed at ensuring a proper functioning internal market through providing greater consistency and certainty in this field.

[1922]It is important to note that the proposed directive would not extend the criteria for patentability and, in particular, that computer programmes as such would continue to be excluded from patentability. It would also provide that work, including decompiling and interoperability, allowed under the 1991 directive on the legal protection of computer programmes by copyright, will not be affected. Again its text makes it clear that treaty Articles 81 and 82 on competition rules, including abuse of a dominant position, will apply in this field.

  233.  Mr. Hogan    asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    if he is satisfied that the community employment schemes are being operated in line with the regulations laid down by his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16912/05]

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Martin):  Community employment, CE, provides work experience and training opportunities for the long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged groups with the aim of assisting participants to progress to jobs in the open labour market. FÁS has responsibility for the day-to-day administration of the programme. I am satisfied that the programme is being administered by FÁS in accordance with the guidelines laid down by my Department.

  234.  Mr. Penrose    asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the reason an application for a work permit for a firm to employ a person (details supplied) was refused; if this decision will be reviewed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16919/05]

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Martin):  The work permits section of my Department refused an application for a work permit in respect of the above named individual on 11 May 2005. The employer was notified in writing of the decision and the right to appeal.

From information the work permits section received, it appears that the employer did not make adequate efforts to recruit an Irish-EEA national to fill the position, that is, advertisements with FÁS for a minimum of four weeks. Further, it appears that the above-named individual was working for the employer without a valid work permit having been granted.

To date no appeal in respect of this work permit application has been received.

  235.  Mr. Timmins    asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the number and location of factories owned by IDA Ireland or Enterprise Ireland in County Wicklow; the [1923]number which are vacant; the rental cost of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17234/05]

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Martin):  IDA Ireland is the agency with statutory responsibility for the attraction of foreign direct investment to Ireland and its regions. As part of its responsibilities the agency is also charged with providing property solutions for clients of Enterprise Ireland.

The management of IDA Ireland’s industrial property portfolio, including decisions relating to property rental, are day to day operational matters for the agency and not matters in which I have a function.

IDA has a total of seven units in County Wicklow. These are located in the Arklow area, in Ballynattin, Croghan and Kilbride. Only one of these units is owned by IDA and the remaining six are leased from private investors. Of the seven units, six are occupied under long-term leases. The remaining property is not occupied under a long-term lease but is currently occupied on a temporary basis while the lease is being finalised.

There are effectively no rental costs associated with these units as rental payments to private investors are exactly offset by rental income from tenants.

  236.  Mr. Fleming    asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    when an application for a work permit for a person (details supplied) in Dublin 8 will be dealt with. [17243/05]

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Martin):  The work permit section of my Department issued a work permit in respect of the above named individual on 23 October 2001. There is no record of any further application having been received after this date.

  237.  Mr. Penrose    asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    if an application for a work permit for a person (details supplied) in County Westmeath will be reviewed; if his Department only issues work permits to non-EU nationals who are highly qualified and on high salaries; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17262/05]

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Martin):  The work permit section of my Department refused an application in respect of the above non-EEA national on 11 March 2005 on the grounds that the position was not highly skilled and highly paid. Having reviewed this decision and taken into account additional information provided to my Department, I can confirm that it is now proposed to grant this application.

  238.  Ms McManus    asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    when he will establish an enterprise centre for Bray; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17271/05]

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Martin):  The allocation of grants under the community enterprise centre, CEC, scheme is the responsibility of Enterprise Ireland, the agency charged with administering the scheme, and not a matter in which I have a direct role. I am informed by Enterprise Ireland that in 2000, the agency approved grant support totalling €940,442 for Bray Community Enterprise Limited towards the building of a community enterprise centre in Bray and towards the management costs for the first two years.

The project proposal was based on the construction of the enterprise centre in a business park that was to be developed by Cosgrave Property Group at Fassaroe. A condition of the grant agreement was that construction should commence not later than 1 September 2000 and be completed not later than 30 September 2001. However, in 2000, the business park was refused planning permission by An Bord Pleanála and the entire development, including the community enterprise centre proposal, did not go ahead.

In the intervening years, the proposers have made a number of attempts to develop an alternative project proposal. However, despite receiving advice and support from Enterprise Ireland, Wicklow County Council, Wicklow Enterprise Board and Bray Chamber of Commerce, the proposers have been unable to put together a viable total funding proposal and Enterprise Ireland is not aware of any change in that situation. The group has, therefore, been notified that Enterprise Ireland grant approval will be withdrawn.

It should be noted that nearly five years have elapsed since Enterprise Ireland approved funding for the Bray project. Since then, a further CEC programme was undertaken in 2002 on a competitive basis and no applications were received from a community group in Bray. I understand that Enterprise Ireland is currently not planning a new community enterprise centre programme.

  239.  Mr. Rabbitte    asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the reason it was decided to facilitate warehouse agreements (details supplied) by exempting them from the scrutiny of the Competition Authority; if an exemption (details supplied) is the first to which his attention has been drawn in which this device has been used; the rationale for a legislative exemption for these deals; if he has received representations on the question; if so, the persons from whom such representations were received; [1925]the views of the Competition Authority on the question; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17426/05]

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Martin):  This provision was included in the Competition Act 2002 in line with standard international practice for regulating transactions of a purely financial investment nature. The rationale for the provision is essentially to lighten the regulatory burden for mergers and acquisitions which raise no competition concerns. For example, the EU merger regulation contains a similar exemption. The matter has not been raised with me previously. I am aware, however, that legal practitioners in general supported the introduction of this provision during the drafting of the 2002 Act so as to ensure a level playing field between national and EU merger control regimes.

With the exception of mergers and acquisitions involving media businesses, the Competition Act 2002 transferred responsibility for regulating mergers and acquisitions from the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to the Competition Authority with effect from 1 January 2003. The authority now examines and decides upon notified transactions on the basis of competition criteria alone. The previous statute, the Mergers Act 1978, contained no such exemption. However, that Act included non-competition or common good criteria as well as a competition test.

The Competition Authority is an independent statutory body. I understand, however, that the authority generally supports a policy of following best international practice in such matters.

  240.  Mr. Stanton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the efforts he is making to tackle the new phenomenon of the working poor; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17347/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The two main methods of measuring poverty in Ireland are the national consistent poverty measure based on a relative income threshold of 60% of median income and enforced deprivation of certain items and the EU at risk of poverty measure which is simply based on 60% of median income.

The 2003 EU survey of income and living conditions, EU-SILC, indicates that 3.5% of people at work fell into the consistent poverty category compared with 9.4% of the population generally. The survey further shows that 9.2% of people in Ireland who were at work were at risk of poverty compared with 22.7% of the population generally. It is clear from these figures that being at work significantly reduces the risks of poverty and deprivation. However, despite the economic advances of recent years some families find them[1926]selves dependent on low wage employment, leading to the phenomenon mentioned by the Deputy, the working poor.

The reduction of poverty is a core objective of this Government. In this regard, accepting and keeping a job is seen as the most important route to escape poverty and to ensure social inclusion. However, it is important to ensure that work pays and a number of policy instruments crossing a range of Departments are used as a way of preventing poverty among the working poor. These include changes to the taxation system, the introduction of a national minimum hourly wage, provision of training and access to lifelong learning opportunities, assistance with job search and placement, the introduction of flexible working arrangements and increased access to affordable child care and changes to the social welfare system to support the transition to employment and improve the retention of non-cash benefits during that transition.

One of the main policy responses in my Department, designed to address the problem of low income working families, is the family income supplement, FIS, scheme. The scheme provides cash support amounting to a minimum of €20 per week for employees who work a minimum of 19 hours per week or 38 hours per fortnight. This preserves the incentive to remain in employment in circumstances where the employee might only be marginally better off than if he or she were claiming other social welfare payments.

Budget 2005 increased the FIS earnings thresholds by €39 in respect of each family size. This increase was unprecedented since the introduction of the scheme in 1984 and added €23.40 to the weekly payments of most existing FIS recipients from January 2005. The cost of this measure is estimated at €15.53 million in 2005. Following the increased thresholds, it is estimated that 2,600 additional families became eligible for a FIS payment. The ongoing development of the FIS scheme has resulted in current levels of both applications and claims in payment being at an all time high. In 2004, there were 21,000 applications and over 15,000 claims in payment. The current average FIS payment is almost €94. Effective and adequate support for making work pay will continue to be a major priority for this Government and for me as Minister for Social and Family Affairs.

  241.  Mr. Kehoe    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his plans to increase the age of eligibility for child benefit for children in full-time education; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16934/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  Child benefit is payable in respect of all children up to the age of 16 years and continues to be paid in respect of children up to age [1927]19 who are in full-time education or who have a physical or mental disability.

According to figures collected under the quarterly national household survey by the Central Statistics Office for the final quarter of 2004, there were an estimated 84,400 students aged 19 to 22 years. Extending child benefit to this category would, therefore, cost in the region of €144 million per annum so any change in this position would have to be considered in a budgetary context in the light of competing demands for available resources.

Entitlement to child dependant allowance was extended to age 22 from October 2003 where the parent of a full-time student has been in receipt of a short-term social welfare payment for six months or more. Short-term schemes include such payments as unemployment benefit and assistance, disability benefit and supplementary welfare allowance. The provision already applied to recipients of long-term payments.

  242.  Mr. Quinn    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the reason the fuel allowance scheme ceased in the second week of April 2005; if he will extend the allowance to the end of May 2005 (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16973/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The aim of the national fuel scheme is to assist householders who are in receipt of long-term social welfare or health board payments towards their extra heating needs during the winter season. A fuel allowance of €9 per week —€12.90 in designated urban smokeless fuel zones — is payable to eligible households for a 29 week period each year.

The 2004-05 winter heating season for fuel allowance purposes started in the week commencing 27 September 2004 and ended on 15 April last after the normal 29-week duration. Similarly, the 2002-03 fuel allowance season covered the 29 week period from 30 September 2002 to 18 April 2003, inclusive.

Significant increases in recent years in primary social welfare payment rates, such as the old age pension, have improved the income position for people dependent on the social welfare system. These rates are payable throughout the year and are intended to cover basic living costs, including cooking and heating, supplemented where applicable by the fuel allowance during the winter heating season. Many households also qualify for electricity or gas allowances throughout the year under the social welfare household benefits scheme. In addition, a heating supplement may be payable at any time through the supplementary welfare allowance scheme in cases of individual special need.

[1928]It is not feasible to extend the current fuel allowance season into May this year. Any extension of the period over which the scheme applies in future winter heating seasons would have significant cost implications and would have to be considered in a budget context in the light of other priorities.

  243.  Mr. Connolly    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the status of the planned decentralisation of sections of his Department to Carrickmacross, County Monaghan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16992/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The decentralisation implementation group, DIG, report to the Minister for Finance on 19 November 2004 recommended the locations and organisations to be included in the first phase of moves under the decentralisation programme and those to be regarded as potential early movers. While Carrickmacross was not included in the first phase of moves or as a potential early mover, the DIG is due to report again regarding the phasing of those locations not covered in the November report.

My Department is currently revising its implementation plan for the first phase of moves and will examine subsequent phases in the light of this and of the next DIG report. My Department’s commitment is to the relocation of 85 posts to Carrickmacross under the programme.

  244.  Mr. Crawford    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the scale which is used to decide the benefit that will be placed against investment of over €20,000 in the case of the widow’s non-contributory pension; if it will be at a realistic level; if it will be a notional figure (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17004/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  On budget day, I was pleased to announce that the amount of capital disregarded for means test purposes for a wide range of schemes, including widow-widower’s non-contributory pension, will be increased to €20,000 from June next, an increase of over €7,300. The enhanced disregard applies to all capital regardless of where it is held, whether in an special savings investment account, a credit union, with An Post or any other account with a bank or other financial institution. The new arrangements will mean, for example, that a non-contributory widow-widower pensioner, with no other means, can have capital of up to €28,000 and still qualify for a pension at the maximum rate.

A pensioner aged 66 or over can have capital of up to €76,000 —€70,000 in the case of a widow or widower aged under 66 — and still qualify for a minimum pension. For the purposes of [1929]assessing the value of capital and property, a notional assessment method will continue to be used. The use of the notional method avoids the necessity of frequent reviews of the entitlements of a very significant number of recipients whenever interest rates fluctuate or whenever the capital is moved from one investment option into another. As part of my review of the current capital arrangements, I also took the opportunity to improve and simplify the notional assessment formula.

Under the new method the first €20,000 of capital will be disregarded; capital between €20,000 and €30,000 will be assessed on the basis of €1 weekly means for each €1,000 of capital; capital between €30,000 and €40,000 will be assessed on the basis of €2 weekly means for each €1,000 of capital; and capital above €40,000 will be assessed on the basis of €4 weekly means for each €1,000 of capital.

The new system reduces the effective rate of assessment at all levels of capital while continuing with the policy of ensuring that those with lower amounts of capital receive the greater share of available support. These improvements are designed to ensure that social welfare means testing arrangements do not act as a disincentive to claimants to become savers or penalise those who have been regular savers in the past.

  245.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    when he intends to carry out an actuarial review of the social insurance fund; if he will carry out and publicise a review of the fund at 31 December 2004. [17021/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  Section 17 of the Social Welfare Act 1998 provided that an actuarial review into the condition of the social insurance fund be undertaken and published by the end of 2002 and repeated every five years thereafter.

The first actuarial review of the social insurance fund was completed and published in 2002. It covered the period from 2001 to 2056. The purpose of the review is to allow an assessment of the extent to which the fund may be expected, in the longer term, to meet the demands in respect of payment of benefits and other payments, while also having regard to the adequacy or otherwise of the contributions to support social welfare benefits. This analysis serves to inform short, medium and long-term policy development in relation to the social insurance system generally, as well as the emerging surpluses of recent years.

In the first report, using a number of varying assumptions in relation to demographics, inflation and economic growth and considering the impact of increasing benefit rates and earnings contribution limits on the financial position of the social insurance fund, the review presented [1930]a number of different scenarios with the conclusions ranging from the social insurance fund being exhausted in 2005 to 2056.

Ireland, in common with other European countries, has a population which is ageing. A combination of increasing life expectancy and a declining birth rate will result in a projected increase in the number of older people in society. The ageing population presents the same challenge to Ireland in meeting growing pension costs as to other countries, except that we have a longer period to prepare for its full impact. While the social insurance fund is currently in a healthy financial situation, this surplus may not continue indefinitely. Accordingly, the Government is making preparations, through the national pensions reserve fund, to part-fund state pensions costs from 2025 onwards.

The actuarial review of the social insurance fund is required to be repeated every five years and preparatory work for the next review will begin later this year. As required under statute, the report will be laid before each House of the Oireachtas within six months of the completion of the review.

Question No. 246 answered with Question
No. 57.

  247.  Mr. Haughey    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he will review the position of elderly, stay at home housewives with no pre-1953 insurance contributions and in some cases with no post-1953 contributions, with a view to awarding them a State pension in their own right; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17074/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  Payments under the social welfare system are made on the basis of social insurance contributions or where the person satisfies a means test. Within that structure every effort is made to ensure that the greatest possible number of people can receive a payment.

A number of measures have been introduced in recent years which make it easier for people to qualify for pensions. These include extended social insurance coverage and an easing of the qualifying conditions for old age contributory and retirement pensions. These measures are of particular benefit to women who may have less than complete social insurance records due to working in the home.

In 1997, the yearly average number of contributions required for pension purposes was reduced from 20 to ten and in 2000 a special half rate pension was introduced based on pre-53 insurance contributions. Pro rata pensions are also available to allow people with mixed rate insurance records to receive a payment.

The old age non-contributory pension is a social assistance scheme designed to provide fin[1931]ancial support for all older people, whatever their circumstances, who do not qualify for one of the contributory pension schemes. In common with other social assistance schemes, it features a means test which is intended to ensure that available resources are targeted at those who are most in need. In this regard, budget 2005 provides for the disregard of the first €20,000 of savings or other assessable assets, such as shares or bonds, when means are being assessed. The allowance is doubled in the case of a married couple. The operation of the means test is kept under review and changes are made as required.

The Government is also committed to increasing the payment for qualified adults, age 66 or over, to the same level as the personal rate of the old age non-contributory pension and a number of special increases have been given over several budgets in pursuit of this target. This matter will continue to receive attention.

  248.  Mr. Haughey    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he will introduce a new system for eligibility for the contributory old age pension based on the cash value of pay-related contributions only to ensure consistency and equality between all claimants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17075/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  To qualify for an old age contributory pension, a person must have entered social insurance at least ten years before reaching pension age, have a minimum number of paid contributions on his-her record and have a yearly average of at least ten contributions paid or credited from 1953 when the unified system of social insurance came into effect or the date of entry into social insurance, if later. All contributions made, whether made through employment or as a voluntary contributor, are counted in assessing eligibility for pension.

The qualifying conditions for old age pension purposes were designed to ensure that those qualifying for payment have an adequate and sustained history of contributions to the social insurance fund over their working lives. However, it is accepted that this can give rise to varying results, with people with the same level of contributions receiving different rates of payment depending on when they commenced paying insurance.

It has been suggested that a system based on the total number of contributions paid would be more transparent, straightforward and consistent and this is something which is being examined. However, introducing a total contribution approach could give rise to practical considerations, not least of which would be deciding on the appropriate level of contributions that would be required for pension purposes. In this regard, a balance would need to be struck between the [1932]insurance records of those now qualifying for pension, which in many cases are quite poor, and the potential people now have to accumulate contributions as a result of the very comprehensive system of social insurance coverage which is in place since the mid-1990s.

I do not consider that basing payments on the cash value of contributions made would be an appropriate way of developing our system. The flat rate payments and the pay-related system of contributions means that the system redistributes resources to the lower paid and this is something which should be maintained.

  249.  Mr. Lowry    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he will provide resources for a scheme (details supplied); the cost involved in such a scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17105/05]

  261.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his plans or proposals to improve, enhance or extend the free schemes with particular reference to qualification on age grounds; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17433/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 249 and 261 together.

The free travel scheme is available to all people living in the State aged 66 years or over, to all carers in receipt of carer’s allowance and to carers of people in receipt of constant attendance or prescribed relative’s allowance. It is also available to certain people with disabilities and people who are in receipt of certain welfare type payments.

The scheme provides free travel on the main public and private transport services for those eligible under the scheme. These include road, rail and ferry services provided by companies such as Bus Átha Cliath, Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann, as well as Luas and services provided by over 80 private transport operators. The majority of private contractors providing services under the scheme operate in rural areas. The underlying feature of the scheme is the use of spare capacity on these transport services.

I am always willing to consider applications from licensed private transport operators who may wish to participate in the free travel scheme. However, while my Department pays transport providers to operate the free travel scheme, it is not in a position to provide transport services where none exists. The issue of access to public transport in rural areas is being addressed at present through the rural transport initiative, which is being managed by Area Development Management, ADM Limited, on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport. My Department contributed €500,000 to the initiative in 2004 and I secured €575,000 for the initiative for 2005. This will ensure that free travel pass hol[1933]ders continue to have full access to community based transport services.

With regard to the household benefits package of free schemes, which comprises the electricity-gas allowance, telephone allowance and television licence schemes, this package is generally available to people living permanently in the State, aged 66 years or over, who are in receipt of a social welfare type payment or who fulfil a means test. The package is also available to carers and people with disabilities under the age of 66 who are in receipt of certain welfare type payments. People aged over 70 years of age can qualify regardless of their income or household composition. Widows and widowers aged from 60 to 65 whose late spouses had been in receipt of the household benefit package retain that entitlement to ensure that households do not suffer a loss of entitlements following the death of a spouse.

I will continue to review the operation of the free schemes, including the free travel scheme, with a view to identifying the scope for further improvements where appropriate.

  250.  Mr. P. McGrath    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he will consider a major review of the national fuel scheme and an extension of the scheme to a year round payment (details supplied). [17144/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The aim of the national fuel scheme is to assist householders who are in receipt of long-term payments from my Department or from the Health Service Executive towards their extra heating needs during the winter season. A fuel allowance of €9 per week —€12.90 in designated urban smokeless fuel zones — is paid to eligible households for a 29 week period from end of September to mid-April each year.

The fuel allowance scheme was reviewed comprehensively in 1998 as part of my Department’s ongoing programme of expenditure reviews. That review broadly affirmed the validity of the existing scheme format and duration. A further formal review of this scheme is not on the current schedule of expenditure reviews by my Department.

Significant increases in recent years in primary social welfare payment rates have improved the income position generally for people dependent on the social welfare system. These rates are payable throughout the year and are intended to cover basic living costs, including cooking and heating, supplemented where applicable by the fuel allowance during the winter heating season. In addition, many households also qualify for electricity or gas allowances throughout the year under the social welfare household benefits scheme.

There have been further improvements in the fuel allowance scheme since it was reviewed in 1998, including the extension of the scheme duration from 26 to 29 weeks and increases in the [1934]income limits for eligibility. While I will continue to keep the scheme in mind in the context of the budget, I have no plans at present to extend fuel allowances to a year-round payment. This change would have very significant ongoing cost implications — of the order of €68 million per annum — and could only be considered in the light of other policy priorities within the budget resources available.

  251.  Mr. Boyle    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the initiatives he intends to take in the coming months to combat social welfare fraud; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17146/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  It would be inappropriate to provide details of specific control initiatives which my Department intends to undertake in the coming months, however the prevention of fraud and abuse of the social welfare system is an integral part of the day to day work of my Department.

Systematic risk analysis is a key element of the Department’s control strategy. This entails the identification by scheme managers of areas of high risk of fraud and abuse in the schemes for which they are responsible and putting in place appropriate measures to address them in a systematic way. The purpose of this approach is to ensure that review activity is targeted in the most effective manner.

During 2004, my Department undertook a number of specific control initiatives in its regions throughout the country, the outcomes of which are currently being evaluated with a view to expanding successful initiatives to other areas. These initiatives will feed into the process of refocusing control activity to those areas and types of cases which present the highest risk of fraud and error.

My Department also includes surveys of the levels of fraud and error as part of its control strategy to identify the types of claims which should be prioritised for review purposes. More than 600 staff at local, regional and national level are engaged on a full or part-time basis on work related to the control of fraud and abuse of the social welfare system.

Controls are exercised at both the initial claim stage and at subsequent stages during the claim lifecycle. Claims are reviewed on a regular and targeted basis. During 2004, some 306,000 reviews of entitlements were carried out by staff in my Department. The records of some 6,600 employers were inspected to ensure compliance with the Department’s regulations and in particular to prevent and detect abuses of the system. In 2005, to the end of April, over 100,000 reviews have been undertaken with 1,600 employers inspected.

[1935]The prosecution of offenders is a key element in my Department’s overall control approach. My Department’s policy is to consider all cases of fraud for prosecution. During 2004, 503 cases were referred to the Chief State Solicitor’s office to initiate prosecution proceedings. Some 282 cases were finalised in court, of which ten were served with prison sentences, 26 received suspended sentences, 158 were fined, 43 received the benefit of the Probation Act. The remaining penalties included cases which received community service, were bound to the peace or adjourned with liberty to re-enter. Up to the end of April 2005, 127 cases have been submitted for initiation of court proceedings.

I am committed to ensuring that social welfare payments are available to those who are entitled to them. I am also determined to ensure that abuse of the system is prevented and is dealt with effectively when detected. In this regard, the control programme of my Department is carefully monitored and the various measures are continuously refined to ensure that they remain effective.

  252.  Mr. Ó Fearghaíl    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the cost to his Department each year towards the provision of the MABS in the years 2000 to 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17226/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The money advice and budgeting service is provided by 52 MABS companies operating out of 65 centres throughout the country. At present, there are 150 money advisers and 78 administrative staff working in the MABS. The cost to the Department of Social and Family Affairs towards the provision of the MABS in the years 2000 to 2004 is detailed as follows:

Year Funding
2000 5.767,150
2001 8.465,344
2002 9.702,069
2003 9.867,000
2004 11,401,000

A total of €13.62 million has been allocated to the service in 2005.

During the 12 month period up to December 2004, the money advice and budgeting service dealt with approximately 16,000 new clients while also dealing with approximately 13,600 other clients on an ongoing basis. An average of 1,700 persons per month visit the MABS website at www.mabs.ie.

  253.  Mr. Ó Fearghaíl    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the number of people [1936]availing of the MABS for each year from 2000 to 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17227/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The money advice and budgeting service is provided by 52 MABS companies operating out of 65 centres throughout the country. At present, there are 150 money advisers and 78 administrative staff working in the MABS. The number of people availing of the MABS service for each year from 2000 to 2004 is detailed as follows:

Year Total Number of Clients New Clients
2000 17,813 7,243
2001 21,172 9,000
2002 24,465 12,000
2003 27,725 16,000
2004 29,696 16,000

A total of €13.62 million has been allocated to the service in 2005, which is an increase of €2.2 million over the 2004 allocations.

During the 12 month period up to December 2004, the money advice and budgeting service dealt with approximately 16,000 new clients while also dealing with approximately 13,600 other clients on an ongoing basis. An average of 1,700 persons per month visit the MABS website at www.mabs.ie.

A high number of those presenting to the MABS are multiple debt cases. These are cases where an individual or a family runs into arrears with a number of household bills that may include rent or mortgage, ESB, hire purchase, motor tax and insurance, children’s educational expenses, personal loans from banks, credit unions, money lenders and credit cards. The MABS provides support and advice to these people by helping them to make arrangements with the relevant institutions to restructure their debt in a way which allows them to manage their finances better.

  254.  Mr. Ó Fearghaíl    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the number of people signing on the live register in County Kildare in the years 1997 to 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17228/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  As the operational areas of my Department’s local offices are not coterminous with county boundaries, it is not possible to give a precise reply in this instance. However, there are three local offices in County Kildare which are located in Newbridge, Athy and Maynooth. The number of people on the live register in these offices at the end of each of the years from 1997 to 2004 is detailed as follows:

Year end Unemployment Benefit Unemployment Assistance Signing for Credits Total
1997 3,916 2,473 633 7,022
1998 2,867 2,408 564 5,839
1999 2,015 1,977 355 4,347
2000 1,354 1,596 318 3,268
2001 1,371 1,998 328 3,697
2002 1,573 2,476 313 4,362
2003 1,667 2,703 382 4,752
2004 1,726 2,311 313 4,350

[1937]The figures indicate that the total number of persons on the live register in Kildare has declined from 7,022 to 4,350 in the period concerned, a reduction of some 38%. This compares with an overall reduction of 36% nationally.

  255.  Mr. Lowry    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    further to Parliamentary Question No. 205 of 17 May 2005 if he will investigate the circumstances surrounding the refusal of an allowance to a person (details supplied) in County Dublin; and the action which will be taken by the agency administering the scheme on his behalf. [17341/05]

  256.  Mr. Lowry    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    further to Parliamentary Question No. 205 of 17 May 2005 if he will expedite the appeal for a person (details supplied). [17342/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 255 and 256 together.

As I stated in my reply to Parliamentary Question No. 205 of 17 May 2005, the person concerned was refused rent supplement by the Health Service Executive based on its conclusions about the particular circumstances of her case. She has appealed against this decision. The executive has advised that a file is being prepared for consideration by an appeals officer who will make an determination on her eligibility as soon as possible. If the person concerned is dissatisfied with the outcome of this appeal, she can ask that her case be referred to the social welfare appeals office for further adjudication.

Neither I nor my Department has a statutory or executive function in decisions or appeals in individual cases. However, my Department monitors the overall implementation of the scheme in relation to general consistency of case decisions and conformity to scheme policy. In this regard, I have asked my Department to note the outcome of the appeal on this case and to assess whether the issue involved indicates any need for further policy consideration relating to rent supplement eligibility.

  257.  Mr. Stanton    asked the Minister for Social [1938]and Family Affairs,    further to Parliamentary Question No. 207 of 17 May 2005, when he will publish the review carried out and completed by his Department on the supplementary welfare allowance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17423/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The first phase of the review of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme has been completed and the report of the working group is being printed for publication shortly. The second phase of the review commenced in January 2005. The work of the review group on this final phase is expected to be completed by December 2005 and its report will be published as soon as possible thereafter.

Questions Nos. 258 to 260, inclusive, answered with Question No. 57.

Question No. 261 answered with Question
No. 249.

Questions Nos. 262 and 263 answered with Question No. 106.

  264.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if he proposes to review entitlement to contributory pension with a view to including, on a pro rata basis, persons who have insufficient contributions to qualify; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17436/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The qualifying conditions for contributory old age pensions require a person to have paid at least 260 contributions at the appropriate rate, enter insurance ten years before pension age and achieve a yearly average of at least ten contributions paid or credited on their social insurance record from 1953 — when the unified system of social insurance came into effect — or the date of entry into insurance, if later. An average of 48 contributions is required to qualify for a pension at the maximum rate.

Several measures have been introduced making it easier for people to qualify for pensions. These include easing of the basic qualifying conditions, the introduction of pro rata pensions to recognise situations where people have contributions at [1939]different rates and special pensions such as the pre-1953 payment and the special self-employed pension.

In considering changes to the system it is necessary to ensure that the contributory principle which underpins entitlement is upheld. This requires that people meet a minimum contribution threshold and also that payments do, as far as possible, reflect the level of contribution which individuals make. In this regard, the range of pro rata and special pensions already available give adequate recognition to the level of contributions which individuals have made to the social insurance fund. The situation will, however, be kept under review and changes considered where appropriate.

Question No. 265 answered with Question
No. 63.

  266.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his proposals to increase child benefit in view of increased child care costs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17438/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  My Department administers several child income support measures, including child benefit, which delivers a standard rate of payment in respect of all children in a family, regardless of income levels or employment status. Child benefit supports all children but delivers proportionately more assistance to those on low incomes and with larger families. It is not intended primarily to meet child care costs. However, the substantial increases in benefit in recent years can make a significant contribution to meeting those costs.

Since last month, when the 2005 budget rate increases took effect, monthly rates are €141.60 in respect of each of the first two children and €177.30 in respect of the third and subsequent children. Therefore, over the period since 1997, the monthly rates of child benefit has increased by €103.51 at the lower rate and €127.78 at the higher rate, increases of 272% and 258% respectively. This level of increase is unprecedented and is in line with the Government’s objective of improving income for children generally. The question of specific support for child care is a matter for my colleague the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform whose Department administers the equal opportunities child care programme under the national development plan.

  267.  Mr. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    his proposals to enhance or improve dental or optical benefits; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17439/05]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Mr. Brennan):  The treatment benefit scheme [1940]operated by my Department provides to insured persons, and their dependent spouses, a range of services in the area of dental, optical and aural benefit. The availability of these benefits is subject to certain PRSI contribution conditions. The PRSI contribution classes which qualify for treatment benefit are A, E, H and P.

Operational improvements are made from time to time in the course of the ongoing management of the schemes. Any changes in the range of benefits provided under the scheme would, however, be a matter for consideration in a budgetary context and within the constraints of available resources.

  268.  Mr. Timmins    asked the Minister for Transport    if he plans to issue guidelines to local authorities on the preparation of speed control plans; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17291/05]

Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen):  On 18 April 2005, I issued guidelines on the application of special speed limits to the county and city managers. Copies of the document have been placed in the Oireachtas Library and the guidelines are also available on my Department’s website www.transport.ie under Roads — Publications. In addition, Traffic Management Guidelines, jointly published in May 2003 by my Department, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Dublin Transportation Office, set out guidance and advice to local authorities on speed management and traffic calming generally. The deployment of speed and traffic calming measures is a matter for the determination of local authorities. A copy of this publication is also available in the Oireachtas Library.

  269.  Mr. Kehoe    asked the Minister for Transport    the assistance which will be offered to a person (details supplied) in County Wexford to bring forward a driving test date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16932/05]

Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen):  An appointment for a driving test issued to the person concerned on 17 May 2005.

  270.  Mr. O’Dowd    asked the Minister for Transport    the number of applications with his Department from persons wishing to provide a private bus service between Dundalk, Drogheda, Ardee and Dublin; when he will make a decision on these applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16944/05]

Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen):  The Road Transport Act 1932 provides the legislative basis for entry to the public transport market by private bus operators. In accordance with this legislation, private bus operators apply to my [1941]Department for passenger licences to provide bus services on specific routes within the State. In accordance with long-standing practice, details of applications received in my Department remain confidential until a decision is made. However, as of 23 May 2005, there are two applications outstanding for occasional passenger licences on one of the routes listed, which will be dealt with this week.

In addition to these two outstanding applications, my Department has under consideration a request to amend an existing licence for services on one of the routes listed. This request to amend an existing licence is at an advanced stage and will conclude soon.

  271.  Ms C. Murphy    asked the Minister for Transport    if a bus lane will be provided on the section of the Naas Road from Naas to the Dublin boundary; if this will be one of the routes selected on a pilot basis for a bus lane on the outer approaches to the capital; and if design changes have been factored into the current project. [16952/05]

Minister of State at the Department of Transport (Mr. Callely):  Given that work is under way on this section to upgrade it to a three-lane carriageway with a hard shoulder, I have been advised by the Dublin Transportation Office that there are no plans to have a quality bus corridor on the section of the Naas Road from Naas to the Dublin boundary. The works on the N7 between Maudlins, County Kildare, and Rathcoole, County Dublin, involve the upgrading of the existing road to provide three lanes in each direction. It also includes the construction of four interchanges, which will result in an interchange approximately at every 4 km. This frequency, combined with significant lengths of side roads, will allow easy access to and from the mainline for buses. This strategy has been adopted for reasons of safety and has been agreed with Bus Éireann. Given the traffic flow on the upgraded route, a bus lane should not be necessary.

  272.  Ms C. Murphy    asked the Minister for Transport    if he intends to provide funds to Dublin Bus for the purchase of new buses to augment its current fleet; if so, if the subvention to the company will be increased to allow it to operate a larger fleet. [16953/05]

Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen):  Dublin Bus intends to purchase 70 new replacement buses, including 20 high capacity triaxle buses, in 2005. Exchequer funding of €1.2 million is being provided towards the cost of these buses. The new triaxle buses will provide 20% more passenger carrying capacity than double deck buses.

Significant investment has been made to date under the national development plan in acquiring new buses for Dublin Bus. As a consequence, the capacity of the fleet has been increased by nearly 25% and the company is now carrying approximately 150 million passengers per annum. Dublin [1942]Bus has bought approximately 400 buses since 1999, with the assistance of Exchequer and EU funds. In 1999, Dublin Bus received €16.8 million in Exchequer subvention and for 2005 the company will receive €64.9 million in subvention, an increase of 5% on 2004.

  273.  Ms Shortall    asked the Minister for Transport    his plans to consult disability groups prior to the roll-out of a fixed charge system for traffic and parking offences in view of the particular circumstances that apply to the offence of illegally parking in a disabled person’s parking bay. [17016/05]

Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen):  The general position on the roll-out of the fixed charge system to traffic and parking offences was outlined to the Deputy in my reply to Question No. 45 of 12 May 2004. As I indicated in that reply, I intend to pitch the fixed charge for illegally parking in a disabled person’s parking bay at a level that will be significantly higher than that for other parking offences. My approach to this issue is informed by the views of the Irish Wheelchair Association and the Disabled Drivers Association which along with local authorities, are empowered to issue disabled persons’ parking permits. Discussions between my Department and those groups on the operation of the permit system and other related issues is continuous and that process affords them the opportunity to contribute regularly to the determination of the level of the fixed charge for illegal parking in disabled persons’ parking bays.

  274.  Mr. F. McGrath    asked the Minister for Transport    the details of developments to assist taxi drivers and former taxi drivers from the hardship fund set up following deregulation; and the reason 300 taxi drivers were excluded from these payments. [17028/05]

Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen):  The taxi hardship payments scheme was established in 2003 to implement the recommendations of the independent taxi hardship panel report, as approved by the Government. It was made clear at the outset that payments under the scheme did not represent compensation but rather compassionate payments in respect of extreme personal financial hardship.

The taxi hardship payments scheme is administered by Area Development Management Limited on behalf of my Department. Application forms were issued to all persons who made submissions to the taxi hardship panel. In addition, newspaper advertisements were placed in the national newspapers on 6 November 2003 and 27 February 2004 inviting applications under the scheme. Applications were sought from individual taxi licence holders at 21 November 2000 who could demonstrate that they had suffered [1943]extreme personal financial hardship following loss of income arising from the liberalisation of the taxi licensing regime, who fall into one of the six categories in which payment was recommended by the taxi hardship panel report and who are tax compliant. The final date for receipt of applications under the scheme was 24 September 2004.

The content of the application form and the qualifying criteria for applicants under the scheme were the subject of several serious discussions between the Department and taxi representative groups. In accordance with the recommendations of the taxi hardship panel report, the general requirements to be met were identified for all applicants under the scheme. In addition, specific eligibility criteria and requirements in respect of each category of hardship were also identified. These were detailed on the application form.

The scheme allowed individuals who found, due to their particular circumstances, that they fell outside the requirements for a particular category of hardship, to submit their application for consideration by ADM and to include information regarding the extenuating circumstances involved in their hardship. The scheme also included an appeals procedure for unsuccessful applicants.

ADM advised all unsuccessful applicants of the reasons their application was not deemed to be eligible to receive a hardship payment under the scheme. They were also advised of their right to appeal the decision and to have their application reassessed by a review panel. The membership of the review panel was different from that of the appraisal committee who assessed the original application.

ADM received 1,937 applications. Payments totalling €17,268,000 have been made in respect of 1,498 qualifying persons up to 12 May 2005. With the exception of one, all applications under the scheme have been processed at this stage. Four applications have been approved in principle for payment subject to the submission of further information or documentation, for example, a clearance certificate; 340 applicants have not qualified for a payment as they did not meet the criteria for eligibility. A further 94 application files have been closed where the applicant did not submit the requisite information or documentation to facilitate the consideration of their application. A total of 209 appeals under the scheme have been received and considered up to 12 May 2005; 18 original application decisions have been revised and paid on appeal. Decisions on a further six appeals are pending.

The processing and consideration of applications under the taxi hardship payments scheme is undertaken independently of my Department which has no details of applications made to ADM under the scheme. I am, therefore, not in a position to comment on specific details of any [1944]individual case. However, all applicants who did not qualify for a payment under the scheme were advised of the reasons for this decision and afforded the opportunity of an appeal in accordance with the arrangements outlined above.

  275.  Mr. Lowry    asked the Minister for Transport    if correspondence (details supplied) has been brought to his attention; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17093/05]

Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen):  The correspondence to which the Deputy refers was sent to the Taoiseach, but was also copied to me as well as many other Deputies. The letter is a follow-up to a previous letter sent in April and concerns the approaching liberalisation of the EU-US aviation market, and how this will impact on Shannon. The letter refers to proposals by the Shannon Airport Authority, Shannon Development and the Mid-West Regional Authority regarding a package of initiatives for the continued growth of Shannon Airport and the west including the roll-out of key infrastructural projects in the Shannon Airport catchment area. There is a willingness in the region to embrace change and the proposed initiatives are generally consistent with Government policy for Shannon and the mid-west region.

The restructuring of the State Airports, including Shannon, is intended to enhance their regional focus and I am encouraged by the close co-operation between the new Shannon Airport Authority and the other regional development bodies in the area. Work under way in my Department on a ten-year transport investment framework will address the future infrastructural requirements of the mid-west region. The restructuring of the State Airports, including Shannon, will proceed in the light of the assessment in due course, by me and the Minister for Finance, of the business plans which are under preparation by the three airport authorities.

The chairman of Shannon Airport Authority is one of the co-authors of the letter to which the Deputy refers. I am confident therefore that the business plan being prepared by Shannon Airport will have taken all the points raised in the letter into consideration. As I have stated in previous replies, the development of an EU — US open-skies regime provides many opportunities for Shannon Airport to contribute to the development of the mid-west. The liberalisation of the aviation market between the EU and US will mean more, not fewer, opportunities for Shannon to develop new routes into North America, and would, for example, allow Shannon to take steps to develop itself into a passenger or freight hub between the US and Eastern Europe in particular.

  276.  Mr. Ring    asked the Minister for Transport    [1945]when a person (details supplied) in County Mayo will be issued with 22 licences (details supplied). [17170/05]

Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen):  My Department has had continuous contact with the private bus operator concerned regarding the renewal of his annual passenger licences. The outstanding applications for renewal to which the Deputy refers are in the final stages and my Department shall be in a position to issue them soon.

  277.  Mr. O’Dowd    asked the Minister for Transport    if his Department will take measures to address the issues concerning drivers from Northern Ireland (details supplied); the arrangements which will be made with the Northern authorities with a view to prosecuting those drivers in the South; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17238/05]

Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen):  The commission of any offence established under the Road Traffic Acts may lead to the pursuit of a criminal conviction. The only general exception to that principle occurs where a person, having been accused of the commission of an offence that attracts a fixed charge, chooses to pay such a charge, which in turn means that a prosecution will not be pursued. A person convicted of an offence is required to submit to a penalty, namely, the payment of a fine or imprisonment. In addition, the person may be subject to the imposition of either a driving disqualification or penalty points. The general question of the degree to which penalties, disqualifications and penalty points can be applied to persons from other jurisdictions who have been convicted of offences must be considered across the range of penalties and other deterrents established in the Road Traffic Acts in consultation with authorities, either under the auspices of the EU or on a bilateral basis. The question of the development of arrangements for the pursuit of fines imposed on persons from other jurisdictions is the subject of discussions at EU level and comes within the remit of my colleague the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Section 9 of the Road Traffic Act 2002 provides the basis for judicial recognition of the EU Convention on Driving Disqualifications. That convention provides that where a disqualification is imposed by a member state — on a person from another member state — in respect of any one of a number of particular behaviours for example, drink driving and dangerous driving, the State where the convicted person resides may apply the disqualification. I understand that the authorities in the UK are considering adopting similar legislation. When that process is finalised, arrangements to facilitate the operation of the provisions of the convention on a bilateral basis between the two countries can be pursued.

[1946]The authorities in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain are considering the introduction of a scheme to provide for the mutual recognition of penalty points between the United Kingdom and Ireland, under the auspices of the British Irish Council. The Department of the Environment, Northern Ireland, and the Department for Regional Development, Northern Ireland, are the lead agencies for transport and road safety-related matters under BIC and they have given consideration to this matter. This Department has referred the matter to the Attorney General for his advice on the complex legal issues surrounding this area.

The difficulty for the Garda Síochána in accessing foreign vehicle registration information, following a detection by camera, is similar to the position encountered by enforcement agencies across Europe. Discussions are taking place at EU level in this respect but are still at an early stage.

  278.  Mr. J. Breen    asked the Minister for Transport    if Aer Lingus is in breach of the bilateral agreement having no direct flights from Shannon to New York; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17270/05]

Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen):  The choice of routes operated, in accordance with the bilateral agreement, is entirely a matter for the airline concerned. Aer Lingus is operating direct flights from Shannon to New York during this summer season. However, delays in the completion of the Aer Lingus winter overhaul programme have resulted in the lack of availability of one of its Airbus A330 aircraft for the period 16 May to 29 May 2005. During this period it was necessary to consolidate some services and cancel others. As a result, approximately six round-trip Shannon-JFK services have been removed during this period. These cancellations were made some months ago and all passengers were accommodated on alternative Aer Lingus Shannon services.

  279.  Mr. Kehoe    asked the Minister for Transport    the reason a full licence holder must sit a theory test to gain a licence to use a car and trailer when there is no reference to trailers on the theory test; if he will consider changing this requirement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17338/05]

Minister for Transport (Mr. Cullen):  It is an EU directive requirement that persons seeking to obtain a driving licence for the first time or to add a category to an existing licence must firstly have passed both a theoretical driving test and a practical driving test in respect of the relevant licence categories.

National regulations provide that, with effect from 11 June 2001, applicants for a first pro[1947]visional licence must submit a theory test certificate in the licence category or categories being applied for. The only exception to this is where the applicant has already submitted a relevant theory test certificate to the licensing authority with another licence application. A theory test certificate in categories ABM and W entitles the holder to apply for a first provisional licence in categories A, A1, B, EB, M and W. It is not possible to exempt any individual from the regulatory requirement to pass the driver theory test as a prerequisite to obtaining a first provisional licence. The question bank for the theory test includes questions related to driving with trailers.

  280.  Mr. Kenny    asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs    the funding which has been allocated for the development, upgrade or improvement of piers by his Department each year from 2002 to date in each of counties Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Donegal, Clare and Kerry; if he will provide details of each of these projects; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16978/05]

Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Éamon Ó Cuív):  The information requested is being collated and will be forwarded to the Deputy as soon as possible.

  281.  Ms Burton    asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs    if he will make a statement on the award of funds by his Department for a proposed play area (details supplied) in Dublin 15; the amount which was awarded; when it was awarded; if the amount was conditioned to be spent by a certain date; the programme heading under which the money was disbursed; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that a contractor arrived on site for a brief period, left the site in a mess and that the local people are completely dissatisfied with the work; and the role of Fingal County Council in this case. [17022/05]

Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Éamon Ó Cuív):  I refer the Deputy to my answer to Question No. 220 of 11 May 2005.

  282.  Mr. J. O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs    if he has proposals to support the development of sub-post offices on the islands and Gaeltacht areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17348/05]

Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Éamon Ó Cuív):  I have no statutory responsibility in relation to postal services. However, earlier this month, officials of my Department met officials of An Post to discuss [1948]the feasibility of providing automated post office services on a number of islands. As a result of these discussions, An Post is to submit proposals and cost estimates for this initiative. Any such proposals will be evaluated in the context of the funding available to me for island development purposes and the various demands on that funding. No specific proposals are under consideration at this time in relation to the Gaeltacht.

  283.  Mr. Neville    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    the position regarding entitlements under the inheritance measure of the single payments scheme in relation to a person (details supplied) in County Limerick. [16889/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  The person named submitted an application for consideration in respect of the inheritance measure of the single payment scheme as a result of his parents’ deaths and his subsequent inheritances. Following examination and processing of both applications, I am pleased to advise that his applications have been successful and all single payment entitlements established by his parents will be transferred to him. The notification of this decision will issue to him today and a statement of provisional entitlements will be forwarded to the named person shortly.

  284.  Mr. Naughten    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    the number of applications received by her Department under the national reserve; when entitlements will be allocated; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16898/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  In excess of 17,200 applications have been received under the national reserve in my Departments’ Castlebar office. It should be noted that the number of actual files which have to be examined is in excess of 22,500 due to the fact that many farmers applied under more than one of the four categories in the reserve.

The rules governing the single payment scheme stipulate that an applicant who is found to be eligible under more than one category in the reserve may only receive an allocation of entitlements under whichever category is most beneficial to him-her. Therefore an applicant who applied to the reserve under more than one category must be assessed under each category initially to determine eligibility under that category and then a decision must be taken as to which category is most beneficial to him-her.

The applications received are being processed but in view of the number of applications received and the documentation submitted, it will be some time before any allocations are made from the reserve. All applicants will be notified of their eligibility or otherwise as soon as all applications are processed. It is envisaged that all allocations from the national reserve will be made [1949]in time for payment of the single payment in December 2005.

  285.  Mr. Neville    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    the position regarding the effects of proposed nitrates and proposals to overcome the difficulties presented for the poultry industry. [16915/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  The implementation of the nitrates directive is a matter in the first instance for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The nitrates action programme may have implications for the intensive farming sector, particularly in terms of the utilisation of the manure produced by intensive pig and poultry units. Accordingly I have asked my officials to examine various aspects of intensive production in the context of the action programme, including feeding regimes and the storage, treatment and utilisation of manure. I have also asked them to look at the REPS specifications to see how far manure could be accommodated, in place of artificial fertiliser, within the REPS nutrient management regime.

It remains my objective, and it is also the objective of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to reach agreement on an action programme that meets the objectives of the nitrates directive in terms of safeguarding water quality, while also minimising the burden of compliance that the agreement will place on farmers and safeguarding the future of the commercial farming sector.

  286.  Mr. Allen    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    the reason a person (details supplied) in County Cork has been refused the single payment scheme for consideration of force majeure-exceptional circumstances. [16916/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  The person named, having been notified that the circumstances outlined by him did not satisfy the criteria for force majeure-exceptional circumstances under Article 40 of Council Regulation (EC) No. 1782/2003, submitted an appeal to the independent single payment appeals committee.

Following a full examination of the circumstances outlined in the appeal, the independent single payment appeals committee made a recommendation and a letter issued to the person named on 13 April 2005. The findings of the appeals committee were that the original decision taken by my Department should be upheld.

The force majeure application on behalf of the person named relates to parcels of cereal land submitted as forage area for the past 15 years on his area aid applications. Both the single payment [1950]unit and the single payment appeals committee are satisfied that the circumstances put forward do not fulfil the force majeure criteria under the single payments regulations.

  287.  Mr. Kehoe    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    the status of an application for the fourth round of the horticultural grant scheme by a person (details supplied) in County Wexford; when a decision will be made; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16933/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  There were 156 applications received by my Department this year under the 2000-2006 NDP scheme of investment aid for the development of the commercial horticulture sector. The application for grant aid in this case is being finalised alongside all the other applications, the outcome of which will be conveyed to him very shortly.

  288.  Ms C. Murphy    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    the action the Government proposes to take in order to counteract changes proposed in EU grant aid for the forestry sector. [16955/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  The issues raised by the Deputy relate to the forestry elements contained in the draft rural development regulation 2007-2013, first published by the European Commission in July 2004 and which is the subject of ongoing negotiations in the Council of Ministers.

From the outset, the Irish position on the draft regulation in general, including the specific aspects related to forestry, has been clear. On these forestry aspects, I have pointed to the negative impacts that the proposals would have on the sector, particularly those relating to reduced establishment grants, premiums and associated premium payments periods. Negotiations on the Commission proposals are continuing within the Agriculture Council and, as they progress, I will be pressing for the best possible outcome for Ireland on the package as a whole, including a satisfactory outcome on forestry issues.

  289.  Mr. J. O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    the number of persons killed or seriously injured by bulls over each of the past three years; the safety regulations in place in relation to bulls in the field, or otherwise; and the position in relation to having a proper bull halter on all bulls. [16957/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  Statistics supplied by the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, indicate that the numbers of persons killed and seriously injured by bulls since 2003 were as follows:

Killed Seriously Injured
2003 1 Nil
2004 3 Nil
2005 (to date) 1 Nil

Extensive advice in the handling of bulls and livestock is made available to farmers by the HSA and Teagasc in their publications and on their websites.

  290.  Mr. Hayes    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    if a decision will be made in the case of a person (details supplied) in County Tipperary. [16968/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  My Department is processing the application of the above-named person. If it is established that the finished works meet all the requirements of the relevant Department’s specifications and that all other conditions of the scheme have been met, the application will then be progressed for payment. An officer from my Department’s local agricultural, environment and structures office will be in contact with the applicant shortly to arrange the required inspections.

  291.  Mr. Hayes    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    the reason a person (details supplied) in County Tipperary has not been accepted under the single payment scheme. [16969/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  The person named, having been notified that the circumstances outlined by him did not satisfy the criteria for force majeure-exceptional circumstances under Article 40 of Council Regulation (EC) No. 1782/2003, submitted an appeal to the independent single payment appeals committee.

Following a full examination of the circumstances outlined in the appeal, the committee made a recommendation and a letter issued to the person named on 30 March 2005. The findings of the appeals committee were that the original decision taken by my Department should be upheld. Neither the extent of the hand injury suffered by the person named nor the effect of the foot and mouth disease outbreak were considered as satisfying the single payment scheme force majeure criteria.

  292.  Mr. Hayes    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    if a decision has been made in the case of a person (details supplied) in County Tipperary. [16970/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  The person named, having been notified that the circumstances outlined by him did not satisfy the criteria for force majeure-excep[1952]tional circumstances under Article 40 of Council Regulation (EC) No. 1782/2003, submitted an appeal to the independent single payment appeals committee.

Following a full examination of the circumstances outlined in the appeal, the committee made a recommendation and a letter issued to the person named on 31 December 2004. The findings of the appeals committee were that the original decision taken by my Department should be upheld. The person named also submitted an application for an allocation of entitlements from the single payment scheme national reserve under category C which caters for farmers who, between 1 January 2000 and 19 October 2003, sold their milk quota into the milk quota restructuring scheme and converted their enterprise to a farming sector for which a direct payment under livestock premia and-or arable aid schemes would have been payable during the reference period 2000 to 2002.

The closing date for receipt of completed applications under the national reserve was 16 May 2005 and in excess of 17,200 applications were received and are being processed at present. In view of the number of applications received and the documentation submitted, it will be some time before a decision is reached on whether the person named is entitled to an allocation from the reserve. He will be notified of his eligibility or otherwise as soon as all applications are processed.

  293.  Mr. Hayes    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    if a decision has been made in the case of a person (details supplied) in County Tipperary. [16971/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  The person named has submitted an application for consideration in respect of the new entrant measure of the single payment scheme. Following processing of his application, it was noted that two herd numbers were assigned to the person named and as no direct premiums were established in respect of either herd number until 2002, he was notified that his application was successful and that the years 2000 and 2001 would be excluded from the calculation of his single payment entitlements. Both herd numbers have also been associated on the system. A statement of provisional entitlements issued to the person named on 7 February 2005.

  294.  Mr. Ring    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    if, in relation to the suckler cow and slaughter premia, there was an overpayment in regard to a person in County Mayo; and the amount of same. [17014/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  In October 2004, the person named was notified of penalties amounting to €4,063.81 and an interest charge in regard to detected non-compliance with the REP scheme. Under the 2004 slaughter premium scheme, one eligible ani[1953]mal was slaughtered under the herd number of the person named. The 60% advance payment in respect of this animal, €48, issued on 21 October 2004. The balancing payment of €30.40, which was scheduled to issue on 4 April 2005, did not issue as this amount was offset against the above-mentioned REPS penalty.

The person named applied for premium on 11 animals under the 2004 suckler cow premium scheme. The application has been processed and his 60% advance payment amounting to €1,479.39 issued to him on 18 October 2004. The 40% balancing payment of €986.26 has been offset against the REPS overpayment.

  295.  Mr. Neville    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    when premium will be awarded in respect of 34 bulls to a person (details supplied) in County Limerick. [17029/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  The person named submitted two applications under the 2004 special beef premium scheme, in respect of a total of 43 animals, 27 of which were declared as bulls. The first application, in respect of seven animals, six animals for first age premium and one animal for second age premium, was received on 4 November 2004. The second application, in respect of 36 animals, nine animals for first age and 27 bull animals, was received on 30 December 2004.

The 60% advance payment on both applications, together with the interim balancing payments on both applications, issued to the person named on 23 May 2005. The value of these payments was €5,897.10.

  296.  Mr. Kehoe    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    if compensation is available to farmers (details supplied); the assistance which is available to same; the process in these circumstances; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17041/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  No compensation is payable by my Department in the circumstances outlined. The Noxious Weeds Act 1936 makes provision for preventing the growth and spread of certain weeds, including ragworth, and that the owner, occupier, user and manager of lands on which those weeds are growing is liable for prosecution and to be fined if convicted.

  297.  Mr. Crawford    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    the reason a person (details supplied) in County Cavan received grant aid of only €2,523; if this is a realistic 40% grant for this person’s investment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17090/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  The person concerned was an applicant under the dairy hygiene scheme and was given approval to proceed with the investment works concerned on 17 January 2002. Following the completion of the works, the eligible invest[1954]ment costs, based on the Department’s standard costings, were calculated to be €6,307.60 and a 40% grant of €2,523.04 paid to the applicant accordingly.

The conditions of the scheme expressly state that the grant will be calculated on the basis of the receipted costs or on the Department’s standard costings, whichever is the lesser. I am satisfied, therefore, that the amount of the grant has been calculated correctly in this case.

  298.  Mr. Lowry    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    when she will complete her review of the report on early retirement scheme from farming of the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food. [17107/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  I received the report of the Oireachtas joint committee formally on 7 April. At my request, my officials are considering the recommendations contained in the report having due regard to the terms and conditions both of the early retirement scheme and the European Commission regulations under which both the current and previous schemes were introduced and will report to me as soon as possible.

  299.  Mr. Lowry    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    if she will implement the recommendations of the report on the early retirement scheme from farming of the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food. [17108/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  I received the report of the Oireachtas joint committee formally on 7 April. I have asked my officials to consider the recommendations contained in the report, having due regard to the terms and conditions both of the early retirement scheme and the European Commission regulations under which both the current and previous schemes were introduced.

  300.  Mr. Kehoe    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    the position regarding the pilot scheme for the allocation of milk quota to certain qualified farm managers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17109/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  The possible introduction of a pilot scheme for the allocation of milk quota to farm managers was discussed at the milk quota review group last week. The milk quota review group is a group comprised of representatives of the farm organisations, the processing sector, technical advisers and my Department which advises me on matters relating to the management of Ireland’s milk quota.

I am considering the review group’s recommendation in this matter and I will announce a decision shortly.

  301.  Mr. Naughten    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    further to her comments (details supplied) if she has discussed the matter with the European Commissioner; the response to date from the Commission; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17281/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  I am seeking a solution to the problem of the special beef premium overshoot and will continue to do so with the European Commissioner. I have already raised the issue with the Commissioner on a number of occasions. My Department has also forwarded a detailed submission to the European Commission dealing with this matter. I am urging that appropriate measures be taken to alleviate the difficulties encountered by beef farmers in Ireland, directly as a result of the ending of the special beef premium scheme in 2004. I expect that a bilateral meeting with Commission officials will take place shortly, at which our concerns will be strongly reiterated. I will decide what further action to take in relation to this matter when I review the outcome of these discussions.

  302.  Mr. Hayes    asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food    the position regarding an application for premia subsidy for cattle by a person (details supplied) in County Tipperary. [17373/05]

Minister for Agriculture and Food (Mary Coughlan):  Under the 2004 slaughter premium scheme, eight eligible animals were slaughtered under the herd number of the person named. The 60% advance payment in respect of seven animals issued to the person named on 20 October 2004. The sum payable, €336, was reduced by €18.28 being an overpayment under the 2003 slaughter premium scheme which fell due to be recouped. The 60% advance payment in respect of the remaining animal issued to the person named on 1 February 2005. The balancing payment of €242.40 for the eight animals, which issued to the person named on 4 April 2005, reflected the quota cut of 2.13%, which applied to the 2004 scheme.

  303.  Mr. Boyle    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the details of his Department’s support for free legal aid facilities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17145/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  My Department provides for wide access to civil legal advice and assistance via the Legal Aid Board and its nationwide network of law centres. The board’s services are available to persons of modest means and at little cost. Funding for the board has been increased by 16% [1956]since last year to €21.362 million in 2005. An annual grant is also made to the free legal advice centres organisation, FLAC, and €96,000 has been allocated for this purpose in 2005.

  304.  Ms Enright    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if his attention has been drawn to the fact that the number of gardaí in the Mountmellick area has dropped from seven to four and one sergeant; if he will meet a deputation from Mountmellick Town Council to discuss the issue of Garda numbers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16907/05]

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 the personnel strength of Mountmellick Garda station as at 20 May 2005 was five, all ranks. I am aware of the situation referred to by the Deputy and indeed I had a brief meeting on Monday 16 May 2005, with a small delegation from Mountmellick Town Council to discuss their concerns regarding Garda numbers in the town. Garda management will continue to appraise the policing and administrative strategy employed in Mountmellick Garda station with a view to ensuring that an effective Garda service is maintained.

In relation to Garda resources generally, the Deputy will be aware that in October 2004 the Government approved my proposal to increase the strength of the Garda Síochána to 14,000 members on a phased basis, in line with the commitment in An Agreed Programme for Government 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 Garda Commissioner will now draw up plans on how best to distribute and manage these additional resources and in this context the needs of Mountmellick Garda station will be considered in the context of the needs of Garda stations throughout the country. Clearly, the additional resources will be targeted at the areas of greatest need, as 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 very 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.

  305.  Mr. F. McGrath    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the reason he affords himself and the Garda Commissioner the [1957]luxury of legal aid on a monthly basis paid for by the taxpayer, while ignoring persons (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16908/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  The position in respect of the tribunal in question is that there are a number of parties who have been given the right of legal representation. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Garda Commissioner are two of these parties. It has been the practice, where legal teams are engaged on behalf of the State or its agencies, that they receive their fees as the work progresses. Private individuals who have been given the right of legal representation will presumably have entered into their own arrangements with their legal representatives in relation to the payment of legal costs incurred by them.

The position in relation to the awarding of costs is a matter for the tribunal under the provisions of the Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) Acts 1921 to 2002. The Acts provide that a tribunal which, having regard to its findings and all other relevant matters, is of opinion that there are sufficient grounds to do so, can order the whole or part of the costs of representation of a person appearing before it to be paid.

  306.  Mr. Neville    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the position regarding the construction of a Garda barracks at Kilfinane, County Limerick. [16909/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  I refer the Deputy to my reply to his Question No. 312 of Wednesday, 2 February 2005 regarding this Garda station. I am informed by the Garda authorities that the position in relation to this Garda station remains unchanged.

  307.  Mr. O’Dowd    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he will introduce legislation to compel, if necessary, the attendance of witnesses to give evidence at inquests as required by county coroners (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16945/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  I refer the Deputy to my answers to Questions Nos. 10 and 28 of 17 May 2005. The position has not changed.

  308.  Mr. Costello    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he has considered the implications for this State and for the common travel area between Ireland and the [1958]United Kingdom of the introduction in that jurisdiction of mandatory identity papers, as proposed by the British Government; if he has discussed or proposes to discuss the issue with his British counterpart; if he has received or will invite views from the Northern Ireland parties on the question; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16961/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  At the outset, I should say that Irish immigration law, for which I have primary responsibility, does not confer the benefits of passport free travel within the common travel area on persons other than Irish or British citizens. I assume therefore that the implications to which the Deputy refers are implications for Irish and British citizens arising from the UK proposals in relation to ID cards. I am continuing to monitor closely developments in the United Kingdom with a particular focus on any effects of the identity card programme on the common travel area. I understand that other interested Departments and the Embassy in London have also been actively monitoring events and have also held meetings with Home Office officials. Also, the Department of Foreign Affairs has recently convened an interdepartmental group to consider the British plans.

Officials from my Department have held a number of meetings with officials from the Home Office on the identity card scheme. The British authorities have stated that they recognise the need to reflect the provisions of the British Nationality Act 1948, the Ireland Act 1949 and the Good Friday Agreement which guarantee the status of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom. A particular concern of mine relates to the position of cross-Border workers and Irish citizens generally who live in Northern Ireland. I raised these and other issues at a meeting with the Home Secretary, the Right Honourable Charles Clarke MP, in Brussels on 24 February 2005. The Home Secretary undertook to speak to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about these issues and to forward a report by June. On receipt of that report, I will consider if it is necessary to consult with the parties in Northern Ireland.

  309.  Mr. Hogan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if residents here who access gambling services over the Internet are liable to prosecution for the breach of the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1979; if Internet service providers established here or otherwise hosting or facilitating such access will be liable to prosecution under the same Act; if prosecutions have been taken in respect of such breaches; if the legislation needs to be reformed to take account of the global economy introduced with the Inter[1959]net; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16974/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  The Deputy will be aware that what is deemed to be illegal off-line is also illegal on-line, and this is the case in relation to the provisions of the Gaming and Lotteries Acts 1956 -1986. An interdepartmental review group, tasked to examine the Gaming and Lotteries Acts 1956-1986 noted that

“ liability issues in the internet gambling area are likely to be as complex as in other areas of Internet activity. For example, in an internet environment, special consideration would have to be given to both the liability and protection of the player. With Internet operations, the provider may not be within the jurisdiction and may be providing a service which may be legal where the service is being hosted, but illegal where the service is being accessed. This is not an unusual phenomenon in Internet services. The logistical (not to speak of legal) difficulties of dealing with this situation and of enforcing the law at player level are enormous. Attempts to fix liability at Internet Service Provider Level are also fraught with difficulties.‘

Under a code of practice and ethics agreed by the Irish Internet service provider industry in 2002, material or services that are illegal under Irish law will not be carried on Irish servers, and if such is found they will be removed immediately under agreed protocols.

The range of illegal uses of the Internet and the enforcement difficulties associated with such use were also examined in the first report of the working group on the illegal and harmful use of the Internet published in 1998. While that report did not examine the specific problems associated with gambling on the Internet, many of the conclusions reached in the report are valid for the gambling area. There is no record of prosecutions in respect of Internet gaming offences.

  310.  Mr. Wall    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    when a person (details supplied) in County Kildare will be issued with an up-to-date certificate of registration; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16977/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  An application was received in my Department on 8 March 2005 from the person concerned seeking permission to remain in the State on the basis of his parentage of an Irish-born child under the revised arrangements announced by me on 15 January 2005. A letter has recently issued to the person concerned informing him that he has been granted permission to remain in the State for two years until [1960]27 April 2007. The person concerned should register at his local Garda district headquarters station on receipt of this letter, whereupon he will be presented with a certificate of registration which shows that he has been given permission to remain in the State.

  311.  Mr. Connolly    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the position regarding the application by a person (details supplied) for asylum; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16991/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  The person concerned arrived in the State on 18 June 2003 and applied for asylum. Her application was refused following consideration of her case by the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and, on appeal, by the Refugee Appeals Tribunal.

Subsequently, in accordance with section 3 of the Immigration Act 1999, as amended, she was informed by letter dated 22 April 2005 that the Minister proposed to make a deportation order in respect of her. She was given the options, to be exercised within 15 working days, of making representations to the Minister setting out the reasons she should be allowed to remain temporarily in the State, leaving the State before an order is made or consenting to the making of a deportation order.

This person’s case file, including all representations submitted, will be considered under section 3(6) of the Immigration Act 1999, as amended, and section 5 of the Refugee Act 1996, prohibition of refoulement. I expect the file to be passed to me for decision in due course and the person concerned will then be informed of the outcome.

  312.  Mr. Costello    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he will describe each property which has been acquired or leased by the State to accommodate asylum seekers; when agreements were signed in respect of each property; the cost of each transaction; the number of asylum seekers accommodated in each property; the position of each property; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16993/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  The procurement of suitable accommodation for asylum seekers continues to pose significant challenges for the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA. Since mid-December 2004 when the details were announced of the scheme for processing applications for leave to remain from non-national parents of Irish-born children, the numbers being accommodated have risen by more than 22%. The RIA is accommo[1961]dating 8,034 asylum seekers in 84 centres located in 25 counties. Since the system of direct provision and dispersal was introduced in 2000, more [1962]than 38,000 asylum applicants have been accommodated by RIA. The properties currently in use are listed in the following table.

List of Current Centres 19.05.2005.

County Direct Provision Accommodation Centres [Commercial] Capacity Initially Engaged Occupancy Category Type
1 Carlow Milverton House, Montgomery St., Carlow 30 06.11.2000 SM GT
2 Clare The Clare Lodge, Summerhill, Ennis 65 01.04.2000 SM HOS
3 Corofin Holiday Hostel, Corofin 18 25.04.2000 SM HOS
4 Scariff Court Hotel, Main St. Scariff 74 12.04.2001 F HOT
5 Cork An Poc Fada, Cobh 43 13.06.2001 SM HOS
6 Ashbourne Hse Hotel, Glounthane 108 20.06.2000 F HOT
7 Clonakilty Lodge, Clonakilty 95 10.01.2000 F HOS
8 Glen Vera, Wellington Road, Cork 104 19.12.2001 C/S HOT
9 Millstreet Accommodation Centre 195 31.10.2000 F/SF FC/NH
10 North Quay Place, Cork 274 17.07.2000 S/C HOS
11 Slip House, Newtown, Bantry 36 30.08.2001 F/C FC/NH
12 Donegal Cliffview, Donegal Town 67 25.04.2000 SM HOS
13 Dublin Camden Hall Hotel, 1 Upper Camden St. Dublin 2 76 23.07.2001 F/S HOT
14 24 Lower Camden Street, Dublin 2 19 07.05.2003 S HOS
15 70 Lower Camden Street, Dublin 2 15 01.05.2004 S/F HOS
16 10 Nth. Frederick Street, Dublin 1 33 12.04.2000 SM HOS
17 14 Gardiner Place, Dublin 1 34 13.03.2000 SM HOT
18 The Horse & Carriage, Aungier St., Dublin 2 26 10.04.2001 SM GT
19 Balseskin Reception Centre, St Margaret’s Rd, Finglas, Dublin 11 381 21.12.2001 R SYS
20 Kilmarnock House, Military Rd., Killiney 125 18.04.2003 F/S GT
21 Kilmacud House, Upr Kilmacud Rd, Stillorgan, Co Dublin 90 14.02.2001 R FC/NH
22 Georgian Court, 77-79 Lr Gardiner St., Dublin 1 110 25.01.2005 R HOT
23 Hatch Hall, 28 Lr Hatch St., Dublin 2 170 21.02.2005 R HOS
24 Morehampton House, 78 Morehampton Rd., Donnybrook, D.4 60 06.05.2004 S GT
25 Newlight House, St. Margarets 36 11.09.2000 F GT
26 Viking Lodge Hotel, 34-36 Francis St, Dublin 8 78 06.04.2000 S HOT
27 Galway Dun Gibbons Inn, Clifden 97 22.12.1999 F/SF HOS
28 Eglinton Hotel, Salthill, Galway 235 17.01.2000 F/SF HOT
29 Great Western House, Eyre Square, Galway 180 04.09.2000 C/S HOS
30 Cloonabinnia Hotel, Moycullen 86 09.05.2005 F HOT
31 Kerry Atlantic Lodge, Kenmare 56 17.04.2000 F HOS
32 Linden House, New Road, Killarney 60 12.05.2005 HOT
33 The Village House, Glenbeigh Village 14 09.10.2000 F GT
34 Westward Court, Main St., Tralee 100 29.12.1999 SM HOS
35 Kildare Eyre Powell Hotel, Main St., Newbridge 100 30.04.2003 F HOT
36 Hillview, Prosperous 34 14.04.2003 F/SF GT
37 Kilkenny Ormonde House Hotel, John’s Green, Kilkenny 82 19.12.2000 SM HOS
38 Laois Hibernian Hotel, Abbeyleix 55 02.07.2001 F/C HOT
39 Leitrim Sliabh an Iarainn, Ballinamore 50 26.11.2001 F/C HOT
40 Limerick Clyde House, St. Alphonsus St., Limerick 110 26.06.2000 S HOS
41 Shannonside Holiday Hostel, Old Cratloe Rd. Limerick 94 09.07.2001 S/M HOS
42 Westbourne Holiday Hostel, Dock Rd., Limerick 105 25.06.2001 S HOS
43 Mount Trenchard, Foynes 100 04.05.2004 F/M/SF FC
44 Longford Richmond Court, Richmond St., Longford 66 28.11.2000 SM HOT
45 Louth Kincora House, Seatown Place, Dundalk 35 22.05.2000 SM GT
46 Mayo Former Sisters of Mercy Convent, Ballyhaunis 110 30.07.2001 F/C FC/NH
47 Imperial Hotel, Main Street, Charlestown 20 06.05.2005 F HOT
48 The Quiet Man Hostel, Abbey St., Cong 19 24.01.2000 F/SF HOS
49 Railway Hotel, James’s St., Kiltimagh 90 11.12.2003 F HOT
50 Meath Mosney Holiday Centre, Mosney 800 07.12.2000 F/C/SF HC
51 Monaghan St Patrick’s Former Agricultural College, Monaghan 154 24.12.2001 F FC/NH
52 Offaly The Maltings, Birr 60 10.01.2000 F HOT
53 Sligo Globe House, Chapel Hill, Sligo 200 30.07.2004 F/C/SF FC/NH
54 Tipperary (Nth) Clodagh Bar, Main St., Borrisoleigh 30 09.05.2000 F/SF GT
55 Tipperary (Sth) Bridgewater House, Carrick-on-Suir 95 19.12.2001 F/C FC/NH
56 Vee Valley Hotel, Clogheen 25 17.07.2000 S/F HOT
57 Waterford Atlantic House + Coltro, Tramore 78 15.01.2001 C/F GT
58 Ocean View + Boathouse, Tramore 75 22.05.2000 C/F GT
59 Ursuline complex, Ballytruckle Road, Waterford 170 15.05.2001 FC/NH
60 Viking House, Coffee House Lane, Waterford 100 24.05.2001 SM GT
61 Wexford Old Rectory, Rosbercon, New Ross 58 19.02.2001 S/C HOT
62 Wicklow Beechlawn B&B, Corballis, Rathdrum 20 23.12.1999 F/C GT
63 The Warrens, Kilmantin Hill, Wicklow 22 20.04.2001 SM GT
Total 6,147

County Direct Provision Accommodation Centres [State Owned] Capacity Initially Engaged Occupancy Category Type
64 Clare Knockalisheen 300 24.09.2001 F/S SYS
65 Cork Kinsale Road 300 01.09.2002 F/S SYS
66 Kerry Atlas House, Killarney 94 08.01.2002 F HOT
67 Atlas House, Tralee 100 13.08.2001 F HOT
68 Ballymullen Barracks, Tralee 120 00.08.2000 F MOB
69 Johnston Marina, Tralee 106 25.04.2000 F HOT
70 Park Lodge, Park Road, Killarney 55 24.04.2001 F/SF HOT
71 Kildare Magee Barracks, Kildare Town. 175 01.07.2000 F MOB
72 Westmeath Lissywoolen Accommodation Centre, Athlone 375 22.05.2000 F MOB
Total 1,625

County Self-Catering Accommodation [Apartments] Capacity Initially Engaged Occupancy Category
73 Cork 73-75 Davis Street, Mallow 50 14.07.2004 S/F
74 Dublin Ard Erdrad Apts, Blakestown Rd., Mulhuddart, D.15 100 10.03.2004 F
75 Glenview House, Glenview Lawns, Balrothery, Tallaght, D. 24 75 01.04.2003 S/F
76 James’ St. Apartments, 140-142 James’ St., Dublin 8 34 06.04.2003 S/F
77 Montpellier Hill Apartments, 57-63 Montpellier Hill, D.7 69 01.04.2003 S/F
78 Tathony House, Bow Lane West, Dublin 8 83 19.03.2003 S/F
79 Watergate House, 11-14 Ushers Quay, Dublin 8 76 01.04.2003 S/F
80 Harbour View, Grand Canal Place, Dublin 8 24 22.03.2005 S/F
81 7 Portobello Harbour, Dublin 8 14 08.03.2005 S/F/SF
82 Louth Carroll Village, Dundalk 250 29.03.2005 F
83 Offaly 11-12 Church Street, Tullamore 84 07.09.2004 S/F
84 Roscommon Apartments, Station Road, Ballaghaderreen 86 13.07.2004 F
Total 945

[1965]Between December 1999 and 10 April 2000, when direct provision was introduced, the rates paid to the providers of direct provision accommodation ranged from €200 per person per week, pppw, to €344 pppw. The rates have dropped steadily since then. Currently, the scale of payments for the provision of direct provision accommodation fall within the range €189 —€275.66 pppw.

Current payments for the provision of self-catering accommodation for asylum seekers fall within the range €133.70 —€147.00 pppw. The standard rate paid in respect of accommodation within State-owned centres falls within the range €83.72 —€135.31 pppw. This figure does not include the cost of maintenance at these sites.

  313.  Mr. Stanton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the membership of the city and county child care committees; the amount expended by each of these committees each year since they were established; if the work of the committees has been evaluated; his further plans for the future development of these committees; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17003/05]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. McDowell):  The city and county child care committees, CCCs, have a broad membership drawn from statutory and non-statutory bodies and include parent and provider representatives and a wide representation of child care interests in the relevant county. The typical membership of a CCC would include representatives of the Health Service Executive, local uthority, social partners, VEC, FÁS or local employment service,
[1966]area partnerships, national voluntary child care organisations, community groups active in the development of child care in an area, private child care providers, parents, and other individuals as appropriate. The chairperson of each committee is automatically a member of the county development board, ensuring that child care remains a central aspect of each county’s development plan.

The strategic objective of each of the 33 city and county child care committees, established under the equal opportunities child care programme 2000-2006, EOCP, is to advance the provision of quality child care services within the local areas through development of a co-ordinated strategy for childcare provision in the area-based on analysis of needs and overseeing effective implementation against targets set by the committee; development of an information strategy concerning the provision of child care within the county which also updates and develops the baseline data provided in the national child care census; and development and support of local county wide networks and initiatives which target all categories of child care providers. In 2005 the total funding allocated to the CCCs under the EOCP amounts to €7.6 million with a further €965,000 allocated for training, information and networking actions as part of the national childminding initiative.

The following table outlines the total expenditure reported of each CCC in each of the years since they were established. The table also outlines the total spending reported by the CCCs in the first three months of 2005.

Equal Opportunities Child Care Programme

County Child Care Committee Expenditure Reported

Total Expenditure Reported for the following Periods

Year ended 31/12/2000 Year ended 31/12/2001 Year ended 31/12/2002 Year ended 31/12/2003 Year ended 31/12/2004 Quarter Ended 31/03/2005
Border, Midlands and West Region