Dáil Eireann

22/Apr/2009

Prelude

Priority Questions.

Crime Prevention.

Garda Investigations.

Crime Prevention.

Garda Recruitment.

Asylum Applications.

Other Questions.

Garda Investigations.

Proposed Legislation.

Departmental Bodies.

Leaders’ Questions.

Ceisteanna — Questions (Resumed).

Freedom of Information.

Cabinet Committees.

Adjournment Debate Matters.

Requests to move Adjournment of Dáil under Standing Order 32.

Appointment of Ministers of State.

Order of Business.

Social Welfare Bill 2009: Order for Second Stage.

Social Welfare Bill 2009: Second Stage.

Social Welfare Benefits: Motion.

Social Welfare Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed).

Adjournment Debate.

Haulage Licensing.

Community Support for Older People.

Written Answers.

Garda Reserve.

Departmental Expenditure.

Prisoner Deaths.

Guardianship Rights.

Prison Building Programme.

Departmental Reports.

Proposed Legislation.

Prison Drug Treatment Services.

Legislative Programme.

Prisoner Releases.

Proposed Legislation.

Legislative Programme.

Garda Retirement.

Crime Levels.

Firearms Licences.

Drugs Offences.

Crime Levels.

Proposed Legislation.

Garda Complaints Procedures.

Crime Levels.

Prison Drug Treatment Services.

Garda Investigations.

Proposed Legislation.

Community Policing.

Garda Ombudsman Commission Report.

Prison Building Programme.

Pre-nuptial Agreements.

Garda Strength.

Garda Operations.

Appointments to State Boards.

Prison Accommodation.

Garda Investigations.

Garda Equipment.

Programmes for Government.

Garda Investigations.

Garda Deployment.

EU Directives.

Departmental Reports.

Departmental Agencies.

Garda Operations.

Garda Strength.

Legislative Programme.

Official Engagements.

Asylum Applications.

Garda Operations.

Proposed Legislation.

Garda Stations.

Departmental Expenditure.

Crime Levels.

Drug Seizures.

Garda Operations.

Juvenile Offenders.

Departmental Reports.

Trafficking in Human Beings.

Council of Europe.

Departmental Staff.

Official Engagements.

Health and Safety Regulations.

FÁS Training Programmes.

Employment Rights.

Redundancy Payments.

Semi-State Bodies.

Company Closures.

FÁS Training Programmes.

Job Losses.

Semi-State Bodies.

Work Permits.

Departmental Staff.

Redundancy Payments.

Employment Appeals Tribunal.

Employment Support Services.

Job Losses.

FÁS Training Programmes.

Departmental Programmes.

Tax Code.

National Archives.

Tax Code.

Disabled Drivers.

Tax Code.

Pension Provisions.

Tax Code.

Financial Services Regulation.

Departmental Programmes.

Tax Code.

Tax Collection.

Pension Provisions.

Financial Services Regulation.

Tax Collection.

Pension Provisions.

Tax Code.

Departmental Expenditure.

Tax Code.

Pension Provisions.

Tax Collection.

Tax Yield.

Tax Collection.

Tax Yield.

Departmental Expenditure.

Tax Code.

Financial Services Regulation.

Departmental Agencies.

Job Creation.

Tax Collection.

Departmental Staff.

Pension Provisions.

Departmental Staff.

Tax Code.

National Assets Management Agency.

Financial Institutions Support Scheme.

National Assets Management Agency.

Departmental Expenditure.

Pension Provisions.

Departmental Staff.

Official Engagements.

Tax Code.

Financial Institutions Support Scheme.

Financial Services Regulation.

Pension Provisions.

Financial Services Regulation.

Tax Code.

Inter-Country Adoptions.

Health Service Staff.

Child Abuse.

Inter-Country Adoptions.

Mental Health Services.

Health Services.

Inter-Country Adoptions.

Tax Code.

Health Services.

Child Care Services.

Health Services.

Hospital Services.

Hospital Accommodation.

Hospital Services.

Medicinal Products.

Health Services.

Traveller Community.

Nursing Education.

Mental Health Services.

Health Services.

Bullying in the Workplace.

Hospital Services.

Ambulance Service.

Nursing Homes Repayment Scheme.

Hospital Accommodation.

Mental Health Services.

Health Services.

Health Service Transport.

Care of the Elderly.

Departmental Expenditure.

Health Services.

Hospital Services.

Hospitals Building Programme.

Nursing Home Standards.

Health Services.

Medical Cards.

Hospital Services.

Assisted Human Reproduction.

Health Services.

Cardiovascular Health Strategy.

Hospitals Building Programme.

Mental Health Services.

Health Services.

Proposed Legislation.

Health Services.

Medical Cards.

Health Services.

Hospital Services.

Tobacco-Related Diseases.

Nursing Homes Repayment Scheme.

Mental Health Services.

Health Services.

Health Service Staff.

Hospital Staff.

Medical Cards.

Departmental Staff.

Medical Cards.

Hospital Services.

Health Service Executive Expenditure.

Health Services.

Mental Health Services.

Medical Cards.

Hospital Services.

Health Services.

Hospital Services.

Hospitals Building Programme.

Health Services.

Child Care Services.

Health Services.

Hospital Accommodation.

Health Services.

Health Service Staff.

Health Services.

Youth Services.

Patient Private Property Fund.

Care of the Elderly.

Legislative Programme.

Health Services.

Medical Aids and Appliances.

Health Services.

Medical Cards.

Health Services.

Mental Health Services.

Services for People with Disabilities.

Medical Cards.

Road Network.

Port Authorities.

Taxi Regulations.

Public Transport.

Road Network.

Departmental Staff.

Departmental Expenditure.

Road Network.

Public Transport.

State Airports.

Road Traffic Offences.

Visa Applications.

Citizenship Applications.

Residency Permits.

Prisoner Transfers.

Residency Permits.

Court Procedures.

Citizenship Applications.

Garda Training.

Citizenship Applications.

Residency Permits.

Asylum Applications.

Residency Permits.

Citizenship Applications.

Residency Permits.

Missing Persons.

Citizenship Applications.

Residency Permits.

Asylum Support Services.

Asylum Applications.

Departmental Properties.

Garda Stations.

Prison Building Programme.

Citizenship Applications.

Garda Operations.

Citizenship Applications.

Visa Applications.

Garda Reserve.

Crime Levels.

Citizenship Applications.

Legislative Programme.

Legal Aid Service.

Crime Prevention.

Sexual Offences.

Human Trafficking.

Proposed Legislation.

Prisoner Releases.

Proposed Legislation.

Human Trafficking.

Prison Accommodation.

Public Order Offences.

Garda Powers.

Closed Circuit Television Systems.

Proposed Legislation.

Garda Strength.

Garda Inspectorate.

Human Rights Issues.

Drug Treatment Programme.

Sentencing Guidelines.

Proposed Legislation.

Court Procedures.

Proposed Legislation.

Garda Investigations.

Departmental Programmes.

Sentencing Policy.

Garda Training.

Sentencing Policy.

Drugs in Prisons.

Prisoner Rehabilitation.

Prison Drug Treatment Services.

Prisoner Remission.

Community Service Orders.

Crime Prevention.

Garda Recruitment.

Citizenship Applications.

Residency Permits.

Sexual Offences.

Citizenship Applications.

Garda Investigations.

Asylum Support Services.

Residency Permits.

Refugee Status.

Deportation Orders.

Residency Permits.

Departmental Staff.

Deportation Orders.

Proposed Legislation.

Departmental Bodies.

Asylum Applications.

Citizenship Applications.

Prison Building Programme.

Human Trafficking.

Asylum Applications.

Garda Deployment.

International Agreements.

Departmental Bodies.

Proposed Legislation.

Departmental Bodies.

Proposed Legislation.

Citizenship Applications.

Gangland Killings.

Prisoner Statistics.

Human Rights Issues.

Visa Applications.

Overseas Development Aid.

Human Rights Issues.

Foreign Conflicts.

Human Rights Issues.

Overseas Development Aid.

Middle East Peace Process.

Foreign Conflicts.

Departmental Staff.

Foreign Conflicts.

Departmental Properties.

Departmental Expenditure.

National Archives.

Swimming Pool Projects.

Arts Funding.

Sports Funding.

Irish Horseracing Industry.

Departmental Staff.

Security of the Elderly.

Inland Waterways.

Community Development.

Dormant Accounts Fund.

Departmental Expenditure.

Dormant Accounts Fund.

Departmental Staff.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Social Welfare Appeals.

National Carer’s Strategy.

Departmental Expenditure.

Social Welfare Appeals.

Social Insurance.

Social Welfare Code.

Social Welfare Appeals.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Departmental Staff.

Family Support Services.

Social Insurance.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Departmental Programmes.

Overseas Missions.

Defence Forces Ombudsman.

Departmental Staff.

Departmental Properties.

Overseas Missions.

Communications Masts.

Waste Management.

Local Authority Housing.

Departmental Schemes.

Fire Services.

Local Authority Housing.

Local Authority Staff.

Building Regulations.

Water Quality.

Departmental Schemes.

Coastal Protection.

Water and Sewerage Schemes.

Motor Taxation.

Departmental Schemes.

Social and Affordable Housing.

Planning Issues.

Social and Affordable Housing.

Departmental Staff.

Water and Sewerage Schemes.

Local Authority Funding.

Social and Affordable Housing.

Local Authority Funding.

Public Procurement Policy.

Departmental Staff.

Housing Statistics.

Housing Grants.

Social and Affordable Housing.

Fire Stations.

Building Regulations.

Social and Affordable Housing.

House Prices.

Water and Sewerage Schemes.

Planning Issues.

Departmental Correspondence.

Private Residential Tenancies Board.

Local Government Services Board.

Garda Communications.

Home Energy Saving Scheme.

Alternative Energy Projects.

Missing Children’s Helpline.

Electricity Network.

Departmental Staff.

Telecommunications Services.

Pension Provisions.

Alternative Energy Projects.

Grant Payments.

Bovine Disease Controls.

Grant Payments.

Food Safety Standards.

Grant Payments.

Rural Environment Protection Scheme.

Grant Payments.

Departmental Staff.

Fisheries Protection.

Grant Payments.

Fallen Animal Collection Scheme.

Rural Environment Protection Scheme.

Animal Feedstuffs.

Grant Payments.

Rural Environment Protection Scheme.

Nursing Education.

Higher Education Grants.

Pre-school Services.

School Accommodation.

Site Acquisitions.

Disadvantaged Status.

Tax Code.

Special Educational Needs.

Schools Building Projects.

Higher Education Grants.

Schools Building Projects.

School Transport.

Schools Building Projects.

Property Transfers.

Schools Building Projects.

School Transport.

Schools Recognition.

Departmental Expenditure.

School Accommodation.

Post-Leaving Certificate Courses.

School Staffing.

Schools Building Projects.

Student Medical Services.

Schools Building Projects.

Site Acquisitions.

School Accommodation.

School Curriculum.

Schools Refurbishment.

School Curriculum.

School Transport.

Special Educational Needs.

Departmental Staff.

Pension Provisions.

Departmental Charges.

Schools Building Projects.

Site Acquisitions.

School Transport.

Schools Building Projects.

Post-Leaving Certificate Courses.

Institutes of Technology.

Schools Building Projects.

Higher Education Grants.

School Transport.

Psychological Service.

School Staffing.

Schools Building Projects.

School Accommodation.

Departmental Bodies.

Post-Leaving Certificate Courses.

School Accommodation.

Special Educational Needs.

Chuaigh an Leas-Cheann Comhairle i gceannas ar 2.30 p.m.

Paidir.
Prayer.

  65.  Deputy Charles Flanagan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the steps he is taking to bring an end to organised crime and gangland culture; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14601/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  Tackling organised and gangland crime remains my primary concern. Significant efforts and resources are already being directed on an ongoing basis in tackling organised crime and gangland culture. The State will be relentless in its approach in bringing those involved in such activities to justice.

An Garda Síochána already co-ordinates a wide range of multi-agency activities to disrupt and dismantle the operations of criminal gangs. It is only fair to recognise and acknowledge it is having considerable success in this regard. Intelligence-led operations are used by the Garda to target organised crime groups by utilising specialist units including the Criminal Assets Bureau, the organised crime unit and the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

Targeted intelligence-led operations, such as Operation Anvil, continue to result in significant seizures of firearms and property related to criminal activity and have led to the arrests and prosecutions of those involved. In terms of Garda resources, at a time when public finances are under extreme pressure, I have ensured that in the justice, equality and law reform area, top priority will continue to be given to front line policing activities. For example, funding for Operation Anvil has increased in 2009 from €20 million to €21 million while that for the Criminal Assets Bureau has increased by €1.5 million.

The reprehensible killing of a person in Limerick recently can be seen as a clear attempt by organised criminal gangs to undermine the criminal justice system. This demands a response from the State. The Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Bill, published last week, will enable material obtained by means of covert surveillance to be used as evidence to support or strengthen prosecutions. I hope the legislation will come before the House in the coming week or so. In addition to this legislation, I am currently working on a range of other legislative [344]measures to combat criminal gangs. The proposals being considered include provisions similar to those previously introduced against subversive organisations.

Finally, I reiterate that the Government attaches the highest priority to tackling organised and gangland crime and will spare no efforts in tackling those involved in such activities head on.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  I thank the Minister for his reply. I am conscious of the fact he has introduced new legislation which will be supported by my party, Fine Gael, as stated on numerous occasions.

Does the Minister agree that organised and gangland crime results from the illegal drug activities in this country and in particular, the importation of drugs? What is the Minister’s view on the issue by the Department of Transport of an international haulage licence to a convicted drug dealer? Since the occurrence of this event in September 2008, what actions has the Minister taken first, to have consultations and discussions on the matter with his colleague the Minister for Transport, and, second, to have consultations and discussions with the Garda Commissioner?

Has the Minister expressed concern on the matter? If so, what action does he propose to take in order to allay the very serious public concern and to deal with the mixed message from his Department? On the weekend that he issues a raft of new legislation which he suggests will tackle gangland crime, we have the situation of a known and convicted drug trafficker against whom very serious charges were dropped, which will later be the subject matter of a question from my colleague, Deputy Rabbitte. What action is the Minister taking on this issue?

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  It is true to say that illegal drugs and their importation is a very large component of the issue of gangland crime in this country. To be fair, there is a question in regard to the related issue to which the Deputy refers.

With regard to the drugs issue generally, there is a special national drugs unit, comprising 60 gardaí of all ranks at headquarters, and across the country there are divisional drugs units with approximately 350 members who are specifically dedicated to the fight against drugs. They work in conjunction with the Customs and Excise service and the Naval Service in regard to the importation of illegal drugs. Given the fact we have extended the surveillance legislation to the Defence Forces and the Revenue Commissioners as well as the Customs and Excise service, on many occasions there is a crossover between those three agencies in the fight against drugs. The surveillance legislation will be of great benefit.

With regard to the issue raised by the Deputy, it is only fair to point out that this will be answered in response to a later question. I understand in regard to this issue generally that there is a private notice question for the Minister for Transport in regard to the granting of the licence in that case.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  The Minister may not be aware but that question will not be taken this afternoon. On the specific matter as raised, what action does he propose to take to allay widespread fears of a cover-up in this matter? When are the facts of this case to be laid bare? Could he, as Minister for Justice——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  I would prefer if the Minister would deal with that when the specific question is reached. It is germane to the Deputy’s question.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  Where is the specific question on the issue of the international haulage licence to a convicted drug dealer? There is none. We are dealing here with gangland [345]crime. We are dealing with my question to the Minister regarding his intentions in terms of dealing with the issue of gangland crime.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  The Deputy should put the question.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  As I said at the outset, gangland crime and drugs are inextricably linked. We would not have gangland crime if we did not have drugs. The mixed messages being sent by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in this case are only adding to the fear of a cover-up because certain aspects of this case stink. It is very important that the Minister ensures we know the facts of the case and who is protecting this man.

I ask the Minister to use his influence in this regard. As the Minister with special responsibility for crime and security in the State, I ask him to ask the Minister for Transport to revoke all licences that issued to convicted drug dealers that allow them to engage in international haulage contracting.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  I am somewhat reluctant to deal with the matter in response to this question because to be fair to Deputy Rabbitte he has tabled a priority question specifically on that issue. When this issue first arose in the media, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, which we established as an independent agency, set up a public interest inquiry under section 102 of the 2005 Act that we passed. Section 67 of the 2005 Act is explicit that the investigation of these issues by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is totally independent of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform the Garda Síochána and this House. When the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission decides to have a public interest inquiry it is best to leave it to it so that we do not prejudice anything. Of course people are concerned — I accept that. The Minister for Transport has already indicated his concern in this regard. I have confirmed with the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission today through the Garda Commissioner and people in my Department that the granting of the licence will be part of its examination.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  That is important.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  I know that political charges have been made in this House. Neither my Department nor I had any hand, act or part in the granting of any of these licences, which is purely a matter for the Department of Transport liaising with the Garda Síochána.

  66.  Deputy Pat Rabbitte    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he has received communication from the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission regarding a possible public interest inquiry into the circumstances in which serious drug charges against a person (details supplied) were dropped; if the internal Garda inquiry into the affair has been concluded; if he has received a report from the Garda on its inquiry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14551/09]

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  I have previously informed the House that I received an interim report from the Garda Commissioner concerning certain inquiries being carried out by an assistant commissioner into events related to a particular case involving a convicted drug dealer. I am informed by the Commissioner that those inquiries are still ongoing and I await a full report from the Commissioner as soon as those inquiries have been completed.

The House will be aware that when this matter first came to light I agreed to a request from the Garda Commissioner that the interim report which he had provided to me should be forwarded to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. The ombudsman commission has [346]indicated that it is conducting a public interest inquiry relating to the case. The ombudsman commission is well placed to look into all aspects of this case and to establish the full facts. I am informed by the Garda Commissioner that there is ongoing liaison between the Garda Síochána and the ombudsman commission on its inquiry.

Deputies will be well aware that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is an independent authority established under the Garda Síochána Act 2005. The independence of the ombudsman commission is a cornerstone of its operations and an important guarantee of its integrity. I am sure no Member of this House would suggest that I should interfere in this, or any, investigation being carried out by the ombudsman commission. Accordingly, I propose to await the report of its investigation into the matter.

In the circumstances, therefore, I believe it would not be appropriate for me to make further comment about the case pending the outcome of the ombudsman commission’s work. It goes without saying that if any action on my part is required as a result of the ombudsman commission’s investigations then I will take it.

The House will be well aware that there has been considerable media publicity in recent days concerning the issue of a road haulage operator’s licence to the person referred to in the Deputy’s question. That issue is the subject of a separate review by the Minister for Transport. I hope the House will appreciate, therefore, that I am somewhat constrained in what I can say about the matter and accept that we must await the establishment of the facts in this case, in particular by the ombudsman commission. The ombudsman commission has confirmed to us that it has included the issue of the granting of the licence to this person as part of its remit.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  How long does the Minister intend continuing to tell the House that it is an interim report? This matter happened on 31 July last year. How long does the Minister think he needs in order to come in here and outline plain facts about this case? I ask him to stop sheltering behind the ombudsman commission. If he is not sheltering behind the skirts of the ombudsman commission he is sheltering behind the Minister for Transport. The bare facts are that this person was found red-handed in possession of €1.7 million worth of drugs and the charge was dropped. A nolle prosequi was entered on the last day of the court term without notice to the court. How can the Minister explain that? He has just said the drugs trafficking trade is a large component of the driving of the phenomenon of gangland crime. How could a convicted drugs importer get an international licence to import death into this country, despite his convictions? The Minister comes in here as the man responsible for the Garda Síochána and says to us the matter is with the ombudsman commission or the Minister for Transport. People are in disbelief that somebody with three serious convictions and then caught red-handed in possession of a huge consignment of drugs had the charges dropped. Now somebody is covering up for him and issuing a licence to him to repeat the performance. I find this beyond belief.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  There was no delay on my part. When I got the interim report from the Garda Síochána Commissioner, I suggested, and it was agreed, that the interim report would be sent to the Garda Ombudsman Commission. I did so because it raised serious questions and serious questions were being raised in the media on the issue. As I said, with regard to the granting of a licence, neither I nor the Department had received any communication on the issue. The issue of a “good repute” check was purely a matter between the Department of Transport and the Garda Síochána, as is always the case. I understand the Department of Transport generally seeks the Attorney General’s advice on the granting of a licence in circumstances where people have previous convictions. I am not speaking about this specific case, but this is generally the case where people have previous convictions, such as where those with [347]previous convictions apply for taxi licences. There is considerable case law in that area and there have been successful challenges in the courts where the Department of Transport has been obliged to grant a licence, even though people have been convicted of previous offences. I am speaking generally in this regard.

The Deputy has said there is disbelief. There would be disbelief if this House or any politician were to interfere in the independent process that was set up by the House to investigate complaints against gardaí. That is the reason we have the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. It is investigating the situation and has upgraded its investigation into a public interest inquiry. It would be very wrong of me, the Deputy or anyone in the House to interfere with that. I will not do that.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  The Minister has responsibility for the Garda Síochána. He has just said an interim report was given to him some months ago. This event happened on 31 July. How long does it take for the Garda Síochána to complete its report? Is the Minister satisfied a nolle prosequi was entered in the circumstances described? Is he satisfied that should have happened?

With regard to the person concerned, the information is that he is not, after all, a Garda informant. Therefore, who is running, sheltering and protecting him? Are the individual gardaí sheltering him acting on their own accord? Do they think they are acting in the public interest or are they acting for corrupt purpose? After all we have seen and after the Minister’s admission that a large component of the gangland feuding that is wrecking some of our communities is driven by the drugs trafficking trade, I would have thought that as Minister he would want to hear from the Garda Síochána, after ten months, what the hell was going on. I would think he would want to hear why a convicted drugs dealer could get a licence to resume importing death into this country, if that is his disposition, and to do that with impunity.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  With regard to the report, the Garda quickly produced an interim report. That interim report was referred immediately to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. A final report by the Garda Síochána is due and it will, ultimately, be fed into the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. On the issue of a nolle prosequi, it is not for me to say whether that should have been put into the District Court at that time. That is not an issue for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, but an issue for the independent DPP, as the Deputy well knows.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  Is the Minister satisfied that it should have happened?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Allow the Minister to conclude.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  Regarding the Deputy’s allegations about people being informers or gardaí being complicit in any wrongdoing, I strongly suggest that he leave the matter to the independent Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, which was rightly established and given powers by the House in the aftermath of the Morris tribunal, to determine whether there has been any wrongdoing. It should be done by an independent body not this House. We do not need to set up independent tribunals. Rather, the commission should be allowed to get on with its work. If it makes recommendations, the House and I will bear them in mind and pass whatever legislation or orders are necessary to ensure the like does not recur.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Ceist Uimh. 67.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  Is the Garda co-operating fully?

[348]Deputy Dermot Ahern:  Yes. I have been informed by the Garda Commissioner that the Garda is co-operating fully despite what has been reported in the media.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  I have called Question No. 67.

  67.  Deputy Michael D’Arcy    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the measures his Department has to track the movements and behaviour of known serious criminals living in housing estates; the checks and protections in place to protect residents and public safety in estates in which criminals are known to reside; and if he liaises with the Department of Social and Family Affairs to advise it of the level of income such people derive from criminal activity for consideration by that Department in determining their eligibility for social welfare payments, rent supplement and other State benefits. [14603/09]

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  Persons involved in organised criminal activities are being targeted by An Garda Síochána in a number of ways, including uniform and plain clothes personnel overtly and covertly disrupting known criminals in the course of criminal activities. Such criminals, their operating methods, criminal interests and financial assets are proactively targeted through intelligence-led operations, for example, Operation Anvil.

Multi-agency approaches have been and continue to be used where all of the national units from the Garda national support services are used to combat serious crime. In addition, an intensified programme of multi-agency checkpoints involving officers from the Department of Social and Family Affairs is being undertaken. The Criminal Assets Bureau, CAB, which includes a number of social welfare inspectors appointed as bureau officers, is being actively utilised to identify and target funds accumulated by criminals in order to seize such assets and to deprive them of the profits of their criminal activity.

Some 102 Garda divisional asset profilers have been trained by CAB and are now in place in every Garda division. Their role is to collate information at a local level and to carry out preparatory groundwork in advance of a full investigation by CAB. The social welfare inspectors attached to the bureau investigate and determine social welfare entitlements of persons who derive assets from criminal activity.

In addition, the regional director’s office of the Department of Social and Family Affairs fully co-operates with all requests by CAB officers in respect of cases and refers departmental cases deemed suitable for consideration of investigation and determination by the bureau. The effectiveness of this approach can be seen from the fact that, in the period since CAB’s inception up to the end of 2007, it made savings of more than €3.5 million and recovered €2.5 million in respect of social welfare payments.

Deputy Michael D’Arcy:  Is the Minister satisfied with the entente between his Department and elements of the Departments of Social and Family Affairs and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government under their respective Ministers, Deputies Hanafin and Gormley? The Garda is spending significant funds on trying to track and pursue known criminals to the best of its ability. On Tuesday mornings, however, they show up at their local unemployment exchanges and get money from the State. They also get rent allowance, as the relevant local authorities have sanctioned their housing needs.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Ask a question.

Deputy Michael D’Arcy:  It is coming. Criminals are robbing, selling drugs and acquiring the criminal assets referred to by Deputies Charles Flanagan and Rabbitte. Is there co-operation between the relevant Departments and is the Minister satisfied that it is sufficient? I am not.

[349]Deputy Dermot Ahern:  I am satisfied with the co-operation. While I was the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs from 1997 to 2002, I instigated multi-agency checkpoints, which were criticised by parts of the House. The checkpoints comprised gardaí, social welfare officers and officials from the Departments of Transport and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, customs and Revenue. Over the years, the checkpoints have gone somewhat into abeyance. Thanks to an initiative I took in more recent times in my current Ministry, the multi-agency checkpoints are up and running and meeting with significant success. This is in addition to the ongoing co-operation between the Departments. Moreover, as I noted in my previous response, social welfare officers are seconded to the CAB and there is close liaison between the CAB and the Department of Social and Family Affairs to ensure that those involved in criminal activity do not obtain social welfare payments. As the Deputy will note from the figures provided, significant savings have been made in that regard.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  I call Deputy D’Arcy, for a brief supplementary question..

Deputy Michael D’Arcy:  While the Minister may be satisfied, I am not. I made a remarkable discovery lately concerning a known criminal who was sought by the Garda and who lived in an estate in which the other residents were terrified of him. On investigating this issue, I discovered the person in question is in receipt of rent allowance and benefits.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Does the Deputy have a question?

Deputy Michael D’Arcy:  The most inappropriate fact I ascertained was that he was living in a house that is owned by a prison officer. Does the Minister consider it to be appropriate to have a criminal living in a house that is owned by a prison officer and for the State to be paying the rent?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  That question is beyond the scope of the initial question.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  Absolutely. If one considers the social welfare Vote, in which there have been savings of €476 million through fraud controls in 2008, this is a wider issue. There is a concentrated issue that pertains in particular to those involved in gangland crime. Such people are profiled through the CAB profilers, of whom there are 102 and who operate in every Garda district nationwide, to ensure that everyone in the system, whether in social welfare, customs, Revenue, the Garda Síochána or any other Department, is aware of the involvement of those people.

Deputy Michael D’Arcy:  Although the soft information is present, it is not being acted on.

  68.  Deputy Pat Rabbitte    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if the public service recruitment embargo, announced on 26 March 2009, will apply to the recruitment of full-time members of the Garda or the Garda Reserve; if it will apply to civilian employees working for the Garda; if an assessment has been carried out on the implications for policing and of the number of gardaí who will have to be diverted from full-time policing duties as a result; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15663/09]

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  As the Minister for Finance has made clear, the moratorium on recruitment and promotions in the public service applies to the Garda Síochána, both members and civilian support staff. By its nature, it has no application to the Garda Reserve, whose members are unpaid volunteers who do not occupy public service posts.

[350]The Minister for Finance also made clear that this measure is not an embargo, which would mean a blanket ban on filling all posts. Instead, the nature of this moratorium will permit the Minister for Finance to approve the filling of some vacancies in exceptional circumstances. I am engaged in consultations at present with the Garda Commissioner on the case for filling certain senior posts in the force, particularly those carrying statutory functions or those otherwise in key operational areas, and I will discuss the outcome with the Minister for Finance.

The Government decision also permits the filling of vacancies by redeployment of staff and again I will explore the case and scope for so doing in respect of the civilian support staff of the Garda Síochána. The Garda information services centre, which delivers a vital service to the force and which was largely staffed through redeployment, shows the potential in this regard in the Garda Síochána.

  3 o’clock

It is also important to bear in mind that Garda strength has increased significantly in recent years, with the number of attested members rising from 10,968 at the end of 1997 to 11,895 at the end of 2002, 13,755 at the end of 2007 and 14,371 in the most recent figures. Allowing for attestations in 2009, the strength of the force will reach approximately 14,900 by 31 December 2009. There has also been a significant increase in civilian support staff, with the most recent figures indicating that the total number of whole-time equivalent civilian personnel has risen from 1,688 at the end of 2007 to 2,133. Consequently, while the moratorium will have a temporary effect on recruitment into the Garda Síochána, its record strength means that it is in the best possible position to absorb the impact and continue to deliver a top-class policing service.

The allocation of Garda personnel throughout the country, together with overall policing arrangements and operational strategy, is a matter for the Garda Commissioner and is continually monitored and reviewed. Such monitoring ensures that optimum use is made of Garda resources and the best possible Garda service is provided to the public.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  May I take it from this response that the moratorium will have no effect on the Garda and that the figure will be 14,900, as the Minister informed me on 25 February? That appears to be the answer. The Minister should inform the House how many gardaí qualified in the first quarter of 2009, how many will qualify in the second quarter and how many he expects to qualify in each of the third and fourth quarters.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  I do not have those figures in respect of each quarter but somewhere in the region of 200 or 250 gardaí, the same number as have come through until recently, have continued to flow through the system until the end of the year. A smaller intake, 100 per quarter, was taken on over the past two quarters. In 2010 the number of attested gardaí qualifying will be reduced. Regarding the figure of 14,900, we estimate this to be the figure by the end of 2009. Much depends on retirements. This Government has been assiduous in increasing the levels of gardaí over the past number of years. We will do our best to keep the numbers as high as we can.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  I do not want to say that I do not believe the Minister in case he walks out on me again, as he threatened to do the last day.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  I did not, I was going to be thrown out.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  I ask the Minister to look at the file. Is he seriously telling me that the file prepared for Question Time does not have the figures about which I asked? Is he seriously coming in as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and telling me he does not know [351]how many gardaí came out in the first term? Does he think I came down in the last shower? How many gardaí came out in the first term and how many more will come out for the three remaining quarters of this year? If he does not know that he should not be in the job.

The Minister must wake up every morning thanking his guardian angel. The country is coming down with crime, there are killings every weekend, anti-social behaviour is rife and, when Deputy Ahern was on this side of the House, if a letter went missing in the Department he was jumping up and down on the shoulders of the man who is now the Ceann Comhairle. It is an unbelievable crisis. The country is in mayhem. If the Government had not made such a mess of the economy, this would be at the top of the agenda. The Minister comes in and tells this House he does not know how many gardaí will qualify in 2009. He is making a farce out of Question Time.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  I know it is a long time ago but, when the rainbow coalition was in office, it froze the number of gardaí throughout its period in government.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  We had money in the bank when we left office.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  There were very poor figures when Brian Ború was in control.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  I have given the figures, which have increased by thousands since this Government came to office, particularly since 1997, when the rainbow coalition was last in government.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  Answer the question.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  It must be said that, at the last election in 2007 this party promised that we would reach 15,000 by 2010. In fact we will be next or near that——

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  Will the Minister answer the question I asked him? How many gardaí will come out over the four quarters?

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  ——with 14,900.

Regarding the numbers for this year, 1,100 gardaí will come out spread over the four quarters of this year. At the last passing out in Templemore 263 gardaí passed out. That will continue for most of 2010. Ultimately, the figures will die down because of the lower intake, which we must do in the context of the budgetary situation. I stand on my record. When Deputy Rabbitte was in government the record was abysmal.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  Do I take it the moratorium does not apply to the Garda Síochána?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  I think the Minister has answered the question. I call Question No. 69.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  He did not answer the question. It appears the moratorium does not apply to the Garda Síochána.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  Deputy Rabbitte did not listen to the answer. I said the moratorium applies to all levels of the public sector, including the Garda Síochána——

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  But the same numbers will come out. The Minister has no regard for this House.

[352]Deputy Dermot Ahern:  ——but a case will be made from the Garda Commissioner through me to the Department of Finance in respect of senior managerial posts because we fully accept that if people are retiring at a higher level there must be a replacement.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  I know where the replacement should take place, it should be on the Government benches.

  69.  Deputy Denis Naughten    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the steps he is taking to expedite current asylum applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14604/09]

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  I attach a high level of priority to ensuring that asylum applications are dealt with fairly and as quickly as possible, so as to minimise the cost to the State. Processing times and scheduling arrangements are kept under ongoing review by the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, ORAC, and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, RAT, with a view to limiting the amount of time applicants have to wait for a recommendation or decision. In 2008, some 4,581 applications were processed to completion by ORAC with 2,461 appeals concluded by RAT.

As indicated in previous replies on this matter, a number of steps have been taken in recent years to expedite the processing of asylum applications. These include the introduction of prioritised arrangements for the processing of applications from certain source countries; the scheduling by ORAC of interviews on the date of application; and maximising the use of the Dublin II regulation to determine the appropriate European state responsible for processing asylum applications made in Ireland. The effectiveness of these measures can be seen in the continuing improvements in processing times at first instance.

More recent developments include the introduction by RAT in 2008 of a new on-line system of access to previous tribunal decisions. The new system enables legal representatives of applicants to more readily access past tribunal decisions and thus speed up the scheduling of appeals hearings by RAT.

In addition, the recruitment of a panel of presenting officers by ORAC to supplement its own presenting team in servicing appeal hearings has enabled RAT to almost double the number of appeal hearings being scheduled. These changes will help to further improve appeal processing timetables.

All of this work is undertaken in the context of increasing levels of abuse of the asylum process and the growing complexity of cases from a mix of over 100 countries, such as Nigeria, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As I have said previously, the vast majority of applicants do not possess any identity documentation on arrival in the State. This is despite the fact that many indicate they have travelled by air, which would have required identity documentation at the point of departure. This is but one of the many abuses evident in our asylum process today.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Looking to the future, the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2008. which is currently before the House, sets out a legislative framework for the management of inward migration to Ireland and represents a comprehensive overhaul of the State’s immigration and protection laws. The enactment of the Bill will be a key measure for achieving efficiencies in the asylum applications processing system itself, for establishing a more effective and streamlined removal process and for tackling abuses which the asylum and immigration systems have [353]to contend with, including apparent abuses of the judicial review system. The Bill provides for the subsuming of ORAC into the Department and the introduction of a single application procedure for the investigation of all grounds, including protection grounds, put forward by applicants for protection. This new integrated process will bring the State into line with processes in other EU states.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  At the outset I accept that ORAC and RAT have dramatically improved the processing of applications. Is it not the case that we have approximately 7,000 asylum seekers in the system currently, with the number varying between 7,000 and 8,000?

The Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, have indicated that a significant part of the delay is the judicial review element. Will the Minister sit down and have a cup of coffee with the President of the High Court and propose to him the introduction of a special arrangement for the month of September to process the outstanding cases before the courts regarding judicial review? There are approximately 700 before the courts and if 15 High Court judges sat during September, the backlog would be virtually cleared.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  It is not for me to dictate to the President of the High Court the allocation of judicial resources, which is a matter for him.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  I did not ask the Minister to dictate anything to him. Will he sit down and have a cup of coffee with the President of the High Court?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Allow the Minister to proceed.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  The President of the High Court has allocated two additional judges since the start of 2009 to the asylum list, so there are four judges now dealing with these cases. I welcome the Deputy’s complimentary words regarding ORAC and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal.

Some 90% of asylum applications are ultimately seen to be unfounded and a third of those people claiming asylum reveal an immigration history in the UK. There are some very dramatic figures. The total number since 1992 which have claimed asylum is over 81,000, with a peak figure of 11,600 in 2002. That number is now much lower and in 2008 it was 3,800. To date in 2009, there have been 794 applications. We are catching up on the backlog. The average monthly application figure to the end of 2003 was between 830 and 840 and more recently, in January, it was 254. There has been a decrease in the number of applications, which suggests that many asylum seekers were coming for economic rather than asylum reasons.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  I am disappointed the Minister is not prepared to discuss this matter with the President of the High Court. A substantial part of the delay in the Department processing asylum applications results from delays in processing leave to remain applications. While I accept that the latter are complex, based on the current rate of processing it would take approximately five years to clear the existing backlog of such applications. Is the Minister of the view that this is unacceptable, particularly in light of the fact that €800 per week is spent on the court, accommodation, processing and deportation costs of each asylum applicant? Would it not make sense to allocate additional resources to process the leave to remain applications to which I refer in order that people who are eligible for refugee status in this country will be granted it as quickly as possible and that those who are deemed not to be eligible will be returned to their home countries as soon as possible?

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  Substantial resources have been already allocated in respect of this area.

[354]Deputy Denis Naughten:  Five years is a long time.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  The main reason behind the delays in people’s applications being processed is because there are many hurdles which must be must traversed before finality is achieved. As soon as the relevant Bill, Committee Stage of which is complete and which, I hope, will soon reach Report Stage, is passed, there will be a much more streamlined application process in place.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  Such a process will not be of assistance in clearing the backlog.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  Under the new process, there will be less scope for people to go before the courts seeking judicial reviews. A major difficulty is that review after review can take place and obviously people must be accommodated. The representative of the UNHCR in Ireland has indicated that the legislation to which I refer is model legislation. The representative also stated that our existing system is a model system but that he is looking forward to the passage of the legislation in any event.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  We are replacing one model with another.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  This matter will be fast-tracked when the complicated legislation to which I refer has been passed.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  The new system will not clear the existing backlog.

  70.  Deputy Jan O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the progress made in the Garda investigation into the murder of a person (details supplied) in Limerick on 9 April 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15586/09]

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  The killing of Roy Collins is deplored by all right-thinking people and our sympathy is with his family and friends. The killing remains under active investigation by An Garda Síochána in Limerick, with assistance being provided, as required, by Garda national support services. A number of persons have been arrested and detained in the course of the investigation. One person has been charged in connection with this killing and the House will appreciate that consequently I am greatly constrained in what I can say about the specific incident. An Garda Síochána is in ongoing contact with the family of the deceased.

Considerable Garda resources within the Limerick Garda division are targeted at disrupting the activities of the criminal groupings. The regional support unit carries out armed patrols and other units, such as the emergency response unit and the units of national support services are available.

We cannot allow organised criminal gangs to attempt to undermine the criminal justice system. Such behaviour demands a response from the State and such a response will be forthcoming. The publication of the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Bill last week will strengthen the ability of An Garda Síochána to bring gang members before the courts and offer evidence.

In addition, I have indicated that I am working on a range of other measures to combat intimidation by criminal gangs. These measures include: greater use of the Special Criminal Court; creating new offences of membership of and directing a criminal organisation; making [355]these offences scheduled offences as regards the Special Criminal Court; simplifying the procedures relating to extension of time for questioning of suspects; and increasing the penalties for intimidation of a witness or juror. I expect to submit proposals in this regard to the Government for its approval in the coming weeks.

Deputy Jan O’Sullivan:  I thank the Minister for his reply and welcome the progress that has been made in respect of this matter. I accept that the Minister is not in a position to comment directly on the case in question. There is absolute abhorrence among the people of Limerick regarding the circumstances and background relating to this crime. In light of the Minister’s reply to an earlier question tabled by Deputy Rabbitte in respect of recently announced cutbacks, will the Garda presence in Limerick remain at current levels?

It is clear that the family of the late Mr. Collins has been targeted. In that context, is the Minister carrying out a review in respect of the protection of people who are so targeted? I accept that intensive Garda activity is required when it comes to protecting families that are at risk of attack. Can the Minister give a timeframe for the other measures that will be brought to Cabinet, particularly the offence of directing and belonging to a criminal gang? People expected a quicker response following the murder of Shane Geoghegan, particularly with regard to covert surveillance legislation, which has taken a long time to publish. We need an urgent response. What is the timeframe for these measures?

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  I hope to go to Government on the other measures soon. I welcome the support of Members of the House, particularly on the necessity for the use of these special arrangements. It must be said the courts in Limerick have been successful in gaining prosecutions because, thankfully, people have come forward. The success rate of prosecutions for gangland crime is better in Limerick than anywhere else.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  The rate is down overall.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  Having said that, I believe, as does the House, that recent events, not least the murders of Shane Geoghegan and Roy Collins, were an affront to society and to those decent people who were prepared to come forward to give evidence. The State must respond and that is why we are fast-tracking surveillance legislation in the wake of the murder of Shane Geoghegan and the recent murders in the North.

It is not simple legislation because there are significant issues related to privacy and private property, as outlined in the Constitution. That balance must be struck and to be fair to the Attorney General and his staff, we have succeeded, given that it is subject to judicial oversight and authorisation.

There are currently 625 gardaí in Limerick, an increase in the last 18 months of 100. There are 80 gardaí specifically earmarked for certain troubled areas in Limerick. Limerick is one of the most, if not the most, policed areas in the State. The numbers will be kept as high as possible and I do not envisage those numbers being reduced as long as this affront to Irish society exists.

Deputy Kieran O’Donnell:  The people of Limerick are outraged about what happened to Roy Collins a little over six months after the murder of Shane Geoghegan. The Minister has stated that this is an affront to the people but when will he bring the Criminal Justice (surveillance) Bill before the House for debate? It has been published, which Fine Gael welcomes, but it must be debated, enacted and fully implemented.

The Minister mentioned making membership of a criminal gang and offence, something I have long called for. When will legislation be introduced to allow for that? The gardaí in [356]Limerick are doing great work but we want to put measures in place to further enable them to prevent any further deaths like those of Roy Collins and Shane Geoghegan.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  The legislation will be taken next week or the week after that. There is a convention that we must allow for a two week time lag, as the Opposition always reminds us. I would like to introduce the legislation next week but people must have an opportunity to look at the implications of the Bill.

Deputy Michael D’Arcy:  Months have passed since the murder.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  It is complex legislation.

Deputy Kieran O’Donnell:  The murder of Shane Geoghegan took place five months ago. We expected the Bill in the House before this.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  The Government approved the Bill, subject to some minor drafting, before the murder of Roy Collins.

With regard to the additional measures, I believed, after consultation with the Attorney General, my Department, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Defence, Deputy O’Dea, they were necessary in view of what has happened in recent weeks. I strongly suggest, in the context of potentially moving gangland offences into the Special Criminal Court, that Deputies on all sides of the House give us their information relating to the issue of intimidation of jurors and witnesses. Obviously, under the Constitution we must be extremely careful about deviating from the use of ordinary courts. Empirical evidence to date shows that the courts in Limerick have been reasonably successful, indeed more successful than those in some other areas, in gaining convictions. However, recent events have, in my view, crossed the line and the Oireachtas must respond. It is not a decision we should take lightly but if there are people——

Deputy Kieran O’Donnell:  When will the Minister bring those measures before the House?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Deputy O’Donnell, please allow me to chair the proceedings. I wish to allow two other Deputies to put their questions, although we are over time.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  If there are people who are in fear of intimidation, and I understand from the Garda, the Minister, Deputy O’Dea, and others that there is intimidation of witnesses and jurors, particularly in the context of recent events, and even though we recently changed the legislation relating to the issue of intimidation of witnesses, I am prepared to increase the penalties to more than ten years. That is an important signal. I hope to bring those measures before the Government for approval within weeks.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  The Minister asked for information about witness intimidation. I will supply information to him on such a case. The person felt he was coerced to give evidence; he felt he had no other choice. He gave evidence and was posted out of the country in the witness protection programme at very great cost to himself and his family. He is back in the jurisdiction and feels that he is not protected and safe. He believes it has not worked as it ought. I will furnish that information to the Minister after Question Time, in the hope that he will treat it with a little more discretion and confidence than he treated the last information I gave him.

What caused the change of heart in the Department regarding the Garda Síochána (Powers of Surveillance) Bill 2007? I published the Bill in November 2007, and the Minister’s predecessor said, in a memorable phrase, that all it would do is “alert the criminals to Garda investigative techniques”. That seemed to indicate that both the Department and the Garda Síochána [357]were opposed to evidence gathered in that fashion being made admissible in court. It appears to have taken the murder of Shane Geoghegan and the recent tragedy that befell the Collins family to change the mindset. Will the Minister explain why they have come around to the point of view that the principles I set out in that Bill are what is required?

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  It is the case that there was a change of view in the Garda Síochána, and that long predated the murders of Shane Geoghegan and Mr. Collins. It has to be accepted that for decades the Garda has been using electronic surveillance. Obviously, it is being used to a certain extent without statutory authority. Gardaí have been limited in what they can do given the prohibition in the Constitution relating to the right to private property and the issue of privacy. From that point of view the Garda approached the Department a considerable time ago and stated that it wished to move on this. The Garda wished to have statutory footing to ensure gardaí were not operating contrary to the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Equally, the Garda came to the view that there were cases emerging where it might be necessary to use this material as evidence in court. Previously, as the material was, in effect, covert and not regulated and legalised, the Garda could not use it as evidence. Now the Garda will have the option, particularly in the context of gangland crime, to use this as necessary. However, in certain circumstances gardaí might decide not to proffer this as evidence and the Director of Public Prosecutions ultimately might not use it in support of a case.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  The Minister speaks about a change of mind or heart and change of policy on the part of the Garda Síochána. I wish to ask him about a change of mind and policy on the part of the Government. As recently as last November, following the murder of Shane Geoghegan, the Taoiseach was questioned on the matter. He indicated that there were no plans to introduce legislation on gangland crime. When asked in particular about section 72 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006, relating to the conviction of a person for gang membership, the Taoiseach said the legal advice to the Government was that this was inoperable and perhaps unconstitutional. However, the Minister promised such legislation last week. Why the change? Has he taken legal advice on the matter?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  A final reply from the Minister.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  Again, there is no change of heart with regard to any of those matters. What we are examining more intensely is the issue of directing a criminal organisation, which is not covered in existing legislation, and to mirror, in effect, the offences that were introduced after 1998 and the Omagh bombing. That is what we propose to do. There has been a ratcheting up of attacks on and intimidation of people, particularly in the Limerick area, and we must respond to that. Obviously, it is an evolving situation.

The Taoiseach and I, in the aftermath of the Shane Geoghegan killing, were referring to the issue of opinion evidence. While members of the Deputy’s party were proposing, quite rightly, that this should be used, I asked the Attorney General to examine the issue again. It had previously been examined in 2006 by the previous Attorney General. The current Attorney General confirmed the view that the courts use opinion evidence very sparingly and require significant corroborative evidence. Hopefully, the passing of the proposed legislation before the summer recess, which I expect the Opposition to facilitate, would be an important tool in adding to that corroborative evidence in the context of opinion evidence subsequently used.

  71.  Deputy Seán Barrett    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    his views [358]on the composition of juries; if he plans to introduce legislative reform in this area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14331/09]

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  The Law Reform Commission has included a review of the law on juries in its “Third Programme of Law Reform 2008-2014”. The Government will, of course, be considering in due course the recommendations made by the commission, including those relating to the composition of juries. Part 6 of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2008 has already made a number of amendments to the Juries Act 1976 which affect the composition of juries. The most important change was the abolition of the upper age limit of 70 years for eligibility to serve on a jury. A person called for jury service remains entitled to be excused from service where he or she is over the age of 65 years.

Another important change is contained in the First Schedule to the Juries Act. The category of “incapable person” defined as being “a person who because of insufficient capacity to read, deafness or other permanent infirmity is unfit to serve on a jury” has been replaced by a category of “other persons” defined in more disability-friendly terms.

Section 55 amends section 11 of the Juries Act. The effect of this amendment is to provide an option exercisable by a county registrar to form panels for the Central Criminal Court and Circuit Court separately or to form one panel for both courts. This will facilitate the operation of the new Criminal Courts of Justice which will have a single jury assembly area and should also facilitate sittings of the Central Criminal Court which now sits regularly outside of Dublin. An amendment to section 12 which allows a person selected as a juror to be called to a place or reception area other than a court will also facilitate the operation of the new complex beside Heuston Station. Sections 60 to 63 of the Act amend sections 34 to 37 of the Juries Act by increasing tenfold the amount which may be levied by way of a fine for offences under the Juries Act.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  Having mentioned Special Criminal Courts and non-jury courts, it is timely to remind the House of the fundamental role played by juries and jurors in the criminal justice system.

Is the Minister concerned at the large numbers of professionals who are excluded from jury service and are thereby disconnected from the administration of justice? For example, why are vets, airline pilots, nurses and dentists excluded from jury service? Does the Minister believe juries are therefore representative of the community? Perhaps it is time we considered reforming the jury system to ensure juries both reflect and represent society as a whole.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  I would not be averse to having a look again at the composition of juries but certain occupations have been excluded because of the nature of their work. I am prepared to consider that issue in the context of any amendments but I would not like it to hold up the proposals in connection with gangland crime and some other issues to which I referred.

One measure we will consider in the context of gangland crime and the intimidation of witnesses and jurors is to increase the penalty from the existing ten years to approximately 15 years. That is an important statement by this House to the wider community that the intimidation of a witness would be akin to the most serious offences that are punishable in the criminal courts.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh:  I am interested in the reply the Minister gave at the outset. I seek clarification as to whether the recent changes allow for people who are profoundly deaf to serve on juries. What category of person is currently excluded and what are the reasons for [359]such? Has any person been refused permission to serve on a jury since the changes were introduced to jury service last year?

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  The change related only to the type of language used in the legislation. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has been refused. I do not have any information on file in that regard. The new wording makes no specific reference to a particular disability, rather it refers to non-specific permanent infirmity, which would render it impracticable for persons to perform jury duty. Such designation would apply equally to persons with or without a disability.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  On the question of juries, will the Minister clarify — in so far as he has thought it out — whether certain scheduled offences will be a matter for the criminal courts only, which do not have juries, or is he addressing the issue of witness intimidation? I am not sure what is the case from the package the Minister announced to accompany the surveillance Bill.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  We are considering the scheduling of new offences of directing a criminal gang and membership of a criminal gang. Under the 2006 legislation there is the existing offence of participation in a criminal gang. It is the intention — subject to legal advice — to link that in some way to the Special Criminal Court, given that there is strong anecdotal evidence on the intimidation of witnesses, and the fear of witnesses, especially in the context of the murder of Roy Collins. We are considering the matter and I have already had significant meetings with the Garda Commissioner, the Secretary General of my Department and the Attorney General. We had a two-hour meeting yesterday to see how we can proceed. A further meeting of officials from all of those agencies will take place in the coming days to bring forward some of the changes I indicated are necessary in the aftermath of recent events.

  72.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    his policy in respect of the Equality Authority; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14376/09]

  76.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he will confirm that the planned decentralisation of staff of the Equality Authority has been cancelled; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14246/09]

  99.  Deputy Arthur Morgan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if, further to Parliamentary Question No. 539 of 24 March 2009, he will confirm the statement (details supplied) that an independent review of the Equality Authority’s budget will be conducted; if so the make-up, form and timeframe of that review; if he will offer a guarantee that the 43% budget cut will be reversed and the extent to which it will be reversed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14196/09]

  110.  Deputy Joe Costello    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if, in regard to the speech (details supplied) he will outline those changes to the Equality Authority that have been reversed; the person by whom the review of funding of the Equality Authority will be carried out; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15585/09]

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  I propose to take Questions Nos. 72, 76, 99 and 110 together.

I am pleased to indicate that in launching its new strategic plan on 4 April 2009 for the period 2009 to 2011 entitled, Equality for All in a Time of Change, the Equality Authority [360]fully reaffirmed its determination to continue its important work, while fully acknowledging the changed financial circumstances in which all public bodies operate. I extended my support for the policy contained in the strategic plan when I met the authority on the day of the launch of its plan. The plan highlights the positive contribution that an environment free from discrimination can make to competitiveness and economic recovery. The plan obliges the authority to participate actively in initiatives to promote policy for economic development and competitiveness through enhanced diversity and equality.

For the information of the House I can also state that, notwithstanding the general moratorium on the filling of public service vacancies, the recruitment of a new CEO for the authority is going ahead under the auspices of a public competition being organised by the Public Appointments Service. I am advised that there is a considerable level of interest in the post and therefore it will be some weeks yet before a candidate is selected for appointment under the normal statutory procedures.

As I previously indicated to the House, I recently agreed in principle to a request from the chair of the Equality Authority to suspend the transfer of staff from Dublin to Roscrea on the grounds of hardship. I asked my officials to work out the details on a case-by-case basis with the acting chief executive officer of the authority and to review the situation again in 2011 when other aspects of the wider decentralisation programme are due to be reviewed. Pending that review there will be no further increase in the number of staff in the Roscrea office of the authority, which will be 16.

The special group on public service numbers and expenditure programme will undertake an independent analysis of the position relating to the budget, efficiencies and capacity of the Equality Authority to independently and effectively fulfil its statutory functions. There is no predetermined outcome to that review. I expect the group to take the authority’s allocation in 2008 as its starting point given the significant changes that have taken place in the authority in the past 12 months.

Again, as I previously stated in the House, the Government is fully committed to the equality agenda and the ongoing work of the Equality Authority. Since it became fully operational in 1999 more than €45 million has been provided by the State for the activities of the Equality Authority alone. At least another €30 million was provided to other bodies — the Equality Tribunal and the Human Rights Commission — that have been involved in equality related issues in the past six to seven years.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  Will the Minister confirm whether the reply he just gave to the House is official Government policy or is it his policy on the issue? Was his colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, telling the truth at the recent Green Party conference in March when he stated he had succeeded in reversing the cuts to the Equality Authority, and that he had succeeded also in halting the decentralisation of the headquarters of the authority to Roscrea in County Tipperary? Is the Green Party now deciding policy in this issue or is the Minister, Deputy Gormley, being less than frank with the truth?

In respect of the Roscrea situation, are we now going to have two Equality Authority offices, the Minister, Deputy Gormley’s rump in Dublin, which he calls the headquarters and the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern’s decentralised offices in Roscrea? This shambles is of the Minister’s making and the sooner it is sorted the better.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  This is not a shambles. It was originally agreed that the majority of the Equality Authority would decentralise to Roscrea and that a core staff would remain in [361]Dublin. The Government made the decision in the context of the tightening budgetary situation last year that we would, in effect, suspend decentralisation for the majority of the projects, especially in those areas where no contracts had been agreed for the construction of buildings.

There were three separate categories. Some were ready to go to contract or contracts were more or less finalised. In the case of others, interim arrangements were in place, such as the Equality Authority, where people had already decentralised to Roscrea and were in situ there — a number of agencies had a dual location. There were others that had not gone to contract and in respect of which people were not in temporary accommodation. The Government decided these would no longer go ahead. With regard to the Equality Authority, there were a number of people in Roscrea and a number in Dublin. There is no difference of opinion between myself and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. The fact is——

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  He said the cuts were reversed and that he had succeeded.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  ——that there are 16 people in Roscrea at present and approximately 19 in Dublin. A number of the latter bilocate. That was part of their contract long before there was any row about the Equality Authority.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, said he had twisted the arm of the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and that the latter had caved in.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  Quite a number of senior personnel — one or two have already purchased houses in Roscrea — are bilocating between the two locations.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  Bilocating, God almighty, I cannot get over this. There are now two equality authorities. The Minister tried to destroy the one we had and now has created two. I suppose he will be able to cycle to the one in Dublin but will have to drive to Roscrea. I never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life.

Can I ask my question again? The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, claims the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform reversed the cuts to the budget of the Equality Authority. Is this true or false? When the latter gutted the Equality Authority and drove out the chief executive in an act of vindictiveness, did he reverse his decision?

I note the Minister is to recruit a new CEO. I suppose that will take a while because he will have to be sure this one is safe. If he ever recruits a CEO who is willing to discharge his functions, he will probably want to drive him out again.

Where is the Deloitte audit of effectiveness and value for money in the Equality Authority? Why is the Minister sitting on it and why will he not publish it? Why will he not make it available to us? Will he make it available to an bord snip nua before any decision is made? For how long will the bilocation to which the Minister refers take place? For how long will we have a gutted Equality Authority in Dublin and 16 people located in Roscrea?

Is it any wonder public spending in this country is as it is? It is an unbelievable mess and the Minister and his colleague, Deputy Gormley, have made it worse.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  The issue of having two locations — Roscrea and Dublin — predated any row, any resignation of the——

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  What row? With whom?

[362]Deputy Charles Flanagan:  Was it a row with the Green Party?

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  ——CEO.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  Deputy Gormley is a pussycat.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  What I state is absolutely the case; the decision predated the——

(Interruptions).

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Please allow the Minister to reply.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  It was part of the employment contract of a number of people in senior management that they would bilocate between Roscrea and Dublin. That was part of the decision made by the Government when it suspended the decentralisation programme overall. There is absolutely no difference between the Greens and Fianna Fáil in respect of this matter.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, said he had reversed the decision and had succeeded in twisting the arm of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  We have the one commitment in regard to equality and it speaks for itself. Since 1999, we have invested €45 million in the Equality Authority. Deputy Rabbitte spoke about an equality authority when in Government but did nothing about it.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  I ask Deputy Rabbitte to be brief. I want to allow Deputy Ó Snodaigh to ask a final question.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  I apologise to Deputy Ó Snodaigh but this is my fourth attempt to obtain a response. Will the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform state whether the statement by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the effect that he persuaded him to reverse the cuts in respect of the Equality Authority is true or not?

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  That is the net issue.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  The budget for 2009 is the same as was indicated in the last set of Estimates and it amounts to €3.3 million. In the context of the expenditure review, we have asked those involved to examine again the issue of the Equality Authority from the starting point of 2008, which was before any cuts were made for 2009.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  Therefore, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was codding us and the members of his party and there is no basis for the remarks by members of the Green Party.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  I ask Deputy Rabbitte to allow Deputy Ó Snodaigh to contribute.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  The decision on whether the authority receives more or less money will be made by the Government in the aftermath of the review.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh:  Is the Minister aware that the Vice President of the European Court of Human Rights recently criticised Ireland for cutting the budget of the Equality Auth[363]ority so drastically? Last year the Government made great play of presenting a report to the UN Human Rights Committee, of which Judge Elizabeth Palm was a member.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  When I entered office, I made a decision, particularly in the context of a contracting Exchequer position, that all the areas that were not crime-related had to take a significant hit in view of the fact that I wanted to increase the resources for Operation Anvil and for the Criminal Assets Bureau. I did so to retain the number of gardaí because that is my first priority. I regret other areas in the Department must be subject to a significant cut but that is the position given the restricted resources we now have and will have in the years ahead.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, says he is calling the shots on this.

Deputy Paul Kehoe:  Ministerless Gormley.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  I have been following closely the questions tabled by Deputy Charles Flanagan in respect of the issuing of a road haulier’s licence to a convicted drug trafficker. As the Taoiseach is aware, one of the fundamental issues is that the rule of law should apply to everybody and be seen to apply. In what circumstances was a road haulier’s licence allocated to a convicted drug trafficker, thus allowing him to transport drugs into and around this country? Will the Taoiseach indicate the conditions that apply? One of the fundamental requirements when obtaining a road haulier’s licence is that the applicant be of good repute.

The Taoiseach:  I understand that the Minister has answered parliamentary questions on this matter and alluded to the fact that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is now involved in reviewing the case. As the Deputy knows, when this matter was brought to the attention of the Minister for Transport just before last weekend, he asked that a review of the original file be sought from the Department’s office in Loughrea. That was issued yesterday evening. Unfortunately, until such time as he completes his review and receives clarification from the Office of the Attorney General on the legal issues, he will not be in a position to comment further on the matter. It is being examined by both the Minister and the commission, which has an independent remit.

Deputy Paul Kehoe:  So he can do what he likes.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  One of the things that is wrong in the House is that the Minister cannot comment on the matter. Everybody else is doing so.

This appears to be a very strange case. The normal circumstances that apply are such that when one applies for a road haulier’s licence to the Department of Transport, the Department asks the Garda for what is essentially a character reference. The applications are lodged by the applicants themselves. They are not required to state everything about their lives. The unusual point in the case in question is that when the Garda responded to the Department, it was able to point out a number of indiscretions and convictions for charges that applied in England, where the applicant was located. It is clear the information was on the Garda file. Why was no reference made to the fact that the applicant was convicted for the possession of cannabis and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment? Why was this not in the reference for the Department of Transport, bearing in mind the stipulation that one be of good repute?

Irrespective of the fact that the case is now being reviewed, the Taoiseach is only too well aware of the implications of the trafficking of vast quantities of drugs into this country and of gangland warfare, which arises as a consequence. He is aware of the money that accrues from [364]trafficking drugs, the havoc drugs cause among the young and of the tragedies that happen every day. Given the factual information that is now in the public domain, which is on record here and in Britain, does the Taoiseach consider the applicant in question to be of good repute?

Despite the fact that the Minister for Transport has asked the Attorney General to review the file, is it not entirely within the regulations of the Department of Transport and a Government principle that the law apply and be seen to apply to everybody, as Deputy Flanagan pointed out on numerous occasions? Is it not possible for that law to be seen to apply across the board, with this licence revoked forthwith, and for the Taoiseach to state that convicted drug traffickers are not persons of good repute and are not entitled to road hauliers’ licences? The Taoiseach should say that now and let us get on with it. It is a strange case.

The Taoiseach:  An issue here arose which is being investigated by the relevant authorities — the Garda. The Minister asked for the file, and it arrived yesterday evening. Obviously, he will look at that. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is looking at it and we must go through that process.

Clearly, if whatever arises out of it — whatever lessons are to be learned whereby a person who, it seems, was convicted of a drugs offence and was in a position to obtain a haulier’s licence without that coming to the attention, presumably, of those who were administering the licensing regime in the Department — requires a change of arrangement so that this could not happen again, then obviously that is the principle of accountability we want to see. We must get a clear view of the facts in terms of how this happened, who dealt with it, what issues arose and why certain matters came to their attention.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  The facts are on the file in the Department of Transport.

The Taoiseach:  Having looked at the file, one then must find out how it happened. We set up in recent legislation a Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission to ensure that there was an independent assessment of such matters and to ensure public confidence that they were being looked at in a proper and appropriate way.

There is no difference between myself and the Deputy on the matter. Obviously, we want to get to the bottom of this quickly and ascertain what lessons are to be learned for the future and what policy or, indeed, legislative changes arise out of it so we can proceed to close off any gaps in information that may have arisen in this case which enabled this person to get a licence. People feel, given his convictions, that many questions certainly should have been raised before he got it.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  The Taoiseach will have studied the assessment made by the International Monetary Fund which concludes that Ireland will pay a higher price to re-stablise its banks than any other country and that the cost to the Irish taxpayer may be €24 billion, the biggest Government bail out of banks of any developed country. He will also have seen the opinion piece written by Professor Krugman in the New York Times this week in which he warns other countries against following the Irish Government’s example on the banks, which he described as an exercise in sacrificing the economy in order to save the banks.

The Taoiseach will also have seen the opinion from 20 economists from a wide range of economic opinion and perspectives, and differing ideological standpoints, in which they argued that the game is up for the Irish banks and there is now an inevitability that the Government will have to nationalise them at least temporarily.

Does the Taoiseach agree with the assessment of the International Monetary Fund that our banking situation, in terms of the Government bailout, is now the worst in the developed [365]world? Does he consider it a damning verdict on his Government’s handling of the banking situation? Does he accept the point has been reached where it is necessary to nationalise the banks, at least temporarily, and what consideration has the Government given to that matter?

The Taoiseach:  On the first point Deputy Gilmore raised, as it happens the figures quoted in the newspapers this morning suggesting potential loss rates on foot of supports to the banking industry for Ireland do not appear in the IMF’s final global financial stability report. I understand there was a figure in an earlier draft which the IMF did not use in the end. These figures should not be relied on as a measure of the likely cost for Ireland or any other country, although, from the point of view of the IMF, they may well be of use in calculating financial strains at a global level. The particular figures appear to be based on more or less mechanical application of various modelling tools, with a heavy reliance on technical assumptions. They do not represent the outcome of a specific examination of Irish banks’ assets such has been carried out on behalf of the Financial Regulator by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The principal reason the IMF approach gives a relatively high figure for Ireland is that our bank guarantee arrangement is broader ranging than that in other countries and our financial sector is larger relative to the economy. Obviously, we are open at all times to discussion with international institutions about technical assumptions they apply to the Irish case, but in the current case we are far from convinced that there is a significant new or additional informational value in the figures presented from a national point of view.

I understand from media reports that, following contacts with the UK authorities, figures on the UK in the final report have also been amended.

On what Professor Krugman or any other eminent economist or number of economists might be saying about the banking system, we are very much of the view that we stand ready to assist in relation to financial institutions of systemic importance. The question of impaired assets and how one deals with assets in this situation will be in line with the EU guidelines in these matters. The tool kit available to us is the same as that available to other countries.

As the Deputy will be aware, we have already provided support on the basis of getting a return for the taxpayers’ money that we have invested in preference shares thus far. The Minister for Finance has indicated that, in the event of there being any further requirement for us to invest in any banks of systemic importance, we would obviously look to ordinary shares in the future.

It is also important to recognise the value that the market disciplines provide in terms of how we are viewed internationally in the banking system in the absence of a total nationalisation of the entire banking system in Ireland, and how that would be seen internationally. We have already seen the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank and a substantial shareholding taken by the Government — by the public — in Bank of Ireland and soon in Allied Irish Banks as well.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  That answer is a mixture of clutching at straws and denial. No matter how the Taoiseach spins this, the IMF has used the same methodology in looking at the banking situation across all of the countries in the developed world and it has come to the conclusion that the Irish bailout will be the most expensive. Clutching at straws by saying that this or that figure is out or was in an earlier draft is neither here nor there.

We have moved from a situation where on 30 September the Taoiseach told us that the guarantee would avoid having to nationalise a bank or having to put money into any bank through a succession of attempts to deal with the banking situation. A recapitalisation plan was announced before Christmas which did not happen. A very short time prior to the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank the Minister was stating that there would not be a nationalisation. Two banks have been recapitalised with €7 billion already and one of those banks now states [366]that it needs an extra €1.5 billion. On top of that, the Taoiseach has stated that the bad debts of the banks must now be all assembled in what is called the national asset management agency. These are anything but national assets. This is “an bord bail out” with a body being set up to assemble all of these bad debts.

Meanwhile, opinion from a range of sources is saying to the Taoiseach that the game is up and the banks in this country will have to be nationalised. People have expressed differing opinions about the way in which the banks are to be nationalised — whether it should be a temporary nationalisation with them being resold at another stage or whether, for example, shares would be put into a trust and protected so that there could be some possibility of recovery down the line.

It seems we are staring at the prospect of the nationalisation of the banks and I am trying to establish whether the Government will nationalise them. Has the Government made a decision on this, or will it be one Government policy today and another in two or three weeks’ time, as we have repeatedly found regarding the banks?

The Taoiseach:  With respect, I reject Deputy Gilmore’s contention. He spoke about the game being up; we are not playing any game. We are in the serious business of trying to maintain financial stability in the State, against a background in which far stronger economies than ours are having to contend with the same mammoth task.

Deputy Gilmore continues to use populist phrases such as “bail-outs”.

Deputy Joan Burton:  What is it then?

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  That is the term the IMF used.

The Taoiseach:  I want to answer the question. We are interested in protecting the maximum number of jobs in the economy. If I have to say so once, twice or three times to Deputy Gilmore, unless we have a functioning banking system it is not possible to do that.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  That is correct.

The Taoiseach:  The Labour Party’s position was to reject the State guarantee, an action which would have brought about the implosion of the banking system.

Deputy Joan Burton:  That is not the case.

Deputy Seán Sherlock:  We were right.

The Taoiseach:  The Labour Party is against capitalisation and every other action because it wants to keep playing the populist game.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  No, that is not the case.

The Taoiseach:  That is the Labour Party’s game. It is getting much political kudos for it and hoping it will get it to the far side of June.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  It is time the Taoiseach made up his mind.

The Taoiseach:  The Government is involved in a more serious business. Like every other government, we will do whatever is necessary to maintain financial stability.

[367]Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  The Government is not like any other, it is worse than any other government.

The Taoiseach:  We are not worse than any other government despite the Deputy’s contention.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  Yes it is. That is what the IMF said.

The Taoiseach:  Deputy Gilmore has quoted from a draft report but did not see the final report. When he saw the draft, he got his finance spokesperson to put out her statement in the morning. He then decided to come in here to have an argument about something that is not even in the final report.

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  That was irresponsible.

Deputy Dick Roche:  The Deputy is encouraged by that kind of action.

Deputy Joan Burton:  All the Government does is close down debate so that no one can ask questions about the banks.

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  The Labour Party will close down the country and wreck it if it goes on like this.

Deputy Thomas Byrne:  We have not seen much from the Labour Party yet.

Deputy Emmet Stagg:  We will never catch up with the damage Fianna Fáil has done to the country.

  1.  Deputy Enda Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department during February 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9661/09]

  2.  Deputy Eamon Gilmore    asked the Taoiseach    the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department during the first two months of 2009; the way this compares with the same period in each year going back to 2002; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10885/09]

  3.  Deputy Enda Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    the number of freedom of information requests which were processed by his Department during 2009; the number which have been acceded to; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15536/09]

The Taoiseach:  I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

A total of 28 freedom of information requests have been received to date in my Department in 2009. Of these, 15 were granted and four were part granted. Four requests are still being processed. As regards the other figures requested by the Deputies, I will circulate a table in the Official Report.

[368]All freedom of information requests received in the Department of the Taoiseach are processed by statutory designated officials in accordance with the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003. In accordance with the Acts, I have no role in processing individual applications.

Year 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Jan 20 21 1 2 9 14 4 8
Feb 12 29 8 3 1 1 5 14

  4 o’clock

Deputy Richard Bruton:  Can the Taoiseach credibly say that policy decisions are being made in a better fashion since the Government destroyed the Freedom of Information Act in 2002 when it removed the opportunity for scrutiny of government decisions at the time, and shortly after, they were taken? Does the Taoiseach still believe that the smothering of public discussion on many important decisions has improved decision-making? Will he agree that we would be much better off if we had proper freedom of information disclosure in respect of decisions such as those on decentralisation?

Decentralisation was a disastrous decision which was ill-thought at the time. We would also be much better off if we had open discussions and information on the decisions concerning public sector benchmarking which were completely concealed. We would be much better off if we had open information about the failures of regulation in the banking system which we still do not know enough about.

An Ceann Comhairle:  This is all very interesting.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  It is indeed. It goes to the core of these questions which are about the restriction of freedom of information disclosures.

An Ceann Comhairle:  If I might tell the Deputy, this is a familiar theme. Questions relating to the Freedom of Information Act are in fact a matter for the line Minister, who happens to be the Minister for Finance. The questions the Taoiseach was asked relate to the requests received by his Department.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  The Ceann Comhairle will understand there is much interest in how the Taoiseach of the time handled the decentralisation decision, a decision taken without any strategic plan or consultation with the line Departments affected or even the wider public. The idea of freedom of information was to have a degree of openness in respect of decision-making but this has been smothered. Does the Taoiseach agree with me that we need to rethink that so that better decisions are made in these crucial areas of public policy?

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Taoiseach can help but it is a matter for the line Minister.

The Taoiseach:  The question is about the factual information to what requests under the Freedom of Information Acts my Department received. It does not relate to a debate on the merits, or demerits as Deputy Bruton would see it, of the Acts.

During my tenure as Minister for Finance, I widened the number of agencies that came under the Act’s remit. Hundreds of State organisations are now required to work under the legislation, more than was the case when it was first enacted. Any objective assessment has shown the type of information made available by the legislation compares more favourably than that released in other freedom of information regimes, including that of the United Kingdom. If there are particular policy issues that Deputy Bruton has a problem with, I am sure he will [369]find plenty of opportunities to air his views about them in other debates. However, I cannot help him on this particular question.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  I acknowledge the Taoiseach widened the Act’s remit when he was Minister for Finance. However, that is because the Government created 250 new agencies. This was not a great breakthrough in far-seeing openness.

Does the Taoiseach believe we would be better off if we knew what advice was given to Ministers on, say, handling the property bubble or decentralisation? Will he agree this would lead to a more realistic public debate?

An Ceann Comhairle:  That is way beyond the remit of the question.

The Taoiseach:  All I know is that if I had taken Deputy Bruton’s advice prior to the last election, we would be in an even worse economic situation now. He sought to increase the cost of housing by doing away with stamp duty.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  That is ridiculous. The Taoiseach is scraping the barrel at this stage.

The Taoiseach:  It is true. That was the central plank of his economic policy going into the 2007 general election.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  Not only does the Taoiseach know it was not——

The Taoiseach:  It was the central plank of Fine Gael’s policy. It was an effort to win over middle class urban Ireland.

Deputy Dermot Ahern:  Deputy Bruton has been caught out.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  No wonder the country is in the state it is, if that is as far as the Taoiseach’s economic insight goes.

The Taoiseach:  No, my economic insight goes much further than that. I am just pointing out how far the Deputy’s went on a particular occasion.

There were many agencies that predated the last Government and even the establishment of the Freedom of Information Act which were brought under the aegis of the legislation when I was Minister for Finance, including the Garda Síochána and others. It is not accurate to claim the widening of the legislation only related to those agencies or offices set up to develop public services in recent years. There were many well-known State organisations that predated the legislation which now fall under its remit.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  Is that correct about the Garda?

The Taoiseach:  No, the legislation does not apply to the Garda.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  The Taoiseach does not even know that the Garda are not subject to the freedom of information legislation.

Deputy Dick Roche:  The freedom of information legislation introduced by Deputy Bruton when he was in power was the most restrictive legislation ever placed on the Statute Book.

An Ceann Comhairle:  That may be the case Deputy Roche but all these questions are a matter for the Minister for Finance, as we all well know.

[370]Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  Will we have to submit a freedom of information request to the Taoiseach to find out who are the new Ministers of State? If we do, will we be charged a fee for it?

The Taoiseach:  I will abide by protocol and announce the Ministers of State after Question Time and before the Order of Business.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  I am relieved to hear that.

The Labour Party has two Private Members’ Bills on the Order Paper relating to freedom of information. One Bill proposes that the Freedom of Information Act should apply automatically to all public bodies unless there are compelling reasons for it not to, in other words, that the freedom of information process would apply automatically and the legislation would provide for exemptions, rather than the formula we have at present, whereby bodies must be added to the Freedom of Information Act.

The second Bill, in the name of Deputy Mary Upton, proposes that the number of years before State papers are transferred to the National Archives would be reduced from 30 to 15. Will the Taoiseach give favourable consideration to this idea?

An Ceann Comhairle:  These are questions for the line Minister unless the Taoiseach can be helpful to the Deputy.

The Taoiseach:  To be helpful to the Deputy, as always, we can look at the merits or demerits — the pros and cons — of the approach that has been suggested when the Private Members’ Bills are debated during Private Members’ time.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  The Information Commissioner has called for all new State bodies to come under the ambit of the Freedom of Information Act. Will this apply to the national asset management agency? Is it the intention of the Taoiseach that NAMA would come under the Freedom of Information Act in line with the Information Commissioner’s recommendation that all State bodies would do so on their establishment?

An Ceann Comhairle:  That question is appropriate to the Minister for Finance.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  With regard to another point the Information Commissioner has highlighted, namely, the poor record provision by a number of bodies that come under FOI, she instanced in particular Fingal County Council and its records in regard to Thornton Hall. Has the Department of the Taoiseach any specific role in ensuring record retention and information protection in advance of, or in the likelihood of, information being sought? Has it a role in ensuring this is retained carefully and responsibly in order that citizens can have access to critical information if and when the situation might present?

The Taoiseach:  I am not aware that my Department has any specific role wider than looking after its own records. It is a matter for each agency or body which comes under the remit of the freedom of information legislation to have the necessary people involved and designated to deal with any queries that arise under the legislation and in accordance with its terms. I am not aware there is a wider responsibility on my Department beyond that.

The question of what bodies could for the future be considered for freedom of information requests or what would be appropriate in that regard would be best addressed to the line Minister concerned.

[371]Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  With regard to the Taoiseach’s first reply, if, as he indicated, he has an uncertainty as to his Department’s role, will he undertake to establish if there is any responsible party or Department in regard to the information preservation which I have referred to as being highlighted by the Information Commissioner? As I said, she has instanced bad practice. What Department, if any, will take up on the Information Commissioner’s raising of this matter in order to ensure best practice? I expect the Department of the Taoiseach employs best practice. What steps can be taken to ensure all of those who come under the rigours of the Freedom of Information Act aspire to at least the same standards the Taoiseach would no doubt expect in his own Department?

An Ceann Comhairle:  That is a question for the Minister for Finance.

The Taoiseach:  All I can say in regard to the operation of the Act is that it would require a direct question to the Minister for Finance.

If an issue arose in the local authority system which the Information Commissioner felt was systemic, or if there was a problem getting the quality of information she felt should be available, it is a matter she would bring to attention in her annual reports for action by the Minister for Finance or whatever responsible Minster would be asked to look into the matter. The annual reporting mechanism by the Information Commissioner applies in respect of any specific complaints or ideas the Office of the Information Commissioner would have as to what would assist it in doing its job. The annual report is submitted to the Minister for Finance, who, I understand, would then have the obligation of taking up the matter with whatever responsible authority is involved.

  4.  Deputy Enda Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    the number of times the Cabinet Committee on Economic Renewal has met. [9662/09]

  5.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Taoiseach    when the Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion, Children and Integration last met. [9856/09]

  6.  Deputy Eamon Gilmore    asked the Taoiseach    the last occasion on which the Cabinet Committee on Economic Renewal met; and when the next meeting is due. [10886/09]

  7.  Deputy Eamon Gilmore    asked the Taoiseach    when the Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion, Children and Integration last met; and when the next meeting is due. [10887/09]

  8.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Taoiseach    the Cabinet sub-committees on which he sits. [13189/09]

  9.  Deputy Enda Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on the progress of the Cabinet committee which he chairs. [15540/09]

  10.  Deputy Enda Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    when the Cabinet Committee on Irish and the Gaeltacht will next meet. [15572/09]

The Taoiseach:  I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 10, inclusive, together.

I sit on the following Cabinet committees — European Affairs; Climate Change and Energy Security; Science, Technology and Innovation; Social Inclusion, Children and Integration; Health; Irish and the Gaeltacht; Economic Renewal; and Transforming Public Services.

[372]The Cabinet Committee on Economic Renewal has met six times since its establishment, most recently on 1 April 2009. The date of its next meeting has been scheduled for 13 May next.

The Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion, Children and Integration, which last met on 26 November 2008, covers an area which has seen considerable structural development aimed at enhancing co-operation across Departments. Consequently, much of the focus of joint work in the area of social policy and strategy is now comprehended in the daily operations of the integrated Offices for Children and Youth Affairs; Older Persons; Mental Health and Disability; and Integration. In addition, part of the considerations of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Renewal, relating to activation for employment purposes through training, upskilling and further education, is relevant to the social inclusion area. The next meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion, Children and Integration is provisionally scheduled for 20 May next.

The next meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Irish and the Gaeltacht has been provisionally set for 21 May 2009.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  Where did the concept of economic renewal go when the Government came to drawing up the budget strategy that was presented just six days after the last meeting of that committee? In the budget, there was only one reference to supporting jobs, which was an enterprise fund of €50 million in two years, at a time when the Government’s document was forecasting 250,000 jobs would be lost over those two years. The Taoiseach can work out the sums for himself. This represents a stimulus package of approximately €200 for every job being lost. Do we not need a completely separate arm to budgetary strategy that focuses on the investments in infrastructure we will need in future to get us out of this hole? Why did the budget not address that task? Fine Gael——

An Ceann Comhairle:  We cannot discuss the budget during this question.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  Either this is a meaningful process where we can discuss something of relevance to the country or else it is just a sham and we are wasting the Taoiseach’s time and our own.

An Ceann Comhairle:  We cannot discuss it now.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  I would like to have some opportunity. We are talking about an economic renewal committee which has important business to do. Within six days of the meeting of that committee, a budget emerged which bore no stamp of the work of that committee. Surely we have a right to ask the Taoiseach in respect of this——

An Ceann Comhairle:  It is a different issue.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  ——-particularly at a time when other parties made their effort. We put forward our proposals for infrastructure investment that would not have relied on Exchequer funding.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Perhaps the Taoiseach can be helpful to the Deputy.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  We are all interested in some process of Dáil reform that at least allows us some sort of meaningful exchange in this House on issues that matter.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I am trying to be as fluid as I can. If the Taoiseach can be of assistance, that is fine. I am just pointing out the rules.

[373]The Taoiseach:  The whole question of budgetary policy was dealt with not only in regard to Cabinet committees but Cabinet meetings also. The regaining of competitiveness, which deals with what is happening in the private sector in regard to people having to take less in wages and take-home pay and the effort to reduce costs in a very difficult market environment, is an important contribution towards trying to maintain the maximum number of jobs in what is one of the most difficult years this economy has ever experienced. The point, which I believe is accepted, is that without seeking to bring order to the public finances, the prospect of economic recovery is postponed. While it is a difficult year and next year will also be difficult, it is not contended by any serious commentator or observer of the economy or the economic events in Ireland that this is an issue that can be sidestepped.

The issue for us, therefore, has been our contribution towards reducing the rate of current expenditure, targeting capital expenditure as a contribution towards economic activity, seeking to assist in every way we can, not just by reason of an equalisation fund but also with regard to the question of activation measures to try to help the people who unfortunately have been losing their jobs, similar to what has been happening in other economies in the developing world.

We need to see in what way we can assist at a time when the public finances are very scarce. We are trying to maintain service levels in key areas of health and education which will require further reforms. We will require further support in this House for reforms on the basis that everyone would acknowledge that the level of resources that will become available to the Exchequer will be such that without reforms we put at risk the service levels we are tying to protect.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  Last Friday I was in Donegal where businesspeople were in despair at the budget. There is a sense that nothing was done about the VAT issues to give them relief and that there was no investment stimulus. These are people trying to hang on in the face of a very tough climate. The Taoiseach needs to think again about what the Government is going to do about job protection and job stimulus in this very difficult time. It is all very well to talk about balancing the books and raising taxes to fill the hole, but there needs to be another dimension to this strategy, which was lacking in the budget. While 30 May is a long time away, the committee needs to knuckle down to that issue.

The Taoiseach:  I point out to the Deputy that the Cabinet meets every week. It is not a question of waiting for a committee meeting to decide what we do on economic policy or respond to economic issues. I can assure him that economic issues dominate any Cabinet meeting because of the scale of the task that faces us and the number of problems that are arising. Let us get away from the idea that a committee meets on 21 May and nothing happens in the meantime. That is not the real world.

Despite the very tight economic situation in which we find ourselves, the Government is still committed to a 5% capital investment programme this year. It does not make up for the reduction in activity in the private sector in toto, but it is a serious commitment by Government at a time of great scarcity of resources and when the taxation base has been reduced by 33% in a very short period of time. With respect, the idea that was being contended by the Deputy’s party leader that we could bring forward a recovery strategy in the absence of any change in the income tax system was bereft of any credibility and was seen as such by the public.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  Can the Taoiseach clarify whether the Cabinet committee on social inclusion, children and integration has replaced what I had understood to be the Cabinet committee on social inclusion and drugs? When did such a change take place if that is [374]the case? If it is the case, is there a separate Cabinet committee that now has responsibility for addressing the issue of drugs? Has the frequency of meetings of the Cabinet committees increased over the past six, ten or 12 months as full Cabinet meetings have clearly increased in response to the ever-deepening economic crisis we face? In the context of what I can only regard as the very savage cutbacks in education, which are especially hitting children of what might be described as our new communities and making integration and social inclusion even more difficult, have the issues of the capping of the numbers of language support teachers at two, the increase in class sizes, the cutting of special needs supports and the cutting of book grants been addressed at the Cabinet committee on social inclusion, children and integration, given that they have a particular impact on the children of new community families within our wider community?

An Ceann Comhairle:  I must remind the Deputy that deliberations at these meetings are internal to the Cabinet.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  I understand. I do not seek access to the detail of what the committees would discuss. However, the issue is of such import and to give us a sense of the work of these committees, would the Taoiseach indicate if it has addressed the matter at all?

An Ceann Comhairle:  That is internal to the Cabinet.

The Taoiseach:  As the Ceann Comhairle said, these are matters for Cabinet alone. To be helpful to the Deputy, the particular Cabinet committee he mentioned meets as necessary and will continue to do so. New institutional structures are in place, such as the integrated offices for children, older persons, and mental health and disability. It means these crosscutting responsibilities are enabling Ministers of State in those offices to do the work that normally in the past would have been left to a Cabinet committee to consider at a time when all these responsibilities were strictly departmental rather than interdepartmental. We can consider what has been happening in the areas of disability and mental health, drugs strategy and how it is interacting with the provision of local services with the Office of the Minister for Children. It has proven to be a successful innovation in developing a greater degree of cross-departmental and buy-in as one considers how to deal with issues that affect these subjects far more holistically than was the case in the past when various Departments had varying responsibilities in respect of a category of people.

It lines up with the social partnership agreement where we consider the lifecycle approach and try to bring together a policy on children, young working families, disabilities and the elderly. If one likes, we have given expression departmentally to that lifecycle approach. In my experience and in my attendance in whatever capacity since they were instigated, I find it a far better and more worthwhile means of trying to pull together whatever are the policy issues and how one can seek developments in various areas in the most cost-efficient way possible. For that reason the requirement of a Cabinet committee agenda arising in that particular area has been superseded by these crosscutting Departments, with Ministers of State with specific responsibilities. The Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, also has the benefit of attending Cabinet meetings on a weekly basis.

There have been occasions when Ministers of State with these crosscutting responsibilities have attended the particular part of a Cabinet meeting where issues arising out of their responsibilities have been discussed or where a policy matter was being considered or decided upon. That has been a worthwhile innovation and is something I would commend. It is continuing in the context of the new Minister of State arrangements that will be announced shortly.

[375]There is a Cabinet meeting every week, as the Deputy knows, and more if necessary, depending on the workload or what is happening. Cabinet committees meet as required. Where interdepartmental and inter-ministerial discussion on an issue would be helpful it is called on that basis. That is generally the methodology that is used.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I seek clarification. If I have missed out on a change of Cabinet committee title then it is my failure. I was genuinely of the view that heretofore we had been referring to the Cabinet committee on social inclusion and drugs. At what point was this changed? Are the issues regarding drugs being addressed in a different and newly designated committee? At the outset of a new Dáil term, let us say, there could be a reshuffle of the portfolios under different Ministers, which happens from time to time. Has there been a shuffle of responsibility by Cabinet committee and is that what this reflects? Could the Taoiseach shed some light on the matter?

Regarding the absence of any public profile, I appreciate that the Cabinet meets as frequently as required and certainly once a week. However, we have no notion of the function, remit or activity of Cabinet committees. While the Ceann Comhairle correctly cautioned me earlier on the confidentiality aspect, would the Taoiseach share his view of this matter? Surely it would be beneficial to an appreciation of the work that has been undertaken by all involved for us to have a sense of the issues being addressed, if not the detail, which were taking up the Taoiseach’s time.

The Taoiseach:  Next thing, the Deputy will be asking me for the clár.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  All in good time.

The Taoiseach:  The holding of Cabinet committees is an internal matter for the Cabinet. As I said, no decisions are taken at Cabinet committees. The whole idea is to bring to fruition various policy issues and debates and to come to Cabinet with a position that is, usually, agreed by the various Ministers, rather than have all of that argument and discussion at the Cabinet level. There might be a specialised issue involving two or three Ministers that needs to be dealt with at that level by the Ministers and their Civil Service advisers and whatever. Such committees are really just a methodology of getting through the agenda in a more efficient way rather than being in plenary session all the time.

I am aware and have read political biographies in the past that suggested some people had Cabinet meetings into the early hours of the morning. Sosanna were taken and ——

Deputy Richard Bruton:  Chips were brought in.

The Taoiseach:  Chips were brought in and the sense of crisis abated — I am sure — and discussions resumed again into a coherent whole. I assure the Deputy that is not the best way in my experience. If people need to be up until that hour of the morning to get a decision, they are probably better off deferring it to another day.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  Much better to do it at breakfast.

The Taoiseach:  I will remember that. The work done at Cabinet committees is just part of the wider ministerial work, while Cabinet meetings are where the decisions are made. Cabinet committees have a role, but it is not necessary that they be structured on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Sometimes issues arise where a series of meetings is required at that level before the issue is brought to Cabinet and dealt with so we can move on. We may also very well need to have a number of meetings of another committee because another issue that has arisen requires [376]some more intensive cross-departmental consideration. People should not assume the number of meetings equates with their effect on a particular Cabinet committee. The Cabinet committee deals with an issue as it arises. Some of these committees are working very well. Our current ministerial arrangements have mitigated against the need for committee meetings and more action oriented ministerially directed activity has improved for those sectors and constituencies in respect of the offices we have set up.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  All these arrangements relating to Cabinet committees are very confusing. I thank the Taoiseach for explaining to the House the role of these committees in reconciling what may appear to be conflicting policy objectives by Government and individual Departments. Which of the committees is addressing the matters related to banking?

Which committee, for example, would have considered the proposal to establish “an bord bail out”, or NAMA as it is officially known? Which committee would have considered the apparent conflict of Government objectives with regard to the establishment of that agency and the issue, for example, of staffing? What is the anticipated complement of staff and how is it proposed to recruit those staff? Is it intended to have a recruitment process or is it intended to transfer them from other areas of Government activity? How is it proposed to reconcile the establishment of an agency which appears to require a large number of staff in circumstances where there is a total and rigid embargo on recruitment in the public sector?

The Taoiseach:  The question of banking issues will be brought to full Cabinet.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  Is there no committee dealing with the issue?

The Taoiseach:  We do not have a Cabinet committee on banking.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  Does no committee deal with banking?

The Taoiseach:  The Cabinet deals with all economic issues, including banking, on an ongoing basis. Obviously, some meetings would take place that would not be Cabinet committee meetings, for example, between myself and the Minister for Finance or between myself, the Minister for Finance and other Ministers or people attending from the Central Bank. This depends on the issue of the day or the issue requiring discussion. To put it another way, we do not have to have a committee in order to have a meeting. However, the normal decisions on banking are taken in accordance with Government procedure, through memos for Government being provided, circulated, discussed and decided upon. Therefore, there is no change in that respect.

NAMA is being set up under the aegis of the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, which has the ability to recruit people within its arrangements and in which it has been quite successful. As we know, this is a mammoth task that has been undertaken. A detailed implementation plan will now be devised by the NTMA for the purpose of setting up this asset management agency. I envisage an interim chief executive and interim board will be established as soon as possible and the Minister for Finance will bring proposals to Cabinet in that regard. The need to set out an implementation plan and take the practical steps for setting up the agency and the question of the staffing complement it will require will be a matter of consideration by the board, the Minister and the interim executive appointed — the NTMA experience in this area will be vital. They will also decide the question of the extent of oversight and decision-making with regard to assets transferred under the control of NAMA. Who will do the monitoring of that work is a matter for decision by NAMA itself. These issues will be decided in due course.

[377]What we see here, arising from the budget, is a policy statement which confirms, both at home and abroad, the overall method to be adopted by Government to deal with the issue of how to isolate these impaired assets and deal with them in the longer term by recovering their full value to the greatest extent possible, protecting the interests of the taxpayer and setting up an agency that will be independent, transparent and in line with EU guidelines in respect of impaired assets. These are the sort of considerations that will now be undertaken by the Minister for Finance as he comes to Cabinet for the consideration of an interim board and the setting up of an executive.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  Do I take it from the Taoiseach’s reply that the NTMA is exempt from the provisions of the recruitment embargo? What is the anticipated level of staffing required by NAMA? I think, for example, of the work a local authority must do if it wants to buy back a council house. It must send out a valuer and, probably, an architect to check its condition. There is a considerable amount of administrative work involved in the process also and this involves the council’s own finance department. We must multiply that when considering the work involved in sending people out to look at half-finished housing estates, office blocks, hotels and fields. There is also work to be done sending people abroad to see the properties there that must be bought up. They must be valued and an opinion on them must be got. What happens if NAMA is acquiring one of these properties and the builder-supplier appears out of the woodwork to say he is owed money by the developer and lodges a challenge to the purchase or makes some attempt to get money back? What assessment has been made as to the total number of staff required by this agency? As regards the public sector recruitment embargo, will the NTMA have a free hand in staffing to whatever level is required to do what will clearly be an extensive job?

The Taoiseach:  As I have stated to the Deputy, a detailed implementation plan will have to be devised by the new NAMA organisation as it takes hold and forms. It is under the aegis of the NTMA. As the Deputy is aware, the NTMA has the ability to recruit people in the context of treasury management, which has been very successful——

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  Yes. Absolutely.

The Taoiseach:  ——without it being a huge conglomerate. The idea that one would be taking on very many staff is something that has to be considered by the NAMA in terms of what is the best and most efficient way of doing that. It will be a matter for decision by the NAMA.

In the first instance, we have to establish an interim board and an interim executive and allow them the time to devise the implementation plan that is necessary. We have set the policy direction. A lot of work must now be undertaken to get it up and running in a pragmatic way, to work thereafter on the legal arrangements that will have to be put in place and debated in the House and, in the coming months, to enable all of that to start to take shape. It is a mammoth task, but it is important to point out that the first pragmatic step is to allow the interim board and the appointed executives to set out a detailed implementation plan. We can see the path forward on that basis.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  I am a bit surprised by the Taoiseach’s reply. I am looking for a ballpark figure from the Taoiseach. Is he seriously telling the House that the Government gave no consideration to the likely level of staff that the agency would need to engage? We have a situation where one cannot renew——

The Taoiseach:  The level required.

[378]Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  ——a temporary contract. Hospitals all over the country have six-month contracts for nursing staff, for example. In areas of the health service, the contracts of caring staff cannot be renewed. Services will need to be curtailed as a result. The Government has decided on an absolute embargo on recruitment, promotion, acting up and the renewal of short-term contracts because of the reasons explained to the House by the Taoiseach previously. Against this backdrop, it is strange that the Government would not have given some consideration to or have a handle on what will be the likely staffing requirement of the new agency. I am surprised to hear that. Apparently, the issue has been left to the NTMA in a vague way.

The Taoiseach:  No. Let us be fair. We set out a policy decision and it is important for this country that it proceeds. We will proceed with a detailed implementation plan drawn up by, as I said, the interim board and an interim executive. It is under the aegis of the NTMA. The NTMA has been advising on this matter for some time. That is where we will go.

Regarding the question as to what staff will be taken on, all staff will be taken on subject to the consent of the Minister for Finance. A case will be made to him. We want to make sure that we set up an agency that does the job it has been given and enable it to get on with its work. That work will take place in the coming months. As we know, the perspective for its——

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  And no idea about the staff numbers that will be required.

The Taoiseach:  No. The question of the number of staff will be as required by the agency.

Deputy Joan Burton:  Like the HSE.

The Taoiseach:  The methodology and means by which it will do that will be outlined in the implementation plan as brought forward.

Deputy Joan Burton:  The HSE mark 2.

The Taoiseach:  It is the exact opposite. Is the NTMA a HSE mark 2?

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  The Taoiseach is telling me that it is very good.

The Taoiseach:  Perhaps if it is under the NTMA’s aegis, Deputy Gilmore will give it some fair wind.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  No. I am following what the Taoiseach has said.

Deputy Joan Burton:  Shadow boards and a shadow HSE. The Government has never recovered from that.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Allow Deputy Bruton.

The Taoiseach:  The same old conspiracy theories. It never ends with the Labour Party.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  Are the newspaper reports accurate, namely, that the legislation to underpin the NAMA will not be presented to the House until autumn? Against this backdrop and if the Taoiseach is discussing establishing an interim board, will it have the authority to commit taxpayers’ money without the Dáil having any say in the framework within which it will operate? The figures are of a stunning magnitude. Before we set up interim boards with commitments to act on behalf of the taxpayer, the people who represent the taxpayer have [379]rights to some idea of the framework and to an opportunity to insert whatever protections for the taxpayer that the House considers are appropriate as the institution evolves.

The Taoiseach:  Of course it will be the case that any agency set up for this or any other purpose must act with due legal authority. Therefore, whatever powers are required for it will have to be obtained in this House and elsewhere. That goes without saying.

What I have been speaking about here is that in order for the work to begin and for the implementation plan to be drawn up, they must run in parallel with the legal work that must be undertaken by the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Finance regarding the legal apparatus required for the setting up of the agency. It is only when the heads of the Bill are prepared and brought to Cabinet that we will be able to indicate how soon this will be legislated for. It is a priority in the Department.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I wish to advise the House that 15 Deputies have submitted matters under Standing Order 21, which will be listed in the Official Report: (1) Deputy James Bannon — the reason that application forms in respect of funding under the lottery sports grants for 2009 are not yet available; (2) Deputy Thomas Byrne — the need for greatly increased on-the-spot fines and other penalties for illegal dumping; (3) Deputy Tom Hayes — in light of the serious law and order problems nationally, to ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to use this matter for Adjournment to clarify the situation surrounding 236 one-man rural Garda stations nationally and the 11 one-man Garda stations in south County Tipperary specifically, in that, these Garda stations are vital in preventing the drug and crime problems from escalating and rural communities are totally dependent on them; (4) Deputy Frank Feighan — an update on the Croghan school funding project, as €250,000 in funding is required to complete the school for September; (5) Deputies Joe Costello, Fergus O’Dowd and Charles Flanagan — the circumstances surrounding the granting of an international haulage licence to a convicted drug dealer; (6) Deputies Seán Sherlock, Mary O’Rourke and Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin — the suspension of funding to the scheme of community support for older people; (7) Deputy Dinny McGinley — an cinneadh atá déanta ag Largo Foods-Bia Ghaoth Dobhair idir 123 agus 170 oibrí a ligint chun bealaigh agus an geár-ghá atá le malairt fostaíochta a chur ar fáil chomh luath agus is féidir; (8) Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh — the need for the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to reverse his decisions to dissolve the national drugs strategy team and lay off its staff before an effective mechanism is in place to undertake the work and support that it has provided to the 24 drug task forces and over 600 drugs projects and services, and to make a commitment that the sector, which was already heavily hit by funding cuts this year, will not be subjected to further cut backs; (9) Deputy Simon Coveney — to ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources what impact on the roll-out of DTT the announcement by Boxer to withdraw will have, whether he plans to re-evaluate the current process by which a commercial DTT licence will be granted and the expectation that RTE will provide a free-to-air DTT service by year end; (10) Deputy Kieran O’Donnell — to ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to bring the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Bill 2009 before the Dáil for debate immediately, with full implementation to follow immediately thereafter, and what other measures he proposes to bring forward immediately to combat gangland crime in Limerick, including making membership of a crime gang a criminal offence, and the immediate establishment of a fully resourced CAB office in [380]Limerick city; and (11) Deputy Tom Sheahan — the ongoing provision of funds for An Moncaí Ocrach in Dingle.

The matters submitted by Deputies Costello, O’Dowd, Charles Flanagan, Sherlock, O’Rourke and Ó Caoláin have been selected for discussion.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Anois, iarratais chun tairisceana a dhéanamh an Dáil a chur ar athló faoi Bhuan Ordú 32. We now come to requests to move the adjournment of the Dáil under Standing Order 32.

Deputy Tom Hayes:  I seek the adjournment of the Dáil under Standing Order 32 to address the following matter of national importance requiring urgent consideration, namely, in light of the serious national law and order problems, it is of urgent public importance that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform clarify the situation surrounding the 236 one-man rural Garda stations. They are vital in preventing our drug and crime problems from escalating into rural communities, which are dependent on the stations. Will the Minister take into account the important role played by these Garda stations, their effect on local communities and the serious anti-social behaviour and violence witnessed daily?

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  Hear, hear.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  I seek the adjournment of the Dáil under Standing Order 32 to address the following matter of national importance requiring urgent consideration, namely, the growing crisis in our public health services as a result of disastrous Government policy and savage cutbacks, including the loss of hundreds of front-line posts, thereby affecting the care of patients; the closure of wards in two major hospitals — Crumlin Children’s Hospital and Beaumont Hospital; the end of 24-hour accident and emergency cover at Ennis and Nenagh hospitals and its already damaging effects; the impending removal of all acute care from Monaghan General Hospital; and the need for the Minister for Health and Children and her Government colleagues to make themselves accountable to the Dáil for this crisis for which they are directly responsible.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh:  I seek leave to move a motion for the adjournment of the Dáil under Standing Order 32 on the following specific and important matter of public interest requiring urgent consideration, namely, in view of the likelihood of lengthy legal proceedings arising from the ongoing investigation by An Garda Síochána into the affairs of Anglo Irish Bank and an alleged golden circle, including the proposed developer of the so-called Carlton site in Dublin, will the Minister re-iterate his commitment to the preservation and security of the designated national monument at Nos. 14-17 Moore Street?

Deputy Martin Ferris:  I seek the adjournment of the Dáil under Standing Order 32 to address the following matter of national importance requiring urgent consideration, namely, the consequences of the Government’s refusal to make available promised funding to local authorities to carry out repairs and refurbishments in local authority housing stock, in that houses are falling into disrepair, which causes their inhabitants health and safety problems.

Deputy Frank Feighan:  I wish to seek leave for the adjournment of the Dáil under Standing Order 32 to address the following matter of national importance requiring urgent consideration, namely, the over 70s General Medical Services, GMS, card, and the undue stress and anger among the elderly caused by the complicated and lengthy application form that they must fill [381]out despite passing the means test for the non-contributory pension. Thousands of pensioners could lose their cards unjustly.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Tar éis breithnithe a dhéanamh ar na nithe ardaithe, níl siad in ord faoi Bhuan Ordú 32. Having considered the matters raised, they are not in order under Standing Order 32.

The Taoiseach:  I wish to formally announce for the information of the Dáil that this morning I accepted the resignations of all outgoing Ministers of State. I thank them all for their work in respect of their various responsibilities and for their commitment and support.

I also wish to announce for the information of the Dáil that following my acceptance of the resignations, the Government today, on my nomination, appointed the following to be Ministers of State: Deputy Pat Carey to be Minister of State at the Departments of the Taoiseach and Defence with special responsibility as Government Chief Whip; Deputy Barry Andrews to be Minister of State at the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science and Justice, Equality and Law Reform with special responsibility for children and young people; Deputy Dick Roche to be Minister of State at the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs with special responsibility for European affairs; Deputy Trevor Sargent to be Minister of State at the Departments of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and Health and Children with special responsibility for food, horticulture and food safety; Deputy Tony Killeen to be Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with special responsibility for forestry, fisheries and the marine; Deputy Conor Lenihan to be Minister of State at the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Education and Science and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources with special responsibility for science, technology, innovation, the information society and natural resources; Deputy Seán Haughey to be Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science with special responsibility for lifelong learning and school transport; Deputy Billy Kelleher to be Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment with special responsibility for trade and commerce; Deputy John Moloney to be Minister of State at the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science, Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Justice, Equality and Law Reform with special responsibility for equality, disability issues and mental health; Deputy Michael Finneran to be Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with special responsibility for housing and local services; Deputy John Curran to be Minister of State at the Departments of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Education and Science and Justice, Equality and Law Reform with special responsibility for integration and community affairs; Deputy Peter Power to be Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs with special responsibility for overseas development; Deputy Martin Mansergh to be Minister of State at the Departments of Finance, including special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, and Arts, Sport and Tourism with special responsibility for the arts; Deputy Áine Brady to be Minister of State at the Departments of Health and Children, Social and Family Affairs and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with special responsibility for older people and health promotion; and Deputy Dara Calleary to be Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment with special responsibility for labour affairs.

An announcement in respect of these appointments was laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas earlier this afternoon.

[382]Deputy Richard Bruton:  Briefly, I make no secret of the fact that my party believes the Taoiseach should have gone further both in reducing the numbers and in the remuneration of the offices. Notwithstanding that, I congratulate the new appointees in particular, namely, Deputies Áine Brady and Dara Calleary. The Cabinet still will be “Kitted” out as although one Deputy Kitt has departed, another Deputy Kitt has entered as a replacement, which I suppose is a fair exchange. I commiserate with those who have lost their positions, namely, Deputies Jimmy Devins, Seán Power, Micheál Kitt, Máire Hoctor, John McGuinness, Noel Ahern and Mary Wallace. They have put in a great effort in their roles and I am sure the House will commiserate with them on their loss of office.

On a lighter note, this reminds me of when I was made a Minister of State, when the late John Boland described me as being appointed third mate on the Titanic. In this case there are 15 mates, which is enough to fill an entire lifeboat. That said, I wish them well in these troubled times. I hope their work will be crowned with success and will make a difference, not only to those appointed today but to the people, who Members seek to serve.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  First, I join with Deputy Bruton in congratulating Deputies Áine Brady and Dara Calleary on their appointment as Ministers of State. It is a proud day for them and I wholeheartedly congratulate them. I also congratulate all the Ministers of State who survived and commiserate with those who were not reappointed. While it is a disappointing day for them, to some extent that is the way of politics.

The only point I will make about the appointments is that the country needs somewhat more profound political change than simply making some changes in the office of Ministers of State. However, that probably is for lá eile.

An Ceann Comhairle:  It is.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  I also wish to join with other voices in the Dáil in extending congratulations to the newly-appointed Ministers of State, Deputies Áine Brady and Dara Calleary. I wish them both the very best in their new positions. However, the critical news that all Members await is not the appointment of new Ministers of State or the reappointment of others. It pertains to a required new policy direction that will take on board many of the sound arguments that have been presented by Opposition parties in this House in recent months and which are relevant to the serious economic crisis in which we find ourselves. The cutting of the number of Ministers of State and the shuffling of personnel is not an answer. Although I hope it will prove to be otherwise, many will consider this to be nothing more than part of a smokescreen placed over the Government’s failure to address the real issues of the retention of jobs and the creation of new job opportunities, which are the two critical elements that have been missing from the Government’s entire approach. Against the backdrop of the Social Welfare Bill before the House today——

An Ceann Comhairle:  Only brief comments for valedictory purposes may be allowed at this time and——

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  It is a brief comment on the Social Welfare Bill at this point. Against that backdrop——

An Ceann Comhairle:  ——that does not sound valedictory to me. Let us move on.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  ——I am afraid there will be little joy in Members’ respective communities.

The Taoiseach:  It is proposed to take No. 3, Social Welfare Bill 2009 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage. It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that the Dáil shall sit later than 8.30 p.m. tonight and business shall be interrupted not later than 10 p.m. Private Members’ business shall be No. 63, motion re social welfare Christmas bonus, which also shall take place tomorrow after the Order of Business and shall be brought to a conclusion after 90 minutes on that day.

An Ceann Comhairle:  There are two proposals to be put to the House today. Is the proposal that the Dáil should sit later than 8.30 p.m. tonight agreed to?

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  It is not agreed. As for the proposal regarding the ordering of the Social Welfare Bill, I recognise that while not provided for today, it will be guillotined in this House tomorrow. My colleagues in Sinn Féin and I absolutely oppose the Social Welfare Bill being taken in this House at all, given the context of the Bill and the content of what it hopes to achieve. It is monstrous in respect of its potential impact on the most hard-pressed families and it cannot be accepted willy-nilly in this House as a matter that all Members are quite happy to address. For our part, Sinn Féin Members are not happy to address it, as it simply is wrong. It is the wrong approach with the wrong measures and the wrong people will suffer as a consequence.

Question, “That the Dáil shall sit later than 8.30 p.m. tonight,” put and declared carried.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Is the proposal dealing with Private Members’ business agreed to? Agreed. Deputy Bruton, on the Order of Business.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  I wish to ask two questions on the Order of Business. First, I seek clarification from the Taoiseach on the issue of the National Asset Management Agency. There have been newspaper reports that although this is a matter of priority, it is unlikely that Members will see the legislation until October. However, the Taoiseach indicated recently that an interim board would be appointed fairly quickly. Members need to know under what legal authority it will be working and what role the Dáil will play in establishing and limiting that legal authority to protect taxpayers.

  5 o’clock

The second question pertains to legislation to implement decisions that were announced in the budget relating to Members’ pay and conditions. These announcements have created enormous confusion in people’s minds as to what exactly the Government intends and how it expects to implement them. I ask the Taoiseach to set out for the House the exact position in respect of the legislation that will be implemented. It is not acceptable for Ministers, who earn twice the pay of most Deputies, to lecture people about what they should and should not do when the Government has the legal authority to implement the changes it states are desirable. Clarification is required in this regard and it is only fair to everyone to have certainty as to the way in which we will proceed. While the House will support reasonable measures introduced by the Government, certainty is required.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Taoiseach, on the legislation.

The Taoiseach:  Regarding the timetable for legislation, it is a priority for the Government. The purpose of the legislation is to establish and govern the operation of the NAMA. We hope to introduce it in the summer session. Preparation of the legislation for the NAMA management structures and operating procedures will be initiated immediately and will run in parallel. The Government will explore the possibility of establishing the NAMA on an interim basis [384]to undertake the initial scoping, valuation and recruitment work required. Provision for the appointment of the chairperson and chief executive officer and the constitution of the board will be addressed in the legislation.

Regarding the other matter, we have outlined that the Government intends to suspend the payment of ministerial pensions to sitting Deputies and Senators in the next Oireachtas. Having regard to the existing legal entitlements, the Government will engage in a consultation process with a view to introducing a proportionate reduction in the rate of pension payable to former Ministers sitting in the current Oireachtas, having regard to the pressure on the public purse and the need for public representatives to set an example.

Increments are being frozen from budget day. In the next Oireachtas, the question of not going ahead with them in the future will be dealt with in legislation, with a view to ensuring that the pensionability aspect of those increments is taken into account.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  I submitted a standard question to the Taoiseach for oral reply on the constitutional referenda that the Government plans to hold for the remainder of 2009. It has been answered many times in the past, on 13 occasions since 2005. On this occasion it was transferred by the Taoiseach to the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Why is the Taoiseach transferring to the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for Foreign Affairs a general question on the holding of constitutional referenda, which has previously been answered by him and his predecessors?

I refer to a statement made by the Government Chief Whip on 3 February in the House in response to a Labour Party motion that sought to move the writ for the Dublin South by-election. In response to the motion, the Government Chief Whip, Deputy Carey, stated that the Government intended to run the by-election for Dublin South on the same day as the local and European Parliament elections. Is that still the Government’s intention? If it is, when will the Government introduce the motion to the House to move the writ for the Dublin South by-election?

The Taoiseach:  The first matter was not a matter of political direction from me. I must check the circumstances in which it was transferred. I was not involved in the transfer to other Departments. It may have been an administrative decision. I will check the circumstances and revert to the Deputy. I have no problem answering the question in any event.

Regarding the issue brought forward by the Whip, a formal Government decision has yet to be made in that matter but the Chief Whip was putting forward the view as best he could for the information of the House.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  The Chief Whip stated: “I would like to confirm that the Government intends to run the by-election for Dublin South on the same day [as the local and European elections]”. There is no ambiguity about that.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan:  Is the Taoiseach changing his mind?

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  The Taoiseach’s reply is much more ambivalent. My question is simple. The period of time within which the writ can be moved for the holding of that by-election on 5 June is very narrow. There is a short timeframe. Will the Government proceed on that basis? Will the by-election for Dublin South be on 5 June? While answering that, the Taoiseach can tell us the Government’s intention with regard to the Dublin Central by-election.

[385]The Taoiseach:  No Government decision has been made with regard to either by-election. Obviously, we will consider the matter and I am aware of the timelines involved.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn:  Since last September or October the Minister for Education and Science has been indicating that it is his intention to bring forward proposals to re-introduce third level fees for undergraduates in our third level sector. Recently, we have been told that he is about to bring proposals to the Government. We are not sure if proposals have been brought forward or whether they will be reviewed after 5 June. Is it the intention of the Government to introduce legislation to enact the proposals that will be brought forward to reintroduce fees? When will the House see that legislation?

The Taoiseach:  The Government has not yet been asked to formally consider those matters. Until such time as the Minister for Education and Science brings a proposal to Cabinet I am not in a position to anticipate a decision or its consequences.

Deputy Seymour Crawford:  Many temporary nurses do not know how they stand at the moment, nor do their patients. When will the nurses and midwives Bill be introduced so that we can discuss that issue?

On the day the Minister for Agriculture and Food announced he would pay the grants on a 40:40:20 basis, he announced he would ensure receipts were issued to farmers to allow them——

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy must raise that elsewhere.

Deputy Seymour Crawford:  ——to claim back VAT three months later. That has not happened in hundreds of cases. When can we have a debate on the total collapse of agriculture?

An Ceann Comhairle:  We cannot have that now.

Deputy Seymour Crawford:  I am asking when there can be a debate.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan:  Farmers have been abandoned.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Unless a debate is promised, we cannot discuss it on the Order of Business as Deputy Crawford, who is very experienced, well knows.

The Taoiseach:  The first matter is due early next year.

Deputy Seymour Crawford:  Can we have a debate on agriculture?

Deputy P. J. Sheehan:  Will the Taoiseach tell me when he will introduce the Harbours (Amendments) Bill in the Dáil?

The Taoiseach:  That is awaiting Second Stage.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan:  I know it is. When will Second Stage be taken?

The Taoiseach:  It recently finished in the Seanad. It is a matter for the Whips to discuss.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan:  It has been finished for four weeks. When will it be taken in this House?

The Taoiseach:  The Whips will meet after the Order of Business and I am sure it is a matter to which we can seek to attend to the Deputy’s satisfaction.

[386]Deputy James Bannon:  Given the lack of priority this Government gives to the consumer and competition Bill, when can we expect the publication of this long overdue Bill?

I refer to the issue my good friend Deputy Crawford raised. There is dreadful duplication of inspections in the farming community.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy must take it up with the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Deputy James Bannon:  What instructions have been given from this House?

An Ceann Comhairle:  I cannot deal with that one.

Deputy James Bannon:  I think the Ceann Comhairle can.

An Ceann Comhairle:  There is no hope.

Deputy James Bannon:  Of course the Ceann Comhairle can. Every single farmer, the length and breadth of Ireland, has double inspections. This is a waste of public funding at a time when the Taoiseach is paying off——

An Ceann Comhairle:  When Deputy Bannon is sitting here he can allow that.

Deputy James Bannon:  ——the Ministers of State he sacked today with a contribution that is outraging people countrywide.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  Hear, hear.

The Taoiseach:  There is no date for the legislation.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  That is a poor response.

Deputy Joan Burton:  The Bill on the NAMA does not make it to section A of the Government legislation programme. It is on the C list, although the Taoiseach indicated it had some level of priority. The C list is a bit like former Ministers of State who were let go. It tends to be slow progress to get to the C list. What are the Government’s intentions? In the reports published around the world of rescues for banks by State Governments that worked, transparency and a degree of bipartisanship have been essential.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Deputy Burton is entitled to ask the question but is not entitled to make a speech on it.

Deputy Joan Burton:  The Opposition has been given no information on this. What are the intentions of the Taoiseach about the publication of this Bill? Will the Opposition be given any information other than when it will be published?

I congratulate the Taoiseach on the listing of a management of multi-unit developments Bill. The Taoiseach has had some experience of the management of multi-unit developments and the difficulties arising with management companies.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy should just deal with the legislation.

Deputy Joan Burton:  That has helped bring this Bill forward. When might we expect to see it?

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  Hear, hear. It is a good issue.

[387]Deputy Joan Burton:  It is welcome because there are tens of thousands of people not as well resourced as the Taoiseach who have difficulties with their management companies——

An Ceann Comhairle:  There should be no speeches. I call the Taoiseach to reply on those pieces of legislation.

Deputy Joan Burton:  ——running into tens of thousands of euro.

The Taoiseach:  The management of multi-unit developments Bill is in section A so we can expect it this term. The heads of the NAMA Bill have yet to be agreed, as the announcement was only made two weeks ago. It is getting top priority in the Department of Finance and it will be produced as quickly as possible.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  Is it proposed to bring forward new legislation to meet the Minister for Finance’s recent remarks, where he stated that the Government intended to extend the bank guarantee scheme beyond 2010? Does that indicate the Government’s intention to revisit the so-called financial services (deposit guarantee scheme) Bill?

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy will need to raise his point in a different way.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  Will new legislation be required to facilitate an extension beyond 2010? Is that the Government’s plan?

I note from the list of promised legislation as published earlier today that the mental health (amendment) Bill has been put back again from 2009 to 2010. In its absence, will the Government provide an opportunity in the Dáil to properly address the failure to move forward with sufficient alacrity towards the implementation in full of A Vision for Change?

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy should stick with legislation.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  It is a critical policy document that has the support of all opinion in this House, particularly given that we were yesterday again advised that there are still 319 people with intellectual disabilities retained in psychiatric institutions across this State.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I call the Taoiseach to respond on the legislation.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  This is entirely inappropriate. If the mental health Bill is not to proceed, what steps will be taken to address this scandal?

An Ceann Comhairle:  I call the Taoiseach on the legislation.

The Taoiseach:  Much progress has been made on the question of inappropriate placement of intellectually disabled people in mental hospitals. I welcome and support such progress. The Minister of State, Deputy John Moloney, has shown admirable commitment and preparedness to work with the disability community in that respect and in every way he can. I commend him on the work he does and I have every confidence in his ability to continue with that work, having reappointed him to the position today.

On the question of extending the guarantee period, that is in order to ensure that we can compete for funding for five-year money as well as two-year or one-year money, given that the guarantee was due to expire on that date. It is a question of ensuring that we have available to us the prospect of getting money at a cheaper rate by having it over a longer term.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  Will legislation be required to facilitate the required intent which has just been confirmed by the Taoiseach?

[388]The Taoiseach:  The Minister for Finance will bring forward whatever requirements there may be in that area.

Deputy Liz McManus:  For the past four years, the statutory requirement to hold elections for the regional fisheries boards has been postponed. This was subject to great criticism when the current Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was in Opposition. At the very least we had a Minister of State dealing with the issue, although the legislation was expected around December 2008. I note that it has now been pushed to the end of 2009.

Will the Taoiseach explain who is now responsible as poor Deputy Seán Power has lost his place? At least he was dealing with the issue and having looked at the list, there is nobody with a dedicated role of dealing with the management of restructuring that must take place. The promise was that a new structure would be in place for inland fisheries by the summer but will the Taoiseach stand over that? This matter has been ongoing for four years.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack:  Seán has gone fishing.

The Taoiseach:  The legislation is due later this year.

Deputy Liz McManus:  Will there no longer be a Minister of State responsible for the matter? Will the Cabinet Minister be responsible for the issue?

The Taoiseach:  The same Department is handling it today as was handling it yesterday.

Deputy Liz McManus:  I apologise for pursuing the matter but I want clarification. One of the provisions made as a result of this ongoing delay was that a Minister of State was given the job to deal with the regional fisheries boards, discuss the matter and come to conclusions. A former Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, dealt with it and was doing quite a good job in my view. There is now no Minister of State with the responsibility of carrying through the task. Will a Minister of State be given this responsibility or is this being put back to the general responsibilities of the Cabinet Minister, who has much on his plate already?

The Taoiseach:  Arising from the changes today, we will ensure that the process continues as planned. The Deputy should not worry about it.

Deputy Joan Burton:  The Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, could do it.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  He is into it.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  May we take it from the Taoiseach’s response to the leader of the Labour Party earlier that he will again take responsibility for answering questions on referendums? I heard Deputy Bertie Ahern on a new radio station say that it was his biggest regret that the Constitution stopped him implementing the Kenny report.

Deputy Frank Feighan:  He had more regrets than that.

Deputy Richard Bruton:  He was the only socialist in the House.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I told the Deputy before that he cannot discuss radio programmes on the Order of Business.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  Of all the cruel statements of political mendacity, that would take some beating given the manner in which he ducked, dodged and dived implementing the Kenny report for approximately seven years.

[389]An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy will have to take it up with the Deputy in question.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  May we take it that the Taoiseach will answer questions if we pursue him on this matter?

The Taoiseach:  I will answer whatever questions I am obliged to under the rules of the House.

An Ceann Comhairle:  That one is not an example.

The Taoiseach:  I replied to Deputy Gilmore, who asked me about a question put to me that was not——

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  It has always been the practice——

The Taoiseach:  Pardon?

Deputy Pat Rabbitte:  It has always been the practice that the Taoiseach took questions about referendums.

The Taoiseach:  I will check the precedents and come back to it.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  The Taoiseach has been here a good while.

Deputy Brendan Howlin:  Last year, the all-party committee on the referendum dealing with children made an interim report urgently asking for legislation to deal with the issue of soft information in order to protect children. We issued the interim report by unanimous agreement because it was such an urgent matter. I see no reference to that legislation on the published list so when will that legislation to protect children be introduced to the House?

The Taoiseach:  I understand work is being done on the heads of the Bill, which deals with quite a complex issue. There is ongoing work and the Whip might be better able to provide detail.

Deputy Joe McHugh:  Deputy McManus raised a very legitimate point regarding the fisheries (consolidation) Bill, for which we have been waiting four years. In acknowledging the work of the former Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, I realise he rolled up his sleeves and took the issue by the scruff of the neck. We need a commitment that the issue will be progressed before June because if that does not happen, many people will not know where they stand.

We have a crazy position currently where the Northern Regional Fisheries Board will not consult with the Donegal Game Angling Federation.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy will have to put down an Adjournment request or parliamentary question on that.

Deputy Joe McHugh:  There is a complete breakdown in communication which must be addressed. The only way this can happen is to bring the Bill through Report and Final Stages.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I will now move to the Social Welfare Bill 2009.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  A Cheann Comhairle.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I apologise to Deputy Durkan.

[390]Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  I know I am fading but I hoped I had not faded that much. On the point raised by Deputy Burton in respect of the management of multi-unit developments, will the Taoiseach indicate whether any degree of priority will be given to bringing the relevant legislation, which has been promised for the past two years, before the House? On the basis of the position with regard to certain items of legislation on the various lists, it will take another three years before the Bill is introduced in the House. Perhaps the Taoiseach will provide a short reply to my question in this regard before I proceed to pose my second question.

The Taoiseach:  Related legislation — the property services (regulatory) Bill — was also approved by the Cabinet today. The Bill to which the Deputy refers is on the A list. We engaged in a great deal of discussion earlier as to its location. Now that we have identified its position, another query has been posed as to the reason for its existence.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  Will the Bill be introduced as a matter of urgency?

The Taoiseach:  Now that we have the Bill, let us get on with it. People have been complaining about it not being on the list for long enough. Now that it is on the list, other complaints are being made.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  There is no use publishing a list of legislation if such legislation will not be published for three or four years.

My second question relates to the area of justice. Abraham Lincoln once famously stated that one of his generals — General McClellan — had the “slows”.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy should not mind Abraham Lincoln now.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  Even in Kerry, people know about this matter. It can be stated, in an Irish context, that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform also has the “slows”. There is a long list of legislation from his Department which has been in gestation for five years but in respect of which progress has not been made. The criminal elements in this country are rejoicing in the clear knowledge that they can——

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy should not mind that matter now. He should ask a question.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  ——do as they please. The Ceann Comhairle is aware that the Minister is talking and throwing shapes but that he is not taking action.

An Ceann Comhairle:  This has nothing to do with the Order of Business.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  On promised legislation, will the Taoiseach bring forward, as a matter of extreme urgency, a single Bill——

An Ceann Comhairle:  As stated previously, the Deputy may not ask a question of that nature. There can be no multiple choice questions.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  ——that will contain sufficient regulatory functions which will ensure that criminal elements, particularly those of an organised nature, are taken off our streets.

An Ceann Comhairle:  That question is not in order on the Order of Business.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  It is a straight question.

[391]An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy must ask a question in respect of a given item of legislation.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  I am asking a question on promised legislation.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Multiple choice questions are not allowed on the Order of Business. It is as simple as that. We must move on.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  With respect, the Taoiseach wants to answer my question — which relates to a serious matter that is being discussed by people throughout the country — and he should be given the opportunity to do so.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy must ask a question regarding a specific item of legislation.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  I will ask about the specific items of legislation or the Taoiseach can provide the short answer. I do not mind which option is chosen.

An Ceann Comhairle:  If the Taoiseach wants to be of assistance——

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  He does and so do I.

An Ceann Comhairle:  ——that is fine. However, the Deputy’s question is not in order.

The Taoiseach:  I will give the short answer.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Taoiseach is choosing the short option.

The Taoiseach:  I note Deputy Durkan’s continuing interest in these matters. The criminal justice (miscellaneous provisions) Bill, which relates to firearms, was approved by the Cabinet earlier today. This legislation will prove extremely useful in the context of ensuring that firearms do not get into the wrong hands.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  That is a timid approach. There is a long list of legislative measures relating to the area of justice. These measures continue to await introduction.

Bill entitled an Act to amend and extend the Social Welfare Acts and the Health Contributions Act 1979.

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I move: “That Second Stage be taken now.”

Question put and agreed to.

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

This Bill will give legislative effect to the social welfare elements of the supplementary budget introduced earlier this month. In the context of the current economic circumstances, it has been necessary for the Government to take steps to reduce overall public expenditure to restore order and stability in the public finances. In light of extremely difficult decisions having to be [392]made in respect of the entire range of Government expenditures, social welfare was prioritised in the supplementary budget. Almost €21.3 billion is being provided for welfare services in 2009. This represents an increase of €1.7 billion, or 8.7%, on the amount originally provided for this year in the previous budget and is €3.6 billion, or approximately 20%, higher than the actual amount spent in 2008. This additional expenditure arises mainly as a result of increases in unemployment, with the expected average live register figure for 2009 having been adjusted upwards, unfortunately, from 290,000 to 440,000 between the October and April budgets. The extra cost in this regard will be €1.97 billion.

Significant additional expenditure also arises as a result of the cost of the improvements announced in the October budget, which provided for increases of between 3% and 3.8% in basic social welfare payment rates. At that point, the expected rate of inflation for 2009 was 2.5%. This forecast has, however, not been realised. Instead, deflation of almost 4% is now anticipated. With social welfare recipients receiving between 3% and 3.8% more in their weekly payments and with prices having fallen in recent months, their living standards, therefore, have been protected.

In the aftermath of this month’s budget, total gross spending on social welfare is expected to account for 29% of gross total Government expenditure in 2009. Leaving aside borrowing, the social welfare expenditure provided in the budget is expected to account for 60% of the Exchequer’s anticipated current revenue from tax and other sources. At a time when Government expenditure must be controlled as much as possible, this significant investment in social welfare is a clear demonstration of the Government’s commitment to protecting the vulnerable and helping those who rely on the State for their basic income.

The Bill provides for certain amendments to the social welfare code, as announced in the Minister for Finance’s Budget Statement of 7 April 2009. I wish to detail the main changes to the House.

The Bill provides for the changes in the rent supplement scheme that were announced in the supplementary budget. The purpose of the rent supplement scheme is to deal with emergencies and short-term needs that arise when a person suffers a change in circumstances — for example, when a tenant becomes unemployed and can no longer afford his or her rent. There are currently almost 84,000 people in receipt of rent supplement, an increase of 40% since the end of December 2007. The supplementary budget provides for a net increase of €29 million in rent supplement. This consists of an increase of €77 million for additional claims arising from the increase in the live register and a saving of €48 million in 2009 —€75 million in 2010 — as a result of the a number of measures.

From the end of this month rent supplement will be restricted to individuals who have been existing tenants for six months. Individuals who have not been tenants for six months or who are forming new households must have been placed on a local authority housing list following a full housing assessment before they will become eligible for a rent supplement payment. These measures will apply to all new applicants for rent supplement. Exemptions will apply where a housing authority designates that a person is homeless or where he or she has been already identified by a housing authority as having a housing need, where the person is a tenant of a voluntary housing body — capital assistance scheme tenants — or where he or she is aged over 65 or is in receipt of a disability-type payment. These exemptions will ensure that young people coming out of residential care settings, such as foster homes, will be protected. Rent supplement will continue to provide support where housing authorities are not in a position to respond within a reasonable timeframe and where a person is at risk of experiencing homelessness or hardship.

[393]The second change being made to the rent supplement is an increase in the minimum contribution that individuals and families make towards their rent. This is being increased by €6 to €24 from 1 June 2009, which will align the rent supplement more closely with the rents that local authority tenants are obliged to pay. In Dublin city, these tenants must pay a minimum of €25.80 per week and the average is approximately €59 per week. One of the reported impediments to the transfer of rent supplement claimants to the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, is the significant difference between the contribution which is required of the tenant under the rent supplement scheme and the contribution which they are required to pay through the differential rent scheme.

The third rent supplement change is a reduction in the maximum level of rent supplement payable by the State in respect of all new tenancies or on renewals of tenancies. The limits will be reduced by 6% to 7% on average, ranging up to 10%, depending on the geographical area and household size and by reference to an analysis of rent supplement and the Private Residential Tenancies Board rent data, as well as downward trends in private rents as published by the Central Statistics Office.

As Deputies will be aware, trends in the private rent sector indicate that rents have fallen considerably during the past 12 months. This is evident from data available from the Private Residential Tenancies Board and the Daft property website. I am sure Members will agree it is vital that taxpayers’ money should not be used to pay landlords inflated rental prices. This change will help to ensure that this will not be the case in respect of new rent supplement tenancies. However, with more than €490 million being spent by the State on the rent supplement, we need to make sure that landlords of existing tenants do not charge too much. To this end, from 1 June 2009 the rent supplements for all existing tenancies will be reduced by €6 to reflect their additional contribution towards their rent and by a further 8% to reflect the impact of the new rent supplement limits. While tenants are contractually obliged to pay the rent agreed to in their lease, we expect landlords to decrease the rent in recognition of the fact that rents have fallen generally and that there are now a large number of vacant rental properties nationally. I urge all Deputies to support us in this and help us to send a clear message to landlords that tenants supported by the State will not be overcharged. On a positive note, agreement has been reached with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on 1,000 transfers from rent supplement to the longer-term rental accommodation scheme in 2009. This will bring the total number of such transfers to 9,000 this year.

The next area where legislative changes are required on foot of the budget is the early child care supplement. The Government appreciates that the supplement has been a significant support to families with young children and we were glad to have been able to introduce it when funding allowed in 2006. However, in the current economic climate, very difficult decisions had to be made in the budget and there were no easy options in reducing expenditure. The early child care supplement cost €480 million in 2008. We need to achieve better results with fewer resources.

In the supplementary budget, it was announced that the monthly ECS payment will be halved to €41.50 per child from 1 May 2009 and that it will be abolished in full at the end of 2009. It will be replaced in January 2010 with a free pre-school year of early childhood care and education for all children between the ages of three years three months and four years six months.

The recent report of the National Competitiveness Council on education and training stated that “pre-primary education is a key determinant of student performance at all levels of education, as it leads to improvements in students’ skills levels, motivation and the propensity to learn, which in turn raises the private and social returns from all future investments in their education”.

[394]Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Such a brass neck.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The Government’s investment of some €1 billion over the last decade in the development of a child care infrastructure means that it is possible to introduce a free pre-school year and be confident that the overwhelming majority of parents who wish to access a pre-school place for their children will be able to do so.

The introduction of a free pre-school year is a highly significant step in the development of Ireland’s early childhood care and education policy.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  The Minister did not think that a few years back.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The decision demonstrates the Government’s continuing commitment to our children’s social and educational development.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Minister is simply making statements. She should be honest about this.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The provision of a year’s free pre-school to all children will promote equality of opportunity at the most important developmental stage of children’s lives.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  The Minister did not believe that three years ago.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Children enrolled in play-schools will receive free pre-school provision of three hours per day, five days each week over a 38 week year. This equates to a weekly capitation grant to the service provider of €64.50 and parents with children enrolled in these services will not be charged. Children enrolled in full or part-time child care services will receive free pre-school provision of two hours and 15 minutes per day, five days a week over a 50 week period. This equates to a weekly capitation grant to the service of €48.50, with parents paying for their child care net of this amount. Over the course of the year, the financial benefit of the scheme for a single child is over €2,400.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  This is so disingenuous.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  All community and private pre-school services which meet the requirements of the scheme will be invited to apply for entry to the scheme and all notified pre-school services will be contacted by the office of the Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs by the end of May 2009.

To introduce the scheme as quickly as possible and maximise the number of children and their parents who will benefit from the outset, the Government did not propose to wait until the school year beginning September 2010 but to introduce the scheme from January 2010. From September 2010, the pre-school year will run from September of each year in line with the school year.

All children aged between three years three months and four years six months at 1 September each year will be eligible and parents who wish to avail of the scheme can enrol their children with the available participating service of their choice. Children entering the scheme in January 2010 will be eligible if they are aged between three years and seven months and four years and ten months at 1 January 2010. Parents should have regard to the enrolment policies of their local primary schools in making decisions regarding the age that their children should avail of the pre-school year.

The introduction of this free pre-school year is an example of how a programme can be re-shaped and made more effective at a lower cost to the taxpayer.

[395]Deputy Róisín Shortall:  It is to save money, that is the only reason it is being done.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The Social Welfare Bill also provides for changes to the jobseeker’s allowance which are designed to incentivise 18 and 19 year old jobseekers to avail of education and training opportunities and avoid becoming welfare dependent from a young age.

The rate of jobseeker’s allowance that will be paid to new claimants under the age of 20 is being reduced from €204.30 per week to €100 per week, with effect from the first week of May 2009. When a person on the reduced rate of jobseeker’s allowance reaches the age of 20, if he or she still qualifies for the allowance, he or she will be entitled to the full adult rate. The full adult rate of the relevant scheme will be paid to 18 and 19 year olds who participate in a full-time Youthreach course for young early school leavers or a full-time course in a senior Traveller training centre or qualify for the back to education allowance for pursuing a full-time second level course or post-leaving certificate course. To qualify for the back to education allowance, they must have been out of formal education for at least two years and been in receipt of a jobseeker’s payment for at least three months; or participate in a full-time FÁS training course. They can also participate on a PLC course or third level course on the same basis as any other young person and may qualify for a third level grant. This measure also applies to new claimants of supplementary welfare allowance who are under 20 years of age.

The numbers affected will be small at first as it will only affect new applicants from the first week in May. The numbers affected will rise on a weekly basis. Based on current figures, and an expected overall live register average for 2009 of 440,000, we expect a weekly average of 5,000 18 and 19 year olds to be affected by this change in 2009 and a weekly average of 9,000 to be affected by it in 2010.

These changes have the potential to generate savings of €12 million in 2009 and €26 million in 2010. If take up of the education and training opportunities is high, fewer savings will be achieved in the short term but the long-term savings generated by helping young people to avoid welfare dependency would be expected to be significant.

The qualified adult rate for a spouse or partner payable in these cases will also be reduced to €100 per week. This will mean that a couple, where the primary payment is to the 18 and 19 year old, will get a total of €200 per week, down from €339.90.

It is important to note that the following people will not be affected: existing claimants, young people with dependent children, those who qualify for the jobseeker’s benefit and people transferring to jobseeker’s allowance immediately after exhausting their entitlement to jobseeker’s benefit or those transferring from the disability allowance directly to jobseeker’s allowance, thereby avoiding their being faced with a large income drop.

Also, where an existing jobseeker’s allowance claimant under age 20 being paid €204.30 gets a job and leaves jobseeker’s allowance, but loses that job and ends up back on jobseeker’s allowance within 12 months, he will get €204.30, rather than €100 a week. If this was not done, there would be little incentive for those currently on jobseeker’s allowance to take up offers of work. I am conscious that 18 and 19 year olds leaving the care of the Health Service Executive might be particularly vulnerable to these reductions in the rate of jobseeker’s allowance and I propose to make an amendment on Committee Stage to ensure that the additional needs of this group are protected.

The rationale for this change is straightforward. Receiving the full adult rate of a jobseeker’s payment at 18 years of age without a strong financial incentive to engage in education or training can lead to welfare dependency from an early age. While many young people with low levels of education and training were able to get work in construction and other areas when the economy was doing well, they are likely to find it much harder to get work over the next [396]few years. If they do not improve their skills, they are at risk of becoming long-term unemployed from a young age. They are considered to be at a greater risk of having difficulty securing a job than older jobseekers who might have low skills but at least have some work experience. Therefore, it is considered necessary to provide 18 and 19 year old jobseekers with a strong financial incentive to engage in education or training or to take up employment that pays more than €100 per week.

The fact that 18 and 19 year olds who participate in a FÁS or similar training or education course will get the full rate of the relevant payment, for example, the FÁS training allowance, community employment rate or back to education allowance, instead of €100 on jobseeker’s allowance should be a major incentive for such participation.

Another reason for making this change is the experience we have of a recent pilot initiative. FÁS and the Department of Social and Family Affairs are currently running a pilot exercise in Clondalkin and Letterkenny for all 18 and 19 year olds who wish to sign on the live register for the first time. Instead of getting jobseeker’s allowance, they will be immediately placed on a six-week programme designed to improve their chances of securing employment, in return for which they receive the normal FÁS training allowance, which is slightly more than jobseeker’s allowance. Failure to attend means they receive no payment.

Initial feedback showed that many candidates did not wish to participate, preferring to get almost the same money without having to attend a course, and consequently they were sometimes disruptive and difficult to manage. This obstacle of a lack of a substantial financial incentive is now being addressed with the introduction of the reduced rate of jobseeker’s allowance for those under 20.

It is also questionable that 18 and 19 year olds without child dependants need an income of €204.30 per week and the current income differential between young jobseekers and young third level students can be considered to be unjustifiable. The maximum amount of third level grant, including the special top-up grant, paid to young people from the poorest families whose family home is near their college is just €2,680. The maximum amount of third level grant, including the special top-up grant, paid to young people from the poorest families whose family home is near their college is just €2,680. If such young people have to live away from home to go to college, the maximum they can get is €6,690. The current rate of jobseeker’s assistance which is currently paid to 18 and 19 year olds amounts to €10,624 per annum, while the reduced rate of €100 per week amounts to €5,200 per annum, which is still almost twice the third level grant rate paid to young people from the poorest families whose family home is near their college. Overall, I believe this change will incentivise 18 and 19 year olds to take up education and training opportunities and this will leave them in a much better position in the long term.

As Deputies will be aware, the budget contained a major focus on helping people to stay in employment and to get back to work, with initiatives such as a €100 million enterprise stabilisation fund, a pilot training scheme for workers on a three day week and increased training places both through FÁS and in the education sector. These will be enhanced by improvements in the welfare supports. The back to education allowance scheme allows jobseekers who qualify for it to return to education and maintain their welfare payment. The number of recipients of the allowance has increased significantly in recent years — from 5,247 in 2004 to 7,952 in 2008.

The Government is determined to maximise the potential of this scheme, so improvements provided for in this Bill are outlined as follows. Jobseekers who have been out of formal education for at least two years will now be able to access the second level back to education allowance, BTEA, once they have been in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance or benefit for at least three months. That is down from six months. Earlier access is also being provided to the [397]BTEA third level scheme. Currently, there is a general requirement that a person be receiving a jobseeker’s payment for 12 months before he or she can access the scheme. They can access it at nine months if this is recommended by a FÁS employment services officer. This is now being extended so that they will also be able to access it at nine months if this is recommended by one of the facilitators of the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

In order to respond effectively to the growing numbers on the live register, the changing profile of jobseekers generally and the current employment situation, it has been decided to refocus the existing resources from the back to work schemes on helping people into self-employment. The intention is to support enterprises that will, in due course, create further employment opportunities. To this end, the employee strand of the back to work allowance will be closed to new applicants and the duration of the enterprise scheme will now be up to two years, as distinct from four years. These resources will be used to support significant improvements in the back to work enterprise allowance, BTWEA.

Currently, to qualify for BTWEA a person must be in receipt of a jobseeker’s payment for 24 months. Access will now be available much earlier under two distinct BTWEA schemes. First, people who are entitled to jobseeker’s benefit and have been awarded statutory redundancy or have been employees paying full rate PRSI contributions for at least two years prior to their claim to jobseeker’s benefit can access a shorter back to work enterprise allowance scheme immediately. This new scheme will be payable for the duration of their jobseeker’s benefit entitlement while they are establishing their enterprise, for example, for a maximum of either nine or 12 months. The key feature is that they can access it immediately. Second, access to the general BTWEA scheme is also being improved. It will now be possible to access the BTWEA at 12 months, instead of 24 months, provided a person has an underlying entitlement to jobseeker’s allowance.

Further flexibilities are also being introduced into the scheme, including allowing a person who has previously availed of the BTWEA scheme and exhausted his or her entitlement to participate a second time after a period of at least five years has elapsed. The overall purpose of the new arrangements is to financially assist those on the live register to set up a business almost immediately when they become unemployed, thereby ensuring that their knowledge, skills and expertise are fully utilised at an early stage and thereby promoting enterprise and employment in the economy.

In addition to the areas already outlined, the Bill also provides for changes in PRSI and other areas. I will outline the main provisions. Sections 3 and 4 of the Bill provide for adjustments to PRSI as announced in the budget, increasing the earnings ceiling applicable to employees and optional contributors from €52,000 to €75,036 per annum. Section 5 provides for an amendment to customer activation and information profiling for jobseeker’s benefit. It also provides for a new short-term support scheme under the back to work enterprise allowance scheme for a person who qualifies for jobseeker’s benefit or who qualifies for statutory redundancy.

Section 6 provides for an amendment to customer activation and information profiling for jobseeker’s allowance. It also provides for an amendment to the rate of jobseeker’s allowance payable to a person aged 18 and 19 years where that person does not have a qualified child. This section also provides for a proportional adjustment in respect of the amount payable to a person in this category in respect of his or her qualified adult. Section 7 provides for an amendment to the provisions governing supplementary allowance and rent supplement by providing for a revised rate of payment to persons under the age of 20 years, where that person does not have a qualified child, and incorporating in primary legislation circumstances in which the supplement may be payable.

[398]Section 8 provides for amendments to the early child care supplement by reducing the annual amount of the payment to €498 and a consequent reduction in the monthly rate to €41.50 from 1 May. This section further provides for the abolition of the supplement from 1 January 2010. Section 9 provides for the making of regulations setting out the information to be provided by claimants when making a claim for benefit. Section 10 provides for an amendment to the domiciliary care allowance scheme to facilitate payment of up to six months arrears in the case of a late claim. This is in line with recent practice when the scheme was administered by the Health Service Executive. This scheme was transferred to the Department of Social and Family Affairs in April 2009.

Section 11 provides for revised rates of payment for jobseeker’s allowance and supplementary welfare allowance as provided for in sections 6 and 7. Section 12 amends the Health Contributions Act 1979, by providing for an increase in the rate of the contribution and lowering the earnings threshold. This section also provides for the aggregation of earnings, emoluments and income for the purpose of calculation of contribution and adjustment to take account of aggregate calculations.

Given the very short timescale involved in bringing this Bill to the House, there are a number of areas where legislative changes are considered necessary but which could not be finalised in time to be included in the Bill as initially presented to the House. I will, therefore, table several amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage. First, I am very conscious of the impact the current global recession is having on the value of Irish pension funds. It is estimated that in excess of 90% of defined benefits pension schemes are in deficit. This is presenting trustees of pension schemes with significant challenges in their efforts to optimise the benefits for pension scheme members.

Deputies will be aware that the Government put a number of measures in place last December to ease the funding pressures on these schemes. While these measures were helpful in the short term, I wish to signal my intention to bring forward a number of further measures which will support the job of the trustees of these schemes in meeting the challenges that confront them and provide greater flexibility and regulatory support to improve the affordability and viability of defined benefit pension schemes. I will also be amending the National Treasury Management Act.

I have already mentioned that I propose to introduce an amendment to protect 18 and 19 year olds leaving the care of the Health Service Executive to ensure that their additional needs can be met. I will also be making a technical amendment to section 7 dealing with the supplementary welfare allowance. It may also be necessary to make some technical amendments to section 12 dealing with amendments to the Health Contributions Act. I will also be introducing an amendment to the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2009 to provide for the changes announced in the supplementary budget regarding the public service pension levy.

Chun críoch, the main changes provided for in this Bill relate to improvements in the back to education and back to work schemes, measures designed to generate savings in respect of the rent supplement and the early child care supplement and an increase in the PRSI ceiling. The Bill will also provide a legislative basis for the changes being made to the jobseeker’s allowance to incentivise 18 and 19 year old jobseekers to avail of education and training opportunities and try to avoid them becoming welfare dependent from a young age.

It is important for each of the savings measures to be considered in the context of the overall economic situation and the need for immediate action to reduce the major gap between public income and expenditure. It is also important to note that while the budget included measures [399]designed to reduce expenditure on certain welfare schemes by €300 million in 2009, provision has been made for an overall increase of 20% in the welfare budget next year — bringing it to almost €21.3 billion. This Bill is necessary to implement some of the changes announced on budget day, while other changes do not require legislation. In deciding on where to achieve savings in welfare expenditure, there were no easy options but, with both borrowing and taxes having to increase to pay the rising welfare bill next year, choices had to be made.

The harsh reality is that if some cuts were not made now, much tougher ones would have to be made later. It is important that all of us as public representatives are up-front with the people about the stark choices that are required at this time. The changes in this Bill are necessary and some of them are very positive and have an incentivising effect. I hope we can have an informed debate about them over the course of the next two days.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I have grave difficulty accepting many of the proposed changes and I disagree with the conclusions arrived at by the Minister in her final remarks. I hope we have an informed debate but I cannot see much room for agreement on many of the issues. Accordingly, Fine Gael will vote against the Social Welfare Bill.

Based on what the Minister said, the Government is probably taking comfort from the fact that legislation is not necessary to abolish the Christmas bonus, which is probably one of the reasons that decision was taken. It is clear that Government backbenchers and local authority candidates, rather than the people in need, were to the fore in the Government’s thinking when it was considering social welfare cuts. The Government made a clear decision to cut something that would not require legislation and thus would not force Fianna Fáil TDs to vote on the issue. I welcome the fact that we will have an opportunity to discuss the issue in this House later today and tomorrow on Private Members’ time. That will afford an opportunity to all Members of the House to make it clear to the public where they stand on the removal of the Christmas bonus from the most vulnerable people in society.

We in Fine Gael have long sought changes in the back to work enterprise allowance, as the method by which it currently operates is a disincentive to employment and entrepreneurship and forces people to remain on the live register. Everyone in this House can give the Minister many examples of people who have come to them who were ineligible for the allowance, despite having the ideas, determination and skills to create a job for themselves and to potentially create jobs for other people once they are set up in business. However, the changes in the Social Welfare Bill, as announced in the budget, do not go anywhere near what is required to help create an enterprise culture and to help people who have lost their jobs to get back into the workforce.

It is time the Minister accepted and realised that those schemes were set up in a climate where we were trying to deal with long-term unemployment and not one where we are trying to deal with massively rising unemployment in such a short timeframe. That fact alone must change how the Minister operates and how the Government does business, but it has not yet been taken on board.

The old rule that one must be unemployed for two years before one could avail of the back to work enterprise allowance was nonsense. I am pleased the Minister has accepted that. The change, however, does not go far enough. The allowance has been reduced by a year, but what stopped the Minister moving to six months, which is what has been suggested by many people involved in working with the unemployed? One year is an extremely long time to force somebody to stay on jobseeker’s allowance or benefit. I disagree with the Minister’s assertion that [400]access to the allowance is almost immediate; one must wait for a year, which is a significant proportion of a person’s working life.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The other scheme is immediate.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  Which one?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The new scheme.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  Which scheme?

Acting Chairman (Deputy Charlie O’Connor):  I am sorry, colleagues, but discussion is not allowed.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I outlined two schemes.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  Which scheme is immediate?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  If one is getting jobseeker’s benefit, one can immediately access the back to work enterprise allowance.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  After a year?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  No, immediately.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  On which payment?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  If one qualifies for jobseeker’s benefit, one no longer has to fulfil the criterion of actively seeking work and one can immediately get on a back to work enterprise scheme. One can have that for the duration of the period one would normally qualify for jobseeker’s benefit.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  The majority of people, however, will still have to wait a year before they can avail of it. That is the reality of how the scheme operates.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  No. The majority of people are on jobseeker’s benefit, not on jobseeker’s allowance.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  We are talking about people who have lost their jobs, who are probably highly qualified in their own area of expertise and who do not need another degree. They have skills and the spirit of entrepreneurship to make their ideas work. The Minister might have seen the “Prime Time” programme recently on the back to work enterprise allowance. Perhaps it influenced her decision. It highlighted the ridiculous situations in which people find themselves by virtue of the way the scheme operates. What was most worrying was the fact that failure to be approved for the scheme in some instances counted against people when they sought financial assistance from banks. There is no logic to the way the Government is approaching those allowances, which deprive people of hope and opportunity. While the one year change is positive, it could have been better.

At the same time the Minister made another decision that did not make any sense in the current economic climate. A decision to give the allowance for only two years is madness. Everybody knows that in this climate it is more difficult to start a business and keep it up and running. We all know of businesses that we thought had stood the test of time, that were going to be here for the long haul, but we have seen them close their doors in recent months. How [401]much more difficult is it for a person who has started a new business without significant financial backing who is reliant and dependent on the back to work enterprise allowance for four years to see him or her through the difficult start up phase? The allowance provided a lift to allow a business to survive. The decision to cut the allowance from four to two years does not make sense. It is especially foolish when one realises that the other alternative is for a person to be on jobseeker’s allowance or benefit where he or she will be in receipt of a State payment anyway. Surely it makes more sense to try to facilitate people to stay in employment? I cannot understand why the Minister fails to see that.

The Minister stated in her budget press release that “the intention is to support enterprises who will, in due course, create further employment opportunity” but she is making it extremely difficult for that to happen. The positive changes the Minister has made to the scheme have been damaged by the negative changes. The Government’s mantra in recent months has been “jobs, jobs, jobs”, yet the steps the Minister is taking and the decisions she is making are not in any way creating the opportunity for employment that makes those jobs a reality or even a possibility.

I welcome the fact that the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has finally seen some common sense on the operation of the back to education allowance. I say “some”, because again, while changes have been made, they do not go far enough. It is a pity that it took so long for the Minister to make those changes. I welcome the fact that the jobseekers who have been out of formal education for at least two years can now access the second level back to education allowance once they have been in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance or benefit for at least three months. I hope that will help people with low levels of qualification to get back into the education system and to receive formal qualifications.

The early access being provided at third level is insufficient. Up to now there has been a requirement that a person must be in receipt of jobseeker’s payment for 12 months before he or she can access the scheme. There have been exceptions in recent times for people in employment action plan areas and people who have received redundancy. However, the most recent figures available to me from the Department show that the numbers who have taken up the scheme are minuscule. My overall figure, which I received in reply to a parliamentary question, is slightly different from that of the Minister. Of the 9,796 people who are recorded as participating in the back to education allowance in November 2008, a total of 113 were awarded statutory redundancy and 75 were referred earlier to the third level option as a result of their participation in the national employment action plan, NEAP. Those figures do not inspire hope that we will see an improvement.

I have been waiting to get the up-to-date figures. I was told they will be available this month but this week the Department informed me it could take another three to four weeks. Perhaps we will see some improvement in take up. That is difficult to say as the figures I expected to have for the debate are unavailable. The reality is that not everybody who loses his or her job is in an employment action plan area or receives a redundancy payment. We have seen many closures of small businesses, restaurants, shops and hotels where people are not able to avail of redundancy payments. I do not see the sense in limiting the scheme in that way.

It is some improvement that the Minister will now allow access to the scheme after nine months if recommended by one of the facilitators of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, as is the case currently if it is recommended by a FÁS employment services officer. I have, however, two difficulties with that. First, I still believe that nine months is too long. The longest timeframe that I would find acceptable for the scheme is six months. Second, how much work does the Minister expect those facilitators to be able to do? We are all in favour of getting as much out of the public service as we possibly can. There are 60 facilitators, and the Minister [402]admitted herself in her budget press release that an average live register figure of 440,000 is likely for 2009 with some estimates putting it higher. That is a mammoth task if each of those facilitators is to deal with each person on the live register, or even a proportion of them. In effect, all I can see happening is that the wait to see a facilitator will replace the three months that the Minister has cut off the requirement for the scheme.

It is important to bear in mind that those are the same 60 facilitators the Minister for Social and Family Affairs announced last July would deal with numbers of young unemployed under 25 and the same facilitators the Minister said would work on “a one to one basis with lone parents”. What next for those 60 facilitators? That change is disingenuous. It will not achieve what it needs to achieve and it will not help those who are unemployed in an efficient, effective or meaningful way.

  6 o’clock

That brings me to the proposed changes to the jobseeker’s allowance for young people outlined in the Bill. Last July, the Minister expressed grave concern over the number of people under 25 on the live register and made a big announcement on how they could avail of the back to education allowance. Clearly that did not work and the number of young people on the live register has grown since. I was not surprised by the Minister’s announcement having heard her interview on “News at One” on the subject of cross-Border fraud, during which she clearly supported the amounts paid to young people in Northern Ireland. It was quite clear she was coming around to the idea of cutting young people’s social welfare. It is a pity that when she came round to this idea, she did not actually ensure there were alternatives for them.

The National Youth Council of Ireland stated clearly that “the jobs are simply not there and few education and training opportunities have been provided to date”. The Minister will know that approximately 17% of young people fail to complete their leaving certificate examinations. The figures in this regard have not improved greatly despite the resources available in recent years. I am extremely concerned that, with the cuts across the board in the education sector, including cuts affecting transition year such that only the school allowance and book allowance will be covered, and the expected scaling down of services in schools to the provision of very basic education, the figure of 17% will possibly rise or, at best, remain the same. Nobody is fooled by the notion of incentivising 18 and 19 year old jobseekers to avail of education and training opportunities to prevent them from becoming welfare dependent. I share the Minister’s concerns about the young becoming welfare dependent and about their availing of social welfare immediately after leaving school. However, she has put the cart before the horse to some extent by not ensuring that places are available to these new claimants.

The full-rate adult payment will still be made for those who participate in Youthreach — this is on a pilot footing and applicable to those of 19 years — or full-time courses in a senior travel training centre. Will there be enough places on these courses? It is difficult enough as matters stand to get people to do them. I envisage many more difficulties owing to the position on the incentive that should be in place. I do not believe there will be enough places. If individuals qualify for the back to education allowance, they will still have to have been out of formal education for at least two years. Therefore, what is the position in regard to somebody who has dropped out of school in mid-leaving-certificate year and who might be 18 years or almost that age? Such a person will not be eligible for the back to education allowance for a year. He or she can participate in a full-time FÁS training course, but only if there is one available. I ask the Minister to outline in her concluding remarks where the places will be available for young people.

[403]I listened to the Tánaiste’s budget speech in the House. I was not convinced that any serious thought had gone into the proposal on activation measures. It is more designed to save €12 million than to incentivise young people. This is demonstrated by the fact that there are no clear facts and figures available to us.

Who will work with the young people? Will it be the same 60 facilitators who are to work with everybody else? It is time the Minister got real in regard to this and appreciated the fact that, no matter how hard-working these 60 people are, they cannot bear the brunt of everything that is happening in the social welfare system. They cannot possibly work with every single target group.

The idea of profiling first-time social welfare claimants to facilitate job programmes and more targeted training is, in principle, a good idea, but the reality and delivery on the ground will be very different. In this regard, I am not convinced by a Minister who has failed to deal with rising queues in social welfare offices and the crisis in the community welfare system, and who has failed thus far to help young people who are unemployed. I do not understand how this measure will address what she intends to address or says she intends to address in this legislation.

The Minister has to some extent included in the Bill many of the proposals made by the Opposition over recent months but not in a way that achieves the outcomes we hoped for or intended to achieve. This applies to the back to work enterprise allowance, the back to education allowance and the supplementary welfare payment or rent supplement. In February, I proposed that the Minister examine rent supplement payments and conduct a review thereof in the belief that potential savings of up to €55 million could accrue this year if payments were in line with market rates. I gave examples in February of the differences in rent reductions available across the country and used figures available from daft.ie.

The rent supplement scheme has become a critical scheme providing supposedly short-term income support to people in private rented accommodation who otherwise would have nowhere to live. I suggested that the Minister set about lowering the ceiling for rent supplement to reflect current market rates and that, given the number of vacant properties, her staff should negotiate with the owners to reduce the financial burden on the State and increase the standard and quality available to claimants. What did the Minister choose to do instead? She made a blanket announcement affecting the whole country equally, changing not only the rate being paid to the landlord but also the rate the tenant must pay. Although rent fell by 13% in Dublin and 5.8% in Galway, people from both areas will be subject to the exact same cut.

The Minister needs to conduct a full review of the scheme, not just a cost-saving review. It should take account of the needs of those involved. There are parts of Dublin’s city centre, for example, where rents have not been subject to any noticeable decrease. There are particularly vulnerable groups, such as people in bed-sits, paying as much as €169 per week with a rent supplement cap of €130 per week, thus forcing them to pay top-ups to their landlords. The Private Residential Tenancies Board is aware that such top-ups are being paid. Threshold, which has done much work in this area, demonstrates that this is still very much a live issue. It has not been tackled. In theory, these tops-ups are illegal but there are no real checks to determine whether they are being paid. In some cases, vulnerable tenants are forced to make these payments. There is still no adequate checking of the quality of the accommodation.

The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, together with the Minister of State responsible for housing, who was reappointed today, who has plenty of experience, needs to examine the vacant properties and consider the possibility of including them in the rental accommodation scheme with a view to including more people. The Minister announced today there will be 1,000 more places available under the scheme. This will just about bring us half way towards [404]meeting the commitment made on where we should stand at present. Announcing 1,000 more places is no great cause for celebration as we are nowhere near where we should be. The opportunities under the rental accommodation scheme by comparison with those under the rent supplement scheme, in terms of getting rid of poverty traps and allowing people to work, are far more beneficial. We should concentrate on this. The scheme should be working much better. Removing the traps and increasing the opportunities to work would be much more cost effective for the State and far more beneficial to the tenant.

The Government needs to get tougher on landlords. I could not believe that the Minister, in her speech, asked us to help send out a message to landlords. That is the job of the Minister responsible.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The Deputies are public representatives.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  Deputy Hanafin is the Minister for Social and Family Affairs and a Minister of State responsible for housing has been reappointed. In addition, there is a Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and a Minister for Finance, yet, between them, they cannot deal with the issue of landlords. How many more times are we going to discuss in the House the fact that there is still no link between rent supplement paid to landlords and checks to ensure those landlords are paying tax out of the moneys paid to them by the State in respect of their properties? We have raised this at committees, including with the Revenue Commissioners, and in the House. Those responsible just nod and say they are considering the matter. How long more will we be considering it? When will we see something happen? It is very easy to take €6 more from a tenant after having taken the same from him or her in October. It may be a bit tougher to put in place the system I advocate but there is no reason it is not in place, as it should be. That it is not is a failure on the Minister’s part. We have discussed it time and again and it needs to be fast-tracked. Surely when trying to make savings, ensuring that we get the most from the taxation system would be a sensible place to start.

Threshold has asked, quite reasonably, what support the Department is to offer regarding the process of negotiating rent reductions. It is a fair question because there should be support for tenants. Some landlords will take advantage of a vulnerable person, particularly in areas where there may not be many alternative properties. The principle of reducing rent supplement with falling market rent is important but the blanket approach adopted will only result in hardship for many vulnerable people. It is not the best approach.

It has been suggested that the Minister should set up a system whereby, rather than having a community welfare officer hand over a deposit to a tenant for a landlord, that deposit would be held in an account and made available to the landlord if the property was not handed back in good condition. Currently the deposit is paid directly to the landlord and tenants find it very difficult to recover it at the end of their tenancy. Threshold has estimated that the Department could save between €6 million and €7 million per year if my proposal were implemented. I have asked the Minister about this in the past and I again ask her to examine it. The deposit holding scheme I advocate would save the State money and would make more sense. Since tenants will have to shop around owing to the reduction in the supplement, the holding scheme, if implemented, will mean their deposits will be refundable because the landlords will not get their hands on them unless, for whatever reason, the tenants leave the properties in poor condition.

The Minister’s decision in the budget to increase by €6 the minimum contribution to rent supplement after a similar increase in the October budget is extremely unfair and will make [405]life really difficult for poorer vulnerable tenants. The changes to the maximum rent figure to which the supplement applies were sufficient and what the Minister has done in increasing the contribution will make it extremely difficult to access accommodation because of the amount tenants themselves will have to pay. On the submission made by Focus Ireland, will the Minister ensure that no person will become homeless as a result of the changes made to the rent supplement and jobseeker’s allowance schemes? Despite the money available and, to some extent, squandered in the past 12 years, the Government did not do what could have been done to tackle the issue of homelessness. Despite the existence of a Minister of State with responsibility for housing, the matter still seems to fall between a number of Departments. There are real concerns that there will be difficulties in that regard.

I am glad the Minister stated she would table an amendment on young persons who have left State care. That is important. She also needs to examine the position of young persons who have left the family home which I fully appreciate is a much more tricky issue. Their position is not as simple as that of young persons who have left State care but there are situations where there is a severe breakdown within families for one reason or another, as a result of which young persons are forced to leave. There are young persons who have not had to go into State care because they are aged 17 or 18 years but they are still in the vulnerable position to which I refer. Perhaps community welfare officers who tend to know the persons concerned should have the flexibility to make a payment in such circumstances rather than see a young person, by reason of drugs or alcoholism in their own case or in the case of somebody else in the family home, being left vulnerable if homeless as a result.

The Bill compounds the attack on families that took place in Budget 2009. In addition to charges, taxes and the pain being felt by everybody else, in a double whammy those with young children are being hit through the loss of the early child care supplement, while those with children in their late teens will be hit through the introduction of third level fees. In the next budget those with children of any age will be hit through some form of change to child benefit. The budget of October 2008 made every household pay for Fianna Fáil’s mistakes and the emergency budget of 2009 has ensured every family will pay on the double.

What is laughable about the changes to the early child care supplement and the introduction of a year’s free preschool place, if the matter was not so serious, is that in recent years Fine Gael and the Labour Party made this proposal and tried to persuade the Government which then had the money of the importance of preschool education. During 12 years of what the Government certainly thought were unlimited resources, it failed to introduce such a provision. I remember debating the matter here with the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, on one occasion when she questioned the educational value of preschool education.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  No, never.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  The Minister did. She stated there was a social value and that it would teach——

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  No. I never questioned the educational value but did question the value of providing it in primary schools.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  No one proposed providing it in primary schools. The Minister questioned the level of educational attainment.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I have never questioned the educational value.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  The Minister did.

[406]Deputy Mary Hanafin:  No, never.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  The Minister stated there was a social value and a value in interaction.

Now that finances are tighter and the Government wants to make savings but does not want to be seen as too much of a bad guy because the local elections are coming up, it will cut and then abolish the early child care supplement and replace it with a free preschool place for one year. I am not sure if the Government has really worked out the mathematics. I am sure it did from its own perspective in saving money, but it was not from the perspective of a family with a newborn child who would be losing a payment for five and a half years to be replaced by preschool support for 38 weeks. It provides little comfort for families who must make some really tough decisions. It is critical to remember that these are the same families who bought houses in the past few years at extortionate prices and who are paying massive mortgages, one third of which is actually a payment to the Government because that is the portion of their mortgage that relates to the tax they are paying on their home. These young couples are faced with a choice — can they both afford to stay at work? Can they afford the cost of child care or can they afford to stay at home? Even a difference of €30 to €40 a week in income is immense help in making such decisions and trying to budget and balance their books.

The way in which Fianna Fáil introduced the early child care supplement was a typical example of the way it moved to gain kudos with the electorate. On six occasions in the House after it was introduced Ministers, as well as the former Taoiseach, gave different figures for what it would cost. Nobody at the time realised that it would have to be paid for children not in this country but whose parents were, even though the supplement was supposed to meet the cost of child care provided here, and with a click of the fingers it is gone.

I still have questions on the provision of a free preschool place for one year. I still question the Government’s ability to deliver on such a measure by next January. We are spending €50 million a year on prefabs in the primary and post-primary sector, yet the Government thinks it can deliver up to 80,000 places by January. I do not think anybody believes that is possible. We have yet to see a breakdown of how and where the places will be provided. All the press releases issued since the announcement have not answered these questions. The Minister is asking the House to vote to abolish the early child care supplement when she has given little or no consideration to what will be in its place and the impact on families.

The Minister has stated the figure “equates to a weekly capitation grant to the service provider of €64.50 and parents with children enrolled in these services will not be charged.” I spoke to a child care provider today who has had some discussions with whoever is in charge in the Department and the provider seemed to be of the opinion that there would be an ability to charge a top-up fee. I ask the Minister if she is sure of the figure of €64.50 and that top-ups will not be charged because people are not sure. Where providers are charging more already I cannot see how they will reduce their prices. Will families have to pay a top-up charge to some providers? There are not uniform charges across the country. Will we now see those, perhaps in more rural areas, charging less upping their prices? How did the Minister arrive at the figure of €64.50? What about the extra facilities that will be needed? Currently, there is no funding available because of the review of the NDP. These questions need to be asked. People know when they are being sold a pup, as they certainly are in this instance.

The decisions taken in the Bill echo those taken in the budget. There is a lack of vision, strategic thinking and real reform. What there has been is much tinkering, mostly aimed at saving money with the odd nod towards the possibility that people will be given a little bit of a break. However, all it is is a nod.

[407]Twice the Minister almost bragged about an increase in social welfare expenditure. The only reason it has increased is that the numbers unemployed have increased. This is something we should all deplore rather than speak of as something for which the Department has received a little extra because those affected are not getting it.

The Minister spoke about deflation and the protection of living standards. Much of the deflation has been in the area of mortgage payments. Gas prices, electricity prices, bus fares and cost of primary education have increased. The week before last I met the Society of St. Vincent de Paul which told me that there had been a 30% increase in the number of calls made to it. The only places where it has not seen an increase are the Border counties where people are able to cross the Border to buy food where it is cheaper. That highlights the difficulties being experienced by families. Deflation may help some but it is not helping everyone and it is disingenuous to suggest it is.

The positive changes made are not enough to really make a difference or a dent in the live register figures and get people into training or back to work. The changes to the rent supplement scheme are too blunt and what could have been really good cost saving changes are only going to hurt a significant number of people rather than truly take advantage of falling market rates. The idea of incentivising young people to return to education or training through profiling is only window dressing aimed essentially at cutting payments to them. The reduction in the value of the early child care supplement and its abolition will cause untold difficulties for young families.

We still have received no details on the information which must be provided by claimants in making a claim for benefit. Overall, there is nothing in the Bill that will facilitate people in getting back to work. Everything depends on the work of 60 facilitators who will deal with hundreds of thousands of unemployed persons. The Christmas bonus is being removed but it is not even mentioned in the legislation. It was a quick lazy attempt at saving money. The Government in no way tried to deal with or solve the problems endemic in the system. As a result, we will still have queues at social welfare offices and community welfare officers will be unable to cope with the level of demand. In fact, this will be compounded by the changes to the rent supplement scheme. No assistance is being given to facilitate the changes. More and more people will turn to community welfare officers seeking exceptional needs payments because of the social welfare cuts contained in the Bill. No extra assistance has been given to MABS or funding made available for mortgage interest supplements.

On the changes to the Bill that the Minister announced she will introduce on Committee Stage, I will wait until then to comment on them. However, it is time to bring forward the recommendations made in the White Paper on pensions rather than just tinkering with the system. Real decisions need to be taken.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  I wish to share time with Deputies Upton and Costello.

Acting Chairman:  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Social Welfare Bill 2009 is about social welfare in name only. It is unashamedly about extra taxes and reduced benefits with hardly any measures that will actually improve our social security system, help the poor or those struggling in the recession. For the most part, it is a finance Bill in disguise. What concerns me most is how families will be able to afford many of its measures, particularly families with very young children. With the introduction of the health levies under section 12 and the abolition of the early child care supplement under section 8, a single-income family with two children under five years on €40,000 a year will lose €230 per month from their net monthly income. Add the income levy, [408]the abolition of mortgage interest relief, additional excise on diesel and such a family will incur extra costs amounting to more than €3,000 a year. Many families will pay more.

The Labour Party is opposed to the Bill for what it does to family budgets, how it threatens jobs and how it hits easy targets instead of raising revenue in other areas. It contains several of the largest cuts announced in the supplementary budget. It proposes halving and the eventual abolition of the early child care supplement. The supplement may have been introduced by Fianna Fáil to bribe the electorate, but it has since become an essential part of family budgets. As such, its abolition will have a serious impact on the ability of some families to make ends meet. A family with two children under five years will lose €83 a month from 1 May. The same family will lose a staggering €166 a month from 1 January next. That has the same effect as halving child benefit for the same family. It was interesting that when child benefit for 18 year olds was abolished last year in the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2008, a tapering arrangement was provided for welfare recipients with children to allow them to adjust to the sudden drop in income. No such provision is contained in this Bill. Many parents who have lost their jobs will now have to put up with a massive reduction in the amount of support they receive for their children.

Contrary to the impression created by some media commentators, the introduction of a subsidy towards preschool costs only fractionally offsets the substantial loss of income for the young families affected. Instead of a payment of about €5,000 for the first five years of their child’s life, parents will now receive a payment for one year in preschool. The abolition of the early child care supplement comes at a time when the cost of child care for families continues to rise — up 5.8% in the past year, yet the budget contained no measures to tackle prices in this sector or to address excessive rent and insurance costs for providers. For many young families, child care costs are often higher than mortgage costs and always higher than the cost of groceries.

One Dublin family with two children under two years this week gave me detailed accounts of their monthly outgoings. One parent works full-time and the other part-time. It costs the family €5,000 on average each month to run the household. They have a modest lifestyle — they have one car, one annual holiday, a two-bedroom ex-council house, are non-smokers and have a mortgage of only €60,000. Even sending the children to a child care facility only three days a week, their child care bill comes to €1,500 a month, 30% of all outgoings. This is the real cost of having young children in 2009. It is the reality that no one in government and few in the media seem to appreciate. Rising child care costs mean that while some families may be benefiting from deflation, the cost of living is actually rising for parents who use child care facilities — the very people hit by this cutback.

The focus of the public has been, by and large, on the extra income levies. However, many do not realise that the doubling of health levy rates represents the single largest tax increase for most workers in the supplementary budget. Section 12 proposes new rates of 4% and 5%, with the 4% rate starting at €26,000 and the 5% rate at €75,036. For that same family on €40,000 to whom I referred, the reduction in take-home pay from the health levy alone will be €66.67 per month, double the income levy bill. The income and health levies combined will take €100 a month from such a family. How on earth is taxing people on modest incomes by taking €100 from their monthly income going to restore consumer confidence or protect jobs? It is a recipe for disaster with people cutting back more and taking more trips to the North. Surely there was scope to introduce a tapering arrangement. Under the proposed arrangement, the effect of the levy is such that a person on €26,500 will have a lower net income than a [409]person on €25,500. Yet again, we have another proposal from the Government that it has failed to work out properly before it presented it. I urge the Minister to adjust it on Committee Stage.

Sections 5 and 6 propose to introduce new rules for job seekers. What precisely has the Minister in mind? The phrasing appears to suggest a job seeker’s payment could be refused if a person were not to agree to take a training or development course when requested to do so by a departmental official. All the announcements around the budget suggested such a move was for young people leaving school with no mention of it being extended to everyone, yet that appears to be the intention as the Bill is drafted. No indication is given as to what constitutes a reasonable offer. For instance, one could not offer an unemployed IT specialist a computer course or someone in Drogheda a place on a course in Wexford. Who would pick up the cost of attendance or what would happen if there were transport, family or health issues? Where are the course places? Who will provide them and who will pay? Is there a way of appealing a decision? Will a claimant still be counted on the live register?

As regards the under 20s, the Labour Party believes the worst outcome for a young person is that he or she goes straight from school onto the dole. I have no problem with the general scenario of making welfare payments contingent on attendance at an education, training or development course. However, there are several categories of teenagers that simply will not fit into this scenario. I am concerned about the Bill’s proposals in this regard and that the details have not been properly considered by the Minister. I am concerned that it is included among a package of measures designed to save money. It should be introduced only on a revenue neutral basis, with the savings in welfare reinvested in training and development courses. The State will still profit in the long run by preventing long-term dependency on welfare.

There are already several caps in place on PLC and VEC courses, with demand far exceeding supply. There are no guarantees in the Bill that a suitable course will be available to each claimant or on the quality of those courses. Can I take it from the way section 6 is framed that the claimant will not be denied his or her full entitlement to social welfare unless an officer requests him or her to take up a course, and that there will be no automatic disbarring from the current payment? The Minister might let us know how these provisions will work if no course is available because, clearly, there is a lack of sufficient quality training places at present.

What guidelines will the Minister put in place for this scheme? As Deputies, we all get very mixed opinions from the public about individual job liaison personnel. Some claimants get the feeling they are simply being processed, especially when staff are dealing with people in such large numbers, as at present. This reform will be a disaster if that attitude remains. Guidelines in this area will have to be very clear and where disagreement arises between front-line staff and the claimant, there should be a right of appeal. The Minister might consider examining this for Committee Stage.

The Minister needs to clarify what will happen if there is a genuine difficulty in completing or attending a course for any number of reasons, such as family, transport, health issues or the cost involved. For instance, what happens in the case of a young drug user who may get a place on a drug treatment course and must attend daily for methadone? What rules will apply in those circumstances?

There will be some categories of young people for whom the new arrangements will simply not fit. Young people who leave State care may simply not be in a position to take up a training place. If, for example, a young person has left State care, cannot return to the family home and has to rent, he or she will be left with a net weekly income of just €76 per week because of the combined effect of changes in this Bill and changes to rent supplement.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I will amend that.

[410]Deputy Róisín Shortall:  I welcome that indication. A similar dilemma presents itself for young people in transitional accommodation.

The wisest course of action is for the Minister to be provided with powers in the Bill to exempt by regulation certain categories of unemployed teenagers from these provisions. This would allow the Minister to establish a period of public consultation and reflection on this measure before the relevant sections are commenced and to exempt people before they cause unnecessary hardship. If this is really about activation, the Minister should have no problem doing this.

Section 7(b) proposes to disallow rent supplement unless a person is an existing tenant or has been assessed by his or her local authority as being in need of housing. In my view, this measure is reckless and downright irresponsible. It puts in harm’s way young people who have a serious falling out with their parents and any person who, for example, is subject to abuse in the family home. I am appalled by this measure. It is a bull-headed ivory tower reform of the worst possible kind and reflects a pathetic understanding on the part of the Minister about the reality on the ground. I do not have any confidence that the discretion afforded to community welfare officers is sufficient to guarantee that no one is made homeless from this proposal. I spoke to Focus Ireland about these measures and it does not have much confidence either. Can the Minister absolutely guarantee that no one will be made homeless as a result of this measure? If she cannot, then why is she attempting to pass this proposal? The Minister might respond directly to this.

Of course, other cutbacks are also being made by regulation to the minimum contribution a person must make to rent supplement and to the maximum amount of support a person may receive under the scheme. The Labour Party accepts that there are savings to be made from rent supplement at a time when some rents are falling, although it has to be pointed out that rents are only 1.3% lower now than when the rent supplement limits were changed in January 2007, and the 6% to 10% cut is certainly excessive.

There is also something pathetic about a policy decision being taken based on what the Daft website states.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  It is not just Daft.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Minister should tell us what other figures she has.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The PRTB and CSO figures.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  She should give us that information. She came to the House tonight and quoted the Daft website.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The Deputy asked the question. It was the PRTB and the CSO.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Minister should make that information available to us.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The Deputy has access to the figures in the same way we have.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Daft does not keep any figures on rents at the lower end of the market. I am talking specifically about poor quality bed-sits where many young people, including those at risk, stay. As far as I know — perhaps the Minister can tell me to the contrary — no information is available on what is happening to rents in that category. The anecdotal information would suggest that because of harder times and more people seeking low-cost accommodation, those rents are not reducing.

[411]Deputy Mary Upton:  This latest Social Welfare Bill will hit hardest the former poster children of the Celtic tiger. Young families with large mortgages and young children will be most affected by these proposals. It will also hit those who did not benefit from the Celtic tiger by reducing rent allowance and halving the jobseeker’s allowance in certain cases. The Bill is the latest from a Government which is out of touch. Irish people want to see those who did the best during the boom times paying their share but this is simply not happening and this Bill is doing nothing to move in that direction.

The decision to reduce mortgage interest supplement to seven years is a serious decision which will have negative consequences for thousands of families across the State. One of the legacies of the Ahern-Cowen era of Government will be the reckless way in which they allowed the housing market to be inflated. Massive tax incentives were offered to landlords. The media is also culpable, given its relentless promotion of the property ladder.

The net result was that many people bought houses for huge sums, often a long distance from their work or families. They were encouraged to do this and offered mortgages beyond their wildest dreams. They were given access to funds when anyone looking at the conditions and the prospects of repayment would have suggested there were sure to be tears at the end of the rainbow, not a pot of gold. However, young families needed a home and bought into the dream.

The mortgage interest supplement is now to be reduced to seven years. People are struggling to pay their mortgages as the banks, which the Government guaranteed on behalf of this country, continue to charge sizeable interest despite the historically low interest rates. Surely, it would not have been too much to ask that these banks do some service to the State and to the suffering families by offering a penalty-free switching window for those on fixed rate mortgages. Instead of trying to relieve hard-pressed householders by driving a hard bargain on their behalf, the Government has cut costs and brought serious misery to people across this country who bought into their vision of the board game “Monopoly”.

The Labour Party fully supports the policy of the provision of one year of free early child care to all children in the State and it is one we have backed for a long time, although not as a back door to cutting the early child care supplement. As Deputy Shortall pointed out, this may have been a sweetener when it was introduced but the reality now is that families have come to depend on it and it has become part of their standard budget. Cutting it will cause serious hardship for them. The new scheme is not established and the question is whether it will it be ready when the early child care supplement is abolished. Cutting the early child care supplement between now and the end of the year, as is due to happen, will only drive up costs for young families when crèche fees are increasing.

For those who have fallen on hard times the Bill is no saviour. The decision to cut rent allowance has been addressed by Deputy Shortall but a number of issues arise. The minimum contribution is being increased by 33% and the rent allowance is being reduced by 8% for existing claimants, with maximum claims for future tenants being reduced by between 6% and 10%. The decision to reduce payments by 8% is based on the assumption that landlords will have no choice but to reduce the rent charged by this amount but this is by no means certain.

In Dublin city, there are thousands of people on the housing list who are in receipt of rent allowance. They will not necessarily be able to take advantage of the cheap rents available in other parts of the country, nor will many of them be in a position to drive a bargain with a greedy landlord. They will be left at risk and vulnerable. Those who will be most affected by this decision will be those who need a large house and who may be relying on only one rent allowance to house a family of four, for example. The nightmare scenario is that these people could end up homeless. Instead of an arbitrary reduction in rent allowance we should have had [412]reform and a move towards a system of support based on dependence. Instead the heavy hand of the Government has merely come down with a harsh and probably counterproductive decision, most likely to hurt those who can least afford it.

Another issue which my party will be raising in Private Members’ time is the decision to cut the Christmas bonus to all social welfare recipients. I intend speaking on the motion, but suffice to say that while I know it does not need legislation and is not contained in the Bill, this is a sneaky and underhand move which will cause misery for many people at the most expensive time of year.

The decision to cut the jobseeker’s allowance for under 20s to €100 is another poor decision. The Government’s pedigree of such sweeping decisions is not good. No one wants people to graduate from school onto the dole. However, there must be opportunities for everyone and they must know those opportunities are available and the places exist. We have yet to be presented with a concrete plan to show that anyone under 20 who wants to continue in education or training will be able to do so. As the number of courses in the PLC colleges is capped, where are the places likely to arise? There is no certainty that everyone who wants to will have access to an appropriate course or training programme. I have already received e-mails on the capping on the number of places on PLCs which, of course, have been in place for a long time. It means that people who want to get onto those courses now will not be able to do so. I hope more concrete plans are in place in that regard.

The Social Welfare Bill offers nothing to protect the most vulnerable and does nothing to help people who have lost their jobs. Instead it seeks to reduce access to entitlements such as mortgage interest supplement or to scrap others such as the Christmas bonus and the early child care supplement. At the same time, those who profited most are being bailed out by NAMA.

Deputy Joe Costello:  A second budget in a single year is virtually unprecedented. Likewise a second Social Welfare Bill is virtually unprecedented, especially coming after the pensions levy that was imposed earlier this year. Two budgets and a pensions levy have stripped the taxpayer of a huge tranche of income in the past six months. One would have expected the Social Welfare Bill to go in the opposite direction and enhance the entitlements of social welfare recipients, the less well off, the unemployed, senior citizens and the children of the nation. However the opposite is the effect of the Bill. Either there is a reduction or a loss of social welfare entitlements or a few miserable crumbs are thrown in the direction of the growing legions of the unemployed.

The PRSI earnings ceiling is increased by 50% for employees. The jobseeker’s allowance, supplementary welfare allowance schemes and the early child-care supplement are all addressed in the Social Welfare Bill in a negative way. There is a direct attack on young people who become unemployed by reducing their jobseeker’s allowance to €100 per week, half what an adult over 20 is entitled to. The early child care supplement is more than halved to an annual €498 from 1 May 2009 and will be abolished on 1 January 2010. There is an increase in the rate of the health contribution as well as a lowering of the earnings threshold. Earnings emoluments and income are all aggregated for the purpose of calculation of the contribution. What a mean and miserable series of amendments to the social welfare code are contained in this Social Welfare Bill.

Unconscionably, mortgage interest relief for hard-pressed families, is abolished after seven years. The minimum contribution to rent supplement by a tenant has increased by a third in this budget, having already been increased in the previous budget in October. At the same time all existing rent supplement payments have been reduced by 8% on the somewhat questionable [413]expectation that landlords will voluntarily decrease their rents. What will happen if landlords do not do so? What will the community welfare officers do about that? What instructions will the Minister give to ensure people are not evicted or become homeless? The Minister cannot just rely on the good will of landlords to reduce their rents in accordance with the provisions of the Social welfare Bill. It just does not happen like that in the real world.

The unkindest cut of all is the abolition of the Christmas bonus double payment for all social welfare recipients. This was the little bit extra that provided some cheer for hard-pressed families and allowed presents to be purchased for children to make Christmas a memorable time. It also provided senior citizens with that bit extra that helped provide a welcome buffer against increased heating bills, food and medical costs and a present for the grandchildren. Scrooge will once again stalk the family homes this Christmas. I received an e-mail on the matter from the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament and of course it will be discussed later in Private Members’ time. It is more than 50 years since the Christmas bonus was introduced in 1955, particularly to benefit old-age pensioners. Naturally the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament is disgusted that such a measure should have been rescinded in the budget.

The security scheme for the elderly has been suspended by the Minister.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  No, that is not my Department. It is the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

Deputy Joe Costello:  She has been ably aided and abetted by her Cabinet colleague, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. That scheme provided older people with personal alarms, security lighting, door locks etc. and was operated by voluntary groups. It is shameful that a couple of million euro would be cut off when it provided such a valuable service and peace of mind to so many elderly people.

The Minister for Finance has disproportionately attacked the low paid and middle earning taxpayers in the budget. Now the Minister for Social and Family Affairs has savaged the entitlements of those who have paid their dues while they worked but are now unfortunately unemployed through no fault of their own. The Government’s answer to the economic crisis is to pile taxes and levies on the taxpayer and reduce the payments to the unemployed.

The Government has no vision, no leadership and nothing to offer. There is no strategy to keep working people in employment. There is no initiative to support firms who are experiencing operational and trading difficulties. There is no attempt to combine social welfare payments and part-time or reduced working hours or working days to keep a company afloat and maintain jobs. There is an unhealthy and dangerous obsession with the banks — guaranteeing recapitalising and supporting the toxic debts at home and abroad of all the Irish banks. At the same time the dysfunctional boardrooms of all these banks remain virtually unchanged.

Some 200,000 jobs have been lost in the past two years. If the small and medium-sized enterprise sector, which is haemorrhaging jobs at present, was supported in a holistic and integrated fashion by the Minister’s colleagues, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, to see what interventions could be made to make credit flow available to those enterprises, which employ 50% of those employed and 64% of the entire private sector, there would be many fewer recipients of social welfare. However, there is no strategy to intervene and provide the necessary assistance or the credit flow which represents the lifeblood of those enterprises.

The Social Welfare Bill pays lip service to helping the 200,000 newly unemployed. A mere 25,000 places in welfare schemes of one sort or another for the unemployed are being provided, which is less than the average monthly job loss in recent months. As Deputy Upton said, the post leaving certificate courses have been capped. Very little can be done in that area unless [414]they are uncapped. Courses have been capped also in the National College of Ireland in my constituency. Therefore, we cannot provide the courses that would be ideal for the unemployed, with various schemes aimed at retraining, upskilling and furthering their knowledge.

This is a very poor Social Welfare Bill. It adds further to the dismal contribution made in the budget by the Minister for Finance and will make for a dismal year for all social welfare recipients.

Deputy Cyprian Brady:  At this time of economic turmoil throughout the world, the fact that we have managed to maintain the majority of our welfare payments must be commended. Nobody involved in public life likes making changes, particularly to the welfare system which affects people’s standard of living on a daily basis and their prospects for future improvement. In the current crisis every effort must be made to protect the most vulnerable in society. In order for us to do this, all sections of society must adapt and adjust to the times in which we find ourselves.

In the past decade successive Governments have managed to improve people’s living standards, whether they were working, unemployed, old-age pensioners or on illness or invalidity benefit. Rates of payment have increased yearly for many years, while waiting times in processing claims and appeals have reduced year on year. The efficiency of the Department of Social and Family Affairs has improved over time, due in particular to the use of technology. We have seen a rapid and dramatic increase in the number of claimants. This increase is unprecedented in such a short period of time and is due to a number of factors, including the increase in the population and the new communities who have come here in recent years to take advantage of the progress made in the economy. We must take these issues into consideration when dealing with our current problems. The Bill goes some way towards doing this.

The number on the live register at the end of February 2008 was approximately 190,000. This figure increased by 165,000, or 87%, to 355,000, approximately, at the end of February this year. As the Minister stated, these numbers represent families and individuals who must deal with the spectre of unemployment. This is shocking for them. Having worked in an employment exchange I have seen at first hand the effect of having to seek social welfare assistance for the first time on people who have been employed and had a certain standard of living. Having to go through that experience is extremely traumatic. Every effort has been and is being made to ensure those experiencing unemployment for the first time are given priority and dealt with as efficiently and sensitively as possible. The increase in staffing in the Department and the reallocation of resources are designed to ensure this happens. Behind the figures and statistics there are families and individuals who must be catered and cared for. It is said a society can be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members. Every effort is being made to look after the vulnerable.

Despite the remarkable increase and the speed of the increase in the numbers looking for social welfare payments, the system cannot change overnight. It must adapt and be adapted. All that can be done is being done in order that the resources available will be used properly and efficiently to ensure as quick a turnaround as possible and to ensure those most in need are provided with the basic means to live from day to day. Some of the changes required are being made in this legislation. The Minister has pointed out that, putting aside borrowing, the social welfare expenditure provided for in the budget is expected to account for 60% of anticipated Exchequer current revenue from tax and other sources. This is a significant amount of money. We will spend almost €22 billion this year on our welfare system. There are not many countries of the size of Ireland that are either willing to do, or capable of doing, the same. Credit must be given for the fact that we will maintain the system in the current climate.

[415]Some hard decisions had to be made in the the current economic environment. Nobody in public life likes making harsh decisions that affect people on a daily basis. The decisions made on the welfare system by the Department were not taken lightly or easily, but they were made in the best interests of ensuring the resources we have available and can provide are used fairly and efficiently to ensure those who need help most receive it.

Some of the changes to be made are to the rent supplement scheme. For many years high rents have been paid to landlords for substandard accommodation, as I have seen in my constituency. Advantage has been taken of people in the market. Some of the changes proposed in the legislation will ensure landlords take their responsibilities seriously and take account of the changes taking place in the rental market. Rents are changing daily. The Department must ensure those landlords receiving rent supplement on behalf of tenants provide an adequate standard of accommodation at a reasonable price. The market will dictate this and the changes being made in the legislation will ensure it will happen. It is in the interests of tenants that standards improve and rents are adequate and fair in the current economic environment. Housing authorities, particularly in major cities, are not in a position to provide emergency or short-term rental accommodation. The only alternative, therefore, is for the State to step in and provide people with the means to find accommodation. Some of the changes being proposed in the Bill will ensure standards and the efficiency of the rental supplement system will improve.

  7 o’clock

It is also proposed to increase the minimum contribution made by individuals and families towards their rent. One of the reported impediments to the transfer of rent supplement claimants to the rental accommodation scheme is the significant difference between the contribution required of the tenant under the rent supplement scheme and that which they are required to pay under the differential rent scheme. This has been an issue. I understand from the Minister’s contribution that a commitment has been given to ensure there will be a transfer of a significant number, up to 1,000 people, to the rental accommodation scheme. While this system has been slow in taking off and difficult to implement in some areas, it will prove itself in time. Co-operation is needed from landlords to ensure the system is successful. The onus is on local authorities to ensure the rental accommodation available is adequate, of a decent standard and at a decent price. Some of the changes proposed in the Bill will ensure that will happen.

New measures to improve processing times for claims are being introduced, including a streamlined process for those who have made a claim in the previous two years.

Debate adjourned.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

deplores the mean-spirited decision of the Government to cancel payment of the long standing Christmas bonus paid to most social welfare recipients;

notes that this represents an effective 2% cut in social welfare payments over the full year;

[416]

recognises that those on social welfare have come to depend on the extra payment to meet the additional costs associated with Christmas;

expresses its serious concern that the decision will drive families dependent on social welfare into the hands of moneylenders or high-interest loan providers;

calls on the Government to reverse the decision and make the payment at Christmas 2009 as usual; and

believes that the €156 million revenue required for the payment this year could be raised through further restriction on interest relief on rental property, including restriction of relief on commercial properties.

With the agreement of the House, I wish to share my time with Deputies Burton, Sherlock and Morgan.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Government decision not to provide for a double payment to social welfare recipients this Christmas is, in the Labour Party’s opinion, mean-spirited and unnecessary. The traditional bonus payment has been paid since 1980. Not everyone on welfare receives it, just those who are most heavily dependent, namely, those on pensions or long-term welfare payments. People affected include those receiving blind pension, carers payments, disability payments, farm assist, guardians payments, invalidity pension, jobseeker’s allowance, one-parent family payment, pre-retirement allowance, deserted wife payments, prisoner’s wife allowance, State pension and widow’s and widower’s pension Claimants stand to lose up to €240.30 each or approximately 2% of their income. In the case of most married couples, the combined loss will be well over €400.

Since more than 1 million people are affected by this move, everyone knows someone who is affected. Everyone recognises the seriousness of the economic situation in which we find ourselves and that the Government’s back is to the wall, but it is when backs are to the wall that one sees the true priorities of Government and what it is really made of. For goodness’ sake, if as a country we could afford a Christmas bonus in 1980, how on Earth can we not afford one in 2009?

The Minister for Social and Family Affairs has stated that the choice was to cut the Christmas bonus or to cut welfare rates generally, but this was not the choice. The Government had other revenue raising options available to it, but ignored them. Evidently, the Government would rather hit pensioners and the poor than phase out what amounts to a €700 million tax relief subsidy for landlords of commercial and residential properties. Evidently, it is fine in an emergency to suspend payments to long-term welfare recipients, yet leave untouched the hundreds of millions of euro in tax relief for the pensions of rich company directors. Evidently, people on low fixed incomes can afford to take a hit next Christmas while the 6,000 tax exiles remain untouched by tax reform. There were many other options, such as seeking reductions in the rent paid out by State bodies and Departments, capping public sector pay or the famous text tax, but none was taken.

In practical terms, suspending the Christmas bonus will mean that older people and poorer people will struggle to heat their homes this Christmas because, in many cases, the bonus is used to pay for a refill of the oil tank, to stock up on coal or briquettes or to pay off the larger gas bills at that time of year. For some, scrapping the bonus will mean there is less available [417]for presents for the family or money for the little things that matter a lot, like sending Christmas cards to family and friends or taking grandchildren somewhere special, like to a pantomime or to the cinema.

I hope the Minister will take in my next point. For the economy generally, it will mean even less money being spent in our shops this year at Christmas because no one saves the Christmas bonus.

Deputies:  Hear, hear.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Effectively, the cut will take millions of euro out of the economy and threaten jobs further.

We are constantly hearing that the cost of living is going down. Yes, it is going down for some. If one has a large tracker mortgage and has managed to hold on to one’s job, then one’s cost of living is clearly declining. However, most people who receive the Christmas bonus do not have a mortgage. In most cases, they are either pensioners and their mortgages are already paid up or they are local authority tenants and their rent is related to their incomes. These rents have not decreased.

We accept that the reduction in interest rates by the European Central Bank in recent months has impacted heavily on the consumer price index. However, when one measures inflation without mortgage interest, prices are at a similar level to last year. In fact, they are down by just 0.3%.

Research by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice tells us that many people on welfare are already struggling to make ends meet. Its detailed analysis of the weekly budgets of typical family types, such as a pensioner living on her own, shows that, even at existing levels of welfare support, incomes are often not matching outgoings. This is why the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, instead of our social welfare system, has become the safety net for people at the lower end of the spectrum in recent years. If not for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul stepping in, many people would be having a dreadful time.

The Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice research also shows that, for a lone pensioner on a non-contributory pension without a car, the weekly shortfall is €43.61. That is the shortfall between what such a pensioner needs as a minimum essential budget and what he or she gets on his or her old age pension. In this instance, taking away the Christmas bonus means taking away Christmas. The same research shows that for most people on welfare discretionary spending is very low.

There is an obvious point about the demands of Christmas. Even for families that can withstand the pressures of advertising, there are still significant costs involved in even a modest Christmas celebration. Without extra income at Christmas, some of those families will be forced into the hands of moneylenders. There has been a 30% increase in the number of clients attending the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS. In the first three months of this year, MABS dealt with more than 5,000 new clients, of whom 75 had sub-prime loans, 363 had moneylender loans, 254 had overdraft problems, 1,258 had credit card difficulties and 2,671 were in trouble with personal bank loans. Crucially, two thirds of these MABS clients were social welfare recipients. This statistic alone shows how dependent welfare recipients are on every cent they get and just how vital is the Christmas bonus.

In concluding, I wish to address my remarks to the many Fianna Fáil backbenchers and Independent Members who have run for cover tonight. Regrettably, not a single Government backbencher has turned up for this debate. I hope some of them are listening in their offices, as I intend to address my remarks to them. Members such as Deputies Lowry and Healy-Rae, [418]who have been supporting the Government, as well as Fianna Fáil backbenchers who habitually proclaim their commitment to the less well-off, now will have the chance to decide where they stand on this crucial issue.

Deputy Michael D. Higgins:  Hear, hear.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  I have spelled out what the suspension of the Christmas bonus will mean in practical terms but the backbenchers probably know that already. I have cited the types of families that will be affected and how they already are struggling, and the backbenchers know that too. However, they also must know what the public is saying about them, which is that they would rather defend their long-service increment than the Christmas bonus for long-term welfare recipients. For the most part, I do not believe this is true because when a rumour circulated late last year that the Government would not pay the 2008 Christmas bonus, several Fianna Fáil Deputies spoke up and showed just whose side they were on.

For example, the new Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady had something to say in this regard. When it was finally confirmed that a payment would be made, Deputy Brady declared, “The Government ensured that this Christmas bonus payment would be protected as so many people rely on that extra money at Christmas and use it to plan their finances over that period.” This point still holds true now and there is something ironic about the fact that the Deputy in question, who understood last year the importance of the Christmas bonus, now has responsibility for the elderly. I hope she still understands its importance. The Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, described the Christmas bonus as a €200 million boost for the Irish economy, which it was. The economy needs it more than ever in 2009, as nothing has changed except that matters have worsened. Deputy O’Flynn reminded those who had been calling him with regard to the Christmas bonus that, “I have been pressing the Minister for Social Welfare on this matter”. Deputy O’Flynn can stand up tomorrow in respect of this issue when it counts.

I believe most Fianna Fáil Deputies, and perhaps even some from the Green Party, are secretly angered by this cut. I believe that most of them do not consider it to be fair and that many realise it is not necessary and constitutes a huge political mistake. If this is the case, why do they allow those who are at the top dictate to them? How can they tell their constituents that cutting the Christmas bonus is an act of social solidarity? How can the backbenchers stand behind a Cabinet that ignored them on medical cards for the over-70s and now is ignoring them on this issue? I urge each Government backbencher to use the hours between now and the vote tomorrow to convince their Cabinet colleagues that this is not the correct course of action and that other options are available to the Government.

If backbenchers can turn around the Government before tomorrow’s vote in the interests of the poor, their constituents and their party, they should do so, as this is their chance. However, if backbenchers cannot force a change before tomorrow’s vote, why do they still support the Government? If the Cabinet cannot reinstate a Christmas bonus for pensioners, on what are Members voting? Will the backbenchers make clear where they stand? They either are silent lobby fodder or are in this House to represent their constituents’ views. If they cannot change this measure, what power do they have? While the social conscience of the Fianna Fáil Party may be switched off, surely the backbenchers’ political gut tells them this is wrong. The choice for such backbenchers is simple. They must change this proposal overnight or join with the Labour Party to vote against the savage cutting of the Christmas bonus.

Deputy Joan Burton:  In its second emergency budget since it came to office, the challenge for the Government is to find the way out to perform one more U-turn. For a Government that does so many U-turns, particularly on budgetary matters, this should not be difficult, [419]especially as my colleague, Deputy Shortall, has given the Minister detailed argument as to how taking some interest relief from landlords would more than pay for and cover this cut.

The Holy Week emergency budget has been haunted by the ghost of Christmas future. Removing the Christmas bonus will cancel Christmas for tens of thousands of pensioners, carers and others who have come to rely on it to supplement what are for the most part meagre and modest Christmases. Many older people use the additional Christmas payment to buy presents for their grandchildren. This is part of being an active citizen and yesterday I saw the former Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, launching the Bealtaine Festival that celebrates creativity in older people. Everyone recognises that the active engagement of older people, and old age pensioners in particular, in plotting and planning small gifts for children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews constitutes a huge part of their social life from September onwards, when the pre-Christmas shopping season begins. For many people, the Christmas bonus will put a turkey on the Christmas dinner table. The Christmas bonus is a much-needed financial lifeline and not a frivolous bonus that is akin to not buying a Prada handbag because one has lost a couple of thousand euro in tax. This issue is at the core of many people’s lives.

As for economic stimulus, Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate who commented on how he did not wish to see America go down the Ireland route, wrote about European economies recently and made the point that social welfare in European or social democratic economies constitutes an important form of economic stimulus because it keeps minimum levels of income and spending capacity in the economy in a manner that obviously does not happen in the United States. While I do not know whether the Minister has conducted scientific studies in this regard, the vast bulk of the Christmas bonus is spent locally in local shops. As my colleague, Deputy Shortall, has noted, this cutback could be paid for by restrictions on landlords’ interest relief. Much of the landlords’ money goes abroad, whereas the pensioners spend the money in their local shops and with local businesses.

Moreover, many pensioners will now take the train to the North to do their shopping there, to make whatever little savings they can. The Minister may have seen the recently broadcast RTE “Prime Time” programme, which showed that for shopping which cost approximately £160 north of the Border, the equivalent cost for exactly the same items in a southern supermarket was approximately €280. A pensioner who takes the train to the North probably can save the Christmas bonus equivalent by shopping there. However, that is not what the Government wants to happen. I have heard the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance and other Fianna Fáil Ministers suggest that people might be patriotic by shopping locally and in the Republic.

I also was shocked when the Minister for Social and Family Affairs confessed recently that the control process in her Department to target social welfare fraud had collapsed for a time in the recent past. The Minister acknowledged a loss of approximately €50 million in respect of the Department’s long-standing fraud control procedures because the Government could not get its act together. It took experienced social welfare staff, such as inspectors, from fraud control measures and put them to handling claims. This is at a time when the Government tells us there are civil servants in various Departments who could be redeployed. It seems an extraordinary act of bad management by the Minister that she should partially abandon control measures to the extent that she publically acknowledges, in parliamentary questions, and up to €50 million has been lost by the failure to continue routine and expert checking by social welfare inspectors in respect of deterring fraud and clarifying and confirming the identity of claimants. It is astonishing.

I offer the following to the Minister as a way out of her difficulties. If she takes an active interest in her Department and revisits the control measures, I predict she could make the savings and restore the Christmas bonus by that alone. Just as we are talking about going after [420]delinquent bankers and tax defaulters, we need to ensure there is no sense that social welfare fraud is being tolerated because inspections are being abandoned. We have had enough of that on the tax side, where there has been a significant limitation on the number of inspections to deter tax fraud. Claiming entitlements to which one is not entitled is a serious breach of the social contract and a cost to law-abiding taxpayers that they should not be asked to carry. It undermines confidence in the social welfare system and in the tax system if Ministers acknowledge that control measures break down and that some people may be able to claim benefits to which they are not entitled. Rather than relying on tip-offs about welfare fraudsters, the number of anti-fraud checks should be increased. Like tax evasion, welfare fraud may have been acceptable during a time of economic plenty but we cannot allow social solidarity to be undermined by what people on very modest incomes paying many extra taxes and levies feel is being taken out of their pockets simply by the failure of competent management on the part of the Minister.

We have seen this Government row back on measure after measure in the past six months. The bank guarantee was to be the cheapest in the world, at no cost to the Irish taxpayer. That was followed by recapitalisation, then nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank, a second recapitalisation and, as of yesterday, a third go at recapitalisation. Some €3.5 billion was not enough for a bank that said it would die if it had to raise extra capital. Yesterday, the Minister blithely announced an extra €1.5 billion for AIB. The levy was first to be on all incomes but is now on incomes over €15,000. The over-70s medical cards were to be withdrawn from all seniors but then they were not. Following a question from my colleague, the leader of the Labour Party, the pension levy became tax deductible overnight. The Government is full of examples of U-turns over the past eight months. All the Minister has to do is put together a plan, as suggested by Deputy Shortall, by curbing tax relief on interest for landlords or going after social welfare fraud and then she can restore Christmas to pensioners, carers and to people who are long-term unemployed, and let them have that little bit of cheer at Christmas.

Deputy Seán Sherlock:  Was it not a very cynical move to introduce such a measure at this time of the year, knowing it would not affect people until the winter? It speaks volumes about how this Government treats older people that it did not have the guts to try this in December, during normal budgetary times, because if those who marched when the Government tried to take medical cards from the over-70s numbered thousands, they would be out in their hundreds of thousands during December.

We now live in a society with a breakdown in the intergenerational solidarity that always sustained the communities in this country. That a Government would take away an economic measure that gives comfort to older people, at a time when people spend extra on their families and themselves, was miserly and unbelievable. No Fianna Fáil leader, such as Lemass or de Valera, would have countenanced such a move during their tenures. It is a measure of how far right this Government has moved in distancing itself from the very people who would ordinarily have supported it.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell stated, “To be happy in this world, especially when youth is past, it is necessary to feel oneself not merely an isolated individual whose day will soon be over, but part of the stream of life flowing on from the first germ to the remote and unknown future”. This Government is increasingly isolating our older people, taking measures that are dumping people in nursing homes who cannot get nursing home subvention, putting older people into penury in respect of how they pay for care in their autumn and winter years and now the Government is taking away a measure that gave some small assistance to see them through the winter months.

[421]Those who I represent are not upper middle class people living in urban conurbations. They are living in rural areas, in older housing stock, have modest pensions and must have the fire lighting all day every day to keep the back boiler going to run the radiators to ensure there is heat in the house. By reducing this payment, the Minister is telling us these people can pay for their heating costs but when they go to the community welfare officer to ask for a supplementary payment they will not be given it. They would ordinarily have used the bonus to pay for the extra bag of coal or other such simple measures that sustained them through the hard winter months. I ask the Minister to think of the intergenerational solidarity we always had in this country, the social solidarity to which previous Fianna Fáil Governments adhered, and I ask her to reverse this miserly, mean measure. To introduce it at this time of the year, when it is not so high on the political agenda, is a cynical move. It is symptomatic of the cynical politics that inhabit this country.

Deputy Arthur Morgan:  I thank the Labour Party for sharing time and commend it on tabling this motion, which homes in on one nasty element of the recent emergency bankers budget. I am not surprised it was not until after this debate had commenced that the Government could cobble together an amendment to it. It is worth reading one paragraph of the amendment in which the Government “acknowledges that in the context of very tough decisions having to be made across the whole range of Government expenditure, the provision of €21.3 billion for social welfare services in 2009 — 20% more than the amount spent in 2008 — is a clear demonstration of the Government’s commitment to protecting the vulnerable”. The focus of Government activity in recent years, certainly since September, has been on saving the banks and pumping taxpayers’ money into the banking structure. If the Government were serious about helping the vulnerable, one of its first actions would have been to ensure no more people would become unemployed by introducing policies which would deal with issues such as job retention and creation. It is worth saying again that it is much easier for the Government to step in with measures to prevent job losses and retain jobs rather than having the current scenario of us just drifting along rudderless with no Government policy on job retention and creation.

I wish to cover a number of categories of people — if that is an acceptable term to describe anybody — in this proposal, including pensioners and lone parent families. Ireland has the second highest rate of pensioner poverty in the EU and if there are any further cuts to welfare, elderly people will be plunged into deeper poverty. Nearly nine out of ten older people could be at risk of poverty if welfare supports are cut in next December’s budget, according to a warning by an alliance of non-government bodies. Why should we be surprised at that?

I will first consider the pensioners. A great number of pensioners are struggling to make ends meet, although we know there is a percentage on the other side of this who have made reasonable pension provisions and who do not have those concerns. A significant majority of pensioners will suffer greatly because of the withdrawal of the Christmas bonus. The debate on this issue, since its announcement in the emergency bankers’ budget a few weeks ago, has revealed people talking about taking Christmas away from pensioners, as well as Christmas presents. The issue is not just about Christmas presents.

This is about pensioners trying to get a few bob together in this bonus to pay the overhang which was discussed just a moment ago by one of my colleagues on the Labour benches. For example, there is an issue regarding fuel. I know many pensioners who have an overhang of a coal or gas bill and they depend at least partly on the Christmas bonus to clear up that loan. In the winter, pensioners are colder and more vulnerable, with some surviving on very little food in order to try to keep themselves warm. This withdrawal of a reasonable contribution to pensioners is mean-spirited in the extreme.

[422]The withdrawal will also lead to greater numbers of people ending up in hospital, leading to costs which are greater than any savings from the withdrawal of the payment in the first instance, even before we speak about additional crowding in hospitals and people spending more time on the infamous trolleys in accident and emergency units. That would be most unfortunate.

It should be acknowledged that the payment could also help pay for a small Christmas present that a grandparent can buy for a grandchild who may have helped out by cutting the lawn over the course of the year, for example. Such a small gesture is worthy of note and I am glad that it has been part of the debate on this issue.

I also wish to speak about the consequences for increasing loneliness because many pensioners will become very isolated as a result of this action. Deputy Burton mentioned people who have significant income and decent pensions, who can choose between Prada handbags. I do not know what such handbags would look like but maybe I am grateful for that. I know that most pensioners’ choices are more likely to be between the yellow pack on the supermarket shelf and the ordinary pack. I have no doubt that significant numbers will have no option but to reach for the yellow pack.

We are told the decreasing rate of inflation will be of significant assistance to these pensioners. We all know that in the consumer price index, the biggest move in the measure of inflation has been in mortgage rates. As a significant number of pensioners do not have mortgages, the benefit will not come to them easily. It is unfair to use the inflation or deflation argument to justify this unjustifiable withdrawal of services as it will take a long time for that deflationary move to reach pensioners.

The budget was misleading and the Government amendment mentions the provision of 20% more expenditure for welfare payments. This is a result of more people going on the dole. If the Government had brought forward proper job retention policies, that would not be necessary and we would not have that additional expenditure. It is not an increase in expenditure, as we know.

It is important in this context to discuss the significant shift in wealth in this State that will take place under the proposed national asset management agency, NAMA. This is not about shifting wealth from the wealthy to the poor, quite the opposite — it will be shifted from the poor to the wealthy. It will cover the bankers and speculators as they were caught out, which is grossly unfair. It is some Celtic tiger for pensioners.

Lone parents are more likely than any other social group to be living in poverty. Data from the EU survey on income and living conditions conducted by the Central Statistics Office show that in 2006 alone, 33% of one-parent families were living in consistent poverty compared to 7% of the population as a whole. Among the reasons lone parents are more likely to be poor are lower levels of educational attainment, with 47% of lone parents under 35 only having junior certificate level of education; the poverty trap, which makes it financially difficult to move from welfare to work; and low paying jobs or unemployment. Lone parents who work are more likely to be in low-paying jobs, partly as a result of a lack of qualifications and partly because of the difficulty in accessing affordable child care.

I am sure every Member has experience of lone parent families coming to constituency offices. Last week I dealt with a case where a woman had three children in primary school. After she had paid all the other necessary expenses such as rent and essential bits and pieces for the house, she ended up with €40 per week to feed herself and her three children. That amount of money would probably be spent on a round in the Dáil bar without so much as a [423]thought yet that woman had just that to feed herself and children. There are many other examples of that with which I have no doubt Members would be familiar.

The Minister for Social and Family Affairs has moved to defuse the political time bomb by pledging to pay the social welfare Christmas bonus if there is a “windfall” in the Department’s coffers or savings targets are exceeded. Where would that windfall come from? Would it come from bankers or speculators? I think not. The Minister’s action was merely to throw a lifeline to the candidates of the Government parties who will go around the streets, roads and lanes of this State over the next few weeks to canvass in both the local government and EU elections. Such candidates can argue that the cut may not happen as the Minister indicated that if there was a windfall the cut would not be effected. It is a poor example.

I wanted to make a couple of other points but it is difficult to cram the issue into such a small time. In all of its statements, the Government has indicated that we must protect the poor and look after those who most need it. Yet most of the cuts and much political direction from the Government goes in the opposite direction. When will this Government stand back and listen to organisations such as CORI in the propositions and suggestions they make? When will this Government listen to those who are advocating for poor people and recognise the folly of its way, particularly regarding the circumstances we are discussing here, the withdrawal of the Christmas bonus? It is wrong and should not happen.

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I wish to share time with the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Moloney.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  That is agreed.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I move amendment No. 1:

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

“—acknowledges that in the context of very tough decisions having to be made across the whole range of Government expenditure, the provision of €21.3 billion for social welfare services in 2009 — 20% more than the amount spent in 2008 — is a clear demonstration of the Government’s commitment to protecting the vulnerable and providing income support to the increasing numbers of people who are losing their jobs;

notes that both taxes and borrowing had to be increased in the Budget to pay for rising welfare expenditure in 2009;

further notes that over the past decade there have been very significant increases in welfare payments with child benefit increasing from €44 to €166 per month; State contributory pension increasing from €113 to more than €230 per week and the weekly rate of jobseeker’s allowance being raised from €93 to €204 per week;

notes that payment of a 100% bonus in 2009 would cost in the region of €223 million;

acknowledges that in deciding on where to achieve savings in welfare expenditure, there were no easy options and that everything had to be considered — including a cut in the weekly rates of payments to all welfare recipients which the Government avoided;

notes that the October budget provided for increases of between 3% and 3.8% in the basic payment rates and that the inflation forecast has changed substantially since then, with a 4% drop in the Consumer Price Index now expected in 2009; and

[424]

appreciates that the decision not to pay a Christmas bonus in 2009 will be difficult for people but believes that savings in other areas of welfare expenditure could have caused greater hardship;

acknowledges that the Government will:

reconsider the payment of the Christmas bonus as soon as we are out of the current economic situation;

prioritise control activities to reduce the incidences of social welfare fraud to effect savings; and

continue to publicise the supports that are available through the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and to encourage people to contact them early before their debt problems accumulate.”.

In framing the recent budget, the Government was obliged to make a number of difficult decisions. Those decisions were difficult because we were conscious of the fact that in raising taxes or cutting expenditure, we would have an impact on people’s lives. Nowhere is this more true than in respect of the social welfare budget. The outcome of the budget has been to increase social welfare expenditure. As a result, the social welfare budget will be €21.3 billion this year. Unfortunately, the need for this increase has come about for the wrong reasons — namely, the rising numbers seeking jobseeker’s assistance and jobseeker’s benefit. However, provision must be made in respect of these people. Those who have lost their jobs are now the most vulnerable and they need our support.

The figure of €21.3 billion represents an increase of 20% on the allocation for last year. At a time when Exchequer income is decreasing at a drastic rate, it was essential that not only should we try to increase that income but that we should also reduce expenditure. To restore stability to the public finances, this meant we were obliged to do both. As are result of our decision in this regard, expenditure cuts were made across all Departments. However, the Department of Social and Family Affairs largely escaped the brunt of those cuts. That is a sign of the Government’s commitment to the most vulnerable.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  It is a sign of rising unemployment.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  It is also a sign that we must make provision for those people who are becoming dependent on the State.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  Hit the elderly again.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  What the Minister is saying is not true. There have been cuts.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Out of a budget of €21.3 billion, we agreed to savings or cuts of €300 million, which is a very small proportion of the overall budget. Each decision relating to these savings or cuts was extremely difficult.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Minister chose to make the cuts there rather than everywhere. She had other options.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  The Minister should be allowed to continue.

[425]Deputy Mary Hanafin:  It is completely disingenuous to say we could have brought more in with regard to income.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Of course the Government could have done so.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  To restore stability to the public finances, we were obliged to cut expenditure and increase income.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  What about the expenditure——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Deputy Shortall——

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  ——on tax relief for landlords and those with large pensions.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  Hear, hear.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Government ignored that expenditure.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Deputy Shortall and other Members who have already contributed will listen in silence and will allow the Minister to make her contribution.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  It is extremely difficult to listen in silence to what the Minister is saying.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  The Deputy will have an opportunity to make his contribution in due course.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Leaving aside borrowing, some 60% of the income coming into the Exchequer is being paid out on social welfare. Unfortunately, it was necessary, therefore, to make savings within my Department’s budget. A large part of this will come from controlled savings, a matter to which I will return later. Savings will be also made in respect of rent supplement and the reduction in payments to 19 year olds. Account must be also taken of the positive aspects involved with encouraging people to return to education, etc.

It is wrong to state that we did not make choices with regard to the social welfare budget. One of the choices with which we were faced was whether to cut all of the payments made to more than 1 million people each week. No one wanted to do so. This was particularly the case because we were conscious of the fact that although there is deflation and although prices are coming down, it is only now we are witnessing decreases in the cost of food and electricity.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  The Minister is stretching the truth somewhat.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Prices are not coming down for welfare recipients. What the Minister said is a lie.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Deputy Shortall knows that she cannot make such a charge.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  It is untrue.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  The Minister is stretching the truth.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  We are conscious of the fact that even though prices have begun to fall, this has happened in areas where, as yet, there has not been an impact in respect of social welfare recipients. There has been an impact in respect of mortgages and such an impact is now being felt in the areas of food and fuel. For the reason I have outlined, we chose not to reduce payments.

[426]The other reason not to cut regular weekly payments is that far more people receive such payments than receive the Christmas bonus. If we had introduced an across-the-board cut, the payments being made to all those people who lost their jobs since last Christmas would have been reduced. It is difficult enough for people to lose their jobs and to be obliged to accept a payment of €204.30 per week without their having to accept a further reduction in their incomes.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Minister should get off the stage.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  That was one of the choices we faced in the context of achieving the kind of expenditure savings that were required. We chose not to introduce an across-the-board cut.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  The easy option.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Another option — many arguments were put forward by people outside the House in respect of this — would have been to reduce child benefit, particularly because it is a universal payment——

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  We know all about that, Minister.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  ——and because there are those who receive this benefit but who are not dependent on it.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  The Government is going to reduce it in December.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  We chose not to reduce child benefit——

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  Yet.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  ——because the Commission on Taxation is examining how child benefit might be brought within the tax code or means tested.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  The Government is hiding behind the commission.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The Government did not want to reduce child benefit before the commission makes its determination in this regard.

Carers, who make a valuable contribution to society, engaged in heavy lobbying to ensure none of the benefits they receive — which amount to approximately €640 million per year — would be reduced. We chose not to cut these benefits.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  That is because these people provide a service to the State.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  The Minister should be allowed to make her contribution.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  It is disingenuous for people to say that savings should have been made from within other Departments. The savings had to be found within my Department’s budget——

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Why was that the case?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  ——but we chose not to make the cuts to which I refer because the impact would have been felt by far more people if we had done so.

[427]Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Minister is misleading the House.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  We were faced with the dilemma of identifying areas where savings of €300 million might be made. No one has referred to the fact that the Christmas bonus for 2008 cost the taxpayer €223 million. We would have been able to identify savings of €20 million or €50 million elsewhere but not savings of €223 million.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  The loss of that bonus will have a direct impact on the recipients.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  PPARS was more expensive.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I am aware that the bonus is only worth a couple of hundred euro to recipients.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  And its loss will have a major impact on them at Christmas.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  The Minister’s attitude is typically dismissive.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I know how hard it will be for these people. This was probably the most difficult decision the Government was obliged to make in framing the supplementary budget. It is correct to state that we would not have made this decision next November. At that stage, people would have had a reasonable expectation that they would receive the money in December and it would have been completely unfair to dash their hopes.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  The Government was flying a kite.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  We were extremely fortunate that, despite the fact that money was tight, we were able to provide a 100% bonus last Christmas. I accept that the removal of the bonus will make matters difficult for those who require extra money at Christmas. At least in making the decision now, however, we are giving them advance notice.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  Of what the Government is going to save.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The saving in the context of the Department’s budget will be only €156 million. This is due to the fact that provision is only ever made for 70% of the overall figure. We always seek the remaining 30% in September or October. As already stated, however, the overall cost of the bonus last year was €223 million. If I could find that amount anywhere else, I would do so. However, I do not want to raise people’s expectations at this point.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Why do the savings have to come from within the Department’s budget?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  We have already set ourselves an increased target on what we are going to save in respect of control and fraud measures. Deputies will be well aware that I have taken this issue extremely seriously.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  We are not so aware.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  The Minister’s Department did not achieve its target last year.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  We are setting about targeting an additional €85 million this year. This is over and above the increase we had already anticipated.

[428]Deputy Olwyn Enright:  The target was not achieve last year.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  We had set a target of more than €500 million for this year and additional money will now be coming in.

There are different ways in which one can tackle control. The first of these is to ensure that a person who is not qualified for payment does not receive such payment.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  If it takes two months to issue payments in the first instance, then something is wrong.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  Or three months.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  On what are people supposed to live in the meantime?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Moving the inspectors into the area of processing claims ensured the processing times were reduced and that people received their payments in time for Christmas. It also ensured there was due diligence in processing so that the wrong people did not receive a payment.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  There is no danger of that happening.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  We saved almost €30 million more last year than in the previous year but we are setting ourselves an even higher target this year.

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  The Minister did not reach the higher target.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  There is no way, despite all our best efforts, that we will get another €223 million over and above the €580 million. I said on the day of the budget that if there was any sort of windfall, this would be the one area the Government would like to reinstate by Christmas but I do not want to raise expectations. We will continue with anti-fraud measures and controls with our normal four-pronged attack: prevention at the early stages, detection through review of claims in payment, deterrence of fraud and pursuit of those who have taken money they are not entitled to, either in error or deliberately, with prosecution where necessary.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  Another punishment beating.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Some of the initiatives introduced in the past year include the scheme established in July where a person must personally turn up in the post office to get the payment instead of receiving the money by electronic transfer. That measure was a success. Another was the certification of child benefit because we are all aware of people who claim child benefit after leaving the country. There were working here legitimately but they have now left the country and we want to be sure that if they have gone, the money has not gone with them.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  The Government caused that problem.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  The bankers could be included in that category.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Significant, high profile, successful work has been done to prevent cross-Border fraud, with multi-agency approaches that stopped people from coming across the Border.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  How many?

[429]Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The whole country knows at this stage that we succeeded in finding young people under the age of 25 who could get four times more in the South than in the North.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  A handful of people.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  Why was that? Because the Government was always boasting about how much it would give away.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Deputy Durkan must allow the Minister to make her contribution without interruption. Members will be allowed to make their contributions afterwards.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  I apologise but I get upset.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Perhaps the Deputy could find something useful to do elsewhere instead of continuing to disrupt the debate.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  It also had a strong deterrent effect because people knew they would be caught. They were caught and stopped. The increased controls were a success.

Recently photo identification has been asked of those who are collecting to ensure the right person is getting the payment. Social welfare inspectors are working in the Garda National Immigration Bureau in the airports to check people coming through. Those measures are over and above the regular reviews of control and fraud. It is crucial we continue to make savings in this area. We have set ourselves a target of more than €580 million in savings to ensure we clamp down on fraudulent claims. There are 600 staff in the Department working on control activities at local, regional and national levels. Each of them, within their field of responsibility, is doing important work and criminal prosecutions are carried out. By the end of last year 357 cases of social welfare fraud were forwarded to the Chief State Solicitor’s office. A further 328 cases were finalised in court last year.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  There were no pensioners among them.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The message has clearly been sent out that we clamp down on fraud and we make savings. We will continue to prioritise control savings within the Department so we do not have to make the type of difficult decisions we had to make in the last budget.

The dependence of people on social welfare payments was mentioned and I accept that. There are people who are losing their jobs, lone parents, carers, pensioners or any of the other 1.2 million who receive a social welfare payment. They have become dependent on those payments but it is opportune to note those payments have increased significantly over recent years. I am not saying any of us would like to be living on them — far from it — but they are more generous payments than those in Britain or the rest of the EU. In recent years child benefit has increased from €44 to €166 per month, the State contributory pension has grown from €113 a week to €230 a week and the weekly rate of jobseeker’s allowance has risen from €93 to €204 per week. Our commitment has been that in times when there has been sufficient funding, we have put it into social welfare to support the most vulnerable.

Those are just the basic payments. The secondary payments, such as household benefit, rent supplement and mortgage interest supplement, free travel and other schemes which we never hear about, cost huge sums as well. People say the Christmas bonus withdrawal will put pressure on the elderly when they are paying their heating bills but that is why in the last budget we increased the fuel allowance and increased the number of weeks for which it is payable. Fortunately the price of fuel is falling substantially. It is interesting that a third of all those who receive household benefit do not use all the electricity units.

[430]Deputy Ulick Burke:  They are afraid to use them.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  They can use that for extra heating in December, January and February — they are free. The household budget package amounts to €540 a year for those people. It is in place for them but they are not using it. Perhaps I can encourage people not to be afraid to use what they have.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  They are trying to be responsible. They think they are doing the right thing.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The motion refers to the possibility that people might turn to moneylenders at Christmas. There is not much evidence that there is a greater incidence of people turning to moneylenders, although I accept there is a danger it will happen at any time when people are vulnerable. That is why the money advice and budgeting service, MABS, exists to give advice to people about budgeting. More than 5,000 people have contacted MABS in person in the first three months of the year and more than 6,000 people have contacted the telephone helpline. It is interesting that 90% of those who contact the helpline can now have their issue dealt with over the phone.

Deputy Michael Creed:  They get their money over the phone?

Deputy Olwyn Enright:  So are we to forget about the remaining 10%?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The service is of assistance to people. If people have a credit problem with a utility provider, it can be dealt with. People are coming around to an appointment system so there is no reason for people to feel more vulnerable. These are difficult decisions.

Deputy Michael Creed:  The Minister is very brave. Very brave.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I would much prefer to be a Minister for Social and Family Affairs who could give the sort of increases we saw over recent years. It was a lovely position to be in during the budget before Christmas to be able to give such increases, although they were less than in previous years. They were still substantial increases that people did not expect. We certainly did not want to reduce those for them now.

The choices before us were far more difficult. Many more people would have been affected had we cut rates. Savings had to be effected in the Department.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Why?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Because expenditure must be reduced. We certainly must ask whether it is sustainable that €6 of every €10 that comes into the Exchequer goes back out in social welfare payments.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  The Government underestimated how much it would need.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  If the Government did something about jobs, that would not be the case.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  That is why our priority is to get people back to work. Our priority is to get people into training and education so they can be prepared for work. Getting them back into work is the best way of reducing the social welfare budget.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  What is the Minister doing about it?

[431]Deputy Olwyn Enright:  She is talking about it.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Minister is doing nothing.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  In the meantime, difficult choices had to be made.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Minister is jeopardising more jobs.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  There is no doubt that we regret having to make these difficult decisions. However, as soon as there is a turn in the economy, this Government will reconsider the payment of the Christmas bonus.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  The Government will not be able to do that. It will not be there.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  In the meanwhile, we will continue to try to effect savings through social welfare controls——

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  On the backs of the weakest.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  ——against fraud. We will continue to try to protect and defend the people who have come to depend on their regular payments, not just the bonus payment at Christmas.

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy John Moloney):  I pay tribute to the Minister who, despite having to introduce this cut, has come to the House to explain it in great detail. Nobody wishes to propose or support cuts in social welfare but this is a time when, unfortunately, all Departments are expected to try to deal with the current state of the public finances. The Department of Social and Family Affairs is not safe from the cut as well.

  8 o’clock

I accept the point about the importance of the Christmas bonus. However, it should be put in context. I have difficulty accepting the tag of being mean-spirited when I consider the total amount of funding for the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the Department’s expenditure. I hope people will understand that while this is a serious measure, the Minister has suggested that it is not a measure the Government proposes to keep into the future. The commitment has been given that as soon as the public finances are restored this cut will be dealt with.

The choice for the Minister and the Government was to cut rates across the board.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  No, it was not.

Deputy John Moloney:  It was.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  That is untrue. You are peddling lies.

Deputy John Moloney:  I am not peddling anything. I am making the clear point——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  I must intervene. The Deputy knows she cannot accuse a Member of lying. I ask her to withdraw it.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  I am saying they are peddling a lie.

Deputy John Moloney:  I do not mind what description the Deputy uses. It is not true anyway.

[432]An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  The Deputy cannot accuse the Minister of State of peddling a lie.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Okay. He is peddling an untruth. It is not true.

Deputy John Moloney:  Regardless of whether we are accused of misleading or peddling something, the reality is that the difficulty for the Minister was a choice of cutting rates across the board or dealing with the issue through a temporary measure——

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  Hobson’s choice.

Deputy John Moloney:  ——which will be given recognition when matters improve.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  What about the big pension funds that are untouched?

Deputy John Moloney:  Rather than talk about mean-spiritedness, it is important to recognise what has been achieved over the years. In the good times, people accepted the need to ensure we could support people in need of social welfare. There is also the context of the overall reduction in expenditure of €153 million in a total budget of €21.3 billion. People who wish to be fair-minded about this recognise the huge demands that exist on the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Rather than cut the rates, the fairest way of dealing with it was to specifically examine an area——

Deputy Ulick Burke:  Hit the vulnerable — the old and the needy.

Deputy John Moloney:  No, it was not to hit the vulnerable. Unfortunately, in a recession many people are vulnerable, even those who have not lost their jobs.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Some people are untouchable.

Deputy John Moloney:  It is a matter of recognising the needs. Every Deputy who conducts a clinic will hear people, not just in the clinic but on the street, discuss the issue of how many Ministers over the years have not dealt with the areas where savings can be effected. I presume that the savings effected through the clampdown on social welfare fraud and a stronger inspectorate will go towards removing the cuts that unfortunately had to be made this year.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  There will not be much from that.

Deputy John Moloney:  For years Members of the House have talked about the huge waste in the social welfare system. The Minister is to be commended for recognising that it is not just a matter of cutting and saving but also a matter of ensuring the budget of the Department is properly managed and used. I believe this was a brave attempt on the part of the Minister to recognise the choices before her.

I do not wish to use the cliche “tough decisions” but——

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  Thank God for that.

Deputy John Moloney:  ——there should be a sense of reality. There is a recession facing this country the like of which we have not seen in 40 or 50 years. The sad reality is that the response to it requires tough measures, coupled with tough decisions. It should be recalled that last October this House welcomed an across-the-board increase of 3.5% in social welfare payments. Why would a political party or Government go out of its way to become unpopular? [433] They do not do that. The Government has consistently increased social welfare over the years, particularly last October by 3.5%. The difficulty now is that the revenue——

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  The time has come to take it back.

Deputy John Moloney:  ——this Government has supported and generated is unfortunately no longer available, so the cut was made.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  It hits the pensioners when it is in trouble.

Deputy John Moloney:  No. I am saying that across all the Departments expenditure choices were made.

Deputy Michael Creed:  Easy options.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  That was the choice.

Deputy John Moloney:  No, I would not say easy options.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Government made the choices.

Deputy John Moloney:  In my opinion, many people in receipt of social welfare benefit, be it supplementary welfare, disability benefit and so forth, would also recognise that the maintenance of their benefits is of the utmost importance to continue their way of living. The fact that the Minister did not even consider a cut across the rates in itself demonstrates that the least possible pain has been inflicted in this area.

It is worth pointing out that €21.3 billion is provided for social welfare services in 2009, which is 20% more than the amount spent in 2008, yet there is little talk about it. This shows a clear commitment to protecting the vulnerable and providing income support for the increasing number of people who are losing their jobs. For years we implored various Ministers to increase carer’s allowance, pensions and so forth. That has been done, not just in good times but also in lean times. This is the first time a Government has been confronted with the need to reduce the social welfare budget.

It should be noted that over the past decade there have been significant increases in welfare benefits. Child benefit has increased from €44 to €166 per month. I am amazed that even when there are historic increases in welfare payments, there is little recognition of it or clamour about it. The State contributory pension has increased from €113 to more than €230 per week. Fair-minded people recognise that the Government has at all times been consistent and insistent on ensuring that the most vulnerable are protected. A very important part of the budgetary strategy has been the increase in the rate of jobseeker’s allowance from €93 to approximately €200 per week.

Both taxes and borrowing had to be increased in the budget to pay for rising welfare expenditure. The figures quoted by the Minister confirm the fact that the Government recognises the need always to support the welfare budget through the increases it has made. We regret the fact that social welfare cuts had to be made but it is simply not possible to avoid them. Even though Members on the Opposition benches have said the opposite, I have not heard any suggestion that we could have secured savings of €300 million anywhere else.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  The Minister has not been at people’s doors lately.

Deputy John Moloney:  I have been at people’s doors——

[434]Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  He did not stay too long at them.

Deputy John Moloney:  I have been at quite a lot of doors. I have also been able to explain to people——

Deputy Ulick Burke:  The Minister did not stay long.

Deputy John Moloney:  I often find that the electorate is far more willing to listen than the Opposition. Clearly, when I have time I explain to the electorate the consistent increases in benefits over the years. I recall a time when one could only dream of the old age pension passing £100 per week. That level arrived and was passed. People accepted that. I take particular delight in explaining to people the huge commitment of this Government over the years to social welfare. I put that in the context of explaining the measure that had to be taken this year. That is not to suggest it will be an ongoing measure. It is a matter of waiting until the budget is rebalanced but no further than that. The saving grace, when I am on people’s doorsteps, is being able to point out that——

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  There is worse to come.

Deputy John Moloney:  ——regardless of what happens in the recession, there has been no cut across the board. I feel people accept that in the spirit in which it is given and they are happy that the payments are protected. It is worth making the point——

Deputy Jan O’Sullivan:  That is not the view in my constituency.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Whatever about that, the Minister of State’s time has now expired.

Deputy John Moloney:  That is most regrettable as I had so many other good things to say.

Deputy Michael Creed:  I suggest the Government’s time has expired.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  Literally.

Deputy John Moloney:  I do not use the website but I will put the remainder of my contribution on the website for Members to read what has been achieved over the years.

Deputy Michael Creed:  Is that on the Minister of State’s own website?

An Ceann Comhairle:  That is very good form on the Minister of State’s part.

Deputy Tom Hayes:  I wish to share my time with Deputies Burke, Durkan, Creed, O’Donnell and Enright.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Tom Hayes:  I am pleased to support the Labour Party’s Private Members’ motion. I commend the Labour Party on tabling the motion as it reflects the anger felt by people in the community. The eyes of the nation were on Leinster House on the day the budget was announced and people got a big fright when we reached the social welfare section and it was announced that the Christmas bonus was being taken away. That will go down in history in the same way as Ernest Blythe’s one shilling reduction in the pension in 1924. How many times has that been thrown across the floor at this side of the House? What the Government has done is equivalent to that.

[435]When one puts it in context, it is most unfair of the Government to take away the Christmas bonus from the unemployed and old age pensioners who have worked extremely hard. At that time of year unemployed persons with young families plan to give their children the benefits of Christmas and to buy extra things for them. I condemn the Government’s action as unfair, unjust, cowardly and unkind.

How can the Government preside over that mean action at a time when the HSE has an allocation of €1.4 million in bonus payments for executives and others in the health service who are running a deplorable service? It is not possible for anybody on the Government side of the House to justify the cut because it is unfair. The Government could have addressed other issues or sought reform in other areas. The public service is crying out for reform yet there was nothing about that in the budget. Instead, the Government resorted to the pensioners and those who could ill afford more cuts.

We should encourage those on the back to work and the back to education allowances who have travel and other expenses at a time when the economy is going through such difficulty. We need people to access retraining and education. We should encourage those people who have been forced onto the dole queues by the high cost economy this has proven to be. I live in a constituency where jobs have been lost in three different areas in recent months. People are being encouraged to go back to education or to retrain and it is of the utmost importance to encourage them. It is unfair to cut a bonus at Christmas.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  I am pleased to have an opportunity to support the Labour Party motion before the House. When one considers the senselessness and severity of what the Minister has done in the case of the Christmas bonus it suggests that the Government does not realise the implication of the measure.

The Minister, Deputy Hanafin, stated on 27 October 2008:

Even with the challenging budgetary situation, the payment of this additional money to social welfare customers is a clear sign that helping those most in need of support remains the key priority for the Government. We all recognise that there are significant pressures for families and individuals around Christmas time, and this funding will go some way towards meeting their needs.

Why is that no longer a priority?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Because I do not have €223 million.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  Fair enough. The Minister is putting it in context now. She is admitting that the elderly and those in need will pay for her mistakes.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  That is correct, they have to pay.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  If it was a priority for the Government last October, why is it a necessity to impose cuts on those vulnerable people?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Because we had the money then.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  In 1955 a predecessor of the Minister, the late Minister, Mr. Moran, was the first to introduce a double payment at Christmas time, albeit for a selective group. If the Minister can tell social welfare recipients, especially old age pensioners, that times are worse now than in 1955 then the Government has failed to tell the public how deep is the recession.

[436]The Minister for Finance has made many changes to the budget to date and he blustered in regard to some of the mistakes he made but changes have taken place. There is room for change. There are suggestions in the motion as to where the Minister can find the money she needs. Many other suggestions were made by other Opposition Members about where the funding could be found, but nobody had anticipated that the Government would again seek to make old age pensioners a soft target for further cuts given that they had already been hit in the October budget.

Everybody in the House, including the Minister, has probably received a letter from the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament, the voice of the elderly. It has been forced to put pen to paper in disbelief to express its concerns. The Minister more or less made the excuse to the House tonight that some elderly people were so well off that they did not use the free fuel allowances allocated to them. It is scraping the bottom of the barrel to use that as an excuse. It is unbelievable that a Minister would make such a hurtful assertion. I hope the Minister will change her mind on this measure before the Bill is implemented. What is hurtful in April will be much more so next November prior to Christmas.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  In the short few minutes remaining I wish to state that I am appalled that we have reached this juncture, coming as it does after the so-called Celtic tiger about which we boasted in this country. Inside and outside this House, nationally and internationally, we have heard the mantra in recent years that we were the richest country in the world, the most powerful people in the world and people expected a great deal of us. We would have expected a lot more from the Government in office than a punishment beating for the recipients of social welfare. Bearing in mind that the Christmas bonus payment is for long-term social welfare recipients only, one should note that the number of people likely to be affected by the proposal is much greater than has been indicated to the House. The pain and punishment likely to be inflicted on those who are vulnerable is considerable. They are dependent on a payment and have budgeted for the year on the basis of receiving it but had no knowledge of what was coming down the tracks.

Worst of all, the proposal is tempered by the threat by the Government that there is worse to come and that tough decisions must be made. The theory is that if one experiences enough pain, it will solve the problem. I have bad news for the Minister in this regard. She knows the proposal in question is doing nothing for the economy, the recipients of social welfare or those who recently applied for social welfare payments. The payment cut has only one objective; it is to compensate for the recalcitrance in recent years of those who did not do the job they were given to do or did not run the economy properly. Like the Sheriff of Nottingham, the Government is now roaming the land punishing people at will for having the misfortune of having voted for it.

The saddest point of all is that, unfortunately, people who are vulnerable, dependent on the State and watching the postman to ensure events occur when expected are now being told by the Government that the cut to the bonus was better than making a cut across the board. They are told it is a punishment to be meted out to them and that the medicine is good for them. They are told they will enjoy it later on because the sun may shine at some stage in the future, at which time the Government may be able to hand them back some of the money.

This is a sad time and I do not know if the Minister is really au fait with what is happening. The real reason for the cuts is that the budget was short changed. There was an insufficient Estimate to meet the requirements of the Department of Social and Family Affairs at the beginning of the year. The €223 million the Minister will save will probably help to pay for the [437]rent of the storage space for the e-voting technology. It will go towards rent that, in some cases, will have to be paid for the next 20 years unless the machines are melted down or sold to another republic.

Sadly, as I have mentioned before in the House, the application of the habitual residency clause at present is appalling. If a founding member of the main Government party were alive in this country today, having returned in the past two years, he would not qualify for a social welfare payment. This is a sad reflection on our society. The provision was made for one purpose, to which of course the Government will not admit.

Consider the position of many people who were self-employed and self-sufficient but who now find themselves unemployed and dependent on social welfare. It is humiliating and sad enough to have to line up and apply for social welfare and supplementary welfare but it is really awful when those doing so are led to believe they qualify for nothing. This is not true. They are entitled to a payment, be it a sickness allowance payment or unemployment assistance. These are means-tested payments to which they are entitled and there should be no obstacles to their receiving them provided they meet the requirements.

Deputy Michael Creed:  Politics is about choices and it is undoubtedly true that the choices made not by the Minister opposite, Deputy Hanafin, but by the previous Government, were very significant contributors to the financial predicament in which the present Government now finds itself. It is abundantly clear that the choices made today are the mirror image of those that led us into this difficulty. The current Taoiseach, as Minister for Finance, was a cheerleader for the construction industry. Tax incentives were created which threw petrol on a fire that was already burning out of control. This ethos was best summarised by former Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, who said in respect of the e-voting machines that €50 million was but small change.

When the Minister of Social and Family Affairs stands up without a script, there is always a danger the mask will slip. She stated in respect of the bonus that it is only a couple of hundred euro to the recipients. I almost expected the Marie Antoinette of Cabinet to say, “Let them eat cake.” The couple of hundred euro represents Christmas for the recipients. The chauffeur-driven Minister in her ivory tower operates mostly from a script but unfortunately walked into the mire this evening without one, thus exposing the real philosophy underlying the Government’s approach. It is abundantly clear that the Government has nailed its colours to the mast. When the proverbial hits the fan, the Government stands four-square behind all those who led us into this debacle, the banks and the developers——

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  It must be considered in the context of——

Deputy Michael Creed:  It plans for the recovery of the economy at the expense of those who contributed by their sweat and tears to build it.

I want to localise the issues and refer to my constituency. In the Macroom social welfare office, 664 people were signing on in March 2008. There are now 1,473 doing so, representing an increase of 121%. In the Newmarket office, where 660 people were signing on in March 2008, there are now 1,844 doing so, representing an increase of 179%. Many of these people are forced to experience the indignity of standing in queues in rain and inclement weather and are being forced to wait many weeks before obtaining their entitlements. Included among these are many from the agricultural community who, by virtue of the collapse in the agriculture sector, now qualify for a farm assist payment. Why does the Government fail to recognise the position on the €230 million, which I accept is a lot of money in difficult times? It must not be spirited out of the country to offshore bank accounts but spent on regenerating local economies. [438] The problem with many of the analyses carried out by the Government and outside commentators on the economic difficulties is that they all focus on the macro level. We need to focus on local economies and communities. The money in question would drive these. I wish the Marie Antoinette of Cabinet would take into account these matters.

Deputy Kieran O’Donnell:  When the budget was delivered by the Minister for Finance, the abolition of the Christmas bonus stood out clearly. Did the Government consult its backbenchers on this? It is effectively taking what could amount to €200 from social welfare recipients. The Minster for Social and Family Affairs is focusing on soft targets. Did she make the decision on the bonus herself or was it made collectively by the Cabinet? When she was considering savings with her officials, did she decide to opt to abolish the Christmas bonus?

The cut affects the most vulnerable, including those in receipt of the disability allowance, jobseeker’s allowance, deserted wives’ benefit, carer’s allowance and the lone-parent allowance. The Minister should consider what will happen to them at Christmas. In my constituency of Limerick East, the cut will affect the most vulnerable. In many cases, they are living in sub-standard accommodation and paying considerable electricity and fuel bills over the winter months just to keep warm. The Christmas bonus contributed towards these bills. The money is not saved by the recipients but spent on necessities, including food, clothing, fuel and children’s Christmas presents. I have racked my brain and cannot understand why the Minister considered the cut to be legitimate. She should think about people’s needs in the approach to Christmas. The bonus represents a considerable amount of money to the recipients.

For the sake of €156 million — the Minister stated she did not have €230 million——

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Two hundred and twenty-three million euro.

Deputy Kieran O’Donnell:  The Minister is hitting a growing group. People who are currently on jobseeker’s benefit will be going on to jobseeker’s allowance by Christmas. People who will have been drawing on their PRSI benefits will be going on to long-term unemployment. Consider it in the overall context of what we are putting into the banks. We already have put €7 billion into the two main banks and we are looking at a potential further €1.5 billion. We are looking at coming up with funding in all of these areas.

This is another defining moment. Who are we elected to represent? We are elected to ensure the economy works well and to look after the most vulnerable. In one fell swoop the Minister has defined what this Government is about. It is about the quick fix. They are so long in Government and so far removed from what is happening on the ground that they do not understand the impact, or if they do, it is extremely callous in terms of the effect on ordinary people in their daily lives.

In the budget debate I said to the Taoiseach that the Government will have to reverse this decision. I wait to see how the Government’s backbenchers will vote on this tomorrow. They will probably be fully aware of the impact of this on the lives of ordinary people, on the lone parent who is trying to buy toys for her children at Christmas and on the elderly person living in a damp drab apartment in terms of heating bills. I hope this will be reversed and I expect it will have to be.

Debate adjourned.

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

Deputy Mary O’Rourke:  I am glad to have the opportunity of contributing to the Social Welfare Bill on Second Stage.

Deputy Creed quoted a sentence from the Minister, Deputy Hanafin’s, speech but he never finished the sentence. He quoted what suited him, which is an old trick in parliamentary debate. I listened to the debate and the Minister stated that a couple of hundred euro did not seem much but it was enormous to the person who got it. She said that from the bench where the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, now sits. Of course somebody had told Deputy Creed to use a glib Marie Antoinette name tag and in his rush to get to use it, he quoted half her sentence deliberately and left half of it unsaid deliberately, in which case of course it appeared uncaring. It is an old mean trick and I thought Deputy Creed was up to more than that.

We are debating Second Stage of the Social Welfare Bill and a welfare bill which has increased by 20% from 2008 to 2009. One of the Sinn Féin Deputies stated the Bill was miserly and niggardly. How can one call a 20% increase in social welfare expenditure niggardly and miserly just like that? This also is completely erroneous and of course it does not stand up to scrutiny whatsoever.

Often on radio programmes such as Sam Smyth’s “The Sunday Supplement” or “The Marian Finucane Show”, a pundit or an Opposition politician says the money was squandered, and yet nobody can ever say where it should not have been spent. There were year on year increases in social welfare. Was that money squandered? I do not think so. I was at Cabinet between 1997 to 2002 and every year the emphasis was on us wanting to give more, and how much more could be given each year to OAPs and in child benefit, which used to be called children’s allowance. Each year increases far beyond the rate of inflation were given to welfare recipients, who well deserved it. It was given, that is the point. When people shout squander mania and that the money was all lost and squandered, do they mean old age pensions should not have risen from €113 to over €230? Do they mean child benefit should not have risen from €44 to €166 per month? Do they consider that squander mania?

In the past two weeks, in particular, I have been in many households in which parents — lone parents in many cases — have said strongly that they were thankful child benefit was not touched.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  That was part of the spend-free budget.

Deputy Joe Carey:  Part of the next budget.

Deputy Mary O’Rourke:  Does Deputy Carey have something to say?

Deputy Joe Carey:  The next budget.

Deputy Mary O’Rourke:  He is looking forward to the next budget.

Deputy Joe Carey:  There are warnings for her.

Deputy Mary O’Rourke:  Will Deputy Carey keep his enthusiasm in check? I feel strongly that this is the way these points should be answered.

In a provincial town recently I saw where the local election candidate, bless her ankle socks, stated there should have been far more spending taken out of the budget than was put into it. I rang her. I do not know the woman at all, but I saw her name on the newspaper and tele[440]phoned her. I asked from where she wanted the spending to come and she replied she did not know. She stated it could come from anywhere really, but there should have been far more, that there should not have been all these levies, and it should be taken from the spending. Is it not jolly to be in the position where one can say more money should be taken but never state where it is to be got or what is to be put to one side if one takes more money? It is quite hilarious really and most irresponsible of people.

I would not like to be in opposition. I am very happy——

Deputy Ulick Burke:  It might not be long.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan:  It will not be long until she will be in opposition.

Deputy Mary O’Rourke:  The Deputies have a while to whistle in the dark yet. I call that whistling by the graveyard——

Deputy Peter Power:  Wishful thinking.

Deputy Mary O’Rourke:  ——when people are trying to keep up their cheerfulness.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  The Deputy passed a few bodies lately.

Deputy Mary O’Rourke:  I am happy to be back in Dáil Éireann, delighted to have been returned by the people of Longford-Westmeath second from the top in the poll where I never was previously.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  Wait until after the next one.

Deputy Mary O’Rourke:  Deputy Burke should be happy too and he ought not to be giggling either.

I am happy to be here and also happy to be part of a Government which is endeavouring to fix the finances of the country——

Deputy Joe Carey:  They are great.

Deputy Mary O’Rourke:  ——and which is not going on its silly way of never putting forward an option.

Oddly enough, one knows how all the newspapers stated we would be scorched at the doorsteps and people would slice our heads off, give out to us and say this and that, but nobody has attempted to give out to me, to slice my head off——

Deputy Ulick Burke:  They are afraid of her.

Deputy Mary O’Rourke:  ——or to do anything of that nefarious nature. They, in fact, have been most warm and welcoming.

Deputy Jan O’Sullivan:  Deputy O’Rourke is an exception.

An Ceann Comhairle:  All comments, no matter how inspired, must be addressed through the Chair.

[441]Deputy Mary O’Rourke:  Nobody has sought to say how dare I come to his or her house, which was said to a particular Fine Gael candidate in my town — I must say he was at a real Fianna Fáil house.

Deputy Joe Carey:  That explains a great deal.

Deputy Mary O’Rourke:  They asked him what he would have done and where he would have got the money. He replied he did not know where he would have got the money, and asked how would he know that. All he knew was it should not have been as it was. It all shows an extraordinary lack of responsibility or forethought before Fine Gael rushes in to make decisions as to what it says.

This Bill is dealing with an increase of 20% in the social welfare budget. I would like to know where the Opposition believes cuts should have been introduced. Last year, there were generous increases of 3% in social welfare payments which many believed would not happen. It behoves us all, however, as the Minister said, to ensure value for the moneys spent. Various precautionary measures have been put in place to unearth social welfare fraud and ensure that those who need it most get most. That is the essence of social welfare. It is about giving to those who do not have. Significant numbers of people in this economy can be described as “have nots”. For a public representative to demand all sorts and yet never explain where they expect it to come from, is, in my mind, reprehensible. It is not suitable to us public representatives as public servants.

The Minister spent much time working on the details of her Estimates and where best she could use the moneys she had been given. These are generous moneys, given by the taxpayers. They know in their hearts they are giving it to those who most need it and the most vulnerable in society. In so doing they are fulfilling their social justice thrust.

None of us knows how long more it will take. I do not know how long more we will be able to mind our own ship of state. If we do not have control over what we are doing in our bailiwicks, we will not be here debating another social welfare Bill of the magnitude of the Bill before us.

I am happy to record the Government has given an increase of 20% in the social welfare budget in less than a year. Long may this continue.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  I wish to share time with Deputy Joe Carey.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Ulick Burke:  If one was to accept Deputy O’Rourke’s claim of a 20% increase in the social welfare budget, one would imagine it applied to every social welfare allowance. Deputy O’Rourke, however, has not recognised the significant increases in unemployment rates across the country. The greater proportion of the budget increase, other than the 3.8% provided in the October budget, is going towards unemployment allowances. For the Deputy to make such a statement and walk away from it, leaving it unexplained, is part of the Government sides’ spin on the current economic circumstances to which we have become accustomed in this House.

Earlier, the Minister said in the context of the current economic circumstances, it has been necessary for the Government to take steps to reduce overall public expenditure to restore stability to the public finances. However, if there were a plan to stabilise the public finances, the recent demeaning statements by a US economist about the Irish economy would not have been made. I accept some cuts had to be made to make some effort to tackle the problem.

[442]The tragedy, however, is that the Government can see no other way to stabilise the public finances other than hitting workers and taxpayers. I am not referring to high income workers but those with incomes as low as €15,000 per annum, those earning the minimum wage. Deputy O’Rourke claims there is no other alternative but it is obvious she had not listened to the Fine Gael Deputy Leader and finance spokesperson who outlined an alternative budget in this Chamber in which the majority of necessary savings could have been found by elimination of waste in and reform of the public service.

While the Minister claims there has been a 20% increase in the social welfare budget, she does not realise that this has gone towards payments in the unemployment blackspots across the country, particularly in the west. The main concern of most of those who have contacted me about this Bill is about becoming homeless. Many organisations which help the disadvantaged are concerned about the capping and reduction of rent supplements. The Government has again taken the soft option of reducing the cap on rent supplement to save X amount. The reality is that rent allowance recipients, already at their wits’ ends, will have to top up their payments. In a Department of Social and Family Affairs context, this can be seen as an illegal top-up. Does the Minister want to see an increase in homelessness? I hope this provision in the Bill will be amended on Committee Stage.

The replacement of the early child care supplement with a free preschool year would have been fine in the good times. However, where is the educational infrastructure to safely accommodate these extra children? What about the supervisory and educational personnel for this scheme? Will they be trained? We are concerned here with a number of people who will have to go into a new situation dealing with the children. There are dangers involved in this provision if it is only half thought out, as I believe it is, and it will come home to haunt the Minister unless it is done properly. I do not believe it can be achieved in a proper manner in such a short time. I hope the Minister will address this.

It is deplorable that the Minister saw fit to reduce the early child supplement by half until the end of the year and to totally abolish it thereafter. That payment has been important, particularly to single parents who are on very tight budgets, but the Minister has decided that from January it is to be eliminated altogether. That is a very serious step. Tragically, I am sure there will be a very serious fallout from that situation.

Everybody welcomed the additional funding that was made available to FÁS for training places and further education. However, we cannot say we will do that and at the same time have an embargo on recruitment, particularly for trainers. I will give one example. Tragically, 198 jobs were recently lost at Sigma in Loughrea. To be fair to FÁS, it immediately came on site and provided for training for some of the employees as they became redundant. However, I was told only last week that FÁS will no longer be able to recruit trainers for the remaining people who are leaving work and who could avail of further training on the premises. It cannot do so because of the embargo on recruitment. As I have said to various Ministers, there should be a derogation in the case of recruitment of trainers in FÁS, which is delivering a very important service that cannot be delivered without properly trained people.

Deputy Joe Carey:  I welcome the opportunity to speak on this latest Social Welfare Bill. The Government through this Bill continues to attack the families of Ireland. The very people who were left untouched by the Celtic tiger era are now being hit by the savage cuts in social welfare contained in the Bill.

[443]I look forward to voting against the Bill for the following reasons. As a Member of the Oireachtas, I find it very difficult to support the non-payment of the Christmas bonus, which was raised by the Labour Party earlier. The sheer meanness of this measure is incredible as this money means much to families during the festive season.

The Government is asking citizens to take pain on behalf of the country in order to ensure a proper future for the next generation. What is it that the Government is actually doing? What did it do today, for example? Seven junior ministers were removed from Government with a reported golden parachute of €53,000 each. Government backbenchers use phrases such as “Let them try to take it off me” in regard to the long-service payments. We have the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance using words, phrases and semantics in trying to wriggle their way out of a stated intention in regard to the double payments to Oireachtas Members. How can a Government such as this have any credibility when its members steadfastly refused to lead by example? It is another classic example of the Government following the philosophy of “do as I say but not as I do”. It is very interesting to compare this scenario with the position of a person who is looking forward to getting a Christmas bonus that will not arrive this year. It is a damning indictment of the Government and all the Deputies who comprise it.

The plan to reduce rent to landlords under the rent supplement scheme is a proper and sensible move. However, the implementation of this policy shows just how detached the Government and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs are. To quote the Minister, the “expectation” on landlords to automatically reduce rents is totally unrealistic. It is not happening. It has been my experience in County Clare in recent months that in terms of both business and private rented accommodation, landlords are happy to sit on the property. They are not willing to budge and are charging the same rents to businesses and individual tenants.

The responsibility for renegotiating rents should not be placed on tenants and should be provided for by community welfare officers or staff of the Department itself. The State must take on the responsibility in that area. For years, the only requirement was to hand out money, which is what has got us into the situation we have today. Much of the responsibility rests with the State and its agents to ensure that what they spend represents proper value for money but this is not incorporated in the Bill. If the community welfare officers or someone from the Department was made responsible for delivering better value for money, this would work better.

The squeeze on middle income earners is an issue the Government will eventually rue. We have passed the psychological barrier of 50% of income returning to the Government, and a family may now have to contribute 51% to the Exchequer. Some 41% will go in income tax, 4% in PRSI, 4% on the health levy and 2% on the income levy, which serves to disincentivise people in employment. The Government cannot continue to squeeze this sector and not expect a fall-off in economic productivity and activity. The possibility of this being further compounded by additional taxes on property and the reintroduction of third level fees next year would indicate that people will not be able to tolerate this approach any longer.

The equation is very simple. There were two aspects to this budget, namely, to increase the Government’s income and to deliver value for money in how public services are provided. The Government chooses to ignore the second part of that equation. This is ultimately unsustainable and will have to be dealt with sooner rather than later.

The scrapping of the early child care supplement and the hasty introduction of the 38-week free preschool support bears all the hallmarks of the Minister for Transport’s proposed introduction of five penalty points for not having an NCT certificate for one’s car in that it is badly [444]conceived and not properly planned. It remains to be seen if the places are available or will become available but I do not believe they will.

  9 o’clock

The Department is to a large extent depending on the voluntary sector in regard to child care provision. The vast majority of the funding under the national child care investment programme, NCIP, has been used by the voluntary sector. This sector once again steps up to the plate in order to provide a service that has been ignored by the Government. These are the very same people who also feel the new pressures from the Government in regard to their jobs, mortgages and careers yet they are now expected to take up the slack. I suspect this 38 week free preschool is just a sop. The Government should look more closely at its subvention programme for child care facilities. This scheme is cumbersome and unwieldy, and needs reform.

At this point the Government should not tinker with the back to education allowance and the back to work enterprise allowance. In their current form these schemes are restrictive and the Bill’s proposals do little to facilitate people who want to avail of them. Both schemes offer the opportunity for motivated people to improve their circumstances yet the Government chooses to place many obstacles in the way of potential participants. These schemes should be more responsive. There is an obvious benefit that could accrue to the individual and the State if the schemes could be operated in a more responsive manner.

It is critical that Government policy seeks to minimise the duration for which people are unemployed. Long-term inactivity diminishes work skill and makes re-employment more difficult. It is vital, therefore, that access to education, training and employment programmes is enhanced so that barriers to employment are removed. In County Clare, for example, unemployment has soared to almost 10,000 people. Dole queues have increased fivefold. Unemployment in Ennis has increased by 81% in the past 12 months alone. The potential for the economic cancer of long-term unemployment taking hold in Ireland is becoming more of a reality. The Bill does nothing to tackle this issue and will only add further to our drastic unemployment problem.

The Bill will have a devastating impact on middle income families and represents a savage attack on low income families. The ordinary people are waiting in the long grass for the Government. I do not know what doors Deputy O’Rourke is knocking on, but I am knocking on completely different doors. The people are waiting in the long grass to run the Government out of office. This is a shocking Bill and the Minister will pay the price for it.

Deputy Chris Andrews:  I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Clearly we are in difficult and challenging economic times. The decisions we will need to make will be very difficult but they will need to be made. Of course it is never easy to take money away from people or reduce their income, but that will need to be done across the board, because we need to make ourselves more competitive in a global context. We are not doing it just for ourselves. We are doing it to ensure that other countries, international markets and international political institutions realise that Ireland can and will make the difficult decisions. While geographically we might be an island, politically and economically we are not. We export 80% of all we produce. Our relationship with other countries is vital and their perception of us is vital. With this budget the Government has grasped the nettle. As has been said it will be the first of five difficult budgets with four more to come. It will not get any easier in the short term. It could be said that if we do not take the unpleasant medicine now we will be taking much more unpleasant medicine for significantly longer.

[445]There are a number of aspects to the Bill, one of which relates to rent supplement. As it stands 84,000 people are in receipt of rent supplement, which is a very large number of people. That rent supplement provides support for those for whom local authority housing is not an option in the short term. It also acts as an umbrella for those at risk of homelessness. A previous speaker mentioned that landlords would be happy to sit on their flats or apartments without having tenants and getting rent. I do not believe that is the case. Landlords with property will want to rent it out. They are pragmatic and if that means they will be renting it out at a reduced rate, they will do so. They certainly become more pragmatic when the banks are chasing them down looking for their payments. Landlords will not happily refuse to reduce rents and have a vacant flat rather than getting some level of income, albeit somewhat reduced. An occupied flat with an income coming through is the likely result.

Like other Deputies, I have received a number of e-mails stating that the reduction in rent supplement should not lead to homelessness. It is exaggerating to suggest that this measure would lead to homelessness — I do not believe it will. There may be individual cases where landlords refuse to reduce the rent. However it is not beyond the wit of man, the local authorities or social welfare to deal with the consequences of a few belligerent landlords. The State should not be held to ransom to line the pockets of a few landlords who do not believe they should move with the times and reduce rent. Landlords are pragmatic and will reduce rents when it is put to them. The State is spending more than €490 million on rent supplement and it is vital that we get value for money. It is necessary for us to cut our cloth to measure. Landlords cannot be allowed to get away with charging high rents.

Today I spoke to private tenants who are moving from a very small flat with two single bedrooms. They had a contract from over a year ago and were being charged more than €1,500 for that flat. They are taking their time in moving because there is a significant reduction by landlords in the rents they are charging. They are looking at a large two-bedroom apartment in a very nice area in the docklands in my constituency of Dublin South-East which is available at €1,100.

There is, therefore, a significant saving. I see no reason the State should not benefit from a reduction in rents, particularly when costs across the economy are reducing. I see no reason that some landlords should try to hold onto the higher rents or imply they might make people homeless. They should not be allowed get away with that. The State cannot base its legislation on being held to ransom by such landlords.

Another aspect of the Bill is the imaginative and innovative proposal to provide a free preschool year for children. The early child care supplement that preceded this cost the State €480 million in 2008. We must cut our cloth to measure and ensure that we get value for money. The early childhood care and education scheme does this in an innovative way. There has been much discussion about the loss to families caused by the loss of the supplement. It seems to me that does not focus on the purpose of the exercise, namely, care for children, as evident from the term “child care”.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  That is not the purpose; it is to save money

Deputy Chris Andrews:  The State is seeking to ensure that children get quality child care.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  It is not doing anything about providing quality child care. It is washing its hands of that.

Deputy Chris Andrews:  The aim of the scheme is to provide one year of quality preschool education to children for the year prior to entry to primary school.

[446]Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Maybe the Deputy should correct the record. That is not actually the aim; it is to provide a subsidy towards child care.

Deputy Chris Andrews:  It is to provide quality child care.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  No, it is nothing to do with quality. It is to provide a subsidy.

Deputy Chris Andrews:  I believe the child care providers in the State are very good, particularly community child care providers. They provide quality child care to our children right across the community. A former Labour Party handler stated recently that any savings made from the cuts to the early child care supplement should be ring-fenced for funding quality half-day preschool places for every child for the year prior to joining primary school. He said that on Wednesday, 25 March 2009. Mr. Fergus Finlay and Barnardos have been very successful.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  I do not think the Deputy understands what his colleagues are doing.

Deputy Chris Andrews:  This is what we have done.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  No, it is not.

Deputy Chris Andrews:  The scheme will benefit parents who would otherwise have paid for this service. It will also benefit disadvantaged children whose parents would not be in a position to pay for their attendance at preschool. The scheme also safeguards jobs in a sector that is likely to be hit hard by the economic downturn. Most facilities have small margins and low pay and are very vulnerable to a reduction in the number of parents who send their children to child care facilities following a reduction in their incomes. Therefore, we are bringing about value for money with this innovative scheme. This is something the Children’s Rights Alliance welcomes.

Mr. Fintan O’Toole, another great advocate for social justice, when writing in The Irish Times on the morning of the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan’s first budget on 14 October, asked what the budget did about early childhood care. He said that instead of getting a universal preschool system for €136 million a year, which was the NESC costing, we were spending €406 million on a private system that did not work and that, therefore, there was a simple test for the Minister for Finance’s first budget. If it contained a commitment to scrap the early child care supplement and to create a universal preschool system, we had intelligent government.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  It is not doing that. The Deputy does not understand.

Deputy Chris Andrews:  The Deputy can take the argument up with Fintan O’Toole. He clearly believes ——

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Deputy Andrews clearly does not understand what his own cousin is doing.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Deputy Shortall should not be so patronising.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Charlie O’Connor):  Deputies should address their remarks through the Chair. Deputy Andrews is in possession.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Is Deputy Shortall allowed be patronising and wag her fingers about cousins?

Acting Chairman:  Deputy Andrews is in possession and should proceed.

[447]Deputy James Bannon:  He is trying to explain the reason he gave a standing ovation to the budget on the day.

Acting Chairman:  Deputy Bannon will get his opportunity to contribute and I will try to protect him then.

Deputy Chris Andrews:  If Members have a difficulty with what Fintan O’Toole said, they should raise the issue with him. I was interrupted when I said he said that if we had the commitment, we had intelligent government. He went on to say we could therefore expect to see a similar approach in other areas. I think that is true. We can expect to see a similar approach and innovative decisions being made.

The Labour Party’s most recent policy document on child care and preschool education dates back to approximately 2005 and probably needs some dusting down. That document argued for an early year’s care subsidy that would cost over €1 billion per annum and also wanted a year of preschool education costing €163 million per annum. When those documents are dusted down, the Labour Party will realise our current proposal is a good and innovative scheme.

A significant number of community child care facilities are in place. For example, not far from here we have the St. Andrew’s Resource Centre and the centre at City Quay. These provide an excellent service for young people and have given a broad welcome to this proposal. We have yet to see the detail, but if people try to work with the proposal we will see positive results. The recent National Competitiveness Council report on education and training suggests that pre-primary education is a key determinant of student performance at all levels of education, as it leads to improvements in students’ skill levels, motivation and the propensity to learn, which in turn raise the private and social returns from all future investments in their education.

The scheme, therefore, is about ensuring that children get care at an early stage. People from disadvantaged areas or areas where children are at risk of becoming involved in antisocial behaviour often say they spotted this when a child was as young as three years old. We need intervention when the child is that age. This scheme is part of early intervention and of ensuring that children get a good start in life so that they are well prepared to go into more formal education later. The real winners from this scheme will be the more disadvantaged and marginalised children in society who do not currently benefit from preschool care and education.

Barnardos and the Children’s Rights Alliance have welcomed this scheme. In a debate on the issue, the Children’s Rights Alliance asked what costs more, maintaining and developing early years education or not doing so at all. For every euro spent on early years education, a return of up to €7.10 can be expected. Investing in such education has proved effective in the long run in terms of promoting social skills, improving the life chances of children born in disadvantaged communities and reducing criminal activity. What could be a smarter investment? These comments were made on Thursday, 2 April and the situation has not changed since. We must give our children the best chance in life that we can.

For a child brought up in a chaotic family, going to child care providers might be a respite. We used to send my two children to pre-school for three hours per day. It was beneficial for them because they learned how to socialise and about boundaries. It prepared them for primary school.

I welcome the Bill. The reduction in the rent supplement is good, as it will ensure that landlords cannot hold the Government and the economy to ransom. I happily support the Bill, which is imaginative and clever governance.

[448]Acting Chairman:  The next speaker is Deputy Sheehan. I understand that he wishes to share his time with Deputies Bannon and Clune.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan:  Perhaps the Acting Chairman will give us an extra minute.

Acting Chairman:  I will do my best to Chair. Unfortunately, I am not a referee.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan:  We have now had four budgets in less than nine months, as many as the Minister for Finance’s predecessor had in four years. At around this time last year, Deputy Brian Lenihan had the misfortune to become the Minister for Finance, as he claimed himself. We had his first step last August, then some premature efforts in October last, followed by the pension levy and now this “hole in the bucket” budget. The Government might claim this is a worldwide problem, but no other Minister for Finance has needed to present four budgets in nine months.

In my speech to last October’s budget, I quoted Winston Churchill, who said: “We contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle”. Every person knows that, after the Government reduces their incomes in this budget, they will need to cut their expenditure to match their incomes, particularly those in receipt of social welfare payments. Last weekend in Bantry, a small business man told me that if his sales go down, he does not increase his prices. Instead, he tries to cut his costs. What the Government attempted in this budget did not do that.

The Minister for Finance claimed that his budget was based on six essential steps. He stated that he wanted to stabilise our public finances. He has made four attempts and has only succeeded in increasing the debt placed on every man, woman, child and grandchild. He stated that we must restore our damaged banking system, but giving it more money will not be a cure. The taxpayer needed to bail AIB out of its ICI difficulties at a cost of £400 million or nearly €500 million. The AIB DIRT tax settlement was £90 million while that for Bank of Ireland was £30.5 million. In the Faldor scandal, AIB executives were fined over €320,000 by the Revenue Commissioners. What of the losses racked up by John Rusnak of almost $700 million for AIB, nearly 20% of the amount that we, the taxpayers, have invested in AIB? Does the Government remember AIB’s scandalous overcharging of €34.2 million on foreign exchange transactions and €8.6 million on every other type of account? AIB settled a £1 million overdraft with the late Mr. Haughey in mysterious circumstances. In 2004, the chief executive of Bank of Ireland resigned overnight.

I was not surprised when, on researching this subject, I read, not from the last century but from the one before, that in 1885, the Munster Bank failed due to mismanagement and fraud and was liquidated. Out of the ashes, the Munster and Leinster Bank commenced operations. Eventually, it became the largest of the three banks.

The Minister for Finance placed €1,651 of capital investment in AIB and Bank of Ireland on behalf of every man, woman and child. In his budget, he proposed to underwrite a further €90 billion of developers’ debt to secure these banks. How much more does he intend to put into this bucket full of holes while cancelling the Christmas bonus to old age pensioners, on which the Deputies opposite must vote tomorrow?

I propose that the boards of the banks might, as a gesture of contrition and gratitude for the €100 billion that the taxpayer has put up to bail them out of their mess, sponsor the Christmas bonus. I call on those appointed by the Minister for Finance to table such a motion at board level.

The Minister also stated that he wanted to protect jobs by investing €50 million per year over two years. This is the cost of approximately 2,400 unemployed people, approximately the [449]same number of people who have lost their jobs in the past two weeks. Will this tiny effort be targeted at, for example, the unemployed turf accountants? In the Minster’s efforts to support and stimulate economic confidence, he proposed assistance to second-hand car dealers with their tax liability. Arthur Daly, that infamous car dealer, would be proud of him.

What did the budget do to stimulate economic growth? Did it do anything to stimulate employment or promote tourism or agriculture? Did it do anything for those on social welfare? The agricultural community suffered a 17% reduction in the REPS 4 scheme, an 8% reduction in forestry premiums and the abandonment of the fallen animal and farm retirement schemes and the farm installation grant. Did the budget do anything for the people of west County Cork?

The Government has been found out and the people know what it did to them. They are going to do the same to it. I do not see a soft landing for those on the Government benches. Their days are numbered, unlike their management of the public finances.

Deputy James Bannon:  This Bill could be more aptly described as the “Hanafin Anti-Welfare Bill 2009”. It is an exercise in removing essential allowances for low and middle income families. To make good the gaping hole in the Exchequer caused by blatant Government squandering and mismanagement of the country’s public purse, the Minister for Finance has once again hit those least able to bear the brunt. This is evident on doorsteps throughout the country. The Government should be ashamed of how it is treating the most vulnerable in society.

Since the emergency budget, the Government has shown itself to be out of touch with the reality of people’s lives. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance seem incapable of singing from any hymn sheet other than the one that advocates screwing the low and middle income groups so far into the ground that the life blood is squeezed out of them while leaving the high earners relatively unscathed. I was sickened and outraged to hear Deputy O’Rourke supporting the screwing of the poor and the less well off, many of whom are in our constituency of Longford-Westmeath, which probably has the country’s highest unemployment rate. Since this time last year, Longford-Westmeath’s unemployment figure has increased by more than 88%. This shows how out of touch she is with the realities of the constituency that she was supposedly elected to represent.

In 1988, Margaret Thatcher stated, “I believed passionately that the Government should never have too much power because if you give them too much power they meddle in everything, make a mess of it and make wrong judgments.” That is what is happening with the present Government. This country is suffering from the effects of a Government that has been in office too long, is too committed to cronyism and is too wrapped up in the trappings of power to see the plight of the ordinary worker. It is a Government that has fallen into every trap of crisis management and is compounding one mistake with another as it tries to run for cover at every opportunity. It is digging a hole for itself as I speak and the electorate will testify to that on 5 June next.

Mrs. Thatcher’s words are extremely apt when one thinks of the fall-out since the 2009 budget last October and the compounding of the problem with the latest emergency budget. It is shameful that low-income earners, such as those on €15,000 per annum, are subject to a 2% income levy by a heartless Government showing how out of touch it is with the ordinary man and woman in the street. Moreover, low-income earners on €25,000 will be further hit with the doubling of the health levy to 4%. What form of anti-poverty strategy is this? So much for promises to protect those who are at risk of poverty or are below the poverty line. The Government is doing absolutely nothing.

[450]In an extremely anti-child and parent budget, the early child care supplement and child benefit have come under severe attack. Child benefit is the bread and butter for many parents who find the current economic crisis hard to cope with. For many women, the loss of child care benefit will prevent them from working outside the home as they will not be able to afford child care. This will increase the risk of poverty. I again ask whether Deputy O’Rourke understands that moves to tax or means test child benefit will pit woman against woman in terms of opportunity and will open the doors to wider social inequality.

Every day in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath, I see at first hand the lack of regard the Government has for children and their parents. In a move calculated to leave hard-working and hard-pressed parents without help in caring for their physically disabled children, the Health Service Executive, HSE, is closing Teach Solas, the Longford respite centre and handing it over to an outside agency. Many of the workers and parents received notification to this effect yesterday. What reward is this for parents who save the State millions by looking after their children at home and deserve and need the chance of a break while their children are being looked after by dedicated staff in such a facility? What has happened in this regard constitutes shameful and disgraceful carry-on by the Government. Were this to happen in Russia or other countries, Members would condemn them for so doing. However, I am sorry to state that this is taking place in the heartland of Ireland. These parents now are angry and frustrated and fear that the new service provider will enforce charges for this care, which they urgently need for their children. I am disappointed with the Minister who I thought was a more caring Minister who was more in tune with issues in respect of women, children and those who work in a voluntary capacity in society.

How can the Government justify the cruel withdrawal of the Christmas bonus for the most vulnerable in our society? The pressure on low-income families during the festive season is unbearable. Without the additional help of the bonus, many will be unable to withstand the commercial pressure. Older people, many of whom live alone in fuel inefficient houses, will be colder and poorer next winter unless this heartless decision is reversed. Even Charles Dickens could not have envisaged a Government policy that would, Scrooge-like, take a little Christmas cheer from those in poverty, while avoiding hitting the well-off with measures such as reduced tax relief on private pensions. In effect, the elimination of the bonus is akin to a 2% cut to the most vulnerable.

The crumb of hope held out by the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, that the Christmas bonus will be restored if there is a windfall in the Department’s coffers is akin to holding out a straw to a drowning man or woman. According to John Curry, social policy is defined as: “Those actions of government which deliberately or accidentally affect the distribution of resources, status, opportunities and life chances among social groups and categories of people within the country and thus help to shape the general character and equity of its social relations”. The Celtic tiger served to make the rich richer and those who never benefited from the boom years now are being forced to pick up the tab of the Galway tent cronies and champagne guzzlers who still exist within the Fianna Fáil Party.

Deputy Deirdre Clune:  The two main elements of the Social Welfare Bill 2009, namely, the doubling to 4% of the health levy and to 2% of the income levy, will have a severe impact on low-income and middle-income families. People earning less than €15,000 per annum will be subject to the income levy. In other words, those who earn the minimum wage or less will be brought into the tax net, while those earning more than €25,000 will face the doubling of the health levy. These measures come from a Government that claims to be protecting low earners and those who are at risk of poverty. However, the impact of both levies certainly will ensure [451]poverty will visit many doors on foot of its introduction in less than two weeks’ time on 1 May. As I noted, these two aspects of the Bill are extremely disappointing and Fine Gael certainly will not support and will vote against these elements of the Bill.

I wish to tease out matters pertaining to the early child care supplement. The Minister stated in her contribution that it will be replaced by the preschool provision and this already has raised serious questions about how it will be implemented. In general, the early child care supplement was perceived as a means of paying for child care for women who were working. I acknowledge it was available to women regardless of whether they were at home or in the workplace but the €20 per week was highly valuable. While I support preschool and acknowledge getting children to school early has a value, I would not replace one with the other. A mother with a six-month old baby who wishes to work will not receive any support from the State until the child is eligible for preschool, assuming the Government will implement its proposals, which I cannot envisage being in place before January. However, I will give it the benefit of the doubt in this regard. However, the supplement of €20 per week has been highly important to people, especially those with two or three young children. It constitutes a very important contribution towards child care. The cost of child care has not gone away. It still is a major issue for people who are on low to middle incomes. It comprises a major chunk of their take-home pay and the impact of this measure on parents of young families, combined with that of the levies, will be significant.

The Government should reconsider this decision because the supplement is of relatively recent introduction and has been of benefit to working parents. There always was an expectation or hope it would increase rather than being abolished. The parents of young children in child care will always require support because while the costs are not excessive, it is an expensive product in respect of the regulations that must be adhered to, the cost of premises, the staff-child ratio and so on. These elements add to the cost and many of those running crèche or child care facilities constantly work to keep charges down. They work with parents to ensure the latter can see where the monthly payment is spent. I have spoken to many people on this issue in the past three weeks. There is a consensus that this will drive child care into the black economy. People will not be able to afford to use a crèche and will depend on relatives if they are lucky enough to be in that situation. The crèche, which can be expensive, will not be an option for many. I ask the Government to hold its fire on the early child care supplement. It will have a severe impact on working parents of young children.

I appeal to the Minister, who was in the Chamber earlier, to examine rent supplement and, with the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, to work with local authorities to advance the rental accommodation scheme. It is of great value to tenants and those on local authority housing schemes. It gives security to tenants and there is much property at the moment for which this scheme could be advanced. It is a matter of providing the staff and resources at local authority level to ensure the product on offer is advanced. The scheme gives security to the tenant, who is dealing with a local authority, and the standard of accommodation has been improved. It has been a success and people are happy with it. It is not moving as quickly as it would if resources were made available. There is so much accommodation available to local authorities. It is an attractive proposition for landlords, who are guaranteed rent for 12 months or three or four years depending on the arrangement. It is a useful product and I appeal to the Minister to work with the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and local authorities to ensure it is advanced.

I will speak on the Christmas bonus tomorrow.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  As there are no Government speakers offering, I call on Deputy Higgins.

[452]Deputy Michael D. Higgins:  I propose to share time with Deputy Morgan. It is appalling that the Government has not provided speakers for the slot allocated to it. I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, for whom I have the greatest respect and whose presence I welcome. It is a terrible indication of a lack of concern. Even as many Government Deputies will be whipped into coming into the Chamber and voting for Second and Subsequent Stages of this Bill, they will hear from the people affected by the proposals at their constituency clinics.

I have a particular view on social welfare, which I wish to address first in order to be consistent. The background to this Bill is the crisis in the public finances, the collapse of a revenue base that was excessively reliant on transactions in the property market, which in turn had been grossly exaggerated by bad regulation and irresponsible lending by the banks. One gets an idea of this in respect of the property base of the economy. In 1981 it was €39 billion, by 2006 it was approximately €553 billion. Without creating any real wealth in the social sense, the property base of the economy had been revalued, driven on a speculative engine. This has created an entire distortion of the banking sector.

I quibble with some of the figures in this morning’s report and observations by international bodies such as the IMF but they speak of an extraordinary proportion of Irish GDP being allocated to stabilising the banking system. They suggest that before we are out of the wars in respect of banking stability it will have cost us €24 billion, some 13.9% of €171 billion of GDP. That is important as background context. If we were not facing this appalling failure in the public finances at so many levels we would not be turning to those dependent on transfers such as social welfare for reductions.

The term transfer is incredibly important. I have been in the Dáil for over 20 years and usually when people speak about transfer payments, they concentrate on social welfare recipients. They are far more reluctant to examine the transfers that take place every year in the Finance Bill to those taking advantage of tax breaks. They are of a particular kind. I refer to tax breaks associated with car parks and spas. In that category, 86% of them apply to people earning more than €200,000 a year. The figure for the subsidy of interest relief to landlords is some €400 million in a half year. There is a long list of these transfers, which were driven on by the Commissioner, Mr. McCreevy, who liked introducing them and followed the poisonous policy, that infected the Government from the Progressive Democrats, that there was something backward about paying tax. Therefore, we had to be a low tax economy and one was encouraged to say the money was one’s own and one should be entitled to decide how to spend it. The grandmother of all that, Mrs. Thatcher, said there is no such thing as society. Transfers went on all the time.

Those on the left made mistakes and assumed the right was anti-State. It was not that, it was that they were in favour of the State regularly transferring benefit after benefit as they went on, so that one gets to a point where one could socialise all the costs of existence and privatise all of the income. That model has wreaked havoc in terms of poverty across the world. Ideology flows from this. It would like to prop up a low wage economy.

With respect, there are assumptions in the Minister’s speech. I want to be polite about this but I was a sociologist for 20 years and challenge her to produce the evidence behind some of the statements in her speech. An example is the assumption made about young jobseekers. Where is the published research or evidence to suggest that young jobseekers are deliberately choosing social welfare payments over work? I assert that the research is not there at all.

There is a cock and bull story about a pilot scheme in Letterkenny, the reports back from which the Minister refers to in her speech. She says that some “candidates did not wish to participate” and became unmanageable. Another phrase used is “difficult to manage”. Some years ago we would be regaled by Fianna Fáil speakers and Ministers or former Ministers [453]would speak about what they called “our beautiful youth”. Suddenly, these young people are very problematic.

Earlier, the Minister outlined her reasons for reducing benefit for people under 20. She stated:

The rate of jobseeker’s allowance that will be paid to new claimants under the age of 20 is being reduced from €204.30 per week to €100 per week, with effect from the first week of May 2009. When a person on the reduced rate of jobseeker’s allowance reaches the age of 20, if he or she still qualifies for the allowance, he or she will be entitled to the full adult rate.

She went on to detail the full adult rate of the relevant schemes in certain categories. The assumptions in all of this in many cases is the following rationale. The Minister stated:

The rationale for this change is straightforward. Receiving the full adult rate of a jobseeker’s payment at 18 years of age without a strong financial incentive to engage in education or training can lead to welfare dependency from an early age.

I challenge that assumption and I challenge the Minister to produce a jot of published refereed evidence for it. The Minister continued:

While many young people with low levels of education and training were able to get work in construction and other areas when the economy was doing well, they are likely to find it much harder to get work over the next few years. If they do not improve their skills, they are at risk of becoming long-term unemployed from a young age.

I agree with that but where in this Bill is the facility for a speedy return to education? Why should such people have to be unemployed for two years? If the Minister and Government are so concerned about young people, why are they requiring them to be unemployed for two years?

The Minister continued:

They are considered to be at greater risk of having difficulty securing a job than older jobseekers who might have low skills but who at least have some work experience. Therefore, it is considered necessary to provide 18 and 19 year old jobseekers with a strong financial incentive to engage in education or training or to take up employment that pays more than €100 per week.

This is the evidence of a low-wage economy. I could go on quoting the Minister’s speech but she would have had support from the Labour Party if there had been specific measures for changing the administration of all of these young people who are really casualties of the economy rather than people who are choosing to be idle. What runs through the speech is the old deadly ideology that unless we make young people do something, they would prefer to be idle. I challenge the Minister to again provide evidence on this point. The Combat Poverty Agency used to be separate and independent in doing studies but it has been absorbed lest it give any jot of independent criticism. I presume there is a research facility that would be able to address this issue and I would be delighted to be proven wrong.

The Bill also makes proposals relating to lower income families. I have a fairly conservative view of family life. My own wife as an actress chose to spend her time at home helping me in my career and in the education of our children. It is an important choice to have for a male or female parent. The former Deputy and Minister, Mr. McCreevy, set his face totally against that [454]and thus such choice was made impossible even for different kinds of couples and so forth. The idea was that there would be a form of equalisation that would make such a choice difficult.

Equally, there are other anomalies which I do not have time to go into. For example, from the Revenue Commissioners’ perspective two people in a household are regarded as not being able to share their tax credits, although they can share the capacity for disqualification with regard to benefits. None of that need bother Commissioner McCreevy, who gave us the advice as we entered this crisis that we should keep on partying. That was the inspired advice of the Progressive Democrat convert, who should be ashamed to show his face in this country again.

Considering the families that will pay it, the increase in the health levy in section 12 combined with the abolition of the early child care supplement in section 8 will mean a single income family with two children under five years of age with a salary of €40,000 — which is normal enough — will lose €230 per month from net income. The income levy can be added to this, together with the abolition of mortgage interest relief if the people are in a home and more than seven years into its mortgage. Perhaps these people did not choose to live in one of those counties outside Dublin beyond Kildare. If they choose to travel to work, there are additional costs. What is proposed in this legislation will involve a cost of over €3,000 a year to the family household.

There is no attempt in the long, ideological harangue that is in the Minister’s speech to assess net household impact with regard to budgeted income on the basics. These could relate to groceries, travel, electricity, gas and so forth used by model families. We used to get that from “Priscilla” and other models in the back of Finance Bill speeches relating to the budget. There is nothing in this budget which takes any cognisance of the difficulties being created for family budgets of the lower paid. Neither is there any sensitive treatment on the question of how jobs are threatened and how, in a way, this complicated and heavy administrative structure of taking from the poorest could have been avoided by looking at other more direct forms of revenue raising.

The Minister has given a very large proportion of her speech to what she calls the imaginative introduction of the pre-school year, with so many hours per week being provided. One must judge the pre-school year in terms of what people are losing in child benefit. One must also consider the people who will contract for the pre-school year in terms of their costs for insurance, lighting, heating and other things. In addition, there is the ability to control costs for the families.

Occasionally, I meet families who make representations whose child care costs exceed mortgage payments. Once again we come back to the impact on net budgets of low income families. The cost of child care has been increasing all the time, an area I could deal with at length.

There is a statistical generalisation in the Minister’s speech that suggests rents have been so generally reduced that one can speak about significant reductions in rent supplement. I have seen no evidence that rents have reduced in the low end of the market. It is true that some of the sources given in the Minister’s speech for the reduction in rents come from the middle to high end of the Dublin market. There is no evidence that the low end of the market in provincial cities has come down by anything, yet the reduction in the rent supplement and the increasing proportion which the person must pay has been imposed generally on the basis of an unquantified and unsupported generalisation.

Deputy John Curran:  To be of assistance to the Deputy, although it is not the high end of the market, rents in Clondalkin have come down.

[455]Deputy Michael D. Higgins:  I am delighted to hear it and I hope the Minister of State would use his influence. He is the sole representative of his party here this evening and I congratulate him on this and for standing his ground.

Acting Chairman:  I ask the Deputy to adjourn the debate. He will have three and half minutes in the slot tomorrow.

Deputy Michael D. Higgins:  I look forward to making a positive contribution.

Debate adjourned.

Deputy Joe Costello:  I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing us to raise this issue on the Adjournment. We are of the view that there is a need for the Minister to review the circumstances surrounding the granting of an international haulage licence to a convicted drug dealer and also that this licence should be revoked with immediate effect.

  10 o’clock

This extraordinary case has been bubbling up for a number of years but it has recently begun to come to the boil. Many aspects of the case relate to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. However, there are some which relate to the Department of Transport. The latter took the major decision to grant Kieran Boylan, a notorious drug dealer with convictions in Britain and Ireland, a licence to conduct his business as a haulage contractor. This matter was brought to the attention of the Department of Transport in 2003 and 2008 — on both occasions a licence was granted — by which time the gentleman in question had been convicted in respect of attempting to supply €750,000 worth of heroine and cocaine that was seized in the docklands area of my constituency. On 31 July 2008 a nolle prosequi was entered by the Attorney General in very strange circumstances. Having been granted a licence in September 2008, the same gentleman applied to have the name which appears on it changed into the Irish form. This all took place despite the fact that there were clear breaches of the rules and guidelines surrounding the granting of international haulage licences.

As everyone is aware, Mr. Boylan’s convictions are of the most serious kind. Cocaine and heroine have caused a great deal of destruction among the communities of my constituency and that of the Minister of State, Deputy Curran. To grant an international haulage licence to someone convicted of the crime of supplying drugs could only compound the problem. It is extraordinary that such a licence was granted without the most stringent examination being carried out in the first instance.

The Minister appeared to indicate that accurate information was not provided. He must provide the House with a full explanation with regard to what exactly transpired in this case. What were the circumstances in which the licence was initially granted and then renewed and transferred into the Irish version of the gentleman’s name? What information did the Garda provide in respect of this matter? Was the Department misled? If so, why was that the case and who was responsible? The Minister must get to the bottom of this matter.

Pending the outcome of the full inquiry, the Minister has at his disposal sufficient prima facie evidence — in the form of his admission to the Department in respect of his convictions —[456]that the man in question is not a suitable person to hold an international haulage licence. As a result, that licence should be revoked forthwith.

Deputy Fergus O’Dowd:  This is an important, serious and disturbing case, at the heart of which lies the failure of the Government and the Departments of Transport and Justice, Equality and Law Reform to do their job. The Government, through those Departments, has failed to protect the public. As Deputy Costello stated, drugs destroy families and communities. It is unforgivable that Ministers failed to ensure adequate protocols were in place to check the records of those applying for international haulage licences for evidence of criminal convictions. The Government failed utterly to carry out such checks and also to protect the public. As a consequence, the drugs that were imported to this country via our ports — on lorries and by other means — will destroy many lives in the communities in which we live. The Government has utterly failed with regard to its duty of care in this regard.

The litany of circumstances and situations relating to this case is unbelievable. For example, how can an applicant for an international haulage licence conceal the fact that he served a nine-month sentence in England in 2001 or that he had a conviction for dangerous driving in respect of which he had been disqualified from driving for two years? How could this individual be granted an international haulage licence before the end of his two-year driving ban? This man did not disclose that he had an existing conviction for dangerous driving. However, the authorities failed to uncover the relevant information in that regard. How in the name of God did he obtain the licence?

Why are applications for haulage licences not automatically referred to the Garda for its approval? Why was this man’s licence not withdrawn by the Department of Transport in 2004 when, following a complaint, his previous convictions — including that relating to dangerous driving — came to light? The regulations are clear in this regard and state that such an offence will result in an automatic disqualification. The Department knew the position but did not disqualify this man and he continued to drive and carry out his business. Who is protecting this individual?

Good repute checks were carried out in respect of this man in 2006 and 2007. We have not been informed with regard to why these checks were carried out. The report we received does not comment on this aspect of the matter. Why did the Garda not respond to the Department in respect of the check carried out in 2006? How can such a failure to respond be acceptable? This gentleman is a convicted drug dealer who was sentenced in the Central Criminal Court in 2006 to five years in prison, with two years suspended. In such circumstances, how was it possible for him to renew his international road haulage licence in 2008?

The regulations to which I referred earlier clearly indicate that any person who has been charged with an indictable offence is not fit to hold an international haulage licence. However, such a licence was issued. This man had a conviction for dangerous driving but was still granted a licence. He had been convicted of an indictable offence but the Department gave him a licence and then did not revoke it.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  I agree with the points raised by Deputies Costello and O’Dowd. It appears the documentation released by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, leaves no doubt that members of the Garda Síochána misled officials of his Department regarding the granting of a licence to the individual in question. Equally disturbing is the ease with which the officials of the Department of Transport accepted the unsatisfactory answers provided by the Garda and granted the licence.

[457]There is a cover-up in respect of this matter. Information had to be dragged out of the Garda at every turn regarding the man in question. There are inexplicable time lapses on the file relating to this matter and these must be addressed. In addition, a number of issues were not dealt with in the course of the application. Certain aspects of the case stink. We are seeking that answers be provided. We do not want inquiries or the issue to be fudged. The Minister for Transport was asked about this matter on Friday last and has still not made a decision in respect of it. Having regard to the facts already on file, I am of the view there is sufficient evidence to warrant the revocation of this man’s licence with immediate effect.

What telephone conversations or meetings took place between members of the Garda Síochána and officials of the Department of Transport? Why was reference not made on the man’s file to the serious charges relating to events at Dublin Port? The man in question served a total of seven and a half years in prison in Britain but this did not appear to be relevant. In addition, he passed a good repute test administered by the Department of Transport. The Minister for Transport stated that at no stage in the past had any prosecutions been taken against him in respect of his livelihood as a professional road transport operator. Would Deputy O’Dowd’s point regarding the conviction for dangerous driving not be fundamental in that regard? At no stage in the past did the gardaí raise or link in any correspondence issues relating to his good repute as a professional road transport operator. A drug dealer passes a test of good repute? Then the fudge comes, that the constitutional right to earn a livelihood could not be taken away lightly. It has not been taken away at all, the opposite has happened, this man has been facilitated in what he has been proven to do in the international road haulage business having regard to his convictions.

Aspects of this are incredible and explanations must be provided by the Government. Ministerial responsibility must be seen to take effect and the licence must be revoked immediately.

Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Deputy John Curran):  A road haulage operator’s licence is granted under section 2 of the Road Traffic and Transport Act 2006 and entitles the holder to carry on a road haulage business for hire or reward. Further statutory regulations govern various details regarding the application process. An international licence enables the holder to carry goods for hire and reward throughout Ireland and the European Union.

The core criteria for the grant of a road haulage operator’s licence are contained in the European Communities (Merchandise Road Transport) Regulations 1991. These state that the applicant must satisfy the criteria of sound financial standing, good repute, and professional competence. Regulation 7 of these regulations sets down the considerations to be taken into account when determining whether an applicant for a road haulage licence is of “good repute”. These regulations also have a list of “relevant offences” outlined in the first schedule that are to be taken into account when deciding whether an applicant satisfies the requirements on good repute.

An application was received from the individual in question for an international road haulage operator’s licence on 12 May 2008. The applicant indicated that he had one conviction on 15 February 2006 under section 15 of the Misuse of Drugs Act for an offence committed on 2 December 2003, for which he was sentenced to five years imprisonment with the last two years suspended. Section 15 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 relates to the possession of controlled drugs for unlawful sale or supply. On inspection of all the accompanying documentation, all other aspects of the application, including accounts relating to financial standing, tax clearance certificate and accompanying documents and affidavits, were found to be in order.

[458]When determining an application for a road haulage operator licence, regard shall be taken as to whether the applicant has relevant convictions in the immediate five year period preceding the application. On foot of the applicant’s self declaration of his conviction in his application form, the Garda was requested to undertake a good repute check on 12 May 2008 on this individual. In addition, further clarification was sought from the Garda in June and again in July and August 2008 on foot of the responses received from it. On 30 July 2008, the Garda advised that no evidence was given at his trial that the applicant’s haulage company was involved in the commission of the offences for which he was convicted, and that he had not come under notice for breaches of road transport legislation.

Arising from some press reports in August about the applicant, it was unclear to the Department whether there were other charges pending or if some charges previously mentioned had been struck out. Accordingly, the officials wrote again to the Garda Síochána in August asking it to indicate the Garda’s view about the applicant’s good repute and his suitability to be granted a licence.

In the response received at the end of August, the Garda indicated that the applicant had been charged with breaches of sections 3, 15, 15A of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 in the Circuit Criminal Court 29 on 15 February 2006. The judge sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment on each charge backdated to 20 September 2005, with sentences to run concurrently. The response also said that the judge suspended the final two years of the sentence on condition that the individual in question entered a bond to keep the peace for a period of two years from the date of his release. The Garda made no comment on whether it regarded the applicant to be a person of good repute or not.

Following consideration of all the issues involved, a decision was then made by officials in the Department to grant the licence on the basis that there were insufficient grounds to refuse it and the Garda had not made any comment on the question of good repute. The decision took into account the criteria outlined in the regulations and the Garda responses to requests in that regard, as well as the wider issues surrounding the applicant’s constitutional right to earn a livelihood, a right that could not be taken away lightly. The fact that the applicant had already served his sentence for the conviction on record, and that he had no further convictions since then, was also taken into account. In addition, the Garda had confirmed on 30 July 2008 that it had not taken prosecutions against the applicant related to his livelihood as a professional road transport operator.

Accordingly, the applicant was granted his international road haulage operator’s licence on 4 September 2008. The licence is valid for five years.

The House will be aware that there has been some other media publicity in recent days concerning the individual in question. Those matters are the subject of separate reviews by the appropriate authorities, including the Garda Ombudsman Commission. I should, however, add that the Minister for Transport is reviewing the legislation and criteria in this area, because the legal and constitutional issues in this area have proven to be difficult and complex and also arise in other licensing areas, such as taxi driver licensing. Also, in some cases the deciding authority is the relevant Department, Minister or other licensing authority while in other cases it is the Garda, for example in the case of taxi driving licences or intoxicating liquor licences.

Issues around the criteria for establishing good repute here have also arisen in other member states. The European Union is in the process of updating and consolidating the existing European legislation governing this area and this is nearing completion. This includes provisions regarding the establishment of an EU wide network of electronic databases which will include conviction information on every licensed operator. Member states will have clear rules allowing [459]them to take convictions in other EU member states into account. The European Commission will be tasked with an examination of what constitutes relevant convictions and what weight will be apportioned to different types of convictions when deciding to award or revoke licences. When these new EU regulations are finalised, the appropriate legislation to implement them will be introduced.

The Minister for Transport is currently in the process of reviewing all aspects of the decision to award this licence to the individual in question. He has already received a preliminary report on this matter and a full report is being prepared for him. The Minister has referred this matter to the Attorney General for advice regarding the legal issues involved. In the circumstances, it would not be appropriate to make any further comment on this matter at this moment in time.

Deputy Seán Sherlock:  I represent a rural constituency where many people live in isolated areas and this scheme allowed them to have the peace of mind and feeling of security brought about by having a monitored alarm system. Their relatives were also reassured by the scheme. I do not understand, therefore, why the scheme is being suspended. I hope the Minister will be true to his word when he says it will be reinstated in September.

This signifies a further erosion of services, particularly for older people. Tonight we debated the loss of the Christmas bonus for pensioners and we all remember the fiasco of the medical cards for the over 70s. Now many older people who live independently in isolated areas no longer feel safe as a result of the loss of this scheme.

It also gives a certain degree of comfort to people who might embark on robberies in rural areas. People are now storing money at home and older people have always had a tendency to do so. The reduction in home help hours means there are fewer callers to people in rural areas, so the lack of monitored alarms will have an effect. In the Fermoy area of my constituency of Cork East, 51 monitored alarms were distributed since January. A further 28 older people were on the waiting list. They will now have to pay approximately €300 from their pension to get an alarm.

According to Irish Rural Link, Muintir na Tire and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the scheme costs approximately €3 million but €2.4 million of that is recouped through VAT paid to the Exchequer. It is a worthwhile scheme and I ask the Minister to reinstate it.

Deputy Mary O’Rourke:  I am pleased I submitted my Adjournment matter to the Ceann Comhairle in sufficient time and I thank him for accepting it tonight.

I have an idea of what is happening on this matter, not from the Minister but I added two and two — it made 22, not four — when I became aware of various things that were taking place. I hope the Minister will review this issue and that when he decides to reinstate the scheme, which I hope he will, he will have taken account of the great deal of information which will have been given to him to demonstrate that there are many better ways of implementing the scheme. In my opinion, the scheme should always be in the hands of voluntary groups such as Muintir na Tire or Irish Rural Link, which is based in Moate, or Helplink South, a wonderful voluntary organisation supplying huge numbers of people with monitors through its very dedicated staff.

I am aware that details have emerged which are not helpful for the people who most need these aids. As Deputy Sherlock said, it is a wonderful scheme. While I live in the town of Athlone much of my constituency is rural. When I visit the house of a person who lives alone I always notice when they are wearing the chain and disc around their neck. Thankfully, the person will be able to ring somebody if they require help. The professional way in which the [460]alarms are monitored and responded to is amazing. It gives great ease and comfort to older people. Undoubtedly, it is a very good scheme. I am sure the Minister, in his thorough and calm way, has decided in the review to put a stop to what is not right in the scheme and to encourage the correct way of doing things.

All schemes when they are started have a good basis for getting off the ground. Everybody is delighted and encouraging but as time passes various matters impinge upon the scheme, which is not good for the scheme’s recipients. I wish the Minister good luck in the review, but I hope he will tell us that the scheme will be restarted in a proper, monitored and structured way.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  There is widespread anger at the decision to suspend funding for the scheme of community support for older people. This scheme has been used successfully to provide enhanced security and peace of mind for older people in their homes. It is especially important for older people living alone in rural Ireland but it is by no means confined to rural areas.

Like many Deputies I have received representations from within my constituency and outside it. As one correspondent states, the decision will “impact greatly on the lives of older and vulnerable people”. Attacks on older people in their homes, ranging from intrusion to assault, not only cause terror to the victims but spread fear across the older population throughout the country. Even a break-in where nothing is taken and where the older person does not encounter the intruder, is extremely traumatic. The older person’s feeling of security in his or her own home has been shattered, in many cases never to be restored again.

This scheme provided practical support with the installation of security alarms, door and window locks, security lighting and smoke alarms. Community alert groups carried out much of this work, with a network that reached across the State. Of course, no devices fitted in a home can substitute for neighbours, friends and care workers regularly calling and ensuring that the older person has the social support he or she needs. However, with this cut the Government appears to be saying that the security of older people is not a priority given that the cut will produce very paltry so-called savings.

This cut cannot be seen in isolation. It comes on top of the cut in home help hours and the totally inadequate provision of health and personal social services to older people in the community. The Government claims to be encouraging older people to remain in their homes, as most of them earnestly wish to do, but it is cutting the essential supports to enable them to do so. Sadly, many more will be driven into institutional care at far greater cost to the State. I join my colleagues in making a cross-party appeal to the Minister to restore this scheme at the earliest opportunity.

Deputy John Curran:  I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. I am particularly pleased, personally, to have the opportunity to address this debate this evening. I had responsibility for this matter before today and I am pleased to have responsibility for it again.

Deputy Mary O’Rourke:  We neglected to say we are happy the Minister has been reappointed.

Deputy John Curran:  I am very pleased to have the opportunity to be back in this position.

My Department has operated the scheme of community support for older people since mid-2002, when the Department was first established. The scheme, as originally devised in 1996, was based on the simple concept of helping people active in their communities to maintain contact with older people in their neighbourhood. Grants are not paid to individuals but to [461]community organisations working with the older person. This approach has helped over the years to ensure that broader community support for older people was stimulated and allowed volunteers and staff of community organisations to maintain contacts with the older person.

Since my Department took over the scheme, in excess of €22 million has been awarded to community and voluntary organisations. Our estimates suggest that some 60,000 older people have been direct beneficiaries, either by being supplied with a monitored alarm, sometimes referred to as the “pendant alarm” or “panic button”, or one of the other security items for their homes. The Department reviewed the scheme in 2004 and made a number of innovations in response to the concerns raised at that time. The scheme was developed to allow for window locks, the installation of door locks and chains and the cost of providing for sensor exterior lighting to be covered by it. Further innovations have been introduced since then, including a grant in respect of smoke alarms. Funding is now provided for carbon monoxide detectors, where they are supplied as part of other smoke detection devices.

One of the key recommendations of the 2004 review was that a standard individual grant be paid. This grant is now fixed at €300 per installation for the monitored alarm and lower amounts for the other equipment available. This approach has helped to ensure that community groups get good value for money and that commercial suppliers are obliged to provide quality equipment at a reasonable price, given that these products vary little in their design or service.

I am happy that the current level of grant ensures that recipients of the alarm are not required to make any contribution to the cost of the supply or installation of the equipment. The only costs falling to the older person or their family members are the annual monitoring costs. I have been told that the costs of the annual monitoring charge can vary from as low as €50 per annum to a high of over €100. This is an area in which I would support greater competition. People need to shop around for the best value available.

The changes introduced in 2004 have meant that the demand for grants has grown to unsustainable levels. From 2002 to 2006, the average annual expenditure on the scheme was approximately €2.4 million. The average expenditure for 2007 and 2008 reached over €4 million, an increase of two thirds. This, Deputies will agree, is clearly a position that could not be sustained, even in better times.

I am also concerned that the changes introduced to the scheme in recent years have meant it is no longer targeting real and genuine need among older people. As a result, the scheme was suspended in early April. This was done with a view to affording my Department the opportunity to review its operation over the next few months and re-launching it later in the year with tighter terms and conditions. This was done specifically in the context of meeting the real need among older people.

Yesterday, I met with representatives of Age Action Ireland, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Muintir na Tire, Irish Rural Link and the Senior Citizen Parliament to discuss the suspension of the scheme and some concerns about how it currently operates. Arising from those discussions, I have agreed with them a process that will set the broad parameters for a review of the scheme and for the necessary consultation to be undertaken as part of it. I am hopeful that the review process can begin in May and be completed by mid-September. The bodies have agreed to participate in the review process and to work with my officials regarding concerns they have with the operation of the scheme.

I assure the Deputies that all applications received up to the suspension of the scheme will be processed and approved, as appropriate, in line with the current eligibility criteria. Funding will be made available to eligible groups in the coming weeks. Deputy Sherlock said there were delays and spoke about the concerns that would cause for older people. Traditionally, this [462]scheme was advertised once each year and if one missed the cut-off date, one had to wait another 12 months. We changed that recently and there is now a continuous application process.

We cleared all applications on hand up to the end of December last. The allocation last year was approximately €4.3 million, so there is no big or substantial overhang. More than €1 million worth of applications have come in this year. Some have been paid and some are still pending. All of the applications that were received early this year will be dealt with. I wish to make it clear that even with the review period, we are still dealing with the issue in a much more timely and efficient manner than under the procedure that existed previously, whereby one could apply only once a year. We do not have a six or 12 months overhang as we cleared everything up to the end of December. The applications that arrived in the earlier part of this year, prior to the suspension of the scheme, will be dealt with in the normal way. We are not accepting new applications during the review period.

In addition, it is important to note that the suspension of the scheme in no way affects those who already have received a monitored alarm device. Finally, I reiterate my commitment to this scheme and the security it has offered to the many older people using the alarms. I hope to re-launch it later in the year, in September, once the review is completed.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 23 April 2009.

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

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

Questions Nos. 11 to 64, inclusive, resubmitted.

Questions Nos. 65 to 72, inclusive, answered orally.

  73.  Deputy Damien English    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    his views on the progress of the Garda Reserve since its establishment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14362/09]

  136.  Deputy Mary Upton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of members of the Garda Reserve recruited to date; the stations to which they have been allocated; the number of applicants for the reserve currently in training; if he is satisfied with the rate of recruitment; when he expects that the full complement of 1,500 will be in place; if restrictions have been placed on recruitment to the reserve arising from budgetary restrictions; his views on the suggestion made by the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors that the reserve should be scrapped; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14272/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 73 and 136 together.

At 31 March 2009, there were 322 attested Reserve Gardaí and 152 Reserve trainees. Details of the stations to which Reserve members are currently assigned are set out in the table below.

The Agreed Programme for Government has set a target strength for the Reserve at 10% of the full-time strength of the force. As the Garda Reserve depends on volunteers who undertake their training and other duties during their free time, it is difficult to predict how many people will commence training in any particular period. However, I can assure the Deputies that the Garda Commissioner is continuing to make every effort to reach the recruitment target. In that context I would point out that the moratorium on recruitment and appointments in the public service does not apply to the Garda Reserve.

[464]Recruitment is ongoing and the Public Appointments Service has received over 1,100 expressions of interest to join the Reserve in 2009. The PAS hold interviews on a rolling basis at a range of locations around the country. The ongoing public information campaign to recruit members to the Garda Reserve includes indoor and outdoor awareness raising campaigns and radio and TV promotional interviews nationally and locally.

The Government is strongly committed to the development of the Reserve. I am fully satisfied that the Reserve provides a valuable contribution to the Garda Síochána and to the many communities where it is operating. In particular, I would like to express my appreciation to the members of the Reserve who serve on a voluntary basis and give of their time very generously.

Stations to which the 322 attested Reserve Members are currently assigned

Station Number
Anglesea Street 10
Arklow 1
Ashbourne 1
Athlone 1
Balbriggan 3
Ballina 3
Ballyfermot 3
Baltinglass 1
Ballymun 6
Bandon 1
Blackrock 5
Blanchardstown 10
Bray 3
Bridewell 5
Cahir 1
Carlow 5
Carrick-on-Shannon 1
Carrick-on-Suir 1
Castlebar 8
Cavan Town 3
Celbridge 1
Claremorris 1
Clonakilty 2
Clondalkin 3
Clonmel 2
Clontarf 4
Coolock 6
Crumlin 3
Donnybrook 4
Drogheda 7
Dun Laoghaire 4
Dundalk 5
Ennis 8
Enniscorthy 2
Fermoy 2
Finglas 4
Fitzgibbon St 5
Galway 18
Gorey 1
Gurranabraher 6
Henry Street 10
Howth 3
Kells 1
Kevin St 6
Kildare 3
Kilkenny 6
Kilmainham 3
Letterkenny 5
Longford 1
Lucan 7
Macroom 1
Malahide 1
Mayfield 3
Middleton 3
Monaghan Town 4
Mullingar 6
Naas 2
Navan 2
Nenagh 1
New Ross 1
Newbridge 2
Pearse St 17
Portlaoise 1
Raheny 3
Rathfarnham 3
Rathmines 2
Ronanstown 1
Roscommon 3
Santry 4
Sligo 6
Store St 6
Sundrive Rd 1
Swords 4
Tallaght 2
Terenure 3
Thurles 1
Tipperary Town 1
Togher 4
Tralee 2
Tramore 2
Trim 1
Tuam 2
Tullamore 4
Watercourse Rd. 3
Waterford 9
Westport 3
Wexford 1
Whitehall 2

  74.  Deputy Liz McManus    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the way, in respect of the announcement of 3 February 2009, he intends to achieve the general administrative reductions in regard to his Department; the amount expected to be saved in his Department’s budget as a result of this process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14255/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I refer the Deputy to my reply to Questions No. 56 and 110 of 25 February, 2009.

Since then and in advance of the publication of the Revised Estimates Volume, my Department has introduced a number of measures to achieve the general administrative cost reductions which are required.

All expenditure in my Department’s Vote Group is reviewed every month by the Department’s Financial Management Committee. Expenditure trends are identified and where necessary, corrective measures are put in place. In addition to this high level expenditure control function, each Departmental agency, division and associated body has its own financial management processes which, in some instances, monitor trends on a weekly basis.

Prudent financial management requires that contingency arrangements be put in place, where possible, to cover unanticipated events. In this respect my Department’s contingency arrangements include the postponement of spending decisions on “discretionary” items until such time as the likely overall expenditure patterns on the Vote Group have become clearer.

Clearly, the Government sector, as a major procurer of goods and services, is in a unique position to maximise its purchasing power. Consequently, my Department has undertaken a comprehensive analysis of existing supplier arrangements, costs and rates in order to identify potential savings. This is in addition to the savings already being achieved by the implementation of the 8% reduction in professional fees. In advance of the establishment of the National Procurement Operations Unit, my Department has also strengthened its sectoral procurement network in order to achieve the best prices from the market.

The Deputy will be aware that a key area where savings can be realised is in the shared services approach, where back office functions, such as Finance, ICT and HR, can be shared by a number of different units to produce cost savings. My Department fully supports the concept of shared services and currently operates a major public sector financial shared services centre in Killarney, as well as an IT shared services facility which encompasses the core Department, twenty sectoral agencies and over 1,500 users.

I would also like to draw the Deputy’s attention to the fact that my Department is also participating in the Office of Public Works (OPW) Energy Awareness Campaign. This project aims to conserve energy in State Buildings and has as its objective a 15% reduction of CO2 emissions per annum in all of the nominated State Buildings. A number of my Department’s main buildings are included in this project and, with the assistance of the OPW and external advisors, we are already well on the way to achieving our targets and real cost reductions in energy supply.

I expect that, in accordance with the Government’s decisions on these matters, the required budgetary savings will be achieved by my Department in 2009. The precise details of these reductions are still being finalised and will be published in the normal way in the Revised Estimates Volume on Thursday. As the Deputy will appreciate, I cannot pre-empt their formal publication but I anticipate that the amount to be saved in respect of these administrative reductions will be in the order of €10m.

  75.  Deputy Dan Neville    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    his views on the number of prisoners who have died in custody in the past two years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14397/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I have been informed by the Irish Prison Service that there have been six deaths in custody in 2007, eleven deaths in 2008 and three deaths to date in 2009.

All deaths in custody are the subject of a Garda investigation and an inquest held in a Coroner’s Court. The cause of death is determined by a jury on the basis of the information presented to the Court. Of the twenty deaths in custody since 2007, the cause of death has been determined formally in five cases. Two deaths were attributed to natural causes, two were classified as deaths by misadventure and an open verdict was recorded in one case.

The circumstances of each death in custody are also examined by a multi-disciplinary group in each institution. Their objective is to identify, where possible, measures which might be implemented to contribute to a reduction in the risk of deaths in the future. In addition, the Irish Prison Service Steering Group for the Prevention of Self-Harm and Death in the Prison Population provides a forum for collating the reports of the local groups and disseminating significant findings throughout the prison system. There are strategies and plans in place in all institutions for the prevention of suicides.

As regards deaths in Garda custody, I am informed that 6 people have died in custody since 2007.

Section 102 of the Garda Siochana Act 2005 requires the Garda Commissioner to refer to the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) any matter that appears to indicate that the conduct of a member of the Garda Siochana may have resulted in the death or serious harm to a person.

Since GSOC has become operational in May 2007 there have been three deaths in custody. A file was sent to the DPP in one case — returned with no direction for prosecution — and two other cases are still under investigation.

The Treatment of Offenders in Custody Regulations (1987 and 2006) prescribe the actions of the Garda Siochana when dealing with persons in their custody. Members are fully aware of their responsibilities to those in their custody and of the need for strict compliance with the regulations. In this regard there have been a number of developments in recent times:

guidance notes on the Regulations for members of An Garda Síochána had been extensively updated to incorporate legislative changes and other legal developments and to reflect best practice. These notes have been circulated to all members.

In his foreword to the new guidance notes, the Garda Commissioner has stressed that it is imperative that members of An Garda Síochána in complying with legal requirements promote respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

A revised Garda Síochána Custody Record had been introduced incorporating a new section on children and capturing more comprehensive details on the condition of the detained person on arrival.

The operation of all these measures is subject to ongoing monitoring and review as appropriate and is part of An Garda Síochána’s overall commitment to upholding and protecting the rights of all detained persons.

[468]Finally, on a related point, arising from the Dean Lyons case an Expert Group to examine the adequacy of Garda protocols and procedures relating to the interviewing of vulnerable persons was established. This group is expected to report in the near future.

Question No. 76 answered with Question No. 72.

  77.  Deputy P. J. Sheehan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    his views on the guardianship rights of non-marital fathers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14417/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  Existing legislation makes extensive provision for unmarried fathers with respect to their children.

Under the law as it stands — section 6A of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964, as inserted by section 12 of the Status of Children Act 1987 — an unmarried father may apply to the court to be appointed a guardian of his child. Alternatively, where there is agreement between the parents, they can make a statutory declaration under section 2(4) of the Guardianship of Infants Act, as inserted by section 4 of the Children Act 1997, conferring on the father the status of guardian.

Under section 11 of the 1964 Act, a guardian may apply to the court for its direction on any question affecting the welfare of the child, including directions as to custody and access. In addition, the section provides that the unmarried father of a child, even if he is not a guardian, may apply to the court for orders on custody and access. Section 3 of the Act provides that, in deciding on an application relating to the custody, guardianship or upbringing of a child, the court shall regard the welfare of the child as the first and paramount consideration.

These legislative provisions are comprehensive. They permit the court in cases of disagreement to decide on arrangements for the child’s care and upbringing having regard to the child’s best interests. The vast majority of applications by unmarried fathers for guardianship are granted by the court.

  78.  Deputy Kieran O’Donnell    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    his plans in respect of capital projects in the prison sector in 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14401/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The 2009 prisons capital programme includes a number of important projects.

Thornton Hall

A preferred bidder for the design, construction, finance and maintenance of the new prison development at Thornton Hall, County Dublin has been selected. While negotiations on the contract are at an advanced stage they have not yet been completed to the point that the Project Agreement can be signed. I am advised by the Irish Prison Service that negotiations with the preferred bidder are currently at an advanced stage. These negotiations are focussed on progressing financial, technical and legal aspects of the project. Construction of the new prison will commence immediately after contract award and should take no more than 3 years to complete.

[469]New Blocks at Castlerea, Portlaoise and Wheatfield

Other major projects in hand at present include the commissioning and opening of new cell blocks at Portlaoise and at Wheatfield and a new remand wing at Castlerea Prison. These projects will provide over 400 additional spaces. The developments at Portlaoise and Castlerea are on schedule and it is expected that both blocks will be ready for occupation shortly.

The new cell block at Wheatfield, also on schedule, will be ready later in the year.

In addition to these projects, a new Recreation Building is due for completion shortly at Castlerea along with revisions to the Exercise Yards and some other facilities.

Mobile Phone Inhibition

Phases 1 and 2 of this project have been successfully completed and evaluated in the Midlands Prison.

The results of the project so far have convinced the Irish Prison Service of the merit of extending the inhibition system to the new “C” Block in Portlaoise Prison and the nearby Segregation Unit, and installation work is currently ongoing.

Three other companies, each relying on technology designed by themselves (and different in its modus operandum from each others), are also being given an opportunity to install trial systems of mobile phone inhibition in some of our prisons.

When evaluation of the trial systems is complete, it is intended to seek competitive tenders on a prison by prison basis from all companies whose product meets our requirements for installation of inhibitors. The roll-out of this project will continue throughout 2009.

Other Projects

A number of smaller but nevertheless significant projects in the areas of ICT, Fire Safety, CCTV, Exercise Yard netting and other Security Initiatives are planned for 2009.

A 2009-2012 rolling Capital Programme for the Prison Estate is currently being finalised. This programme will outline the key areas of capital expenditure over the next four years including the provision of additional prison spaces, enhanced security, elimination of obsolete and unsuitable accommodation and continued improvements to the fabric of the Prisons Estate.

  79.  Deputy Emmet Stagg    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the action he has taken or plans to take arising from the report of the Hartnett inquiry into the death of a person (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14271/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  As indicated in my responses to Parliamentary Questions Number 62 of 18 December 2008 and Number 90 of 25 February 2009, the findings of the Hartnett Report have been accepted.

The Inquest into the death of the person in question has been concluded and civil proceedings instituted by the person’s family have been settled.

A Chief Superintendent was appointed under the Garda Síochána (Discipline) Regulations 2007 to deal with disciplinary matters arising from the Report. The question of discipline for members is, in the first instance, a matter for the Commissioner and I understand that one member has been dealt with under that process and the process is ongoing in respect of two others.

  80.  Deputy Ciarán Lynch    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    when he will introduce the legislation promised to increase jail sentences for possession of a knife; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14252/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  Though legislation on the use of knives and similar weapons is already very strong and heavy penalties are already in place, I am moving to strengthen the law in this area. In that context, I sought and received proposals from the Garda Commissioner on strengthening the law on knife crime. These include:

increasing the maximum prison sentence for possessing a knife in a public place from one year to five years; and

creating an extended power of search without warrant in certain circumstances.

I have accepted these proposals and the relevant changes to the Law in this area will be made in the context of the forthcoming Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which was considered by Government at its meeting today. The Bill deals with a range of amendments to current statutes including very significant changes to the Firearms Acts.

Following the consideration of the matter by Government today, I expect to publish the Bill shortly and it is my intention to have the issues to which the Deputy refers along with the other important issues relating to the control of firearms and offensive weapons being dealt with in this legislation, brought before the House at the earliest possible opportunity.

In addition, I have directed the drafting of a new Firearms and Offensive Weapons Order which will deal with the issue of swords. In particular, I will be banning the sale of samurai swords.

As the Deputy will be aware, on 5 February, the Garda Commissioner and I launched a Knife Awareness Campaign by An Garda Síochána with the objective of informing and educating young people in particular on the dangers of carrying knives and with the aim of reducing the number of incidents of knife crime.

  81.  Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if his attention has been drawn to the recent statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture that the absence of needle exchange from places of detention amounts to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment; and if he has raised this issue with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. [8836/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The statement referred to by the Deputy has recently been made available by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Amongst various matters raised in the statement there is comment expressing reservation that needle and syringe exchange programmes are available to prisoners in only eight countries throughout the world and opiate substitution therapy in only thirty three States, often restricted to those who already have begun to receive treatment prior to incarceration.

There is concern expressed by the Special Rapporteur that, notwithstanding recommendations and decisions of various international Human Rights bodies, failure to provide adequate health services to detainees may contribute to conditions amounting to cruel, [471]inhuman, and degrading treatment. He goes on to raise concern that failure to ensure access to harm reduction measures — both inside and outside prisons — puts injecting drug users at unnecessary and avoidable risk of blood borne infection.

In the Irish context, I would remind the Deputy that all prisoners have access to health services on an equivalent basis to citizens in the general community covered by the General Medical Services scheme. The Irish Prison Service has, in the context of drug treatment services, been engaged in collaborative efforts involving community health and drug treatment resources aimed at ensuring that the range of services available to prisoners is consistent with good practice in the general community. Notwithstanding present resource difficulties, it remains a priority of my Department and the Irish Prison Service that such services will continue to be available.

Turning to the question of needle exchange in prisons. My position on this matter is clear — I do not support such a move. Any person seeking syringes, needles and fluids under such a scheme would essentially be indicating to the prison authorities that he or she is in possession of, or shortly will be in illegal possession of, controlled drugs and proposes consuming them. To supply a prisoner with the requested items in these circumstances would, in effect, be to tell him or her that prison management will facilitate the commission of serious criminal offences in the prison.

Needle Exchange Schemes would subvert, and run contrary to increasing staff vigilance in searching for drugs and preventing them being smuggled into prisons. As far as my Department is concerned, drug control in prisons would be reduced to a game in which a blind eye approach to successful breaches of the controls would, in time, become the order of the day. The Irish Prison Service is committed to the twin strategies of Supply and Demand Reduction to deal with the issues of drugs in prison — closing off routes of supply and providing appropriate support to prisoners to tackle their addictions. The introduction of needle exchange would run contrary to these approaches.

As previously stated, my priority and that of the Irish Prison Service is to ensure that an appropriate range of treatment services is available to all prisoners requiring these.

  82.  Deputy Dinny McGinley    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the progress that has been made in respect of legislating for covert surveillance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14392/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Bill 2009 was published on 17th April 2009.

The Bill provides a statutory framework for surveillance by an Garda Síochána, the Defence Forces and the Revenue Commissioners in their respective roles in combatting serious crime and protecting the State from subversive and terrorist threats.

Up to now surveillance has been used primarily as an intelligence gathering tool. Under the Bill material gathered under its provisions will be now capable of being used as evidence in criminal trials.

  83.  Deputy Phil Hogan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    when he plans to bring proposals forward for management company regulation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10262/09]

[472]Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  Legislation to address the Law Reform Commission’s recommendations on multi-unit developments is in the course of being drafted by the Parliamentary Counsel as a matter of priority. The intention is to publish the Bill in this Session.

The principal focus of the new Bill will be on ensuring good governance of property management companies and similar bodies which comprise the owners of units within multi-unit developments and which exercise management functions in relation to such developments. It is also intended to include provisions for the resolution of disputes arising in relation to such matters. The policy aspects extend to my Department, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

  84.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the arrangements in place to supervise prisoners following their release; the number of prisoners currently under supervision; the level of supervision that is taking place generally in respect of prisoners; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14335/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  Generally speaking when a prisoner has fully completed his or her sentence he/she is no longer subject to any legal obligation to be subject to supervision. However, some former prisoners will of their own volition participate in courses/programmes arranged through the Probation Service. Furthermore, in the case of certain offences (e.g. sexual offences) the Judge at the time of sentencing may include a post release supervision order which applies after the custodial part of the sentence has been served. Some form of supervision may also be imposed by the Courts in the context of a part or full suspended sentence. Of course, prisoners, including life sentenced prisoners, given temporary release are still subject to their sentence and temporary release is given subject to various conditions which the prisoner must comply with or else they risk return to prison.

Persons come under the supervision of the Probation Service on release from prison under certain specific legislation, namely:

The Criminal Justice Act 1960 (temporary release) as amended by the Criminal Justice (Temporary Release of Prisoners) Act 2003;

The Sex Offender Act 2001; and

The Criminal Justice Act 2006

In respect of the Criminal Justice Act 1960 (temporary release) as amended by the Criminal Justice (Temporary Release of Prisoners) Act 2003 there are currently 82 offenders under the supervision of Probation Service.

In respect of the Sex Offender Act, 2001 there were 106 sex offenders under the supervision of the Probation Service on the 20th April of which 80 have served a custodial sentence prior to commencing supervision. On the same date there were 139 offenders in custody who will be subject to supervision following release.

In respect of the Criminal Justice Act, 2006 I am advised that the Probation Service is updating its record on the number of offenders in the community who are subject to Probation supervision in the community under this Act. When this work is completed I will provide the Deputy with the up-to-date information. I can tell the Deputy that there are currently 477 prisoners in custody serving part suspended sentences under the 2006 Act.

[473]The Probation Service carries out formal risk assessments on offenders using validated risk assessment instruments. This informs both the level of supervision and the targets for intervention during supervision.

Evidence from research indicates that the higher the level of risk, the greater the level of intervention required. Supervision levels therefore vary depending on the level of assessed risk. Supervision incorporates a multi agency and cross sectoral approach.

Additionally my Department through the Probation Service financially supports a broad range of community programmes to support the supervision process. For example, in partnership with the Granada Institute, the Probation Service runs the Lighthouse Sex Offender Treatment Programme. This is a therapeutic group work programme which aims to reduce the risk of re-offending. There are two group work programmes running currently in Dublin and one in Cork. The three programmes offer places to a total on 24 sex offenders at any one time.

I should also make the Deputy aware of some more recent developments:

Firstly, I published a significant Discussion Document on the management of sex offenders last January which sets out a range of enhanced initiatives that will result in more strategic targeting of higher risk offenders by the Gardaí and the Probation Service with the full support of the Irish Prison Service.

Secondly, I have asked my Department to review the operation of the Sex Offenders Act, 2001.

Thirdly, I have also asked my Department to examine how we might use Electronic Monitoring technology to monitor sex offenders during the first six months following release from prison as well as the more general application of this technology to the wider prisoner population. The Project Group set up to look at this matter — which is led by the Probation Service — is due to report later in the year and my Department is looking at the legislative implications of monitoring the sex offender cohort for a defined period following release.

  85.  Deputy Paul Connaughton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he has plans to introduce legislation to allow for fines and civil debt to be paid incrementally; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14345/09]

  134.  Deputy Brian O’Shea    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform when,    further to an interview (details supplied), he will introduce legislation to end prison terms of non-payment of fines; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14258/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 85 and 134 together.

The Fines Bill 2009 was published last Monday, April the 20th.

The Bill covers three main areas of policy; the indexation of fines, the capacity of persons to pay fines and alternatives to imprisonment where a fine has not been paid by the due date for payment.

In particular, section 14 of the Bill provides that where a fine is imposed on a person, that person may apply to the court to pay the fine by instalments. If the court is satisfied that to pay in full by the due date would result in undue financial hardship for the person who was fined, or to his or her dependants, the court can direct that the fine be paid by instalments over a period of one year. An extension of not more than a further year may be given by the [474]court where it is satisfied that the financial circumstances of the person have changed and that the change is not due to the person’s culpable neglect.

In addition, I am providing the courts with three new options where a fine has not been paid by the due date. These are the appointment of a receiver, where the fine was imposed following conviction on indictment, recovery of the fine as if it was a civil debt and the imposition of a community service order.

I believe that this legislation will make a significant contribution towards reducing the numbers imprisoned for the non-payment of fines while at the same time preserving the integrity of the fines system.

There are no plans at present to amend the law in relation to civil debt. However, operation of the law is being kept under review in my Department.

  86.  Deputy Andrew Doyle    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the progress he has made in respect of the establishment of a judicial council; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14360/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  As I indicated in my reply to Parliamentary Questions No. 341 of 18 November and No. 28 of 18 December 2008 work on the scheme of the Judicial Council Bill is at an advanced stage of development in my Department.

Following contacts with the Chief Justice a working group was established in 2008 to advance the Bill. The Group comprises a nominee each of my Department and of the Chief Justice. Its work is nearing conclusion and I expect to be in a position to seek Government approval to draft the Bill shortly.

  87.  Deputy Kathleen Lynch    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of applications received to date in 2009 for early retirement from members of the gardaí; the way this compares to the same period in each year from 2002; his views on reports that a significant number of senior gardaí are planning to take early retirement as a result of the public service pension levy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14253/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I am informed by the Garda authorities that the number of Gardaí who have voluntarily retired from An Garda Síochána in the first three months of each year from 2002-2009 was as set out in the table hereunder.

Dates Voluntary Retirements
01/01/02 – 31/03/02 63
01/01/03 – 31/03/03 109
01/01/04 – 31/03/04 103
01/01/05 – 31/03/05 59
01/01/06 – 31/03/06 59
01/01/07 – 31/03/07 26
01/01/08 – 31/03/08 54
01/01/09 – 31/03/09 111

[475]It is not possible to identify particular factors in decisions made by members to take early retirement, but clearly the rate of retirement will continue to be kept under review.

  88.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the degree to which he has monitored the number of break-ins at domestic or commercial premises in each of the past five years to date in 2009; the number of cases reported, recorded and investigated; the number of incidents in which the property was recovered in full or in part; the number of incidents in which prosecutions were initiated and successfully concluded or otherwise; if he intends to take particular initiatives to address this ongoing issue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14324/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The Garda Síochána Act 2005 makes provision for the compilation and publication of crime statistics by the Central Statistics Office, as the national statistical agency, and the CSO has established a dedicated unit for this purpose.

I have requested the CSO to provide the statistics sought by the Deputy directly to him.

I am informed by the Garda authorities that local Garda management closely monitors crime trends and puts strategies in place to prevent, detect and reduce the number of incidences of this type of crime. Divisional Scenes of Crime Units provide a flexible and immediate response to emerging crime issues and assist in identifying and monitoring crime trends as they are emerging.

Injured parties are offered crime prevention and personal security advice by members of An Garda Síochána attending the scenes of such crimes. The Divisional Crime Prevention Officer can also be requested to attend at the scene and conduct a security audit, providing specific crime prevention or personal security advice, depending on the circumstances of the individual or business.

  89.  Deputy Ruairí Quinn    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of licensed handguns in respect of each year from 2002 to date in 2009; the number of licensed handguns that were reported as stolen; the number of such stolen guns that were subsequently used in crimes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14264/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The Deputy will be aware that prior to 2004 there was a de facto ban on handguns in this jurisdiction. However, I understand from the Garda Authorities that records indicate approximately 2,000 handguns have been licensed since the beginning of 2004. The most recent figures on stolen firearms were received on 16 December 2008 and indicate that 31 handguns were recorded as stolen since 2004.

I am further advised that stolen firearms are used in the course of the commission of other criminal offences but, because not all stolen firearms or firearms used in the commission of offences are recovered, it is not possible to say precisely how many formerly legally held handguns have been used in criminal offences.

As I have stated on a number of occasions I am concerned with the situation we now find ourselves in following the growth in the licensing of hand guns over the past few years. We now have these 2,000 handguns licensed, and not as a result of a considered or deliberate public policy decision. As Mr. Justice Charleton said in a recent judgment the public is entitled to feel [476]alarmed at the proliferation of handguns. I am not going to permit the growth of a ‘handgun’ culture. It was against this background that I announced my proposals for reform in this area, which include a ban on issuing new licenses for handguns and a strict regime for renewal of existing licenses, with limited exceptions made in relation to Olympic sports.

The House may note the endorsement of these proposals by the Chief Inspector of the Garda Inspectorate who draws on her own considerable experience of policing in the United States. She has recently been quoted as saying that a lot of guns used in the commission of crime in the States are guns that have been stolen from their rightful owners. We must have controls in place to prevent the same thing happening here. My proposals will be reflected in the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which I will be publishing imminently.

It is important to say that my proposals in relation to handguns will not impinge directly on the activities of the vast majority of licensed firearms holders. I recognise that those firearms holders pursue their legitimate interests in a law abiding way and am anxious to have a well regulated sector in which those interests can be successfully pursued, in cooperation with the relevant authorities. But the reality is specific issues arise from the inherent nature of firearms.

  90.  Deputy Brian O’Shea    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    his views on the Central Statistics Office crime figures for 2008 and on the continued increase in the number of drug offences; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14257/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The most recent Central Statistics Office figures referred to by the Deputy show an increase of 25.4% in the overall total of drugs offences recorded for 2008 in comparison with 2007.

It is important to emphasise that, of their nature, drug offences are only recorded as a result of enforcement activity. For example, obviously possession of drugs for supply is only recorded as an offence where the law enforcement agencies have detected the offence and pursued it. The statistics in question, therefore, represent increased levels of enforcement and should lead to commendation of the efforts of those involved.

The House will be aware from media reports and elsewhere of the relentless action being taken particularly by An Garda Síochána in pursuing the activities of drugs gangs and the considerable success they have had through making major seizures and arrests.

Those successes are inevitably reflected in the recording of an increased number of drug offences but it would be a pity if, through some misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the statistics, this was to be counted as a failure rather than a success of their enforcement strategies.

That is not in any way to understate the extent of the problem of drug abuse and the need to devoting considerable resources to tackling it. That is exactly what is being done.

Through ongoing specific initiatives and intelligence-led operations, An Garda Síochána continues to seize substantial quantities of illegal drugs and identify those involved in the importation, distribution, sale and supply of illegal drugs.

In addition to the officers of the Force specifically assigned to the drugs issue who are attached to the Garda National Drugs Unit and the Divisional Drug Units, officers from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Organised Crime Unit and the Criminal Assets Bureau all assist in our overall law enforcement response to drug trafficking and drug dealing.

[477]In addition, the Gardaí work closely with Customs and the Naval Service under the umbrella of the Joint Task Force on Drugs as well as with their international colleagues in tackling the problem.

Among recent and ongoing initiatives are the establishment of the Organised Crime Unit on a permanent footing, our involvement in the establishment and ongoing operation of the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre in Lisbon, strengthened provisions in the Criminal Justice Acts 2006 and 2007 and the ringfencing of €21million this year for Operation Anvil.

Furthermore, I am confident that the legislation which I announced last week dealing with surveillance will be of particular value in tackling drugs gangs.

Finally I am sure all members of the House will accept fully that we cannot tackle the problem of drug misuse through law enforcement measures alone. We need to tackle the demand for drugs and, in this context, I can assure the House that my Department, and all the agencies under its aegis, are cooperating fully in the development of the new National Drugs Strategy for the period 2009 to 2016 which is being drawn up under the aegis of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

  91.  Deputy Willie Penrose    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of cases of murder in which firearms were used in respect of each year from 1998 to date in 2009; the number of such cases in which prosecutions for murder were initiated; the number of such cases in which convictions were secured; if he is satisfied with the level of detection and conviction in such cases; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14261/09]

  112.  Deputy Pat Rabbitte    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of gun murders which have taken place since the beginning of 2009; his views on such gun murders in the Dublin area and the extent to which this reflects the continued operation of criminal gangs; the steps being taken to deal with such murders; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14239/09]

  114.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the action he proposes to take to bring to an immediate end the activities of criminal gangs, which has resulted in shootings, stabbings, armed robberies, murders, attacks and shootings on gardaí, extortion, witness intimidation, money laundering, racketeering and protection; his views on whether the threat of promised legislation has no bearing on such activity and does not deter others from joining in the fray; if he has proposals to put such persons off the streets on a permanent basis; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14325/09]

  124.  Deputy Jim O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    his views on recent gangland killings; and if he has proposals to deal with same. [14320/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 91, 112, 114 and 124 together.

The following table contains the number of cases of murder recorded in which firearms were used, the number of prosecutions initiated and the number of convictions secured in each year from 1998 to 2008 and in 2009 up to 16 April. Figures provided are provisional, operational and liable to change.

The detection rate for murders by its nature increases over time as Garda investigations progress. It is expected that in respect of each year the number of convictions obtained will [478]increase as Garda investigations are concluded and the number of proceedings commenced are finalised by the courts. This applies particularly to murders committed in the most recent years. In addition, directions may be received from the Law Officers to charge persons arrested in connection with such incidents with offences other than murder. Furthermore such persons charged and brought before the courts may be convicted of offences other than murder.

All killings, regardless of the circumstances involved, are the subject of rigorous investigation by An Garda Síochána and will continue to be so.

While An Garda Síochána have made significant progress in the investigation of a number of killings, there can be considerable difficulties for them in obtaining evidence in shootings which are the result of gangland activities. It has to be accepted that the reality is that associates of a victim of a gangland killing who would have information of value to An Garda Síochána often do not cooperate with Garda investigations. Indeed, they frequently fail to cooperate even when they themselves are the victims of violence. A number of changes to the law on evidence have been made to address this. It has also to be accepted that there is often no connection or personal association between the victim and the perpetrator, which makes it very difficult for An Garda Síochána in their investigation of such a murder. Witnesses may also be subject to high levels of intimidation not to come forward, and it is to assist such witnesses that the Witness Protection Programme is in place.

Our criminal law has been significantly strengthened in recent years. Many of these changes are targeted at fighting gangland crime. The Criminal Justice Acts of 2006 and 2007, in particular, introduced wide ranging reforms to strengthen the capacity of An Garda Síochána to tackle serious crime. One of the most far reaching has been the introduction of seven day detention for offences connected with organised crime such as murder or kidnapping involving the use of a firearm. The bail laws have been strengthened to allow the prosecution mount a more effective challenge to bail applications. For example, applicants for bail can be required to provide a statement of their means so that the prosecution can highlight any divergence between their lifestyles and their stated means as evidence of their involvement in gangland activity. The circumstances in which inferences may be drawn at trial from a suspect’s silence in response to Garda questioning have also been expanded.

We will continue to press forward with this work in strengthening the criminal law. I published the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Bill 2009 on 17 April. The main purpose of the Bill is to strengthen the powers available to An Garda Síochána to prevent and detect serious crime, as well as to safeguard the security of the State against subversion and terrorism.

I have also indicated, particularly in light of the recent killing in Limerick which has very serious implications for the operation of the criminal justice system, that I am working on proposals to strengthen the criminal law in relation to gangland activity particularly through taking an approach similar to that taken against subversive organisations.

Work is ongoing on legislation to provide for the establishment of a DNA database for criminal investigations purposes. Such a database will greatly enhance the intelligence available to An Garda Síochána. I expect to be in a position to publish the Bill by the summer.

My proposals for the Criminal Procedure Bill are also well advanced. While this Bill is primarily aimed at giving effect to the legislative aspects of the Justice for Victims Initiative which I announced last June, some elements of it will be of considerable benefit in our fight against serious crime. In particular, it is proposed to enable the DPP to seek a re-trial where an acquittal is tainted due, for example, to intimidation of witnesses or jurors. There will also be a provision on expert evidence, to ensure that the prosecution is given adequate opportunity to examine and challenge evidence being introduced by the defence; in other words, there will [479]be a levelling of the pitch. I expect to be in a position to seek Government approval for the publication of the Bill shortly.

Some time ago, I asked my Department and An Garda Síochána to carry out an urgent and intensive review of the firearms law. Following that review, I have brought forward proposals. While a de facto ban on new handgun licences is already in place, my proposals will also be given legislative form in the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

Though legislation on the use of knives and similar weapons is already very strong and heavy penalties are already in place, I am moving to strengthen the law in this area. In that context, I sought and received proposals from the Garda Commissioner on strengthening the law on knife crime. I have accepted these proposals, and the forthcoming Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will take account of them.

The Garda Policing Plan for 2009, which reflects the priorities set for the Force by me as Minister, contains a series of measures aimed at reducing the impact of crime and criminal behaviour. These goals are backed up by strategic actions which include a commitment to continue and intensify intelligence-led operations against groups and individuals engaged in criminality. An Garda Síochána, in accordance with the priorities I have set, is committed to targeting violent crime and those who engage or facilitate persons involved in such activity.

One of these operations is Operation Anvil, the primary focus of which is the targeting of active criminals and their associates involved in serious crime by preventing and disrupting their criminal activity through extensive additional overt patrolling and static checkpoints by uniform, mobile and foot patrols, supported by armed plain clothes patrols.

Under the Operation, up to 22 March, 2009, 2,469 firearms have been recovered throughout the country. There have also been over 7,500 arrests for serious crimes such as murder, serious assault, robbery and burglary and over 72,000 searches for weapons, drugs and stolen goods.

At a time when the public finances are under pressure, I am determined that top priority will continue to be given to frontline policing. Funding for Operation Anvil has increased in 2009 from €20 million to €21 million to enable it to continue with targeted disruption of serious and organised criminal activity. Other key operations will be maintained through 2009, and any savings that have to be made will not be allowed to diminish frontline policing.

A significant element of the fight against organised crime by An Garda Síochána is the use of specialist units. Units with expertise in specific areas operate under the direction of the Assistant Commissioner in charge of the National Support Services, who has overall responsibility for the coordination of measures designed to address organised crime throughout the State. Specialist units include:

the Criminal Assets Bureau which identifies and targets funds accumulated by criminals in order to seize such assets and deprive them of the profits of their criminal activity;

the Organised Crime Unit which has a specific remit of targeting those suspected of involvement in organised crime, including the trafficking, importation, sale and supply of drugs;

the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation which is responsible for the investigation of individuals and organisations involved in money laundering;

the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation which is responsible for investigating the activities of organised criminal networks; and

the National Drugs Unit and dedicated Divisional and District Drugs Units.

[480]These units are supported by the Garda Security and Intelligence Section which assists with the provision of intelligence briefings and timely information.

The number of murders recorded in which a firearm was used, proceedings commenced and convictions

Year Recorded Proceedings Commenced Convictions
2009* 11 1 0
2008 21 7 0
2007 18 2 0
2006 26 6 2
2005 22 3 2
2004 8 4 3
2003 19 3 1
2002 10 4 3
2001 9 2 1
2000 12 4 1
1999 12 7 5
1998 4 2 1

  92.  Deputy Billy Timmins    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the progress that has been made in respect of the introduction of legislation to prevent money laundering in this jurisdiction in line with the third EU anti-money laundering directive; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14382/09]

  125.  Deputy Ruairí Quinn    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the reason for the failure to implement the 2005 EU directive on money laundering by the deadline of December 2007; when the required legislation will be published; if he will confirm that there are enforcement proceedings imminent against Ireland for its failure to implement the Directive; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14263/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 92 and 125 together.

The Criminal Justice (Money Laundering) Bill, which will transpose the requirements of the third EU Money Laundering Directive into Irish Law, along with those of the related implementing Directive is being drafted at present. The highest priority is being given to the drafting and publication of this Bill. The proposed legislation will also have regard to the relevant recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which published the third mutual evaluation report on Ireland’s measures to combat money laundering and terrorist financing in 2006 and made recommendations.

Ireland already has strong anti-money laundering legislation. The transposition of the 3rd EU Money Laundering Directive and legislative compliance with the FATF recommendations on anti money laundering and terrorist financing measures, will considerably strengthen and update our existing laws. I am taking the opportunity through this Bill to repeal and consolidate our existing anti-money laundering provisions in one statute. This approach will I believe facilitate all the various sectors and groups involved in using and applying the money laundering [481]provisions. For this reason, when Government approval was given to the drafting of this Bill approval was also given to the publication of the proposals on my Department’s website. Following publication of the Scheme of the Bill my Department, along with the Department of Finance with whom my Department is working closely on the preparation of this legislation, undertook an extensive consultation process involving a wide range of interested parties. The process included both the provision of written submissions and meetings with many interested groups. The process was an extremely useful and important exercise for all concerned.

The transposition date for the relevant Directives was December 2007. The European Commission has brought proceedings against Ireland and some other Member States in relation to the transposition of these Directives. As the matter is currently with the European Court of Justice it would be inappropriate to comment any further. It should be noted however that I expect to be in a position to publish the legislation by the first half of this year and it is my intention that it will be considered by both houses of the Oireachtas as soon as possible following publication.

  93.  Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if his attention has been drawn to the fact that all files relating to complaints deemed finalised by the Garda Complaints Board up to and including 2005 have been destroyed; the considerations that preceded the decision by the Garda Complaints Board to destroy all the files; if the statutes of limitations, the fact that related cases remain sub judice and the fact that some files may have been of assistance to future investigations by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission were taken into consideration; the basis of the decision; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14192/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I refer the Deputy to my response to Parliamentary Questions Nos. 135 to 141 of 2nd April 2009. I have nothing further to add.

  94.  Deputy Seymour Crawford    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of murders that have taken place each year during the past five years and to date in 2009; and the number of convictions that have been secured in respect of these murders. [14350/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The following table contains the number of cases of murder recorded and the number of convictions secured in each year from 2004 to 2008 and in 2009 up to 3 April.

The detection rate for murders by its nature increases over time as Garda investigations progress. It is expected that in respect of each year the number of convictions obtained will increase as Garda investigations are concluded and the number of proceedings commenced are finalised by the courts. This applies particularly to murders committed in the most recent years. In addition, directions may be received from the Law Officers to charge persons arrested in connection with such incidents with offences other than murder, for example firearms offences. Furthermore persons charged and brought before the courts may be convicted of offences other than murder.

[482]The number of murders and convictions recorded for the years 2004 to 2008 and in 2009 up to 3 April

Year Recorded Convictions
2009 15 0
2008 51 1
2007 78 28
2006 62 28
2005 53 24
2004 31 28

All figures are provisional and liable to change.

  95.  Deputy Deirdre Clune    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the drug rehabilitation programmes available in each of the State’s prisons; the number of prisoners who have engaged in such programmes in each prison each year for the past five years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14343/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The Irish Prison Service continues to implement its 2006 Drugs Policy & Strategy, entitled Keeping Drugs Out of Prison. At present, any person entering prison giving a history of opiate use and testing positive for opioids on committal are offered a medically assisted symptomatic detoxification if clinically indicated. Patients can, as part of the assessment process, discuss with healthcare staff other treatment options which may include stabilization on methadone maintenance for persons who wish to continue on maintenance while in prison and when they return to the community on release. Methadone maintenance is available in 8 of the 14 places of detention accommodating over 80% of the prison population. The table below provides the number of prisoners who received opiate substitution treatment with methadone (detox, stabilisation or maintenance) since 2003.

Number of Prisoners Treated

Prison 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Cloverhill 591 528 571 678 710 827
Dochas 257 211 228 216 225 245
Limerick 15 3 4 8 10 37
Midlands 6 6 19 90 110
Mountjoy 592 394 590 464 594 553
Portlaoise 30 6 2 2 3 4
St. Patrick’s 43 3 1 8 15 28
Wheatfield 226 158 162 184 193 210
Totals 1,754 1,309 1,564 1,579 1,840 2,014

Drug users can present with multiple and complex problems. For that reason a multidisciplinary approach is needed to effectively care for this group and best practice would indicate that maintenance of a personalised therapeutic relationship yields the best outcomes. To assist this process, specialist addiction nursing posts were developed in the Irish Prison Service with a view to streamlining care and throughcare back into the community.

[483]The Medical Unit in Mountjoy Prison has 9 spaces specifically allocated for a therapeutic drug free programme. This intensive programme is 6 weeks in duration and includes involvement from both prison based staff and external community agencies. Its aim is to assist prisoners in achieving a drug free status.

A further development has been the awarding of a contract for the provision of addiction counselling services to Merchants Quay Ireland. I am glad to tell the Deputy that this contract has been rolled out, and addiction counselling services are now available in prisons and places of detention where prisoners require such a service. The addiction counselling service delivers approximately 1000 hours per week of prisoner access to addiction counselling.

In addition, prisoners have access to a range of medical and rehabilitative services such as psychosocial services and work and training options which can also assist in addressing their substance misuse issues. This multifaceted approach is designed to meet the diverse needs of prisoners. Whilst it is not possible to give comprehensive detail on the total number of prisoners engaged in the various treatment modalities I can, as an example of one specific intervention, tell the Deputy that there were 2487 treatment episodes using methadone substitution in 2008.

  96.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of occasions in 2007, 2008 and to date in 2009 in which grenades, bombs or improvised explosive devices have been used; the number of occasions in each year when the Garda has called on the assistance of the Army ordinance unit to deal with such devices; the number of prosecutions initiated as a result of the discovery of such devices; his views on the increased use of such devices by criminal elements; the steps being taken to curb the use of such devices, particularly having regard to the danger they pose to the public; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14269/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I wish to inform the Deputy that the most recent figures available are as set out in my reply to Parliamentary Question No. 96 of 25 February 2009.

The Garda Authorities are currently collating the up to date information and I will communicate it to the Deputy when it is to hand.

  97.  Deputy Shane McEntee    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the progress that has been made in respect of the introduction of a DNA database here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14389/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The Criminal Justice (Forensic Sampling and Evidence) Bill is on the A list of the Government’s Legislation Programme for this session. The Bill will provide for the establishment of a comprehensive DNA database to aid criminal investigations and the identification of missing and deceased persons. The database will not only provide An Garda Síochána with an enhanced intelligence resource, it will also lead to greater efficiency in the use of Garda time and resources.

The timetable for publication has been affected somewhat by the need to consider and take account of the implications of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of S and Marper v the United Kingdom. In that case the Court held that the arrangements in the United Kingdom for the indefinite retention of DNA material and fingerprints taken from suspects who were not subsequently convicted were a disproportionate and unjustified [484]interference with their right to privacy. I am informed by my officials that drafting of the Bill is progressing very well.

  98.  Deputy Jack Wall    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he has received from the Garda Commissioner the report of the working group developing proposals for a comprehensive model of rural and urban community policing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14274/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The Commissioner recently launched a new National Model of Community Policing for An Garda Síochána. This new model will build on the success of existing good community policing practice and I look forward to the implementation of this plan. A National Community Policing Office will be established within Garda Community Relations Section and it is intended that every District Officer throughout the country will take ownership of community policing within their area of responsibility.

A copy of the Garda National Model of Community Policing can be found on the Garda Website at www.garda.ie.

Question No. 99 answered with Question No. 72.

  100.  Deputy Joanna Tuffy    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the steps taken in respect of the report of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission following the death of a person (details supplied) and in particular the recommendations in the report that require action by the Garda Síochána or the Garda Commissioner; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14265/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The report and recommendations referred to relate to the alleged leaking of official material from Garda sources to the media relating to a deceased person. The full text of the Ombudsman Commission’s report in relation to this matter is available on its website.

The report recommends to the Garda Commissioner that supervisory ranks of An Garda Síochána should regularly monitor the use of PULSE to ensure that members adhere to their legal and disciplinary obligations with regard to its proper use. The Ombudsman Commission also recommends that suitable measures be put in place by the Garda authorities to ensure audit trails of the usage of PULSE and any other official information systems can always be accurate and verifiable.

With regard to PULSE, An Garda Síochána have detailed procedures and instructions in place on the operation of the PULSE system. The PULSE system incorporates an accurate audit system which records all record creations and updates made on the system. The audit record includes the date and time when the update on the system took place and contains details of the user signed onto the system at that time. Audit-trails also record all inquires made on the core items of interest on the PULSE system including Person and Vehicle. Audit records are written at the time the associated transaction took place. These audit records can only be accessed centrally and are not available or visible to the users.

In response to the report, a review to consider the matters raised and identify options for enhanced usage of the PULSE Audit data in respect of the monitoring of data access has been [485]conducted by the Gardaí. Specific proposals in this regard have been formulated and are presently under consideration by senior Garda management. Under these proposals an ‘Exception activity level report’ and related business process has been advanced which will highlight to Garda Management specific PULSE records which are subject to a high level of data access activity occurring within a defined period. This new functionality will be included in the next major release of PULSE.

  101.  Deputy Mary Upton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he is satisfied regarding the capacity of the preferred bidder to deliver the Thornton Hall prison project; the progress made on the project since the enactment of the Prison Development (Confirmation of Regulations) Act 2008; the estimated date for the commencement and the completion of the project; the estimated cost of the project, including the cost of acquiring the site; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14273/09]

  126.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the status of the superprison project at Thornton Hall. [14194/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 101 and 126 together.

The Thornton Hall Prison development is not a superprison. It is a complex Public Private Partnership project which involves the construction of more than 30 buildings, including 8 prison facilities on the site, a major internal road network, extensive perimeter security and a vast array of security systems over a range of security and regime operational models.

I am advised by the Irish Prison Service that negotiations with the preferred bidder are currently at an advanced stage. These negotiations are focussed on progressing financial, technical and legal aspects of the project. They encapsulate the continuation of the design development and negotiations to enable the Irish Prison Service to contract with the PPP Company and commence construction of the prison facilities. While, as stated, negotiations on the contract are at an advanced stage they have not, however, reached the point that the Project Agreement can be signed. Construction will commence after contract award and should take no more than 3 years. This timeframe is subject, of course, to the successful completion of the contract negotiations. I can say, however, that if the current contract negotiations are not successfully concluded there are other options which can still be considered.

Pressures on the international financial markets have the potential to impact on all major capital projects, including the Thornton Hall PPP project. It is the responsibility of the commercial consortium, under the PPP process, to arrange the funding and other resources to deliver the project. The Irish Prison Service is being advised by the National Development Finance Agency in relation to trends and developments in this area.

The cost of the acquisition of the site for the prison development was €29.9 million. The cost of the site was largely offset by the sale of the prison lands at Shanganagh, County Dublin. An additional 8.7 acres has also been acquired to provide a dedicated access road to the main prison site. This was done following representations from the local community which reflected concern in relation to the effect of increased traffic generated by the prison development. The cost of the additional land was €1.3 million.

A total of €10.3 million has been expended to end March 2009 on professional fees and preliminary site works including surveys, landscaping, security, site preparation and mainten[486]ance of the property. As is the case in all major infrastructural projects, comprehensive geological, engineering and archaeological surveys were conducted at the site.

  102.  Deputy Alan Shatter    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    his views on the matter of pre-nuptial agreements; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14413/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The Study Group on Pre-Nuptial agreements examined pre-nuptial agreements having regard to the provisions in the Constitution on the protection of marriage and the requirement that proper provision be made for parties to divorce proceedings.

The Group’s core recommendation is that both the Family Law Act 1995 and Family Law (Divorce) Act 1996 be amended to provide that the courts be required to have regard to existing pre-nuptial agreements when making ancillary relief orders in judicial separation and divorce proceedings. The Group’s recommendations are being considered for inclusion in the Family Law Bill referred to in the Government’s Legislation Programme announced on 22 April 2009.

  103.  Deputy Kathleen Lynch    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    his views on the claims made at the recent conference (details supplied) that cutbacks in the Garda force were hampering garda response to calls for help from the public. [15588/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  There has been a very considerable increase in Garda resources in recent years, with the number of attested members rising from 10,968 at the end of 1997 to 11,895 at the end of 2002, to 13,755 at the end of 2007 and to 14,371 in the most recent figures. Even in this year of budgetary constraints, some 900 student gardaí will become attested which, taking into account projected retirements, will further increase the strength of the Force to 14,900 by the end of this year.

The number of civilian support staff, expressed as a whole time equivalent figure, has also increased in recent years from 1,688 at the end of 2007 to 2,133 in the most recent figures.

The budget for overtime in the Garda Síochána for 2009 has been reduced from a record provision in 2008, but is still a substantial €80 million, which includes an increase in the allocation for Operation Anvil from €20 million to €21 million.

These significant increases in Garda resources mean that the Force is well-placed to absorb the impact of budgetary constraints and to continue to provide a top-class policing service.

  104.  Deputy Eamon Gilmore    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the information available to the Garda authorities regarding the extent of the threat posed by so-called dissident republican paramilitary groups; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14250/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The Deputy will understand that it would neither be helpful nor wise for me to comment on the specific details of Garda activities to combat the threat posed by paramilitary groups. The House can be assured, however, that the threat arising from the activities of these groups is kept under [487]constant review by the Garda Síochána. Priority is given by the gardaí to intelligence-led operations targeting these groups commensurate with the threat posed. These operations involve the strategic deployment of local and specialised resources as required. Close co-operation exists at all levels between the Garda Síochána and its counterparts in Northern Ireland in the context of countering and investigating the activities of groups which pose a security threat.

  105.  Deputy Jack Wall    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the position in regard to the appointment of a new chief executive for the Equality Authority; when he expects an appointment to be made; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14242/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The recruitment of a new CEO for the Authority is going ahead under the auspices of a public competition being organised by the Public Appointments Service. I am advised that there is a very considerable level of interest in the post and therefore it could be some time yet before a candidate is selected for appointment, by the Equality Authority, under the normal statutory procedures.

  106.  Deputy Arthur Morgan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the way he will respond to the latest visiting committee report on Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, which reportedly found that overcrowding is so bad that conditions are degrading, rival gang members cannot be segregated and drugs and mobile phones continue to be smuggled in; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14195/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I wish to advise the Deputy that my Department has received the report from the Mountjoy Prison Visiting Committee for the year 2008. That report has been translated in accordance with the provisions of the Official Languages Act, 2003 and I am arranging to have it published as soon as possible.

I wish to advise the Deputy that there has been a consistent increase in the total prisoner population over recent years. This situation is particularly apparent over the past 12 months, where we have seen dramatic increases in the number of sentenced prisoners and a trend towards longer sentences. What is clear is that there is a trend of increased committals from the courts. Figures show, over the past 12 months, the number in custody in Mountjoy has increased by 15%.

As the Deputy will appreciate the Irish Prison Service must accept all prisoners committed by the Courts. I acknowledge that our prisons are operating in excess of their bed capacity at this time. Equally it is also clear that the continuation of the current capital programme is necessary if overcrowding is not to become a problem going forward.

Since 1997 in excess of 1,300 prison spaces have come on stream in the prison system. These include the new prisons in Castlerea, the Midlands, Cloverhill, the Dóchas Centre and new accommodation in Limerick Prison.

However, given the serious pressure that the Prison Service has been experiencing during the last 12-18 months, in 2008 it became necessary to introduce additional contingency accommodation through the doubling up of cells in Mountjoy, Wheatfield, Cloverhill, Midlands and Arbour Hill Prisons and in the Training Unit. This provided 180 temporary bed spaces. In addition, in 2008, 70 new prison spaces were introduced at Shelton Abbey and Loughan House Open Centres.

[488]As the pressure shows no sign of abating the Irish Prison Service recently decided to increase their capacities through the doubling up of further cells, thus creating 200 additional temporary bed spaces which will come on stream shortly.

Furthermore, building projects in Castlerea, Wheatfield and Portlaoise Prisons are due to be completed in the coming months. This will create an additional 400 extra spaces which will temporarily alleviate the situation pending the construction of new prisons at Thornton Hall, Co. Dublin and Kilworth, Co. Cork.

I am fully conscious of the Irish Prison Service’s responsibility to provide safe and secure custody for those placed into custody. This is one of the main reasons for the introduction of recent security initiatives to combat contraband items being trafficked into prisons, one of the major challenges facing prisons worldwide. These include:

airport style security screening using x-ray machines and scanning equipment,

the establishment of Operational Support Units dedicated to and developing expertise in searching and gathering intelligence and targeting specific security problem areas,

the establishment of a Drug Detection Dog Unit within the Irish Prison Service,

the installation of mobile phone blocking technology, and

the segregation of a number of serious drug and criminal gang members in a high security unit in Cloverhill Prison.

Airport style scanners and x-ray machines are now in operation at the entrances to all the relevant closed prisons. Cell and area searches for contraband such as mobile phones take place in all prisons on a daily basis. These include random, targeted and intelligence led searches. These searches have been particularly effective and local intelligence indicates that the availability of mobile phones has decreased across the prison system. No visitors are permitted to enter prisons while in possession of a mobile phone.

I can also advise the Deputy that prison management, in order to ensure the safety of prisoners, immediately separate prisoners seeking protection from the general prison population or from specific prisoners identified as presenting a threat. It is at the committal stage that the majority of prisoners seek protection. External influences imported to the prison on committal include gang rivalry, drug debts and perceived cooperation with the Gardaí. On committal, all prisoners are interviewed by the Governor and based on the information available, a decision is made as to where a particular prisoner will be accommodated.

  107.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the basis on which the gardaí became involved in an investigation into the unauthorised hanging of caricatures of An Taoiseach in two Dublin art galleries; if a formal complaint was made to the gardaí; if so, the person by whom it was made; the basis on which a member of the gardaí visited a national radio station and sought details of e-mails; if the Garda investigation has been concluded; his views on whether this is the most effective use of Garda time and resources; if a file has been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14247/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The Deputy will appreciate that I have no role in relation to the investigation or prosecution of cases.

[489]I am informed by the Garda authorities that on 7 March, 2009 a complaint was received from the National Gallery of Ireland by An Garda Síochána at Pearse Street in respect of an incident. In the course of the investigation into this incident, a second incident was reported to An Garda Síochána by the Royal Hibernian Academy.

I am further informed that an investigation file is being prepared for submission to the Law Officers and it would, of course, be a matter for the Director to decide whether further action is warranted.

In the circumstances, the Deputy will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me to make any further comment.

  108.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the position regarding the national speed camera programme; when the national speed camera programme will commence; the reason for the ongoing delays with the roll out; the amount of funding he has allocated to the speed camera programme for 2009, 2010 and 2011; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13689/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  In accordance with EU Directives, national public procurement procedures and relevant legislation, An Garda Síochána engaged in a procurement process for the provision and operation of safety cameras. As a result, a preferred supplier has been selected, allowing for the contract discussion phase of the procurement process to proceed.

Following the supplementary budget submitted by the Minister for Finance to the Dáil on 7 April, the detailed allocations to Departments are currently being finalised. Against this background discussions are taking place between my Department, the Departments of Transport and Finance and An Garda Síochána with a view to making every effort to proceed with this project as speedily as possible. Until contract discussions are concluded, it is not possible to indicate a specific timescale for the project.

  109.  Deputy Jan O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the progress made to date with regard to implementation of the sections of the programme for Government under the headings community payback, parental responsibility and anti-social behaviour; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14260/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The information on the progress made to date with regard to the implementation of those sections of the Programme for Government referred to by the Deputy is published on the website of the Department of the Taoiseach. It can be accessed at www.taoiseach.gov.ie under Publications (archive 2008). The information will be updated later this year.

Question No. 110 answered with Question No. 72.

  111.  Deputy Michael D. Higgins    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the discussions he has had with the financial institutions to prevent so-called tiger robberies; if new security measures have been agreed to ensure the safety of staff and the security of money; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14249/09]

[490]

  133.  Deputy Eamon Gilmore    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the stage of the garda investigation into the robbery of €7.6 million from a bank (details supplied) on 27 February 2009 in a so-called tiger robbery; the amount of the money recovered to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14248/09]

  474.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he will support a matter (details supplied). [15725/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 111, 133 and 474 together.

I am informed by the Garda Commissioner that the incident to which the Deputies refer remains the subject of an active and ongoing investigation.

Shortly after the incident a number of persons were arrested. Charges have been preferred against two of those arrested, and these individuals are currently before the Courts. A sum of money relating to these charges was also recovered, but, in the circumstances, it would not be appropriate for me to go into any further details about the matter. The investigation is continuing with a number of lines of enquiry being pursued by the Investigation Team and an Investigation File is being prepared which will be submitted to the DPP in due course.

As I stated in the immediate aftermath of this robbery, I spoke to the Chief Executive of the institution and expressed my concern that such a large sum of money could be removed from the bank in this manner. Several meetings have also taken place between An Garda Síochána and representatives from the financial institutions to discuss issues relating to their security arrangements, including the issue of so-called ‘tiger’ kidnappings. There are agreed response procedures, which are detailed and all-encompassing, between An Garda Síochána and the financial institutions to deal with situations where members of staff or their families are taken hostage in order to facilitate robberies of such institutions. An Garda Síochána does not, for obvious security reasons, disclose information relating to such procedures and protocols.

I know that the members of this House will agree with me when I say that it is vitally important that financial institutions follow the robust procedures and protocols that are in place to prevent robberies. These are there, first and foremost, to protect employees. It is important to recognise that it is only by rendering so-called ‘tiger’ kidnappings unsuccessful that we will stop them happening, and thereby protect innocent employees from being caught up in them in the future.

Question No. 112 answered with Question No. 91.

  113.  Deputy Seán Sherlock    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if, in view of the need for the deployment of the maximum possible number of trained gardaí in the battle against criminal gangs, he will undertake a review of the use of trained detectives as drivers for Ministers and other designated persons and the possible filling of at least some of these posts by civilian drivers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15587/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The allocation of duties among members of the Garda Síochána, including security and protection duties, is a matter for the Garda Commissioner, who has made clear the priority he attaches to front-line operational policing through measures such as Operation Anvil and the recent establishment of the Organised Crime Unit.

[491]There has been a very considerable increase in Garda resources in recent years, with the number of attested members rising from 10,968 at the end of 1997 to 11,895 at the end of 2002, to 13,755 at the end of 2007 and to 14,371 in the most recent figures. Even in this year of budgetary constraints, some 900 student Gardai will become attested which, taking into account projected retirements, will further increase the strength of the Force to 14,900 by the end of this year.

The number of civilian support staff, expressed as a whole time equivalent figure, has also increased in recent years from 1,688 at the end of 2007 to 2,133 in the most recent figures.

This significant increase in resources have considerably enhanced the capacity of the Garda Síochána to combat organised crime.

Question No. 114 answered with Question No. 91.

  115.  Deputy Willie Penrose    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of EU directives for which his Department has responsibility remaining to be implemented; the directives that are overdue; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14262/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  My Department has responsibility for seven EU Directives which have to be implemented. Four of these Directives are overdue. They are: Council Directive 2005/85/EC of 1 December 2005 on minimum standards on procedures in Member States for granting and withdrawing refugee status.

Irish law and practice in this area is already substantially in compliance with the terms of this Directive. The Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2008 contains provisions to restate the law on refugee and other protection procedures with some amendments. These restatements are in compliance with Ireland’s obligations under the Directive. Directive 2006/24/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 March 2006 on the retention of data generated or processed in connection with the provision of publicly available electronic communications services or of public communications networks and amending Directive 2002/58/EC.

Part of the Directive is covered by Part 7 of the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005. The remainder is to be transposed by means of primary legislation. The necessary legislation is being prepared as a matter of urgency and I expect to be in a position to publish the legislation in the near future. Directive 2005/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 October 2005 on the prevention of the use of the financial system for the purpose of money laundering and terrorist financing; and Commission Directive 2006/70/EC of 1 August 2006 laying down implementing measures for Directive 2005/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council as regards the definition of politically exposed person and the technical criteria for simplified customer due diligence procedures and for exemption on grounds of a financial activity conducted on an occasional or very limited basis.

The necessary legislation to implement these two Directives is currently being drafted and is being given the highest priority. I expect to be in a position to publish the legislation in the first half of this year.

Three recent Directives remain to be implemented. They are not overdue. They are: Directive 2008/51/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 May 2008 amending Council Directive 91/477/EEC on control of the acquisition and possession of weapons; Directive 2007/23/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 May 2007 on the [492]placing on the market of pyrotechnic articles; Directive 2008/52/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 May 2008 on certain aspects of mediation in civil and commercial matters.

  116.  Deputy David Stanton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform,    further to Parliamentary Question No. 932 of 2 April 2008, his views on changing the summer time arrangements; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14317/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I can inform the Deputy that my Department, in accordance with EU Directive 2000/84/EC, compiled and communicated submissions in respect of this issue to the European Commission from a number of relevant Departments and semi-state bodies in July 2007.

Following consideration of the information made available to it from Member States, the European Commission reported that it took the view that the analysis set out in the proposal for the Directive remained valid and that no member state had expressed a wish to abandon summer time or change the provisions of the current Directive.

Accordingly, I can advise the Deputy that there are no plans to change the present summer time arrangements.

  117.  Deputy Emmet Stagg    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the progress made to date with regard to the implementation of the recommendations of the report of the commission of investigation into the case of a person (details supplied). [14270/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I refer the Deputy to my response to Parliamentary Question No. 54 of 25 February 2009. The position remains unchanged.

  118.  Deputy Joe Costello    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    when the value for money audit on the Equality Authority carried out by consultants (details supplied) at his behest in 2008 will be published in view of the fact that its terms of reference was to analyse what has been achieved by the provision of public funding to the Equality Authority and to determine if the Equality Authority is meeting his Department’s current and future requirements in an economic and effective manner; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14243/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  As indicated in my reply to Question No. 131 of 25 March 2009, the Value for Money review of the Equality Authority has not yet concluded. This, however, is expected to be finalised in the near future. The decision on publication of the report will be taken in due course.

  119.  Deputy Ciarán Lynch    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if the gardaí have received a request for additional assistance from the Police Service of Northern Ireland following the recent murders of two British soldiers and a member of the PSNI in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14251/09]

[493]Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I share the horror expressed by all sides of the House in response to last month’s murders in Northern Ireland. The groups responsible for these heinous crimes represent no-one but themselves. Their actions show nothing but contempt for the will of the Irish people.

Having said that, the Deputy will understand that it would neither be helpful nor wise for me to comment on the specific details of Garda activities to combat the threat posed by paramilitary groups. It is the case, however, that close co-operation exists at all levels between the Garda Síochána and its counterparts in Northern Ireland in the context of countering and investigating the activities of these so-called dissident groups. The House can be assured that every support will continue to be given to the Garda Síochána in its efforts to defeat these groups.

  120.  Deputy Joanna Tuffy    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the strength of the Garda Síochána at the latest date for which figures are available broken down by full members, those who have attested but not concluded their training, those in training, the expected number who will be recruited during 2009, the anticipated number at each category at the end of 2009, the number of members of the force who are expected to retire during 2009 and the number who will be recruited in the first half of 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14266/09]

  476.  Deputy Mary O’Rourke    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the numbers in the Garda Síochána, both those who are fully trained and attached to various stations and those in training; the numbers that will be admitted into training in the months ahead; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15731/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 120 and 476 together.

I have been informed by the Garda Commissioner that the personnel strength of attested members of An Garda Síochána on 28th February 2009, the latest date for which figures are readily available, was 14,371. The number of recruits in training (Phases 1 to 3) at that date was 1,043. The number of probationer gardaí who have been attested but have not yet graduated (ie not yet completed Phases 4 and 5) at that date was 825 and it is anticipated the majority of these probationers will complete their training in 2009. This figure is included in the overall strength of the Force as at 28 February 2009. It is expected that approximately 945 Gardai will complete Phase 3 of their training during 2009.

In relation to retirements, it is anticipated that approximately 400 members of An Garda Síochána will retire in 2009 which, coupled with the existing strength and future attestations, will result in an estimated attested strength in An Garda Síochána of over 14,900 on 31 December 2009.

100 Students were inducted into the College in February and it is anticipated that a further 100 will be inducted in early May.

  121.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he will update bankruptcy legislation to bring it into line with other jurisdictions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12297/09]

[494]Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The Government Legislation Programme announced on 22 April 2009 does not provide for any proposals to amend the law on bankruptcy. However, operation of the law contained in the Bankruptcy Act 1988 continues to be reviewed in my Department.

  122.  Deputy Lucinda Creighton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he will order the commencement of sections 108 to 110 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 to introduce electronic tagging; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14138/09]

  127.  Deputy Lucinda Creighton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he will order the commencement of sections 11 to 13 of the Criminal Justice Act, 2007 to introduce electronic tagging; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14139/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 122 and 127 together.

As the Deputy is aware, in January of this year I announced the establishment of a Project Board, led by the Probation Service, to examine specific possibilities as well as the implementation of electronic monitoring more generally, in this jurisdiction. The Project Board has commenced its examination which includes the cost and viability of introducing a pilot phase and I expect to receive their recommendations later this year.

The commencement of the provisions in the Criminal Justice Act, 2006 and 2007 mentioned by the Deputy will be informed by the recommendations of the Project Board.

In tandem with the work of the Project Board my Department will examine the legislative implications that may be necessary to supplement the existing enabling provisions in the Criminal Justice Acts of 2006 and 2007 should we proceed to introduce a pilot phase of electronic monitoring in this jurisdiction for a specific group or groups of convicted offender.

  123.  Deputy Denis Naughten    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if he will report on the visit of his Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, to Nigeria; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14275/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The position with regard to the Minister of State’s visit to Nigeria was set out in his reply to Question No. 289 on 31 March, 2009.

Question No. 124 answered with Question No. 91.

Question No. 125 answered with Question No. 92.

Question No. 126 answered with Question No. 101.

Question No. 127 answered with Question No. 122.

  128.  Deputy Denis Naughten    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the steps he will take to reduce the cost of current asylum applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14276/09]

[495]Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I attach a high level of priority to ensuring that asylum applications are dealt with fairly and as quickly as possible, so as to minimise the cost to the State. The costs associated with the asylum system are multi-faceted but centre mainly on accommodation, application processing and operational costs and costs associated with judicial reviews. Inter-related factors include the numbers in the asylum system; the length of time taken to process claims and the impact of delays as a result of non co-operation by applicants; the high level of judicial reviews and the apparent abuse of that process in many instances by applicants seeking to prolong their stay in the State.

The cost of accommodating asylum applicants accounts for the bulk of the expenditure on asylum by my Department. In this regard, the direct provision system is an efficient means of accommodating asylum seekers. If this system was not in place the cost to the State of accommodating asylum seekers would be higher.

Various efficiency and cost reduction measures continue to be implemented across INIS with a view to reducing the costs associated with asylum applications. On the application processing side, the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner (ORAC) and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal (RAT) keep processing times and scheduling arrangements under ongoing review with a view to limiting the amount of time applicants have to wait for a recommendation or decision, all of which impact on direct provision costs.

Particular emphasis is placed on maximising the number of asylum cases transferred to other European States for processing under the Dublin II Regulation and an increased focus on the return of failed applicants to their countries of origin through deportations and voluntary return.

There are also a range of other strategies in place aimed at tackling the various abuses of the asylum process and expediting the processing of asylum applications.

Other efficiency and cost reduction measures being pursued to reduce asylum costs include:

implementation of the Government decision dated the 3 February, 2009 in relation to achieving an 8% reduction in spending on professional fees;

engagement with contractors for asylum seeker accommodation to achieve an 8% reduction in RIA expenditure;

commencement of Government agreed Value for Money (VFM) Review of spending by RIA on asylum seeker accommodation;

implementation of strategies aimed at reducing asylum application numbers;

establishment of ORAC Presenting Panel and an on-line system of access to Tribunal decisions, both of which are intended to speed up appeal hearings and reduce backlogs in the RAT;

consolidating shared services related activities across INIS and redeploying resources to processing areas;

strategies aimed at reducing the delays and costs associated with Judicial Review proceedings, such as greater use of in-house training, expertise and precedents, resulting in less use of counsel; ongoing review of practices and procedures and quality-proofing of decisions.

[496]Finally, the Deputy will be aware that the enactment of the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2008 will be a key measure for achieving efficiencies in the asylum applications processing system itself, for establishing a more effective and streamlined removal process and for tackling abuses which the asylum and immigration system have to contend with, including apparent abuses of the judicial review system. The Bill comprehensively reforms and simplifies the current asylum system through the introduction of a single procedure for the investigation of all grounds put forward by applicants for protection. It is envisaged that there will be significant reductions in processing times upon enactment of the Bill, which will significantly reduce the costs involved in the asylum process.

  129.  Deputy Martin Ferris    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the policy and practice reforms that have taken place in the area of garda handling of informers since the earliest related Morris report recommendations were made; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14198/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I understand from the Garda Authorities that the current Code of Practice for the management and use of intelligence sources became organisational policy effective from April, 2006.

The Code of Practice brings together established best practice and the recommendations made by Mr. Justice Frederick Morris in the report from the Tribunal of Inquiry into the activities of certain gardaí in the Donegal Division.

It has been circulated to every member of An Garda Síochána and sets out the professional standards required to maintain the confidence of the public and the courts in the use of intelligence sources.

  130.  Deputy Jim O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    his proposals in relation to privacy legislation; if it is intended to proceed with such legislation; and the reasons thereof. [14319/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The Privacy Bill 2006, is before the Seanad, having been restored to the Seanad Order Paper in late 2007 by the Leader of the Seanad. My Department continues to review the provisions in the Bill taking into account developments in the interpretation of the law of privacy in our courts and elsewhere, with a view to possible amendments to the Bill.

  131.  Deputy Pat Rabbitte    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    his plans for the provision of adequate Garda accommodation at Tallaght, Dublin 24; if the provision of the new Garda divisional headquarters has been postponed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14240/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I refer the Deputy to the response to Parliamentary Question No. 711 of 27 January 2009 which outlines both the immediate and longer term plans for the station which includes the provision of a Divisional [497]Headquarters. I am advised by the Garda authorities that the short term office accommodation facilities are planned to be ready for occupation later this year.

  132.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    if his attention has been drawn to the fact that his Department and the Irish Prison Service awarded contracts worth €100 million to one construction company despite only one, €4.7 million, project going to tender; the steps he has taken in the past to prevent taxpayers money being wasted in the course of prison and other projects; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14193/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The Accounting Officer and the Director General of the Irish Prison Service have briefed me in relation to all matters raised at the Public Accounts Committee hearing held in March. In relation to contracts awarded to a particular construction company as referred to by the Deputy, I understand that this issue is the subject of a review by the Public Accounts Committee so it would not be appropriate for me to comment specifically on the issues raised at this time.

The Irish Prison Service has taken several major steps in recent years in order to ensure that maximum value for money is achieved for all expenditure. In March 2007, a new professionally trained Central Procurement Unit was established within the Irish Prison Service, with the stated purpose of modernising the procurement function and introducing new policies and procedures to ensure that enhanced controls are exercised over the procurement process.

Following consultation with internal stakeholders, the Irish Prison Service Procurement Policy was issued by the Director General in September 2008. The Irish Prison Service Finance Directorate is engaged in an ongoing promotion and education process in relation to the Procurement Policy and related presentations have been made to staff at all levels within the organisation. The issue of procurement and, in particular, adherence to the Procurement Policy, is an ongoing item on the agenda for senior management meetings. During 2008, a number of key staff appointments were made to the Finance Directorate of the Irish Prison Service, including a Director with sole responsibility for Finance and Procurement.

The Irish Prison Service is committed to ensuring that procurement is carried out in an open and transparent manner in line with best practice with the overriding principle of achieving value for money.

Question No. 133 answered with Question No. 111.

Question No. 134 answered with Question No. 85.

  135.  Deputy Liz McManus    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    his views on the view expressed by the Garda Commissioner in an interview (details supplied) that Ireland is becoming a more violent place; the steps he plans to take to counter this trend; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14256/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I have already made it clear that recent trends concerning gangland violence in particular are a matter of [498]grave concern and that I am giving priority to a series of new legislative measures directed specifically at this problem in the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill.

The most recent crime statistics released by the CSO, in respect of 2008, show a number of encouraging trends. There was a decrease of 42.9% in the number of homicide offences, which includes a decrease of 36.4% in murder and of 57.1% in manslaughter. Aggravated sexual assault decreased by 33.3% and assault causing harm by 2.2%.

The Garda Policing Plan for 2009, which reflects the priorities set for the Force by me as Minister, contains a series of measures aimed at reducing the impact of crime and criminal behaviour. These goals are backed up by strategic actions which include a commitment to continue and intensify intelligence-led operations against groups and individuals engaged in criminality. An Garda Síochána, in accordance with the priorities I have set, is committed to targeting violent crime and those who engage or facilitate persons involved in such activity. One of these operations is Operation Anvil, the primary focus of which is the targeting of active criminals and their associates involved in serious crime by preventing and disrupting their criminal activity through extensive additional overt patrolling and static checkpoints by uniform, mobile and foot patrols, supported by armed plain clothes patrols.

Under the Operation, up to 22 March 2009, 2,469 firearms have been recovered throughout the country. There have also been over 7,500 arrests for serious crimes such as murder, serious assault, robbery and burglary and over 72,000 searches for weapons, drugs and stolen goods.

At a time when the public finances are under pressure, I am determined that top priority will continue to be given to frontline policing. Funding for Operation Anvil will increase in 2009 from €20 million to €21 million to enable it to continue with targeted disruption of serious and organised criminal activity. Other key operations will be maintained through 2009, and any savings that have to be made will not be allowed to diminish frontline policing.

The adequacy of our legislative provisions is kept under review and strengthened where necessary. I have consequently recently published the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Bill, which is ground breaking legislation providing for the first time a legal framework to allow covert surveillance material to be used in trials for serious crimes with appropriate safeguards.

Since my appointment as Minister, I have expressed concern at the number of handguns which have been licensed here in recent years. Some time ago, I directed my Department and An Garda Síochána to carry out an urgent and intensive review of the firearms law. Following that review, I have brought forward proposals. While a de facto ban on new handgun licences is already in place, my proposals will also be given legislative form in the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

Though legislation on the use of knives and similar weapons is already very strong and heavy penalties are already in place, I am moving to strengthen the law in this area. In that context, I sought and received proposals from the Garda Commissioner on strengthening the law on knife crime. I have accepted these proposals and the forthcoming Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will take account of them.

On 5 February, the Garda Commissioner and I launched a Knife Awareness Campaign by An Garda Síochána with the objective of informing and educating young people on the dangers of carrying knives and with the aim of reducing the number of incidents of knife crime. In addition to these measures, I have directed the drafting of a new Firearms and Offensive [499]Weapons Order which will deal with the issue of swords. In particular I will be banning the sale of samurai swords.

Question No. 136 answered with Question No. 73.

  137.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the quantity and value of seizures of heroin, cocaine, cannabis and other drugs here during 2007, 2008 and to date in 2009; the proportion of the overall flow of drugs into Ireland believed to be represented by these seizures; the new initiatives he is planning to control the flow of illegal drugs into the country; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14241/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I am setting out in a tabular statement giving the latest available information in relation to drug seizures for 2007, 2008 and this year to date.

This statement shows seizures of a total value of over €168m being made in 2007 and just under €200m in 2008. Because of the covert nature of the activity, it is simply not possible to give a reliable estimate of the proportion of drugs coming into the country that these figures represent.

While it is true that some international studies attempt to estimate the proportion of overall drugs seized to production, this is not a reliable guide to the situation in any particular country. In particular, such figures cannot reflect increased enforcement levels in a country. Through ongoing specific initiatives and intelligence-led operations, An Garda Síochána continues to seize substantial quantities of illegal drugs and identify those involved in the importation, distribution, sale and supply of illegal drugs.

An Garda Síochána is satisfied that, in addition to the considerable volume of drugs seized in the last two years and again this year to date, there has been a significant impact on drug-trafficking by the arrest and prosecution of a number of major players involved and the activities of a number of crime gangs have been disrupted, resulting in a number of crime groupings being dismantled.

In addition to the officers of the Force specifically assigned to the drugs issue who are attached to the Garda National Drugs Unit and the Divisional Drug Units, officers from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Organised Crime Unit and the Criminal Assets Bureau all assist in our overall law enforcement response to drug trafficking and drug dealing. In addition, the Garda work closely with Customs and the Naval Service under the umbrella of the Joint Task Force on Drugs as well as with their international colleagues in tackling the problem.

Among recent and ongoing initiatives are the establishment of the Organised Crime Unit on a permanent footing, our involvement in the establishment and operation of the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre in Lisbon, strengthened provisions in the Criminal Justice Acts 2006 and 2007 and the ringfencing of €21million this year for Operation Anvil.

I am confident that the legislation that I have introduced dealing with surveillance will be of particular value in tackling drugs gangs. I am sure all Members of the House will accept fully that we cannot tackle the problem of drug misuse through law enforcement measures alone. We need to tackle the demand for drugs and, in this context, I can assure the House that my Department, and all the agencies under its aegis, are co-operating fully in the development of the new National Drugs Strategy for the period 2009 to 2016 which is being drawn up under the aegis of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

[500]Appendix 1

Drug seizure data

The following table provides details of the quantities and estimated street value of the most significant drugs analysed by the Forensic Science Laboratory for 2007, 2008 and the provisional figures for 2009 (up to 1st April 2009)

2009*

Drug Type Quantity Estimated Street Value
Cannabis** 85,348.593 grams 1,024,183
Cannabis Resin 339,745.786 grams 2,378,221
Heroin 27,708.85 grams 5,541,770
Cocaine 12.322 kgs 862,540
Ecstasy 12,118 tablets & 139.762 grams 128,168
Amphetamine 10,210.565 grams 153,158
Total Value 10,088,040

2008*:

Drug Type Quantity Estimated Street Value
Cannabis 947,849.73 grams 1,895,699
Cannabis Resin 5,276,728.611 grams 36,937,100
Heroin 209,605.430 grams 41,921,086
Cocaine 1,681.693 kgs 117,718,510
Ecstasy 100,635 tablets & 1.144 kgs 1,063,550
Amphetamine 8,217.052 grams & 946 tablets 137,446
Total Value 199,673,391

2007*

Drug Type Quantity Estimated Street Value
Cannabis 774.029 kgs 1,548,058
Cannabis Resin 1,279.149 kgs 8,954,043
Heroin 148.369 kgs 29,673,800
Cocaine 1,763.725 kgs 123,460,750
Ecstasy 279,017 tablets, 13.381 kgs 3,459,220
Amphetamine 58.223 kgs, 10,471 tablets 1,030,410
Total Value 168,126,281

  138.  Deputy Martin Ferris    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the implications for the management of policing projects such as the new community policing model and major operations such as those into the Crumlin-Drimnagh and Limerick gangland feuds and so on, of the recently introduced pension levy, cuts to overtime, recruitment and promotions embargo; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14197/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I am informed by the Commissioner that the introduction of the recent levy as a result of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act does not impact on any policing operations of An Garda Síochána and also that the maximum amount of policing resources have been allocated to front line policing and that overtime budgets are primarily focused on intelligence led, time limited operations.

In this regard the Deputy should be aware that despite pressure on resources, funding for Operation Anvil has increased in 2009 from €20 million to €21 million. In addition to this the personnel strength of An Garda Síochána is expected to reach approximately 14,900 by the end of this year.

The Commissioner has committed to the introduction of community policing in all 112 districts in the country. For some districts this will be a new initiative while for others a re-invigoration of the existing community policing structure will be required. The roll out is supported by a robust Implementation Plan developed by the Community Policing Implementation Team at Garda Community Relations Division. A comprehensive Strategic ‘Action Plan’ has been developed for the successful implementation of the Garda Síochána National Model of Community Policing.

Intelligence-led operations are used to target organised crime groups by utilising specialist units including the Criminal Assets Bureau, the Organised Crime Unit and the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Targeted intelligence-led operations such as Operation Anvil continue to result in significant seizures of firearms and property related to criminal activity and have led to the arrests and prosecutions of those involved.

  139.  Deputy David Stanton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform,    further to Parliamentary Question No. 79 of 25 February 2009, if the report on the analysis of Garda youth diversion projects has been completed; if he has published same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14318/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I wish to inform the Deputy that the Irish Youth Justice Service report on the baseline analysis of the Garda Youth Diversion Projects has been completed. The report is currently being examined by my officials. I expect it to be ready for publication shortly.

  140.  Deputy Michael D. Higgins    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the actions he has taken in response to the Coulter report on the operation of the family courts; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15584/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The Report of the Family Law Reporting Pilot Project sums up the work of the one-year pilot project, undertaken by Dr Carol Coulter for the Courts Service. This initiative was permitted by a change in the [502]law on the in camerarule in family law. Dr Coulter was engaged to carry out the reporting of family law on a pilot basis.

Following the publication of the final report, the Courts Service Board established a Special Committee to oversee the Family Law Reporting Project for a further year and to consider the recommendations made with a view to making proposals for their implementation. I understand that the Committee is preparing a report for consideration by the Court Service Board.

  141.  Deputy Pat Breen    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the measures that are being put in place at EU level to deal with the trafficking of human beings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15857/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  On 25 March, 2009 the European Commission published a Proposal for a Framework Decision on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and Protecting Victims repealing a Framework Decision agreed in 2002 on combating trafficking in human beings. The primary purpose of this Proposal is to repeal and re-enact the 2002 Framework Decision with additional criminal law provisions to bring them in line with other international instruments. The proposal also contains additional non-legislative provisions. The new elements primarily deal with victim support, prevention, investigation, prosecution and monitoring.

The question of establishing an informal EU Network of National Rapporteurs or equivalent mechanisms on trafficking in human beings is also being considered at present. Information regarding immigration related criminality is collated, analysed and disseminated by the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB), including such information and intelligence received, on a regular basis, through the Europol and Interpol National Units, based at Garda Headquarters. In particular, personnel from the GNIB assist in investigations relating to the suspected trafficking and smuggling of persons, initiated in other jurisdictions, where it is suspected either the suspect(s) or victim(s) have entered this State.

Members of the Garda Síochána, in particular personnel attached to the National Support Services attend courses organised by CEPOL (the European Police College) concerning trafficking in human beings which are targeted at:

(i) senior police officers who are responsible for prosecution services and/or counter trafficking cases,

(ii) members of lecturing staff in police training and development units and

(iii) heads of police forces who deal with questions of human trafficking.

The next training course is due to take place in Lithuania in May 2009.

Ireland attends the Europol Expert meeting on trafficking in human beings which takes place on an annual basis. This meeting allows Member States to share their experiences and provide operational case examples of trafficking in human Beings. Ireland is part of a number of Europol Analytical Work Files which provide both strategic and operational support. In this context a trafficking in human beings bulletin is circulated on a quarterly basis which is disseminated to members of the Garda Síochána. Other support provided to Ireland by Europol includes expert advice, intelligence reports, training and information exchange through the Europol Information System/Europol National Unit. Operational support can include operational analysis of investigations in Member States, coordination of investigations (e.g. organisation of meet[503]ings at Europol) and support from other Europol National Units, which in Ireland is based at Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park.

  142.  Deputy Joe Costello    asked the Taoiseach    the way he proposes to mark the 60th anniversary of the Council of Europe; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15167/09]

The Taoiseach:  As a founding member, Ireland attaches particular importance to the Council of Europe and its institutions. For that reason, my colleague the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, has accepted an invitation from the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, Foreign Minister Moratinos of Spain, to attend a specially convened meeting of the Committee of Ministers in Madrid on 12 May 2009, which is intended to mark the 60th anniversary.

  143.  Deputy Paul Kehoe    asked the Taoiseach    the number of uncertified sick days taken within all sections of his Department for the years 2007 and 2008 and to date in 2009; the number of employees who have taken uncertified sick days in the categories one to ten days and over ten days; the number of uncertified sick days taken Fridays and Mondays; the number of persistent offenders with regard to uncertified sick days who have been sent for an independent doctor's opinion; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15677/09]

The Taoiseach:  The information requested by the Deputy is outlined in the following table. For reasons of confidentiality and taking into account the provisions of Data Protection legislation, it would not be appropriate to reveal information on staff who have been on uncertified sick days and who were sent for independent doctors’ opinions; mine is a small Department and such disclosure could inadvertently identify individual staff.

Year Number of Employees: who have taken Uncertified Sick Leave Uncertified Sick Days:
1 to 10 Days
Uncertified Sick Days: Over 10 Days Number of Fridays: taken as Uncertified Sick Leave Number of Mondays: taken as Uncertified Sick Leave
2007 85 170.5 days None 21 53
2008 72 158.5 days None 20 36
January to 20 April 2009 28 50.5 days None 10 4

  144.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Taoiseach    if he has plans to invite the Australian Prime Minister Mr. Kevin Rudd to Ireland before the end of 2009 to strengthen ties between Australia and Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15693/09]

The Taoiseach:  I have no plans to invite Prime Minister Rudd to Ireland in 2009 nor have I any knowledge of his seeking to travel here this year. Prime Minister Rudd would of course be most welcome to visit Ireland should a visit be proposed.

  145.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the responsibility she has if the conditions of legislation as set out in the Mines [504]and Quarries Act 1965 were not respected, that is, work of inspectors who were appointed to examine the mines to make sure they were fully ventilated and that dust was controlled; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15842/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  The primary responsibility for health and safety in private-sector workplaces does not rest with the State. It rests with those who control such workplaces and those who work in them.

The basic law governing health and safety at work is to be found in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 (No. 10 of 2005) and Regulations made under it, including the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007 (S.I. No. 299 of 2007). There is also a body of sector-specific legislation which applies to Mines namely the Mines and Quarries Act 1965 (No. 7 of 1965) and Regulations made under it as well as the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Extractive Industries) Regulations 1997 (S.I. No. 467 of 1997).

In line with a process concluded in 2007 in relation to the quarrying sector, which resulted in revised Regulations, proposals for the rationalisation of mining legislation are currently being developed by the Health and Safety Authority. Under the current health and safety legislation for the sector, it is the duty of the manager of a mine to take such steps as are necessary to facilitate below ground ventilation in the mine for the purposes of (i) diluting gases that are inflammable or noxious so as to render them harmless and removing them, and (ii) providing air containing a sufficiency of oxygen.

Due to the complex nature of mining operations and the potential for multiple fatalities from major incidents — such as from fire below ground, inrush and collapse — the Health and Safety Authority has specialist mining inspectors to carry out inspections at mines.

The Mines and Quarries Act 1965 provides that where a Health and Safety Authority inspector is of opinion that in the interests of the safety or health of the persons employed, it is necessary or expedient to improve the ventilation produced in any part of that mine that is required to be ventilated, the inspector may serve on the manager of the mine a notice requiring either that (i) ventilation which is produced in that part of the mine must conform to specified requirements, or (ii) works for the purpose of improving the ventilation in that part of the mine are put in place.

In excess of 1,500 inspections have been carried out by the Health and Safety Authority in the Mines and Quarries sector over the past three years. The total number of enforcement actions was 164, in addition to 555 written advices. Further details can be found in the Authority’s Annual Reports which are public documents. As the number of quarries far exceeds the number of operational mines, of which there are four underground mines currently operating in Ireland, the number of specific mining inspections were 24 in the years 2006 and 2007.

  146.  Deputy Ruairí Quinn    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the amount the 51,000 training places allocated to FÁS will cost; if these 51,000 places will be the result of reallocating existing resources already assigned to FÁS or if she has allocated new funds from the Exchequer; if these courses will be shorter than 12 months in duration; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15118/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  The cost of the 51,000 FÁS training places I announced on 5 February 2009, is €25.750 million, which has been reallocated from within the FÁS Training Services and Service to Business [505]Divisions and is not the subject of a new allocation of funding from the Exchequer. As with all courses provided by the Training Services Division these courses will be shorter than 12 months in duration.

The aim of these additional places is to help the unemployed to develop new skills and competencies and assist them in securing employment as soon as possible. They will also lead to certification under the National Framework of Qualifications or other recognised certification frameworks.

In addition, in the supplementary budget I announced the creation of a further 18,525 training places for the unemployed at a cost of €61.4 million to bring the total number of training and work experience activation places funded by my Department to approximately 128,000.

  147.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the number of training courses she estimates will be provided by FÁS in 2009 detailing the different training areas in which courses are provided; her estimate of the size of waiting lists and waiting times to get on courses across the different categories; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15122/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  FÁS, the National Training and Employment Authority, aims to offer a wide range of training courses and delivery methods to suit individual client needs in the development of their skill-sets. In 2009 the Authority estimates that they will be in a position to deliver 6,062 training courses under the Training Services, Community Services and Services to Business categories.

Courses will continue to be adapted to address a changing labour market and, in this respect, FÁS has enhanced the traditional course offerings of specific skills training (SST’s) to now include Short Courses, Night Courses and Online Courses as well as Community Based courses. The suite of Short Courses recently developed and expanded by FÁS typically consist of a Preparing for Work Module, which includes Job Seeking and Interview Skills, and one or two technical modules. The Short Course Programme will be delivered through In-Centre Training and Contracted Training. The decision on which courses to offer in a Region will take place based on demand through a process of consultation between Training Services, Employment Services and Services to Business.

While waiting times vary considerably at individual course level a recent customer survey conducted on behalf of FÁS indicated that the average waiting time (between applying for a course and starting) in 2008 was 7.7 weeks compared with 9.7 weeks in 2007. The size of waiting lists across the different course categories very much depends on the course type, duration and capacity and location of the course. Short courses on average run every 4-9 weeks which reduces the wait list and increases capacity compared to a traditional course running over a 16 week period.

Courses, where FÁS is the prime recruiter, are broadly classified into 15 main categories and are shown in the following table for the Deputy’s information.

Training Category
Office / Administration
Computer Hardware / Networks / Programming
Computer Applications
Construction Related
Engineering Related
Electronics / Industrial Servicing
Sales / Marketing
Transport / Warehousing / Distribution
Health / Beauty / Child Care / Welfare
Pre Employment / Job Clubs / Return to Work
Self Employment / Enterprise
Animal / Land / Marine
Sports / Leisure
Other
Uncategorized (Local Training, Community Training Centres etc)

  148.  Deputy Leo Varadkar    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the legislation which governs contract workers here; if she will introduce new legislation in this area; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15181/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  I presume the Deputy is referring to the position of persons with contracts for services i.e. the self-employed, under employment rights legislation.

The current body of employment rights legislation, which includes transposition of EU Directives into domestic law, applies to employees or persons with contracts of service and does not apply to persons with contracts for services i.e. self-employed. As this legislation provides for the rights of employees in relation to their employment with an employer, it would not make sense for it to apply to the self-employed as autonomous persons. The rationale for such legislation applying to employees or persons with contracts of service only is that employees could be vulnerable in their employment relationship with an employer. Accordingly, there would not be any logic in applying to the self-employed employment rights legislation such as the Unfair Dismissal Acts, the Carer’s Leave Act or the Redundancy Payments Acts etc. In the circumstances there are no proposals to introduce legislation to apply employment rights legislation to persons with contracts for services.

  149.  Deputy Mary Upton    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    if she will ensure that employers are reimbursed the 60% rebate of statutory redundancy payments to which they are entitled within the timeframe set out on her Department website; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15234/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  The huge increase in the number of Redundancy Payment claims lodged with the Redundancy Payments Section of my Department in the latter part of 2008 and, to date in 2009 is unprecedented and is giving rise to delays in the processing of redundancy payments for individuals and companies within a reasonable timeframe. The scale of the challenge is evident from the statistics which indicate that, at the end of the first quarter of 2009, the number of new claims lodged with my Department was 19,742 which equates to almost 50% of the entire level of applications lodged for the whole of 2008 i.e. 40,607.

[507]While measures are being taken to address the backlog of claims applications, including the allocation of additional staff resources to the area, the volume of work on hand is such that very significant slippage has occurred in the timeframes for processing redundancy claims as against the targets which the Department originally set itself. The Department’s website at www.entemp.ie which is updated regularly, gives information on the month from which claims are being processed. Currently, the Redundancy Payments Section is finalising on-line rebate claims to employers received in November 2008 and manual claims for October 2008. Every effort is being made to deal with the backlog of claims and to improve the turnaround time for processing claims.

  150.  Deputy Ulick Burke    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the cost to Enterprise Ireland of their annual budget for 2007 and 2008 on conferences, fairs, board meetings, advertising and their overseas programmes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15271/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  The Deputy will appreciate that I have no role or function in the day to day administration matters of Enterprise Ireland. My Department does, however, have responsibility for ensuring that corporate governance procedures, systems of internal financial control and reporting relationships are in place. Enterprise Ireland has confirmed to me that they operate in accordance with the Framework Code of Best Practice set out in the Code of Practice on the Governance of State Bodies. Each year the agency confirms in its annual report that they are in compliance with the Code. Additionally, I receive a separate report from the Chairperson affirming that they are in compliance with the Code.

The Financial Statements, audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, are published annually and laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas in the Enterprise Ireland Annual Report. Expenditure in 2007 on Administration, Operation and Promotion are set out in the following table. The audited 2008 figures will be available and published in the Enterprise Ireland 2008 Annual Report in the near future.

Administration, Operation and Promotion 2007 €’000
Remuneration and Other Pay Costs 72,685
Library Services and Other Client Related Costs 1,445
Rents, Rates, Service Charges & Insurance 10,645
Travelling Expenses 6,772
Printing, Postage & Stationery 2,136
Communication & IT Costs 2,418
Repairs, Maintenance & Leasing Charges 1,209
Light, Heat & Cleaning 1,622
Board Members’ Emoluments 431
Professional Fees 4,626
Audit Fee 85
Tangible Fixed Assets Below Capitalisation Threshold 752
Other Operating Expenses 2,949
107,775

  151.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the progress of discussions with prospective interested parties in relation to the future of the workforce of a company (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15327/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  The Government is anxious that as many jobs as possible are secured at Dublin Airport. We would like to see the SR Technics Group do what it can to facilitate this, such as helping to promote the capabilities and skills available at the Dublin facility, agreeing to an orderly wind down of the facility to give IDA Ireland an opportunity to promote the location to interested parties, and maintaining assets and equipment at the site. I have conveyed these points, and the widespread concern in Ireland that every effort be made to maintain the maximum number of jobs at the facility at Dublin Airport, to SR Technics at Group level.

IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland have formed a project team to promote the operation through the IDA overseas network of offices and to meet with and assess expressions of interest in the operation.

There are a number of expressions of interest from different parties in acquiring at least elements of the business and both IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland are actively exploring options with interested parties. Time is needed to assess these proposals by IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland. Actual involvement by IDA Ireland or Enterprise Ireland in providing financial or other supports will be dependent on a company or companies submitting proposals for consideration and seeking approval for State support in the normal way.

The State agencies will continue to engage with all groups, indigenous and overseas, interested in building commercially viable and sustainable operations to secure as many of the jobs as possible at Dublin Airport.

  152.  Deputy Simon Coveney    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the number of people in Cork city and county who have received an offer of training from FÁS each month to date in 2009 under the national employment action plan; the number waiting in Cork City and County for an offer of this training; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15410/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  The National Employment Action Plan Preventive Strategy (NEAP) involves a systematic referral of certain cohorts of registered unemployed persons by the Department of Social and Family Affairs (DSFA) to FÁS for assistance.

Department of Social and Family Affairs NEAP (National Employment Action Plan) referrals to FÁS Employment Services, Cork, in the first three months of 2009 totalled approximately 1,800 clients, of which 900 expressed an interest in availing of training.

In the first quarter of 2009, 711 of NEAP clients received an offer of training. A breakdown of these is provided in the following table. The remaining 189 NEAP clients, primarily from guidance interviews in March 2009 are scheduled to receive offers of training over the next four weeks.

Month 2009 Full Time Training Evening/Saturday Morning Courses (estimate) Technical Employment Support Grant Funded Training
January 163 56 46
February 135 54
March 147 32 78
Total 445 88 178
Overall Total 711

  153.  Deputy Leo Varadkar    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the efforts she will make to ensure that apprentices at a company (details supplied) can finish their apprenticeships; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15452/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  A total of 60 apprentices will be affected by redundancy at the company referred to by the Deputy. This total includes 54 aircraft mechanics apprentices and six mechanical, automation and maintenance fitting (fitters) apprentices. The apprentices break down into three categories as outlined below:

Group 1 — 28 air craft mechanics apprentices at phase 3 of their apprenticeship

Group 2 — 26 air craft mechanics apprentices at phase 4 of their apprenticeship

Group 3 — 6 mechanical automation and maintenance fitting (fitters) apprentices at phase 3 of their apprenticeship FÁS has put in place appropriate measures to assist each of these groups in progressing their apprenticeships. These measures are outlined as follows.

Group 1: 28 air craft mechanics apprentices at phase 3

The 28 air craft mechanics apprentices at phase 3 who have been made redundant by the company in question have been scheduled to attend an additional phase 4 programme provided by DIT with the support of the HEA commencing on 20 April 2009.

Group 2: 26 air craft mechanics apprentices at phase 4

This group of apprentices completed their phase 4 off-the-job training on 20 February 2009. Their phase 5 on-the-job training commenced on 23 February, 2009 and is for a period of 52 weeks. The company in question have advised FÁS that this group will be made redundant on 17 April 2009.

It will be necessary for this group to complete phase 5 on-the-job training prior to the commencement of the phase 6 off-the-the-job training. This is due to the essential regulatory requirements for health and safety and the need for the apprentices to practice the skills developed at phase 4.

FÁS is currently engaging with other stakeholders in the Air Craft Maintenance sector in an effort to source on-the-job training for this group of Air Craft Mechanics. This group, on completion of phase 5 on-the-job, will be scheduled for their phase 6 off-the-job training in February 2010.

[510]

Group 3: 6 mechanical automation and maintenance fitting (fitters) apprentices at phase 3

This group of apprentices is expected to be called for phase 4 off-the-job training in either in September 2009 or January 2010 depending on capacity availability.

  154.  Deputy Leo Varadkar    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    if she will provide a breakdown of the number of apprentices who are unemployed or redundant by the type of apprenticeship which they do and the stage which they have reached; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15453/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  The current apprenticeship population is 24,774 of which 4,697 are redundant due to the reduction in employment in the economy.

FÁS has responded to the increase in the number of redundant apprentices by introducing a number of measures. Over 3,400 places have been provided, are currently being provided or have been put in place for future provision under these measures. FÁS with the support of the stakeholders in the apprenticeship system is providing opportunities for redundant apprentices within the capacity and resources available and the situation is been monitored on an ongoing basis.

A table showing the number of redundant apprentices by trade and phase is provided as follows.

Phase 1 Phase 2 Phase 3 Phase 4 Phase 5 Phase 6 Phase 7 Total
Cabinet Making 7 7 43 10 20 10 16 113
Wood Machinery 1 0 2 1 2 0 2 8
Print Media 0 0 0 0 4 0 0 4
Electronic Security Systems 2 0 4 0 0 0 0 6
Electrical 74 40 308 106 427 85 245 1,285
Electrical Instrumentation 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 2
Motor Mechanics 16 11 28 9 35 13 21 133
Agricultural Mechanics 2 0 3 2 1 0 0 8
Heavy Vehicle Mechanics 2 2 3 1 2 0 3 13
Vehicle Body Repairs 5 1 8 3 4 3 6 30
M.A.M.F. 3 3 24 1 7 0 3 41
Toolmaking 1 0 0 0 3 0 0 4
Farriery 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
Aircraft Mechanics 0 0 30 0 0 0 0 30
Refrigeration 4 1 6 1 6 2 6 26
Sheet Metalworking 10 0 7 1 5 0 12 35
Metal Fabrication 14 10 17 4 19 5 5 74
Floor & Wall Tiling 0 0 7 0 6 0 0 13
Industrial Insulation 5 0 1 0 0 0 0 6
Carpentry & Joinery 8 14 366 103 466 71 163 1,191
Painting & Decorating 6 1 20 2 19 7 19 74
Plumbing 32 26 388 74 329 84 156 1,089
Brick & Stonelaying 2 0 93 27 154 26 51 353
Plastering 5 2 46 9 38 17 18 135
Construction Plant Fitting 6 0 7 2 6 1 1 23
Total 206 118 1,411 357 1,554 324 727 4,697

  155.  Deputy Leo Varadkar    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the number of staff who are employed in Science Foundation Ireland at present, and in 2007 and 2008; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15454/09]

  156.  Deputy Leo Varadkar    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    if the embargo on recruitment to the public sector applies to Science Foundation Ireland; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15455/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 155 and 156 together.

The Deputy should note there is not an embargo on recruitment to the public sector as this would imply that no filling of vacancies whatsoever could take place. The Government decision regarding the moratorium on recruitment and promotions in the public service, which is effective from March 27 2009, provides the Minister for Finance with the authority to allow for the filling of vacancies in exceptional circumstances where warranted. Such approval from the Minister for Finance may, in due course, involve the redeployment of staff from other Departments or public bodies.

I can confirm that the moratorium will operate in respect of non-commercial state bodies and is therefore applicable to Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). Staff numbers serving in SFI are outlined in the following table.

Date Number
31st December 2007 36
31st December 2008 50
20th April 2009 54

  157.  Deputy Denis Naughten    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    if her attention has been drawn to the concerns expressed by an organisation (details supplied) regarding the proposed changes to the work permit system; her plans to address these concerns; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15632/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  I am aware of the concerns expressed by the organisation named and welcome their ongoing and valuable input into my Department’s work on economic migration policies. Indeed, input received from the organisation during a consultation process on proposed changes was incorporated into the final policy decisions.

Ireland has benefited greatly from immigration. However, we need to be sure that our economic migration policies are adapted to reflect the changed realities of the Irish labour market. As a result, it is essential that we now take steps to ensure that every possible effort is made by employers to find suitably skilled employees from within the existing labour market. Initiatives such as strengthening the labour market needs test will facilitate this process.

  158.  Deputy Paul Kehoe    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the number of uncertified sick days taken within all sections of her Department for the years 2007 and 2008 and to date in 2009; the number of employees who have taken uncertified sick days in the categories one to ten days and over ten days; the number of uncertified sick days taken Fridays and Mondays; the number of persistent offenders with regard to uncertified sick days who have been sent for an independent doctor's opinion; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15670/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  The statistics requested by the Deputy for my Department, which employs approximately 1,100 staff, are contained in following table.

2007 2008 2009 Total
Uncertified sick days 1,016 1,199.5 329 2,544.5
Staff 465 533 216 1,214
Staff who took 1-10 days 465 533 216 1,214
Staff who took over 10 days 0 0 0 0
Monday or Friday* 399 454 131 984

I should point out that the figures at * above relate to uncertified sick leave taken either on Monday or on Friday. There were no staff of my Department referred for an independent doctor’s opinion as a result of taking uncertified sick leave in the period in question.

  159.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the procedure for employees, whose employers do not provide the required paperwork, for receiving their statutory redundancy payments; the process that requires them to do so in order that their payment can be processed; and the length of time this process should take. [15700/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  Normally, employees receive their redundancy entitlements from their employer. Employers are then entitled to apply to the Department for a rebate of 60% of the statutory element of the redundancy payments made. If, at this stage, an employer submits a claim which is incomplete, the Department will seek the necessary information from the employer. In these circumstances, employees will normally suffer no delay as they should already have received their redundancy payment. The delay in these cases caused by incomplete claims will result in the employer not getting a rebate until all information is received. The period of time involved depends in each case on how quickly the employer responds with full information.

Where an employer is not in a position to pay the statutory lump sum, my Department pays the statutory amount from the Social Insurance Fund (SIF) to individual employees and seeks reimbursement of 40% of the total payments from the employer. When an employer is not in a position to pay statutory redundancy, the Redundancy Payments Section requires proof of inability to pay. The employer is asked to provide a letter from his Accountant or Solicitor confirming inability to pay together with documentary evidence (i.e Audited Accounts/Statement of Affairs) within 30 days of issue of the communication. Where an employer does not provide the information requested or refuses to pay within the agreed [513]timeframe, the employee is advised to take a case to the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) against the employer, seeking a determination of their entitlement to statutory redundancy. The average waiting period for a case to be heard before the EAT is, I understand, currently around 27 weeks.

  160.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    if she will confirm the stated policy of the Employment Appeals Tribunal in relation to High Court judicial reviews taken against it in view of the opinion that the EAT is adopting a policy of not contesting judicial reviews taken against it. [15742/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  The Employment Appeals Tribunal is an independent body under the aegis of the Department. As an independent body, I have no role in relation to the day-to-day operation of the Tribunal.

I understand that each judicial review proceedings in which the Tribunal is named is considered on the basis of the notice of motion before the Court. All aspects of the motion including previous similar proceedings are considered before a decision is reached whether or not to take part in the judicial review proceedings.

  161.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    if she will provide details of the new measure announced in the 7 April 2009 supplementary budget regarding getting graduates back to work through work experience programmes (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15797/09]

  165.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the location, when and the way the 2,000 work experience scheme places announced by her are to be allocated; the person who is to provide them; the types of work experience involved; the criteria for qualification; and the way interested people can apply or obtain further information. [15950/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 161 and 165 together.

The Work Experience Scheme, which was announced in the Supplementary Budget, is being established to provide 2,000 six-month places to individuals who are unemployed and it will also include the placement of graduates. This scheme will provide invaluable work experience to individuals who are unemployed, who have just left college or have very limited experience of the workplace.

The places will be created on a cost neutral basis, as the State’s payment will be equivalent to social welfare Job Seeker Benefit/Allowance weekly rates. Discussions are ongoing between my Department and the Department of Social and Family Affairs and it is expected that these discussions will be finalised in the coming weeks when further details will be available pertaining to this scheme.

  162.  Deputy Kieran O’Donnell    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the position regarding the jobs task force in Limerick in the wake of the announced job losses at a company (details supplied); if she has instructed the Industrial [514]Development Authority to join this task force; if the IDA will make Limerick and the mid west a priority region for inward investment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15945/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  Following the January announcement by Dell, I established the Mid West Task Force, Chaired by Mr Denis Brosnan. The role of the Task Force, amongst others, is to assess the particular impact on the wider regional economy of the decision to close certain parts of the Dell plant in Limerick and associated job losses in other companies and also to carry out an analysis of the potential impact of the current economic downturn on the Mid-West Region. As part of its analysis, the task force is meeting with and obtaining inputs from all the relevant State Development Agencies, including the IDA. I have asked the Task Force to provide me with an interim report on their findings and this is likely to be completed in May.

It is also important to point out that IDA has been working diligently to secure new investments for the region and over the last year companies like Vistakon, Zimmer, Cook, DTS and Microsemi have had announcements in the region. The Agency currently has a pipeline of projects under consideration. These potential investments are being pursued and IDA Ireland will do everything possible to speed up the investment decisions in Limerick’s favour.

  163.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the location, when and the way the 12,000 places on ten week training courses places announced by her are to be allocated; the person who is to provide them; the types of course covered; the criteria for qualification; and the way interested people can apply or obtain further information. [15948/09]

  164.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the location, when and the way the 1,800 places on 20 week training courses announced by her are to be allocated; the person who is to be provide them; the types of course covered; the criteria for qualification; and the way interested people can apply or obtain further information. [15949/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 163 and 164 together.

The additional 12,000 ten week and 1,800 twenty week training courses announced in the supplementary Budget will be funded by FÁS, the National Training and Employment Authority, and brings the total number of training places available in courses of ten and twenty week duration to 92,000. These extra places are designed to build upon the existing training and development work already undertaken by FÁS in developing new skills and competencies for the unemployed.

The precise details of the roll-out of these additional activation places, including allocation, qualifying criteria and the types of courses covered will be finalised over the coming weeks. This is to ensure that the additional places created will be targeted to deliver the maximum positive benefit to the diverse needs of the unemployed.

Question No. 165 answered with Question No. 161.

[515]

  166.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the location, when and the way the pilot scheme for short-term workers announced by her are to be allocated; the criteria for qualification; and the way interested people can apply or obtain further information. [15951/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  The pilot scheme for short-term workers will provide training and income support to 277 workers considered to be in vulnerable employment. Under this pilot training programme workers who are on a three-day week and receiving social welfare payments for the days they are not working will receive 2 days training a week for a period of 52 weeks.

Discussions are ongoing between my Department and the Department of Social and Family Affairs and it is expected that these discussions will be finalised in the coming weeks when further details will be available pertaining to this scheme.

  167.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will provide details of the cycle to work scheme introduced in the Finance (No. 2) Act 2008; the progress made to date to implement the scheme; and the number of Departments and public sector agencies actively availing of this scheme. [15127/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The cycle to work scheme came into operation on 1 Jan 2009. The purposes of the scheme are to encourage more employees to cycle to and from work, to contribute to lowering carbon emissions, to help reduce traffic congestion, and to help improve health and fitness levels.

The scheme allows an employer to provide an employee with a bicycle (including an electrically assisted bicycle) and cycle safety equipment, e.g. helmet, lights, reflective clothing, as a benefit of his/her employment without the employee being liable for benefit-in-kind taxation. The scheme applies where the bicycle is used by the employee for travelling to and from work or for travelling between workplaces.

The scheme can be implemented through salary sacrifice arrangements in a similar manner to the existing Travel Pass Scheme. Under such an arrangement, the employer provides the bicycle and/or safety equipment to the employee who agrees to forego or sacrifice part of his or her salary every pay period in order to cover the cost of the bicycle and safety equipment. Any salary sacrifice arrangement must be completed within a maximum period of twelve months and the arrangement will be reflected in the employee’s pay over that period.

The bicycle and safety equipment up to the value of €1,000 are exempt from benefit-in-kind taxation under the scheme. Employees will not be liable to income tax, employee PRSI, or levies on the cost of the bicycle and safety equipment up to this limit. Where the cost exceeds this amount, a BIK charge will apply to the balance. The scheme is available to individual employees once only in a five year period.

The employer will also benefit in that employer PRSI is not payable on the cost of the bicycle and/or safety equipment. Employers will not, however, be able to reclaim the VAT paid on the bicycle and/or safety equipment.

Participation in the scheme is voluntary for employers. However, when an employer agrees to participate, he or she must make the scheme generally available, on an equal basis, to all employees requesting it.

[516]There is no notification procedure for employers to indicate to the Revenue Commissioners that they are operating the scheme. However, the purchase of bicycles and associated safety equipment by employers for employees will be subject to the normal Revenue audit procedure with the normal obligations on employers to maintain records (e.g. invoices, salary sacrifice agreements between employer and employee, such agreements to include a statement from employees that the bicycle and safety equipment are for their own use and will be used for travelling to and from work).

The cycle to work scheme is effectively available since 1 January 2009 to private sector employees where employers agree to operate the scheme.

Implementation of the scheme in the civil service is being dealt with by my Department. Introducing the scheme in the civil service has given rise to a number of issues including that of public procurement. These issues will be resolved shortly. I also understand that the Office of Public Works will be advertising in the near future seeking expressions of interest from those selling bicycles and pedelecs (electrically assisted bicycles), and who are prepared to supply bicycles and cycle safety equipment to those availing of the scheme in the civil service.

A circular providing for a scheme in the civil service will be issued as soon as practicable and those arrangements should provide a framework for the implementation of a similar scheme in the wider public service.

  168.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Finance    if a reduction on the VAT applied to the installation of domestic water softening units will be considered. [15197/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  With regard to the VAT applied to domestic water softening units, or indeed any other goods and services, it is important to bear in mind that the VAT treatment of goods and services is subject to EU VAT law with which Irish VAT law must comply. In this regard, it is not possible to apply the reduced rate of VAT to water softening units which are subject to the standard 21.5% VAT rate.

However, I would point out that the reduced VAT rate of 13.5% may currently be applied to products which are provided under a single supply and install contract where the VAT exclusive cost of the goods does not exceed two-thirds of the total VAT exclusive charge to the customer.

  169.  Deputy Mary Upton    asked the Minister for Finance    if there are plans to increase the space in the National Archives; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15266/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The Land Commission is currently accommodated in the National Archives premises in Bishop Street, Dublin 8. The Office of Public Works is in the process of relocating the Land Commission personnel and their records from Bishop Street and will allocate the space freed up by this move to the National Archives for storage purposes.

  170.  Deputy Michael Creed    asked the Minister for Finance    if a registered charity (details [517]supplied) in County Cork is exempt from paying local authority rates; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15404/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I should point out that the Commissioner of Valuation is independent in the exercise of his duties under the Valuation Act 2001 and that I, as Minister for Finance, have no function in decisions in this regard.

The Valuation Act 2001, which came into effect on 2 May 2002, provides that all buildings used or developed for any purpose, including constructions affixed thereto, are rateable unless expressly exempted under Schedule 4 of the Act. Schedule 4 outlines the categories of property and the various uses that are deemed to be non-rateable under the Act, including buildings occupied by a charitable organisation and used exclusively by that organisation for charitable purposes and otherwise than for profit.

In the case of the valuation of premises occupied by Clondrohid Community Childcare, I am informed by the Valuation Office that a Revision Officer has been appointed following a request from Cork County Council to revise the valuation. In considering the request, the revision officer will examine all aspects of the case, including the occupier’s claim for exemption. In this regard, I might mention that the grant of charitable status to an organisation does not of itself entitle that organisation to an exemption from rates. The nature of the occupation and use of the premises and the particular terms and conditions of the organisation’s Memorandum and Articles of Association will be determining factors in whether the premises occupied by the organisation will be exempt or not. Before a definitive decision is made in the case, the occupiers of the premises in Clondrohid will be afforded an opportunity by the Revision Officer to make Representations.

If dissatisfied with the outcome, they may appeal to the Commissioner of Valuation in the first instance, and subsequently to the independent Valuation Tribunal. There is also a further right of appeal to the High Court and ultimately to the Supreme Court on a point of law.

  171.  Deputy Dan Neville    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will make a statement on the case of a person (details supplied) in County Limerick. [15459/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The initial application for a Primary Medical Certificate under the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers (Tax Concessions) Regulations 1994, is made to the Senior Medical Officer of the relevant local Health Service Executive administrative area.

If the Primary Medical Certificate has been refused in this case, the named person may appeal the refusal to the Medical Board of Appeal, National Rehabilitation Hospital, Rochestown Avenue, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin. I would point out that the Medical Board of Appeal is independent in the exercise of its functions.

  172.  Deputy Fergus O’Dowd    asked the Minister for Finance    his views on the representations from an organisation (details supplied). [15092/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I am conscious of the decline in the motor industry in Ireland and internationally due to the contraction in economic activity. I, and my officials, have had meetings with representatives of the motor industry at which the issues referred to in the correspondence were raised. These matters were considered in the context [518]of the recent Supplementary Budget and it was decided to introduce a VAT Margin Scheme for second-hand cars as outlined in Page B.8 of the Summary of Supplementary Budget Measures — Policy Changes.

  173.  Deputy Brendan Howlin    asked the Minister for Finance    the basis, in view of the fact that retained fire officers have no public service pension entitlement and no access to a public service pension scheme, on which they are deemed liable to pay the public service pension levy; if he will review the imposition of the levy on retained fire officers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15098/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  Retained firefighters are subject to the pension-related deduction as they are entitled to join the Local Government Superannuation Scheme and receive a pension and lump sum from a local authority. Those who do not take that option are eligible for a non-contributory retirement gratuity arrangement. Under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act, retained firefighters are, therefore, subject to the deduction.

However, in the recent Supplementary Budget, I announced a change to the structure of the deduction which will exempt the first 15,000 euro of earnings. This should benefit retained firefighters, especially those with no other public service employment.

The Deputy will be aware that I undertook during the Dáil debate on the deduction to have the case of the retained firefighters examined to see if there are exceptional circumstances with regard to this group of public servants. That examination is in progress.

  174.  Deputy Damien English    asked the Minister for Finance    when an application for a tax refund by a person (details supplied) made to the Office of the Revenue Commissioners will be decided on; the reason for any undue delay; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15108/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that correspondence was received from the taxpayer on 17th February 2009 and that a refund cheque issued on 1st April 2009.

  175.  Deputy Kieran O’Donnell    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of car repossession orders made in each month over the past 12 months in tabular form; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15111/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  It is assumed that the Deputy is referring to the number of cars seized by the Revenue Commissioners for breaches of Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT) legislation. I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that as a general rule all vehicles imported permanently into the State must register for VRT purposes within one working day of arrival. This rule applies equally to vehicles imported by EU and non-EU persons. In practice, Revenue allows latitude of a maximum of seven days for registration.

Revenue mobile units continuously monitor both Irish and foreign registered vehicles on our roads as part of their regular and ongoing enforcement activity. As part of this enforcement activity, vehicles in serious breach of the VRT regulations are seized. The following Table gives [519]the number of vehicles seized in the State in each month over the past twelve months. In addition to the VRT collected, penalties in excess of €1 million were charged in respect of these vehicles.

Month / Year Number of Seizures
April 2008 120
May 2008 191
June 2008 175
July 2008 98
August 2008 120
September 2008 137
October 2008 151
November 2008 168
December 2008 131
January 2009 143
February 2009 164
March 2009 284

  176.  Deputy Paul Gogarty    asked the Minister for Finance    if measures will be taken to request financial institutions, in view of current financial and economic circumstances, to allow mortgage holders who are on fixed rate mortgages to move to variable rate mortgages without incurring a severe financial penalty to do so. [15157/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The Deputy’s question refers to the redemption fee applied by mortgage providers in circumstances that a customer seeks to break a fixed rate mortgage. Mortgage lenders in Ireland generally seek to recover costs of funds when a borrower with a fixed rate mortgage agreement seeks to terminate the agreement some time before the term agreed.

Traditionally redemption fees were articulated with the institution specifying that a given number of months interest would apply. Overtime, they have generally moved towards a mechanism which reflects the difference between the contracted rate and current market rates applied to the amount outstanding for the remaining fixed period. Where a redemption fee is payable on a housing loan the mortgage agent has to inform the consumer about it at the outset.

Compensation sought by the lender reflects the cost to the institution of obtaining the funds on the capital market at a certain cost, as against selling them on at a related price. Institutions fund the fixed rate agreement through funding on markets, generally through interest rate swaps. This allows them to hedge their exposure to interest rate fluctuations. Where the borrower seeks to repay the loan before the contractually agreed fixed term in an environment where interest rates have declined, the institution is exposed to re-investment risk, i.e., it will be unable to re-lend the funds at a rate related to their cost, due to intervening market fluctuations.

Ireland is relatively unusual in the EU context in that borrowers have an absolute legal right to repay their loan early as set out in Section 121(1) of the Consumer Credit Act 1995. However Section 121 goes on to recognise that while a consumer will not be liable to pay an early redemption fee with respect to a variable rate loan, this exemption from redemption fees does not apply where the rate of interest is fixed or is fixed for one year.

[520]The Deputy may wish to note that as part of the preparations for the EU White Paper on Mortgage Market Integration, which was published in December 2007, the Mortgage Industry and Consumer Expert Group agreed that lenders should receive a compensation when a consumer repays his or her fixed rate loan earlier than at its contractual termination.

There are significant benefits for both individual householders and for the stability of the housing and financial sector overall from greater take-up of fixed rate mortgage and it would not be advisable to embark on any course of action which could impact adversely on the cost and availability of fixed rate mortgages in the future.

On 26 March 2009, I undertook, in this House, to contact the Consumer Director of the Financial Regulator on the subject of customers who wish to switch from a fixed rate mortgage. On foot of that my Department has contacted the Financial Regulator to request confirmation that the redemption costs for switching from a fixed rate mortgage cover funding costs only and that there are no other costs included in these charges. The Financial Regulator has confirmed to my Department that it is looking into this matter and that it will revert shortly. I will advise the Deputy of the outcome of the Financial Regulator’s consideration of this matter.

  177.  Deputy Mattie McGrath    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will supply a run down of various Government investment in the Cahir electoral area, County Tipperary, since 1997; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15159/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  Individual projects are a matter for the relevant responsible Departments. The Deputy may obtain specific information for the Cahir electoral area from the relevant Departments.

  178.  Deputy Joe Costello    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will amend the Finance (No. 2) Act 2008 to ensure that the daily requirement for residency in the State for tax purposes is 24 hours not a portion of the day; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15165/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  Section 15 Finance (No. 2) Act 2008 amended section 819 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 to provide that, for 2009 and subsequent years, an individual is regarded as present in the State for a day if he or she is present in the State at any time during that day.

This provision amended the previous tax residence rule, denoted as the “Cinderella rule”, under which individuals could be in the State on a given day but not present for that day for tax purposes provided they arrive after midnight and depart before the following midnight.

The purpose of the amendment was to make it more difficult for an individual to arrange his or her affairs to become non-resident for tax purposes. The Deputy’s proposal would make it easier for individuals to be non-resident. As a result, I do not intend making the suggested amendment.

  179.  Deputy Olivia Mitchell    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will permit funds to write off rebates due to them on foot of redundancy payments against tax due, in view of the fact that the delays in repaying is driving firms out of business. [15177/09]

[521]Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I presume that the Deputy is referring to the 60% statutory redundancy rebates that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment administer.

Taxes paid by employers include tax levied directly on the employer such as Income Tax or Corporation Tax but also fiduciary taxes such as PAYE Income Tax, Income Levy or VAT levied on the employees or customers of that employer. Also relevant would be levies and contributions collected from employees such as PRSI and Health Levy.

In the circumstances and given that there is no provision in taxation, social welfare or health legislation to offset tax liabilities in the manner suggested, it is not possible to offset the 60% statutory redundancy rebates against a tax liability due to Revenue.

I am, however, advised by Revenue that where a business is awaiting a statutory redundancy rebate and it is experiencing particular difficulties in meeting its tax payment obligations because of a delay in receiving the repayment, then subject to satisfactory evidence being provided of the repayment due and its quantum, Revenue will be accommodating in deferring for a reasonable period collection or enforcement action that would otherwise ensue in the event of delayed payment of tax.

  180.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Finance    the position in relation to a person (details supplied) in County Mayo. [15178/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that the taxpayer in question contacted his local tax district in March 2009 to inform them that he had received payment of a pension from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The pension covered the period from July 2008 to March 2009 and was subjected to the PAYE emergency tax procedures, as the taxpayer had not applied for a PAYE Tax Credit Certificate when he became entitled to receive the pension. A PAYE Tax Credit Certificate has been issued to the taxpayer for 2009 and, once processed by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the emergency procedures will cease and have the effect of refunding some or all of the tax suffered by the taxpayer.

The reason that the taxpayer’s affairs cannot be fully regularised until the end of 2009 is that a return of all income earned in 2008 will be required which should include the portion of his pension earned in 2008 but not paid by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food until 2009 and subjected to tax in 2009. In order to regularise the taxpayer’s affairs it will be necessary to review both the 2008 and 2009 tax years as some of the pension paid in 2009 is properly assessable in 2008 while the tax deducted is due in 2009. This review cannot be carried out until the end of 2009.

  181.  Deputy Denis Naughten    asked the Minister for Finance    if persons who have applied for early retirement due to ill health but are not approved by 1 May 2009 will be forced to postpone 90% of their lump sum until retirement age; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15233/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  Where persons who have applied for early retirement due to ill-health have not had their applications approved by 1 May 2009, the terms of the benefits of ill- health retirements will not be affected by the proposed Incentivised Scheme of Early Retirement.

[522]

  182.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Minister for Finance    his views on exempting members of an association (details supplied) from the pension levy, under section 8 of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15236/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I have no proposals to exempt members of the Association referred to by the Deputy from the pension-related deduction.

However, in the recent Supplementary Budget, I announced a change to the structure of the deduction which will exempt the first 15,000 euro of earnings. This should benefit the group of public servants in question, especially those with no other public service employment.

I also undertook, during the Dáil debate on the pension-related deduction, to have the situation of this group of public servants examined to see if there are exceptional circumstances in their case. That examination is in progress.

  183.  Deputy Tom Sheahan    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will instruct the financial institutions, who have not already done so, to allow people to change from fixed rate mortgages to variable rate without penalties; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15254/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The Deputy’s question refers to the redemption fee applied by mortgage providers in circumstances that a customer seeks to break a fixed rate mortgage. Mortgage lenders in Ireland generally seek to recover costs of funds when a borrower with a fixed rate mortgage agreement seeks to terminate the agreement some time before the term agreed.

Traditionally redemption fees were articulated with the institution specifying that a given number of months interest would apply. Overtime, they have generally moved towards a mechanism which reflects the difference between the contracted rate and current market rates applied to the amount outstanding for the remaining fixed period. Where a redemption fee is payable on a housing loan the mortgage agent has to inform the consumer about it at the outset.

Compensation sought by the lender reflects the cost to the institution of obtaining the funds on the capital market at a certain cost, as against selling them on at a related price. Institutions fund the fixed rate agreement through funding on markets, generally through interest rate swaps. This allows them to hedge their exposure to interest rate fluctuations. Where the borrower seeks to repay the loan before the contractually agreed fixed term in an environment where interest rates have declined, the institution is exposed to re-investment risk, i.e., it will be unable to re-lend the funds at a rate related to their cost, due to intervening market fluctuations.

Ireland is relatively unusual in the EU context in that borrowers have an absolute legal right to repay their loan early as set out in Section 121(1) of the Consumer Credit Act 1995. However Section 121 goes on to recognise that while a consumer will not be liable to pay an early redemption fee with respect to a variable rate loan, this exemption from redemption fees does not apply where the rate of interest is fixed or is fixed for one year.

The Deputy may wish to note that as part of the preparations for the EU White Paper on Mortgage Market Integration, which was published in December 2007, the Mortgage Industry and Consumer Expert Group agreed that lenders should receive a compensation when a consumer repays his or her fixed rate loan earlier than at its contractual termination.

There are significant benefits for both individual householders and for the stability of the housing and financial sector overall from greater take-up of fixed rate mortgage and it would [523]not be advisable to embark on any course of action which could impact adversely on the cost and availability of fixed rate mortgages in the future.

On 26 March 2009, I undertook, in this House, to contact the Consumer Director of the Financial Regulator on the subject of customers who wish to switch from a fixed rate mortgage. On foot of that my Department has contacted the Financial Regulator to request confirmation that the redemption costs for switching from a fixed rate mortgage cover funding costs only and that there are no other costs included in these charges. The Financial Regulator has confirmed to my Department that it is looking into this matter and that it will revert shortly. I will advise the Deputy of the outcome of the Financial Regulator’s consideration of this matter.

  184.  Deputy Paul Connaughton    asked the Minister for Finance    if his attention has been drawn to the increasing annoyance and frustration felt by accountants and other such professions regarding their relationship with the Revenue Commissioners in so far as bureaucratic procedures are concerned; his views on whether there is too much bureaucracy involved; if such bureaucracy will be reduced without prejudice to the necessary checks and balances that are a necessary part and parcel of taxation collection measures; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15273/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that they are not aware of increasing annoyance and frustration on the part of accountants.

Revenue operates a network of formal contacts with tax practitioners ranging from the Taxes Administration Liaison Committee (TALC) to local Revenue and Practitioner forums. TALC was established in 1989 and is a liaison committee between Revenue, the Irish Taxation Institute (ITI), the Consultative Committee of Accountancy Bodies of Ireland (CCAB-I) and the Law Society of Ireland. TALC is a forum for consultation and discussion between Revenue and practitioners on a wide variety of issues concerning the administration of tax in Ireland and meets regularly throughout the year. Regular meetings at Regional and District level between Revenue staff and local tax practitioner and their representatives further support TALC dialogue. Given such a wide network of contacts, Revenue would have expected to be made aware of such annoyance and frustration, but this is not the case. TALC produces practical suggestions for improved administration on an ongoing basis. For example, at the TALC meeting on 17 April, streamlined processes for issuing tax refunds to businesses were discussed and agreed.

In recent years Revenue has made many charges in the way it does business:

The Revenue Online Service (ROS) now allows tax accountants to file tax returns and pay their taxes on line. This has greatly streamlined the whole business of tax filing, the main point of contact between Revenue and tax professionals.

Revenue has simplified tax administration; for example, reducing the number of VAT returns for smaller businesses.

A new service, the Revenue Technical Service was set up to answer difficult tax queries from tax practitioners. Many more examples of simplification could be given. In 2006, Revenue surveyed small and medium-sized businesses and found that 84% of respondents were either “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with the service they get from Revenue. According to the PricewaterhouseCoopers/World Bank report “Paying Taxes 2009-The Global Picture”, Ireland is the sixth ‘easiest’ country (out of 181 countries surveyed) in which to pay taxes.

[524]While there is always room for improvement, I’m satisfied that Revenue is alert to the needs of business and has mechanisms in place to identify those needs, and is willing to respond where possible having regard to the necessary checks and balances to ensure compliance.

However, if the Deputy is aware of a particular issue, that matter should be brought to the attention of Revenue in one of the fora mentioned above.

  185.  Deputy Paul Kehoe    asked the Minister for Finance    if a person retiring from the public service at pension age, not an early leaver, will be liable for tax on the gratuity payment they receive; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15277/09]

  206.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Finance    the position regarding a matter (details supplied). [15743/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 185 and 206 together.

Under statutory pension schemes and pension schemes approved by the Revenue Commissioners there is no liability to income tax in respect of retirement gratuities or lump sums paid to members of such schemes on retirement. Provided the individual referred to in the question is a member of such a scheme and the lump sum payment complies with Revenue rules in this area, there is no liability to income tax on the retirement lump sum payment. In this regard, it should be noted that the tax arrangements for retirement lump sums apply in respect of pension schemes in both the public and private sectors.

As I mentioned in my Budget Speech on 7 April last, the Commission on Taxation is examining various aspects of pension tax treatment, including the treatment of retirement lump sum payments and I expect to be dealing with the Commissions’ recommendations in the 2010 Budget in December.

  186.  Deputy Michael McGrath    asked the Minister for Finance    his views on the issues raised by an association (details supplied) in the context of the forthcoming Finance Bill; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15289/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I am conscious of the difficulties being encountered in the farm machinery business in conjunction with other businesses, however, given the current Exchequer deficit position, the Budget 2009 policy decision of increasing the standard VAT rate continues to be necessary in order to support the public finances. We are borrowing to fund day to day public services which is unsustainable as future generations will be required to pay higher taxes unless we correct our public finances.

Regarding the differential in VAT rates resulting from temporary reduction in the UK standard VAT rate from 17.5% to 15% up to the end of 2009, as recognised by the farm machinery industry in their correspondence, the VAT rate is not the only factor in the price differential between North and South of the border. The weakening of sterling has had, and is having, a far more significant impact on relative prices than any VAT changes in this regard.

As a small open economy, many of our standard rated goods are imported, and cutting the VAT rate could benefit the economies from which we import more than our own. In other [525]words, while, it might help the consumer, it would not be the most effective way of helping our own economy.

Regarding the validity of VAT registration numbers, this forms part of the checks carried out by Revenue officers, including with their counterparts in Revenue & Customs in the UK, and in Northern Ireland in particular, in connection with audits and assurance checks where risk or suspicions arise. These checks are carried out using the EU VAT Mutual Assistance Programme, which is designed specifically to tackle cross-border VAT fraud. This programme allows for exchanges of information between EU Member States in relation to VAT matters and also allows the presence of officials from a Member State in another Member State while enquiries are being carried out. These are VAT anti-fraud measures and Ireland plays a full role in the exchange of information with all other Member EU States, including the UK, with whom we have a good working relationship.

Checks of the control procedures in place between the State and Northern Ireland will continue as part of Revenue’s work programmes in 2009. Revenue will continue to liaise, as appropriate, with the competent authorities in Northern Ireland, under the EU Mutual Assistance programme. Any specific allegations regarding the abuse of VAT numbers will be investigated fully. Regarding to the availability of financing, the Deputy will be aware that as part of the recapitalisation package announced on 11 February 2009, Allied Irish Bank and Bank of Ireland reconfirmed their December commitment to increase lending capacity to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) by 10%. AIB and Bank of Ireland have also committed to public campaigns to actively promote small business lending at competitive rates with increased transparency on the criteria to be met. Compliance with this commitment will be monitored by the Financial Regulator. The banks will make quarterly reports, with the first report to end March 2009 to be submitted by end April 2009.

Government Departments and State agencies have engaged with banks and business representatives in a variety of settings on issues surrounding the flow of credit for business. A formal structure for those contacts on an ongoing basis will be finalised shortly.

An independent review of credit availability, funded by the banks but managed jointly by the banks, Government and business representatives is also underway and will be completed shortly. Amongst the issues covered by this review will be changes in bank lending, repayment terms and a comparison with customer experiences prior to the onset of the financial crisis. I am satisfied that this review, along with the quarterly reports from the recapitalised institutions, will give a clear picture regarding the flow of credit in the Irish economy, which will inform future policy.

  187.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Minister for Finance    the programme changes introduced in the 2009 Estimates published on 14 October 2008 designed to make savings in expenditure in 2009; and the amount of savings achieved in each programme within each Department. [15290/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The detailed 2009 expenditure allocations will be published in the Revised Estimates of Public Services 2009 tomorrow, Thursday 23 April. These allocations reflect all changes which impact on Departmental expenditure in 2009.

  188.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will explain the tax treatment [526]of redundancy payments, particularly with regard to the income levy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15396/09]

  209.  Deputy Pat Breen    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will clarify the way the recent increases in the income levy will be applied; if it will apply to compulsory and voluntary redundancy payments; if so, if he has plans to reverse this decision; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15821/09]

  210.  Deputy Jack Wall    asked the Minister for Finance    if a person who took voluntary redundancy at the end of December 2008 will be subject to the income levy rates; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15853/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 188, 209 and 210 together.

The position is that statutory redundancy payments are exempt from both income tax and income levy.

In addition, ex-gratia redundancy payments in excess of the statutory redundancy amount are exempt from income tax and the income levy, subject to certain limits, namely—

a basic exemption of €10,160 plus €765 per complete year of service in excess of statutory redundancy; or

if more beneficial, the Standard Capital Superannuation Benefit, which is 1/15th of the person’s annual income (average of the last three years) for each year of employment less any tax-free lump sum which is received or receivable under any approved or statutory pension scheme.

The basic exemption from income tax and income levy as outlined above can be further increased by up to €10,000 if the person is not a member of an occupational pension scheme. This can only be claimed if the person has not made any claim in respect of a lump sum received in the previous 10 tax years.

The amount of redundancy payment in excess of whichever exemption applies is liable to both income tax and income levy. The income levy rates announced in the Supplementary Budget, namely, 1.67% on the first €75,036, 3% on the next €25,064, 3.33% on the next €74,880, 4.67% on the next €75,140 and 5% on the remainder, apply to the whole of a person’s 2009 income.

With regard to an individual who took voluntary redundancy at the end of December and received the termination or lump sum payment associated with that redundancy before 1 January 2009, the person will not be liable to the income levy on that payment. However if the termination payment was actually made on any date on or after 1 January 2009, then the person is liable to the income levy on that payment on the basis set out above.

The treatment of taxable redundancy payments paid prior to 1 May will be considered in the context of the preparation of the forthcoming Finance Bill.

  189.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Finance,    further to Parliamentary Question No. 7 of 8 April 2009, if he has received clarification of the comments made by CIROC in respect of pension arrangements which are inconsistent with public policy and tax laws; and the steps he will take to address these matters. [15402/09]

[527]Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  In my reply to the previous question raised by the Deputy on this issue, I indicated that my Department was examining the matters raised in the CIROC report. Following that consideration, and in light of discussions between my Department and the Revenue Commissioners, the matters raised in the report are to be taken up by the Commissioners with the institutions involved, with a view to ensuring that the practices concerned are in compliance with pensions tax provisions and with tax law generally.

  190.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of DIRT free deposit accounts operated here by the banks; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15417/09]

  191.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of DIRT free deposits accounts which were opened in 2008; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15418/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 190 and 191 together.

Section 34 of the Finance Act 2007 introduced a new scheme to allow the operation of Deposit Interest Retention Tax (DIRT) exempt savings accounts subject to two conditions: (a) the account holder must be aged 65 years of age or over or be permanently incapacitated; and (b) their total income must not exceed the relevant exemption threshold, i.e. €20,000 (for an individual) or €40,000 (for a married couple) in 2008.

Provisional figures show that in 2008 73,738 DIRT free deposit accounts were operated. Of these, 46,528 accounts were held with Banks and the balance were held with either Credit Unions or An Post. The equivalent figures for 2007 were 68,855 and 20,591.

  192.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Finance    the amount of revenue received by the Exchequer from DIRT tax each year from 2002 to 2008; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15419/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The following table sets out the net yield from Deposit Interest Retention Tax (DIRT) collected from 2002 to 2008:

Year €m
2002 206.5
2003 153.3
2004 143.6
2005 167.1
2006 254.4
2007 471.8
2008 653.8

  193.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Finance    if he is satisfied with the efforts made by his Department and the Revenue Commissioners to inform people about their [528]potential entitlement to a DIRT free deposit account; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15420/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that when DIRT exempt accounts were introduced in April 2007, the initiative was widely publicised. Publicity measures included the production and dissemination of two information leaflets; the first DE1 was for account holders who qualified on the basis of being aged 65 years, while the second DE2 was for those who qualified on the basis of permanent incapacitation. These leaflets provided comprehensive information for qualifying taxpayers on how to have interest credited without deduction of DIRT. The application forms and information leaflets were made available in Revenue offices and in financial institutions. In 2007, Revenue arranged for information to be issued to social welfare customers in receipt of state pensions, which resulted in 100,000 information leaflets being sent out in conjunction with other information being circulated by the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

I am further informed that in 2008 Revenue produced and circulated over 2,550 information posters about DIRT exempt accounts for those aged 65 years and over. The posters were circulated for display in Citizens Information Offices, banks, post offices and in Revenue’s local public offices. Irish versions of the posters were also printed and circulated. Revenue also provided briefing material to relevant interested parties including the Senior Times magazine and Age Action Ireland.

Information about DIRT exempt accounts is also available on the Revenue website, www.revenue.ie. Provisional figures show that in 2008 73,738 DIRT free deposit accounts were operated, which demonstrates the satisfactory arrangements which have been made.

  194.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of people who made a claim for a tax refund on becoming unemployed in 2007, 2008 and to date in 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15421/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that the number of people who made a claim for a tax refund on becoming unemployed in the years in question are as follows:

2007 — 27,652.

2008 — 44,987.

2009 (to 17 April) — 6,018.

  195.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Finance    if he is satisfied with the efforts made by his Department and the Revenue Commissioners to inform people about their potential entitlement to a tax refund if they are made unemployed during the tax year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15422/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that they have a range of information available to taxpayers in relation to their entitlements to claim tax refunds if they are unemployed.

The Revenue website, www.revenue.ie contains a wide range of information in relation to how claims can be made and what information customers need in order to make a claim.

At the start of each tax year, the Revenue Commissioners send all taxpayers a tax credit certificate which sets out their tax credits and their standard rate band. When sending out the [529]2009 tax credit certificates, the Revenue Commissioners included a booklet PAYE for Employees. This 16 page booklet about the PAYE system included 2 pages of information about changing jobs and what to do in relation to a possible tax refund if a taxpayer is out of work. The booklet was sent to over 2.2 million taxpayers in November and December 2008 in advance of the start of the tax year. The information was presented in an easy-to-read format in booklet form in order that PAYE taxpayers would use it as a handy reference guide about the tax system.

Regarding the specific question about people who become unemployed, I am advised that this is handled in a very direct way. When a person becomes unemployed, their employer provides them with Form P45 which includes information in the section titled “Important Notes for Employee” about what a taxpayer should do if unemployed and claiming a tax repayment. Taxpayers who are unemployed and claiming a tax repayment are advised to send parts 2, 3 and 4 of the Form P45, with a completed Form P50, to their local Revenue Office. I am fully satisfied with this arrangement.

Furthermore, Revenue operates a Lo Call 1890 telephone service for PAYE taxpayers taking between 6,000 and 12,000 calls per day, depending on the time of year. Information on unemployment refunds is available from the Lo Call service.

  196.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Finance    the amount of revenue received by the Exchequer each year from 2004 to 2008 from the 2% levy on non-life insurance policies; the amount of same which is derived from motor insurance policies; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15423/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  A 2% stamp duty, which was introduced in 1982, is charged on most non-life insurance premiums and is part of the normal stamp duty system. The exceptions are re-insurance, voluntary health insurance, marine, aviation and transit insurance and export credit insurance. The yield to the Exchequer from 2004 to 2008 was as follows:

Year Yield
€m
2004 97.7
2005 90.8
2006 88.3
2007 85.4
2008 80.1

It is not possible to distinguish between the different types of insurance business within the yield from the non-life levy. The purpose of the non-life levy is to broaden the tax base, while increasing the sources of revenue available to address the current pressures on the public finances.

  197.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    the breakdown of budgetary projections for 2009, 2010 and 2011, including all appropriations-in-aid, for expenditure receipts and balances; and if he will explain the spike in this figure for 2009, with corresponding figures for 2007 and 2008. [15467/09]

[530]Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  Budgetary projections for 2009, 2010 and 2011 are broken down in the following table and are consistent with the figures published in Supplementary Budget 2009, published on 7 April. The corresponding figures for 2007 and 2008 are also included in the table. The figures from 2007 are taken from the Appropriation Account 2007 and the Finance Account 2007, while the 2008 figures are Department of Finance estimates.

2007 Outturn 2008 Provisional 2009 Estimate 2010 Estimate 2011 Estimate
€m €m €m €m €m
Gross Voted Current Expenditure 48,607 53,475 56,588 56,757 56,111
Non-Voted (Central Fund) Current Expenditure 3,937 3,936 5,855 7,796 9,304
Gross Current Expenditure 52,544 57,411 62,442 64,553 65,415
less Current Appropriations-in-Aid and balances 11,647 12,653 16,077 13,816 13,531
Net Current Expenditure 40,897 44,758 46,365 50,737 51,884
Gross Voted Capital Expenditure 7,819 8,920 7,329 6,621 5,491
Non-Voted Capital Expenditure 853 797 871 832 825
Payment to the NPRF 1,516 1,690 3,000 1,449
Gross Capital Expenditure 10,187 11,407 11,200 7,453 7,765
Less Capital Appropriations-in-Aid 92 473 465 481 479
Net Current Expenditure 10,096 10,934 10,735 6,972 7,286

The figure for Appropriations-in-Aid increases significantly from €12.7 billion in 2008 to 16.1 billion in 2009 primarily due to the increase in Social Insurance Fund (SIF) expenditure associated with the rise in the Live Register: this increased expenditure is financed fully from SIF resources (including the accumulated SIF surplus) in 2009, and these resources are recorded as Appropriations-in-Aid. However, from 2010 the surplus is eliminated and a cumulative deficit is forecast for the SIF. The total SIF resources available to meet SIF expenditure will therefore be lower than in 2009, with the Appropriation-in-Aid figure being reduced accordingly.

The following table shows a percentage breakdown of Appropriations-in-Aid for 2009. The SIF related Appropriation-in-Aid includes income for 2009 and a drawdown of the accumulated surplus.

2009
%
SIF related Appropriations-in-Aid 63
Health Levy 12
Pension-Related Deduction* 5
Other Appropriations-in-Aid 20
Total 100

  198.  Deputy Edward O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Finance    if an exemption on mortgage income tax relief will be granted when a couple has a home loan for more than seven years but in the past couple of years had the rate of interest fixed by the lending institutions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15577/09]

  199.  Deputy Edward O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Finance    the mortgage of persons (details supplied) in County Cork regarding abolishment of mortgage interest relief after seven years. [15578/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 198 and 199 together.

The position is that Mortgage Interest Relief for principal private residencies will cease for all mortgages from the 1st May, where the mortgage holder has been in receipt of mortgage interest tax relief for more than seven years. The exception to this rule is where a new loan has been taken out in the last seven years for the purpose of buying a new home or for the purposes of repair, development or improvement of their current home.

The fixing of the rate of interest on an existing mortgage does not, in itself, constitute a new qualifying loan. In the circumstances outlined in both of these questions, no exemption from the abolition of the relief is available.

  200.  Deputy Jack Wall    asked the Minister for Finance    his views on correspondence (details supplied); the action he will take to address the matter of the lack of available funds to small and medium enterprises; if his attention has been drawn to the black market effect of cash in hand that the lack of such funding will create; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15579/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  Government Departments and State agencies have engaged with banks and business representatives in a variety of settings on issues surrounding the flow of credit for business. A formal structure for those contacts on an ongoing basis will be finalised shortly.

A Code of Conduct for Business Lending to Small and Medium Enterprises was published by the Financial Regulator on 13 February and took effect on 13 March. This code will apply to all regulated banks and building societies and will facilitate access to credit, promote fairness and transparency and ensure that banks will assist borrowers in meeting their obligations, or otherwise deal with an arrears situation in an orderly and appropriate manner. The business lending code includes a requirement for banks to offer their business customers annual review meetings, to inform customers of the basis for decisions made and to have written procedures for the proper handling of complaints. Where a customer gets into difficulty the banks will give the customer reasonable time and seek to agree an approach to resolve problems and to provide appropriate advice. This is a statutory code and banks will be required to demonstrate compliance.

In addition, as part of the recapitalisation package announced on 11 February, Allied Irish Bank and Bank of Ireland reconfirmed their December commitment to increase lending capacity to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) by 10% and to provide an additional 30% capacity for lending to first time buyers in 2009. If the mortgage lending is not taken up, then the extra capacity will be available to SMEs. AIB and Bank of Ireland have also committed to public campaigns to actively promote small business lending at competitive rates with increased transparency on the criteria to be met. Compliance with this commitment will be monitored [532]by the Financial Regulator. The banks will make quarterly reports, with the first report to end March 2009 to be submitted by end April 2009. Officials from my Department are also in regular contact with the banks concerned in relation to their progress on implementing these measures.

An independent review of credit availability, funded by the banks but managed jointly by the banks, Government and business representatives is also underway and will be completed shortly. Amongst the issues covered by this review will be changes in bank lending, repayment terms and a comparison with customer experiences prior to the onset of the financial crisis. I am satisfied that this review, along with the quarterly reports from the recapitalised institutions, will give a clear picture regarding the flow of credit in the Irish economy which will inform future policy.

  201.  Deputy Denis Naughten    asked the Minister for Finance    when he will extend the special Civil Service incentive career break scheme and shorter working year scheme to the public service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15627/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The special civil service incentive career break scheme and shorter working year scheme are initially being implemented for the civil service. Discussions have taken place at official level on wider application of these, or equivalent schemes, to other appropriate areas of the public service. It is a matter for the relevant Minister with responsibility for staff in those public service areas as to whether the extension of these schemes is appropriate in those areas.

  202.  Deputy Martin Ferris    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has examined ways in which to encourage persons who have investments abroad to redirect their investments into the domestic economy in order to compensate for falling foreign direct investment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15647/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  Ireland will continue to be successful in securing investment and job creation, whether by domestic or foreign investors, if the overall climate for investment is favourable in comparison to other countries. This Government through its policies, including the development of a relatively low taxation regime for business, has created an attractive environment for investment. Significant additional support continues to be made available to investors, primarily through agencies under the auspices of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment such as the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland, which encourage investment, by both domestic and foreign investors.

  203.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Finance    when a P45 will issue to a person (details supplied) in County Kildare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15650/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I have been advised by the Revenue Commissioners that Form P45 is issued by the employer and not by Revenue. On the 23rd March 2009 Revenue wrote to the employer regarding the matter. As no reply was received, and in the absence of receiving Form 45 from the employer, Revenue has decided to contact the taxpayer to obtain this information. The employer will also be contacted again in an effort to finalise this matter.

  204.  Deputy Paul Kehoe    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of uncertified sick days taken within all sections of his Department for the years 2007 and 2008 and to date in 2009; the number of employees who have taken uncertified sick days in the categories one to ten days and over ten days; the number of uncertified sick days taken Fridays and Mondays; the number of persistent offenders with regard to uncertified sick days who have been sent for an independent doctor's opinion; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15672/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  Under the Civil Service Sick Leave Regulations, sick leave for single or two-day absences in total not exceeding seven days in any period of twelve months may be granted without a medical certificate. If the number of day’s absence without medical certificate in any period of twelve months, reckoning backwards from the date of the latest absence, exceeds seven in the aggregate, the staff member may face disciplinary measures e.g. loss of annual leave/pay.

Regular monitoring of the number of uncertified sick days taken by each individual is carried out throughout the year. For those staff members who have taken 5 days uncertified sick leave over any period of twelve months, a notification is issued by the Human Resources Unit to the staff member via their supervisor advising them that they are approaching the limits which are used as the thresholds in relation to access to promotion, payment of increments, eligibility to transfer, etc. It must be emphasised that in no circumstances can an individual take more than 7 days uncertified sick leave in any twelve month period.

Year Total Number of staff serving in the Department (full-time & part time) Total Number of Staff Members on Uncertified Sick Leave Total Number of Days Uncertified Sick Leave Average Number of days
2007 691 296 569.69 1.92
2008 672 285 617.30 2.17
2009* 666 95 138.00 1.45

While the Deputy’s concern with absences before or immediately after a weekend is understood, it is possibly important to realise that many of the Department’s staff are employed on less than a full time basis e.g. split week. Accordingly the significance of Monday/Friday absences may be less than otherwise would be the case. In the timescale given, it is not possible to identify the number of sick days taken on a Friday or Monday in each of the years concerned. However, the Deputy may wish to know that the Comptroller & Auditor General is currently undertaking an examination on Managing Sickness Absences in the Civil Service.

Individual instances of sick leave (uncertified and certified) are in certain situations referred to the Chief Medical Officer for the Civil Service, who is independent in the implementation of his functions. The Chief Medical Officer has however, recommended that repeated short term absences should, in the first instance at least, be dealt with through normal internal management procedures.

  205.  Deputy Michael McGrath    asked the Minister for Finance    if his attention has been drawn to the fact that part-time fire-fighters, who are not members of a pension scheme, are being charged the public sector pension levy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15708/09]

[534]Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  Those part-time or retained firefighters who are not members of the Local Government Superannuation Scheme are eligible for a payment in lieu in the form of a non-contributory retirement gratuity arrangement. The pension-related deduction also applies to those eligible for such a payment. However, in the recent Supplementary Budget, I announced a change to the structure of the deduction which will exempt the first 15,000 euro of earnings. This should benefit retained firefighters, especially those with no other public service employment.

Questions No. 206 answered with Question No. 185.

  207.  Deputy Michael D’Arcy    asked the Minister for Finance    his views on reallocating staff from other Departments and agencies to the Money Advice and Budgeting Service in an attempt to alleviate the workload currently being experienced by MABS personnel in offices here due to the economic downturn; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15760/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  In the light of constraints on the public finances and the need to maximise the use of resources, it is necessary to develop appropriate redeployment mechanisms so that staff can be moved from activities which are no longer priority to areas of greater need. In my Supplementary Budget 2009 I stated that I intended to allocate and redeploy staff in the civil service to areas of highest priority.

In relation to the allocation of staff to MABS, which is not part of the civil or public sector, it is a matter for the parent Department, in consultation with my Department, to establish the priority areas in this context, the appropriate level of resources needed and how they might be provided.

  208.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Finance    the amount of tax foregone by the State in the past three years for which figures are available in respect of the off-setting of rental income against mortgage interest on foreign property with a breakdown by commercial and non-commercial property, and with a breakdown by property location. [15793/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I assume that the Deputy is enquiring about the amount of tax forgone by allowing interest relief on borrowings to finance the purchase, improvement or repair of foreign property to be set off as an expense against the rental income from that property.

I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that as personal income tax returns of foreign rental income are not required to separately identify claims for interest relief from claims for other expenses such as repairs, insurance and management expenses there is, therefore, no statistical basis on which they can provide an estimate of cost relating to the amounts of interest relief involved.

Questions Nos. 209 and 210 answered with Question No. 188.

  211.  Deputy Joe Costello    asked the Minister for Finance    the talks he had engaged in with the EU Commission or Central Bank prior to the supplementary Budget on 7 April; if the EU had given approval or encouragement for the establishment of the National Assets Manage[535]ment Agency; if the EU had given approval for State aid for the initiative; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15879/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  On 25 February 2009, the European Commission provided guidance on the treatment of asset relief measures by member states. The Commission considers that a common European approach is presently needed to deal with the treatment of impaired assets, to make sure that foreseeable losses are disclosed and properly handled and banks can use their capital to resume their normal function of lending to the economy instead of fearing they would need this capital to cushion against possible losses. Guidelines were also issued by the European Central Bank on bank asset support measures.

The National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) initiative announced on 7 April will be developed and implemented within the common EU framework detailed in the European Commission Guidance and guidelines issued by the European Central Bank.

My officials have already started the cooperation with the European Commission to ensure that the design and the implementation of the NAMA proposal will be consistent with EU requirements. The measure will be formally notified to the European Commission under State aid rules in due course.

  212.  Deputy Joe Costello    asked the Minister for Finance    if funding of the National Assets Management Agency will constitute part of the national debt; if he has consulted with the EU Commission on this matter; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15880/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  In the Supplementary Budget I announced the formation of a National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), which will operate as an independent commercial entity under the aegis of the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA). As I mentioned in the Supplementary Budget speech, assets will be transferred from the banks to the Agency with the purpose of ensuring that the banks have a clean bill of health, their balance sheets strengthened and uncertainty over bad debts is reduced. This will underpin a sustained flow of credit on a commercial basis to individuals, households and businesses in the real economy.

The assets will be acquired by the issuing of Government Bonds to the banks. While this will result in a significant increase in gross national debt, this will be offset by the value of the assets purchased. The cost of servicing the debt will be met from the income accruing from the purchased assets, and the debt incurred will be repaid from funds raised from the eventual disposal of the assets. Discussions are ongoing with the European Commission in relation to the issues surrounding the establishment of NAMA.

  213.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    if he, the Central Bank or the Financial Regulator have given instructions to the management at Anglo Irish Bank with respect to the treatment of distressed loans; if the treatment of distressed loans and debtors has changed since the issuance of the bank guarantee on 30 September 2008; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15897/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  Anglo Irish Bank is being run on an arms length commercial basis. Consequently, normal commercial decisions, which include those relating to treatment of distressed loans and debtors and overall credit management and control, are a matter for the Board of Anglo. As with other credit institutions, the Financial [536]Regulator supervises Anglo’s credit management processes in line with regulatory requirements.

The terms of the guarantee Scheme did not provide for specific changes to the treatment of distressed loans and debtors of covered institutions, but, as the Deputy will be aware, a range of reporting and commercial conduct requirements were introduced as part the guarantee Scheme, to ensure compliance with the objectives of the Scheme, and as with all covered institutions, Anglo is subject to these.

I would note that the terms applying to debtors of Anglo Irish Bank were unaffected by the introduction of the guarantee Scheme, or the subsequent taking into public ownership of Anglo. As I have stated previously, as with any commercial bank, Anglo will pursue all loan agreements to their full extent, to maximise the return from the bank’s loan book.

I would also note that as part of the Government’s Bank Customers Package, codes of practice on business lending and mortgage arrears have been put in place on a statutory basis and published by the Financial Regulator to ensure that all banks operating here deal in an honest way with customers and consumers and that they are treated in a reputable and respectable fashion.

  214.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    if loans at Anglo Irish Bank are to be included in the remit of the National Assets Management Agency; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15898/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The position on the inclusion of loans at Anglo Irish Bank in the remit of the National Asset Management Agency will be considered having regard to Anglo’s particular circumstances and the business planning process currently under way. All actions in relation to Anglo will be closely co-ordinated with the initiatives being taken in relation to the sector as a whole.

Anglo will remain as a going concern, being run on an arms length commercial basis. The Government has committed to further support measures for Anglo as necessary, consistent with EU State aid requirements.

  215.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has taken action or put in place measures to effect the 10% reduction in all expenses other than mileage rates, as announced by him in his 7 April 2009 budget speech; when he expects this measure to take effect; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15899/09]

  216.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has taken action or put in place measures to effect the discontinuance of long service payments or increments for serving TDs, as announced by him in his 7 April 2009 budget speech; when he expects this measure to take effect; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15900/09]

  218.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has taken action or put in place measures to effect the discontinuance of the arrangement whereby Oireachtas Members who are on paid leave of absence as teachers can keep the difference between their teachers’ salary and the cost of employing a replacement, as announced by him in his 7 April 2009 budget [537]speech; when he expects this measure to take effect; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15902/09]

  219.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has taken action or put in place measures to effect the 50% reduction in allowances paid to Oireachtas committee chairs, as announced by him in his 7 April 2009 budget speech; when he expects this measure to take effect; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15903/09]

  220.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has taken action or put in place measures to effect the discontinuance of payments to whips and vice-chairs of Oireachtas committees; when he expects this measure to take effect; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15904/09]

  221.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    the progress made with reducing the number of Oireachtas committees; when he expects these reductions to take effect; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15905/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 215, 216 and 218 to 221, inclusive, together.

Work on the various issues raised by the Deputy is progressing. In some instances legislation is required. It is expected that the initiatives in question will be implemented during this Dáil term.

  217.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has taken action or put in place measures to effect the discontinuance of the arrangement whereby former Ministers are paid ministerial pensions while they are still Members of the Oireachtas, as announced by him in his 7 April 2009 budget speech; when he expects this measure to take effect; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15901/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  It will be necessary to change the relevant legislation to give effect to this measure. My Department is in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General on the matter.

Questions Nos. 218 to 221, inclusive, answered with Question No. 215.

  222.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    when he will publish details of the public service early retirement scheme for public servants aged 50 years or over as announced in his 7 April 2009 budget speech; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15906/09]

  224.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    his views on whether the public service early retirement scheme for public servants aged 50 years or over, as announced in his 7 April 2009 budget speech, could undermine certain areas such as the gardaí, by encouraging many skilled senior staff to retire early without adequate replacements; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15908/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 222 and 224 together.

[538]Details of the recently announced Incentivised Scheme of Early Retirement, ISER, in certain areas of the public service were outlined in Annex D of my Financial Statement of 7 April last. Officials of my Department are finalising the operating details of the Scheme for the civil service. The civil service circular, which will be issuing very shortly, will be used as a template for the operation of the Scheme in other appropriate areas of the public service, although there may have to be modifications to accommodate the particular needs of those areas.

In general, the Scheme will be subject to local management arrangements and controls to ensure that its operation does not undermine the effective delivery of services to the public. The Scheme will not apply to members of An Garda Síochána or where any other arrangements for early retirement already exist. In addition, it will not apply where the recently announced moratorium on recruitment and promotion allows retiring staff to be replaced.

  223.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    the position regarding his tour of financial capitals to restore Ireland’s international reputation; the number of elected representatives and civil servants who accompanied him on this trip; the steps that were taken to ensure that costs for the trip were minimised in view of the challenging Exchequer position; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15907/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  As I indicated in my Budget speech, I intend to visit financial capitals around Europe in order to communicate details of the resolute actions being taken by the Government to address the difficulties in the public finances and the domestic banking sector, but I have not yet done so. I did, as part of my St Patrick’s Day engagements in London, meet with representatives of the financial services industry and the financial services media in order to outline the Government’s determination to address the current difficulties. On that occasion, I was accompanied for part of the visit by my Private Secretary, two officials from my Department and an official from the National Treasury Management Agency.

Question No. 224 answered with Question No. 222.

  225.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    the reason, in view of the fact that he admitted shortly before the 7 April 2009 budget that the 0.5% increase in the VAT rate in October 2008 had been a failure, he did not take the opportunity in the supplementary budget to reverse this measure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15909/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  As the Deputy is aware, the 0.5% increase in the standard VAT rate from 21% to 21.5% was introduced in the 2009 Budget as part of a general package of revenue-raising measures to fund key public services. The UK Government, as part of a fiscal stimulus package, then reduced their standard VAT rate from 17.5% to 15% on a temporary basis with effect from 1 December 2008 to 31 December 2009.

It would appear that the timing of Ireland’s VAT increase, given the subsequent temporary reduction in the UK rate, may have sent the wrong signal to consumers. However, given the current Exchequer deficit position, the Budget 2009 policy decision of increasing the VAT rate continues to be necessary in order to support the public finances.

[539]We are borrowing to fund day to day public services which is unsustainable as future generations will be required to pay higher taxes unless we correct our public finances. As a small open economy, many of our standard rated goods are imported, and cutting the VAT rate could benefit the economies from which we import more than our own. In other words, while, it might help the consumer, it would not be the most effective way of helping our own economy.

  226.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    the progress with the recapitalisation or other action with a building society (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15910/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The building society to which the Deputy refers is covered under the Government’s guarantee scheme. This has led to increased scrutiny and oversight of the operations of the building society and to increased engagement with its management including with regard to the institution’s capital position.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Government announced on 7 April 2009 its intention to establish a National Asset Management Agency (NAMA). Assets will be transferred from participating institutions to NAMA with the purpose of ensuring that relevant institutions have a clean bill of health, their balance sheets are strengthened and uncertainty over bad debts is reduced.

The Government will consider the position of relevant institutions on an individual basis in the light of the proposed establishment of NAMA, the capital requirements of the institutions concerned and the requirement to protect the position of the taxpayer. In bringing forward the necessary legislation to establish NAMA and the details that will govern its operation, further discussions will be undertaken with the relevant institutions including the institution referred to by the Deputy where its participation in NAMA and its future capital position will be discussed.

  227.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    the progress made with the recapitalisation or other action with a building society (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15911/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The building society to which the Deputy refers is covered under the Government’s guarantee Scheme. This has led to increased scrutiny and oversight of the operations of the building society and to increased engagement with its management including with regard to the institution’s capital position.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Government announced on 7 April 2009 its intention to establish a National Asset Management Agency (NAMA). Assets will be transferred from participating institutions to NAMA with the purpose of ensuring that relevant institutions have a clean bill of health, their balance sheets are strengthened and uncertainty over bad debts is reduced.

The Government will consider the position of relevant institutions on an individual basis in the light of the proposed establishment of NAMA, the capital requirements of the institutions concerned and the requirement to protect the position of the taxpayer. In bringing forward the necessary legislation to establish NAMA and the details that will govern its operation, further discussions will be undertaken with the relevant institutions including the institution referred to by the Deputy where its participation in NAMA and its future capital position will be discussed.

[540]

  228.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    the progress made with the recapitalisation or other action with a bank (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15912/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The bank to which the Deputy refers is covered under the Government’s guarantee Scheme. This has led to increased scrutiny and oversight of the operations of the institution and to increased engagement with its management including with regard to the institution’s capital position.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Government announced on 7 April 2009 its intention to establish a National Asset Management Agency (NAMA). Assets will be transferred from participating institutions to NAMA with the purpose of ensuring that relevant institutions have a clean bill of health, their balance sheets are strengthened and uncertainty over bad debts is reduced. The Deputy will be aware that the institution in question is in a strong capital position and is not subject to the same level of concern in relation to asset quality as other institutions.

However, the Government will consider the position of relevant institutions on an individual basis in the light of the proposed establishment of NAMA, the capital requirements of the institutions concerned and the requirement to protect the position of the taxpayer. In bringing forward the necessary legislation to establish NAMA and the details that will govern its operation, further discussions will be undertaken with the relevant institutions including the institution referred to by the Deputy where its participation in NAMA and its future capital position will be discussed.

  229.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Finance    his views on suggestions from the credit union sector that credit unions contribute to Exchequer funding needs through the placement of surplus funds through the National Treasury Management Agency as investments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15913/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I would like to draw to the Deputy’s attention that it is open to credit unions to invest in government bonds, which are issued by the National Treasury Management Agency. Government bonds are fixed-term, fixed-rate investment instruments which are part of the National Debt.

  230.  Deputy Joe Costello    asked the Minister for Finance    the legal provisions for the transfer of cash to a bank outside this jurisdiction; the restrictions on transfer of this cash back to Ireland; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that finance companies (details supplied) facilitate such transactions; if this may constitute money laundering under the act; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15915/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  Any person who carries on the business of money transmission is subject to the money laundering provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1994 and accordingly is required to identify their customers, keep records, train staff and report suspicious transactions to the Garda Síochána and to the Revenue Commissioners. Money transmitters are also subject to EU Regulation 1781/2006 which requires that money transfers be accompanied by the identity of the sender including name, address and account number. These money laundering requirements would also apply to any transfer of funds back to Ireland provided that the institution making the transfer is located in another EU Member State or in a country which has implemented the relevant recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force on money laundering — the main international anti money laundering organisation.

[541]Whether or not any particular transfer of funds by a money transmission business involves money laundering would be a matter for investigation by the Garda Síochána and ultimately for judgement by the Courts.

Money transmitters are required to be authorised by the Financial Regulator under the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland Act 2004. The authorisation process involves the application of a “fit and proper” test to the persons directing the business. The Financial Regulator conducts ongoing supervision of authorised businesses to ensure that they meet the requirements of the money laundering and terrorist financing provisions of the Criminal Justice Acts.

  231.  Deputy Joe Costello    asked the Minister for Finance    when he proposes to approve the new RTÉ pension scheme, the 50/50 risk sharing scheme; the reason for the delay; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15916/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has primary responsibility for matters relating to RTÉ, including its pension schemes. However I have a role because of my responsibility for public service pension policy and for public service expenditure generally.

Under the terms of the Broadcasting Authority Act 1960 (as amended) RTÉ pension schemes and arrangements are subject to the approval of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources with the concurrence of the Minister for Finance. This is similar to the provisions normally used when establishing a State body.

My understanding is that late last year a new pension arrangement of a hybrid defined benefit/defined contribution scheme was proposed and was agreed to by Management and Unions. The details of this new arrangement, including a draft Scheme, were submitted to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources seeking Ministerial approval and consent, as required under the governing legislation. This correspondence was also copied to my Department by RTÉ.

Examination of a pension scheme is a complex and detailed exercise. In addition the use of hybrid schemes in the public sector is a relatively new development. My officials are in discussion and consultation with officials in the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources regarding the examination of the new RTÉ hybrid scheme and will endeavour to progress matters as soon as possible.

  232.  Deputy Denis Naughten    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will furnish a reply to a commitment given in the Houses of the Oireachtas on 25 February 2009 to provide the figures on the cost of including low paid workers within the pension levy; if he will explain the way he could evaluate the matter as marginal on that date and yet be unable to furnish the figures requested within two months; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15922/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I can inform the Deputy that I have now written to him about this matter. The new public service pension-related deduction was introduced earlier this year. As you know, this was done by the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2009 which was signed into law on 27 February 2009. The recent Supplementary Budget changed the pension-related deduction to ameliorate its effect on lower paid public servants.

[542]During the Committee stage debate on this Bill in the Dáil, you raised the issue of public servants who might now qualify for means tested benefits as a result of paying the deduction. Our debate on that occasion made clear the need to introduce the pension-related deduction in the light of the severe budgetary constraints we are experiencing taking account of the nature and quality of public service pension terms generally.

The means tests for FIS purposes and for medical card qualification take into account the pension-related deduction for public servants. A quantification of public servants who may have means slightly above the current income thresholds is not possible but the number is not estimated to be of such a scale as to call into question the impact on the Exchequer. The recent Supplementary Budget change will also reduce any effect on these means tests qualifications.

  233.  Deputy Ciarán Lynch    asked the Minister for Finance    if it is his intention to make provision to assist fixed rate mortgage holders who are required to pay a substantial penalty when changing to a variable rate mortgage; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15925/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The Deputy’s question refers to the redemption fee applied by mortgage providers in circumstances that a customer seeks to break a fixed rate mortgage. Mortgage lenders in Ireland generally seek to recover costs of funds when a borrower with a fixed rate mortgage agreement seeks to terminate the agreement some time before the term agreed.

Traditionally redemption fees were articulated with the institution specifying that a given number of months interest would apply. Overtime, they have generally moved towards a mechanism which reflects the difference between the contracted rate and current market rates applied to the amount outstanding for the remaining fixed period. Where a redemption fee is payable on a housing loan the mortgage agent has to inform the consumer about it at the outset.

Compensation sought by the lender reflects the cost to the institution of obtaining the funds on the capital market at a certain cost, as against selling them on at a related price. Institutions fund the fixed rate agreement through funding on markets, generally through interest rate swaps. This allows them to hedge their exposure to interest rate fluctuations. Where the borrower seeks to repay the loan before the contractually agreed fixed term in an environment where interest rates have declined, the institution is exposed to re-investment risk, i.e., it will be unable to re-lend the funds at a rate related to their cost, due to intervening market fluctuations.

Ireland is relatively unusual in the EU context in that borrowers have an absolute legal right to repay their loan early as set out in Section 121(1) of the Consumer Credit Act 1995. However Section 121 goes on to recognise that while a consumer will not be liable to pay an early redemption fee with respect to a variable rate loan, this exemption from redemption fees does not apply where the rate of interest is fixed or is fixed for one year.

The Deputy may wish to note that as part of the preparations for the EU White Paper on Mortgage Market Integration, which was published in December 2007, the Mortgage Industry and Consumer Expert Group agreed that lenders should receive a compensation when a consumer repays his or her fixed rate loan earlier than at its contractual termination.

There are significant benefits for both individual householders and for the stability of the housing and financial sector overall from greater take-up of fixed rate mortgage and it would [543]not be advisable to embark on any course of action which could impact adversely on the cost and availability of fixed rate mortgages in the future.

On 26 March 2009, I undertook, in this House, to contact the Consumer Director of the Financial Regulator on the subject of customers who wish to switch from a fixed rate mortgage. On foot of that my Department has contacted the Financial Regulator to request confirmation that the redemption costs for switching from a fixed rate mortgage cover funding costs only and that there are no other costs included in these charges. The Financial Regulator has confirmed to my Department that it is looking into this matter and that it will revert shortly. I will advise the Deputy of the outcome of the Financial Regulator’s consideration of this matter.

  234.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will confirm that if a person who is eight years into their first time buyer mortgage trades up to another home they can avail of tax relief on their mortgage interest for a further seven years on their new mortgage loan. [15953/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The position is that mortgage interest tax relief, through the tax relief at source system, would be granted at the appropriate rate of relief for a period of 7 years where, in the circumstances outlined, a new loan is taken out on a newly purchased home. In the circumstances described, the person would now be classified as a non first time buyer and therefore would qualify for relief at a rate of 15% on the first €3,000 of interest paid per individual or €6,000 in the case of a married couple.

  235.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will clarify his recent statement that he intends abolishing mortgage interest relief; the date from which this will take effect; and if existing recipients of the relief will be affected by this change. [15954/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I assume the Deputy is referring to my budget speech on 7th April where I outlined the Government’s decision in relation to Mortgage Interest Relief for principal private residences. While this relief has not been abolished, with effect from 1st May 2009, its availability will be restricted to the first seven years of any qualifying loan. I also stated that, as house prices fall, the provision of Mortgage Interest Relief will be kept under review with a view to eventual abolition. The Commission on Taxation are reviewing this, along with the rest of the taxation system, and I expect to receive their recommendations later this year.

Should any future decision be taken to abolish Mortgage Interest Relief, those taxpayers that already have qualifying loans will continue to have access to the relief until the 7 year limit is reached.

  236.  Deputy Pat Breen    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if her attention has been drawn to the decision by the Russian Federal Ministry of Education not to accept documents from adoptive parents with a home study or post-place commitment from a list of ten providers; the implications of this decision for parents who have already applied; if she will expedite the outstanding post place reports to assist in this matter; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15085/09]

[544]

  240.  Deputy Jim O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the reason the ten Health Service Executive regions were added to the list of home study providers blacklisted by the Government of the Russian Federation on 3 April 2009; and the steps being taken to ensure that the concerns expressed by the Russian authorities are dealt with from the point of view of inter-country adoptions. [15341/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 236 and 240 together.

Post placement reports in relation to adoption are a requirement of a number of countries that send children to be adopted by Irish applicants. While there is no statutory basis for such reporting, the Health Service Executive has, and continues to, facilitate the preparation of such reports.

The Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has been in touch with the Health Service Executive to clarify the situation in relation to any such list of outstanding reports. The Health Service Executive has confirmed that reports continue to be supplied from all regions and that the Executive is following up in respect of reports which may be completed but not yet transmitted. However, it should be noted that responsibility for the translation and the transmission of the completed reports, in respect of children adopted from the Russian Federation, rests with the applicants.

  237.  Deputy James Reilly    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will report on proposed bonuses for management in the Health Service Executive and in particular a proposed bonus for the chief executive officer of the HSE; if a bonus has been proposed; the amount of same; if it has been approved by him and the board of the HSE; if it will be awarded; when it will be awarded; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15212/09]

  262.  Deputy James Reilly    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will report on proposed bonuses for management in the Health Service Executive; the proposed bonuses to senior management and in particular a proposed bonus for the chief executive officer of the HSE; if a bonus has been proposed; the amount of same; if it has been approved by her, the board of the HSE and the Department of Finance; if it will be awarded; when it will be awarded; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15211/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 237 and 262 together.

It is a matter for the board of the HSE to review annually the matter of performance related award payments to the CEO and a number of senior managers in accordance with the contractual provisions applicable to the individuals involved and the provisions of the approved arrangements which govern these matters. The HSE has advised me that no determination has been reached in relation to such matters and no proposals in relation to such bonuses are currently scheduled for consideration by the Board of the HSE.

  238.  Deputy Pat Breen    asked the Minister for Health and Children    her plans to introduce a 24-hour child protection service; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15213/09]

[545]Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The Government and the HSE remain committed to the development of a comprehensive needs-based service for children at risk. Minister Andrews has personally chaired regular meetings between officials from his Office and senior child welfare and protection managers in the HSE aimed at improving the provision of services to children at risk. A key component of these discussions has been the provision of out of hours care.

In this context, the HSE is now putting in place a standardised national system whereby Gardaí can access an appropriate place of safety for children found to be at risk out of hours under Section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991. This service will conform with Child Care Regulations and with the National Foster Care Standards. The provision of this service aims to ensure that children presenting as ‘at risk’ outside of normal working hours are provided with an appropriate emergency place of safety thereby reducing or eliminating social admissions of children in an acute hospital setting. Foster families are currently being recruited with a view to commencing the service on or before 1 June 2009.

In addition, and instead of developing a stand alone social work out of hours service, it has been agreed to develop alternative proposals based on a more integrated approach which builds on the HSE’s existing out of hours services including GPs, acute hospital services and mental health services. This should provide a more effective and integrated service by using existing resources and strengthening the links between services such as mental health and social work to appropriately address incidents occurring outside usual working hours. The aim is to ensure that persons seeking personal social services outside normal working hours can be provided with appropriate advice, information, support and, in emergency situations, access to specialist staff, such as staff working in the areas of mental health and suicide prevention.

  239.  Deputy Michael D. Higgins    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the position regarding inter-country adoption, in particular such adoptions between Ireland and Vietnam; the status of the agreement between the two countries; the status of persons who had been on the list of adoption before the initial agreement was terminated; the position in this matter; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15309/09]

  268.  Deputy Fergus O’Dowd    asked the Minister for Health and Children    her views on correspondence (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15235/09]

  285.  Deputy Alan Shatter    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the progress made to date in effecting a new bilateral adoption agreement with Vietnam; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15300/09]

  301.  Deputy Alan Shatter    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if a delegation of officials from her Department will travel to Vietnam before the expiration on 1 May 2009 of the bilateral adoption agreement between Ireland and Vietnam to discuss the putting in place of a new bilateral agreement; when such a delegation will travel to Vietnam; if such a delegation will be accompanied by representatives from the Irish Adoption Board; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15511/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 239, 268, 285 and 301 together.

[546]Ireland offered to provide the Vietnamese Authorities with the text of a draft agreement as a basis for negotiations. A draft Bi-lateral Agreement for Inter-country Adoption was delivered on 6 March, 2009, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, to the Vietnamese Authorities for their consideration. On 2 April, 2009, the Vietnamese Government invited a delegation from Ireland to visit Vietnam to discuss the provisions of the draft Bi-Lateral Agreement provided. The Irish delegation will travel to Hanoi on the week commencing on 20 April, 2009 (the earliest opportunity provided to meet with the relevant Vietnamese Ministries) for an intensive round of discussions on this draft Bi-lateral Agreement.

The delegation will be led by the Office of the Minister for Children who will be assisted in discussions by the Adoption Board. Channels for international discussions between Ireland and other jurisdictions are a matter for the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Discussions will be facilitated and guided locally by the Irish Embassy in Hanoi.

I would like to again reiterate my personal commitment, and the commitment of the Government, to conclude an agreement with Vietnam. As the Deputy will be aware, Ireland has a long and positive relationship with Vietnam, but I must also emphasise the need to respect the authority of that jurisdiction, having regard to the sensitive nature of discussions regarding inter-country adoption. The work to prepare for and advise the Government on this issue and the implementation of the Government’s decisions is being given the highest priority. These are complex matters that require careful consideration. At all times, the Minister and the Government, and officials advising them, are guided by the need to respect and protect the best interests and rights of the child.

Question No. 240 answered with Question No. 236.

  241.  Deputy Andrew Doyle    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if there is an inter-departmental working group or committee working on the reinvestment of funds received from the disposal of mental health hospitals. [15447/09]

  300.  Deputy Andrew Doyle    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if consultation with the Department of Finance on the Health Service Executive priority mental health projects to be funded from the sale of psychiatric hospitals has taken place; the percentage of the funds realised through the sale of psychiatric hospitals to be returned to mental health care services; the alternative care programme, its cost and funding for the patients of St. Loman’s Hospital and Newcastle Hospital; and if she will recruit a national director of mental health services. [15449/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 241 and 300 together.

‘A Vision for Change’ the Report on the Expert Group on Mental Health recommended that a plan to bring about the closure of all psychiatric hospitals should be drawn up and implemented, and that the resources released by these closures should be re-invested in the new mental health service infrastructure requirement. The Departments of Finance and Health and Children have agreed in principle to the release of the proceeds of the disposal of properties prior to 2006 for reinvestment in mental health capital development. The arrangements for property disposal require Department of Finance approval in each case, the lodging of the proceeds as Exchequer Extra Receipts and the re-Voting of the funds for approved projects. [547] Disposals to date amount to over €42m and a submission detailing the projects to be funded from these disposals was received from the HSE on 12 February last. At a meeting between officials from my Department and the HSE to discuss the matter, it was agreed that the HSE would forward a revised submission to my Department and this is expected shortly.

In relation to the recruitment of a National Director of Mental Health Services, the Health Service Executive has responsibility for determining the composition of its staffing complement. However, it has been made clear to the HSE on a number of occasions, most recently by the Independent Monitoring Group in its annual report published this week, that the most effective way to bring about the implementation of ‘A Vision for Change’ would be for a senior person to be assigned at national level with specific responsibility for delivering on reform in the mental health services.

  242.  Deputy Charles Flanagan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of refuge places for victims of domestic violence here annually for the past five years; the location of these places; and the funding allocated to each centre annually for the past five years. [15472/09]

  243.  Deputy Charles Flanagan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the progress made on mandating the Health Service Executive to ensure sexual assault treatment centres are established in all regions, with on-call staffing; and the number of sexual assault centres nationwide. [15473/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 242 and 243 together.

As these are service matters they have been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  244.  Deputy Ciarán Lynch    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if the forthcoming Adoption Bill will provide for the continuance of the bilateral agreement with Vietnam and the introduction of bilateral agreements with Russia and Ethiopia; if there will be provision for an inter-country adoption agency; the measures that will be adopted to reduce the delay in the assessment of applications by adoptive parents; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15839/09]

  344.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will support a matter (details supplied). [15851/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 244 and 344 together.

The Adoption Bill, 2009, which will give force of law to the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-country Adoption, was published on 23 January, 2009. A core principle of the Hague Convention is that inter-country adoption should be child-centred — that is, in all stages of the process, the child’s interests must be paramount. Legislating for inter-country adoption is essential to give protection to children during the process of adoption. The Hague Convention has put in place the equivalent of a contract between States to regulate the standards that will apply in each jurisdiction. It is an [548]additional safeguard for a receiving country like Ireland regarding the standards that are being applied in the sending country, over which we have no jurisdiction. As a receiving country, it is especially important to have some confidence in the process of consent to the adoption, the status of the child as adoptable and a guarantee of no improper financial gain from the process.

I firmly believe that legislation and, specifically, the regime of the Hague Convention provide an assurance for individual children, their families, and the State, that appropriate procedures have been followed and that the adoption was affected in the best interests of the child. As such, it is our intention that inter-country adoptions will now meet the standards of the Hague Convention.

Under the proposed new legislative regime, prospective adoptive parents will be able to adopt from countries that have ratified the Hague Convention, and from those countries with which Ireland has a bilateral agreement based on Hague standards. As part of the preparations for the likely passage and entry into force of these new legislative arrangements, my Office has been liaising with the Department of Foreign Affairs to identify and negotiate with countries that continue to seek homes abroad for children in need of alternative care which cannot be provided domestically. We are working actively to assess the possibilities of entering into bi-lateral agreements with a small number of countries, including Ethiopia and the Russian Federation.

As regards the Russian Federation, my Office is undertaking preparatory work to consider the contents of such an agreement, including anticipating the likely requirements of the Russian Federation. While every effort will be made to conclude a bi-lateral agreement with countries from which children have traditionally been adopted by Irish applicants, in advance of any of the proposed changes in Irish law taking effect, it must be acknowledged that these matters will be determined to a considerable degree by the Governments of these sovereign States.

However, at this point in time, it is my priority to endeavour to ensure that an international bi-lateral agreement with Vietnam is put in place as soon as possible, to maintain the continuity of arrangements between Ireland and Vietnam in relation to inter-country adoption. In this regard, I am pleased to inform the House that an Irish delegation is currently in Hanoi — the earliest opportunity provided to meet with the relevant Vietnamese Ministries — for an intensive round of discussions on this draft Bi-lateral Agreement. The delegation is being led by the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, who will be assisted in discussions by the Adoption Board. Ireland has a long and positive relationship with Vietnam, but I must also emphasise the need to respect the authority of that jurisdiction, having regard to the sensitive nature of discussions regarding inter-country adoption.

As the Deputy is aware, requests for assessment for inter-country adoption are continuously increasing. The Study on Inter-country Adoption, undertaken by the Children’s Research Centre in Trinity College, revealed that Ireland has one of the highest rates for inter-country adoption in Europe. It is against this background that the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is continuing to work to create the appropriate legislative, policy and administrative frameworks that will ensure a well regulated regime of adoption.

A family that wishes to adopt should be recognised beforehand as being able to promote, safeguard and support the development and well-being of a child in need of adoption in a lasting manner. However, it is acknowledged that persons applying for inter-country adoption are experiencing delays as regards waiting times for assessment, and that there are also concerns regarding the standardisation of the service across the country.

[549]It should be noted that the increasing numbers of children adopted from abroad create additional pressures on inter-country adoption teams within the HSE. This is because these same teams provide post-adoption reports to the sending countries, at the request of those countries, with the agreement of the adoptive parents. This is an important component in the willingness of countries to consider Irish applicants for adoption. It is also important to note that subsequent to undergoing an assessment with the HSE, and to receiving the Declaration of Eligibility and Suitability from the Adoption Board, applicants must then wait before receiving a referral for a child from the sending country. The waiting times for referral are outside the jurisdiction of both the HSE and the Adoption Board and are dependant on the regulations that each individual country has with regard to inter-country adoption. I would like to assure you that attention is being given to this issue by the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and reiterate the importance of a rigorous and effective assessment system that is provided on a timely, fair and transparent basis.

  245.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the types of income on which the health levy is currently payable; and the types of income that are currently exempt from the health levy. [15936/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The health levy is payable on all income other than that earned by those

earning less than €500 per week/€26,000 per year

who have a medical card or its EU equivalent

under 16 years

over 70 years

in receipt of certain categories of social welfare payments (i.e. survivor’s pension, widows (non-contributory) pension, deserted wife’s benefit and allowance, death benefit pension and one parent family payment)

The basis on which contributions are levied is set out in the Health Contributions Act, 1979 as amended. On foot of the recent Supplementary Budget the Social Welfare Bill 2009 contains provisions to increase the rate of contribution. The current rate of contribution is 2% of gross income up to €1,925 per week or €100,100 per annum and 2.5 % on the balance of income in excess of those amounts in a contribution year. With effect from 1 May, subject to the legislation being enacted, the new rates to be applied are 4% of gross income up to €1,443 per week or €75,036 per annum and 5% on the balance of income in excess of those amounts in a contribution year.

  246.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will support the case of a person (details supplied) in Dublin 5. [15094/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  247.  Deputy Mary Upton    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will address the concerns of the community child care workers (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15114/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The Community Child care Subvention Scheme (CCSS) is implemented under the National Childcare Investment Programme (NCIP) 2006 -2010 for which I have responsibility. With regard to the proposals received by the Deputy in relation to the CCSS, the following is the position. The objective of both the previous support schemes under the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme (EOCP), and the CCSS, has been to provide funding to community child care services to enable them to charge reduced fees to disadvantaged and low income parents. Under the previous scheme, participating services were required to charge tiered fees based on ability to pay, however, many of them did not implement this requirement. Under the CCSS, specific subvention rates have been set with 3 categories of parents benefiting from subvented fee rates and parents who do not qualify for subvention paying the full economic cost of their child care places(s). Neither scheme provides for core funding and to do so would be discriminatory vis-à-vis commercial child care providers who cannot benefit from the scheme.

The CCSS is a targeted scheme available only to services provided in community child care facilities, and the Deputy’s proposal to set Band C eligibility by reference to the average industrial wage would, therefore, be discriminatory to the majority of parents using commercial child care services and who are not benefiting from the scheme. Also eligibility by reference to the average industrial wage would require services to seek details of parents’ earnings whereas the CCSS is based on existing means tested criteria which include receipt of social welfare payment, family income supplement (FIS) or having a GP visit or Medical Card. Eligibility for the medical and GP visit cards takes account of factors relevant to disadvantage and low income, and is considered a reasonable basis on which to set the upper threshold at which parents qualify.

As the CCSS is a publicly funded support scheme for community services targeted at low income and disadvantaged parents, it is necessary that it is based on clear and transparent criteria which measure the actual level of service provision as well as the level of disadvantage of the parents availing of the participating service. A discretionary scheme would not meet these requirements. The CCSS also assists services in ensuring that they operate on the basis of a sustainable business model based on a fee structure which is appropriate to their actual operating costs.

It should be noted that funding provided under the previous EOCP scheme amounted to €37 million in 2007. Funding provided under the CCSS amounted to €52m in 2008, and is expected to increase to €56m in 2009. The September 2008 service returns indicated that there had been a significant increase in the number of children attending services, not just in the disadvantaged cohort, but also among middle and upper-income families. As there is no prospect of additional funding being provided to increase the current subvention rates an increase in the Band C subvention rate would require a reduction in either the Band A rate, the Band B rate or a combination of both.

To co-ordinate the provision of quality child care training a new Workforce Development Plan is being developed by the Early Education Unit in my Office. This will have a positive impact on the career paths of child care workers and should help retain personnel in the child care sector. The recent Budget announcement of the introduction of a free pre-school year in early childhood care and education (ECCE) from January next will also help to sustain thou[551]sands of jobs in the child care sector. The scheme will provide a capitation grant of over €2,400 to participating services.

  248.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the position in the case of a child care group (details supplied) in County Tipperary which has applied for funding. [15120/09]

  249.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when funding will be made available to a community playgroup (details supplied) in County Tipperary; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15129/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 248 and 249 together.

Both of the queries raised by the Deputy relate to grant funding under the National Childcare Investment Programme (NCIP) 2006 -2010, which is implemented by my Office with the assistance of Pobal.

As the Deputy may be aware, the finalisation of the latest portfolio of capital grant applications, under the NCIP, was delayed pending the introduction of the recent Supplementary Budget. Following decisions in the budget the capital allocation now available for 2009/2010 will meet existing capital grant commitments but will not be sufficient to allow for the approval of any additional grant applications. It is therefore not possible to approve the capital grant application for the group referred to by the Deputy at this time. My Office will be writing to the group shortly to advise them of this outcome.

In relation to the Deputy’s query in regard to funding under the Community Childcare Subvention Scheme (CCSS), also under the NCIP, I understand that the group in question has been advised that it’s funding allocation for 2009 is €20,000 and that Pobal is in the process of making the quarterly payment.

  250.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will support a matter (details supplied). [15133/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  251.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if there are plans to move rheumatology services from Our Lady’s Hospital, Manorhamilton, County Leitrim to Sligo General Hospital (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15134/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The HSE indicates that replies issued to the Deputy in relation to this issue on 7 and 17 April 2009 and that the position has not changed in the interim.

  252.  Deputy Joe Carey    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will report on the [552]bed capacity in relation to each category of patient over the past five years for hospitals (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15136/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  253.  Deputy Joe Carey    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of applicants awaiting placement for long stay in hospitals (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15137/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  254.  Deputy Joe Costello    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the way she will ensure that the ban on happy pills is implemented and enforced; if she has written to the head shops which sell these pills informing them of the new statutory instrument; if she has contacted the Garda regarding seizing the existing supply of pills which are illegal; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15138/09]

  297.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 (Controlled Drugs) (Declaration) Order 2009 is effective immediately; the steps that have been taken to notify retailers of the change in the law and to secure compliance; the arrangements in place with An Garda Síochána to ensure same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15411/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 254 and 297 together.

On 31 March 2009, Benzylpiperazine (BZP), one of the so-called ‘party’ or ‘happy pills’ available for sale in ‘head shops’ was declared a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 (Controlled Drugs) (Declaration) Order 2009. This means that the possession and sale of BZP are now illegal. A press release issued from my Department on 31 March and there was considerable media coverage of the ban on BZP.

Head shops possessing supplies of BZP must dispose of those stocks or risk prosecution under the Misuse of Drugs Acts. Enforcement of this measure is a matter for the Gardaí who have powers under the Misuse of Drugs Acts to search premises and to seize supplies of BZP which have not been disposed of.

The Gardaí were kept informed both of the impending control of BZP prior to 31 March and also of the Government’s decision taken on that day.

  255.  Deputy Phil Hogan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will continue home support for children suffering from autism; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15174/09]

[553]Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  256.  Deputy Paul Gogarty    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will provide a copy of the orthodontic guidelines for children under 16 seeking non-routine dental treatment. [15194/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The Guidelines referred to by the Deputy were developed by The Orthodontic Review Group established by the Health Service Executive in 2006.

As the implementation of the new guidelines is the responsibility of the Executive, my Department has requested the Parliamentary Affairs Division of the Executive to arrange to have this matter investigated and to have a reply issued directly to the Deputy.

  257.  Deputy James Reilly    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the moneys and resources in the letters of allocation to the Health Service Executive, the Eastern Regional Health Authority and former health boards in relation to Traveller health development from 1998 to 2008; the cost centres the moneys were allocated to in the HSE, ERHA and former health boards; the name of the cost centres; if the moneys were used year on year; the amount currently allocated to Traveller health; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15198/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  Allocations to the former health boards and the Eastern Regional Health Authority in relation to Traveller health for the years 1998 to 2005 are presented in the following table. These development funds are in addition to the ongoing current expenditure on Traveller health.

Health Board/Authority Year
1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 Total
€m
Eastern/ ERHA 0.344
(IR£0.271m)
0.309
(IR£0.243m)
0.343
(IR£0.270m)
0.249 0.221 0.298 1.764
Midland 0.116
(IR£0.091m)
0.126
(IR£0.099m)
0.140
(IR£0.110m)
0.101 0.077 0.104 0.664
Mid Western 0.067
(IR£0.053m)
0.126
(IR£0.099m)
0.137
(IR£0.108m)
0.152
(IR£0.120m)
0.111 0.083 0.112 0.788
North Eastern 0.051
(IR£0.040m)
0.103
(IR£0.081m)
0.103
(IR£0.081m)
0.114
(IR£0.090m)
0.286 0.070 0.094 0.821
North Western 0.051
(IR£0.040m)
0.060
(IR£0.047m)
0.046
(IR£0.036m)
0.051
(IR£0.040m)
0.037 0.054 0.073 0.372
South Eastern 0.067
(IR£0.053m)
0.103
(IR£0.081m)
0.103
(IR£0.081m)
0.114
(IR£0.090m)
0.083 0.094 0.127 0.691
Southern 0.067
(IR£0.053m)
0.136
(IR£0.107m)
0.149
(IR£0.117m)
0.165
(IR£0.130m)
0.120 0.095 0.129 0.861
Western 0.067
(IR£0.053m)
0.156
(IR£0.123m)
0.171
(IR£0.135m)
0.190
(IR£0.150m)
0.138 0.121 0.163 1.006
Total 0.371
(IR£0.292m)
1.143
(IR£0.900m)
1.143
(IR£0.900m)
1.270
(IR£1.000m)
1.125 0.815 1.100 6.967

[555]Allocations of €2 m and €1m were made to the HSE for the years 2006 and 2007 respectively and no additional development funding was allocated in 2008.

As the remainder of the information sought in the Deputy’s question relates to a service matter it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  258.  Deputy Michael Creed    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if the recently advertised postgraduate degree in public health nursing (details supplied) is available to non-Health Service Executive staff; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15203/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Health Service Executive has responsibility for the sponsorship arrangements for Student Public Health Nurses this matter has been referred to the Executive for direct reply.

  259.  Deputy Olwyn Enright    asked the Minister for Health and Children    her views on bringing forward a cross-departmental action plan regarding the implementation of A Vision for Change; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15205/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  In January 2008, the Government established the Office for Disability and Mental Health as a cross-cutting Government Office with a remit across four Government Departments: Health and Children, Education and Science, Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The Office was assigned four key priorities one of which is to bring a new impetus to the implementation of ‘A Vision for Change’ working in partnership with the HSE and other stakeholders including other Government Departments to achieve implementation of agreed targets. The Office aims to bring about improvements in the manner in which services respond to the needs of people with disabilities and mental health difficulties, by working to develop person-centred services, focusing on the holistic needs of clients and service users and actively involving them in their own care.

Bilateral meetings with officials from other Government Departments to discuss progressing recommendations in ‘A Vision for Change’and‘Reach Out’ are taking place within this context.

  260.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the level of service provided to a child (details supplied) in County Louth; the reason this service falls short of that available to other children with similar disabilities; and if she will ensure that sufficient funding is made available in order to ensure that this child receives appropriate support. [15208/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  261.  Deputy James Reilly    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the amount of legal fees and costs and damages incurred in respect of 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and to date in 2009 [556]by her Department on human resources issues specifically bullying; the amount of the largest claim incurred or settled in that period; the amount incurred on legal fees and costs and damages by the Health Service Executive on human resources issues specifically bullying for these years; the amount of the largest claim incurred or settled in that period; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15210/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The Chief State Solicitor’s Office provides my Department with legal advice. The costs arising from the provision of such advice are met directly by that Office. In the years referred to by the Deputy, my Department did not pay any damages in respect of bullying.

As the information requested by the Deputy in respect of the Health Service Executive is not available in my Department, my Department has accordingly referred that part of the question to the Executive for attention and direct reply.

Question No. 262 answered with Question No. 237.

  263.  Deputy Ulick Burke    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the additional space per hospital ward and theatre that has been put in place at University College Hospital Galway since it has been designated as a centre of excellence; if she or the Health Service Executive west has made provision for the recruitment of additional medical and nursing staff to cater for the extra work load in providing specialist cover; the additional funding that has been provided for the delivery of extra services at UCHG as it is now a designated centre of excellence; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15222/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The matters raised by the Deputy relate to the provision of healthcare services and accordingly, I have asked the HSE to respond directly to the Deputy on the matters.

  264.  Deputy Michael D. Higgins    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of calls for private ambulances processed on behalf of privately insured patients in Health Service Executive facilities through ambulance control rooms in the mid-western, western and north western regions of the national ambulance service, and to which private ambulance companies these were allocated; the number of calls to each company for the period January 2007 to 1 April 2009; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15224/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  265.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when a person (details supplied) in County Mayo will be awarded payment under the health repayment scheme. [15230/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  266.  Deputy Damien English    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when a bed will be made available for a person (details supplied) in County Meath at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15231/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  267.  Deputy Deirdre Clune    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if her attention has been drawn to the fact that the waiting time for child and adolescent mental health services in the south Lee area, Cork, is three years; the steps she will take to address this issue; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15232/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

Question No. 268 answered with Question No. 239.

  269.  Deputy Catherine Byrne    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the cost of chiropody services for elderly patients; if they are obliged to pay a top-up fee to their chiropodist; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15237/09]

  270.  Deputy Catherine Byrne    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the cost of chiropody services for patients with mental disabilities; if they are obliged to pay a top-up fee to their chiropodist; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15238/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 269 and 270 together.

As the Deputy’s questions relate to a service matter they have been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  271.  Deputy Catherine Byrne    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of vehicles owned by the Health Service Executive for transporting patients with disabilities; the cost of this service to the HSE, including the cost of paying drivers; the number of HSE staff members or care assistants that must be on board each vehicle to accompany each patient; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15239/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  272.  Deputy Catherine Byrne    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she operates a scheme to provide house accessories and fittings for the elderly or infirm; the amount of money [558]allocated for this scheme each year; the number of people who have received this allowance in 2008 and 2009; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15241/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  273.  Deputy Catherine Byrne    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the amount of money spent on taxis for transporting patients in 2008 and to date in 2009; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15242/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  274.  Deputy Catherine Byrne    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of children undergoing orthodontic treatment which is paid for by the State; the number of children on a waiting list for orthodontic treatment in Dublin, and countrywide; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15243/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  275.  Deputy Tom Sheahan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when the unit for cystic fibrosis sufferers will commence construction at Cork University Hospital; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15255/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  276.  Deputy Tom Sheahan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the reason Cork University Hospital has not employed an operator for the PET scanner at the hospital, in view of the fact that people are having to travel to Dublin to have this scan carried out; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15256/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  277.  Deputy Tom Sheahan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the progress regarding the new hospital in Dingle, County Kerry; if the hospital and all its day services will be fully operational in 2009; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15257/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  278.  Deputy Jan O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the residential homes for older people under the Health Service Executive considered to be not up to the standards set in the Health Information and Quality Authority standards recently published; if she has information on the work which needs to be carried out to bring them up to standard; if there are plans to provide replacement beds rather than refurbish buildings in some cases; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15263/09

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  In preparation for the introduction of the new national standards for residential care settings for Older People, the Health Service Executive has put in place a programme of preparation to ensure that its public facilities will be in a position to comply with the requirements of the standards. This preparation has focused on two particular areas to ensure that: policies, procedures and overall service are sufficient to meet the new standards; and the overall infrastructure is adequately developed on a phased basis.

The Executive established a Residential Standards National Reference Group which included Managers/Directors of Nursing of HSE residential facilities. Under the auspices of this group, each residential care setting is currently undertaking work to benchmark their facility against the standards in order to identify and address the deficits that can be addressed on a cost neutral basis. There are also formal implementation groups established across the four areas with the national group acting as a reference group to guide the work of the implementation groups at local level. The overall effort is to ensure preparation within the public facilities to comply with each of the 32 standards.

In some cases, additional investment will be required. In 2006, at the request of my Department, the Executive carried out an assessment of need for residential care for older people in preparation for both the impending standards and the National Development Plan 2009-2013. As part of this work, an assessment was undertaken to establish the extent to which existing public residential accommodation required replacement or refurbishment in the context of emerging standards, but also in the context of wider environmental and structural requirements including health & safety, fire and other criteria.

In terms of reconfiguration and development the focus of the HSE’s programme is to target the highest priority locations in the first instance and progressing over time, within the resources available, to bring all our facilities up to the required standards. The Deputy will be aware that Standard 25 addresses the physical environment for all types of residential centres. A distinction is made between new and existing facilities. This provides a six year period for existing nursing homes, whether public, private or voluntary to meet certain infrastructural deficits, for example with regard to room sizes, the number of residents per room and usable floor space. The Chief Inspector has discretion to extend this timeframe where the provider and the Chief Inspector agree a written, explicit, costed plan with timescales to address these deficits.

The 2009 National Service Plan sets out its plan for the management and configuration of public long-term residential care services in the current year. The Service Plan identifies a requirement to reduce the number of long-term residential care beds in some parts of the country, particularly where there is a surplus and/or the standard of facilities is considered inadequate, and where it is necessary to address infrastructural deficits in order to meet health & safety and fire requirements, and the new standards. It also provides for a number of additional and replacement long-term residential care beds over the course of 2009. The latest [560]information from the HSE indicates that 737 additional beds and 506 replacement beds will become operational during 2009. This includes beds being provided under the Capital Plan and beds being provided under the Fast-Track Initiative.

  279.  Deputy Niall Collins    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the Health Service Executive’s plans for Bolands Meadow, Foynes, County Limerick; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15272/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  280.  Deputy Niall Collins    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will provide a schedule to the full range of allowances and entitlements a holder of a medical card can avail of; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15282/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  Full eligibility for health services is granted to persons who, in the opinion of the Health Service Executive are unable to provide general practitioner, medical and surgical services for themselves and their dependants without undue hardship. Under the Health Act 2008, persons aged 70 years and over are statutorily entitled to a medical card should their gross income not exceed €700 per week for a single person or €1,400 per week for a couple. Determination of an individual’s eligibility status is the responsibility of the Health Service Executive.

Persons with full eligibility are entitled to general practitioner services, prescribed drugs, medicines and appliances, all in-patient public hospital services in public wards including consultant services, all out-patient public hospital services including consultant services, dental, ophthalmic and aural services and appliances, child health services, home nursing and a maternity and infant care service.

Other services such as allied health professional services may be available to medical card holders but are not based on a statutory entitlement. Medical card holders may also be entitled to free transport to school for children who live 3 miles or more from the nearest school, exemption from state examination fees in public second-level schools and financial help with buying school books. They are also exempt from paying the health levy and the income levy.

  281.  Deputy Deirdre Clune    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the breakdown of the capital cost of transferring the specialist breast centre from Cork’s South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital to Cork University Hospital; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15284/09]

  282.  Deputy Deirdre Clune    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the anticipated annual running cost of Cork University Hospital’s new breast clinic; if the necessary funding has been put in place to ensure that the increased staffing and other running costs can be met; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15285/09]

[561]Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 281 and 282 together.

As these are service matters they have been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  283.  Deputy Michael McGrath    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she has plans to introduce legislation in respect of embryonic stem cell research in this country. [15291/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  At present there is no legislation in Ireland governing the intervention in the natural process of creating human life; instead, medical practice is governed by guidelines issued by the Medical Council. My Department is developing an appropriate regulatory framework for the area of Assisted Human Reproduction, which will also encompass the area of human embryonic stem cell research. This work involves, inter alia, examining the approaches to regulation in other jurisdictions and considering the ethical and legal issues that arise. It will also take into account the report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children on this area — when completed — and any judgment of the Supreme Court in the RvR (frozen embryos) case.

  284.  Deputy Mary Upton    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when a person (details supplied) in Dublin 12 will be provided with the necessary orthodontic treatment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15294/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

Question No. 285 answered with Question No. 239.

  286.  Deputy Niall Blaney    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when the report on the national review of the Health Service Executive funded adult day services 2007 to 2008 will be published; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15311/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  287.  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she is satisfied that enough is being done to implement the cardiovascular health strategy; the number of its 211 recommendations that have been implemented to date; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15313/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The Government has committed over €60 million since 2000 towards the implementation of the Cardiovascular Health Strategy, ‘Building Healthier Hearts’. This funding has supported a wide range of new services and initiatives which have had a positive impact on the diagnosis and treatment of patients with heart disease. An audit of progress on the implementation of the Strategy showed a continuing decline in cardiovascular disease.

[562]However, given the many changes that have occurred since the strategy was launched in 1999, an updated policy on cardiovascular health, including stroke, was considered necessary to ensure that cardiovascular health continues to be a high priority for the health service. In September 2007, I established a Cardiovascular Health Policy Group to draw up a new policy framework for the development of all aspects of cardiovascular health, including stroke. It is expected that the report of the Group will be published by the end of June 2009.

  288.  Deputy Seán Connick    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she is committed to the work of local voluntary cardiac groups; the person in her Department who is responsible for co-ordinating these groups; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15321/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The organisation, co-ordination and funding of voluntary cardiac groups is a matter for the Health Service Executive (HSE) and accordingly I have referred the Deputy’s question to the HSE for direct reply.

The Health Promotion Policy Unit of my Department is responsible for policy matters in relation to cardiovascular health, and in particular, the development of a new Cardiovasculaar Health Strategy.

  289.  Deputy Seán Connick    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when funding will be released to a hospital (details supplied) in County Wexford to allow completion of phase 2 of building works; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15322/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  290.  Deputy Dan Neville    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the details of all applications for property-related accelerated capital allowance schemes in relation to mental health centres. [15335/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  While it is the responsibility of the Health Service Executive to certify that the qualifying conditions specified for eligibility for capital allowances for mental health centres have been met, it is a matter for the Revenue Commissioners to determine entitlement to any such capital allowances. In the circumstances the Deputy may wish to address his query to the Revenue Commissioners.

  291.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will support a person (details supplied) in Dublin 5. [15349/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  292.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the position regarding a matter (details supplied). [15350/09]

[563]Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The Bill referred to by the Deputy has completed Committee Stage in the Dáil. It is the Minister’s intention to progress the legislation through the Houses of the Oireachtas with a view to implementing the scheme in the second half of 2009. Unfortunately it is not possible to give a more specific timeframe at present.

Question No. 293 withdrawn.

  294.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the reason a person (details supplied) is to be moved from a centre on a full-time basis. [15399/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  295.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the position regarding application forms for medical cards (details supplied). [15406/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The Health Service Executive (HSE) has the operational responsibility for the General Medical Services (GMS) Scheme which includes the medical card and GP visit card benefits. The policy of the HSE is to have application forms for medical cards and GP visit cards widely available. Application forms should be available at: Health Centres; Local Health Offices; Community Information Centres; GP Surgeries; Department of Social and Family Affairs Local Offices; Money Advice and Budgeting Services (MABS) Offices; Other designated areas as appropriate.

If the Deputy would like to provide more details on the cases concerned, the Executive will investigate the matter further.

  296.  Deputy Paul Connaughton    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if it is proposed to increase the funding to an organisation (details supplied) in 2009; if her attention has been drawn to the fact that as a result of budgetary cutbacks many services have had to be cut; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15409/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

Question No. 297 answered with Question No. 254.

  298.  Deputy Dan Neville    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of patients treated or admitted from St. Michael’s Unit, South Tipperary General Hospital, Clonmel and St. Luke’s Hospital, Clonmel, County Tipperary to accident and emergency units or admitted to general hospitals; the reason for such treatment and admissions; and the details regarding the care and welfare of such patients for the past ten years. [15436/09]

[564]Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  299.  Deputy Andrew Doyle    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she has conducted a regulatory impact analysis on the effects of the costs incurred on foot of implementing the regulations governing the display of cigarettes in convenience stores and local newsagents; and her views on alternative regulations that would be less costly to implement for the small retailers. [15448/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The measures in question were provided for in legislation enacted by the Oireachtas in 2002 and confirmed again by Government and the Oireachtas in 2004 prior to the Government’s decision of 21 June 2005 that Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) should be carried out on all proposals for primary legislation.

I do not believe that these measures, which will come into effect on 1 July next, will impose onerous obligations on tobacco retailers.

Question No. 300 answered with Question No. 241.

Question No. 301 answered with Question No. 239.

  302.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of claims, fully processed but not awarded under the health repayment scheme on a county basis in tabular form; and when these claims will be awarded. [15521/09]

  306.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of claims pursuant to a scheme (details supplied) that are outstanding; and the reason they are not being finalised and awarded. [15526/09]

  326.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if all applications made under a scheme (details supplied) have been finalised; and is she will provide this Deputy with a full and complete breakdown of the cost of this scheme to date. [15736/09]

  327.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if a scheme pursuant to an Act (details supplied) is near completion; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15737/09]

  328.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the initial timeframe for a scheme (details supplied); and the estimated timeframe for completion of this scheme. [15738/09]

  329.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the reason there are cases outstanding under a scheme (details supplied) in view of the length of time the cases are being dealt with. [15739/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 302, 306 and 326 to 329, inclusive, together.

[565]The Health Service Executive (HSE) has responsibility for administering the health repayment scheme in conjunction with the appointed Scheme Administrator KPMG/McCann Fitzgerald.

The scheme was launched in August 2006 and it was envisaged that the timeframe for the scheme would be 2/3 years. Since the commencement of the scheme approximately 35,000 applications have been received by the Scheme Administrator. To date 33,600 applicants have now either received an offer of repayment or have had their application rejected. As a result, there are in the region of 1,400 claims to be processed and it is anticipated the vast majority of these claims will be processed over the coming weeks. It should be noted that repayments offered cannot be paid until the statutory 28 day period for appeal has elapsed and a completed acceptance form has been returned to the Scheme Administrator. In addition, claimants who receive offers must be given the opportunity if they so wish, to appeal the Scheme Administrator’s decision.

The Scheme is progressing as speedily as possible and every effort is being made to settle the remaining claims as quickly as possible. However, there are a number of different factors which have affected the length of time it takes to process a claim. A very high number of deficiencies have appeared on claim forms which must each be rectified before they can be processed. Over 13,500 estates who have lodged claims to date did not have a grant of representation, as required by law, and the Scheme Administrator has had to establish probate before the claim can be progressed. All relevant facilities around the country have had to be visited to review and retrieve their records of payment. The format in which this information was stored varied widely between institutions and usually included a mixture of paper files, handwritten files and computer files.

In regard to the cost of the scheme, a total of €393.7m has been expended to date on the Health Repayment Scheme and a breakdown of the costs is as follows:

€m
Repayments to 31st March 2009 371.7
Overheads 2006 3.0
Overheads 2007 5.0
Overheads 2008 14.0
Total Expenditure 393.7

The number of claims fully processed but not yet awarded are as follows:

County No. of Claims fully processed but not yet awarded
Armagh 1
Carlow 9
Cavan 4
Clare 19
Cork 79
Donegal 23
Dublin 118
Fermanagh 1
Galway 12
Kerry 16
Kildare 19
Kilkenny 7
Laois 6
Leitrim 8
Limerick 15
Longford 3
Louth 8
Mayo 18
Meath 9
Monaghan 4
Offaly 2
Roscommon 3
Sligo 18
Tipperary 10
Tyrone 2
Waterford 10
Westmeath 6
Wexford 7
Wicklow 13
Total 450

  303.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the average national waiting time for assessment by a child psychiatrist; the waiting time for patients in south Tipperary; the maximum time for assessment in south Tipperary at present; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15523/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter the question has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  304.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the average national waiting time for assessment of a child by a speech and language therapist; the waiting time for children in south Tipperary; the maximum time for assessment of children in south Tipperary at present; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15524/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health service Executive for direct reply.

  305.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the average national waiting time for assessment by an audiologist; the waiting time for patients in south Tipperary; the maximum time for assessment in south Tipperary at present; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15525/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

[567]Question No. 306 answered with Question No. 302.

  307.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the average national waiting time for an endoscopy; the waiting time for patients in south Tipperary; the maximum time on waiting lists in south Tipperary at present; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15527/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  308.  Deputy Billy Timmins    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the position regarding the case of persons (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15602/09]

  337.  Deputy Ruairí Quinn    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the reason she has instructed An Bord Altranais that no staff contracts are to be renewed as part of the moratorium on staff numbers in the public sector despite the fact that An Bord Altranais is entirely self-funded and receives no money from her Department; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15795/09]

  347.  Deputy Michael Kennedy    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the relationship between her Department and An Bord Altranais, particularly in respect of employment contracts, their conditions and their non-renewal; the role, financially, her Department and the Health Service Executive has in funding same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15892/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 308, 337 and 347 together.

An Bord Altranais (The Nursing Board), which was established under the Nurses Act, 1985, is the statutory regulatory body for nurses and midwives. The Board consists of 29 members, 17 of whom are elected by nurses and 12 appointed by the Minister, 2 of whom are representatives of the Department of Health and Children.

Under the Act the Minister has a range of functions in relation to the Board one of which, Section 17 (1), relates to the officers and servants of the Board “In addition to the Chief Executive Officer, there shall be appointed such and so many persons to be officers and servants of the Board, as the Board, with the consent of the Minister, from time to time determines.”

The Act also provides that the Local Government (Superannuation) Act, 1956 applies to the Board and its officers and servants as if it were a local authority.

In addition to its statutory functions, the Board also administers the Nursing Careers Centre on behalf of the Health Services. For this purpose ongoing funding is provided by the HSE and the amount of this funding in 2007 was €600,000.

While the bulk of the Board’s income is generated by fees paid by nurses and midwives, it is a statutory body whose staff have access to a public service pension scheme. It is thus covered by the recent Government decision that, with effect from the 27 March 2009 to end 2010, no post in the public sector, however arising, may be filled by recruitment, promotion, or payment of an allowance for the performance of duties at a higher grade. The decision also applies to [568]temporary appointments on a fixed-term basis and to the renewal of such contracts. Therefore, when vacancies arise each agency must reallocate or reorganise work or staff accordingly.

In the case of the health sector, any exceptions to this principle, which will arise in very limited circumstances only, require the prior sanction of the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for Finance.

  309.  Deputy Jan O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when she expects the specialist consultants with expertise in adult and in paediatric cystic fibrosis to be appointed for the Mid-Western Regional Hospital, Limerick; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15641/09]

  319.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if the physiotherapist required by paediatric cystic fibrosis patients in Limerick Regional Hospital, who has been replaced since 2007, has been recruited. [15702/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 309 and 319 together.

In order to implement savings measures on public service numbers, the Government has decided that, with effect from 27 March 2009 to end 2010, no post in the public sector, however arising, may be filled by recruitment, promotion, or the payment of an allowance for the performance of duties at a higher grade. The decision also applies to temporary appointments on a fixed-term basis and to the renewal of such contracts.

Arrangements have been put in place for the health sector that aim to ensure that key services are maintained insofar as possible and there will be flexibility in relation to the filling of key frontline posts for the following grades; Hospital Consultants, Speech and Language Therapist, Occupational Therapist, Physiotherapist, Clinical Psychologist, Behavioural Therapist, Counsellor, Social workers and Emergency Medical Technicians to allow for the continued development of integrated health care, particularly primary and community care, care of the elderly and people with disabilities.

The way in which the Government decision will be applied is a matter for the Health Service Executive. My Department has asked the HSE to reply to the Deputies in relation to the specific issues raised.

  310.  Deputy Jan O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will clarify the areas of dental care that are available to people with a medical card; if it includes fillings that are considered necessary by the dentist; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15642/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  311.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when a medical card will issue in the case of a person (details supplied) in County Kildare; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15662/09]

[569]Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply to the Deputy.

  312.  Deputy Paul Kehoe    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of uncertified sick days taken within all sections of her Department for the years 2007 and 2008 and to date in 2009; the number of employees who have taken uncertified sick days in the categories one to ten days and over ten days; the number of uncertified sick days taken Fridays and Mondays; the number of persistent offenders with regard to uncertified sick days who have been sent for an independent doctor’s opinion; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15674/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The number of uncertified sick days taken by officers in my Department in 2007, 2008 and the first quarter of 2009 are 679.45, 522.42 and 139.23 respectively. These figures relate to general service grades (Assistant Secretary to Clerical Officer).

Under Circular 25/1978 an officer “. . .may be granted leave for one or two days without medical certificate, within a limit of seven days in the aggregate in any period of twelve months. . . .” Data is therefore not currently collated by my Department in respect of uncertified sick leave above seven days. If an officer exceeds the limit of seven days in any period of twelve months the excess is deducted from either his/her annual leave allowance (above statutory minimum), in the current year or in the following year, or a deduction is made from his/her salary. The following table shows the number of people who took between one and seven days uncertified sick leave in the calendar twelve months of 2007 and 2008.

Total number of uncertified sick days Number of people in 2007 (headcount) Number of people in 2008 (headcount)
0.5 – 1 97 84
1.5 – 2 98 89
2.5 – 3 41 30
3.5 – 4 33 26
4.5 – 5 21 11
5.5 – 6 7 2
6.5 – 7 2 3

Data is also not collated by my Department in respect of the days of the week on which officers take uncertified sick leave. However, the Office of the Comptroller & Auditor General undertook sick leave data analysis across several Government departments in 2008 and I understand that “day of the week” was one of the criteria examined. The findings and recommendations of the C & AG are awaited at this time.

Officers who are absent on certified sick leave for more than 4-6 weeks, depending on the condition, are routinely referred to the office of the Chief Medical Officer of the Civil Service (CMO) for review and advice. These referrals are solely based on a duty of care principle and should, in no way, be seen as a sanction or disciplinary action against an officer. In fact, the intervention and guidance of the CMO can often aid an officer’s return to work after illness. The Human Resources Unit of my Department does not refer officers to the CMO in relation to uncertified sick leave. Rather, as provided for in Paragraph 12 of Circular 25/1978, a formal notification and reminder of the rules governing uncertified sick leave is sent to any staff member who reaches a total of 5 or more days uncertified sick leave in any “rolling” twelve [570]month period. A copy of this letter is also forwarded to the officer’s section head, for appropriate follow-up and management.

  313.  Deputy Thomas Byrne    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the position regarding a medical card application by a person (details supplied) in County Meath. [15680/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply to the Deputy.

  314.  Deputy Thomas Byrne    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the status of a medical card for a person (details supplied) in County Meath. [15681/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply to the Deputy.

  315.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will provide a helipad at Beaumont Hospital, Dublin; if there is one, if she will advise about its usage; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15689/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  316.  Deputy Seán Sherlock    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the amount of money spent by the Health Service Executive on private security firms across the State for the years 2006 to 2008, inclusive, and to date in 2009, inclusive; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15695/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  317.  Deputy Seán Sherlock    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will expedite an application for shoes under the podiatry scheme by a person (details supplied) in County Cork; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15696/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  318.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the average national waiting time for assessment by an adult psychiatrist; the waiting time for patients in south Tipperary; the maximum time for assessment in south Tipperary at present; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15701/09]

[571]Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter the question has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

Question No. 319 answered with Question No. 309.

  320.  Deputy Michael McGrath    asked the Minister for Health and Children    her views on issuing a medical card in respect of a child (details supplied) in County Cork. [15710/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply to the Deputy.

  321.  Deputy Michael Creed    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when a decision will be made on an application for a medical card by a person (details supplied) in County Cork. [15717/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply to the Deputy.

  322.  Deputy Michael Creed    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when a decision will be made on a medical card application by a person (details supplied) in County Cork. [15718/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply to the Deputy.

  323.  Deputy Michael Creed    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when a person (details supplied) in County Cork will be called for an outpatient appointment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15720/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The management of out-patient waiting lists is a matter for the HSE and the individual hospitals concerned. I have, therefore, referred the Deputy’s question to the Executive for direct reply.

  324.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will support a matter (details supplied). [15726/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The matter raised by the Deputy relates to the provision of health care services and accordingly, I have asked the HSE to respond directly to the Deputy on the matter.

  325.  Deputy David Stanton    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the way she will ensure that front-line services provided by nurses are protected in view of the moratorium on recruitment and promotion imposed on the HSE; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15733/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  In order to implement savings measures on public service numbers, the Government has decided that, with effect from 27 [572]March 2009 to end 2010, no post in the public sector, however arising, may be filled by recruitment, promotion, or payment of an allowance for the performance of duties at a higher grade. The decision also applies to temporary appointments on a fixed-term basis and to the renewal of such contracts. Therefore when vacancies arise, each agency must reallocate or reorganise work or staff accordingly. In the case of the health sector, any exceptions to this principle, which will arise in very limited circumstances only, require the prior sanction of both the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for Finance.

In order to ensure that essential front-line services provided by nurses and other health care professionals are maintained, the new employment control framework for the health sector provides for the redeployment of staff (and associated salary costs) within and across the hospital and primary, community and continuing care pillars, and from one institution to another to support the development of integrated care delivery.

The way in which the Government decision will be applied in the health sector is a matter for the Health Service Executive, and I have accordingly referred that part of the Deputy’s question to the Executive for attention and direct reply.

Questions Nos. 326 to 329, inclusive, answered with Question No. 302.

  330.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will clarify a matter (details supplied). [15744/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The next stage in the development of St. Vincent’s Hospital will involve the building of a new ward block to replace existing accommodation. The new facility will include appropriate isolation facilities and accommodation for cystic fibrosis patients as required. This project has always been a priority for this Government. I am very pleased that we have found a way to allow the project to proceed to tender, so that it can be operational as early as possible in 2011.

Clinical and infrastructural needs at St. Vincent’s will determine the configuration of beds across various specialties. There has been no upper limit placed by the hospital or the HSE on the allocation of beds to a particular specialty.

  331.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if persons (details supplied) will be supported. [15745/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  332.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health and Children    her views, in response to the funding difficulties that community child care groups are facing due to the changes introduced in the child care subvention scheme, on making additional supports available such as heating, electricity and rental assistance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15749/09]

[573]Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy will be aware, I have responsibility for the National Childcare Investment Programme (NCIP) 2006-2010, under which the Community Childcare Subvention Scheme (CCSS) is being implemented.

Services participating in the CCSS receive annual funding on the basis of the number of qualifying parents recorded as using the service in a particular reference week, generally set in late September of each year. Services may apply mid-year to have their funding reviewed, where they believe they would benefit from additional funding as a result of having additional numbers of qualifying parents. In 2009, services have been advised that they should request a review by 26 March and that the reference week will be that ending on 10 April. Where a review results in an increased level of funding, this will be calculated with effect from 1 April.

The objective of both the previous support schemes under the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme (EOCP), and the CCSS, has been to provide funding to community childcare services to enable them to charge reduced fees to disadvantaged and low income parents. Under the previous scheme, participating services were required to charge tiered fees based on ability to pay, however, many of them did not implement this requirement. Under the CCSS, specific subvention rates have been set with 3 categories of parents benefiting from subvented fee rates and parents who do not qualify for subvention paying the full economic cost of their childcare places(s). Neither scheme provides for core funding and to do so would be discriminatory vis a vis commercial childcare providers who cannot benefit from the scheme.

It should be noted that funding provided under the previous EOCP scheme amounted to €37 million in 2007. Funding provided under the CCSS amounted to €52m in 2008, and is expected to increase to €56m in 2009. The September 2008 service returns indicated that there had been a significant increase in the number of children attending services, not just in the disadvantaged cohort, but also among middle and upper-income families. As there is no prospect of additional funding being provided to increase the current subvention rates an increase in the Band C subvention rate would require a reduction in either the Band A rate, the Band B rate or a combination of both.

To co-ordinate the provision of quality childcare training a new Workforce Development Plan is being developed by the Early Education Unit in my Office. This will have a positive impact on the career paths of childcare workers and should help retain personnel in the childcare sector. The recent Budget announcement of the introduction of a free pre-school year in early childhood care and education (ECCE) from January next will also help to sustain thousands of jobs in the childcare sector. The scheme will provide a capitation grant of over €2,400 to participating services.

  333.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she is proposing to engage a private company to take calls regarding at-risk children and then to nominate short-term foster families for them; if so, the name of the company; if she has sought the views of or discussed this proposal with children’s and human rights organisations; if her attention has been drawn to the fact that the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors has described such a proposal as inappropriate; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15755/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  334.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of beds at a facility (details supplied) in County Mayo that are being closed down. [15778/09]

  335.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the bed capacity of a facility (details supplied) in County Mayo; and the bed capacity expected after staffing cuts are made. [15779/09]

  336.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of staff being let go at a facility (details supplied) in County Mayo. [15780/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 334 to 336, inclusive, together.

As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

Question No. 337 answered with Question No. 308.

  338.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the assistance available to a person (details supplied) in Dublin 7 to obtain the drug Tysabri which they have been told is unavailable under the long-term illness scheme and which costs €3,000 a month. [15833/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The issue of access to the drug in question is being given consideration by the Health Service Executive (HSE). Arising from a recent review of neurology services a clinician led review group is to advise on how best to ensure that there is fair and equitable access to the drug and other agents used to treat the particular condition, taking account of clinical need, benefits and cost. The Group is to include patient representation.

My Department has requested the Parliamentary Affairs Division of the Executive to reply directly to the Deputy on the specific case raised.

  339.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if her attention has been drawn to the concern of a growing number of parents and the potential damage that can be inflicted on young children by her decision not to approve the recruitment of temporary cover speech and language therapists across the service in place of therapists on maternity or parental leave or other long-term absences; if she will lift the embargo on such temporary appointments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15834/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  Almost 130,000 people work full-time or part-time in our public health services. In recent years, the Governments ongoing high level of investment in health has achieved and maintained significant increases in the numbers of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals employed in the public health services. The Government has also invested heavily in the education and training of such personnel in order to secure a good supply of graduates to provide for the healthcare needs of the population into the future.

Subject to overall parameters set by Government, the Health Service Executive has the responsibility for determining the composition of its staffing complement. In that regard, it is [575]a matter for the Executive to manage and deploy its human resources to best meet the requirements of its Annual Service Plan for the delivery of health and personal social services to the public. As this is a service matter it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  340.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the numbers on the waiting lists for initial assessments for children referred to the speech and language therapy services in each of the counties Cavan, Monaghan and Louth; the numbers in each case who have been waiting more than three months; the staffing levels and the actual in attendance levels in each of the speech and language therapy teams, that is excluding those on approved leave; if a staffing shortage exists; if steps will be taken to recruit temporary cover speech and language therapists across the named counties, to be followed by approval for further full-time appointments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15835/09]

  341.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the reason a person (details supplied) in County Monaghan has not had their initial assessment by a speech and language therapist in the Louth service, having been listed for same since 25 August 2008; if her attention has been drawn to the fact that the County Louth speech and language therapy service, like the services in counties Cavan and Monaghan and throughout the State, is under staffed due to her ban on recruiting temporary replacement staff for therapists on maternity, parental or other longer-term leave; if she has informed herself of the efforts of those staff attempting to provide for the needs of all children referred to this service; the action she will take to address this deficiency in service provision that can have consequences for some children now and in later life; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15836/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 340 and 341 together.

As the Deputy’s questions relate to service matters I have arranged for the questions to be referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  342.  Deputy Ruairí Quinn    asked the Minister for Health and Children,    further to Parliamentary Question No. 73 of 7 April 2009, if the national youth work advisory committee has completed its review of the 2003 to 2007 plan; when the new plan will be drawn up; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15843/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The National Youth Work Advisory Committee is completing its review of the 2003 — 2007 National Youth Work Development Plan and has given initial consideration to possible next steps for the development of a new plan, having regard to current youth work policy and practice in Ireland. I understand that the Committee proposes to discuss the matter further with my Department and is at present considering the format of these discussions.

  343.  Deputy Denis Naughten    asked the Minister for Health and Children    further to Parliamentary Question Nos. 95 and 96 of 26 February 2009, the position regarding the issues raised; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15846/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The HSE is about to commence the calculation and refund of interest retained on Patient Private Property (PPP) funds invested [576]since 2005. It is envisaged that the first payments will be made during May 2009. The HSE is continuing the validation of data on client balances to allow calculation of actual interest owed and assign that interest to existing client PPP accounts or arrange for the refund to be passed on directly to clients or their estate.

Question No. 344 answered with Question No. 244.

  345.  Deputy Billy Timmins    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the position regarding a person (details supplied) in County Wicklow who is in receipt of home help which has been reduced with the result that there is no weekend help; if same will be reversed and the previous times reinstated; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15873/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  346.  Deputy James Reilly    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when she expects the Nursing Homes Support Scheme Bill 2008 to come before Dáil Éireann for Report Stage; when she expects the legislative process on the Bill to be completed; if she will confirm that the required funding is in place in 2009 to implement the proposed provisions of the Bill; the amount of funding which has been provided for 2009 and estimated for 2010; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15878/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The Minister envisages the Nursing Homes Support Scheme Bill 2008 commencing Report Stage in the Dáil as soon as possible. Thereafter, it is intended to progress the legislation through the Houses of the Oireachtas with a view to implementing the scheme in the second half of 2009. Unfortunately it is not possible to give a more specific timeframe at present.

Budget 2009 provided €55 million for the implementation of the Nursing Homes Support Scheme this year. As the Deputy is aware, in advance of the introduction of the scheme, a dedicated subhead for long-term residential care has been established (subhead B16). The total funding in the subhead for 2009 stands at €909 million. It is estimated that approximately €1 billion will be required for 2010.

Question No. 347 answered with Question No. 308.

  348.  Deputy Michael McGrath    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if a decision has been made on the provision of capital funding for a new health centre (details supplied) in County Cork. [15893/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  349.  Deputy James Reilly    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if funding will be provided as soon as possible to purchase a wheelchair for a person (details supplied) in County Cork; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15894/09]

[577]Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  350.  Deputy James Reilly    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the provision that has been put in place to provide speech and language therapy for a child (details supplied) in County Meath; the alternative arrangements that have been put in place to provide cover; when will this much needed service for this child will recommence; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15895/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health service Executive for direct reply.

  351.  Deputy James Reilly    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the amount that is used in the calculation of income regarding the assessment of income for an over 70 years medical card and in particular the calculation of interest on savings; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15896/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  Under the Health Act 2008, automatic entitlement to a medical card for persons aged 70 or over ceased on 31st December 2008, and with effect from 1st January 2009, the income thresholds for entitlement to a medical card for those aged 70 or over is €700 (gross) per week (€36,500 per year) for a single person and €1,400 (gross) per week (€73,000 per year) for a couple.

Any savings and similar investments up to €36,000 (single)/€72,000 (couple) will be disregarded when assessing means and only interest from savings or similar investments above these figures will be considered as income. The relevant portion of savings and similar investments will be assessed on the income calculated at a notional interest rate (currently 5%), based on the prevailing interest rates at the time of application. The Health Service Executive’s (HSE) Central Application Unit will review the notional rate on a quarterly basis.

Alternatively, where an applicant wishes to have the actual interest from savings/investments considered, then the HSE will apply this approach and use the most beneficial option in favour of the applicant, subject to submission of the appropriate certificates from the relevant institutions. In the case of “longer term” investment accounts, where the interest is only applied at the end of a fixed period, if the applicant so wishes, the HSE will only take account of the interest earned on the date the investment matures. Any calculation of interest is inclusive of Deposit Interest Retention Tax.

  352.  Deputy Frank Feighan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the reason a person (details supplied) in County Leitrim is requested to refurnish all financial documents and so on to the Health Service Executive in order to obtain an over 70 years GMS card when these documents were sent to the local office in January 2009 and an acknowledgement of receipt received; if her attention has been drawn to the fact that original documents were sent and no copies were kept; and when a GMS card will issue to this person. [15918/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply to the Deputy.

  353.  Deputy David Stanton    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the amount of money currently being spent on autism services here; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15934/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to service matters I have arranged for the question to be referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  354.  Deputy David Stanton    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of children and young people who have availed of psychiatric, psychological and other such support services outside the State in 2008; the number of such children and young people who are currently receiving such a service; the locations at which such services are being provided; the cost in 2008 of such services being provided; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15937/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter the question has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  355.  Deputy David Stanton    asked the Minister for Health and Children,    further to Parliamentary Question No. 190 of 2 December 2008, the progress which has been made by the Health Service Executive in the national review of autism services; if the timed work plan was completed by February 2009; if the report has been completed and will be available by summer 2009 as promised; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15938/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy is aware, the Health Service Executive previously stated in response to Parliamentary Question Reference No. 43461/08 that the review is to be finalised in 2009. I have arranged for the above question to be referred to the Health Service Executive to clarify the current position for the Deputy.

  356.  Deputy Michael Creed    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when a decision will be made on an application for a medical card by a person (details supplied) in County Cork. [15940/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply to the Deputy.

  357.  Deputy Willie Penrose    asked the Minister for Transport    the impact the reduction in the roads programme announced in the 7 April 2009 budget will have in relation to Westmeath County Council and in particular in relation to the county roads programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15789/09]

Minister for Transport (Deputy Noel Dempsey):  The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads, in its area, is a statutory function of each individual local authority to be funded from its own resources supplemented by State road grants paid by my Department.

[579]Following the Supplementary Budget of 7 April 2009, revised allocations were notified to local authorities on 14 April 2009, in respect of regional and local roads. The original allocation for Westmeath County Council was €17,748,365, the revised allocation for the Council is €13,941,365.

  358.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Transport    if he will publish the 2007 Deloitte report into Shannon Foynes Port Company; the reason there has been a delay on publishing this report; if he has undertaken a wider investigation into the operation of the SFPC in view of the allegations surrounding the governance of the SFPC and allegations of alleged fraudulent activities at the SFPC; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15153/09]

Minister for Transport (Deputy Noel Dempsey):  The report referred to in the Deputy’s question is an internal audit report carried out for Shannon Foynes Port Company. The report is confidential and is not intended for publication.

In September 2008 I appointed a new chairperson and five other directors to the board of the company. The board is, in the first instance, responsible for corporate governance.

My Department continues to closely monitor the company’s business in accordance with normal corporate governance practice.

  359.  Deputy Deirdre Clune    asked the Minister for Transport    his views on appointing a deputy taxi regulator; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15209/09]

  360.  Deputy Michael Creed    asked the Minister for Transport    if he proposes to appoint a deputy taxi regulator as provided for under the Taxi Regulations 2003, who will have a specific remit for the Munster region; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15316/09]

Minister for Transport (Deputy Noel Dempsey):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 359 and 360 together.

Sections 13 and 14 of the Taxi Regulation Act, 2003, provide that the Commission for Taxi Regulation shall consist of at least one and not more than three members appointed by the Minister for Transport with the consent of the Minister for Finance and following selection by the Public Appointments Service. Section 15 of the Act provides for the designation by the Commission, where there is only one Commissioner, of a member of staff of the Commission as “deputy Commissioner” to act in the absence of the Commissioner or where the membership of the Commission is vacant.

In accordance with these provisions one Commissioner is in office and the Commission for Taxi Regulation has appointed a deputy Commissioner. It is not open to me, under the Taxi Regulation Act, 2003, to appoint a deputy Commissioner and I do not propose to appoint a second Commissioner.

  361.  Deputy Ciarán Cuffe    asked the Minister for Transport    the position regarding the feasibility studies for the provision of light rail and bus rapid transit in Waterford, Cork, Galway and Limerick; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15325/09]

[580]Minister for Transport (Deputy Noel Dempsey):  We made a commitment in the Programme for Government of 2007 to conduct feasibility studies into light rail systems in Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford, and to have these completed within two years. I subsequently asked the local authorities in these cities, who have responsibility for these studies, to see that the feasibility of Bus Rapid Transit systems was simultaneously taken into account.

The Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford studies are currently under way, and I look forward with interest to the completion of these studies. I shall, on their completion, consider the recommendations in these studies before making decisions on how best to enhance public transport.

  362.  Deputy Fergus O’Dowd    asked the Minister for Transport    the new allocations given to each local authority for local and regional road maintenance and repair work; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15401/09]

Minister for Transport (Deputy Noel Dempsey):  The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads, in its area, is a statutory function of each individual local authority to be funded from its own resources supplemented by State road grants paid by my Department.

Following the Supplementary Budget of 7 April 2009, revised allocations were notified to local authorities on 14 April 2009, in respect of regional and local roads. The revised allocations are set out in the following table.

2009 Allocations
County Councils
Carlow 5,196,199
Cavan 13,052,025
Clare 16,032,498
Cork 43,880,723
Donegal 28,664,397
Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown 6,109,699
Fingal 5,788,866
Galway 24,234,746
Kerry 17,985,097
Kildare 15,769,264
Kilkenny 11,373,699
Laois 9,045,928
Leitrim 8,960,699
Limerick 13,190,198
Longford 6,380,799
Louth 10,920,631
Mayo 22,316,746
Meath 16,566,473
Monaghan 12,445,199
North Tipperary 11,008,598
Offaly 8,180,699
Roscommon 13,118,265
Sligo 10,706,899
South Dublin 8,250,899
South Tipperary 10,762,998
Waterford 13,672,699
Westmeath 13,941,365
Wexford 12,784,498
Wicklow 20,603,820
City/Borough Councils
Cork 4,264,000
Dublin 12,682,450
Galway 1,674,000
Limerick 2,294,000
Waterford 2,289,000
Clonmel 488,903
Drogheda 405,000
Kilkenny 393,000
Sligo 1,993,000
Wexford 443,000
Town Councils
Arklow 177,000
Athlone 359,000
Athy 177,000
Ballina 177,000
Ballinasloe 177,000
Birr 177,000
Bray 385,000
Buncrana 177,000
Bundoran 126,000
Carlow 373,000
Carrickmacross 177,000
Carrick-on-Suir 177,000
Cashel 126,000
Castlebar 177,000
Castleblayney 126,000
Cavan 177,000
Ceannanus Mor 177,000
Clonakilty 177,000
Clones 126,000
Cobh 177,000
Dundalk 385,000
Dungarvan 177,000
Ennis 373,000
Enniscorthy 177,000
Fermoy 177,000
Killarney 177,000
Kilrush 126,000
Kinsale 177,000
Letterkenny 359,000
Listowel 177,000
Longford 177,000
Macroom 126,000
Mallow 177,000
Midleton 177,000
Monaghan 177,000
Naas 373,000
Navan 373,000
Nenagh 177,000
New Ross 177,000
Skibbereen 126,000
Templemore 126,000
Thurles 177,000
Tipperary 177,000
Tralee 373,00
Trim 177,000
Tullamore 177,000
Westport 177,000
Wicklow 177,000
Youghal 177,000

  363.  Deputy Paul Kehoe    asked the Minister for Transport    the number of uncertified sick days taken within all sections of his Department for the years 2007 and 2008 and to date in 2009; the number of employees who have taken uncertified sick days in the categories one to ten days and over ten days; the number of uncertified sick days taken Fridays and Mondays; the number of persistent offenders with regard to uncertified sick days who have been sent for an independent doctor's opinion; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15678/09]

Minister for Transport (Deputy Noel Dempsey):  The number of uncertified sick days taken within all sections of my Department amounted to 637 days in 2007, 513 days in 2008, and 157 days to date in 2009.

The maximum number of uncertified sick days allowable per person in any one year is 7. No employee is permitted to take over 7 days uncertified sick leave in any one year.

496 staff took an average of 1.28 uncertified sick days in 2007, 365 took an average of 1.40 uncertified sick days in 2008 and 110 took an average of 1.43 uncertified sick days to date in 2009.

As my Department’s management system records sick leave by date rather than by day, it is not possible to furnish the information in respect of Fridays and Mondays within the time available. I will arrange to furnish this information to the Deputy at a later date.

No staff members have been referred to the Chief Medical Officer on the basis of their uncertified sick leave. Employees on certified sick leave may be referred to the Chief Medical Officer on an individual basis under the sick leave regulations. If an individual is found to be [583]abusing the sick leave facility, disciplinary action, including withdrawal of the privilege of uncertified sick leave, may be invoked.

  364.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Transport    the amount of money that has been spent on public transport projects in all counties under Transport 21 since its launch; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15694/09]

Minister for Transport (Deputy Noel Dempsey):  Exchequer capital and current grants to CIE and accessibility grants are not allocated on a county basis.

Expenditure on Luas/Metro projects relates to the Greater Dublin Area only. Under Transport 21, a total of €363m was spent on these projects up to the end of 2008. A provision of €159m has been made for Luas/Metro projects in the current year. In addition, Integrated Ticketing is being rolled out in the GDA initially. The expenditure on Integrated Ticketing from 2006 to date is €8.5m. It is not possible to breakdown by county.

Traffic Management grants are made available to fund bus priority, cycle and pedestrian facilities and other traffic management measures. The total grants are as per the table below. A provision of €55m has been made for the current year in respect of Traffic Management Grants. Grants provided under Transport 21 for 2006, 2007 and 2008 broken down by county are as follows:

County 2006 2007 2008
Dublin 24,633,066