Dáil Eireann

11/Nov/2009

Prelude

Leaders’ Questions.

Ceisteanna — Questions.

EU Council Meetings.

Constitutional Amendments.

Requests to move Adjournment of Dáil under Standing Order 32.

Order of Business.

European Council Meeting: Statements.

Message from Select Committee.

Priority Questions.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Social Welfare Appeals.

Social Welfare Code.

Other Questions.

Social Welfare Code.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Child Poverty.

Money Advice and Budgeting Service.

Adjournment Debate Matters.

Labour Services (Amendment) Bill 2009: Order for Report Stage.

Labour Services (Amendment) Bill 2009: Report and Final Stages.

Public Transport Regulation Bill 2009 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).

Public Transport Regulation Bill 2009: Referral to Select Committee.

Communications (Retention of Data) Bill 2009: Message from Select Committee.

Accountability of Government Agencies and Companies: Motion (Resumed).

Adjournment Debate.

Mental Health Services.

Death of Irish Citizen in Bolivia.

Architectural Heritage.

Water and Sewerage Schemes.

Written Answers.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Identity Cards.

Social Welfare Fraud.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Money Advice and Budgeting Service.

Social Welfare Code.

Child Support.

Social Welfare Fraud.

Social Welfare Code.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Pension Provisions.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Social Welfare Code.

Social Welfare Appeals.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Departmental Staff.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Social Welfare Fraud.

Pension Provisions.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Social Welfare Code.

Pension Provisions.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Family Support Services.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Tax and Social Welfare Codes.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Civil Registration Legislation.

Innovation Task Force.

Redundancy Payments.

Employment Support Services.

Vocational Education.

Employment Support Services.

Departmental Agencies.

Pricing Policy.

Work Permits.

National Lottery Funding.

Liquor Licensing.

Tax Yield.

Departmental Expenditure.

Flood Relief.

Financial Services Regulation.

Tax Code.

Budget Submissions.

Tax Collection.

Tax Code.

Tax Yield.

National Lottery Funding.

Departmental Offices.

Garda Stations.

Medical Cards.

Food Labelling.

Adoption Services.

Hospital Services.

Hospital Staff.

Hospital Accommodation.

Medical Cards.

Hospital Services.

Health Services.

Health Service Staff.

Health Services.

Mental Health Services.

Tobacco-Related Diseases.

Health Services.

Medical Cards.

Services for People with Disabilities.

Hospital Services.

Health Services.

Organ Donation.

Infectious Diseases.

Health Services.

Medical Cards.

Departmental Staff.

Hospital Accommodation.

Medical Cards.

Vaccination Programme.

Cycle Facilities.

Road Network.

Aviation Industry.

Garda Complaints Procedures.

Garda Operations.

Garda Recruitment.

Citizenship Applications.

Departmental Official Functions.

Garda Deployment.

Citizenship Applications.

Garda Recruitment.

Garda Stations.

Swimming Pool Projects.

Decentralisation Programme.

Community Development.

Dormant Accounts Fund.

Social Welfare Fraud.

Money Advice and Budgeting Service.

Social Welfare Appeals.

Social Insurance.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Live Register.

Social Welfare Code.

International Agreements.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Social Welfare Code.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Departmental Offices.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Army Barracks.

Tax Code.

Legislative Programme.

Local Authority Housing.

Tax Code.

Water and Sewerage Schemes.

Private Rented Accommodation.

Departmental Agencies.

Sheepmeat Sector.

Animal Identification Scheme.

Rural Environment Protection Scheme.

Fishing Industry Development.

Grant Payments.

Fishing Industry Development.

Beef Industry.

Grant Payments.

Installation Aid Scheme.

Higher Education Grants.

EU Directives.

Schools Building Projects.

School Transport.

Higher Education Grants.

School Accommodation.

School Enrolments.

Schools Refurbishment.

Special Educational Needs.

Schools Building Projects.

Stádas Scoile.

Schools Building Projects.

Teaching Qualifications.

Higher Education Reform.

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

Paidir.
Prayer.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  Yesterday, I asked the Taoiseach about the Government’s plans regarding child benefit as part of the social welfare package and he replied that all elements of Government expenditure were being considered in the budgetary analysis with the Budget Statement less than four weeks away. I pointed out to him that 600,000 families draw child benefit on behalf of more than 1.1 million children and I recognised that adjustments and savings have to be made in the social welfare area as well as other areas, given the disastrous economic circumstances into which we have been led by the Government.

However, I also recognise it is possible to achieve the savings without having to resort to cutting child benefit. What is happening in this regard, without clarity from the Government, is that hundreds of thousands of families who have been driven into negative equity, who may have suffered one or two job losses and who are faced with increased school transport charges and third level registration fees, reduced tax allowances for medical expenses and a range of other income levies have to face planning their budget for the next year with the possibility of a child benefit cut.

While I recognise social welfare must make a contribution, I have examined this issue and I repeat that, in so far as Fine Gael is concerned, it is possible to achieve the savings without having to resort to cutting child benefit. Today’s Irish Independent carries a detailed set of proposals as part of what appears to be a secret plan by Government to cut the rates of child benefit. In respect of the Taoiseach’s remark yesterday that social welfare is to be considered as part of the Government strategy for cuts, will he clarify if it is the Government’s intention to cut child benefit?

The Taoiseach:  The Leader of the Opposition will be aware that the budgetary discussion is ongoing and that clarity will be provided on 9 December. We will indicate what choices the Government had to make, the reasons we made them and we will seek to do this in a way that is as fair and as equitable as possible. With regard to the social welfare budget, I have simply made the case that we have a spend of €21.5 billion under that expenditure heading and the scale of adjustment that has to be made means we have to look at areas we normally would not look at. That has to be done because if we do not make the adjustment, the prospect of a sustainable level of service provision for people dependent on social welfare would be put at greater risk and a greater adjustment would have to be considered in the future. It is a question of examining all the options carefully and the Government is conscious of this having seen [290]increases in social welfare rates, even last year. We sought to bring forward increases of between 3% and 3.8% in the budget, even though the cost of living has fallen by 6.5% this year.

The Government is conscious this is an area for careful consideration but the Deputy knows he cannot expect me to outline any aspect of the budget, particularly when decisions have not been taken. We have been open, honest and frank in conveying to the public and to the House that all areas of expenditure, including the social welfare budget, must be examined to make the adjustment we have to make. This is against a background of a social welfare budget that is 20% higher than last year. They are the issues and the facts and we have to deal with them. I am afraid the Opposition will have to await the day of the budget when we will outline the decisions taken. No decisions have been taken but all options are being looked at.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack:  Will it be a short or a long look?

Deputy Enda Kenny:  When I was a young lad, the perception at election time used to be that Ernest Blythe took a shilling off the old age pension. It took 60 years to get rid of that myth that the party I lead was responsible for that disastrous cut.

Deputy Noel Dempsey:  It is not gone yet.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  I accept the Government has difficult choices to make. We have considered these choices and none of them is easy, but the Taoiseach is not being honest and open with the people in respect of this. He said everything is on the table, yet the Irish Independent produced a detailed plan backed up with statements by a Government spokesman. The article states the Government intends to ensure fairness across the board but it would not be fair to introduce a flat rate cut in child benefit, as that would impact unduly on lower income families, and, to achieve fairness, they would be given a higher amount under a qualified child allowance. However, the Government will have to ask the Revenue, according to its information, who are the high income earners in the country who would then have to voluntarily submit this information to Government. Whoever dreamt up this concoction in the Department of Social and Family Affairs needs to be called into the Taoiseach’s office and asked about administrative nightmares.

Hundreds of thousands of families do not believe the Government when it says it wants to be fair, open and honest about this. They believe there is a secret plan at the heart of this and the Government is moving to cut child benefit in the December budget. This follows the nightmares created by the Government over the removal of the medical card for the over 70s, income levies, job losses, negative equity, increased third level registration fees and school transport charges and a range of other measures. The one universal payment made in respect of each child in the country is child benefit and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs says she now wants to adhere to the principle of a universal payment. That does not treat all the children of the nation equally, as was set out in 1916 and many times since.

I am prepared to say that it is possible to achieve the required savings without touching child benefit. Will the Taoiseach put families at ease and at least say he is hearing the clarity of decision from the Opposition? Will he tell us he understands the anger of people and that this one area of social welfare will be left untouched by the knife of Government on 9 December?

The Taoiseach:  In the next four weeks, the Leader of the Opposition can indicate to a whole series of people that there are easier ways to deal with the situation. We await the alternative budget proposals of the Opposition and we will see how credible and sustainable they are.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack:  The Taoiseach is in government.

[291]Deputy Enda Kenny:  You will hear them.

Deputy Fergus O’Dowd:  Then he will copy them.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  None of them is easy.

The Taoiseach:  Meanwhile, the Government will continue to prepare for the budget, taking all options into account. It is right that we look at all options. In last April’s supplementary budget, the Minister for Finance indicated that child benefit would be examined. The McCarthy report also made reference to it. When there are limited resources one must assist those who are most vulnerable and, perhaps, make adjustments for others who are on higher incomes. These options are being looked at.

Given the size of the adjustment which must be made, social welfare cannot be immune. We must be careful in coming to decisions in this area. We will use the time available for further discussion, we will come to our conclusions and bring those decisions to the House.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  I wish to raise an issue which cannot wait until 9 December. A Christmas bonus has been paid to pensioners and others every year since 1980. In the emergency budget of last April, the Government announced that it would abolish the Christmas bonus and that this year, for the first time in almost 30 years, pensioners and others would not receive the relatively small payment which helps them to buy gifts for their grandchildren, and so on. The Government also voted down a Labour Party motion calling for the restoration of the bonus and identifying the way in which the restoration could be paid for.

Since then, many pensioners have hoped the Government would have a change of heart on this matter. Many pensioners have been encouraged in that by Government backbenchers, who have been telling them there would be a change of heart on this issue before Christmas. If there is to be a change of heart it cannot wait until 9 December because administrative arrangements for payment would have to be put in place before that.

Will the Government have a change of heart on the Christmas bonus? Will it be paid to the country’s pensioners this Christmas?

Deputy Pádraic McCormack:  It might abolish Christmas.

The Taoiseach:  Unfortunately, we have made the decision. It was a very difficult one and had to be considered in the context of the last budget. We decided we would not be in a position to make that supplementary payment this year. The total cost of the Christmas bonus payment in 2009 was approximately €223 million. The estimated cost for 2010 is €245 million.

In recent years, there have been significant increases in social welfare rates. The Christmas bonus payment was made against a background, in other Administrations, when increases in social welfare payments were very small. When resources were available to the Government, social welfare and pension rates improved significantly, and quite rightly. Those increases were in excess of inflation and were the correct choices at the time.

We are now in a different situation and we must deal with the gap between spending and revenue. The total Exchequer revenue for this year to the end of October is €26 billion and the total social welfare bill is more than €21 billion. That sets the background of what the Government must contend with, apart from public service pay and pensions and the provision of services. In other times we have been able to increase rates and provide for further supplementary payments. It is clear that the availability of another €223 million is not possible in present circumstances.

[292]Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  That is a very mean reply from the Taoiseach. This payment has been made to pensioners every year for 30 years, even in some of the country’s most difficult economic years. It is a measure of the mess Fianna Fáil has made of our economy and public finances that for the first time in 30 years pensioners will not get the small bonus which has been paid to them in years past. It adds insult to injury to tell them to live in the past. These people have worked all their lives and this is a relatively small payment.

The Taoiseach’s reply contrasts sharply with his more sympathetic approach to the golden ten yesterday. For years into the future, those people will be able to write off the losses on their strange arrangements for buying bank shares by setting them against tax. They get all the comfort from the Government but pensioners, who worked hard to make the country what it was before Fianna Fáil made a hames of it, are told they will not receive the small payment which made Christmas worthwhile for many of them. This is mean and shameful.

The Taoiseach:  Deputy Gilmore was a member of a Government which gave an increase of £1.50 to pensioners, and said it was plenty.

Deputy Noel Dempsey:  Over two years.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  We never cut their benefit.

The Taoiseach:  They never had to consider cuts because their payments were so meagre.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  We never took money off them.

The Taoiseach:  The point I make is that when resources were available we, quite rightly, improved welfare and pension rates well beyond inflation.

Deputy Joan Burton:  That was then. This is now.

The Taoiseach:  Even this year, we provided for an increase, despite the difficult financial situation. I accept that people on pensions and welfare have low incomes. However, the cost of living dropped by 6.5% this year——

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Not for pensioners.

The Taoiseach:  ——and this means the purchasing power of those increases was 10%.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  That is not true. The 6.5% includes mortgages.

The Taoiseach:  In real terms, the increase in social welfare payments was 10%. If payment increases by between 3% and 3.8% and the cost of living drops by 6.5%, the real increase is 10%, in a very difficult year.

(Interruptions).

The Taoiseach:  The Government’s record with regard to increases in pension and welfare rates is better than that of any of its predecessors.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  He is living in the past.

The Taoiseach:  However, the current situation is this. How do we sustain levels of payment, given the country’s finances, now and in the years ahead?

(Interruptions).

[293]The Taoiseach:  It is not correct to suggest that 35% of the country’s total spend can be immune from the situation we face.

Deputy Joan Burton:  We are not saying that.

The Taoiseach:  I would rather it were otherwise but that is not the case, and everyone in the House knows it.

With regard to my treatment of anyone else, I hold no brief for anyone who is involved in wrongdoing, whether in banking or elsewhere.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Taoiseach has always protected them.

The Taoiseach:  The Minister for Finance will take advice from the Revenue Commissioners in respect of any issue where an avoidance matter is raised with him and deal with it appropriately in the Finance Bill.

Deputy Emmet Stagg:  There is a write-off of €18 million.

The Taoiseach:  That is what every Minister for Finance has done and this Minister will do no less in that regard.

  1.  Deputy Enda Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on his attendance at the meeting of the European Council on 29 and 30 October 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38346/09]

  2.  Deputy Enda Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    the meetings he held on the margins of the recent European Council meeting in Brussels; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38347/09]

  3.  Deputy Eamon Gilmore    asked the Taoiseach    if he will make a statement on the outcome on the European Council meeting held in Brussels on 29 and 30 October 2009. [38546/09]

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

I attended the European Council in Brussels on 29 and 30 October. As I will make a statement in the House later, I will merely give a summary account of the proceedings.

The Council discussed institutional issues, including implementation of the Lisbon treaty and agreement was reached in regard to the Czech position. I warmly welcome that following the Czech constitutional court’s dismissal of the last challenge to the Lisbon treaty, President Klaus signed the Czech instrument of ratification on 3 November. Czech ratification will be complete when this instrument is deposited in Rome. I looked forward to seeing the treaty enter into force in December.

In regard to climate change, the Council agreed a clear and ambitious mandate for the negotiations in Copenhagen in December, including endorsing the global figure of €100 billion in international financing per year by 2020 and committing to paying a fair share of that. The Council also discussed the financial and economic situation, illegal immigration and external [294]relations. I had a bilateral meeting with President Barroso and I informally met the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  Since that meeting, the Taoiseach will be aware of developments taking place. As I pointed out yesterday, 22 of the 27 countries have nominated their personnel for consideration for commissionerships. The Swedish Prime Minister has said there will be a summit meeting of Heads of Government on 19 November at which I hope the decision on the appointment of a President of the Council will be concluded. He also said this appointment would almost certainly be one of the sitting Heads of Government or a former Head of Government.

It appears there is some fluctuation in the names going forward for the position of High Representative and President of the Council. I am glad the Taoiseach and the Government support an Irish candidate for the position of President of the Council, namely, former Taoiseach, John Bruton. I hope that as the week moves on, it will be possible to build on that application.

What Europe needs now, in the context of the Presidency of the Council, is not somebody who wants to be out front as the person who epitomises Europe in all its respects but somebody who can tie the ambitions of the countries together and consolidate Europe’s current position before it moves on to the next phase of being able to stand against the Far East and emerging phenomena around the world in financial terms, in terms of globalisation, climate change and so on. From that point of view, I welcome the Taoiseach’s support for a former Taoiseach. Has he received any further information from any of the Heads of Government or other sources as to whether this matter is being finalised either in the context of the High Representative, who will have to be a Commissioner, or the President of the Council itself?

The Taoiseach:  The Swedish Presidency has been in contact with me. I have spoken to the Swedish Prime Minister in regard to this matter. He is engaged in his first round of consultation with Heads of Government. I indicated to him our position in regard to the matter. We await to see what he gauges to be the situation having spoken to everybody, I presume, on a bilateral and confidential basis. He will then be able to inform us of his view on the level of support for various candidates mentioned and take it from there. That he set a European Council meeting for tomorrow week this morning would indicate to me that further rounds of consultation will take place between now and then.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  I assume the Taoiseach will attend that meeting. If there is a summit meeting of the European People’s Party of which I am a member, I will be happy to attend and to lend my voice to that.

Did the Taoiseach confirm that a conclusion was reached at the Council meeting about the transfer of €100 billion in respect of the climate change challenge between now and 2020? Is he hopeful some kind of conclusion can be reached in Copenhagen? From the meetings of the Heads of Government who are part of the European People’s Party, there seems to be serious concern that there may not be the drive to sign up to it, in particular in regard to the United States, China and India, and that it may not be possible to reach a conclusion or an agreement in Copenhagen. Does the Taoiseach have a view on that? Was any decision arrived at by the Heads of Government at the meeting in Brussels?

The Taoiseach:  In regard to the conclusions, the European Council endorsed the global figure of €100 billion in international financing per year by 2020 and committed to paying a fair share of that. It is very conditional and it remains to be seen what emerges from other regions of the [295]world and other powers as to what they will do in regard to their contribution to this international public financing provision which is part of the means by which mitigation and adaption measures can be provided for developing countries in order that we achieve an overall and comprehensive agreement.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  In response to Deputy Kenny, the Taoiseach said he had discussions with the Swedish Prime Minister as Sweden holds the EU Presidency. In those discussions, did the Taoiseach discuss particular candidates for both the position of High Representative and Presidency of the EU Council? Does he expect appointments, or nominations, for both positions will be made at the summit meeting on 19 November?

The Taoiseach said yesterday that the Government would shortly announce its nominee for Irish Commissioner. Has President Barroso had any discussions with him in regard to the possible portfolios an Irish Commissioner might have?

In regard to the proposed €100 billion international fund for climate change, is it the case that the European Union contribution to that fund will be approximately €15 billion, as has been reported? Has any estimate been done as to what the Irish contribution might be to such a fund? Has that formed part of the Government’s thinking in regard to budgetary matters?

The Taoiseach:  On the first matter, given the nature of the discussions, they are pending an assessment by the Swedish Prime Minister as to what the overall situation might be. These are bilateral and confidential discussions. I can confirm that my position in regard to the Presidency is my public position which I outlined to the Deputy.

In regard to the High Representative position, it remains to be seen what candidates emerge. I understand there was some indication of the possible candidacy of David Miliband, the UK Foreign Secretary, but I understand he has indicated that he is not a candidate. I brought to the Swedish Prime Minister’s attention the candidacy of Mr. Rehn from Finland, who is a person I could support if there was sufficient support for him. He has been a very effective Commissioner. We must wait to see the levels of support there. This situation will evolve in the coming days. I wait to hear from the Swedish Presidency for its assessment after it has spoken to everyone.

  11 o’clock

My meeting with President Barroso was a general discussion. He has made it clear that portfolios are not ascribed to countries, rather to individuals. He is also making it clear that until the High Representative is appointed he is not in a position to pursue the composition of his Commission in any final way until he sees who is to be the High Representative. The difference now is that under the Lisbon treaty provisions the High Representative is also Vice-President of the Commission. Until he has that name before him and endorsed by the European Council, which is a requirement under the Lisbon treaty, he is not in a position to conduct further discussions or come to any conclusions on the composition of the Commission in general.

I have spoken to him about this position. As a result of our second Lisbon treaty referendum decision, one Commissioner per member state is now available to all member states and is a decision to which we ascribe great importance. My discussions with President Barroso were along the lines that we want to work closely with him. He has indicated some of his overall requirements but we must make a decision, taking into account what is best for the country. We have excellent people who have indicated their availability.

On the question of climate change, no internal burden-sharing decisions have been taken within the EU in respect of our contribution to it since we are in the midst of a negotiation ahead of the Copenhagen conference. We have indicated what is the global figure and that the European Union is prepared to pay its fair share. We are waiting to see what others are [296]prepared to do in this regard. No final decisions have yet been taken in the midst of negotiation. On the question of internal burden-sharing, separate from whatever emerges from Copenhagen, a working group has been set up with the European Union in order to finalise the internal burden-sharing arrangements.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  In respect of the position of High Representative and President of the Council, in earlier replies on previous occasions, the Taoiseach indicated both here and in public commentary the expectation that the position of High Representative would be appointed first then followed by the rest of the Commission and that the issue of the Presidency of the Council was something that might be dealt with separately from that. Does the Taoiseach expect that just the High Representative will be appointed at the summit meeting on 19 November or does he expect the President of the Council will also be appointed, that the two positions will be dealt with at that stage?

The Taoiseach:  I just heard on my way down to the House this morning that the Swedish Presidency announced it would hold a European Council meeting tomorrow week. I expect that both positions will be filled at that meeting. From speaking to colleagues at the Berlin function on Monday evening, I have the impression that a decision will be taken sooner rather than later on both positions. This is my reading of the situation although I have not seen the communiqué from the Swedish Presidency but I presume both positions will be filled.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  Is the Taoiseach aware of the growing and justified cynicism in Ireland and throughout Europe at the wheeling and dealing around the appointment of someone to the newly-created position of the presidency of the Council of Europe? Would he accept that what is involved here is the putting in place of someone at a very senior position within the unelected bureaucracy of the European Union and about whom the people have no say? Will he tell the House the criteria he has put together with his colleagues in the Department or across the Cabinet in determining where Irish Government support would rest with regard to any nominee, anyone challenging for this position? The most obvious names that resonate here at home include Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, whose very important role in helping to bring about major political change on this island I acknowledge. Nevertheless, would the Taoiseach agree that a criterion applying would have to take on board his disastrous co-arrangement with George Bush on the war in Iraq and that this should be a factor in any consideration? For my part, despite other undoubted positive aspects of his tenure, specifically with regard to Ireland, I would think this would be an eliminating factor.

It appears that the Taoiseach had an almost knee-jerk reaction to the suggestion that former Taoiseach and current EU Ambassador to the United States, John Bruton, would enter the race. Is it not ironic that the Taoiseach declared his support without apparently giving any consideration to the suitability of the candidate on a raft of different levels? People here in the corridors of these Houses are of the view that if former Deputy John Bruton were to be nominated by Fine Gael to stand for the Presidency of Ireland post the current President’s term in office, the Taoiseach would oppose him and would come up with a nominee to oppose him. This is very likely the scenario that would present itself yet without any apparent time being taken to evaluate his suitability for the position — I am not saying he is not suitable — there are no apparent criteria set with regard to the Taoiseach’s and this Government’s support for whomever they decide to back in the current race. My point is this is absolutely unacceptable and it is unacceptable to people when they see the greater concentration of power now within the European Union within an unelected bureaucracy and such power only copper-fastened by the passage of the Lisbon treaty. Here we see again another exercise in the allocation of an unelected office. This whole procedure vexes people who have argued for reform [297]of the European Union and the introduction of real democratic practices which clearly, the filling of this position is not.

The Taoiseach:  I do not agree with Deputy Ó Caoláin’s analysis. During the course of the Lisbon treaty referendum campaign we had this discussion about what are the institutional arrangements and — something Deputy Ó Caoláin disagrees with — what is the democratic validity of democratically elected leaders of governments meeting for the purpose of adopting common policies, co-decision-making powers with a directly elected European Parliament, and a Commission that acts as guarantor of the treaties for all member states, large or small. These institutional arrangements are what have made the European Union successful and where exclusive conferences at EU level are allied to conferences at national level. The EU is a union of states and peoples. I do not see anything undemocratic in directly elected Heads of Government of 27 democracies sitting down at a European Council to decide who should chair a meeting. It is absurd to suggest this is undemocratic. I could not figure out the logic behind or understand the view of the Deputy’s party that we should have a directly elected President of the Council, elected by all the people of Europe. It was something I saw somewhere along the way and the suggestion was that it was perhaps more democratic. One may ask the question of how that democratic validity marries with the democratic legitimacy of the Heads of Government. Such thinking has not worked out from Sinn Féin’s point of view.

The Lisbon treaty represents a consensus and a compromise. It is the agreed means by which the European Union will develop in the foreseeable future and for a long time. That is the way it is and that is the emerging consensus. People can hold individual views about how it should be, but I believe in the community method and the community method will inform our position in respect of the filling of these vacancies as well. The community method is about trying to develop a consensus around an agreed candidate. A number of people have been spoken about. Some have declared themselves publically and others have not. Others may be available should there be an agreement among colleagues that they should take up the position.

At any time the EU Presidency has the responsibility to assess and ascertain the level of support for prospective candidates and how to proceed and to get a decision. It has been indicated that this is how the decision will be made tomorrow week. I can do nothing for the Deputy if he holds a cynical view of it. That is the procedure, that is what has been agreed and that is what has been adopted constitutionally in many parliaments and through a referendum in this country. This treaty will probably come into force on 1 December and contains a provision that there will be a President of the Council. The President of the Council may be an existing member of the Council, a former member or, perhaps, in theoretical terms, someone who was never a member of the Council. However, when a group of leaders ask someone to chair a meeting, it is likely it will be someone with whom they are acquainted, in whom they have confidence and someone whom they may personally know or who has a reputation as someone who is capable of doing the job.

The position in respect of the former Taoiseach, Mr. John Bruton, is that before the last European Council meeting he wrote and indicated his availability in particular in the event that no existing member of the Council was available to take up the position. He let it be known that his name could be considered in that respect. Given his position as a former Taoiseach and his current position as ambassador to the United States on behalf of the EU, he is entitled to put forward his availability. As leader of the Government, I made it clear, as I should, that regardless of our political differences in domestic politics, I would bring his experience and the merits of his candidacy to the attention of anyone who was interested, who inquired about it or who wanted to know, if they did not already know. They would know from the correspondence he sent. There is no problem with that.

[298]I will not speculate on the candidates to emerge beyond the tenure of this or any other election. That is a matter for democratic decision. People can put forward who they wish and there is no harm in that; it is called democracy. However, in the meantime if a person shows an interest in a position and I believe he is capable, on all objective merit, of doing the job there is no reason that as a fellow Irishman I should not indicate the merits of his candidacy. There are others who claim they can do the job too. The question of who will emerge as a candidate at the end of the day is a matter for political discussion. These are political decisions. One does not go and examine a book on political science to find out the criteria for this job.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  That is correct.

The Taoiseach:  The criteria for the job are simple and they include whether one has the confidence of one’s colleagues to run the show.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  Exactly.

The Taoiseach:  It is not that complicated in that respect. I take the point that it is an important position and it must be carefully considered. It is being considered and we are at the early stages of the discussion on who will emerge. That is politics; it is not an exact science but that is the way it is.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  In case he is wondering, the Taoiseach does not have the confidence of all his colleagues. However, I am looking at the situation as it presents. My concern is that I see the wheeling and dealing and the fact that there are no particular criteria. The Taoiseach may deny the presentation of it as he pleases but it appears he was wrong footed and that there was not in place a process by which a collective decision of the Government would be taken or any basis for the consideration of it. None of that came through in terms of the unfolding opera we have witnessed in the past several weeks. That is a fact of life.

I am not an advocate of direct elections in respect of European positions of high office, created by a succession of treaties I do not support. However, I must consider the reality now because, sadly, the Taoiseach had his way in having the Lisbon treaty adopted by a majority of the people the second time around. There it is and we must live with it for now at least. My point related to what I believe is a fundamental weakness and flaw in the Government’s approach to this and its decision making in respect of it. It is not enough to say he is from down the road, that we know him well, that he is a fellow Irishman or whatever is the case. That is not enough.

The Taoiseach:  I did not say that.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  The Taoiseach said that he was a fellow Irishman and is that not good enough.

The Taoiseach:  It is about the office.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  It must go a little deeper than that. Let us make no mistake about it and it is not lost on people that the Taoiseach would not have supported Mr. Bruton if his nomination had been presented for the Presidency of Ireland. There is no question about it.

The Taoiseach:  We are not discussing the Presidency of Ireland at the moment; we are discussing the Presidency of the European Council. The former Taoiseach, Mr. Bruton, put his [299]name forward and I can extol the merits of the man. I have known him as a parliamentarian since I entered the House in 1984. He has been a committed European.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  This is not about John Bruton.

The Taoiseach:  The Deputy’s comments were about John Bruton.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  No. My comments were about the Taoiseach and the criteria.

The Taoiseach:  Let me answer the question and explain the criterion in terms of my support for Mr. Bruton’s availability, should it be required or should it be possible for that to happen. I have indicated it. His record and commitment to the European Union has been consistent, passionate and committed. On European matters there is much with which I would agree and perhaps very little with which I would disagree in respect of Mr. Bruton, considering the national view. There are many people in the House from different parties and associated with other parties in Europe about whom I could say the same, so that is not the issue.

The issue is how the President of the Council will be appointed. That is the nub of the Deputy’s question. It will be done by agreement among the Heads of Government at a European Council meeting, hopefully to be concluded on 19 November. Presumably, at that stage the EU Presidency will be in a position to put a proposal to the Council for its consideration. The process works based on consultation among Heads of Government by the EU Presidency. We will see what emerges and how we get to it. That is the way it works, out of respect for every country, every Head of Government, the candidates who may put forward their names or a person who may be asked to take the position and who may not yet have declared candidacy. I cannot be any more specific than that.

Ireland will play its role. We have a constructive role to play in respect of people. I have no fundamental objection to any existing member of the Council becoming President of the Council. They are all colleagues and they have all shown great solidarity to Ireland in recent times. They listened to what we had to say and to what was said at the all-party committee in respect of the issues we believed needed to be dealt with in a substantive way before we could put a second referendum. Solidarity has been shown to us. Europe is a two-way street. In fact, it is a 27-way street. However, in whatever way we can constructively engage with colleagues to come up with competent people to do the job, we will do so. An Irishman has made his position clear and he will be available in certain circumstances. I do not see why I would not support this, should there be sufficient support for his candidacy.

Deputy Joe Costello:  A good Irish candidate has declared for the position of President of the European Council and a number of candidates have declared their interest in the Commissioner position. I am sure the Taoiseach will do the right thing in the interests of the country in that respect. My question concerns the European Council meeting. I am pleased to see that there is a special summit on 19 December, one month before the winter summit was planned. The Swedish Presidency is showing a sense of urgency. Is this a full summit? Will it deal only with the Lisbon treaty coming into force and a number of appointments? Will it also deal with addressing the Copenhagen conference on climate change? Will there be further advances in that respect?

Employment was tentatively dealt with at the summit. There was recognition that there is a deteriorating situation through the EU regarding unemployment. All that member states seem to be thinking of doing is discussing the review of the Lisbon strategy. That is extremely tentative for a matter as serious as this.

[300]The Taoiseach:  My reply made the point that the Council discussed the financial and economic situation. We can examine this issue in more detail during the upcoming statements on the European Council. ECOFIN is engaged in regulatory change and reform of financial services. At the December meeting there will be an important discussion arising from decisions taken at ECOFIN by the Council to consider the economic and financial response.

Regarding what will take place at next week’s meeting, I am at a slight disadvantage because on my way to the House I was informed that the Swedish Presidency called the meeting for tomorrow week. I expect it will primarily concern institutional matters. Since the Council meeting of 29 and 30 October the President of the Commission has been to Delhi and the United States on the climate change issue. I do not have precise information on whether he will be in a position to report back to the Council on that matter next Thursday but it may occur.

  4.  Deputy Enda Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    the constitutional referenda he will hold in the remainder of 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30608/09]

  5.  Deputy Enda Kenny    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on the implementation of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the Constitution; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30640/09]

  6.  Deputy Eamon Gilmore    asked the Taoiseach    when the constitutional referenda will be held during the remainder of 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32521/09]

  7.  Deputy Eamon Gilmore    asked the Taoiseach    if he will report on the progress made in implementing the recommendations contained in the reports published to date in 2009 by the Joint Committee on the Constitution [32522/09]

  8.  Deputy Alan Shatter    asked the Taoiseach    the referenda he envisages taking place during the lifetime of the current Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35230/09]

  9.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Taoiseach    the constitutional referenda he plans to initiate during the remainder of the current Dáil; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39055/09]

The Taoiseach:  I propose to answer Questions Nos. 4 to 9, inclusive, together.

It is clear at this stage that no further referendum is planned for 2009. As regards referendums after that, the renewed programme for Government envisages a number of potential referendums during the lifetime of the Dáil, subject to appropriate Oireachtas approval, to consider children’s rights based on the work of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children; to consider amending article 41.2 of the Constitution to broaden the reference to the role of women in the home to one that recognises the role of the parent in the home; and to consider the establishment of a court of civil appeal. In addition, the renewed programme for Government states that the proposed electoral commission will propose reforms of the electoral system, including outlining new electoral systems for Seanad Éireann. Such proposals could give rise to constitutional amendments.

Regarding the Joint Committee on the Constitution, I have put it on record that neither I nor my Department is solely responsible for the implementation of the recommendations of the joint committee. The committee reports to both Houses of the Oireachtas. The committee has produced reports on various aspects of the Constitution that come under the responsibility [301]of various Ministers and Departments. If there is any particular recommendation of interest to Deputies, they should get in touch with the relevant Minister or a table a parliamentary question.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  There are a number of referendums I would like to put but I am not in a position to dictate that at the moment. It is important we reaffirm that a constitutional referendum should be held to enable the electorate to decide whether the Oireachtas should enact new legislation to reinstate the criminal offence of statutory rape for the protection of children. On 12 June, during the debate on the Ryan report, the leader of the Green Party and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, called all-party agreement on a referendum on the rights of children the best monument to the victims of institutional abuse. I am pleased at this and that there seems to be movement towards honouring the commitment made by the Taoiseach’s predecessor on behalf of the Government to hold a referendum on children’s rights. Does the Taoiseach have a view of when this will happen? It will not be in 2009. Is it the intention of the Government to hold a referendum on children’s rights in 2010?

The revised programme for Government refers to holding three referendums over the remaining lifetime of the Government. One seeks to broaden the reference to the role of women in the home to one that recognises the role of the parent in the home, another on children’s rights, and another to consider the establishment of a court of civil appeal. What is the intention of the Taoiseach regarding these commitments?

The Taoiseach:  These are matters for consideration by Government. They will be considered during the remainder of the term of Government. When, how and in what way they will be taken is a matter for further discussion and debate.

Regarding children’s rights, work is ongoing and includes one report on soft information, which is being considered by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister of State with responsibility for children. The second interim report on absolute or strict liability in respect of sexual offences against or in connection with children was published on 7 May. It contains 39 recommendations in total, including some that are restatements of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Child Protection report of 2006 concerning criminal justice procedures. The Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children was initially expected to report within four months of its establishment. Due to the number and complexity of issues under consideration and the volume of submissions received, the deadline for reporting to the Oireachtas has been extended on four occasions and the committee is due to report to the Oireachtas on 16 December. We should await this, given the work that is ongoing, before coming to a view on it. The majority view on the committee has been to examine legislation as a possible means of resolving this matter but we will await the report and then consider it.

Deputy Brendan Howlin:  The Taoiseach has acknowledged that there were two interim reports from the joint committee dealing with a constitutional amendment on children. The committee recommended urgency on the issue of soft information, which is why that issue was extracted from the body of work to be completed by the committee. The recommendation was made in September 2008. Is there a reason why the legislation recommended across all parties and by all members of the committee has not been introduced?

The second interim report was published in May. The Taoiseach correctly states that the majority view is that the issues arising from the CC case in the Supreme Court are best dealt with by a number of measures. There were 39 recommendations, including a call for significant legislative rather than constitutional change. Since May, has the Government come to a con[302]clusion on going down the route of the original published Twenty-eighth Amendment to the Constitution Bill 2007, which proposed to re-instate a constitutional position on statutory rape, by putting a referendum to the people on the matter or is it minded to accept the majority view in the second interim report of the committee?

The Taoiseach:  On the first matter, as I stated in my primary reply my Department is not primarily responsible for the consideration of some of these issues. Deputies take the opportunity of Question Time to Ministers to delve into greater detail on specific issues such as this and I understand the urgency on the soft information issue, but it is complex and data protection issues arise, although I do not believe they would prove insurmountable. Work is ongoing between the office of the Minister of State with responsibility for children and the Department for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on this question and perhaps questions tabled directly to the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, might elicit the greater degree of detail which the Deputy requires.

On the second matter, no Government decision has been made. The report is due in December and proper procedure is for the Government to await that and then consider it. As Deputy Howlin stated, the context of its consideration is that the majority of the committee see the legislative route as being a better way forward.

Deputy Brendan Howlin:  On the separate issue of the programme for Government commitment on electoral reform, the Taoiseach indicated that it will primarily be a matter for an independent electoral commission. Has the Taoiseach ruled out the prospect of any constitutional change on the election of Members of the Dáil or Seanad in this Parliament? In what timeframe does he envisage the electoral commission would deal with these matters? Is it proposed to invite the Opposition parties to involve themselves in a shorter-term analysis of whether the Dáil and Seanad as constituted are fit for purpose or are all these matters to be long-fingered?

The Taoiseach:  It is not a question of long-fingering. Recently, I made the point that one must consider constitutional change with great care. In recent times there has been a trend in our politics to change the Constitution every time we have a problem. From my study of it in the past and my knowledge of it in the present, the Constitution is a document of which we can all be very proud. Constitutional change must be very carefully considered but that does not mean one should not deal with issues or come up with new ideas to see what way we can better frame our arrangements to enhance the institutions of the State in the eyes of our citizens. I have no problem with that. The idea that emerged from political discussions among the Government parties was to ask an electoral commission to examine it.

Deputy Brendan Howlin:  When is it to be established and who is to be involved?

The Taoiseach:  It will be brought forward by the Minister concerned. Being a programme commitment, it has to proceed, the policy must be devised and arrangements made. However, the programme for Government sets out what we believe is the best way forward. This issue can be discussed through various committees of the House and everyone in the House will have many opportunities to put forward their views on what is the best way forward.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I call Deputy Ó Caoláin and ask him to be brief because we are running out of time.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  Last week, the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, published a shocking report that highlighted the need for greater protection for children [303]under the Constitution. I noted the Taoiseach’s earlier reply that he understands the majority of members of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children do not support the constitutional amendment route. This Deputy does. We need greater protection for children under the Constitution, in legislation and, most importantly because they are no use on their own, in practice through our care system.

The national children in care inspection report recommended the closure of the Ballydowd special care detention unit in Lucan and highlighted serious deficits in standards aimed at safeguarding vulnerable children, including lapses in vetting procedures for staff and foster carers working with children. That is a terrible indictment in 2009. We must all address this collectively, as we have been doing on the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, where the phrases “children’s rights committee” and “children’s referendum committee” interchanged all the time because it was established with the specific brief from the Taoiseach’s predecessor to examine improving the wording——

An Ceann Comhairle:  A question please.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  ——and the presentation of a constitutional amendment that would enshrine the rights of children in the Constitution. Does the Taoiseach agree that this most recent report, with all that has gone before, compels support for a constitutional amendment and that it is the only and appropriate way to proceed to ensure we reach a point that will guarantee not only the care system but the necessary supports in all settings for children?

The Taoiseach:  On the question of a possible constitutional amendment on children, given that two distinct views emerged in the joint committee’s report — on constitutional amendment and legislative options — and that the committee has not been able to reconcile these views and accordingly is unable to make an agreed recommendation, the Government must examine the divergent standpoints emanating from the report with a view to progressing this important issue.

In the coming weeks, the committee will concentrate its deliberations on family law matters as set out in the proposed Articles 42(A).1, 42(A).2, 42(A).3 and 42(A).4 in the Twenty-eighth Amendment to the Constitution Bill 2007 dealing with the rights of children, intervention by the State where parents have failed in their responsibility towards children, involuntary and voluntary adoption of children and taking the best interests of the child into account in certain court proceedings. The committee’s deadline for reporting back to the Oireachtas is 16 December. The Government will need to consider the implications of the committee’s second interim report and its forthcoming report on the family law aspects of the Twenty-eighth Amendment to the Constitution Bill 2007 before determining its standpoint on a referendum.

On the specific question on the Ballydowd special care unit being closed, it is a good example of the accountability of HIQA being effective. We established the Health Information and Quality Authority and gave it the statutory mandate to ensure that care standards are maintained to a standard we would expect. Where there is a failure to do so alternative arrangements have to be made. If we did not have HIQA perhaps we would not have that report and if we did not have that report perhaps the fact that changes have to be made at that facility would not have been brought to our attention. Moving from the facility will take place over the coming two to four months and discussions are ongoing on reducing the adverse impact of this. All HSE vetting is now centralised.

When we establish mechanisms such as this it must never be on the presumption that everything works fine. Where difficulties are identified action needs to be taken; that is the principle of accountability at work. What is damning our politics is this notion of perfectionism, that everything is correct and if anything turns out to be incorrect it means the whole thing is not [304]working correctly. It is time for us to recognise that there is much good work being done by professional people working with people in this area. It is a difficult area but where there are difficulties and issues are not being dealt with properly decisions are taken to rectify the matter. That is an exercise in democratic accountability.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  Briefly——

Deputy James Reilly:  I have one more question for the Taoiseach.

An Ceann Comhairle:  We have seriously overrun the time allotted for Taoiseach’s Questions. The Deputies’ questions will have to be very brief.

Deputy James Reilly:  The Taoiseach made a valid point but, while I acknowledge we have HIQA and a report which makes 11 recommendations about management, only one recommendation concerns the building while the remaining ten pertain to operational issues. Now we are about to transpose that management to Crannóg Nua, where we will encounter the same problems all over again.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy should put a question. That is commentary.

Deputy James Reilly:  There is no point in carrying out HIQA inspections if we do not act on the ensuing recommendations.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  Does the Taoiseach not agree that the Ballydowd facility has only been in existence for nine years? It is a tragic exposure of the failure of our system that when HIQA finally presents its report, the centre has to close. This should have been picked up along the way so that the necessary remedial interventions could have been undertaken to avoid the closure of the centre and the displacement of its residents and support services. When the committee presents its third report at the end of this year or early next year, will the Taoiseach indicate whether we will see movement towards a constitutional amendment, which I would prefer, or legislative proposals in order to deal with the essential areas on which agreement has been reached over the course of the committee’s 50 plus meetings?

An Ceann Comhairle:  I will allow a final brief question from Deputy Jim O’Keeffe.

Deputy Jim O’Keeffe:  I raise an issue on which there should be cross-party support, namely, the consequences of the Supreme Court judgment in the Abbeylara or Ardagh v. Maguire case in 2002, which precludes committees of the Oireachtas from attributing blame to any named or identifiable individual. The court’s decision was based on the fact that the Oireachtas was taking on a quasi-judicial role. I imagine cross-party support could be achieved for a reform of Dáil and committee procedures, particularly given that the alternative has been tribunals. We have seen how the tribunals have given rise to enormous delays and costs running into hundreds of millions of euro. Would the Taoiseach consider a change in the Constitution that would permit a strengthening of Oireachtas committees to enable them to deal with the effects of the Abbeylara decision?

An Ceann Comhairle:  I ask the Taoiseach to be brief because we have seriously overrun Question Time.

The Taoiseach:  The HSE has accepted HIQA’s recommendations and will have to proceed on them. In regard to the matter not being addressed previously, the fact that we have in place [305]independent authorities provides greater public confidence that such matters are being assessed objectively. There is an independent oversight mechanism in place to help those who are engaging in services to work with front line staff to achieve the best possible outcomes and provide the protections set out for children by the Oireachtas and the Constitution.

In regard to Deputy O’Keeffe’s question, lessons can be learned from the many inquiries initiated by the Oireachtas which have deliberated on matters of urgent public interest for lengthy periods of time at great cost to the taxpayer. Reform could be introduced on the basis of commissions of inquiry, which were introduced on foot of statutory reforms passed by the Houses as a means of overcoming the constraints of the 1924 Act, or improving the committee system. In terms of improving the committee system, the Supreme Court judgment makes clear that when we act on a quasi-judicial basis, such as re Haughey in 1971, we must protect the constitutional rights and natural justice of individuals appearing before committees.

Deputy Jim O’Keeffe:  We need fair procedures.

The Taoiseach:  That places a responsibility on all Members to avoid a natural tendency towards the politicking and partisanship which undermine the prospects for our committee system of providing the sort of democratic accountability which I agree might be more transparent to those who send us here. People need to go beyond party loyalty to work on committee matters in an objective and fair way. This requirement is additional to any reforms that may be suggested.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Before coming to the Order of Business, I propose to deal with a notice under Standing Order 32. I call Deputy Ó Snodaigh.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh:  Ba mhaith liom cead a lorg an Dáil a chur ar athló chun an ábhar ríthábhachtach náisiúnta seo a leanas a phlé— the disastrous failure to reconsider the proposed Scrooge-like cut to the Christmas bonus, which would restrict the spending capabilities of hundreds of thousands and further contract the economy and increase unemployment.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Having considered the matter raised, it is not in order under Standing Order 32.

The Taoiseach:  It is proposed to take No. 28, Statements on European Council, Brussels; No. 29, Labour Services (Amendment) Bill 2009 — Order for Report, Report and Final Stages; and No. 27, Public Transport Regulation Bill 2009 [Seanad]— Second Stage (resumed).

It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that (1) the proceedings on No. 28 shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after 85 minutes and the following arrangements shall apply: (i) the statements shall be confined to the Taoiseach and to the main spokespersons for the Fine Gael Party, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, who shall be called upon in that order, who may share their time, and which shall not exceed 15 minutes in each case, (ii) a Minister or Minister of State shall take questions for a period not exceeding 20 minutes and (iii) a Minister or Minister of State shall be called upon to make a statement in reply which shall not exceed five minutes; and (2) the suspension of sitting under Standing Order 23(1) shall take place at 1.30 p.m., or on the conclusion of No. 28, whichever is the later, until 2.30 p.m.

Private Members’ business shall be No. 75, motion re accountability of Government agencies and companies (resumed), to conclude at 8.30 p.m. tonight, if not previously concluded.

[306]An Ceann Comhairle:  There are two proposals to put to the House. Is the proposal for dealing with No. 28 agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with the suspension of the sitting under Standing Order 23(1) agreed to? Agreed. We will move on.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  The Ceann Comhairle has his own way of doing things. I ask the Taoiseach if it is his intention to introduce legislation to give a statutory basis to the voluntary code announced by banks regarding the repossession of houses. When the Minister for Finance introduced the guarantee, he noted that we are deeply embedded in banks and he has since made reference in the National Asset Management Agency Bill 2009 to having authority over the banks. As a large number of Deputies have noted, this is a matter of concern to thousands of people. Being unable to repay one’s mortgage can cause an unbelievable level of shock and distress. I accept the banks are saying that repossessing houses is the last thing they want to do but it may be necessary to give legal standing to the voluntary code.

Is it the intention to introduce legislation to give effect to reform of the HSE? Deputy Reilly has on several occasions spoken about the ten houses built at St. Ita’s in Portrane for intellectually challenged patients which cannot be opened because 42 nurses are required to make this possible. I have with me evidence from County Galway that 100 nurses have had to leave for England and other places. Their relocation allowances are being paid by hospitals there, including the Royal Berkshire, Whipps Cross and Bristol hospitals. We are in a serious situation with jobs no longer available for front line staff, some of whom will march in Dublin today, in particular, nurses, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists and occupational therapists. We train these professionals at great expense and to a very high standard. Perhaps the Taoiseach will advise if he will give legal effect to the changes that have been talked about so often.

The Ceann Comhairle was kind enough to write to the leaders of the parties informing us that we have been speaking for too long. In that respect, I will finish up very soon. Last week, he also hauled up Deputy Gilmore when he said the Deputy’s time was up.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  That was my fault. Deputy Kenny should not blame the Ceann Comhairle.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  The Taoiseach had just given a long, ten minute reply to a question from the Deputy. I do not have the times——

An Ceann Comhairle:  My letter was issued to all leaders, including the Taoiseach.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  If I overrun, I apologise and will try to keep within the limits. Perhaps the Ceann Comhairle will have his office indicate to us how long the contributions of the party leaders have been since he took office. This will show us the degree of guilt, blame or culpability we should bear based on the time penalties the Ceann Comhairle wants to impose on us.

The Taoiseach:  Will the calculations include interruptions?

On the question of people who find themselves in mortgage arrears, the matter is under the aegis of the Financial Regulator and the codes involved arise in that body. Primary legislation in that respect is not needed since the codes arise out of arrangements made in terms of how mortgage lenders are required to behave in respect of this matter, based on the monitoring done by the regulator. That is the way in which to deal with the issue as it provides the necessary flexibility to react and do the job.

I welcome the recent statement because it is helpful in the context of the idea that was gaining ground that at the end of the six month period — 12 months in respect of the two main [307]banks — there would be an avalanche of repossession orders and people would be forcibly removed from their homes. That is not the case. The announcements made this week have been helpful. People who are in arrears need to know what is the factual position. While I do not wish to minimise the difficulties such people have by reason of going into arrears and the anxiety and concern that this can cause, they should, as in every situation, make contact with their mortgage lender and sit down to ensure there is a full understanding of their situation. A protocol has been devised by the banks, mortgage lenders and Money Advice and Budgeting Service.

Arrangements are, therefore, in place to ensure difficulties are dealt with in as humane a manner as possible and to acknowledge the difficulties people face. It is not necessary to suggest that there is no framework in place to enable people to deal with this situation as best they can in the period ahead and have the matter reviewed on a six monthly basis. The decision is a wise one and it is important the message gets out and people know what is the position.

I am not suggesting that the difficulty no longer arises because the debt on the mortgage obviously remains. However, rescheduling and working in a fair and equitable fashion with people who are sufficiently concerned that they will meet those with whom they have done business to rearrange and reschedule payments is the right thing to do in everyone’s interest. That is the message that needs to get out in order that people do not believe they are being given a grace period of six or 12 months, after which a totally different approach will be adopted. People need to know that is not the case.

The codes in place are based on the arrangements. The financial regulatory authority, IFSRA, is a statutory body and the codes of conduct arise out of the relationship between the statutory powers of the Financial Regulator in monitoring and overseeing how mortgage lenders behave. There is, therefore, a basis for this. The important point is that what happens in practice is that the codes of conduct are adhered to.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore:  The local government (Dublin mayor) Bill is listed in section C of the legislative programme, which means the heads have not yet been approved by the Government. The problem is the Government has announced, through the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, that it intends that a direct election of a Dublin mayor will take place next summer. We do not yet know what the mayor will do, as no functions have been set out for the office, how the post will relate to the existing local authorities or what consequential changes will be made in the local government system in Dublin. Two problems arise in this regard. First, the matter has not been clarified and, second, if there is to be an election next summer, an issue of electoral fairness arises. The longer the legislation to provide for a Dublin mayor is delayed, the greater the problem of electoral fairness that will emerge.

Has the Government agreed heads of the Bill to provide for a Dublin mayor? I heard the Taoiseach state, in response to a question from Deputy Hogan last week, that the Bill would be presented some time in the new year. I ask that a mechanism be provided whereby the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government can inform the House or its relevant committee as to what exactly is intended for the office in question — what type of office it will be, what functions it will have and how it will relate to existing local authorities — in order that we have some knowledge about what is planned. Is it even intended to proceed with the proposed election next summer?

The Taoiseach:  The information I provided to the House last week is the up to date position, that is, the Bill is due to be brought forward early next year. While there is a deliberative process taking place, Members have available to them various other means, including Question [308]Time and the committee system to which Deputy Gilmore referred, by which information and updates can be provided as to the stage of progress that has been reached. The detailed questions the Deputy is asking are best put to the line Minister concerned.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  It was put to the Taoiseach that he should not proceed with the decisions in the budget measures in April regarding the Christmas payment to social welfare recipients and pensioners. I reiterate that proposal. Following on that, is it intended to have a social welfare Bill following the budget? If so, is the Bill likely to be presented before the Christmas recess? Is the Taoiseach in a position to indicate whether there will be one or more social welfare Bills and, if so, whether he intends to have them passed before the Christmas recess?

  12 o’clock

I note from the revised programme for Government that it promises to reform residency rules to ensure that those who benefit from living in Ireland are subject to taxation in Ireland. This commitment is clearly aimed at the very well-off, the super rich who make little or no contribution to taxation in this State. Is the relevant legislation under preparation? How soon is it expected to come before the Houses of the Oireachtas? Will the measures form part of the finance Bill which will follow the budget? I ask the Taoiseach to give the House a sense of how he intends to introduce the measures indicated in the revised programme for Government.

The Taoiseach:  Taxation matters are an issue for the Minister for Finance and I do not wish to go into detail on them for the purposes of the Order of Business. In regard to the social welfare Bill, Deputy Ó Snodaigh yesterday raised the issue of whether it would be an omnibus Bill or a series of Bills. The social welfare Bill to which we refer in the context of the budget arises from necessary legislative changes which have to take place as a result of decisions made at budget time. The point I made yesterday was that enactments have to be made before such changes come into effect.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  Once again I have to appeal to the Ceann Comhairle for assistance and advice. I am sure everybody in the House has had a similar experience to mine. In the past few days I have received responses to some ten questions from the Office of the Ceann Comhairle — it is not his fault — which state the Minister has no responsibility to the House. I have complained about this issue and only one person can deal with it. My question concerns the order or disorder of our business in this House. It has to stop. We have had a lot of talk about Dáil reform but we do not talk about the erosion of the rights of Members of this House to get answers to questions which are pertinent and which were answered previously by Ministers’ predecessors.

For example, in response to questions in respect of Transport 21, last week I received a letter from the Ceann Comhairle——

An Ceann Comhairle:  I advise the Deputy that the Dáil reform committee is meeting today and ask him to arrange that his party’s representative raise this matter there.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  This does not relate to Dáil reform. It relates to the erosion of——

An Ceann Comhairle:  It does. We are talking about parliamentary questions.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  ——the existing rights of Members of the House to get an answer to a question——

[309]An Ceann Comhairle:  Yes.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  ——which was answered five years ago. This Minister’s predecessor——

An Ceann Comhairle:  The brief——

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  ——answered the question in regard to Transport 21.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The issue the Deputy is raising is directly relevant to the deliberations of the sub-committee on Dáil reform.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  No it is not. That is a different issue altogether. My question concerns the rights Members had; it has nothing to do with Dáil reform. The suggestion is that we have Dáil reform in order to give back the rights we had five years ago, namely, the right to get an answer to a parliamentary question. The Ceann Comhairle can ask any Member of these benches if I am telling a lie. I can assure him there is more to come. This is a serious issue. We have seen a gradual erosion of rights. The only person who can deal with this issue is the Taoiseach.

An Ceann Comhairle:  If the Deputy wishes to pursue this issue there are alternative ways of dealing with it in the House.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  I ask the Ceann Comhairle to tell me what the alternative ways are.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy is a long time Member of this House. He knows what the procedures are.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  That is why I am asking the question.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy can avail of Private Members’ time, parliamentary questions or the Adjournment.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  The Ceann Comhairle is saying he can do nothing about it. The Taoiseach is sitting there, looking glumly across. All he has to do is give one scowl to his colleagues on the Front Bench and he can convince them to answer parliamentary questions, because every day that passes the rights of Members of this House are being trampled upon.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Deputy, please.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  I ask the Ceann Comhairle where else I can go to get an answer to my question.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I ask the Deputy to raise this matter with the sub-committee on Dáil reform.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  It is nothing to do with the sub-committee on Dáil reform.

An Ceann Comhairle:  We cannot allow disorder to take hold in the House.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  It is not disorder. What we are doing and have experienced here is disorder because of the disorder of our business.

[310]An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy should ask his party representative to raise this issue at the meeting today.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  I am asking the Ceann Comhairle why, if I could I get an answer to a question five years ago, I cannot get one now.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I ask the Deputy to resume his seat.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  I will resume my seat. The Ceann Comhairle is not standing up for the rights of the Members of this House when he refuses to force the Taoiseach to answer that question.

An Ceann Comhairle:  That is a terrible allegation to make.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  It is not a terrible allegation. It is the truth and the Taoiseach knows that.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I ask the Deputy to raise the matter at the meeting today.

Deputy Emmet Stagg:  On the same issue, the matter is before the Dáil reform committee but there is no sign of the Government making any move on it.

An Ceann Comhairle:  I do not have any control over the operation of the committee.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  That is the problem. The Ceann Comhairle has control over nothing anymore.

Deputy Lucinda Creighton:  I ask the Taoiseach to advise the House of his intentions as to when he will introduce the criminal justice (legal aid) Bill and what he envisages it will contain. There are serious problems with the legal aid system as it currently exists. It is costing the State a fortune. Nobody challenges legal aid applications in court. There is no incentive for the defence or the prosecution to do so and generally judges just accept the word of the defence. There is no scrutiny of how legal aid is awarded or whether it is awarded at all. The 1962 Act sets out no criteria for eligibilty for legal aid. I am interested to hear the Taoiseach’s views on how he proposes to deal with this issue. Repeat offenders are receiving legal aid on eight, nine or ten occasions. People are being investigated by the Criminal Assets Bureau but are still in receipt of legal aid. There is absolutely no effort made by the Government to address the issue. It is something which is exercising the public and which is morally wrong. I would like to hear how or when the Taoiseach intends to address the issue.

The Taoiseach:  I understand legislation is due next year. The Deputy raises issues which need to be addressed in the context of that Bill.

Deputy Joan Burton:  In the context of legislation on and the regulation of banking, the scheme which was announced by the Irish Banking Federation yesterday is welcome but limited and I share the sentiments the Taoiseach expressed. However, the scheme needs to be put on a statutory footing. Does the Taoiseach propose to do that? There are many lenders who are not covered by the scheme, which is voluntary, such as most of the sub-prime firms which are those who are currently taking hundreds of people to court. They are not waiting until after the NAMA Bill is passed, rather they are doing it now and are charging people vast penalties and legal fees in the way they are approaching repossessions. Every Deputy in this House knows that.

[311]We also have different money firms which are registered as financial institutions, some of which are, effectively, moneylenders. They are leaning on people for repayment by making constant phone calls, which is, effectively, harassment, and we have no regulation——

An Ceann Comhairle:  Is the Deputy referring to promised legislation?

Deputy Joan Burton:  Yes. We have no regulation at all of those kinds of debt collection methods. The Taoiseach will remember a notorious criminal was running a debt collection service in the Carlow area last summer——

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy will have to find an alternative way of getting answers to these questions. She could go down the parliamentary question road.

Deputy Joan Burton:  A whole series of different laws are proposed in regard to financial regulation, including the new legislation governing the reunification of the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator, as well as the NAMA Bill which will come back before the Dáil tomorrow. Is it possible to simply put an amendment in the Bill——

An Ceann Comhairle:  The ideal time to raise this matter will be when the Bill comes before the House tomorrow.

Deputy Joan Burton:  ——to put the scheme on a statutory footing? It would give some protection to people who are being pursued in a savage and in many cases illegal way for debt repayments.

The Taoiseach:  On customers of sub-prime companies, we have asked the authorities to seek to extend the arrangements to those people as well. I do not believe they should be exempt from a code of conduct in this regard and I understand that is what is intended. I explained that the code of conduct arises out of legislation on the Financial Regulator and IFSRA. The whole purpose of codes of conduct, based on that statutory code, is to provide the means to deal with situations quickly, whereas in respect of statutory provisions one has to introduce primary legislation all the time. As this situation evolves we need to respond flexibly and as humanely as possible to people who find themselves in genuine difficulty. If other people are simply absolving themselves of their responsibilities or are not engaging at all——

Deputy Joan Burton:  There are relatively few.

The Taoiseach:  There may be relatively few but we have to make that distinction, in fairness to those who are making the effort.

Deputy Joan Burton:  There are moneylenders who are really putting the squeeze on people.

The Taoiseach:  I hold no brief for such people. I am making the point that, as I understand it, it is being sought that the code of conduct be extended to everybody in this area. It is important that people are treated with the same degree of respect and dignity no matter who they are dealing with and that is something which the Financial Regulator has a responsibility to achieve and is seeking to achieve.

Deputy James Reilly:  I wish to inquire about two pieces of legislation. As the House is aware, 900 people die from bowel cancer every year in this country and with a screening programme we could save 324 lives per annum. In order to do this we need a unique patient identifier to collate and collect information in order to put proper screening in place. This can be started with a very generous contribution from the Irish Cancer Society of €1 million and I hope the [312]Minister will begin the process and allow for it in her budget this year. We need the health information Bill to be published to allow us to do this and I wonder when this legislation will come before the House.

The other piece of legislation promised by the Minister for Health and Children relates to the Competition Authority. In this country the Minister has refused to negotiate or engage with any of the representative bodies of either dentists, pharmacists, doctors and even Equity Ireland. There was an undertaking given earlier last year that this would be addressed, as the problem does not persist around Europe. Countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, France and Germany do not have this problem in dealing with the professions that we seem to have under competition law from Europe. When will those two pieces of legislation come forward?

The Taoiseach:  Both pieces of legislation are due next year. It will probably be the middle of next year.

Deputy Joe Costello:  In light of the imprisonment earlier this year of a former lobbyist for corrupt practices relating to the planning process in this city——

An Ceann Comhairle:  Is the Deputy talking about promised legislation?

Deputy Joe Costello:  ——and in regard to the bribing of public representatives and officials, I asked the Taoiseach yesterday about a commitment in the previous programme for Government to regulate the lobbying industry. The current programme for Government, agreed two and a half years later because nothing had happened in the meantime, has a renewed commitment to the regulation of lobbying.

The Taoiseach suggested that I await the reply of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the matter I put down on the Adjournment. I got that last night but I am none the wiser. The reply states: “The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is considering these issues on behalf of the Government, in line with the commitment in the renewed programme for Government.”

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy will have to find another way of raising this issue.

Deputy Joe Costello:  It continues: “He intends that his Department will constructively explore options with representatives of the lobbying industry to make progress with the most appropriate approach to the introduction of a register.”

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  That sounds like a firm promise.

Deputy Joe Costello:  That is not exactly a commitment to legislation so I ask the Taoiseach when we will get the legislation to regulate the lobbying industry, which has already been promised twice, in the previous and current programme for Government?

The Taoiseach:  The Deputy was informed as late as last night that the approach to be taken is that we will sit down with people engaged in this area.

Deputy Joe Costello:  There was no mention of legislation last night.

The Taoiseach:  I cannot add to last night’s discussion.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  That is the problem.

The Taoiseach:  It is not a problem, it is a fact.

[313]Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  It is a problem.

The Taoiseach:  Are people who got a reply last night coming in today to ask what is the story?

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  There was no reply last night.

Deputy Joe Costello:  That is not accurate. My question relates to legislation. The reply I got did not refer to legislation at all.

An Ceann Comhairle:  We will move to Deputy Ciarán Lynch. The Deputy will have to find an alternative way of raising this.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  There is no alternative.

Deputy Joe Costello:  I am entitled to ask the Taoiseach about promised legislation.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan:  Hear, hear.

Deputy Joe Costello:  This has been promised twice and we still have not got it.

The Taoiseach:  Let me answer the Deputy.

Deputy Joe Costello:  I am waiting to hear the reply.

The Taoiseach:  The answer is as the Deputy received it last night. Consideration will be given as soon as there are further discussions with the people in that industry in order to come up with a practical legislative response that makes sense and meets the objectives of the operation.

Deputy Joe Costello:  Will that be expected under the programme for Government?

Deputy Ciarán Lynch:  Under the Order of Business last Thursday morning I raised the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act, with specific reference to section 132. I would not expect the Tánaiste to have minute information and detail available to her for every matter pertaining to the Order of Business but it was indicated that a response would be given as to when section 132 would commence. It deals with upward-only rent reviews.

I received correspondence from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform which states:

A commencement order has been made specifically for 1 December 2009 as the date when all sections of the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act 2009 other than section 132 shall come into operation. A separate commencement order will now be necessary for section 132.

The next line is what I would like the Taoiseach to pay particular attention to because it is like something from “Yes, Prime Minister” and I am still trying to figure out what the official is saying to me. The letter continues:

The timing of that order is still being considered within the Department but the fact that section 132 has not been included in the general order does not imply that any decision has been taken in relation to the non-compliance of that section.

The question I have this morning——

[314]An Ceann Comhairle:  Deputy Lynch has established a routine of coming in and quoting from letters and it is not permitted.

Deputy Ciarán Lynch:  It pertains to what Deputy Durkan said this morning.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy indicated that he has received a reply from the Minister.

Deputy Ciarán Lynch:  I have not got a reply. That is the point.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Is the Deputy tying the reply to promised legislation?

Deputy Ciarán Lynch:  The promise was that the Act would commence on 1 December. Will the Taoiseach indicate if section 132 will be commenced? The reply I received is like something from the script of “Yes, Prime Minister” where a Minister is so brave as to stay away from the issue.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy has posed the question.

Deputy Ciarán Lynch:  Will the section be commenced and if so, when will it be commenced? Is there an indication in the response I received this morning that section 132 will be kicked to touch?

An Ceann Comhairle:  That information is probably not available at this time.

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

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Taoiseach may be prepared to answer it.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  The Taoiseach wants to answer it.

The Taoiseach:  The Bill has been passed and a commencement order in respect of all sections except section 132 will proceed on 1 December. Consideration must now be given on when to deal with the rest of the Bill, section 132, by a separate commencement order. The Deputies should be aware that to ask when a commencement order to a Bill that has already been passed will be made is a matter for the Department. There are phones available and other ways to get in touch with the Departments but Deputies are not satisfied with the replies. A question can be tabled to the Minister.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  There is e-mail as well.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  This is a House of Parliament.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  There are iPods.

The Taoiseach:  The Deputy is asking me about a commencement order.

Deputy Ciarán Lynch:  With respect, I have tabled parliamentary questions about this. I have communicated what has happened and none of these actions has been properly met.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Deputy Lynch has his information. I call Deputy Thomas P. Broughan.

Deputy Ciarán Lynch:  I appeal to the Ceann Comhairle. I have used very avenue. I know the answer I will receive; it will be like the reply I received this morning, which is like something from “Yes, Prime Minister”.

[315]An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy has his reply. I ask Deputy Lynch to resume his seat. We are holding up the Order of Business.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  We can phone in the Order of Business in future.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan:  I want to ask the Taoiseach a brief question but I first warmly support the issue raised by Deputy Durkan, the lack of accountability of Ministers to the House.

Deputy Olivia Mitchell:  Hear, hear.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan:  On behalf of the Department of Transport, the Ceann Comhairle turned down ten questions last Thursday from the Labour Party and I would like to look at that closely without going to sub-committees or sub-committees of sub-committees.

With regard to the rural transport network, has a decision been taken on small——

An Ceann Comhairle:  Is the Deputy talking about promised legislation?

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan:  We have had some discussion this morning about funding for next year. The Taoiseach knows about the brilliant service——

An Ceann Comhairle:  We are not talking about promised legislation.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan:  ——in his own constituency.

An Ceann Comhairle:  These matters should be dealt with by way of parliamentary question, the Adjournment or some other way.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan:  I tried to do that. For 2010, will the 40 or so small companies which provide a rural transport service be safe?

An Ceann Comhairle:  I advise Deputy Broughan to put the matter down on the Adjournment or in a parliamentary question.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan:  I have done that. Will the Taoiseach enlighten us on the matter and give those companies guidance?

An Ceann Comhairle:  It is not a matter for legislation. We cannot get into precise details and expect people to have answers in the Chamber. That is impossible.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan:  It is a big issue and the Taoiseach knows the matter very well.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy should put down a parliamentary question to the relevant Minister and get an answer that way.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan:  The Taoiseach will answer.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  He has the answer.

An Ceann Comhairle:  We are moving on to statements on the European Council.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Statements shall be confined to the Taoiseach and to the main spokespersons for Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, who shall be called upon in that order and who may share time, which shall not exceed 15 minutes in each case.

[316]The Taoiseach:  I attended the meeting of the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, 29 and 30 October. I was accompanied at the meeting by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, and by Deputy Dick Roche, Minister of State with responsibility for European Union affairs. The European Council meeting was the first regular meeting of European Heads of State in some time at which the subject of Ireland’s ratification of the Lisbon treaty was not the focus of both our own national efforts and a key interest of others. However, the Council was again more concerned than one might wish with institutional issues and with the Lisbon treaty. On this occasion, the spotlight was on the Czech Republic and the prospect of the instrument of ratification being signed after the Czech Parliament had approved the ratification of the treaty.

As it was the first meeting of the Council since the decisive vote of the Irish public on 2 October last, I was invited by the Presidency to say a few words about the referendum. I was mindful of the significant difference between Ireland’s predicament and that of the Czech Republic. I informed my colleagues that we completed all the formalities relating to our ratification of the treaty when the Minister of State, Deputy Dick Roche, deposited the instrument of ratification in Rome on 24 October. I recalled that we had made it clear following the outcome of the first referendum in June 2008 that we would not rush into any course of action, but would consider and assess in depth the underlying reasons for the decision of the Irish people. The Government, and the Oireachtas through the work of the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union, worked to identify and understand the issues concerned. At the same time, we ensured that the significance of the EU in the everyday lives of the public was fully appreciated. I recalled our previous discussions at Council, notably the support I had sought and obtained to ensure we would get a satisfactory response to the concerns raised by the public. I thanked my colleagues around the table for their consistent engagement with that task. I made it clear that we believe that Ireland and the European Council negotiated in good faith and were true to those negotiations. I emphasised how decisive the outcome was when the referendum result was declared on 3 October. I said that the overwhelming nature of the result was a clear statement of Ireland’s support for the Lisbon treaty and the Union more generally. I concluded by making clear that the most fitting conclusion to the entire process would be the rapid implementation of the Lisbon treaty.

The Council also discussed the situation that had arisen in the Czech Republic. The Council noted that the Lisbon treaty had been approved by the peoples or parliaments of all 27 member states. To provide a constructive response to the Czech Government’s efforts to resolve its difficulties, the Council agreed that at the time of a future accession treaty, the Czech Republic would be able to join the UK and Poland in signing up to Protocol 30 to the Lisbon treaty, which relates to the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in those countries. While there was concern that the Czech Republic’s decision to seek this change might lead others to engage in similar manoeuvres, the over-riding priority — to see the treaty enter into force and allow the Union to concentrate on policy rather than institutional issues — prevailed. The Constitutional Court of the Czech Republic subsequently rejected the remaining legal challenge to the Lisbon treaty. Later the same day, the Czech President, Mr. Klaus, signed the instrument of ratification which the Czech Prime Minister, Mr. Fischer, has said he will deposit in Rome on Friday, 13 November next.

The question of discussing the new positions, notably the President of the European Council and the high representative, did not arise because of the situation with the Lisbon treaty. This issue has moved on somewhat since the Czech President, Mr. Klaus, signed that country’s instrument of ratification. It is clear that the treaty will enter into force on 1 December next. The Swedish Presidency is engaging in discussions with each member state regarding the filling of the new posts. The discussions will continue over the coming days. The Swedish Presidency [317]has signalled its intention to convene an extra meeting of the European Council tomorrow week, 19 November, to deal with this matter comprehensively.

I have consistently said that the question of who we will support for the position of President of the European Council ultimately depends on the names that are in the frame. Following the referendum result, I indicated during an interview that Mr. Tony Blair was well regarded in Ireland because of his role in the Northern Ireland peace process. More recently, when Mr. John Bruton put his name forward as a potential compromise candidate, I made it clear that I would be happy to see an Irish person in the post. I said that as Mr. Bruton has excellent experience and credentials, his candidature has the full support of the Government. It has been suggested that the President of the Council should be one of the current members of the Council. As the filling of the post of high representative cannot be done in isolation from the filling of the position of President of the Council, the same situation applies in terms of the Swedish Presidency taking soundings. There is also a question of political balance across the top EU positions.

Securing agreement to retain one Commissioner per member state under the Lisbon treaty was a very important factor for the Government in running and winning the second referendum on the Lisbon treaty. I had discussions with President Barroso about this matter on Monday and over the past couple of weeks. I will talk to him again in the coming days. We will then be in a position to put forward our nominee for the position of EU Commissioner.

As expected, the other key focus of discussion at the Council was climate change, including the issue of financing. The Council agreed a clear and ambitious mandate for the negotiations at the Copenhagen conference in December. The Union has provided leadership on climate change from the outset. The agreement reached at the October European Council allows it to continue to do so. Different views were expressed within the Council about how far the Union should commit itself in advance of the final negotiations in Copenhagen. How far it will go will depend on the actions of others. I am confident that the continuing differences of view on how the financial burden should be shared internally can be resolved. In any event, such differences do not impede the ability of the Union to push the global negotiations forward. The outcome of the Council represents a balanced outcome to accommodate the various views, as it always does.

It is widely accepted that the Copenhagen conference will not result in a fully fledged legally binding international agreement. That does not mean we should drop our level of ambition. We must ensure the conference gets us as far along the road to a comprehensive and binding agreement as possible. Rather than winding down the pressure on others to step up to the plate, we must increase it. The EU position heading into the Copenhagen conference remains ambitious. The EU has made its commitments in a transparent way, backed up by resources. By endorsing the global figure of €100 billion in international financing per annum by 2020, and by committing to pay its fair share of that, the Union is again taking the lead and setting the pace for what must be achieved in Copenhagen. The purpose of this process is to achieve an international agreement that prevents the catastrophic global consequences of our planet warming too much.

Our position is strongly conditional on others accepting and fulfilling their obligations, proportionate to their responsibilities and means. Only in that event can we agree a treaty that will achieve what we want. It looks increasingly unlikely that such a treaty will be agreed at Copenhagen, although it may be agreed shortly afterwards. The Copenhagen conference may result in a political agreement, rather than a legally binding treaty. In that event, we must work to ensure it achieves the maximum that is feasible. There is much to play for in the negotiations over the coming weeks. I wish to make it clear that Europe and Ireland remain fully committed [318]to an ambitious, comprehensive and effective global deal. Although the December meeting creates the potential for deadline-driven momentum, the quality of the agreement is, within reason, more important than the timing.

While it was not top of the Council’s agenda on this occasion, the Council was extremely mindful of the ongoing difficulties in the global and European economies. The Council recognised the progress made in improving the financial regulatory structures in relation to systemic risk and banking supervision. We agreed on the need to co-ordinate exit strategies and to avoid choking off any potential recovery. That work is being advanced most notably at the Economic and Financial Affairs Council. The Council was clear that the stimulus measures put in place by most of our partners should not be removed until the recovery is fully secured. The Commission and the Council of Ministers were asked to revert to December’s European Council in relation to exit strategies. There is an increasing focus on the impact of the current economic difficulties on sustaining and creating people’s jobs, which is where the real pain is felt. The Council is looking forward to discussing a new European strategy for jobs and growth. That will form part of the upcoming review of the Lisbon strategy, which is likely to be a core element of next spring’s European Council, when such economic matters will be formally dealt with.

The Council focused particularly on the milk sector which, as Deputies are fully aware, is experiencing ongoing difficulties. The Council welcomed the efforts made by the European Commission to date. We are pleased that the work of the new high level group on milk is being accorded a level of recognition that reflects the priority we, like many other EU member states, attach to this real issue.

The Council returned to the issue of immigration, which had also arisen in June, not least as a result of the considerable difficulties being experienced by our Mediterranean partners. The Council noted the progress being made in implementing measures regarding illegal immigration. It called for further efforts to be made, notably in respect of FRONTEX, which is the EU’s dedicated body aimed at improving co-ordination on border issues. The December European Council is expected to adopt a new multi-annual programme in the field of freedom, security and justice, which is often referred to as the Stockholm programme. The Council also adopted conclusions on the Baltic Sea strategy and on external relations.

This was a good Council from an Irish perspective. Over the past two years, Lisbon treaty issues have inevitably dominated our domestic consideration of EU issues and absorbed time, energy and resources. A similar, if less acute, difficulty has affected the rest of the Union. It is to the advantage of everyone to see the Lisbon treaty enter into force, which seems set to happen on Tuesday fortnight. I look forward to the putting in place of the new elements under the Lisbon treaty, including the filling of the new posts and the appointment of a new Commission. Then, we will be in a position, both domestically and with our EU partners, to engage thoroughly on the full panoply of issues such as climate change and energy, cross-border crime, jobs, competitiveness and agricultural markets to name a few of the major issues where decisions taken at EU level can make a real difference to our public.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  I wish to share time with Deputies Billy Timmins and Lucinda Creighton.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Enda Kenny:  I was happy to attend the EPP summit meeting prior to the recent Council meeting in Brussels on Thursday, 29 and Friday, 30 October. The Lisbon treaty referendum campaign here was without rancour in terms of the parties that supported the treaty [319]and indeed was without the aggression of the previous campaign which was in the interest of everybody. I would like to thank all the people who were involved in any way and made a contribution to informing the electorate so that people could cast their votes as fully informed as possible about the issues either for or against. Obviously, I was very happy that there was an overwhelming endorsement of the Lisbon treaty.

Probably at the Council meeting itself and certainly at the meeting I attended there genuinely was real appreciation by European leaders of how the Irish people had gone about their business at a time when it is fair to say the Government was not riding high in the popularity stakes. The electorate here was very well able to distinguish between the issues of domestic politics and the European question, including the future of Europe and the support Europe has given us and will give us in the future. In that context it was a remarkable democratic decision by the Irish people, fully endorsing the Lisbon treaty and what that will lead to in the future.

In a peculiar way the fact that European leaders have not yet decided about the presidency and the high representative is normal for European politics, as the Taoiseach is well aware. Around in the corridors, as it were, and certainly in the shadows there is mention of the names of people who would like to put their names in lights and might be afraid to do so. These matters always have a tendency to drift until the last minute. From the discussions I had with people out there, the assumption certainly was that the President of the Council would come from the EPP Grouping and, as it does not have an overall majority in the Parliament, the high representative would come from the Socialist Group. These positions may be reversed depending on the discussions that are taking place between the Government leaders and so on.

I believe the appointment of the former Taoiseach, Mr. John Bruton, would be in Europe’s interest in the sense that he led a Government here which in European terms was conservative and socialist, was appointed by Europe to go to America to explain to Democrats and Republicans what Europe was about, sat on the convention and presidium dealing with the original proposed constitution and, as the Taoiseach has recognised, has had a genuine interest in the entire European process on that big broad plain of where we go. It is not as if this is someone looking for the start of a political career. There is an opportunity here in the event that he comes into play for real consideration. If, as may well be, the decision in Europe is to offer him, for example, the high representative position instead of the presidency, the Taoiseach might have to appoint him as Commissioner because, as he pointed out, the high representative must be a member of the Commission. In a non-political sense to have an Irish candidate for either of these two positions is a great honour for the country and Mr. Bruton would acquit himself with great distinction.

Following the recognition by the Council that the future for Europe is to get back to creating jobs, Chancellor Merkel has said she intends to drive the German economy — that mighty machine — to create jobs on a vast scale. I hope other countries follow suit and that, in our own way, the budget to be presented in December will contain a jobs stimulus.

I am getting many inquiries about revisiting our position on the Schengen Agreement. It seems that the visa requirements and the restrictions over entry into Ireland are causing many obstructions. I know we did not join in the beginning because of the consequences of having Border controls at Newry and elsewhere, as well as with England. Given the changes in passports, there are a number of complications and perhaps that issue might be reviewed.

Deputy Billy Timmins:  The Taoiseach mentioned that the outcome of the Lisbon treaty referendum, which we all welcomed, was a clear statement of Irish support for involvement in Europe and for the Lisbon treaty, with which I would concur. However, it is difficult to reconcile that with the decision a year earlier. I do not believe we can brush under the carpet [320]what happened in the past year here. We need to ensure greater involvement here in the Houses and with the people with respect to the European project. I do not know when or if there will be another referendum on a European issue. I do not foresee one in the next decade or so. I would not like the practice to evolve where we would always have two referenda, one in which we say “No” and one in which we say “Yes”. Let us learn the lesson and let us not be content to dismiss the “No” vote as a blip. Let us not become detached from the concerns the people have. The in-house issues, so to speak, we raised prior to the second Lisbon treaty referendum should be addressed rather than just parked there.

The European Council meeting will take place on 19 November and I concur with many of the points raised by Deputy Kenny with respect to the positions of President of the Council, the high representative and our own Commissioner. It is important that we appoint people of the highest calibre to such positions and I do not believe one is being partisan when mentioning former Taoiseach, Mr. John Bruton, who has done an excellent job in the United States. While I imagine his appointment might not have been welcomed by the secretariat at the time, he went on to prove that politicians can do those jobs quite well. He is to be commended on the work he did and how he kept in touch with people back home on a weekly basis with his very informative bulletin, which clearly indicated how he reached out to every strand and sector in society in the United States during his period there.

The Taoiseach said the Council mainly dealt with climate change. He spoke about the financial burden and endorsing the global figure of €100 billion in international financing per year by 2020. When summing up the Minister of State might give us a breakdown of that figure and whether there will be a commitment from Ireland. One of the great things about ratification of the Lisbon treaty is that, as we hope, we will be able to have coherent policies on these global issues. I note that Professor Bellamy recently stated that there was more snow on the Alps last winter than there had been in the previous 26 years, so there will be the counterargument about climate change. It is very important to have a very clear strategy outlining the scientific evidence showing the negative impact of the road we are travelling and to outline the advantages of taking measures to address it. Such a macro issue can go over the heads of many people. We tip the cap to it and issue platitudes, but we do not really grasp its seriousness.

When appointed, the high representative will be able to deal with important external relations issues. We can play a really important role here. The most emotive external relations issue for Irish people is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I know there is deep thinking in Europe, probably led by the Swedes and followed closely by our Government, about adopting a more proactive approach to trying to solve the problem in the Middle East. I know it has been going on for a couple of thousand years and we do not expect to solve it overnight. However, we could play a role by setting up here in Ireland, whether we use Glencree or whatever, a forum, similar to the forum in Northern Ireland. Let us set up a group here in Ireland and bring together the various bodies that are very divisive on the issue. Anyone who proclaims a reasonable view on the difficulties in the Middle East without coming down 100% on one side or the other is immediately attacked and the extremes have no room for moderation in it. It will not be solved and has not been solved in the past thousands of years by the extremes. The hope that was sent out by President Obama when he came into power seems to have stonewalled, so to speak, and now he is worried by the internal difficulties he will have. He will have to embrace the broader issues and will have to speak to the Syrian and Iranian authorities in an effort to find a solution in the Middle East.

A mindset has evolved which says that the problem cannot be solved. That is not good enough, nor is it good enough simply to park the issue. What is happening in the Middle East — in the West Bank even more so than in Gaza — is unacceptable in any modern democratic [321]society. Ireland can play a crucial and central role by establishing a forum in this State to bring the different groups together for discussions. There is agreement among 90% of the people in terms of what the solution should be. We must seek to move forward from there.

Deputy Lucinda Creighton:  I will begin by saying that it would be preferable for these debates to take place in advance of Council meetings rather than afterwards. Hindsight is a great thing but if the Parliament is to perform its function in respect of the Executive, it is important that we have an opportunity for input. Perhaps it is something that can be discussed among the Whips.

I lend my support to the candidacy of the former Taoiseach, Mr. John Bruton, for the position of President of the European Council. I hope the Taoiseach will not be a reluctant supporter of Mr. Bruton’s candidacy but rather an active advocate. Mr. Bruton is not just an Irish person who happens to be seeking the Presidency of the European Council; he is an Irish person with a substantial record of public service both to this country and to the European Union. As such, he is in a position to make a hugely valuable input to the future of the European project.

It is apt that we are discussing a Council meeting which was dominated by the ratification of the Lisbon treaty. All discussions regarding Europe have been dominated by the institutional paralysis within the Union for almost eight years. The Taoiseach and the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, both played an important part in ensuring the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, as did Deputy Bruton and many others on both sides of the House. We have spent a long time seeking to formulate and devise a path forward; now that the first step on that road is achieved, there is a great opportunity to shape and influence how the Union conducts its business, including how it meets the challenges of economic recession and climate change.

The Oireachtas has work to do in examining how best to implement the much enhanced and strengthened role of national parliaments under the terms and provisions of the Lisbon treaty. I hope the Taoiseach will give some consideration to this. I already raised the issue with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, at last week’s meeting of the Joint Committee on European Affairs. There is an opportunity now for the Oireachtas, perhaps through a sub-committee, to look at how we should seek to enhance the role of national parliaments and to shape policy in that regard from an Irish perspective. There is no doubt that developments in the European Union are set to gallop ahead; I understand the Committee on Constitutional Affairs of the European Parliament has already issued a report on the issue. Instead of reacting, we should seek to shape developments in this area. I urge the Taoiseach to consider the matter at Cabinet and in discussions with the Minister, Deputy Martin, and Minister of State, Deputy Roche.

In regard to the Council meeting itself, I very much support the European Union taking a leading role on the global stage in setting ambitious targets for itself and others in regard to climate change. However, I am concerned at this point in time that we may threaten our own competitiveness and put in danger the opportunity for job creation in the European Union and for making the Union more competitive in the global economy. That must be borne in mind. It may well be a positive that the outcome of these discussions, rather than being legally binding, is more likely to be in the nature of a political agreement. Perhaps it will be better to work towards a treaty in the future when we have brought on board the developing countries as well as the United States to the extent that they have bought into the type of leadership the European Union has been advocating. We cannot go it alone but must instead ensure full engagement from all partners and stakeholders.

I noted the reports in yesterday’s media regarding the extension of the deadline from 2013 to 2014 for Ireland to achieve its target of reducing its budget deficit to 3% of GDP. I under[322]stand this will be discussed at the ECOFIN meeting on 3 December, but I assume there will also be some reference to it at the forthcoming special Council meeting. I hope the extension of the deadline will not be used as a get-out clause in the December budget, that is, as an opportunity to avoid some of the tough decisions that must be taken in the national interest. The longer we put off the decisions that must be taken, the more painful it will be for us all in the long term. We appreciate the latitude being shown to Ireland by the European Commission, which is reflective of the realities of our situation, but it must not be used as a means of putting off until next year what needs to be done this year for the sake of the Irish people. I urge the Taoiseach to reflect on that.

Deputy Joe Costello:  It is appropriate that we are discussing European Union matters on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The latter was part of the residual hangover from the destruction and mayhem of two world wars. It was that legacy which encouraged the founders of the European project to produce the Treaty of Rome which ultimately gave rise to the European Union. The entire project was based on the objective of securing peace and prosperity for the peoples of Europe and, as part of this, the Union played a transitional role in bringing the totalitarian states behind the Iron Curtain into democracy. It is appropriate that this discussion is taking place as the Union’s institutions are finally being reformed according to the provisions of the Lisbon treaty. The Union can now seek to point the way forward on the global stage on such issues as climate change, the elimination of poverty and the challenges facing the world economy.

The ratification of the Lisbon treaty was, from the Irish perspective, the high point of the discussions at the summit. All the other member states breathed a sight of relief that the wayward child had at last come back to the fold. After all our self-analysis, soul-searching, debate and electioneering, the model country of Europe was back in line. The welcome we received was in contrast to the short shrift given to the President of the Czech Republic. Thankfully, all 27 member states are now in a position to ensure the Lisbon treaty is put into force at the beginning of December.

I am pleased that the Swedish Presidency has proposed a special summit. This is necessary given the number of issues down the line, not least the Copenhagen conference and the continuing economic crisis. The Union cannot afford to wait until the December summit to address all these issues and formulate our positions. Previous speakers mentioned the various appointments that must be made and I am glad the Taoiseach said in a forthright fashion that the Government has given full support to the candidacy of John Bruton. That is a welcome statement. I am glad the European socialist group is seeking the important post of EU high representative for foreign and security policy. While the functions of the President of the European Council are clearly laid down, the High Representative’s functions will be important because he or she will be the face of the Union around the world. Those who opposed the Lisbon treaty argued that this was an executive post, the appointee would be the leader of a federalist group and it would be the beginning of the end of the Union as we understand it. It is crucial that the person who is appointed to the post demonstrates that is not the case and that the decisions of the Council and the Union will be reflected by the high representative abroad as he or she will be a contact point. The first term of office will be important in that respect and perhaps that position needs to be examined closely. I am sure the Taoiseach will do that in his discussions over the next few days with President Barroso.

Deputy Creighton referred to the question of putting our own house in order. The Lisbon treaty was strong about the new role that will be given to national parliaments and, while it will be up to them to take on this role, it will be also up to governments to ensure they are [323]enabled to do so. The Heads of Government at the EU summit should discuss how best the new role can be exercised by parliaments. It is not sufficient to say parliaments have this role and they can get their act together in this regard. Governments will have be involved as well because an upgraded role for parliaments cannot be provided unless additional resources and structures are put in place. That will mean new Standing Orders for the Oireachtas because a new role cannot be taken on by the Dáil or Seanad unless they rearrange the way they conduct their business. We must examine how we conduct our business at home and there will also have to be interaction with the other member states. How best this new role can be managed and most effectively implemented in the interest of strengthening the democratic process, especially in increasing awareness of the Union in the country, requires examination on both a micro and a macro level.

The climate change conference in Copenhagen looms. Climate change is a major issue with €100 billion required annually until 2020 to assist developing countries in mitigating the worst effects of dealing with the reduction in carbon emissions. How will the Union get that amount together? In addition, between €5 billion and €7 billion will be needed annually for the next three years globally to get the initiative off the ground. This will impact on every member state but it will have a more significant impact on Ireland, which is a net importer of energy. We produce little energy while 90% of our energy comes from fossil fuels but we have a significant opportunity to produce alternative sources of energy. Ireland should be at the cutting edge of technology and the Government should set a target of 2050, for example, for Ireland to be a net exporter of energy. It should be ensured that the infrastructure programme for the transmission of energy can link Ireland to mainland Europe in order that we can export as well as import energy.

While it will be an economic weight on Ireland to meet its part of the cost of the climate change initiative, which will be colossal, the Copenhagen conference looks less likely to result in the ambitious projects that were mooted and it will not result in a binding legal agreement, despite all the talk up to recent times. It will be simply a political agreement which raises questions about where we stand within the EU and where we stand in regard to developing countries. We have a long road to travel before we secure the strong regulations required to build on the Kyoto protocol and to produce a legally binding way forward.

  1 o’clock

Employment and financial regulation were also discussed at the Council. I welcome the commitments regarding the supervisory role the Union is seeking and an enhanced regulatory role both within the Union and globally and that work is under way. I was disappointed by the lack of attention paid to high unemployment levels, which is a major issue facing the Union. While it was acknowledged, the position is deteriorating and there is no indication the measures being taken will significantly increase employment levels. They may improve economies but unemployment remains a major consideration. It is ironic the only reference to this issue was how member states that had adopted stimulus packages could get out of them when economic recovery takes place. They may not increase employment levels. The reference to addressing employment in the review of the Lisbon strategy is not good enough. The Taoiseach needs to be more specific and less aspirational on these matters because the State could be dragged down by high unemployment even when economies begin to prosper again.

The Taoiseach referred to Afghanistan and Pakistan but I am not sure to what extent they were discussed. It is unfortunate that an election held in Afghanistan was declared invalid because of fraud but the attempt to hold a second election resulted in one of the candidates pulling out because his perception was that there could not be a valid election, as fraud would be still an issue. Democracy in the country has not been strengthened. The US President stated yesterday that 28,000 more American troops would be deployed while Prime Minister Brown [324]said he was fully supportive of this move. The situation seems to be descending into an even greater morass. Casualties are increasing and there seems to be no direction in the conflict. The European Union simply says it will contribute to strengthening civilian structures in Afghanistan. That is meaningless. Pakistan is now becoming engulfed and suicide bombing is spreading there. Given the Taliban presence in Pakistan, that country could shortly become involved. There could be conflagration in the entire area. No direction is coming from the European Union although some member states are deeply involved in the conflict. This flashpoint needs to be addressed.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Charlie O’Connor):  As there are no further speakers, I invite the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dick Roche to take questions. I will then invite him to make a five minute statement.

Deputy Billy Timmins:  I raised the issue of climate change. Could a forum be established in Ireland where Palestinians and Israelis could be brought together to agree a Common Position?

Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Deputy Dick Roche):  I was struck by the contribution of Deputy Timmins, who has experience in the peacekeeping forces. This is a very good idea. Rather than continually wringing our hands in desperation at the ongoing stasis in the Middle East, we must look for steps forward.

Deputy Timmins mentioned Glencree. On Friday of this week, the Glencree peace award will be made. People who have been at war with each other come together in the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. One finds people there who were once avowed enemies and willing to kill each other north of the Border. One meets people there who have come through the South African experience. Deputy Timmins has put his finger on something we should look at.

We have an opportunity to put down markers in this area. We have had an experience and we understand the process through which we have come. Our hands are clean. We do not have a colonial past and we did not play any part in the so-called settlements in the Middle East which led to the current problem. Of course, Israel does not always look fondly on our inputs in that area. Nevertheless, Deputy Timmins’s point is well made. Perhaps it could be discussed in an Oireachtas committee. The issue is not controversial and it might have broad political support in both Houses. I look forward to talking to the Deputy about it and I would carry any suggestions that come out of a cross-party agreement in the Oireachtas to European forums. Deputy Timmins is right. Ireland has a role to play and it would be a welcome one.

Deputy Lucinda Creighton:  There is concern among certain member states at the impending pressure from the European Commission to phase out stimulus packages, guarantee schemes and financial supports. If this happens prematurely, there is a risk of a second slump or even a further and deeper recession. Could the Minister of State address this issue?

Deputy Dick Roche:  Deputies Creighton, Timmins and Costello touched on this in their contributions. The EU recognises that a cautious approach must be taken, particularly to support and stimulus packages and most particularly to their phasing out. I am sure the Deputy is aware that there is significant discussion on this issue in the United States. While the stimulus package started very early there and significant numbers of jobs were under way, particularly in social construction, the money is now beginning to run out and they are now talking about further lay-offs. The problem with a stimulus package is how to reverse out of it. Exit strategies will have to be prepared and co-ordinated. The Council itself made a reference to the fact that [325]such strategies must be prepared in the framework of the implementation of the Stability and Growth Pact, as has been requested by the Commission. The objective is to ensure that there is strong and sustainable economic recovery and that the danger highlighted by Deputy Creighton and others will not come about, visiting a new shock on the system.

The Council is concerned about employment. Chancellor Merkel issued a statement yesterday on driving employment in the German economy. There is a specific acknowledgment that the increase in employment levels and the promotion of active social inclusion and protection will be focal points in the new European strategy for jobs. This realisation underlines much of the discussion in the European Union.

Deputy Joe Costello:  It may be looking very far down the road to talk about exiting from the broad based stimulus policies when recovery is secured. That presumes that recovery will be secured. That is not what I would have thought the summit will be discussing. We must have recovery and we need to look at other policies to achieve it and to increase employment. There is a recognition that employment is deteriorating. It is accepted that the employment situation in Europe can be expected to deteriorate further. That is stated in the conclusions. How does that rest with a strategy to expand the employment base and create new areas of employment? At the bottom of section 28, it is stated that the European Council “looks forward to discussing a new European strategy for jobs and growth as part of the upcoming review of the Lisbon strategy”. To read this one would never imagine we are in an economic crisis.

We did not have a stimulus package in this country so there is no question of our trying to exit a stimulus package when the recovery comes about. What input did we have into this element of the discussion, which is central to ourselves? We are seen as a country with high unemployment. It has risen from 4% two years ago to more than 12%. Our economy is export orientated so that it is unlikely that we will not experience an increase in employment even when our economy recovers. We could find ourselves in a reasonably good economic situation but with persistent long-term unemployment. We need to consider the danger to countries like Ireland and small economies which will find it hard to grow jobs. We must have an input in this area.

Is there an Irish position on the Copenhagen conference? It is only around the corner. We have heard of the intentions of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Taoiseach to travel to the conference but what is our position on the conference? It is a colossal enterprise with €100 billion required in developing country funds. We are talking about €5 billion to €7 billion. What contribution are we expected to make? There must be tentative discussions on these matters. Will we be in a position to bear the brunt we will be expected to bear? How will that feed into the movement towards alternative energy? The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, said that by next year, 4% of fuel will have to be bio-fuel. However, 90% of that will have to be imported. That will not result in any improvement in terms of our fossil fuel usage. The principle will be the same in that it will be imported energy. It is not really alternative energy. It will probably be imported from countries in which perhaps as much land as possible should be devoted to food crops; otherwise, the forests of the world will be depleted. It is meaningless unless we produce the bio-fuel ourselves. This is a major issue and we are some distance from thinking it through very carefully.

Deputy Dick Roche:  The key issue as far as Copenhagen is concerned is that, first and foremost, Europe is prepared to lead. Ireland very strongly supports that line. To go back to the point made by Deputies Timmins and Creighton, the solution which will come from Copenhagen will have to be balanced. Europe cannot carry the full burden. The other nations in the [326]developed world, in particular the United States and the rapidly growing economies such as China and India, must carry their fair share of the burden too.

The first phase will be to decide what the overall global targets are while the second phase will be to decide what proportion will be taken by Europe. At that stage, the discussion will have to be on how the member states will share the burden, as happened after Kyoto. That is the sequence in which the issue will be decided.

Deputy Costello made a very important point on bio-fuels. It would be great if the alternative energy sources could be sourced within our country because that is the best way to go. To go back to my time in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government when the Department produced a joint paper with the Department responsible for energy, that was the intention. That is the way it will develop.

Deputy Costello was correct that we need to be very careful about the issue of bio-fuels. There is a clash between, and a debate on, bio-fuels and food production. The Deputy made the point that there is a discussion about the extraordinary situation of rainforests, which are part of attenuating carbon emissions and which hold the carbons, being destroyed to produce soy which goes to feeding cattle that are transported half way around the world and end up on plates in Europe. That issue must be looked at.

The point Deputy Costello missed in his contribution, in particular on the pronouncements yesterday by the Minster for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, was that bio-fuels by their nature will cut our carbon emissions problems. Again, to go back to my time in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and when we were rapidly developing as an economy, we had issues in regard to very large amounts of carbon emissions, for example, from the building industry, other industrial activity and even transport. The downturn has had the effect of dampening that.

The key point which will inform the discussions after Copenhagen, because it is generally agreed that a final solution will not be agreed there, is that there will have to be equity and, to go back to Deputy Creighton’s point, Europe cannot carry the full burden. The United States, the other developed countries, Brazil and the rapidly growing economies must carry their burden too. That will be the key issue which will have to be decided. In my experience after Kyoto, that is exactly the kind of trading that went on internally in Europe, that is, to decide the individual burdens or the tonnages to be carried by each member state.

Deputy Lucinda Creighton:  I agree with the point Deputy Costello made in regard to stimulus packages. It is ironic that we are defending the stimulus packages introduced in other member states when we have not seen any stimulation of our own economy. Perhaps that is a debate for another day.

I refer to a point I made earlier about the extension of the deadline from 2013 to 2014, which has been confirmed. I would like some assurance from the Minister of State — perhaps he has discussed it with the Taoiseach — on the likely impact of this on the forthcoming budget. I know it is not directly related to the recent EU Council meeting but we have some latitude to go slightly beyond that. Perhaps the Minister of State will address that point, namely, my fear that this may be used as an opportunity by the Government to get out of commitments which have already been made to deliver significant savings in the December budget.

Deputy Dick Roche:  I noted very carefully Deputy Creighton’s original contribution. I agree with the general tenor of her point. We face two types of problems. There is a cyclical element in our current economic problems and there are the structural problems in our economy, in particular in our public finances, which must be addressed.

[327]I hope the steadfastness Deputy Creighton has demonstrated and advocated to Government will be reflected on all sides of this House when we come to the budget because the reality is — I think the Deputy has very honestly recognised this — that there are tough bullets to be bitten. Whether there is an additional year, and the impact that will have, is not the issue. As the Deputy said, the European Union has been very supportive. She made a contribution many times during the recent referendum debate and I again compliment her and Deputies Costello and Timmins on their roles in the referendum debate. The reality is that the solutions to these problems lie in this House and we must make decisions.

Deputy Costello made the point, which I did not address, about stimulus packages which Deputy Creighton picked up. There is not a homogeneous one size fits all solution across the European Union. The economic structures in each of the 27 member states are radically different. Ireland has one of the most open economies in the world. Stimulus packages by their nature tend to leak. If one creates a stimulus package for the automobile industry in Ireland, it would give some relief to people who have suffered very badly but the benefit would leak.

Deputy Lucinda Creighton:  We do not have an automobile industry.

Deputy Dick Roche:  I am illustrating the point the Deputy made. We must be very careful because the propensity to say, “We will do that too”, must be broken. We must resolve our problems on our own, in particular the structural problems in our public finances. There is no point stretching that over a long period because if we do not take action, we will end up in the situation in which we found ourselves in the late 1980s when we had a per capita debt which was higher than that of Sudan or Ethiopia and when every penny which came in under PAYE tax had to go to serve that debt. That would be a betrayal of all that has been achieved in recent years and of the future generation.

We must solve all those problems. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance have stated our determination to deal with them, and not because it is the easy thing to do politically. God only knows it is not as there is no popularity in cutting. However, the reality is that we must take the scalpel, although we must be careful how we wield it.

I hope Deputy Creighton will be able to enthuse all those who sit behind her on the backbenches who sometimes reflect quite contrary views to her way of thinking because to my mind her way of thinking is the right way.

Deputy Joe Costello:  The Taoiseach said the ratification process has moved on with President Klaus signing the treaty. The treaty will enter into force on 1 December. That is a new and earlier date than expected. What is proposed? Are any celebrations proposed? Will another summit meeting be held on that occasion or some other recognition of the event?

I have a question about an issue which Deputy Creighton and I have already raised, that of Oireachtas reform. What is Government policy for dealing with the new powers conferred by the Lisbon treaty on the Parliaments of member states? This is a substantial area and was highlighted by the Joint Committee on European Affairs, theJoint Committee on European Scrutiny and the special sub-committee on the way forward.

I refer to the regionalisation of the European Union which seems to be taking place. President Sarkozy’s French Presidency of the EU established the Mediterranean region and the Baltic region has been established under the Swedish Presidency. Are we to expect that under the Irish Presidency in 2013 or so, the Atlantic region will be established?

Deputy Dick Roche:  As a result of our referendum one thing is certain and that is we are not going to see the establishment of a eurosceptic north-eastern European region. Deputy Costello asked about commemorative events next month. To my knowledge there are no [328]special ceremonies proposed. A December European Council meeting will be held as usual and as the Taoiseach mentioned, there will be a special Council meeting next week at which the high posts that must be filled will be discussed.

The former Deputy and Taoiseach, John Bruton, was mentioned in the House. I regard John Bruton as a very good friend and we worked closely together on the convention on the future of Europe. He has many talents that could be brought to the role in question. The most significant factor is whether the role is to be chairman or chief. In my view, having been at the convention and at all the IGCs, intergovernmental conferences, the role was always intended to be that of a chairman. It was intended to be a co-ordinating role. This is not to say it was to be stilted or narrow in scope as it is a very important role. It must provide continuity and energise the Union, to make sure the agenda is followed and to ensure that progress is made by the Union.

There is also an external representation review. However, I never saw the role of President as being European President. This was one of the great myths spouted during the two referenda in this country. I wish John Bruton well. The success or otherwise of his potential candidacy will very much depend on the support he gets from within the EPP family because that is where the first decisions will be made. I do not wish to intrude but I am sure Deputy Kenny has made appropriate representations. John Bruton is held in high regard within that group. To return to the point made by Deputy Costello about the next European Council, the nature of these posts is that they will be filled in a way that should perhaps be more open than it is. They will be filled by the Presidency taking a series of soundings and coming back to the various exponents of various candidates and attempting in that way to reach a consensus.

On the issue of regionalisation of the Union, it is not regionalisation but rather a recognition of the specific regions in the neighbourhood policies of the European Union member state. These need specific attention. This time last year, we saw how critical it was to have a good policy towards the east, when Bulgaria and Romania had the gas cut off because of the dispute between Russia and the Ukraine and the resulting detrimental impact. The Mediterranean region initiative was launched with some celebration by the French Presidency. They were very colourful ceremonies. This was a very sensible recognition of the specific issues within the Mediterranean basin, not least for example, illegal immigration. Malta is in a dreadful state and Cyprus and Italy are handling a significant burden in this regard so there needs to be a specific policy for that area. On the issue of the Baltic region, the Baltic Sea is very heavily polluted, not because of effluent discharged from Europe but rather effluent discharged from Russia over a long period.

Acting Chairman:  I invite the Minister of State to conclude so that he will have a further five minutes in which to make a statement.

Deputy Dick Roche:  I agree that both Houses of the Oireachtas have a new mandate to involve themselves in European affairs. The Houses should come forward with solutions. I do not agree that the solutions should necessarily require the expenditure or further resources as the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has excellent staff who are capable of carrying the extra burden.

Acting Chairman:  I have invited the Minister of State to make a five-minute statement.

Deputy Dick Roche:  The Acting Chairman is kindness personified.

Following on the Taoiseach’s statement, a number of issues were touched on by Deputy Costello. Where Afghanistan and Pakistan are concerned, there has been a number of signifi[329]cant developments since the European Council, including the conclusion of the presidential election process. We are all aware of that. Now that the process has been completed, it is essential that President Karzai establish a credible and competent Government that will promote national unity without delay. The new Government must swiftly develop a comprehensive agenda on the challenges facing Afghanistan, especially the challenges of good governance, the fight against corruption and the issue of security.

The European Union is ready to help. At the European Council we endorsed a paper prepared by the Commission and Council Secretariat, entitled Strengthening EU Action in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which had been agreed by Foreign Ministers at the General Affairs and External Relations Council, GAERC, earlier in the week. This paper will form the basis of the EU position at the international conference which has been called for once the new Afghan Government takes up office.

While not on the formal agenda for the European Council, member states took the opportunity to discuss Iran during the formal dinner. Based on those discussions, a declaration on Iran was annexed to the Presidency conclusions, in which the EU called for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question, set out the EU’s grave concerns regarding Iran’s persistent failure to meet its international obligations and urged Iran to co-operate with the IAEA, as well as addressing the human rights situation in the country and the situation of the British Embassy staff and of Ms Clotilde Reiss, whose futures remain uncertain.

The EU welcomed the opening of the dialogue with Iran in Geneva on 1 October but is anxious to see that engagement translate into practical actions on the key international concerns. The EU collectively, as well as the IAEA, the United States, Britain, France and Russia, have all called on Iran to respond positively and promptly on the uranium enrichment offer which has been on the table since the Geneva meeting of 1 October. It is necessary that delivery be a reality in that area.

A delegation of IAEA inspectors was invited to visit Iran’s recently-revealed second uranium enrichment plant at Fordo, near Qom on 25 October, but it is noted that the data gathered has yet to be analysed. Nobody was happy at the fact that a second plant had been found or admitted to. A response on the enrichment proposal is still awaited from Iran and a date has yet to be set for the follow-up meeting on the Geneva dialogue, which was meant to have taken place at the end of October or by early November. Reports have also emerged recently that the IAEA has uncovered evidence of Iran’s testing of an advanced nuclear warhead design, a troubling revelation which adds real urgency to the engagement process.

In considering Europe’s role as a global actor, it is important to recall that the European Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. The EU has a global reach with more than 130 Commission delegations and offices. It has launched more than 20 overseas ESDP missions and has become the largest donor of development and humanitarian assistance in the world. As the report on the implementation of the European security strategy made clear last year, in order to ensure our security we must become, “more strategic in our thinking, and more effective and visible around the world”. An important element in improving the EU’s global effectiveness is allocating the EU’s resources — people, structures, funding — in such a way as to match the EU’s strategic foreign policy interests and priorities. The implementation of the Lisbon treaty and the new phase in the structural development of the European Union’s foreign policy capability offers a unique opportunity to do this.

I refer to some of the specific issues raised by Deputies. Undoubtedly, the October Council meeting was a watershed. It has prepared the European Union well for the global negotiations at the December Copenhagen conference. It is disappointing that it looks as if the conference [330]will not reach specific final conclusions. The meeting also maintained the Union’s attention to the economic and financial situation, addressing the need for co-ordinated action to generate new sources of growth and seeking thorough preparation of EU participation in future G20 meetings. In addition, the council meeting opened the way to completing the ratification process of the treaty and the date for it to come into force will be 1 December.

It has been said in media comment that the conclusions on climate change are insubstantial and have simply covered up internal EU disagreement on how to share the burden. On the contrary, I maintain that the climate change conclusions show the EU in a strong, committed and credible position going into the Copenhagen conference. Deputy Costello referred to paragraphs 4 to 25 in this regard. The readiness to move to a 30% reduction in emission levels from the 1990 level is clearly set out. It should be recalled this is a negotiation. We expect other developed countries to commit themselves in a comparable way and that developing countries contribute according to their capabilities.

A first step in grappling with challenges of this kind is to quantify the burden. The Council endorsed the estimate of €100 billion per annum by 2020 to mitigate and adapt to climate change. A substantial part — up to one half of the amount — may come from public finance but not all of it. The European Union has signalled its readiness to take on its fair share of this, connected to its recognition that a deal on financing will be central to the Copenhagen outcome.

The burden must be shared, internationally and internally and the key is that it should be based on equity. To answer Deputy Costello’s question, the relevant quotation refers to emission levels and GDP, with a considerable weight on emission levels. How this will impact within the EU and between member states will be the subject of further work. Thus, it is not possible to be precise at this stage.

I refer to Ireland’s contribution to these costs. Calculations have yet to be made and it would be misleading to suggest we have reached that level of precision because we have not. As the Taoiseach has said, this is a global threat of long-term implications and Ireland will take on its fair share of the effort but no more than that. Others have stressed that funding should be additional and not come from development aid. The European Council touched on this, emphasising that the effort should not undermine the fight against poverty and progress toward the millennium development goals. Mary Robinson made the same point in a speech last Friday. At the same time a certain part, although small as a proportion of overall development aid, could well be devoted to tasks and technology transfer that assist in reducing the effects of climate change. Technology transfer to some of the developing countries could result in a win-win situation for everyone.

Questions on so-called innovative financing have been mentioned on several occasions in the European Council outcome. This was raised by several delegations, recalling the Tobin tax idea of some years ago, a tax on international financial transactions. While we harbour some doubts about the feasibility of ensuring that such a tax could work and how it could be truly applied on a global basis, we await the examination by the Commission of the issue.

Problems in the milk sector are being addressed, not least through the release of €280 million in funding. The Council has sought a continuing response and the high level group set up by the Commission will be important in this regard.

The European Council also considered institutional issues related to the Lisbon treaty, as the Taoiseach has stated. The Council agreed to arrangements and satisfactorily resolved issues relating to the only outstanding ratification, that of the Czech Republic. Following the decision of the Czech Constitutional Court and the subsequent signature by President Klaus, the formalities of the ratification are moving ahead. My counterpart informed me it was his intention [331]to carry the treaty by jet as fast as possible to Rome. It will be the final instrument of ratification deposited.

The European Council considered a progress report on work in preparation for entry into force of the Lisbon treaty. The European Council will formally become an EU institution. Institutional changes will apply and rules of procedure for the European Council are being prepared to respond to this. The European Council did not discuss appointments to the new high level posts, as the Taoiseach mentioned, but they will be discussed now and they would have been the subject of conversations in Berlin on Monday.

Deputies will be aware that the Taoiseach has welcomed the initiative of John Bruton which I, too, welcome. Mr. Bruton has expressed an interest and has completed his role with distinction.

It has been suggested that the appointment will depend on whether members states seek a chairman to manage the affairs of the Union or a charismatic chief. I believe it will lean towards the former. It is something of an oversimplification to say that is the sole issue, but it is an issue. We expect the EU Presidency will consult members of the European Council in the days ahead. The European Council will also appoint the new high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, as the Taoiseach mentioned. This will be a major innovation of the Lisbon treaty and it is important to find a candidate who will fulfil the role.

I refer to the role of the Oireachtas and the treaty has given a new mandate in this regard. The Union’s member state parliaments will play a very significant role in the so-called yellow card, red card system in regard to subsidiarity. The administrative arrangements for this system are being put in place in liaison with the Department of Foreign Affairs which will co-ordinate with other Departments. There are broader issues regarding the role of the Oireachtas in respect of EU business. The report of the Sub-Committee on Ireland’s Future in the European Union includes a series of recommendations in this regard. Together we should resolve the role.

Some Deputies referred to the recent referendum on Lisbon and the lessons from the overall experience. Deputy Timmins stated that he hoped there would be no further referendums in his lifetime. I say amen to that and if there is one lesson from our two referenda, it is the significance, importance and vital nature of communicating Europe better to the citizens.

The October Council was an occasion of substantial progress and a tribute to the preparations of the Swedish Presidency. The Swedish Presidency has done an extraordinary job and I refer especially to the work of my Swedish counterpart, Cecilia Malmström, in this regard. The EU is now well prepared to play its part at next month’s Copenhagen conference on climate change. The European Union’s focus on the economic and financial situation has been sustained, especially on the need for co-ordinated action to generate new sources of growth.

Perhaps above all, the October European Council overcame the final obstacle to the completion of the Lisbon treaty process, a process that has continued for too long. The European Union now stands on the threshold of a new phase in which it will be equipped with the instruments to respond more effectively to the global challenges. I refer back to the remarks of Deputy Timmins and we can now get away from the navel-gazing that went on for the best part of a decade and begin to look to the future and resolve the issues that really count for the citizens of Europe. The people have emphatically endorsed this new departure for the EU and the people of Europe look to the European Union to tackle the great issues of our day. Once again, Ireland has been tried and found not wanting.

Sitting suspended at 1.40 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  The Select Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has completed its consideration of the Communications Regulation (Premium Rate Services) Bill 2009 and has made amendments thereto.

  60.  Deputy Denis Naughten    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the steps she is taking to reduce the cost of rent supplement to the Exchequer; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40837/09]

  61.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the steps she will take to reduce the cost of rent supplement to the Exchequer. [40998/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I propose to answer Questions Nos. 60 and 61 together.

Rent supplement is payable to people who are unable to meet the cost of renting private accommodation and is intended as a short-term support. There are currently more than 91,600 people in receipt of rent supplement, an increase of almost 24% since the end of December 2008. It is essential to ensure that State support for rent supplemented tenants, who form a substantial section of the rental market, does not give rise to inflated rental prices with particular negative impact on those tenants on lower incomes, including people in low paid employment. It is also important to ensure that taxpayers’ money is not being used to pay excessive prices to landlords.

To that end, the April budget provided for new maximum rent limits with effect from 1 June 2009 to reflect the general reductions in private sector rent levels. In order to bring the minimum contribution towards rent and mortgage interest supplement in line with payments required of local authority tenants, it was increased by €6, to €24 per week. Payments to existing rent supplement tenants were also reduced by 8% with effect from 1 June 2009.

The supplementary budget also provided for new arrangements for applications for rent supplement. To qualify for rent supplement, a person must now have been residing in private rented accommodation or accommodation for homeless persons for a period of 183 days within the preceding 12 months of the date of claim for rent supplement. A person may also qualify for rent supplement where the person is deemed by a housing authority to be eligible for and in need of social housing support.

The aim of this restriction on entitlement to rent supplement is to ensure that housing authorities remain the principal agents both for assessing housing need and for meeting the long-term housing needs of people. Community welfare officers have discretion to provide assistance where exceptional circumstances exist in any individual case.

My Department continues to work closely with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in ensuring that rental accommodation scheme, RAS, meets its objective of catering for those on long-term rent supplementation while enabling rent supplement to return to its original role of a short-term income support. Trends in the private [333]rental market are monitored on an ongoing basis and maximum rent limits will be reviewed in the light of a continuing drop in rental prices in recent months.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  I thank the Minister. The savings target in this year was €50 million. How much has been saved to date and will the target be reached by the end of the year? Why has the Government failed so dismally to transfer people from rent supplement to RAS. Since 2005, 22,400 people have been transferred from rent supplement to RAS or to local authority accommodation. This is a damning indictment of the delivery of a stated commitment of Government. This is especially true in light of the fact that 32,600 people would be deemed eligible at this time. What is the Minister doing to ensure this happens and how are we in a situation where people are refusing to join RAS or refusing to move into local authority accommodation and staying in the rent supplement scheme?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  There are two basic questions from Deputy Naughten, who I welcome to the portfolio. The savings outlined at the beginning of the year amounted to €48 million. Those savings have been achieved by virtue of the changes introduced. However, they do not show up on the bottom line of expenditure on rent supplement because demand has increased. The published Estimate for the year was €490 million but we will spend approximately €500 million by the end of the year.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  Has the Minister already saved €48 million?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  We have built savings of €48 million into that. The additional claims accounted for amount to €77 million. Unfortunately, it is one of those cases where there was an increase in demand.

Deputy Naughten’s second question is central to reducing expenditure on rent supplement, which is to get people to move to RAS. The responsibility of local authorities is critical in this matter. We found that people were reluctant to move from private rented accommodation in a location of their choice to local authority housing. Since we increased the minimum payment that people must pay, finance is not having a deterrent effect. In some cases we found that people were paying less on the minimum contribution on the rent supplement than one would pay in local authority housing. We have removed this disincentive but it is something on which we are keeping a close eye. I work closely with the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Michael Finneran, on this issue because of its link with housing.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  There is no evidence of the Minister working hard on this issue. Our questions concern how the Minister will reduce the cost of housing in terms of rent supplement. Unfortunately, very little progress has been made in this area and it seems the Minister is washing her hands of the matter. The Minister referred to savings made through actions taken in the past two budgets but she does not seem to get the point. Major savings can be made if more people transfer from rent supplement to RAS. Rather than wash her hands of this matter, as she did in the past two budgets, and place the onus on tenants — many of whom are vulnerable — by telling them to negotiate with their landlords, why is the Minister not taking responsibility for this and dealing with it on a State-wide basis by driving down rents? Is the Minister aware that Dublin City Council achieved savings of 16% on rents by negotiating directly? The council is in a powerful position and this should happen throughout the country.

Of all expenditure in social welfare, rent supplement is the greatest waste of money because it is dead money. It goes into the pockets of landlords and the State gets very little in return. There are currently 33,000 people waiting to avail of RAS. That system is much more beneficial in enabling them to go to work without creating poverty traps. It is much more beneficial to [334]the State because of the potential significant savings that can be made. Why are some people waiting for this scheme and what steps has the Minister taken to enable a greater number of people to move from rent supplement to RAS?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  In the April budget, when we reduced by 8% the rent supplement payment to all existing tenants, I was excoriated and people suggested this was far too penal. Now, I am told that others can make savings of 16%.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  In an entirely different position.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  It shows that people have been able to negotiate with landlords and have been able to get a reduction in rents.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Minister is being disingenuous.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Based on CSO and PRTB figures, rents have reduced by 13% since January and a full 20% in the past 12 months. Even since we introduced the reduction, rents have reduced by another 3%. There is scope on this issue. Some 23,000 properties are available for rent so there is plenty of scope for people to negotiate, as they have done successfully. I am well aware of the Dublin City Council case because I saw it in the answer to a recent question. It has achieved savings in the rent it pays and if one is doing this on a wider level — paying to a landlord directly — of course one will be able to get those kinds of savings. The rent supplement is not paid directly to landlords; it is paid directly to the tenants who seek supplementary assistance. The responsibility for housing rests with the housing authorities and rents with the local authorities. We continue to put pressure on them to ensure this message gets across. This is why I referred to working with the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. We want to transfer people out of rent supplement into RAS.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  With 32,600 people on rent supplement over 18 months, the Minister is failing dismally to get people to transfer from rent supplement to RAS. If the Minister is working so closely with the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Finneran, why did he introduce a long-term leasing initiative? Surely he should have put investment and support into rolling out RAS if that were the Government’s priority. The fact is that public moneys are being squandered because of a lack of co-ordination between the Minister and the Department and the Minister of State with responsibility for housing. People are still not prepared to transfer from rent supplement and the Minister is failing dismally to deliver on that.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The responsibility for RAS and housing rests with the local authorities. The questions put by the Deputies are valid but I suggest that they table them for the relevant Department.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  The Minister cannot wash her hands of that.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  As far as I am concerned the more people who transfer the better as it saves on rent supplement. One cannot take two different attitudes in the same year to the same scheme. At the beginning of the year we were not doing enough to protect the vulnerable or giving enough to the poor unfortunate tenants. We were going to have them out on the street and homeless because of the changes we made. Now, Deputy Naughten is stating that it is dead money and we should finish the scheme for half the people on it.

[335]Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Minister is being entirely disingenuous in the way she is answering the question. What is more, she is showing that she has no grasp of the issue. If the Minister speaks to members of the Simon Community, Threshold or Focus Housing they will all tell her of the severe difficulties she has caused for people at the lower end of the market, the most vulnerable people in grotty bedsits who do not have the strength to negotiate with the landlords with whom they have legal agreements. The Minister took the soft option by forcing those people to take the hit on it; they are taking the hit personally rather than driving down rents. The Minister has no information at her disposal on the level of rents at the lower end and should stop spoofing about this.

Dublin City Council has shown that it is possible to achieve savings through the introduction of RAS. This could be done on a national level. In the past five years, the Government has spent €2 billion on rent supplement. That is an enormous amount of money. If the Minister could get 16% savings on that it would represent a massive amount. What is the Minister doing specifically to reduce that bill and to ensure more people have the option of going on RAS, given that there are 33,000 people waiting for it at present?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  This year we have already decreased the amount of rent that was acceptable, therefore decreasing the amount of money paid to tenants to give to landlords and increasing the amount of money that tenants had to pay out of their own personal contribution.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Passing the buck to the tenants.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  This helped to make savings this year. Earlier this year we accepted — Deputies were critical of the fact that we were putting such pressure on people — that——

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Yes, of the way the Minister did it which was targeting tenants.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  ——for very many people it is only really possible to negotiate when their leases are up for renewal, which is on an annual basis. We anticipate more savings there. We are also actively examining the way in which rents are decreasing all the time. We will set new rent levels which will incur savings, bearing in mind differentials throughout the country and——

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Why does the Minister not actively examine expanding RAS?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  ——for various groups, such as a single person having more difficulty than a family which is able to find a semi-detached house somewhere. I accept the principle that moving people out of rent supplement and into RAS is the best way to make savings.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Why is the Minister not doing that?

Deputy Denis Naughten:  It is not principles we need, it is actions.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  That is why I expect local authorities will increase their work in this regard——

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

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  ——where it is their responsibility.

  62.  Deputy Denis Naughten    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her plans to review the habitual residency condition rules or the existing legislation in view of the recent [336]decisions of the appeals office regarding cases by asylum seekers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40838/09]

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The requirement to be habitually resident in Ireland was introduced as a qualifying condition for certain social assistance schemes and child benefit with effect from 1 May 2004, in the context of the Government’s decision to open the Irish labour market to workers from the new EU member states. The purpose of the habitual residence condition is to safeguard the social welfare system from abuse by restricting access for people who are not economically active and who have little or no established connection with Ireland.

A person who does not satisfy the habitual residence condition is not eligible for specified social welfare payments, regardless of citizenship, nationality, immigration status or any other factor. The social welfare schemes concerned are jobseeker’s allowance, one parent family payment, disability allowance, carer’s allowance, widow’s and widower’s non-contributory pension, guardian’s non-contributory payment, non-contributory State pension, blind pension, supplementary welfare allowance except urgent or exceptional needs payments, and child benefit.

The five factors considered in determining habitual residence are: length and continuity of residence; length and purpose of any absence from the State; the nature and pattern of the person’s employment; future intentions; and centre of interest such as family, home and connections. These factors, which were originally set out in European Court of Justice case law, were included in social welfare legislation by the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2007.

The Department’s guidelines regarding the application of the habitual residence condition to asylum seekers reflect a Supreme Court judgment which states, “persons who are allowed to enter the State for the purpose of making an application for asylum fall into a particular category and never enjoy the status of residents”.

The Department is aware of the decisions of the chief appeals officer in a very small number of specific cases involving asylum seekers. Each decision of the chief appeals officer is made on the circumstances of the particular case and the decisions in cases related to certain asylum seekers do not automatically apply to all such cases. Since these decisions were made, there have been other cases where the appeals officer has upheld the decision to refuse a payment to an asylum seeker on the grounds of the habitual residence condition.

The appeals officer’s decisions to award payment in a small number of cases are being examined within the Department to establish what, if any, implications they have for the operation of the habitual residence condition. A final decision has not yet been taken as to the appropriate response.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  I thank the Minister for her reply. The sands have shifted on this issue as a result of an appeals officer’s decision on four cases, and four more cases are to be decided upon. We have up to 20,000 people in the asylum and the leave to remain systems and if the other four decisions were to go the same way as the first four we could have an avalanche of applications being submitted to the Department through the appeals process. When does the Minister intend to make a decision on the legislation as it stands? It is being reviewed on foot of the previous decisions for the past month and every day that goes by could have implications for the potential cost of this.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I accept what the Deputy stated in regard to the implications of this. However, it is important to note that the appeals officer in making his decision dealt only with the legal arguments presented by both sides and did not set out a set of circumstances that should apply. Since his decisions on those cases, other decisions and refusals by appeals officers [337]have been upheld. It does not follow that the decision he made is being applied to other cases. We are teasing through the legal implications and the knock-on effects on other cases. What was involved was child benefit but if the principle was established with regard to an asylum seeker then under certain circumstances with the habitual residence condition other schemes would be exposed also. This is why it is critical that we get the guidelines right.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  Has the Minister had discussions with her colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform? Is it not the case that if the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform got his act together and processed these applications in an expeditious manner it would be very difficult for either asylum seekers or leave to remain applicants to meet the conditions as laid down in the habitual residency rules as they stand at present? Is it not case that the difficulty with the current interpretation of the habitual residency rules is the length of time that people have been left in legal limbo by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the first instance and that is putting additional costs on the Minister’s Department through the payments being made to people in direct provisions centres?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Officials in both Departments have been discussing this because of its import. There have been many cases on leave to remain and citizenship, but a previous Supreme Court judgment on the rights of people making applications for asylum found they do not have a particular status and that it has been deemed that provision made for them in direct provision meets all of our obligations as a country under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The guidelines set down by the Department a couple of years ago were in keeping with that. It was a rather unusual decision by the appeals officer to interpret something in a way the Supreme Court did not. We and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform are examining the five conditions for habitual residence rather than just one.

  63.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she will give a commitment not to reduce the half-rate carers payment in Budget 2010. [40999/09]

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Budget 2007 provided for new arrangements whereby people in receipt of a social welfare payment other than carers allowance or benefit who are also providing someone with full-time care and attention can retain their main welfare payments and receive a half-rate carers allowance. Similarly, people currently in receipt of a carers allowance who may have an underlying eligibility for another social welfare payment can transfer to that other payment and continue to receive up to a half-rate carers allowance.

The report of the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes made a range of recommendations relating to the Department of Social and Family Affairs, including on the half-rate carers allowance. The Department will consider the report’s recommendations as part of the Estimates and budgetary process for 2010. Decisions on all the issues arising will be a matter for the Government. No decisions have been made on the implementation of any of the McCarthy proposals relevant to this Department. Full consideration will of course be given to the impact of the proposals on the recipients involved.

The Government is acutely aware and appreciative of the contribution made by carers to people needing ongoing care and support. In recognition of this, considerable improvements have been made in recent years in services and supports for carers. The payment rates for the carers allowance were increased further in the 2009 Budget by €7 to €239 per week for those aged 66 or over and by €6.50 to €220.50 per week for those aged under 66. Recipients of carers allowance are also eligible for household benefits, free travel and the respite care grant.

[338]The means test for carers allowance has been significantly eased over the years and is now one of the most generous means tests in the social welfare system, most notably with regard to spousal earnings. Since April 2008, the income disregard has been €332.50 per week for a single person and €665 per week for a couple. This means that a couple with two children can earn in the region of €37,200 and qualify for the maximum rate of carers allowance as well as the associated free travel and household benefits package. A couple with an income in the region of €60,400 can still qualify for a minimum payment, as well as free travel and household benefits. These levels surpass the Towards 2016 commitment to ensuring those on average industrial earnings continue to qualify for a full carer’s allowance.

From June 2005 the annual respite care grant was extended to all carers who are providing full-time care to a person who needs such care regardless of their income. The rate of the respite care grant was also increased to €1,700 per year in respect of each care recipient from June 2008.

It is estimated that the combined expenditure on carers allowance, carers benefit, the respite care grant and half-rate carers allowance will be €650 million in 2009. It would not be appropriate for me to comment further on budgetary proposals at this stage pending the outcome of these deliberative processes.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  I asked the Minister for a commitment not to reduce the half-rate carers allowance. The Taoiseach and several of her colleagues have already given a commitment to the wealthy that they will not be taxed further. If that kind of commitment can be given to people who are very well off, I do not know why she cannot give a commitment on the additional payment of just over €100 to those who provide care around the clock to family members.

I was disappointed that she did not take up the invitation by the Carers Association to visit a carer. I accompanied several colleagues from this House on a visit to a woman who is minding her 17 year old disabled son around the clock. She receives the lone parent payment and the half-rate carers allowance. How can this woman and the thousands of other people in similar circumstances possibly sustain a 33% reduction in their income and continue what they are doing? Does the Minister not accept it would be a false economy to cut the allowance?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I fully appreciate the valuable role played by carers. All of us visited people who are being cared for as well as their carers, including both those who receive no support from the State and those in receipt of the carers allowance. I have met groups representing carers, including in particular the Carers Association, on several occasions at local, county and national levels. We are conscious of the issue, therefore.

As the Taoiseach noted this morning, the social welfare budget of €21 billion constitutes more than one third of total expenditure. We cannot ignore this expenditure in the context of the forthcoming budget. Equally, however, it is not possible at this stage to go through the various elements of the budget and decide what we will cut because that would not be fair to the groups who are not being discussed today. No final decision has been made in respect of any element of the social welfare budget because cutting social welfare payments is the last thing anybody wants to do. However, we have to somehow reduce the budget. It is not the first area we will rush into when dealing with the budget but I cannot give the commitment the Deputy desires.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  We know that approximately €8 billion in tax reliefs are available to the better off. Why can commitments be given to those people? It is easy for the Minister [339]to say she values carers but if that is the case she will not hit them financially. I am asking her to give a commitment not to reduce the half-rate carers allowance, which has a ceiling of just over €100 per week. Does she accept this money is needed in households, not in recognition of the huge time commitments given by carers but to cover additional demands in respect of heating, lighting, dietary requirements and, in many cases, cleaning? The allowance is used to subsidise the additional costs involved in caring. Given the significant concerns held by thousands of carers throughout the country that their incomes will be cut, I ask her to put their minds at rest by giving a commitment that she will not hit them.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The Deputy referred to the extra demands that arise in regard to care recipients. I appreciate that somebody with a severe disability has additional heating and dietary requirements but it does not necessarily follow that carers need additional money.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  That is where the money is going.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  In many cases carers do not live with the care recipients.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  In many cases they do.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The data on the half-rate carers allowance reveal the commitment of older people. Of the 19,000 people in receipt of the allowance, 7,500 are in receipt of the State or invalidity pension, 2,000 are in receipt of disability benefits and 3,500 receive lone parent benefits.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  What point is the Minister making?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  It is interesting to look at the profile of carers.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  They are enabling other people to stay out of nursing homes.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I have outlined the significant improvements that have been made not only to rates of pay but also in terms of free travel and household benefits for carers. They also have generous income disregards.

Every single group would like my commitment to leave them alone in the budget but the next group will then ask for the same treatment. I am aware people are anxious and want reassurance but it is genuinely not possible at present to promise our full protection to any group affected by the social welfare system.

  64.  Deputy Seymour Crawford    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she has advised her inspectors at local level that they are to accept the current economic situation of self-employed persons or those applying for farm assist; her views on whether many of these persons are in a critical situation at present; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40831/09]

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Jobseekers allowance and farm assist are both means tested payments. In such cases, a social welfare inspector interviews the claimant and makes such inquiries as are necessary to ascertain the means of the applicant. Historically self-employed persons were assessed on the basis of their income in the 12 months prior to claiming and a decision was given on that basis. In the context of relatively stable economic conditions this proved an effective measure of means. However, it was always open to an applicant to make a case showing that his or her income in the coming 12 months was likely to be greatly reduced in light of personal or economic circumstances. The Department’s inspectors and deciding officers [340]would take account of this and in assessing means would exercise their best judgment as to the likely income a person would receive in the 12 months following the claim

  3 o’clock

In light of the changed economic environment and recognising that the system of using past year earnings as a basis for assessing means was no longer as equitable as heretofore, the Department issued a circular in May 2008 advising inspectors of the changed economic circumstances and the need to recognise that less would be available to claimants in the foreseeable future. Inspectors were advised that each case should be examined on its merits and they should apply their knowledge of local conditions to arrive at a fair assessment of the income from self-employment in the coming 12 months. Where a self-employed person’s circumstances change after he or she has made an initial claim for jobseeker’s allowance or farm assist, he or she can apply to have his or her means reviewed. In addition, it is open to the individual, if he or she is dissatisfied with the means assessed, to make an appeal to the social welfare appeals office. In the meantime, it is important to remember that people who have urgent income support needs can apply for the means tested supplementary welfare allowance, SWA, and more than 95% of basic SWA applications are decided on and paid within one week.

I appreciate the need to ensure claimants who have been self-employed and whose income is significantly affected by the economic downturn receive their full and fair entitlements in a timely manner. I assure the House that the Department is doing its best to ensure this objective is achieved.

Deputy Seymour Crawford:  While I appreciate the Minister’s reply, it does not reflect the position on the ground. I was advised by a social welfare inspector in the past week that he was not aware that current rather than historical income should be taken into account. For example, I am aware of a young couple with two children who received a farm assist payment of only €6.50 based on their income for last year rather than this year. Is that fair?

Is it fair that a couple whose file was dealt with by the deciding officer was paid €3.61 per week for two weeks only to have the payment withdrawn by the local inspector who refused to accept current rather than past income? Does the Minister realise that if this issue is not addressed, many farming families and self-employed people who were earning good money until last year will face serious problems? One individual who employed ten people until 14 or 15 weeks ago when he encountered financial problems as a result of external factors cannot obtain one cent whereas his ten former workers receive jobseeker’s allowance.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  A clear circular was issued to social welfare inspectors in May 2008 reminding them that they should have due regard to the likelihood that individuals’ income was likely to fall and they should assess current rather than last year’s income. The system appears to be working reasonably well in other areas because the number of self-employed people on jobseeker’s allowance stands at more than 6,600 while the number of people in receipt of farm assist payments has increased to 8,600. People are, therefore, continuing to benefit from the scheme, which was the intention behind it. The specific cases referred to by the Deputy are being reviewed.

Deputy Seymour Crawford:  I do not doubt the Minister. She provided a straightforward answer to a question I put to her in committee last April. At the time, she advised me that a circular would be issued and that has been done. I ask her to ensure that full information is being used on the ground. At a meeting with representatives of the Irish Farmers Association in the past hour, I was told in no uncertain terms that while the system is working well in some areas, it is not working in others. A blitz is needed. Many farmers are losing income as a result [341]of developments in disadvantaged area payments, REPS and so forth. Thousands more will be affected if this matter is not properly addressed.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I appreciate the issue the Deputy has raised. It is important that decision making is consistent across the country, particularly in the area of means tested assessments. The Department issues circulars to ensure inspectors at local level know precisely what they should take into account. I will ensure that the next meeting of inspectors is reminded of the need to apply the provisions of the circular on the self-employed and applicants for farm assist in a consistent manner.

  65.  Deputy Michael Noonan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her plans to review the guidelines for assessing a person under the habitual residence condition; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40649/09]

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  As I have already given an extensive answer to Deputy Naughten’s priority question regarding habitual residence, I will confine this reply to the Department’s guidelines on this provision in social welfare legislation.

An internal review of the operational aspects of the habitual residence condition was completed by the Department of Social and Family Affairs in 2006 and copies of the report were laid before the Oireachtas in February 2007. One outcome of the review was an in-depth examination of the guidelines which were subsequently updated in July 2008. The revised guidelines reflect the inclusion in Irish social welfare legislation of the five factors for determining habitual residence which have been set down in judgments of the European Court of Justice. They also included expanded material on the application of EU legislation to certain categories of migrant workers and the circumstances in which that legislation applies to override the national provisions regarding habitual residence.

Additional information was also provided about the different types of immigration stamps issued by officers of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the implications for habitual residence in regard to certain groups of non-EEA nationals. Minor amendments to these guidelines have been made from time to time as the need has arisen. Before the Department makes any significant changes in its guidelines, careful consideration is required to ensure there will not be any unforeseen and unwarranted outcomes from the revised text. Retraining may also be required to ensure the revised guidelines are correctly understood.

The Department is aware of the discrepancy between the guidelines as they currently stand and the recent decisions of the chief appeals officer in a small number of claims from asylum seekers. In the circumstances of this particular issue, it was deemed best to complete the process of considering the appropriate response to the chief appeals officer’s decisions first and to postpone any changes in the guidelines until this process is complete.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  There is, as Deputy Crawford noted in another context, a lack of consistency in implementing the habitual residence condition on the ground. Is the Minister aware that some community welfare officers continue to apply the old two year habitual residency rule? Will she give a commitment that more guidance and training will be given to community welfare officers in this matter?

[342]There is a significant variation in the manner in which similar applications are dealt with by the Department. The disbandment of the habitual residency unit is facilitating this lack of consistency. I will give an example of the crazy position that has resulted in a deluge of appeals to the social welfare appeals office. It concerns a family which has always resided in the common travel area. While one son was granted jobseeker’s allowance under the habitual residency requirement, another son’s application for jobseeker’s allowance was refused under the same requirement. Moreover, the father’s application for disability allowance was refused under the habitual residency condition, whereas his wife, who is his carer, was granted the carer’s allowance under the condition. This demonstrates the inconsistency with which applications are being processed. What action is the Minister taking to ensure this inconsistency is addressed?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The procedure makes sense, even if that may not appear to be the case in the example cited by the Deputy. Different criteria apply in the various schemes under which applications were made by the family in question. A genuine jobseeker from another European Union country would qualify for jobseeker’s allowance, as would someone who had worked previously in this country. Different circumstances may apply to each of the two brothers to whom the Deputy referred.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  Their circumstances are identical but we will leave that aside. Will the Minister explain the reason an application for disability allowance was refused but an application for carer’s allowance made by the person caring for the individual who applied for disability allowance was granted?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The criteria for the two schemes are different. I will check the details of the case on behalf of the Deputy. The example to which he refers raises another interesting issue, namely, the fact that four members of one family expect to live off the State by means of various allowances. If two members of a family received jobseeker’s allowance, one member received disability benefit and one member received carer’s allowance, the household would be in receipt of a significant amount of money. It is critical in all cases to ensure the applicant qualifies for a payment and, in particular, that habitual residency requirements are met.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  Will the Minister answer my question?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  To return to the two year rule, the issue raised in Deputy Noonan’s question, as soon as the community welfare officers transfer to the Department, we will provide more training and ensure greater consistency across their work. All five elements of habitual residency should be taken into account.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  In view of the ruling that people applying under the habitual residency condition must be treated as individuals and considered under the five standard criteria, does it open up a liability for the State in terms of people seeking backdated payments? What legal advice has the Minister received in that regard?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  We do not believe it does because the case determined by the appeals officer was based only on the legal arguments from both sides and did not look at or set out a particular set of circumstances by which people would or would not qualify. Since then, as I outlined earlier, decisions have been made to refuse applications and such decisions have been upheld by the appeals officer.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Previous decisions have been taken on the basis of assessing applicants as a group rather than individually.

[343]Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Decisions were always taken on the basis of the Supreme Court judgment, which said that such people do not have a status until it has been determined by the court or the legal process.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  I understood the issue was that they should not be assessed as a group but, rather, individually. Surely people in the past who were assessed as part of a group would now have a case against the State.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  To date, we are satisfied. That is why we are currently examining this area very carefully. As I indicated earlier, if a change in legislation is needed, we will have to do that. To date, we believe it only applies to the particular case and does not have a knock-on effect or mass application.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  I ask the Minister to respond to my question regarding the habitual residency condition and the lack of consistency. How can someone be granted the carer’s allowance to care for a person who has been refused disability allowance on the basis that he or she is not eligible for a payment under the habitual residency condition? One rule contradicts the other.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Needless to say, we cannot go into individual cases.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  In order to qualify for the carer’s allowance, one must be habitually resident in the State. I presume the same applies to a person with a disability. There is no point discussing an individual case as I do not know the full circumstances.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  My point concerned the inconsistency.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Different applications apply, but the Deputy referred to a particular case. Every individual case is assessed. One example concerned four people who applied for social welfare but did not qualify on the basis that they were not habitually resident in the State. That is the type of control measure we need.

  66.  Deputy Kathleen Lynch    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the steps she is taking to ensure that all self-employed people applying for income support under jobseeker’s allowance are means tested on the basis of their current income. [40712/09]

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Jobseeker’s allowance is a means tested payment and the manner in which means are to be assessed is set out in the third Schedule of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. In most such cases, a social welfare inspector will interview the claimant to ascertain the means of the applicant. The Department of Social and Family Affairs also produces administrative guidelines to assist inspectors in this task, which are supplemented from time to time to take account of changing legislation or circumstances. Legislation provides that a person’s income in the coming 12 months is the basis of his or her means. The means assessment guidelines state that where the income in the coming 12 months is not otherwise ascertainable, which is usually the case, the income for the past 12 months should be taken as a guide, allowing for any factors which it is known will vary. However, it was always the case that where an applicant had ceased self-employment and he or she could show that his or her income in the coming 12 months was likely to be greatly reduced in light of personal or economic circumstances, inspectors and deciding officers would take account of this.

As I have just outlined to the House, the Department issued a circular in May 2008 advising inspectors that in light of the changed economic climate it would generally be the case that less work would be available to a claimant in the foreseeable future. Inspectors were advised that [344]they should apply their knowledge of local conditions to arrive at a fair assessment of a person’s income from self-employment in the coming 12 months. Where a self-employed person’s situation changes after he or she has made an initial claim for jobseeker’s allowance, he or she can apply to have his or her means reviewed. In addition, it is open to the individual, if he or she is dissatisfied with the means assessed, to make an appeal to the Social Welfare Appeals Office.

It is important to remember that people who have urgent income support needs can apply for the means tested supplementary welfare allowance and more than 95% of basic social welfare allowance applications are decided on and paid within a week. I appreciate the need to ensure that claimants who have been self-employed and whose income is significantly affected by the economic down turn receive their full and fair entitlements in a timely manner and I assure the House we are doing our best to achieve this.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  I continue to receive complaints about accessing payments from people who were self-employed, whose businesses have gone bust and who find themselves in dire circumstances. In many cases such people are being asked to produce the last set of accounts for their business, which are very often those for 2007. Decisions are being taken in an entirely new scenario at the end of 2009 on the basis of their financial circumstances in 2007. Does the Minister accept that many people do not have money to pay their accountant for their 2008 accounts and, therefore, the only finalised accounts they have are for 2007? It seems to be a continuing problem. I have brought it to the Minister’s attention before but it is still a problem.

The Minister said she issued advice in March 2008. Is there a need to revisit that advice? There is a need for guidelines to be issued to deciding officers dealing with claims other than those for jobseeker’s allowance, such as those applying for qualified adult payments. The same rules apply to such people who are being asked for up-to-date accounts, on the basis of which decisions have been taken. Would the Minister consider issuing up-to-date guidelines?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  If inspectors on the ground need me to issue further clarity and guidelines, I am more than happy to do that. At the beginning of the year I indicated that we would do it and two circulars were issued to inspectors in May, one concerning people who were unemployed due to the down turn in the construction industry and the other concerning self-employment and jobseeker’s payments. I accept there were discrepancies in the way people were being treated at the beginning of the year but, to be fair, it has a more general application. I accept the Deputy’s comments on people not having accounts because self-employed people only had to produce their accounts in November 2008 for 2007. I will ensure flexibility is given to people in that regard.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  There needs to be more flexibility. I have the same problems as Deputy Shortall and every Member of the House has come across examples of it. A more flexible approach needs to be taken regarding the capital assets people have. Fictional calculations are being provided regarding income which is being generated, particularly from commercial premises, when no income is currently being generated. On Deputy Shortall’s comments on the need to reissue guidelines, can the Minister ensure that a clear and transparent checklist is put on the Department’s website for applicants so they can try to provide as much relevant information and up-to-date documentation as possible to speed up the current backlogs in processing applications?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The Department’s website has won a number of awards for its quality and the fact that it is so user-friendly. To my knowledge, there is a checklist on it. The website www.losingyourjob.ie which, unfortunately, has had a huge number of hits is also very practical [345]and tells people exactly what they need. I will check to make sure the type of information to which the Deputy refers is also available. I know capital was an issue. We are examining the issue with a view to giving guidelines to inspectors not just on commercial property, but on assessing people whose only income was rental income from houses which are now no longer rented out. We are actively looking at the issue.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Many cases are going to appeal, which creates obvious expense and delay. Would the Minister consider a minor change which might improve the situation? A person now has only 21 days to produce all the necessary documentation, which is very difficult when a person had his or her own business and is looking for accounts and up-to-date information. If people were given a little more time they may be able to produce the required documentation which would enable a proper decision to be made and avoid the necessity to go to an appeal. Will the Minister examine the issue?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I am not sure how many people are being turned down on the basis that the information is not in on time or the period is closed.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Three weeks is a very short period.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  We will certainly try to take a sample of cases to see where the problems are because I am particularly conscious that this group of people have paid a stamp that does not automatically entitle them to a number of benefits but are experiencing difficulties. We will take a look at that to see if we can help people.

  67.  Deputy Jan O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her plans to reinstate the Christmas bonus for December 2009. [40718/09]

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Promoting social inclusion, protecting the most vulnerable and recognising the contribution that older people have made to this country have always been major priorities for this Government. When we could, we provided unprecedented increases in welfare payments and ensured, for example, that the value of the State contributory pension more than doubled over the past ten years from just €113 per week to more than €230 per week. Even through the economic difficulties of the past two years, the Government has done its best to prioritise social welfare.

The October 2008 budget provided for increases of between 3% and 3.8% in the basic payment rates at a time when inflation for 2009 was expected to be 2.5%. Prices have actually dropped considerably this year. In framing the April supplementary budget, very tough decisions had to be made across the range of Government expenditure. In that context, the provision of €21.3 billion for social welfare services in 2009 — 20% more than the amount spent in 2008 — was a clear demonstration of our commitment to protecting the most vulnerable people in Irish society.

Both tax rates and borrowing had to be increased to fund this extra expenditure on social welfare. Providing a 100% Christmas bonus this year would have added another €223 million to the bill, money which, unfortunately, the State does not have. In seeking to contain the increased welfare budget to €21.3 billion, there were no easy options, and I assure Deputies that the decision not to pay the Christmas bonus was not taken lightly.

The increases provided for in the October budget were taken into account, as were the April forecasts for price deflation this year. The decision not to pay the bonus was announced in April so that people would have nine months’ notice.

[346]I appreciate that non-payment of the Christmas bonus effectively amounted to a 2% cut in the annual social welfare basic payments to those affected. However, it is important to recall that basic welfare payments were increased last January and that by September 2009 the consumer price index, CPI, had fallen by 6.5%. The average decrease in the CPI is now expected to be between 4% and 5% this year.

Given that tax revenue has deteriorated even further since April, putting increased pressure on the public finances as a whole, I regret that it will definitely not be possible to pay a Christmas bonus this year, as the Taoiseach already outlined this morning. I know that any welfare cuts are hard for people to cope with but if the Government does not take steps now to reduce overall public expenditure and restore stability to the public finances, we risk making the economic position far worse for everyone, including welfare recipients, in the long term.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  At the outset I ask the Minister to stop using the 6.5% drop in the CPI as a figure in any way relevant to what is happening to people depending on social welfare. Those dependent on social welfare rarely have mortgages or significant foreign travel, and those two elements account for approximately half of the reduction in the CPI. It is not a relevant figure. The decision to cut the Christmas bonus will result in a real loss of 2% for people dependent on social welfare.

I do not know if the Minister saw the material produced by Barnardo’s yesterday which showed the growing level of child poverty among families dependent on social welfare. Many of those families are already in serious difficulties in putting food on the table, paying for education, heating homes or clothing children.

These people are hurting and the Government’s decision on the Christmas bonus will greatly exacerbate the hardship that those families are experiencing. It will mean that they will not have a Christmas. The same applies to pensioners and people with disabilities. It is an entirely heartless decision, especially where the Government had obvious choices to increase taxes.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  If a choice had been available to continue to pay the Christmas bonus, we would of course have done so. It was undoubtedly one of the most difficult decisions that the Government had to make in the earlier part of this year. I accept that not everybody on social welfare has a mortgage or engages in foreign travel, but it is also fair to say that in more recent months other elements of the CPI, including the price of food and clothing, have dropped significantly as well. In making the decision in April, we had to have regard to the fact that we had given an increase in January, which was factored into the decision not to pay the Christmas bonus.

I know how difficult this is and there would be nothing nicer than to be able to turn around to people and say that we can pay it, but the money is just not there, unfortunately. The Exchequer is already spending at a rate which is far above what we are taking in. As everybody knows, there is a gap of €22 billion between what is coming in and going out. Whether it is a household or individual budget or the State budget, the message is the same: one cannot spend what one does not have. I regret that we cannot pay it this year.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  It is a 2% cut across the board for payments but it is taken from people’s income at a time of the year when they are most vulnerable. It will lead to moneylenders having a field day coming up to Christmas. There has already been significant pressure on families in the run up to September because of the increase in the cost of going to school and delays in processing the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance. That has put [347]massive pressure on families and at Christmas this decision will put significant additional pressure on families when they need income the most.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The increases given in January were of the order of 3.3% to 3.8%. Although I accept the loss of the bonus is a 2% drop, even if there had not been a change in inflation there would have been an increase over the year. It is a difficult time of year for pensioners who like to give to others despite needing to look after themselves and for families who need to buy for their children.

To return to Deputy Shortall’s comments, Barnardo’s yesterday acknowledged the discernible and real decline in child poverty.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  That is up to this year. They are dealing with it.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Nothing has happened in this year which they say will have an impact on that. It has been acknowledged and the statistics show it. We are trying not to row back on advances which have been made. Deputy Naughten mentioned the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance. All those payments made in September were on time where people applied on time.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  That is not true. In some parts of the country they were late.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  One part of the country had a particular difficulty but for the rest of the country there was a significant increase in the number of people who applied for it. It is a substantial payment and we correctly increased the amount of money that people could get for uniforms and other clothes.

Deputy Martin Ferris:  Any cut to the income of the most vulnerable in our society and communities is bad but this is made worse at Christmas, as we are talking about people on the lowest income who are barely surviving. They are not living, they are just surviving. As Deputy Naughten said, families who want some kind of Christmas will be driven to moneylenders as a consequence. It also has a knock-on effect of taking money from the local economy, which will affect small retailers and inevitably lead to job losses.

Low income families and people on social welfare spend every ha’penny in their economy. We could proceed differently by taking this small amount of money from the higher income avenues. That would protect the most vulnerable in our society.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The rates of all the social welfare payments were increased by anything up to €7 last January. The amount of the fuel allowance was increased along with the number of weeks that people avail of it, yet the price of fuel has fallen since. The amount of money given for the back-to-school allowance has also been increased and the number of people who can qualify for various payments was also increased. Every effort has been made all year to protect people, including the most vulnerable. That was at a time when the country’s economy was very bad.

It would be a complete disaster for us to have found ourselves turning around this month to people and indicating that we could not pay the Christmas bonus. I know it is a difficult decision to make at any time but by saying it in April, we were at least giving people some advance notice. I appreciate that it is a really difficult time and that it is a very sensitive issue for people. I hope people will not turn to moneylenders. People who are in dire circumstances can contact their local community welfare officers. The Money Advice and Budgeting Service is there to support people as they plan their budgets on the basis of their household incomes. Tough decisions are having to be made, unfortunately.

  68.  Deputy David Stanton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the progress being made by her in the development of a second tier child income support payment as per commitments in the programme for Government; if the National Economic and Social Council are examining this issue; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40675/09]

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The programme for Government that was agreed in 2007 contained a commitment to amalgamate qualified child allowances and family income supplements to develop a second tier of income support targeted at the poorest families. The possibility of such a reform had been mentioned in other documents, including social partnership agreements. It was argued that such a payment would target child poverty by channelling financial resources to low-income families without creating significant disincentives to employment. The proposed second-tier payment would, in principle, seek to combine the advantages of family income supplements and qualified child increases while avoiding the disadvantages of targeted payments, such as the creation of unemployment and poverty traps. When the National Economic and Social Council was asked to examine the feasibility and effectiveness of the merging of the child income support payments, it did not reach agreement on specific recommendations. In December 2007, the council’s secretariat published a research paper that identified how such a payment would operate, in broad terms, and the significant number of issues which would need to be addressed. The secretariat’s report included a useful preliminary estimate — approximately €775 million — of the net cost to the Exchequer of such a payment. The report concluded that such a payment would make significant demands on public service funding and administrative systems, and would take some time to implement. It is clear that additional resources of this scale are not available at present. The renewed programme for Government that was agreed recently did not contain a specific commitment to the introduction of a second tier child income support payment. In its deliberations on possible budget changes in the child benefit area, the Government is considering the needs of low income families and those who depend on social welfare.

Deputy David Stanton:  Is the Minister telling us that this proposal, which was first recommended by the Commission on Social Welfare in 1986, is being completely abandoned? What are the most up to date figures regarding child income poverty in Ireland? I refer to both forms of poverty — consistent poverty and relative income poverty — that would be addressed by the proposed new payment.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The proposal has certainly not been abandoned. As its cost was estimated to be €775 million, it is obviously not possible to develop it at this stage. It is important that any change we might make would not preclude us from going in this direction in the future. This country’s levels of child poverty have decreased significantly in recent times. A paper that was produced by Barnardos yesterday, which was compiled using the standard European measurement, suggested that there has been a significant decline in child poverty levels, from 27% to below 20%, over recent years.

Deputy David Stanton:  Can I ask the Minister to give the House the date of the study she has just quoted? Does the study relate to relative income poverty or consistent poverty? Can she give us a breakdown of those two types of measurement?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  The Deputy may wish to table additional parliamentary questions to the Minister to get some of these more specific details.

[349]Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I will provide the real and accurate data in this regard to the Deputy. As the study to which I referred is from 2008, it is up to date. I will get the most relevant figures on child poverty for the Deputy.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  If the Minister had attended the Barnardos launch yesterday, she would have discovered more about the serious difficulties being caused by the undoing of earlier progress in tackling child poverty. The anecdotal experience of Barnardos is that there has been a significant increase in the number of families with young children that are experiencing poverty. Has the Minister had an opportunity to examine the research that was published by the Vincentian Partnership for Justice over recent days, which showed that the greatest pressures are being encountered by families with young and teenage children? The Minister’s sympathetic comments about the abolition of the Christmas bonus will provide cold comfort to families who cannot feed their children, heat their homes or pay their rent. I ask her to reconsider the provision of income support to families. The research of the Vincentian Partnership for Justice indicates that many families’ figures just do not add up — their weekly incomes do not meet their needs. They will certainly not have enough money this Christmas. Given that parents will not tolerate the possibility of cancelling Christmas, the Minister is in danger of driving many vulnerable families into the hands of moneylenders. What will she do to prevent that?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Factors such as the number of children in one’s family, or whether one’s spouse is in work, are taken into account when payments are made to people who have lost their jobs. The role of child benefit has to be acknowledged too. The Deputy suggested that people are unable to pay their rents, but the rent supplement scheme, which we discussed earlier, is in place to assist such people.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  I am not sure the Minister realises that we are talking about people who are so badly off that they cannot afford to pay the rent on their local authority houses.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Rents are varied by local authorities according to the income coming into people’s houses.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Exactly.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  They reduce rents when people find themselves on social welfare. We are all familiar with how the system works. I know it is not easy for people who are trying to survive on social welfare, particularly those who suddenly find themselves in difficulties because their outgoings are commensurate with the good incomes they used to enjoy but no longer have. We have always had a commitment to try to protect such people as much as possible. We will continue to assess whether we can reduce the number of children who are in poverty. We have had huge success in that regard over recent years.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Government is undoing that now.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  We will aim to continue to do that, bearing in mind the difficult economic conditions we face.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  Now that the Department of Social and Family Affairs has started to make contact with the Revenue Commissioners in respect of the incomes of certain families, will the Minister give a commitment to put in place a mechanism whereby direct contact can be made with individuals who are eligible for family income supplement? Such a system is necessary if we are to ensure there is a proper uptake of that scheme.

[350]Deputy Mary Hanafin:  It is not possible to identify the family incomes of the vast bulk of the working population of the State. Married couples are identified in the code, but cohabiting couples are not. We are anxious for people to avail of the family income supplement scheme. By the end of the year, the number of people doing so will probably have increased slightly by comparison with the number at the end of last year.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  What about the report in today’s Irish Independent, which suggested that there are plans to contact the Revenue Commissioners?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I am saying that it cannot be done in the cases of the vast bulk of workers. One might be able to identify a target group, but one cannot do it for the whole working population. Such matters are being discussed at present. In the specific case of family income supplement, the system is designed to support people who are in low-paid employment. It is also a way of ensuring that people can ease themselves out of social welfare and into employment. We are very anxious to ensure that people are able to benefit from it. However, we are not readily able to identify them in the tax system, in order to advise them to apply for the supplement.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  I presume the matter is being discussed in the current talks.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The other point that needs to be made is that most such people do not pay tax. They are not covered by the tax net because they are on low incomes.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  Some of them are.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  Almost 50% of people will be out of the tax net next year. Even if the Revenue Commissioners were able to identify everybody on its books, it could not identify those who do not pay tax.

  69.  Deputy Noel J. Coonan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the waiting list to access the Money Advice and Budgeting Service; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40611/09]

  90.  Deputy John Perry    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the waiting times to access the Money Advice and Budgeting Service money advisers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40655/09]

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I propose to take Questions Nos. 69 and 90 together.

The Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, is the main Government-funded service that assists those who are overly indebted and need help and advice to cope with their debt problems. The role of money advisers is to help clients to assess their financial situations, make budget plans and deal with their creditors. MABS is dealing with increasingly complex debt situations in respect of clients who are presenting with multiple creditors and debts. It is important for people who are coping with debt difficulties to take early action and to approach MABS for help and guidance. This can be the first positive step for people in addressing debt difficulties. Some 52 independent MABS companies operate local MABS services from 65 locations throughout the country, with national support provided by MABS National Development Limited. The MABS national telephone line is available from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday to Friday. The MABS website can be accessed 24 hours a day at www.mabs.ie. In 2008, more than 16,600 clients approached the MABS for assistance with debt difficulties and the telephone helpline dealt with almost 11,000 callers. By the end of October 2009, some 16,300 clients had [351]been seen by MABS staff to date this year. The MABS helpline had received some 20,800 calls in the same period. Funding of €18 million has been provided to enable MABS to deliver its services in 2009. An additional 19 staff are being recruited, which will bring the number of MABS staff to 271. Six new staff are already in place and the remainder will be appointed by early December.

The capacity of the LoCall telephone helpline has also been strengthened and MABS NDL, the national support company, has introduced a number of community education initiatives. For example, one initiative involves a money management education programme for people facing redundancy to inform them about managing on a reduced income and how to avoid getting into debt.

All MABS companies operate an appointment system for clients. Clients with urgent difficulties are prioritised for attention and are dealt with promptly. Less urgent cases are referred to the MABS helpline and to the MABS website in the first instance. More than 90% of callers to the helpline find that their money management and budgeting issues can be resolved with the assistance of the helpline adviser. Some 10% of callers are referred to the local MABS for assistance.

From first point of contact to first appointment with a money adviser the average waiting time is currently 4.5 weeks. This is the average nationally and there are fluctuations between offices. During the waiting period, clients are assessed and those in need of immediate assistance are given a priority appointment, others are provided with assisted self-help to ensure that they have taken steps to assess their situation and if appropriate they are supported to take holding action with their creditors.

I am satisfied that MABS provides a high quality personal money advice and budgeting service to members of the public who may have difficulty in coping with the burden of indebtedness and the additional resources provided will assist it meet the demand for its services.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  The Minister said it takes four and a half weeks on average to get an appointment for a non-urgent case. If this is the average it means that some people are waiting a substantial period of time in some centres to avail of the services. What is the longest waiting time? How many people are waiting for such periods to access MABS? I am being told that MABS is oversubscribed and underfunded. Of the 19 advisers mentioned by the Minister, only five will be full-time advisers with the others providing their services on a part-time basis. Does the Minister believe it is acceptable for cash-strapped families to be faced with a bill of up to €3,000 to pay private debt advisers to provide them with a service that should be provided by MABS if the resources were made available?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  The Deputy’s last point is important. Some people are advertising that they are debt collectors, but are giving the impression that they are almost doing it as a community service and that they are working closely with MABS. We are concerned about this and that is why we are ensuring that information on the MABS website and telephone line is well advertised. The service provided by MABS is free and confidential. It has trained money advisers who are able to negotiate on a person’s behalf with the financial institutions. That is an important message to get across.

Of the 19 new posts that were sanctioned, seven are full-time and 12 are part-time. We broke it down that way in order to ensure a spread around the country, recognising that some offices are under more pressure than others are. Advisers have already been appointed to the offices in Galway south, Fingal, Tallaght, Waterford, Bray and Cork west. The rest should all be in place by the first week in December.

[352]Deputy Denis Naughten:  What about the waiting time?

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  I understand the average number on a waiting list is 31. I believe the Deputy asked for the longest waiting time. I do not have that specific information.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  I ask the Minister to furnish the figures to me.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  It would be helpful for the Minister to commit to publishing the waiting times on a quarterly basis so that people might know which office to approach. MABS was established with a completely different brief from the demands placed on it now. It was set up to help people better manage their money in circumstances where they might have run up rent arrears or whatever. In many cases MABS is ill-equipped to deal with the serious financial difficulties with which people are now presenting. As the Minister said a completely unregulated financial advisory service is being offered and that needs to be regulated. There is need for the Minister or the Minister for Finance to introduce a package of measures to assist people who find themselves in danger of losing their homes. That level of expertise is simply not available within the MABS service.

Deputy Mary Hanafin:  In fairness the only issues MABS will not deal with are commercial difficulties. MABS advisers are finding that the people coming into them have a very complex range of personal difficulties, some of which may indeed be tied up with commercial entities. However, as far as possible they are able to deal with them very successfully. The renewed programme for Government contains a specific commitment to regulating debt collectors and also dealing with all aspects of helping people to counteract debt. In that regard I welcome the decision by the Irish Banking Federation about mortgages and extending the time for people. The MABS protocol with the Irish Banking Federation is working very successfully. These are the initiatives that are been taken. We are working not only with the Department of Finance, but also with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform on issues relating to debt to come up with a package to support people in difficult circumstances.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  I wish to advise the House of the following matters in respect of which notice has been given under Standing Order 21 and the name of the Member in each case: (1) Deputy Deirdre Clune — the need to ensure support for the Cork Marriage Counselling Centre; (2) Deputy Leo Varadkar — the provision of adequate permanent school buildings for Tyrrelstown Educate Together and Mulhuddart national school, Dublin 15; (3) Deputy Lucinda Creighton — the issuing of the report into corporate governance at the Dublin Docklands Development Authority; (4) Deputy Andrew Doyle — the carer’s allowance; (5) Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh — the payment of the Christmas bonus to recipients of social welfare payments; (6) Deputy David Stanton — job losses in Youghal, County Cork; (7) Deputy Joe Carey — the need to implement the recommendations of the interim report of the mid-west task force on jobs; (8) Deputy Ulick Burke — the continuation of maternity services at Portiuncala Hospital, County Galway; (9) Deputy Kieran O’Donnell — to call on the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Trade and Employment to implement immediately the recommendations of the mid-west task force report chaired by Denis Brosnan; (10) Deputy Chris Andrews — the need to give the Poolbeg chimneys, Dublin, protected status; (11) Deputy Mattie McGrath — the provision of water to Burncourt and Fethard, County Tipperary; (12) Deputy Noel J. Coonan — the proposed abolition of Tipperary Institute of Education; (13) Deputy Pat Breen — the provision of Clare mental health services and in particular the future of the Orchard Lodge facility in Kilrush; (14) Deputy Jan O’Sullivan — the need to implement the recommendations of the interim report of the mid-west task force on jobs; (15) Deputy [353]Thomas P. Broughan — the restructuring of Aer Lingus; (16) Deputy Joe Costello — the maintaining of jobs in the aviation engineering sector in north Dublin; (17) Deputy John Perry — to ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to respond to the news this morning that GlaxoSmithKline, the world’s second largest drug maker, has announced the closure of its Stiefel plant in Sligo with the loss of 250 jobs and to announce immediately the plans and supports to be put in place to assist those losing their jobs and to help create new jobs for the county; (18) Deputy Eamon Scanlon — the announcement today that Stiefel Laboratories in Sligo is to close by 2013; (19) Deputy Tom Hayes — in light of a 2005 OPW report showing serious structural problems with the roof of St. Patrick’s national school in Fethard, the need for the Minister for Education and Science to update the House on the status of the new school building for that school and for Fethard Convent national school as this project requires this major capital work as a priority; (20) Deputy Mary Upton — the need to ensure that Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin operates to its full capacity; and (21) Deputy Máire Hoctor — the killing in Bolivia of Michael Dwyer from County Tipperary.

The matters raised by Deputies Pat Breen, Máire Hoctor, Chris Andrews and Mattie McGrath have been selected for discussion.

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Dara Calleary):  I move: “That Report Stage be taken now.”

Question put and agreed to.

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Dara Calleary):  I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, to delete lines 13 and 14 and substitute the following:

““‘Act of 1995’ means the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995;

‘material interest’ shall be construed in accordance with section 2(3) of the Act of 1995;”.

This is a technical amendment to facilitate the addition to the Bill of references to the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 by adding a definition to explain the “Act of 1995” means the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995.

Amendment agreed to.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Amendments Nos. 11, 12, 22 and 23 are cognate to amendment No. 2 and all may be discussed together.

Deputy Arthur Morgan:  I move amendment No. 2:

In page 3, line 22, to delete “Minister” and substitute “Oireachtas”.

These could appear to be important amendments but I will not press them.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  I move amendment No. 3:

In page 3, between lines 30 and 31, to insert the following:

[354]

“(9) No compensation upon leaving office shall be payable to the Director General or any other officer or employee unless the terms of the compensation are approved by a committee appointed by Dáil Éireann for the purpose.”.

We discussed this matter on Committee Stage. The purpose of the amendment is to control golden handshakes for senior staff within any organisation. This has blown up as a result of the significant and generous golden handshake provided to the former director general of FÁS. There is an argument as to whether the guidelines laid down were adhered to. It is a matter of significant discussion as to whether the Department’s guidelines on additional payments were followed before the termination of contract and whether it was a resignation etc. I will not rehearse all that. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that such a debacle would not arise in future. Has the Minister of State reflected further since he spoke on this issue on Committee Stage? In the interests of clarity and for the purposes of accountability, such a clause represents a useful enhancement of the provisions in the Bill.

Deputy Arthur Morgan:  I support the amendment. A short time ago in this Chamber we heard the Minister for Social and Family Affairs reaffirm that the Christmas bonus will not be paid to welfare recipients. Yet the chief executive officer of a State body can walk away with a €1 million payment, a substantial pension and a State car. The dubiousness of that transaction leaves a bad taste in the mouth for citizens who must endure cuts in welfare payments and other services. I hope it is not too late to do something about the debacle that has occurred. I support Deputy Penrose’s amendment as a means of ensuring such a situation does not recur.

Deputy Dara Calleary:  I acknowledge the Deputies’ concerns on this issue and have reflected on the proposal since Committee Stage. However, the issue of severance packages to chief executive officers is more general than the specific range of this legislation. The Government is reviewing the issue of severance and retirement terms of chief executive officers as part of a broader examination that is under way following the publication of the Green Paper on pensions. Our objective is to put in place a pensions system that is financially, economically and socially sustainable. We have taken this matter forward and are now at an advanced stage in the development of a new and comprehensive pensions framework. The Minister for Finance has corresponded directly with the Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts on the broader issues raised by the two Deputies. However, these matters are best dealt with in the context of a wide-ranging review of State bodies.

Deputy Leo Varadkar:  This important and relevant amendment stems from the package awarded to Mr. Molloy on his resignation from FÁS. That package, both in terms of the additional top-ups and the discretionary payments, was absolutely not in accordance with either the closed FÁS superannuation scheme or the scheme adopted by statutory instrument in 1998. When this was put to the Minister for Finance, he responded that the severance package was broadly in line with the guidelines that exist for the remuneration of chief executive officers of State agencies. However, those guidelines apply only to early retirements and dismissals; they do not apply to resignations.

I welcome the undertaking to have this matter investigated by the Comptroller and Auditor General because it is clear that what was done by the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance in this instance was extra legal if not unlawful. Does the Minister of State share our concerns in this regard or does he agree with the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance that the package given to Mr. Molloy was broadly in line with existing guidelines?

Deputy Arthur Morgan:  Can the Minister of State provide any information in regard to the examination of the severance terms granted to the former director general of FÁS and indicate whether he is hopeful——

[355]An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  I do not want the general discussion on the amendment to concentrate on any individual not in the House.

Deputy Arthur Morgan:  That is why I did not name the individual in question. I hope the Minister of State understands my question and will respond.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  This is an important amendment. I have listened carefully to what the Minister of State said and can only hope that this whole scenario has prompted the Government to act with alacrity in putting in place appropriate guidelines in regard to severance payments, pension entitlements and so on as part of what the Minister of State referred to as a “new and comprehensive pensions framework”. My amendment would be a useful element of that reform. The sooner such reform is implemented the better, hopefully early in the new year, so that a debacle of this nature cannot recur. Ordinary people are suffering while others seem to be operating in a cocoon, apparently unaware of that widespread suffering. In fairness, that does not apply to the Minister of State, who I am sure understands the thrust of the amendment.

Deputy Dara Calleary:  I understand the thrust of the amendment and I share the Deputy’s concerns that this general issue should be resolved as soon as possible. In regard to Deputy Varadkar’s comments, I have complete faith and trust in the abilities and character of the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance. The issue in regard to the specific package will be dealt with by the Committee of Public Accounts at its meeting on 26 November.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Does Deputy Penrose propose to press the amendment?

Deputy Willie Penrose:  Given the Minister of State’s commitment in this regard, I do not propose to press it. This is an issue to which we will return, either at the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment or the Committee of Public Accounts. I trust the Minister of State will ensure it is not put on the long finger.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Amendment No. 4 in the name of Deputy Morgan is out of order.

Amendment No. 4 not moved.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Amendment No. 5 in the names of Deputies Penrose and Morgan arises out of committee proceedings.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  I move amendment No. 5:

In page 4, to delete lines 27 to 30.

The purpose of this amendment is to remove the gag which prevents the director general from commenting on Government policy. Directors general of State bodies are often a font of wisdom in regard to issues and developments within their remit. The Government’s position is that a situation must not be permitted where such persons may, in an official capacity, make a statement or express a view which places them on a collision course with Government policy. While I accept this argument to some degree, I understand the problem has never arisen and is not likely to occur in the future.

A director general appearing before a committee, where he or she considers that an issue requires to be addressed, should be allowed to explore that issue in response to queries raised by members. Members of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment have a good record of being sharp and incisive in seeking information. Sometimes one can almost see [356]a witness recoil at the realisation that he or she may well have to address a particular issue. I accept that there cannot be open season and that Government policy cannot be emasculated on the hoof by somebody with a contrary view. However, there is scope for some leeway in this regard. At yesterday’s meeting of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, we managed to get a good understanding of how the employment subsidy scheme is working and why the Government may well have to change tack in that regard. Deputies Varadkar, Morgan and I asked various questions and I was very impressed with the responses from the departmental officials. No secrets were given away but they were forthright in their attitude and, without deviating from Government policy, acknowledged that there is a problem. Moreover, they told us in as nice a way as possible that we politicians should get down into the ring and sort the issue out. That is fair enough, the boomerang may come full circle and the buck can stop at either end.

  4 o’clock

I accept that we cannot allow Government policy to be thrown out as that would make the place ungovernable and effectively invite anarchy. However, if a director general of a State body is of the view that a particular policy or scheme is not achieving the objective for which it was established and implemented, members of the relevant Oireachtas committee should be in a position to ascertain that view without the official in question being unduly constrained by the requirement not to deviate from the strict Government policy of the day. No Government is so sensitive that it would be damaged by the honest views of such persons. It is possible to allow a loosening of the tonsils of officials without allowing them carte blanche to denounce Government policy.

Deputy Arthur Morgan:  I support the amendment. The Minister of State should imagine a reversal of the current parliamentary situation, with Deputy Penrose and I as Government Members of a strong republican and Labour Party coalition. In that scenario, if we were to seek to silence the director general of a State body who has a terrific notion on a matter within his or her remit, the Minister of State, as an Opposition Member, would be anxious for that director general to be given a hearing at the relevant committee meeting. It may sometimes happen that people who are particularly bright and up for it will have a contrary view to the Minister of the day. Muzzling them in the way the section proposes will not be progressive. It is unfortunate and I hope the Minister of State will consider the amendment. Notwithstanding that, I accept Deputy Penrose’s position that everybody cannot challenge Government policy but they would not do so.

Deputy Dara Calleary:  I cannot accept the amendment because this is a standard provision for all State bodies. As Deputy Penrose said, there are ways and means for a good committee chairman or Member to ascertain information regarding Government schemes under the existing regulations. A republican-Labour Party coalition would be an interesting prospect.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  In that context, I will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 are related and may be discussed together.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  I move amendment No. 6:

In page 9, line 22, after “Foras” to insert the following:

“or the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment”.

Protection is afforded in the legislation to FÁS employees, which is proper and correct. As I said on Second Stage, we have laboured for such a long time regarding whistleblower protection [357]legislation that we have been left in the traps. Every other country has developed policies in this area but we are lagging behind instead of being to the forefront. When my colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, was our party leader he was a strong advocate of such a regime and he introduced a number of Bills in this regard. Somebody’s dead hand made sure they never reached the Statute Book and I do not know why that was the case. Without whistleblowers in recent times important life-changing circumstances experienced by a number of people would not have happened nor would they have been subject to the scrutiny of tribunals and the courts.

The provision is important in that context. However, I acknowledge the Minister has made a good start and I can see where he is coming from. I hoped whistleblower protection might be extended to departmental officials because they are in a similar position. They could well find themselves in an invidious position if a FÁS official came forward with information. The Minister of State is focused on the prevention of speculative information emerging. None of us wants to be party to that or party to having people’s reputations ruined because somebody else has a beef with them or has an ulterior motive. That would be frightening. We want bona fide information with foundation. I understand tram lines must be applied under this legislation. I would not countenance anybody using the legislation to even a score or something similar. I am worried that whistleblower protection will only apply to FÁS employees and the same protection will not be afforded to departmental staff who could come into possession of relevant information.

Deputy Leo Varadkar:  I support the amendment. I acknowledge that one of the positive measures in the legislation is the extension of whistleblower protection to FÁS staff. It should not be forgotten that many of the scandals in the organisation only came to light because staff members would not tolerate what was happening and they blew the whistle. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of these scandals is a bad reflection has been cast on all staff members. Something similar has happened to bank staff and politicians. The behaviour of a minority has caused the entire profession to be devalued. We should not forget that decent, conscientious staff members in FÁS blew the whistle and an internal audit committee would not be rolled over.

This provision in the legislation is important and welcome. I agree with Deputy Penrose that it should be extended to departmental staff, although I accept this might not be the correct Bill in which to do so. I hope the Minister of State will commit to honouring with due haste the commitment in the programme for Government to introduce comprehensive protection for whistleblowers. Deputy Rabbitte has a Private Members’ Bill in this regard on the Order Paper since 1998. There has been plenty of time to progress it and I would like a commitment from the Minister of State that such legislation will proceed rapidly. If not, it will be necessary for the Opposition to press the matter in Private Members’ time.

Deputy Dara Calleary:  I join Deputies Penrose and Varadkar in acknowledging the role of FÁS staff who provided us with important information on a range of issues and I thank them for doing so. The Government’s approach to this provision is based on a 2006 Cabinet decision that whistleblowing provisions would be introduced on a sectoral basis. Given the focus of the legislation is primarily on FÁS, it is appropriate that the provision focuses specifically on FÁS. However, as Deputy Varadkar said, the programme for Government contains a commitment, in which all of us share an interest, and I will keep him updated on progress. I will not accept the amendments.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  In view of the Minister of State’s commitment, I will withdraw the amendment.

[358]Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 not moved.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  I move amendment No. 9:

In page 10, to delete lines 26 to 31.

This is related to earlier amendments and deals with the special definitions of “employee” and “employer”.

Deputy Dara Calleary:  It refers to “employee” as a member of staff.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  We have debated this.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments Nos. 10 to 12, inclusive, not moved.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  I move amendment No. 13:

In page 11, line 39, to delete “chairman” and substitute “chairperson”.

This is a simple amendment. My legal advice is that this is gender neutral language in line with modern drafting and, therefore, the wording should be amended. “Chairman” is no longer relevant to current circumstances and “chairperson” should be used. The Minister of State will surely throw us one little bone to satisfy us and accept a genuine amendment where we are trying to ensure everything is gender neutral. While women have lost out in the context of participation in the Oireachtas, hopefully on State boards and so on they will continue to assert themselves and achieve at least 50% membership. In a few years their numbers might well exceed ours. This is an appropriate amendment.

Deputy Arthur Morgan:  In the series of engagements and meetings we hold, it is rare to meet an ogre who insists on using the title “chairman”. I have attended meetings where the chairperson was a woman and some people decided to address her as “chairman”. I would not question anybody’s gender because that would be ridiculous. In a spirit of co-operation, I hope the Minister of State will accept the amendment.

Deputy Dara Calleary:  While I recognise the spirit of the amendment, the main body of the legislation predates 1993 when gender neutral language was submitted. On that ground that there is an understanding that the language is said to be gender neutral, I oppose the amendment.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  I am disappointed with that. I had expected the Government to accept that the word “chairman” had become obsolete and that a person who chairs any board or organisation should be referred to as chairperson. I hope the Government will act in this regard.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Amendments Nos. 14, 16 and 17 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  I move amendment No. 14:

[359]

In page 11, line 40, to delete “10 ordinary members (including” and substitute the following:

“8 ordinary members (including a worker director and”.

This is an important amendment. The smaller the board the more efficient it is. It has been reduced from 17 to ten, plus the director general. A small board is more efficient and effective in its operation and ensures that decisions are made in a focused way, strategy is embarked upon in a defined way and debates are conducted efficiently. Meetings which last longer than one hour go downhill and lead to repetition. The joint committee which I chair had a long meeting yesterday when two or three important topics were discussed and some very influential people were present. Our meetings generally last between an hour and an hour and a half and are very effective and focused. Members present and receive information, are succinct and deal with their chosen issues. The Government’s proposal to reduce the size of the board is a welcome step. I would like to see the number reduced to eight but I do not insist on that. I am happy to accept the figure of ten.

I do insist on the appointment of a worker director. If the Minister does not concede this point, my colleagues and I will call for a vote on this amendment. A worker director plays a pivotal role. In submitting amendment No. 17, Deputy Morgan was more enthusiastic than I. He cites the Worker Participation (State Enterprises) Act 1977, which governs the appointment of worker directors. In the 30 years since that legislation was enacted, worker directors have played a fundamental role on various boards.

I have experience of Bord Na Móna and other boards. Worker directors are elected to boards by a democratic process. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions provides training and advice so that they are acutely aware of their roles as directors. One important principle of worker directorship is that one leaves one’s political or trade union allegiance outside the boardroom door. They take cognisance of issues relevant to the workplace but they must always work for the wider good. That principle has been embraced by worker directors and they have a laudable record. Mr. Mark Nugent, a colleague of my own and a member of the Labour Party, was a most objective vice chairman of Bord na Móna. During a very difficult period in the mid-1990s, he assumed the role of chairman and made some very difficult decisions about peat-fired power stations, including that in Bellacurrig in the Minister of State’s constituency. Stations were closed and jobs were lost but Mr. Nugent took tough decisions for the greater good and the advancement of Bord na Móna. That displays the importance of worker directors.

A worker director can go back to the staff and workers who have elected him or her and tell them, in an objective way, why certain decisions must be taken. There is a significant gain to be achieved by appointing a worker director. The stories of board decisions are carried to workers by someone who is one of themselves. They can explain, for example, that a wage increase cannot be granted because, perhaps, money is required to satisfy environmental requirements or a pension fund issue must be addressed. There are many governance issues in which worker directors could play a significant, positive and constructive role. In the trade union movement, there are people who are eager and willing to play that role.

I hope the Minister of State does not throw out the baby with the bath-water and abandon something which has been working effectively. I would accept the expansion of the board to 12 members but I believe a worker director could be accommodated in an 11 member board. This would send a good signal to workers and would recognise the 99.9% of workers in FÁS who made a valuable contribution in very difficult circumstances in the 1980s and 1990s. Those same workers are now working extremely hard dealing with the large number of young people who are unemployed. Staff in FÁS regional and district offices do not have a moment to blink, [360]they are so busy with the current demand. The appointment of a worker director would be a vote of confidence in those workers, who have done a very good job over many years. As has been said, 99.9% of the staff of FÁS have behaved impeccably, prudently and with the highest level of dignity and honour in carrying out their duties. We should recognise their contribution and appoint a worker director from within that group.

Deputy Arthur Morgan:  These are very important amendments. I acknowledge the diligence of my relatively new personal assistant, Ms Kathryn Reilly from Cavan, who found the correct legislation and cited it into amendment No. 17. This was a significant achievement.

The appointment of a worker director helps to reduce the “them and us” attitude and creates a better flow of information between the board and the coal-face, so that people have a greater sense of team-work and are more clued into the policies being discussed by the board. It gives people more confidence in their enterprise. It is disappointing that this is not standard practice in the boards of all organisations. It would be helpful it that were the case.

Deputy Leo Varadkar:  I will not reiterate the comments I made on Committee Stage. Can the Minister of State explain the reason for not having a worker director? I accept that it is not the norm in most State agencies but it is the norm in semi-State organisations and it has not caused a problem there. By and large, it has been a good thing.

I presume that in this case, the Government wishes to move away from a representative board to a different type of board. Nevertheless, I do not see the rationale for the abolition of an existing practice of having worker directors. I am not familiar with a previous case where the provision for the appointment of a worker director has been removed. What is the rationale behind this decision?

Deputy Dara Calleary:  I accept the Deputies’ arguments but the rationale is that we are moving away from a worker director system. I appreciate the point made by Deputies Penrose and Morgan that the worker director model has served well. In the new board we are moving towards a structure which does not have prescribed nominations, that is, a person will be nominated by the Minister, who is accountable to the House. It may also include the director general as an ex officio member of the board to have a line of communication between the day-to-day operations of the function and the members of the board. That will provide a voice at the table to represent the line of the communication with the day-to-day work of FÁS, that is, the director general will be on the board and will have an input into board decisions. That will suffice for a voice around the table.

I also said on Committee Stage that we are open to recommendations on the composition of the board from the Select Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment. If it wishes to submit the name of a worker in FÁS, we would view that person in the context of a recommendation from the committee.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  I am disappointed with the Minister of State’s response, although I know he is trying to be as constructive as possible. This issue is fundamental and one about which we feel strongly enough to call a vote because it would strengthen the Bill. We are disappointed that a worker director will not be on the board as of right. The director general has a specific role which would reflect some of the points, and I accept what the Minister of State said. However, the worker director has a very specific role and is an important two way conduit of information and a link.

Question put: “That the words proposed to be deleted stand.”

[361]The Dáil divided: Tá, 74; Níl, 64.

 Ahern, Michael.  Ahern, Noel.
 Andrews, Barry.  Andrews, Chris.
 Ardagh, Seán.  Aylward, Bobby.
 Blaney, Niall.  Brady, Áine.
 Brady, Cyprian.  Brady, Johnny.
 Browne, John.  Byrne, Thomas.
 Calleary, Dara.  Carey, Pat.
 Collins, Niall.  Conlon, Margaret.
 Connick, Seán.  Coughlan, Mary.
 Cregan, John.  Cuffe, Ciarán.
 Curran, John.  Dempsey, Noel.
 Devins, Jimmy.  Dooley, Timmy.
 Fahey, Frank.  Finneran, Michael.
 Fitzpatrick, Michael.  Fleming, Seán.
 Flynn, Beverley.  Gogarty, Paul.
 Gormley, John.  Hanafin, Mary.
 Haughey, Seán.  Healy-Rae, Jackie.
 Hoctor, Máire.  Kelleher, Billy.
 Kelly, Peter.  Kenneally, Brendan.
 Kennedy, Michael.  Killeen, Tony.
 Kitt, Michael P.  Kitt, Tom.
 McEllistrim, Thomas.  McGrath, Mattie.
 McGrath, Michael.  McGuinness, John.
 Mansergh, Martin.  Moloney, John.
 Moynihan, Michael.  Mulcahy, Michael.
 Nolan, M. J.  Ó Cuív, Éamon.
 Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.  O’Brien, Darragh.
 O’Connor, Charlie.  O’Dea, Willie.
 O’Donoghue, John.  O’Flynn, Noel.
 O’Hanlon, Rory.  O’Keeffe, Batt.
 O’Rourke, Mary.  O’Sullivan, Christy.
 Power, Peter.  Power, Seán.
 Roche, Dick.  Ryan, Eamon.
 Sargent, Trevor.  Scanlon, Eamon.
 Smith, Brendan.  Treacy, Noel.
 Wallace, Mary.  White, Mary Alexandra.
 Woods, Michael.  


Níl
 Allen, Bernard.  Bannon, James.
 Barrett, Seán.  Behan, Joe.
 Breen, Pat.  Broughan, Thomas P.
 Bruton, Richard.  Burke, Ulick.
 Burton, Joan.  Byrne, Catherine.
 Carey, Joe.  Clune, Deirdre.
 Connaughton, Paul.  Coonan, Noel J.
 Costello, Joe.  Coveney, Simon.
 Creighton, Lucinda.  D’Arcy, Michael.
 Deasy, John.  Deenihan, Jimmy.
 Doyle, Andrew.  Durkan, Bernard J.
 English, Damien.  Feighan, Frank.
 Ferris, Martin.  Flanagan, Terence.
 Gilmore, Eamon.  Hayes, Tom.
 Higgins, Michael D.  Hogan, Phil.
 Howlin, Brendan.  Lee, George.
 Lynch, Ciarán.  McCormack, Pádraic.
 McEntee, Shane.  McGinley, Dinny.
 McManus, Liz.  Mitchell, Olivia.
 Morgan, Arthur.  Naughten, Denis.
 Neville, Dan.  Noonan, Michael.
 Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.  Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
 [362]O’Dowd, Fergus.  O’Keeffe, Jim.
 O’Mahony, John.  O’Sullivan, Jan.
 Penrose, Willie.  Perry, John.
 Rabbitte, Pat.  Reilly, James.
 Ring, Michael.  Sheahan, Tom.
 Sheehan, P. J.  Sherlock, Seán.
 Shortall, Róisín.  Stagg, Emmet.
 Stanton, David.  Timmins, Billy.
 Tuffy, Joanna.  Upton, Mary.
 Varadkar, Leo.  Wall, Jack.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Pat Carey and John Cregan; Níl, Deputies Emmet Stagg and David Stanton.

Question declared carried.

Amendment declared lost.

Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 not moved.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Is amendment No. 17 being moved?

Deputy Arthur Morgan:  I would have called a division on this amendment but we have just had one. It is a pity there is another capitulation by the Green Party Members because their clearly stated policy was in favour of worker representatives.

Amendment No. 17 not moved.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Amendments Nos. 18 to 21, inclusive, 24 and 25 are related and may be discussed together.

Deputy Arthur Morgan:  I move amendment No. 18:

In page 12, to delete lines 1 to 8 and substitute the following:

“(2) The Members of An Foras shall be nominated by the Minister, after having received recommendations from the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment and after consultation with the Minister for Education and Science and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, from among persons who have experience of, and expertise in matters connected with—”.

The Minister of State indicated earlier that he is amenable to accepting the thrust of this group of amendments. If this is the case, I will immediately bow to other speakers and hear from the Minister of State.

Deputy Dara Calleary:  Since the debate on Committee Stage we have reflected on the matter. While we are not in a position to accept the specific amendments, the Tánaiste and I have discussed the wishes of the committee. We decided the positions of the board members of FÁS would be advertised in newspapers in the coming days, as soon as the legislation is passed. Public submissions will be sought and we are currently discussing how they will be managed. As I stated on Committee Stage, I will consider the input of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment. If it wishes to nominate names for consideration for the board of FÁS, I will bring them to the attention of the Tánaiste.

[363]Deputy Arthur Morgan:  While that is a laudable sentiment from the Minister of State, as a former member of the committee he would have an honest and open approach to that committee. The difficulty is he could be shifted at any time, not least to this side of the House. However, even if he is shifted sideways, given that it is only a verbal commitment, it is not worth the paper it is written on and this is somewhat disappointing.

Deputy Leo Varadkar:  I will speak to some of my amendments. Deputy Calleary, as an open and reasonable Minister of State, could be shifted either up to Cabinet or out to the Atlantic Sea by Deputy Flynn in due course.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  He could be shifted by Deputy Ring.

Deputy Leo Varadkar:  He could be shifted by Deputy Ring or possibly Ms Mulhern. I welcome the proposed advertisement of the positions and that there will be a call for expressions of interest. Increasingly, this seems to be Government policy. It has happened with NAMA and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. However, the whole point is that there should be scrutiny and those nominated by Ministers to serve on State boards should receive some form of parliamentary scrutiny at some point, especially in the case of the chairman, but if not then for all members. They should come to the Houses to be asked questions and explain their role and qualifications. Those who have been asked are open to it, they see it as something that would be beneficial and which would give them greater authority than at present. On that basis I welcome the fact that the positions will be advertised and that the committee will be asked for its views but that is not what is really needed. What is needed is proper scrutiny of ministerial appointments. In view of this I will press my amendment.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  We may as well discuss them all together. The scrutiny of possible appointments to the board of FÁS is important and this is a positive amendment before the House. I do not subscribe to the type of scrutiny that takes place in judicial appointments in America and that is not because I am a barrister. That involves delving too much into the past or into some things one may have done as a very young person. One’s views mature as one goes along and gains experience. I would be uncomfortable if something someone did early on were the subject of intense scrutiny or speculation as to the way someone might act. I do not envisage any Oireachtas Members or committee ever embarking on such a route, which would be self-defeating. However, it is important that some basic scrutiny would apply to a curriculum vitae and that a person would be subject to questions related to their knowledge of the board to which they seek appointment, the question of why they seek the appointment and the qualifications they bring.

It is not simply a matter of academic experience but of life experience too. It is time to put a halt to the notion of the importance of academia. One may have a bag of letters beside one’s name but that does not signify anything. There are many people who live in cottages and small farms with a well of wisdom into which we would do well to tap and that may be where the country went somewhat off the rails. As someone who went through the education system, I can state it only prepares one in a certain way. Some people never get an opportunity to participate, which is why I am in favour of the openness of this process; at least it is opened up.

I trust this will not simply be a window dressing operation because otherwise we are at nothing and the opaqueness of the whole process would be accentuated rather than diminished. I trust any changes will be real and tangible. The Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts is present and as a Chairman of a committee I have no wish to allow any prurient invigilation, investigation, examination or anything of that nature. I would stop any such activity. Most members would agree that I am very flexible but where people are concerned I [364]hold a particular view. I am not in favour of any historical, prurient assessment or invigilation process.

However, a schematic approach in respect of what could be asked could be agreed among the committees. A consistent approach should be taken such that a candidate with a masters degree in law or medicine would not be asked if he knows anything about the latest in respect of a given business regulation. That could come across as Members trying to present themselves as knowledgeable but the candidate might open up and devour us with his knowledge and we would be none the wiser. Such an eventuality is no use. One way forward might be for us to bring life experience to bear on the matter. Any approach would have to be corralled and properly streamlined such that it would not be like an amoeba that could spread into every corner. One should not be able to ask a question on whatever comes into one’s head and I would not subscribe to any such method. That would be dangerous and it would resemble moving forward one inch but going back two feet. However, Oireachtas scrutiny is of benefit to the community, to society at large and to the organisation to which appointments would be made.

Deputy Bernard Allen:  One key recommendation of the interim report of the Committee of Public Accounts in February is that the board of FÁS should be reconstituted and reduced in number. I understand positions on the board will be advertised. However, I am concerned this will be simply window dressing, as Deputy Penrose remarked. A balance must be struck between the two extremes of window dressing of advertising for expressions of interest and a Star Chamber type of operation. I trust the people considered would be open to some scrutiny regarding their life experiences and the correct balance between life and professional business.

Too often in recent times we have seen the so-called experts attempting to talk down to Members, people who simply try to do their job in a professional way. Recently, I saw an example of this on “Prime Time” during which a so-called expert on banking pulled rank on a very able Member who was putting forward perfectly valid opinions on NAMA. He was talked down to in a manner that said a good deal about the so-called expert. Experts got us into the troubles in which we find ourselves at present. People who raised voices about matters which caused them alarm were put down, at times savagely and at other times in a very patronising way.

A balance must be struck and I trust lessons will be learnt from what took place on the board of FÁS. There was too much of a club effect. Some board members represented different bodies and were token members because of their affiliation to certain bodies. I trust any new appointments will be of those with an interest in serving the country and the organisation. If the Minister appoints board members to represent the Department, there should be a direct link back to the Minister and the Department. I recognise that is referred to elsewhere. Nominees from the Minister and the Department should be the eyes and ears of the Minister. They should not be barred by any law from reporting when something is going amiss.

Deputy Dara Calleary:  There is very little I disagree with in the sentiments expressed. I assure Members that this is not intended to be window-dressing. I can give Deputy Penrose, in his position as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, a commitment to keep him updated on the process. We have already had considerable expressions of interest from people around the country, even before the advertising and public awareness process began. I will keep the committee updated on the process and on how we intend to assess the names coming forward. We would welcome a submission from the committee on prospective members.

[365]We have laid down the areas from which we seek expressions of interest and I completely agree with Deputy Allen’s comments on the role of the board, which must be completely different from what went before. The club atmosphere to which he referred is gone. It has been consigned to history. We have a team of people of talent and life experience dedicated to the bettering of the job of the organisation. That is my aim and that of the Tánaiste.

Deputy Bernard Allen:  This should be the death of political hacks.

Deputy Arthur Morgan:  The board of FÁS is pretty much like the bankers. The new board will have a long way to go to earn the trust of people and even Members of this House. The Minister of State has far more credibility on this issue than the Government he represents. However, we will not move substantially forward on this discussion. The matter has been considered on Committee Stage. I withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment No. 19 not moved.

Deputy Leo Varadkar:  I move amendment No. 20:

In page 12, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:

“(3) (a) The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment shall, for the purposes of making recommendations to the Minister under this section and making recommendation in respect of any casual vacancies or other vacancies as they arise on An Foras, may establish a panel, for such duration, and consisting of such number of persons as the Joint Oireachtas Committee thinks proper.

(b) Persons placed on a panel established under paragraph (a) shall have experience of or have shown capacity in one or more of the following areas shall be chosen with a view to representing the public interest—

(i) the functions of An Foras, or

(ii) finance, trade, commerce, corporate governance or public administration.

(c) The Joint Oireachtas Committee shall, insofar as is practicable, endeavour to ensure that among the persons placed on a panel under paragraph (a) there is an equal balance between men and women.

(d) The Joint Oireachtas Committee shall have sole responsibility for the selection and placing of candidates on a panel established under paragraph (a).”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Amendments Nos. 21 to 26, inclusive, not moved.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Amendments Nos. 27 and 28 are related and may be discussed together.

Deputy Dara Calleary:  I move amendment No. 27:

In page 14, line 4, to delete “or”.

This is similar to amendment No. 1. It adds to the list of reasons a board member may be removed to include the contravention of the Ethics in Public Office Act.

[366]Amendment agreed to.

Deputy Dara Calleary:  I move amendment No. 28:

In page 14, line 8, to delete “2009).” and substitute the following:

2009), or

(e) the member has contravened the Act of 1995.”.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment No. 29 not moved.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  I move amendment No. 30:

In page 19, lines 1 and 2, to delete “, upon the commencement of section 11,”.

The Minister has indicated he will accept the amendment. One out of 20 is not bad. It is a drafting amendment and I prevailed. I am glad of this.

Amendment agreed to.

Deputy Dara Calleary:  I move amendment No. 31:

In page 19, lines 8 and 9, to delete “and shall be construed together as one Act”.

This is a technical amendment on the basis that the collective construction provision regarding the three Acts referred to in this Bill is not required in this case.

Amendment agreed to.

Bill, as amended, received for final consideration.

Question proposed: “That the Bill do now pass.”

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Dara Calleary):  I thank Deputies for their input on Committee Stage and today on Report Stage. I acknowledge the presence of the Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, Deputy Bernard Allen, in the Chamber. The Committee of Public Accounts and the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment played important roles in the work that brought us to this Bill. At a time when this House is under such scrutiny, both committees can stand proud of the work they have done. This is an important Bill, the main objective of which is to improve the effectiveness and the governance of the board of FÁS and to strengthen the accountability of the director general to the Oireachtas. These areas have been highlighted by both committees. The Bill also addresses the recommendations contained in the fourth interim report on the 2007 accounts of FÁS and the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The Bill is one of many actions taken by the Tánaiste to implement a fundamental cultural change in accountability and transparency in FÁS so that it can concentrate on addressing the key challenge of unemployment through its job search, training and employment programmes. FÁS is a key agency in our work to fight unemployment. It continues to deliver services, support and programmes to individuals across the country to ensure they remain in or return to the labour market as soon as possible.

[367]As many have done before, I acknowledge the sterling work of the vast majority of FÁS staff who engage with unemployed people and communities in response to very difficult labour market conditions. That work was never more needed. I hope this Bill will assist them in doing so in a more productive manner that responds effectively to the current crisis.

Deputy Willie Penrose:  This is an important Bill and we know the reasons it has been brought forward. Deputy Allen is in the Chamber and much of this material has emanated from the work of his committee, the Committee of Public Accounts. This emphasises the importance of the scrutiny work carried out by committees. Some of this work is done well away from the public view. People often wonder why this House is not packed to the rafters but many Members are in the committees carrying out important and detailed work. This is for the betterment of bringing forward recommendations, pioneered by legislators. This serves an important role and illustrates the importance of the work they are embarking on.

  5 o’clock

This is important legislation. I thank the hundreds of members of staff in FÁS for the work they do. Some 99.99% of people work there very well in an area where their expertise and experience has never been more required in tackling this crisis. I refer particularly to youth unemployment. The Minister of State is aware it is an area of which I have some knowledge. I hope the Government pays particular attention to it. I hope FÁS will be buoyed by the new legislation, which will give a new impetus to its work and I hope it will focus on this aspect from here on. I thank the Minister of State for listening to various points, some of which were made in a long-winded way.

We appreciate that there are two sides to this. It is important that we make our voices heard and try to improve legislation as it goes through the House. It is for the betterment of all concerned.

Deputy Bernard Allen:  I thank the Minister of State for his comments and tomorrow I will take them back to the members of the Committee of Public Accounts. We appreciate the support we have received. However, having said that, I agree with the Minister of State that one of the major challenges facing FÁS is to deal with the tsunami of unemployed people crying out for retraining and support. They deserve and should get services of the highest standards because more than €1 billion of taxpayers’ money has been spent to provide those services.

Further examinations of FÁS are ongoing. The Comptroller and Auditor General is due to publish a report shortly on other aspects of the FÁS operation. The Tánaiste and the Minister of State are aware of the review of the golden handshake given to Mr. Molloy, which scandalised so many people. The committee is eagerly looking forward to sight of that report and it is hoped to have it in ample time to begin our further investigations on 26 November. Once the Comptroller and Auditor General finalises that report, it will go back to the Department and the Tánaiste. I appeal to the Minister of State to pass the report through the Department quickly so that the Committee of Public Accounts can get on with its work.

As the Minister of State said, it is important that FÁS is allowed to get on with its work but, in allowing that, we must not conveniently ignore the many major issues still outstanding. We have a responsibility to get at the root of what happened in FÁS over a period of time of full employment when it had a budget of more than €1 billion. The atmosphere was that it has so much money it did not know what to do with it and if it did not use it, it would lose it. That was especially the case in drawing down European social funding; that money was put through the system and sent out the other end without any great accountability or monitoring of how it was spent.

[368]The investigations to date have brought an unprecedented level of correspondence and complaints to members of the committee, to me as Chairman and to the Comptroller and Auditor General. An avalanche of complaints has been made by members of the public and members of the organisation itself, some of whom have remained anonymous for fear of reprisals against them. There is a responsibility on us all to deal with those issues. Having said that, we must be mindful that the vast majority of people working in FÁS throughout the country are honest and decent and want to serve the public. There is a balance of accountability and performance.

Deputy Leo Varadkar:  I join my colleagues in complimenting the work of the Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Committee of Public Accounts and Deputy Allen in scrutinising what went on in FÁS and bringing forward the proposals which we are now implementing in law. Sometimes, it can be frustrating to see proposals put forward by committees not being implemented by Ministers. I am pleased that on this occasion a number of the recommendations of the Committee of Public Accounts have been transposed into law by this legislation. That is what Parliament is all about.

I remain disappointed that the Bill does not provide for proper scrutiny of board appointments and that the provision for a workers’ director has been removed. However, good work is done in the Bill and it represents progress. It makes the director general more accountable to Parliament, it slims down the board and it will ensure that we move from a representative board to one that will pursue the interests of FÁS and not the bodies the board members represent. It also protects whistleblowers in FÁS and other agencies who bring important information into the public domain. It is good legislation and my party is happy to see it passed today.

Deputy Dara Calleary:  I thank the Deputies for their good wishes. The Bill now goes to the Seanad.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended at 5.05 p.m. and resumed at 5.15 p.m.

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

Deputy Charlie O’Connor:  I welcome the opportunity to make my contribution and thank Deputy Chris Andrews for sharing time with me.

I am sure Deputies will expect me to mention Tallaght at some point in my contribution and I certainly intend to do so. The Public Transport Regulation Bill 2009 is an important piece of our public transport regulation infrastructure. We have waited several decades for its introduction and I commend the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, on his initiative. He visited Tallaght recently but I did not have the opportunity to meet him due to parliamentary business. I am always happy to welcome Ministers to Tallaght.

The Bill proposes a number of important changes to public transport regulation. It reforms the existing bus route licensing regime, extends the public transport route procurement scheme for the greater Dublin area to the rest of the country, transforms the Dublin Transport Authority into the national transport authority and merges it with the Commission for Taxi Regulation. It also gives the national transport authority a consultative role in future regional planning guidelines.

[369]As a born and bred Dubliner, I have no country blood. I bring to my politics the perspective of what happens in Dublin. Between 1994 and 2003 I sat on Dublin County Council and, later, South Dublin County Council, during which time I took a particular interest in transport issues. I was also a council nominee to the Dublin Transportation Office. As someone who lives about eight miles out of the city in Tallaght, I try to use public transport as much as possible. Next Saturday I intend to use the Luas to go to Croke Park in order to cheer the Irish soccer team, captained by a Tallaght man, Robbie Keane. The team also includes Richard Dunne.

Deputy Seán Haughey:  Has the Deputy a ticket?

Deputy Charlie O’Connor:  I just about have my ticket. If the Minister of State can use his influence to get additional tickets for me, I would welcome it.

I support the revitalisation of the transport system throughout the Dublin region. When I was very small I witnessed tram tracks being pulled up. Deputy Chris Andrews reminded us that Todd Andrews was in charge when the Harcourt line closed. I often wonder about the thinking behind that decision.

We are now trying to improve public transport services. The recent controversy about the College Green bus gate puts the debate into perspective. We should be trying to encourage people to take public transport to work and for shopping and social activities. The Luas has transformed Tallaght, not only by bringing people to Tallaght hospital, the Square and Shamrock Rovers’ stadium but also by facilitating people who want to access town.

That is not to imply that bus services are unimportant, however. I am a member of the Dublin Bus community forum for Tallaght, which meets on a monthly basis in Killinarden. The forum is a partnership between Dublin Bus unions and management, the Garda and the community, including public representatives. It was founded at a time when Tallaght, like other regions, had difficulties with anti-social behaviour on buses. The withdrawal of bus services should be a last resort for any Dublin community. I condemn vandalism and anti-social behaviour but we need to maintain bus services. I appreciate the work done by the forum in that regard.

I have often been critical of the services provided by Dublin Bus. I understand it is reviewing its services, in which regard I listened carefully to the Minister’s contribution on Private Members’ business last night. I represent not only Tallaght but also Templeogue, Greenhills, Firhouse, Bohernabreena and Brittas. Constituents from these areas have made regular representations about bus services. The management of Dublin Bus should be more innovative in providing bus services. I lamented the passing of the local service which took small buses into estates. It is a pity the service was lost. A fine, innovative project has been introduced in Belfast involving a partnership between public transport services and local taxis. Under this initiative, taxi drivers pick up fares in housing estates and bring their passengers to the local bus route. The possibility of introducing a similar project in Dublin, particularly Tallaght, should be examined.

As a Government Deputy, I am not afraid to state that progress must be made on the introduction of integrated ticketing. One should be able to board a bus or Luas tram and change to another form of public transport using the same ticket. I travelled to London in August to watch a couple of matches, both of which involved Irish players. One can buy a ticket for use on the underground and buses. I cannot understand the reason this cannot be done here. It is time we had integrated ticketing in Dublin.

The Acting Chairman, Deputy Noel O’Flynn, and Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, will be surprised that I raise the issue of rural transport. Members of the Irish Farmers Association wondered why I attended their lobby meeting earlier. There are, however, farmers and a rural [370]community in Tallaght. Members who are familiar with the area will be aware that those living in Bohernabreena and the general hill area do not have access to public transport. The Department and Ministers find it strange when I contact them to argue for the introduction of a rural transport service in parts of Tallaght. People living in rural areas adjacent to large urban centres should be able to access public transport services. I will continue to knock on the doors of the Ministers for Transport and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs because this service must be provided. As I stated, my country cousins will be surprised to hear me speak on behalf of people living in rural areas. It is important that transport services are provided in all areas.

The Luas has given Tallaght a major boost. The failure to join the two Luas lines in the city centre was a lost opportunity. I told successive Ministers at the time that the Luas should have gone through the estates of Tallaght west to Saggart. I am pleased work to extend the Luas to these areas is under way. Once the extension of the Luas line is complete, the delay and disruption caused in the community, specifically in my parish, will have been worthwhile. People will be able to travel to estates such as Fettercairn, Brookfield and Ardmore out to Citywest which has great facilities, including the first class services of the Citywest Hotel.

Occasionally, I go to the Point Depot to watch acts which cater to my age group, Cliff Richard, for example. When the Luas line extension is complete I will no longer have the hassle of driving into town as I will be able to take a Luas from Tallaght to the Point Depot. It is important that we support this development. As the communities located along the Luas line are aware, one must crack eggs to make a first class omelette. I am pleased the Luas line is being extended.

Many important issues have been raised in this debate. The Minister is moving in the right direction in establishing a national transport authority. The Bill contains many good measures. I hope it will pass quickly through the House.

Deputy Pat Breen:  I welcome an opportunity to speak on the Public Transport Regulation Bill 2009. I listened with interest to Deputy O’Connor speaking about rural areas in Tallaght. I invite the Deputy to visit the rural areas of west Clare to see at first hand isolation and the lack of public transport. I will return to this issue later.

The Bill makes a number of important changes to public transportation regulation. It reforms the current bus route licensing regime and extends the public transport route procurement scheme introduced for the greater Dublin area to the rest of the country. It also transforms the Dublin Transport Authority into a new body, the national transport authority, which will be merged with the Commission for Taxi Regulation. The Bill gives the new national transport authority a consultative role in future regional planning guidelines. As the population increases, it is important that we plan for future transport needs. Climate change, the conservation of fuel supplies and recession mean more people will start to use public transport.

Michael O’Leary of Ryanair proved with his low cost carrier that passengers will travel anywhere if the price is right. It is important to have a good pricing system in place for public transport services, whether trains, taxis or buses.

The Bill has two main functions, namely, to update the legislation on public bus licensing and regulation and to create a new national transport regulator, the national transport authority. Any effort to streamline Government agencies will save money and improve customer service, which is always welcome, particularly in these times. Nevertheless, the Bill falls far short of what is required. The remit of the new transport authority will extend to the entire country and the authority will be responsible for commercial bus route licensing. It will also [371]assume responsibility for the distribution of public transport subventions. As I indicated, the Commission for Taxi Regulation will be merged with the new authority.

The notes on the Bill provided by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service detail the long history of transport regulation in this country. The issue has been a topic for debate for a long time. I entered the Dáil in 2002 and was appointed deputy Fine Gael Party spokesperson on transport when the late Séamus Brennan was Minister for Transport. The regulation of public transport, including integrated ticketing which has still not been introduced, were key issues at the Joint Committee on Transport at that time.

One hears a great deal about the urban-rural divide in transport. Public transport is non-existent in many rural areas. I am disappointed the Bill does not deal with the rural transport initiative which funds transport services in rural areas. A cloud has hung over the service since the publication of the report by an bord snip. This service in rural Ireland is a lifeline, particularly for the elderly, the disabled and those without transport living in rural areas. There are many people living in rural areas who do not have transport.

When I was growing up I lived seven miles from Ennis in west Clare in Ballynacally. Each morning three or four buses served those who worked in Shannon, Ennis and Limerick. Now there is no bus service. Major changes are happening. There are many more cars on the roads. I travelled to study my third level course in Limerick, 30 miles away from my home, by public transport. I took two buses, one from my house to Ennis and another from Ennis to Limerick. I did that for three years. It was a great service. I was home every evening and it worked extremely well. The weekly fare was £2.10, which was great value for money at the time. However, many rural areas now have no bus service and are losing many more services such as post offices. Many communities are suffering as a result. The local post office in my parish of Ballynacally closed last week. This is linked to transport initiatives. Many elderly people are affected by the closure of services in rural areas and have to travel for nine, ten or 11 miles to pick up their pensions or do their shopping.

A rural transport initiative is provided by the Clare accessible transport scheme, which I commend. It has seven or eight coaches. When the report of an bord snip nua was launched a number of months ago a public rally took place in O’Connell Square in Ennis. The buses and all those in east Clare who use the transport initiative came to Ennis and invited all the public representatives to talk to them. We talked to pensioners, disabled people and those who want to get out of their houses for a day. This vital link is extremely important in rural areas, and I hope this service can be saved and will not be cut due to the shortfall in the public finances. I met a constituent at the march in Ennis from O’Callaghan’s-Mills who uses the service on a Friday to collect his pension and who said if the rural transport service was not in place he would be like a prisoner in his own home. The financing of the rural transport initiative is an issue which must be addressed to remove the uncertainty rural people are experiencing.

Bus Éireann has axed a number of routes due to the current downturn in the economic circumstances. The early morning service from Kilkee to Ennis was one of the routes which has already fallen victim to cutbacks and I understand other routes are currently under review. There has been a lot of discussion on whether the bus market should be totally liberalised and deregulated but it is important to strike a balance. There are no queues of buses ready to set up routes in rural areas and it is likely that bus services will be axed in some places as the company strives to cut costs.

The social dimension of living in rural Ireland must be addressed and we should examine whether an extension of public service routes is required in order to sustain rural communities. It cannot be all about pounds, shillings and pence; there is also a social dimension. For instance, many people are now being left to survive on their own in remote rural areas with little or no [372]contact with the outside world. It is something on which there has been focus recently with the publication of the Road Traffic Bill and the proposal to reduce from 80 mg to 50 mg the legal limit for blood alcohol levels while driving, a proposal which will affect many people in rural Ireland. A transport initiative should be set up in conjunction with the Bill to help people who like to have a drink, want to abide by the law and go to their local pub. Local pubs in rural Ireland are closing every week. The social dimension of this issue is something we have to try to protect. It is a major issue which cannot be ignored and is something to which the Government will have to face up. Deputy O’Connor referred to Tallaght but there are no transport facilities or taxis in rural Ireland.

If the public service routes were extended, some of them could be tendered out to private bus operators, which might be more suitable as they would be able to run services using smaller buses which would be more economical and cost effective. Many such operators live in and provide a great service in rural areas. They serve people who want to go to bingo, elderly people, people who want a social dimension to their lives and football and hurling teams. Such bus operators could play a role in connecting rural villages and providing a service for people who want to avail of it.

In recent years we have seen a rise in disputes over the allocation of licences and I hope the new authority will address this issue. I have seen cases where an operator ran a service without a licence for a period of time and there was a demand for it. In some cases it did so because it was waiting for the Department of Transport to make a decision on a licence. In other cases, Bus Éireann had difficulty getting a licence for a route which it was willing to serve. The new licensing authority must make sure the system is less cumbersome, that major delays are not incurred waiting for decisions on licensing routes and, most importantly, that the system is fair and open to all.

Our public transport system lags behind many other EU countries. Integrated ticketing appears to be light years away. I compliment Iarnród Éireann on the ticketing barriers it installed at Heuston Station where one must use a ticket to gain exit from the station. When one looks at the metro and subway systems in other European capitals one can see we are light years behind. It is only in the past number of years that the Luas system came into operation, which serves only the southern part of the city. The northern part of Dublin has no Luas or metro service, but is a busy area because it is linked to Dublin Airport. We still depend on buses and taxis to take us to the airport, the busiest airport in Ireland and one of the busiest in the British isles. That shows how far behind we are.

The bus lanes which are in place have proved effective for buses and taxis. We are light years behind the systems which transport people in cities such as Paris, Budapest and New York. Many of these people are transported underground and if they were to be transported above ground, there would be chaos. The Luas has gone a long way towards improving our transport infrastructure, but it must be extended to all parts of Dublin.

I spoke on integrated ticketing and that appears to be some time away, although the use of new technologies will make it easier to achieve. In Auckland, New Zealand, they are investing in new technologies so that they can co-ordinate the entire public transport system. This includes automated gates, as well as smart card readers on buses, ferries and rail stations. Our system is still stuck in a time warp and we still have bus queues because drivers must collect payment before a bus can move.

I have gone to Strasbourg from time to time for Council of Europe meetings and it has a fully integrated ticketing system for commuters, whether they use the tram system which is similar to Dublin’s Luas or the bus system. That proves very effective for tourists, business [373]people going to work in the morning and all other commuters. A system similar to this for Ireland should be in place so that people could buy a ticket and get on the Luas or a bus. It would be more efficient than the current system and bring about fewer delays, particularly with Ireland’s inclement weather. It rains much of the time here and there is much pushing and shoving to get on the buses.

I speak also from the perspective of tourists visiting Ireland who may be used to efficient systems in their own countries. For many tourists coming to Ireland — be it rural Ireland or cities like Dublin — it can be a nightmare. A person should be able to purchase a day pass to get around like we can in other European countries.

The Bill does not include rail travel but I cannot understand why we are not moving towards a co-ordinated public transport system. For example, in my own constituency, the Ennis to Limerick commuter line has proved a major success and the frequency of the service from Ennis to Galway is to be increased shortly. I welcome that improvement, which will take place in the new year. As part of the improvement, we will also have a new station open in Sixmilebridge, which will help commuters travelling to Ennis and Limerick. They can travel to Shannon by bus. Sixmilebridge is approximately 12 km from Shannon Airport and it would make sense for tourists travelling from Limerick to Shannon or vice versa to be able to purchase a ticket to travel onwards to and from the airport on a bus or train.

These are the reasons we should be moving forward and why I welcome that the new authority will have an input into local development plans. It is important that our local public transport requirements are planned and co-ordinated. The Commission for Taxi Regulation will merge with the new authority, although I note there is no proposal to address the oversupply of taxis in the market. We all know of problems with taxis in our rural towns, particularly at the weekends when there are no taxis around despite an abundance being evident during the week. The same is true of Dublin.

I remember when I first came here as a Deputy that I found it very hard to get a taxi on Dawson Street but there are now queues of them all the time. Changes could be made to the current system to ease the oversupply of taxis. To suggest that some taxis will leave the industry because of the current decline does not resolve the problem as there will only be additional people on the live register.

Overall, the Bill is disappointing and does not address the key issues. It is a failed opportunity to deal with public transport, which is the way forward. I will return to what I said at the start; the passenger will go anywhere if the price is right and the transport is there.

Deputy Frank Fahey:  I wish to share time with Deputy Kennedy.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Noel O’Flynn):  Is that agreed? Agreed. The Deputies will have ten minutes each.

Deputy Frank Fahey:  I welcome the publication of this Bill, which is a long time coming. It is a poor reflection on all of us that we are operating in 2009 under legislation introduced in 1932. Every Member in the House should bow their heads in shame that in this modern era, when we are trying to promote public transport, we are still operating under archaic legislation.

There are many positives in this Bill and I thank the Minister and his officials for producing what is generally a very fine piece of legislation. It will put consumer needs at the centre of the action and ensure that the issuing and administration of all bus licences, both commercial and loss-making, will transfer from the Department to the new Dublin Transport Authority, which will be integrated into the new national transport authority.

[374]This will be a comprehensive new regime which will put consumer needs at its core. There will be very extensive powers, which I welcome, to penalise companies and revoke licences for poor performances. The question of a level playing pitch will at long last be the order of the day as a result of legislation. I will come back to that in a few moments but establishing the principle of regulated competition, as opposed to a free-for-all, is the key element of this legislation. Regulated competition is very important because we want to ensure that level playing pitch.

We want to continue to ensure that subvented services, such as those in parts of Ireland that are not commercial, will continue to operate. People in isolated rural areas and other parts of cities and working class areas should have good competition and services. It should not just be a case of cherry-picking.

This legislation is far better than the British system, which went for a free-for-all. There are many good services in Britain but there is ample evidence of poor services because of cherry-picking, predatory pricing and the creation of monopolies. I have been to cities where I have seen that at its worst. That is not to say there are no good aspects in Britain, such as in places like York and Cambridge where there are exemplary public transport systems.

This is the first time we will see a contract regime setting strict standards to be met by operators in terms of frequency, reliability, efficiency and cost, as well as customer issues like cleanliness, ticketing and real-time passenger information. There is no doubt that this is very good legislation, which will take forward the issue of bus transport from the old regime that existed until now. It will operate in respect of all commercial bus services, whether provided by private companies, Bus Éireann or Dublin Bus. It provides for the new system to be operated by the national transport authority.

I only recently saw the Fine Gael proposals for a free-for-all and I am disappointed in them. If the Fine Gael legislation was put in place, Bus Éireann would be finished as a commercial company within five years and it would be left to provide services in rural areas which would be at a serious loss to the State. There are amendments which should be made to the Bill and I will come to them in a moment, but Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann are good companies which provide a good service. We need a comprehensive bus network on the existing routes in the city of Dublin, for example. By the same token, the unions and management in Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann have to make changes. They cannot maintain some of the restrictive work practices and archaic industrial arrangements that exist. The two companies will continue to come under significant pressure until their management and unions agree to move away from many aspects of their old-style union and management arrangements.

This Bill provides for regulated competition. If we were to throw the market open as a free for all, as Fine Gael suggests, there is no doubt that Bus Éireann and, to a lesser extent, Dublin Bus would come to a pretty quick halt over the next number of years. I assure the unions that I want to see a strong Dublin Bus and a strong Bus Éireann. I am a great believer in the two companies, which provide good services. There is no doubt that this Bill puts it up to them. They have to change the way they operate. The old days of union demarcation, old-style working habits and costs that are way out of line have to come to an end. These companies have to be prepared to face up to fair competition. Nobody can stand over a protected system that is costing consumers and taxpayers more and is providing a quality of service that is not up to the mark. I reiterate that if they make the changes I have mentioned, they will be able to meet the best in terms of competition. We can already see that the competition will be intense.

I am worried that if we have a free for all, as proposed by Fine Gael, the problems that have arisen in Great Britain will arise here too. Companies like Stagecoach adopted a predatory [375]pricing regime and took over routes in Scotland. As soon as they had put everyone else out of business, they decided to do what they liked. The same thing was tried in this country when a number of Stagecoach executives arrived here to take over Citylink. The company is now offering 14 trips a day between Galway and Dublin Airport, even though it does not have a licence. Under its predatory pricing regime, it is charging as little as €1 per trip. We all want low prices and high frequencies, but we are not prepared to allow that kind of ethos to come into the Irish system. The idea that one can come in, break the rules, offer bus services without worrying about licences, charge passengers €1 in order to break everybody else and keep the market for one’s self is not acceptable. We should do whatever is needed to stop this company from operating on the Dublin-Galway route in this manner.

I appeal to the Minister and his officials to stop what is happening. Other companies like GoBus and Bus Éireann are already operating on this route. As we are in favour of competition, we should give this company some licences, but we should not allow it to develop the kind of regime that exists in parts of Britain. There is ample evidence to show that it has not worked in Scotland, for example. Good companies went to the wall when their services were affected by the predatory pricing of other companies that did what they liked, in terms of prices and services, when there was nobody else around. I do not accept that model represents a good way of going forward.

This country has a wonderful opportunity to move from the car to the bus. The Joint Committee on Transport has placed a great deal of emphasis on the utility of the bus in dealing with this country’s traffic congestion and reducing carbon emissions. There is so much potential to expand Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann and to bring in the private sector. I suggest that direct award sub-contracts should be facilitated on the routes that are currently operated by Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann. I am glad this matter is covered in the Bill because it brings an element of competition to the routes in question, while protecting the public service obligation services that currently exist. That is particularly important in a city like Galway, where there is not enough room for two companies to operate a bus service. Galway is too small for that. We should have one bus company, such as Bus Éireann, with the ability to bring in the private sector on direct award sub-contracts to operate on its network. In such circumstances, Bus Éireann would have to compete with the private sector in terms of the extra buses that would be put on. I would have no difficulty with services in certain cities, such as Limerick, Waterford or even Galway, being put out to tender in a way that would allow a private sector company to take charge.

The decision to give the new national transport authority responsibility for the existing Commission for Taxi Regulation is a good one. The joint committee has found in the recent past that the commission is a costly bureaucracy that is not working. I estimate that there were 7,000 taxi licences in this country before the establishment of the commission. There are now 27,000 such licences. Given that each licence costs €6,000, I estimate that the commission has taken in over €100 million. The regulator informed the committee the other day that the commission has €23 million in its kitty, at a time when the taxi situation is totally chaotic. It is all right to attempt to provide for competition, but we do not have competition in the industry any more. We have an industry in chaos, with poor services in many cases. The people who operate it cannot make a living. I recently called on the Minister to disband the Commission for Taxi Regulation. I hope that will happen when it is taken over by the new national transport authority. I will ask for some amendments in that regard to be made to this Bill over the coming weeks.

Deputy Michael Kennedy:  I thank Deputy Fahey for sharing his time with me. I welcome this Bill. As other speakers, including Deputy Fahey, have said, the introduction of legislation [376]to replace the Road Transport Act 1932 with an Act that is more appropriate to modern Ireland is long overdue. It is incredible that the nature of bus, rail and taxi activities has not really changed in the last 77 years. I welcome the establishment of a new national transport authority to deal with all aspects of transportation. It is necessary to make these changes in a regulated way, however. The experience in London proves that allowing all and sundry to avail of free competition does not always work. Private operators in London have opted to cherry-pick the good routes and to provide services at certain times of day only, which is not what the public expects. People want a good service to be available when they need it, for example during the peak morning hours and again in the evening when they want to get home after the working day.

While the Bill might not be perfect, it represents a step in the right direction. It is not easy to endeavour to consolidate 80 years of changes, embracing all aspects of transportation, in one Bill. We should move towards more competition in a structured way. I welcome the Bill as a first step in meeting the value for money demands of taxpayers, who are subsidising the CIE group by approximately €360 million.

  6 o’clock

While I have previously been critical of CIE, particularly Dublin Bus, in my local area, the measures that were taken following the recent collapse of the viaduct over the Broadmeadow Estuary near Malahide proved that Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann can come up with the goods. The bus companies have provided an excellent service, in conjunction with Irish Rail, since the collapse of the line. They have offered express buses at frequent intervals in the morning and again in the evening, when people return from the city to places like Balbriggan, Skerries, Rush, Lusk and Donabate. It proves that when the situation demands it, it can provide that vital service. That service uses Dublin Port tunnel. I have consistently said that the port tunnel is the most under-utilised asset in the State. The case for more usage of the tunnel is well made. I have had approximately 400 to 500 e-mails, letters and phone calls from constituents asking for the express buses from Balbriggan, Rush, Lusk and Donabate to be retained because people recognise that the buses using the tunnel get them into town in the shortest time. The service has been so good that it is beating the train service, which might seem incredible. However, having the service operate through the tunnel non-stop until it reaches the city centre means that people get into the city in the time they want. That service should continue. We know that the northern rail line in particular is chock-a-block from the time it leaves Drogheda and certainly by the time it reaches Balbriggan. People have complained about overcrowding on the train. I have made known my views to the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann that we need to continue some of those express services.

The provisions in the Bill before us will facilitate decisions in a shorter space of time. Rather than dealing with the antiquated 1932 Act, the Dublin Transport Authority as the overall organisation dealing with transport issues can come to quick decisions in the best interests of the commuter. Our thanks are due to Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann for meeting the demands for commuters in that situation with the rail line across Malahide Estuary having collapsed. While we have been excessively critical at times, we must pay due respects to them.

We need to keep repeating that the metro system from St. Stephen’s Green, going out to Swords in my constituency is necessary. The volume of traffic on the M1 motorway is 20,000 cars daily. For sustainability we need to get those cars off the road. The only way to do so is by having this metro system which I am confident will carry 30 million passengers in a year, similar to what is happening with the Luas on the south side. I welcome that the An Bord Pleanála hearing is recommencing at the end of the month. I hope it will make its decision in a positive fashion by next spring. The Government needs to give the go-ahead for that project. [377] The commuting public expects it and it will take cars off the road and reduce the CO2 emissions and allow people to get into the city in an easy frame of mind to do their day’s work, rather than being stuck in traffic jams as is the case at present

Deputy Fahey mentioned taxi regulation. The taxi regulator will come under the ambit of the new DTA, which is necessary. We have gone from one extreme to the other in the past ten years or so. We used to have too few taxis not just in Dublin but also in Cork and elsewhere. We are now totally oversubscribed in that and worst of all many people are driving taxis with fraudulent plates and insurance. We need to get to grips with that situation.

I welcome the Bill. It is a step forward and while it might not be 100% perfect we need to introduce this legislation in a regulated fashion.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  After a very long gestation period, the Bill has at last emerged into the House. We hope it will address the issues that have been in need of attention for some time. Transport requirements have changed dramatically in the past ten years in particular. What was sufficient ten or 15 years ago is no longer sufficient or relevant. In fact the emphasis is now on meeting the needs of consumers or commuters. There are different requirements in different areas. We have the daily commuter and the person who travels on an irregular basis. One way or another the tradition used to be that the service was provided and the public could use it when the public were available to use it. That is not the way things work.

This legislation is like all the other legislation that comes before us, as the Acting Chairman knows. We tend to welcome Bills at the start, look at them for a couple of years, discover they were not as good as we thought they were in the first place and we wonder why we introduced them at all. This is an extraordinary situation. It has happened in the case of every piece of legislation I have seen introduced since I entered this House, and that was not today or yesterday.

The integrated system has been mentioned. What about integrating the timetables in such a way as to make it convenient for bus users and train users adjacent to the main commuter routes to have a co-ordinated and integrated system that would work so that potential passengers have more than one choice? When they drive down to the bus stop, railway station or whatever it is, if they do not make it one way they should be able to go by another route. That is healthy and useful competition. As there is no place for cherry picking, the two services should be complementary to each other.

Lo and behold, however, what happens when a Deputy tables a parliamentary question to the Minister to ask about such an issue? It always happens that the Minister has no responsibility to the House. Nothing ever changes. It is sad to think that five or six years ago a Deputy could table the same parliamentary question and the Minister had responsibility to the House and answered the question because he knew it was relevant to his Department. All things have changed. We talk about Dáil reform. It is reverse reform we have had. It is very pertinent in this area as I know because I tabled the questions. When I tabled questions five, ten, 20 and 25 years ago, there was no difficulty getting answers to those questions. It is now an appalling fact of life that the Minister will not answer the simplest question along those lines because he is not compelled to answer. Why does he not want to answer? He has been too long in the job. Why has he been too long in the job? He has become accustomed to recognising that he can be expected to treat the House with contempt.

The Acting Chairman is looking at me in a peculiar fashion.

Acting Chairman:  I was going to interrupt the Deputy by saying he is speaking about matters that are not relevant to the Public Transport Regulation Bill. I would like him to confine his [378]remarks to the Bill we are discussing at present. I understand the Deputy might have raised this matter today on the Order of Business and the Ceann Comhairle answered his question.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  I have bad news for the Acting Chairman. I saw him getting the official advice and they are both wrong because it is relevant. It is relevant in the sense that we are introducing into the House a Bill the consequences of which we will observe only at a later stage. There is no other time to introduce this issue apart from now. I am sticking it into the public record in the way it needs to be stuck into the public record. I will continue to raise it on every piece of legislation introduced in this House as long as legislation is brought into this House by Ministers. If Ministers do not have the courage to bring them into the House and stand over what they introduce by legislation, we will deal with that also. The Acting Chairman is a very nice person of whom I am very fond and I am sure he did not mean what he said. I meant what I said but I will return now to dealing with the legislation before us.

We have an opportunity in this Bill to change structures and operational procedures in the transport system which have been crying out for attention for years. We hope that will be done and that the choices we are told will be made available to consumers will transpire. I also hope that in the event that developments do not happen as we wish and expect, Ministers will have the courage to come back to the House to amend the legislation as and when necessary rather than merely wringing their hands and inquiring of themselves and each other as to what should be done next.

The taxi regulation system has been a source of great irritation to those providing taxi services in the last five or six years. I hope the proposals before us will address the sources of that aggravation. One of the issues regularly brought to our attention is the fact that we live in a different climate from that which pertained some years ago. The situation has changed dramatically in the taxi industry, with many of those involved in the business finding they are no longer in a position to meet the financial commitments they entered into in the recent past. There must be an acknowledgement that the system which was put in place several years ago simply did not work. We cannot sit on our hands, complain and fret while consumers and service providers suffer. We must ensure that the Department and this House is responsive on these issues. I am a strong advocate for competition, but that competition must be even handed. It is important to ensure in so far as is possible, whether in the public or private sector, that competitors are operating from the same base, that is, that none has an advantage over the others. It is very easy to facilitate uneven competition but such a situation will be short lived because anything that is not economically viable cannot last.

Another important issue in the regulation of public transport services is the degree to which efforts are made to ensure that those applying for licences under the new legislation are in a position to provide the quality and standard of service as laid down. Where applicants are not capable of meeting the detailed specifications, they should be given an opportunity to bring their proposals and services up to a sufficiently high standard in order to provide the type and quality of service that is required. This whole area has generated a great deal of inquiry and debate in the House in recent years simply because the requirements were brought to everybody’s attention.

The purpose of this exercise in the first instance is to provide the public with a service that is fast, efficient and reliable and which meets health and safety requirements and standards. In addition, those involved in the provision of the service should be adequately remunerated and have adequate tenure in terms of their entitlement to contracts, employment and so on. However, we must avoid procedures, structures or restrictions which in themselves impose an additional penalty either on the customer or the State as may be the case. It is extremely [379]important, in the particularly slimmed down circumstances in which we are now operating, that there is adequate openness and transparency in terms of how the regime is overseen by the Department and implemented by the transport authority. It must be done in such a way that the customer can readily obtain a high-quality service and a degree of satisfaction in terms of the extent to which his or her requirements are met.

I do not know whether the Minister fully appreciates the importance of the rural transport service, which was referred to by various speakers. It is easy for those living in towns and cities, where they can walk to the nearest shop, post office, hotel, convenience store, shopping centre and so on, to dismiss the importance of a public transport service to rural dwellers. In view of the general tendency to scale down operations and support services in rural areas, it is high time that recognition be given to the fact that many people still live in rural areas, despite the best efforts of local authorities to isolate them and make it difficult for them to remain. Existing rural transport services, such as they are, are of great importance to rural communities and must be the given the necessary support to allow them to continue. To do anything other than that would be a great disservice to rural dwellers. While it is politically correct — for want of a better expression — to ignore the needs of rural communities, the reality is that people living in rural areas have the same rights and entitlements as their urban counterparts. Just because they do not have public street lighting, footpaths, a daily commuter bus service and many of the other services people take for granted in more urbanised settings does not mean they are not entitled to them. That should be borne in mind in more ways than one.

I welcome this legislation. Like many Bills before it and many yet to come, we cannot be sure of the extent of its impact until we see it in operation. When and if it does not operate to the degree of effectiveness we expect, I hope the Minister or his successor, whoever that may be, will see fit to change it. In general, given the authority that this House hands over to various bodies, groups, agencies and commissions, I also hope Ministers will have the courage, conviction and commitment to come into the House and answer questions relative to the legislation they have passed for a particular purpose. They should not insult us by saying they have no function in these matters or no official responsibility to the House in respect of them.

Deputy Denis Naughten:  I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important legislation but I am disappointed it is being rushed through the House. While significant time was allocated for Second Stage, the intention is to enact the legislation within a few weeks. It has major implications for the development of our public transport system and bus services, in particular, for generations. We need to think long and hard about this. I acknowledge numerous consultants have been appointed and reports and recommendations made but it is important that the Minister gets section 10, in particular, right to ensure the service we want is achieved because deregulation in other sectors of the economy in the past has not worked like we had anticipated when the relevant legislation was enacted. The Bill will require detailed scrutiny on Committee Stage and I hope time will be provided to do so.

Deputy Durkan mentioned the lack of accountability of many agencies under the aegis of the Department of Transport that were established in recent years. This permits the Minister to trot out the standard line that he has no official responsibility to the House regarding them. That system must change and accountability to the House must be re-introduced. Last year the OECD highlighted that there were more than 600 quangos in the State, which has led to fragmentation in the delivery of policy and a lack of accountability. The original plans for this legislation would have resulted in an array of different agencies overseeing the deregulated market but the more streamlined structure proposed has many positive aspects.

If competition is to be worthwhile, the service provided to the public must improve. I am concerned that if the Minister does not ensure the provisions of section 10 are laid out clearly, [380]that may not happen. We want more than a change in the logo on the side of a bus as a result of this legislation because no one will benefit. It is important to reflect on what happened in the UK. Mistakes were made in London regarding deregulation mainly because the bus garage infrastructure was handed over to companies and privatised but the authorities have learned from that. There have also been huge problems in the deregulation of the bus market outside London because of a lack of competition. Only three major players provide services in England and Wales and they more or less have a privatised monopoly. The Department should not transfer a service from Bus Éireann to a private company, which would result in the current monopoly being maintained. While initially this might result in increased service frequency, the company might slowly withdraw services, which could result in the bus network reducing rather than expanding.

It is vitally important that the legislation contains adequate provisions to ensure not only that the existing network is maintained but services are enhanced and extended to other areas. I have concerns in this regard that need to be addressed, especially in rural areas. The Minister debated the provision of rural transport services earlier and I read Mr. Colm McCarthy’s commentary on school transport with interest. He referred to car ownership in the State, which is significant, but there is a big difference between car ownership and car availability. While that has changed over the past 12 months because of the way the Government has run the economy into the ground, up until then, many people in rural communities commuted to work in Dublin or elsewhere. While two cars might have been outside the front door at 8 p.m. between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. no vehicle was available. The Minister is from a rural constituency and he will be aware that in recent years if a farmer was in trouble with an animal, it was impossible to find a neighbour to assist him because everyone was at work and the same applies regarding access to cars.

We need to examine issues in rural areas. The review of the rural transport scheme should examine how the uptake of existing services can be maximised because it is vital to enhance interconnectivity to ensure the existing network is developed. Co-ordination is needed between operators in order that local and national operators are not servicing towns and villages within a few minutes of each other.

Bus stops are an issue. One only has to walk up and down Kildare Street to see the array of coloured bus stops denoting the various operators providing services. The same applies on every main thoroughfare in the State. One centralised bus stop should be provided, which all operators would use while operating a co-ordinated timetable to ensure services can be maximised. Such bus stops are not only a hazard for those with a visual impairment, they are unsightly. The current system also does not provide for the co-ordination that is needed in the provision of public transport.

Integrated ticketing is also crucial in this regard. Perhaps the Minister will update the House in his reply on this issue. Integrated ticketing was more widely available ten years ago than it is now. Ten years ago I could board a train in Roscommon or Athlone and buy a ticket that would take me directly to Leinster House but I cannot do so anymore. Such a ticket that would permit me to use both train and bus services cannot be issued. That is one example of the lack of co-ordination. If competition is to be encouraged and different operators are to be given access to the market, it is important that a proper integrated ticketing system be put in place.

It must be ensured that when services are put out to tender, a mix of profitable and unprofitable routes are bundled together. For example, there would be huge competition for the Dublin to Galway inter-city route because it is one of the most valuable routes in the country. What about the connecting services, say from Boyle to Athlone? In my own constituency we have a relatively good network of services to Dublin but an appalling service to Galway. Breast cancer [381]services are being removed from Mayo and Sligo and accident and emergency services are being relocated to Galway from smaller hospitals. However, public transport does not cater for the people who will use these relocated services. At present, it is far easier to travel to Dublin by public transport than to Galway. In a couple of weeks time, changes in the rail timetable will make it feasible to reach any hospital appointment in Dublin but it is impossible to get to a hospital appointment in Galway by public transport.

We must see the expansion and development of new services. It is important that the issue of public transport services is addressed in section 10. Capacity must be increased and not merely transferred from one bus service to another. That will not benefit anyone in the long run. This must be done in a regulated and controlled manner to ensure a smooth transition from the current to the proposed new system, as envisaged in the legislation. Unplanned and unco-ordinated developments will not work. Small unprofitable routes must be bundled together with profitable routes. Attention must be paid to service provision. There must be detailed targets for capacity, frequency and punctuality on routes and those targets must be met.

Profitable routes and sections of routes will survive without help while operators may wash their hands of unprofitable aspects. This will present a complex challenge to the authority. If each route is tendered individually there will be huge problems in delivering the service we need. Tendering a bundle of services including, for example, the inter-city Dublin to Galway service and the existing rural networks in Longford, Westmeath and Roscommon, would guarantee that those rural services would be retained. For example, a private contractor who is granted the route from Lanesboro through Roscommon to Athlone may find that the only profitable part of the route is from Roscommon to Athlone and may allow the other part of the route to waste away, either by disimproving the frequency or providing buses at unsuitable times so that passengers do not use the service. The operator may then apply to the regulator to cancel that part of the service.

The current penalty system for unlicensed operators is a mess. The fines imposed are a joke. An operator can blatantly ignore the law until the Department pursues him and eventually imposes a derisory fine. The next day the operator can apply to the Department for a licence on the same route and the licence is usually granted. This does not make sense. Operators who flout the law until caught, should not be granted licences.

When the Bill is enacted and a service is put out to tender and granted to an operator, that operator must provide the level of service to which he or she has committed. An operator who comes in and takes a profitable aspect of a route should not be rewarded by being granted another licence. The Garda must be given the power to stop such an operator from providing a service. That is not happening at present. Provision must be made in the Bill to deal with operators who ignore the law but are nevertheless granted licences subsequently. That cannot continue when this Bill is enacted. There must be adequate sanctions to deal with operators who ignore the law.

I welcome the reference in section 10 to the need to preserve good order and safety on public roads. What will the regulation be with regard to bus stops, which are part of the transport infrastructure? Mistakes were made in the past regarding infrastructure. The telecommunications infrastructure was handed over to Eircom, for example, when it became a private operator. We all regret the day that happened. What will happen with regard to bus stops? They are owned by local authorities, Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus or private operators. It would not be feasible to allow four or five bus shelters on a main thoroughfare. In the past, we have seen delays in the tendering process. European Union tendering procedures have caused problems with regard to the provision of bus shelters throughout the country. We are, at long last, beginning to see them provided in rural areas. However, who will own and control them? Will [382]we see buses stopping ten yards from a bus shelter because the bus and the shelter are owned by different operators?

We must be careful how bus routes are opened up to competition. Franchising blocs of routes and combining profitable and loss-making routes in bundles, is the way to go. Specific performance targets must be set for schedules, passenger numbers and so on. These targets must be placed in the public domain so that we can see which operators are meeting the criteria laid down.

Minister for Transport (Deputy Noel Dempsey):  I thank Deputies on all sides of the House for their contribution to this debate. A number of very interesting points were raised and I look forward to engaging with Deputies on Committee Stage on them. Despite the fact Fine Gael may call a vote on Second Stage, if I detected what was said correctly, in general, there appears to be an underlying welcome for the Bill and for what it achieves, and I welcome that.

As I mentioned in my opening statement, the Bill provides a very important building block in a public transport legislative reform programme which builds on the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 and aims to put in place a totally new framework for the future regulation and control of public passenger land transport. I reiterate that the focus of the Bill is to provide a new licensing regime for commercial public bus passenger services that is better equipped to deal with modern demands and, despite some views expressed, will facilitate a level playing field for all bus market operators, both private and public. That is extremely important and is almost a core value of this Bill.

A number of Deputies adverted to the fact the Bill is overdue. That is true. It is overdue in the sense that it is 77 years since we passed the original legislation, which was the Road Transport Act 1932. It has been long recognised as being unsuited to modern conditions. It is certainly unsuited to the varying demands and needs of interurban, suburban, rural, local and community services. The fact remains, however, that we now have a proposal that will assist the Dublin Transport Authority which, after the passing of this legislation, will be called the national transport authority, in the promotion of regulated competition in the provision of licensed national bus passenger services in the interests of the public at large now and in the future. That has been generally welcomed by everyone who made a contribution, and I thank them for that.

The Bill also extends the power of the DTA under the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 to give it a national role in regard to the procurement of public land transport services and the future subvention of non-commercial bus and rail services. The contracting arrangements in Part 3, chapter 2, of the Act are being extended nationwide. Those legislative provisions have been prepared to be consistent with EU law and EU Regulation No. 1370 of 2007 on public service obligations. In particular, the new contractual structure of the public service obligation transport services will place a particular emphasis on transparency and performance based objectives and criteria. Again, a number of Deputies spoke about the necessity for a transparent system and for transparent objectives and criteria.

The third important objective of the Bill is to address the amalgamation of the Commission for Taxi Regulation into the Dublin Transport Authority which, in light of its proposed national focus in regard to commercial bus licensing, the expansion of the contractual regime for public transport services and the regulation of small public service vehicles and their drivers will be renamed as the national transport authority. The Commission for Taxi Regulation will be dissolved and subsumed into the new authority which will take on the functions of the commission under the Taxi Regulation Act 2003.

The Commissioner for Taxi Regulation and the staff of the commission will transfer to the authority on terms and conditions of employment no less favourable than those to which they are currently entitled. Sections 39 and 40 of the Bill provide for that.

[383]A number of other legislative amendments are contained in the Bill to address a number of important issues through amendments to the road planning and road traffic legislation. The amendment of the Planning and Development Act in section 44 gives the authority a role in regard to the preparation of regional planning guidelines on a national basis consistent with the move towards having a national transport authority. Section 30 will facilitate the consideration of further expansion of the remit and functions of the authority in this area. It is also hoped that the streamlining of the delivery of bus services and bus priority measures will prove beneficial in terms of the provision of enhanced services for the public.

A number of Deputies spoke about rural transport, the rural transport programme and the fact there is no reference to it in the Bill. That is true because the rural transport programme currently works outside the licensed bus system unless where there are particular contractual services. The point most Deputies made, and with which I agree, was on the need for the retention and, if at all possible, the expansion of the rural transport programme. As I indicated elsewhere, this is a matter for a decision by the Government. This Government and a previous Fianna Fáil-led one introduced the scheme and expanded it consistently since 2003. That is very much part of our philosophy and our belief in trying to provide services in rural Ireland. I hope we will be able to continue with that.

There was much discussion among Deputies on both sides on the whole concept of regulated competition as opposed to total deregulation. I must emphasise that I am against total deregulation and total free-for-alls. They have not worked too well in most countries in which they have been tried and they would certainly spell an end to public transport as we know it and to any kind of commitment to social and economic disadvantage. That would be a factor in our public transport system. I am not in favour of total deregulation.

The concept in the Bill is regulated competition, which is particularly important. Section 10 is at the heart of this process of regulated competition and it is firmly based on the EU concept of regulated competition as well. Under the Bill, the revised bus route licensing provisions facilitate the optimum provision of services by providing a level playing field for all market participants, both private and public operators such as Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann. All will be licensed and operated under the same rules. That is the level playing field about which we are talking and is a measure which has been long sought by people in the private sector and by many public representatives. It is in the interests of equality of access to the transport market that provision was included in the original agreed programme for Government, and in a previous one. It is continued in the current programme for Government.

Regulated or controlled competition under the Bill follows very clearly the concept outlined in European law, in particular in Regulation No. 1370 to which I referred earlier. The Bill does not permit unfettered competition which, on the basis of experience elsewhere, can lead to market domination by one operator to the detriment of the state and, more important, to the detriment of consumers and customers. There is a clear structure in this Bill against which applications for bus route licensing will be considered. In particular it introduces the concept of the demand test in section 10 to which I have already referred and which places the consumer at the heart of any process.

It is the intention in the Bill to match demand and service rather than to protect the existing or prospective service-providers. Some of the commentary on this Bill outside this House would lead me to believe that people are reading this legislation in isolation and not taking fully into account what is already contained in the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008. It is important to make that point.

A number of Deputies have also referred to enforcement and penalties. There is no doubt one of the most significant flaws in the existing and current legislation, the 1932 Act, is the level of penalties. A fine of €63 and €6 per day for a continuing offence is no deterrent to anybody and there have been good examples of how this is no deterrent. The Bill will impose [384]a modern system of penalties and associated powers, particularly the power for the revocation of licences. This is not an easy call but we need to be in a position to take strong action with regard to those who persistently breach their licences and those who engage in predatory practices. Apart from the introduction of heavier fines, the power of revocation of licences is very important. I give due notice to those who appear to be flouting the law as it stands. If they are in breach of licensing conditions or have not applied for licences, I will do everything possible to ensure this legislation will allow us to take this into account when those people are applying for licences, particularly those engaged in predatory behaviour.

Change in the level of penalties is overdue. We must ensure that legal operators who invest a lot of money are protected, be they public or private operators. The combination of increased financial penalties and clear powers for revocation of licences where a holder has not met the conditions under which the licence was granted will offer protection to the compliant service-providers and the public. If a service-provider does not meet or fails to continue to meet the basic requirement of the road transport operator’s licence which sets the standards for access to the profession of providing all types of bus transport, his or her route licence will, under this legislation, also be revoked automatically.

  7 o’clock

A number of Deputies have argued that the Bill protects the CIE group of companies but this is untrue. We must protect the public services in existence because it is not possible to change a system overnight. Section 52 is an important element as it promotes the pursuit of direct award contracts between the authority and Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann and Irish Rail, for the continued provision of their existing range of subvented bus and rail services within the greater Dublin area. It is important to continue those services but they will not be continued indefinitely. The Bill initially provides the companies with exclusive rights to continue to provide services and mandates the authority to enter into direct award contracts so as to establish the basis for the maintenance of State funding for those services consistent with the provisions of EU Regulation No. 1370 to which I referred previously.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  I do not wish to interrupt the Minister but to say he has used 15 minutes which is the minimum time he is entitled to use. The Order states it is to be not less than 15 minutes so he can speak for as long as he likes but I must advise him if he has not concluded by 7 p.m. I will be obliged to adjourn the debate to another day.

Deputy Noel Dempsey:  I do not believe there is any desire in the House for us to prolong the debate. We are anxious to proceed to Committee Stage. I will make one or two other points and conclude. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the reminder.

The approach adopted in section 52 with regard to the direct award contracts recognises in the first instance that such contracts are required to ensure the existing public service, PSO services, bus and rail passenger services in the greater Dublin area can continue to operate and attract necessary State subvention, given the importance of those services to the travelling public. If that course were not pursued, the maintenance of existing bus and rail services in the greater Dublin area would be threatened. I do not believe anyone in this House would want to see that happen.

A number of Members have adverted to integrated ticketing. I will not go into the details at this point. The integrated ticketing project since it was taken over by the integrated ticketing board in 2005, is on schedule. A number of smartcards have already been issued by various companies. The integration will continue this year and next year and the whole project should be well completed by 2011.

[385]With regard to the question of the sharing of facilities, this is provided for in current legislation but it is also provided for in previous legislation. It is a matter for the Garda Síochána under road traffic legislation to ensure the safety of the travelling public. The Garda Síochána can determine the sites and whether sites can be shared.

I thank Members for their contributions to the Second Stage debate. I look forward to Committee Stage and to Report and Final Stages. We are working under a time constraint and I wish to acknowledge the co-operation and support of the Deputies opposite in bringing the Bill through the House within the required timeframe.

Question put.

The Dáil divided: Tá, 90; Níl, 41.

 Ahern, Dermot.  Ahern, Michael.
 Ahern, Noel.  Andrews, Barry.
 Andrews, Chris.  Ardagh, Seán.
 Aylward, Bobby.  Blaney, Niall.
 Brady, Áine.  Brady, Cyprian.
 Brady, Johnny.  Broughan, Thomas P.
 Browne, John.  Burton, Joan.
 Byrne, Thomas.  Calleary, Dara.
 Carey, Pat.  Collins, Niall.
 Conlon, Margaret.  Connick, Seán.
 Costello, Joe.  Coughlan, Mary.
 Cregan, John.  Cuffe, Ciarán.
 Curran, John.  Dempsey, Noel.
 Dooley, Timmy.  Fahey, Frank.
 Ferris, Martin.  Finneran, Michael.
 Fitzpatrick, Michael.  Fleming, Seán.
 Flynn, Beverley.  Gogarty, Paul.
 Gormley, John.  Hanafin, Mary.
 Haughey, Seán.  Healy-Rae, Jackie.
 Higgins, Michael D.  Hoctor, Máire.
 Howlin, Brendan.  Kelleher, Billy.
 Kelly, Peter.  Kenneally, Brendan.
 Kennedy, Michael.  Killeen, Tony.
 Kitt, Michael P.  Kitt, Tom.
 Lenihan, Brian.  Lenihan, Conor.
 McEllistrim, Thomas.  McGrath, Mattie.
 McGrath, Michael.  McGuinness, John.
 McManus, Liz.  Moloney, John.
 Moynihan, Michael.  Mulcahy, Michael.
 Nolan, M. J.  Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
 Ó Cuív, Éamon.  Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
 O’Brien, Darragh.  O’Connor, Charlie.
 O’Dea, Willie.  O’Donoghue, John.
 O’Flynn, Noel.  O’Hanlon, Rory.
 O’Keeffe, Batt.  O’Keeffe, Edward.
 O’Sullivan, Christy.  Penrose, Willie.
 Power, Peter.  Power, Seán.
 Rabbitte, Pat.  Roche, Dick.
 Ryan, Eamon.  Sargent, Trevor.
 Scanlon, Eamon.  Sherlock, Seán.
 Shortall, Róisín.  Smith, Brendan.
 Stagg, Emmet.  Treacy, Noel.
 Tuffy, Joanna.  Upton, Mary.
 Wall, Jack.  Wallace, Mary.
 White, Mary Alexandra.  Woods, Michael.



Níl
 Allen, Bernard.  Bannon, James.
 Barrett, Seán.  Breen, Pat.
 Bruton, Richard.  Burke, Ulick.
 Byrne, Catherine.  Carey, Joe.
 Clune, Deirdre.  Connaughton, Paul.
 Coonan, Noel J.  Coveney, Simon.
 Creed, Michael.  Creighton, Lucinda.
 D’Arcy, Michael.  Deasy, John.
 Doyle, Andrew.  Durkan, Bernard J.
 English, Damien.  Feighan, Frank.
 Flanagan, Terence.  Hayes, Tom.
 Kehoe, Paul.  Kenny, Enda.
 Lee, George.  McCormack, Pádraic.
 McEntee, Shane.  McGinley, Dinny.
 Naughten, Denis.  Neville, Dan.
 Noonan, Michael.  O’Donnell, Kieran.
 O’Dowd, Fergus.  O’Keeffe, Jim.
 O’Mahony, John.  Reilly, James.
 Sheahan, Tom.  Sheehan, P. J.
 Stanton, David.  Timmins, Billy.
 Varadkar, Leo.  

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Pat Carey and John Cregan; Níl, Deputies Paul Kehoe and David Stanton.

Question declared carried.

Minister for Transport (Deputy Noel Dempsey):  I move:

That the Bill be referred to the Select Committee on Transport, in accordance with Standing Order 122(1) and paragraph 1(a)(i) of the Orders of Reference of that committee.

Question put and agreed to.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Select Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights has completed its consideration of the Communications (Retention of Data) Bill 2009 and has made amendments thereto.

The following motion was moved by Deputy Fergus O’Dowd on Tuesday, 10 November 2009:

That Dáil Éireann:

notes that:

CIE has received and spent €6.23 billion of taxpayers’ money since 1997;

the National Roads Authority, NRA, has received and spent over €13 billion of taxpayers’ money since 2000;

[387]

is deeply alarmed that CIE is not subject to any real accountability or transparency mechanisms including:

the Oireachtas Committee of Public Accounts;

Comptroller and Auditor General audits and investigations;

Oireachtas oversight as Ministers refuse to be held accountable or answer questions; and

the Freedom of Information Act;

is deeply concerned over the lack of policy and Exchequer funding accountability and oversight in the NRA as Ministers refuse to be held accountable to the Oireachtas;

acknowledges that these problems extend to other agencies and companies across Government;

considers these facts lead to an unjustified democratic deficit at the heart of Government; and calls on the Government to:

strengthen democracy and bring about greater transparency in Government by introducing a proper system of parliamentary spending oversight for CIE and the NRA and also for other agencies and semi-State companies in receipt of billions of taxpayers’ money;

ensure the financial budgeting, procurement and accounting processes used by government agencies and companies become more accountable to the Oireachtas; and

bring CIE within the scope of Freedom of Information and under the remit of the Ombudsman’s office and the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:

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

“—welcomes the sustained commitment of the Government under Transport 21 and earlier transport investment programmes to upgrading transport infrastructure and services and the good results obtained from this investment including reduced journey times for road passenger and freight traffic and more, higher quality public transport services;

welcomes in particular the completion of major road and public transport projects including the completion of two light rail lines in Dublin; the transformation of the Irish Rail rolling stock fleet with the acquisition of modern train sets; and the transformation of the national road infrastructure, particularly the progress being made towards the completion of the motorway network on the major interurban routes;

commends the comprehensive arrangements in place for appraising, approving and monitoring transport projects under Transport 21 which includes publication of detailed information in an annual report and a dedicated website;

notes the positive assessments of the Value for Money reviews completed on the annual subvention paid to CIÉ (2006) and on the 2nd Railway Safety Investment Programme (2008);

notes that a cost and efficiency review of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann was completed in early 2009 and is being implemented;

[388]

further notes the comprehensive arrangements in place as required by their establishing legislation and the Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies to ensure the accountability of the NRA and CIÉ to Government and the Oireachtas including requirements relating to annual reports and accounts, half-yearly accounts, and certification of compliance with requirements of Code of Practice; and

acknowledges that both the NRA and CIÉ appear regularly before the relevant Oireachtas Committee to account for the discharge of their functions.”

—(Minister for Transport.)

Deputy Mary Upton:  I welcome the opportunity to speak on this debate because I see it as addressing accountability. The issue is anchored by the Fine Gael motion about CIE but Dáil reform and accountability of our Ministers and Governments to the taxpayer is fundamental to what we are discussing. Like my colleague, Deputy Broughan, I have some concerns with elements of the motion proposed by Fine Gael. I am uneasy that this is the thin end of the wedge to promote privatisation of our public transport network.

I want to concentrate on the wider aspects of accountability. The lack of Oireachtas oversight of Exchequer funding and policy of semi-State organisations is a fundamental problem. I find it extremely irritating to be at the receiving end of parliamentary questions that are regularly refused by the Ceann Comhairle’s office. As a Member of this House for more than ten years, it seems there are more areas for which Ministers are not responsible to this House, and by extension to the people and the taxpayers, than there are areas for which they have responsibility. A conscious decision has been taken by this Government and its predecessors, stretching back to 1997, to abdicate responsibility for the majority of policy and implementation issues. This pervades all aspects of the working of the Dáil. When correspondence on issues is sent to a semi-State organisation or a Department, it can take months to receive a response.

I can cite a number of examples of how this has affected me when I seek information. Last July I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform concerning the cost of Garda drivers and cars for former Taoisigh. I submitted a second question ten days ago and have not received a substantial reply, other than the Minister’s statement that it was a matter for the Garda Síochána and the organisation would revert to me. It is interesting that this information was available for publication in one of yesterday’s newspapers. Mysteriously, I received a reply yesterday afternoon after the information had been published in a national newspaper. This is no way to do business. It leaves me feeling quite aggrieved that information requested in July became available five months later. One can tolerate a certain time lag but this incubation period seems protracted. One must wonder why this information is not being made available as one might expect.

As Labour Party spokesperson on arts, sport and tourism, I find the problem of lack of response acute. I could wallpaper my office with the number of questions that have been disallowed by the Ceann Comhairle’s office. The number of questions I have submitted where the Minister has no responsibility to the House leads me to question what he is responsible for and what work is being done by the Department. This is particularly true when one considers that reports submitted by the Department are undertaken by consultants. I have many examples of questions on quangos that have been disallowed. I submitted a question to the Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism asking for his policy direction to Fáilte Ireland and if he would make a statement on the air travel tax and his views on the call by the tourism renewal group to abolish the fee. The reply stated that he had no responsibility for these matters. It appears the Minister has no responsibility for developing tourism policy, nor for addressing the air travel tax that the tourism industry claims is destroying the industry. This is a view backed by the Government’s tourism renewal group. The Minister has no responsibility for the horse [389]and greyhound fund, which funds one of the largest elements of his Department’s budget and no responsibility to address a major spat between two organisations which received State funding, namely, the Olympic Council and the Irish Sports Council.

In the area of transport, answers are not available on issues raised on the M50 toll booths and the thousands of commuters who have been fined because they have only 48 hours to pay. No issues are addressed with regard to road safety. It is a matter for the RSA even though this body is under the aegis of the Department. During the week, I had a query from somebody about only 48 hours being available to pay toll charges. I understand there must be a time limit but this is an issue the Minister might reasonably take up. He might like to consider that a little time extension might not be out of order for somebody who has great difficulty in finding access to a means of payment. Of course, the individual will end up paying it but it is causing unnecessary hassle.

As the motion states, the current lack of accountability leads to an unjustified democratic deficit at the heart of Government. The Government’s counter-motion is typical of this and shows its lack of respect for the House; it is bland and meaningless and does not address the motion in any serious way. Recently, politics has come under intense criticism and scrutiny with people stating that the Dáil is out of touch. Deputies are not out of touch; it is just that the Government Whip and the Ceann Comhairle refuse any real debate and the accountability of Ministers is selective to say the least. Surely a Minister should be held accountable for the actions of semi-State bodies under his or her aegis and to which they provide very substantial funding.

For weeks I have tried to raise the issue of Crumlin children’s hospital by way of an Adjournment debate but it has been rejected at least six times, including today. We have committees with no power to compel so people such as the public bankers, as they now are, and those suspected of malpractice in semi-State bodies can simply refuse to come before the committee and that is the end of the story.

I am aware that the issues I am raising are not the main thrust of this debate but I consider them to be very fundamental to it and, as I stated at the beginning, using the central issue of CIE is simply an anchor as it really relates back to accountability. In my portfolio, that lack of accountability is very damaging and it is also very disturbing for me not to be able to get the answers for my constituents in a reasonable timeframe.

I asked how many of the questions I submitted to the Minister for Health and Children are answered by her and how many are redirected to the HSE. More than 50% go to the HSE. Again, the thorny questions are whacked aside and we are left wondering if and when we will get an answer. On occasions, I have forgotten the theme of my question or why I needed to ask it before I have received a reply.

To return to the other theme of the Fine Gael motion, I agree with my colleague, Deputy Tommy Broughan, that expecting commercial semi-State bodies to be accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts and under freedom of information legislation could leave them at profound disadvantage vis-à-vis private sector companies.

It is clear from the Baker Tilly report that there were serious lapses in internal controls in Irish Rail. Being a semi-State body is no excuse for lapsed internal controls or anything less than high productivity and efficiency. Any notions of privatisation being the panacea to problems in our transport network is not the way to go. The privatisation of the rail network in the UK has been a disaster with costs for commuters now exorbitant. I have no doubt that private operators would be happy to operate on profitable routes such as Dublin to Galway or Swords to the city centre but on behalf of my constituents I am very concerned that they would not take such a great interest in other routes important to people in Crumlin and Cherry Orchard, [390]for example. Notwithstanding the aspect of the debate on CIE and public transport, I am most concerned about the fundamental question on accountability.

Deputy Ciarán Cuffe:  I wish to share time with Deputies Timmy Dooley and Mattie McGrath.

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

Deputy Ciarán Cuffe:  I welcome Fine Gael’s motion, the thrust of which is to seek accountability and transparency. If we are to respond in detail to the motion, we must address the fundamental issue of seeking greater accountability to the State and transparency in all aspects and not just in semi-State companies. I firmly believe in the principles of transparency and I applaud the work done by Transparency International in trying to open up more bodies, in particular public bodies, to scrutiny. We need to go much further. The freedom of information legislation, much of which goes back to former Deputy Eithne Fitzgerald of the Labour Party, is very commendable and I applaud her for introducing it to the House ten or 15 years ago. We should not neglect the principles put in place by that Government.

I want to focus on some of the figures mentioned in the motion and the purposes to which they are put. The €6.23 billion invested in CIE since 1997 is a mix of capital payments to fund transport infrastructure and current payments to meet the current cost needs of Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann and Irish Rail for public service obligation, PSO, route subvention, or more accurately, to meet the shortfall between the revenue take by each company and their total expenditure. Based on the previous four years, this works out at a current to capital ratio of approximately 45% to 50%.

The subsidy the Government gives to Dublin Bus has increased by 34% since 2002 but is low in comparison to other European cities. In 2007, the PSO payment was 29% of total revenue compared to 62% in Amsterdam, 68% in Brussels and 38% in London. Part of the thrust of the motion is to deal with elements of value for money for the taxpayer.

With regard to the subvention that the Government gives CIE to meet the shortfall in providing public transport services, the company actually performs. The 2006 Booz Allen Hamilton report found that with regard to value for money for the subvention all three companies had performed well overall. It found with regard to value for money in Iarnród Éireann that a large number of statistics are produced and generally show improvements in efficiency levels; the cost per unit of fleet, per passenger and per passenger kilometre is reducing; and that subvention increased by 16.6% in real terms and by 1.2% per passenger.

With regard to value for money in Bus Éireann, it found that productivity and cost efficiency statistics generally show improvements in terms of kilometres per driver, operating costs per vehicle, and that customer journeys per bus and per kilometre have decreased due to traffic congestion. I throw down the gauntlet to Fine Gael and ask what it is doing about traffic congestion, as its only real ideology in recent times has been to limit the efficacy of the bus gate in Dublin city? I understand businesses are suffering but I would not place their problems at the foot of improving bus transit through the city centre. To return to the report on value for money in Bus Éireann, subvention decreased by 4.9% in real terms and by 13.7% per passenger.

For Dublin Bus, revenue per kilometre fell as did revenue per driver. Subvention increased by 11.3% in real terms and at a slower rate per passenger. Among the recommendations in the report was to strengthen the terms of the memoranda of understanding between the Government and the companies on the basis that taxpayers’ money is paid to provide for better [391]accountability of funding and to link performance levies to moneys paid. While these memoranda have been put in place, they have not been sufficiently clear in linking where taxpayers’ moneys go into the subvention or on what criteria they need to be assessed. We must shine a torch into what is a fairly dark hole and give much more clarity to the taxpayer. That will benefit the public transport companies and the Minister in his work.

An important function of the new national transport authority will be setting the terms of public service contracts so that a clearer link can be drawn between the money the Government gives to CIE and the services provided in return. Criteria set out under the public service contracts will include the places and routes to be served by the transport operator, service standards and frequency, accessibility requirements and emissions standards for pollutants and noise. These contracts will be a better yardstick for determining how the subventions are allocated and, ultimately, whether companies provide a good service to commuters.

I challenge the Labour Party and Fine Gael to consider the significant differences that exist between them in regard to funding public transport. As far as I can see, Fine Gael is taking a laissez faire approach in letting market competition determine the type of services to be provided. The Labour Party, however, sees the State as the provider of public transport services. The best solution is probably closer to the latter model. The data shows that the UK experience of bundling services in London and a free-for-all in other cities did not serve the best interests of commuters. I would hate to think that we would allow the cherry-picking of profitable routes in Dublin.

The best body to determine what new routes need to be put in place is the Dublin Transport Authority. The views of public transport users should also be sought. I am cautiously optimistic that the DTA will provide transparent data because that is the way the world is going. I recently used a Google Maps function which relies on public transport data to show how well certain places are served by public transport.

We are still living in the 1930s when it comes to providing clear information about services in Ireland. Yet again, I must rant about the way Dublin Bus puts on its bus stops information about when a bus was supposed to have left the terminal. This is useless to the passenger and I look forward to being able to consult real time passenger information at bus stops, in buses and on one’s mobile telephone. It is not rocket science; it involves simple computer technology which was developed for rural towns in Westphalia 25 years ago. It is about time we delivered the goods for the people of our cities and towns. Public transport will be used if people feel confident about its delivery, punctuality and accessibility.

I commend Fine Gael on seeking further transparency but I worry about the party’s ideological weakness in seeing the market as the best provider of services. The State can provide top class public transport services by demanding transparency and proper information. The Comptroller and Auditor General or the Committee of Public Accounts should not be left with the responsibility of finding out what happened in our public transport companies one, three or five years ago. We need to shine more light on the subject and, while the Fine Gael motion goes a distance towards that objective, the public will benefit from even more transparency. The Public Transport Regulation Bill 2009 will greatly assist us in this task.

Deputy Timmy Dooley:  I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and support amendment No. 1, which recognises the significant advances that have been made in our transport infrastructure over the past ten years. We are all aware of the historical lack of investment in rolling stock, bus services and infrastructure but the investments made over the past decade have removed many of the obstacles that were in the way of economic growth.

[392]We are at present experiencing a significant recession which is affecting tourism and employment. However, we should continue to invest in transport infrastructure because we can achieve exceptional value for money in the current economic environment and will be in a position to make the best use of our investments when the economy returns to growth. Sustainable growth in Ireland has been impeded by the fact that other countries are ahead of us in terms of infrastructure. The property bubble in large part reflected our zeal to develop infrastructure. Our investments in transport infrastructure have resulted in reduced road journey times and high quality public transport.

The National Roads Authority has worked hard to deliver an inter-urban network, in line with Government policy. Many projects are now being completed on time and within budget. By the end of next year, Dublin will be connected with Cork, Limerick and Galway through a high quality road network. That will be the backbone for our economic recovery. Other examples of the high quality work done by the NRA include the fine bridge which has recently been opened in Waterford and the upgrade of the M50. In my constituency, the N18 Ennis bypass is complete and work is ongoing on the Crusheen-Gort dual carriageway. The next stage of work on the N18 is the connection to Oranmore. This is a critical project in terms of connecting Galway and Limerick and developing the orbital route around the country. The Limerick Shannon tunnel is due to be completed next year. The skills developed by the NRA in recent years are now producing dividends by delivering important projects on time. The enhanced road network has a major impact on the west of Ireland in providing direct access to Shannon Free Zone and Shannon Airport. It provides enhanced and quicker access and increases the catchment area of the airport which also has tourism benefits.

I compliment Deputy Mary O’Rourke who, as Minister for Public Enterprise, commenced the regeneration of the rail network. She deserves great recognition for her work in this regard. The Minister’s successors, the late Séamus Brennan and the current Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, have focused on providing funding for the rail network. This additional funding will benefit all citizens and must continue at this difficult time.

Bus and rail services have developed positively, with new buses and rolling stock providing a more comfortable experience for passengers. The new stock is also much more eco-friendly, an important factor in public transport. The reliability and quality of current stock ensures services are more frequent and no longer prone to breaking down.

Some of the benefits of the development of the railways are visible in my constituency where the Ennis to Limerick line re-opened in recent years. Passenger activity on the new service has greatly surpassed expectations and use of the service has delivered tremendous benefits to Ennis town and the people who live and work in it. It also allows people to travel frequently between Ennis and Limerick. The continued investment in phase one of the western rail corridor will be of significant benefit to the entire region extending from Ennis to Galway. As money and time permits, I am sure further extension along the western seaboard will deliver the connectivity required in the region. Under the first phase of the project, a new rail station will open at Sixmilebridge and will provide bus access from and to the airport. I am working with a number of individuals and State agencies to try to ensure a station is opened at Crusheen to give those living in north and east County Clare access to rail services. I hope our efforts will be successful.

As a State provider of transport services, Bus Éireann has delivered good services on commercial and PSO type routes throughout Ireland. The company’s investment in new buses and routes under Transport 21 has benefited most citizens. I concur with Deputy Cuffe that the contribution of Fine Gael Party Deputies on the Public Transport Regulation Bill 2009 seeks [393]to undermine Bus Éireann. The open tendering they propose would wreck Bus Éireann, have a negative, long-term impact on users of the service and diminish integration in the company’s network.

Value for money is a critical component of Government expenditure of hard-earned taxpayers’ money. We must ensure guidelines are not breached. I am impressed by some of the independent reports prepared in the CIE group of companies, specifically the Deloitte reports, which clearly demonstrate significant value for money achievements in the companies.

With regard to matters in Irish Rail which, I assume, are the genesis of this debate, I was reassured by the presentation made by the company chairman and chief executive to the Joint Committee on Transport, of which I and Deputy Feighan are members. I will cite a short passage from a document circulated to the joint committee which discussed the investigation. It stated:

... all of the issues that were the subject of this investigation:

Were identified internally and investigated by Iarnród Éireann

Were addressed specifically by dealing with three individuals found to have engaged in fraudulent behaviour

Were advised to the Gardaí by Iarnród Éireann

Were further investigated following the commissioning of Baker Tilly Ryan Glennon (BTRG) by Iarnród Éireann

Were addressed by a series of action plans, which commenced prior to the completion of the BTRG report, and were reinforced and supported by the findings of BRTG.

Continue to be addressed through the implementation of action plans, which is well advanced, and is tracked by the Iarnród Éireann Audit Review Group and the CIÉ Board Audit Committees

While some have sought to make a big issue out of this matter, the malpractices, which no one supports, were identified internally and addressed properly by the management structure in the company. Furthermore, a process is in place to ensure such practices do not recur. The issue must be considered in the context of the massive investment in Iarnród Éireann in recent years. I have every confidence in the ability of the management team and board to deal with any other issues which may arise from time to time. Deputies must stop belittling the good companies which have provided a State service for many years and, by association, damaging their good name and the reputation of thousands of people who work hard on behalf of taxpayers.

Deputy Mattie McGrath:  While the Government is to be commended on its achievements in upgrading our roads and public transport infrastructure, issues arise with regard to CIE and accountability in the National Roads Authority. As a member of a Government party, I am restrained and must vote with the Government to keep it in business. I will not, however, be gagged or silenced on the National Roads Authority.

Deputy Frank Feighan:  Perhaps the Deputy will give Deputy Dooley some advice.

Deputy Mattie McGrath:  Deputy Dooley is well able to speak on his own behalf.

[394]I appreciate that some fascinating, imaginative and constructive work has been done in many road projects. The M50 upgrade is a case in point, while the Red Cow interchange is a fine example of well designed infrastructure that works well. Many of those who drove past the construction site in the past two and a half years did not believe the interchange would be completed. The Dublin Port tunnel has also been opened and, more recently, a fantastic bridge was completed over the River Suir in Waterford city, upstream from where I live.

In the few minutes available to me, I propose to raise several concerns about the accountability to the Oireachtas of the National Roads Authority and its senior officials. In March last, when Mr. Michael Egan and Mr. Martin Fagan of the NRA appeared before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to discuss compulsory purchase orders, I extended a céad míle fáilte to them and complimented the National Roads Authority on undertaking the most extensive roads improvement programme in the history of the State. I also noted the benefits of this work, which include reduced travel times, safer roads and improved access to the regions, all of which have important social and economic benefits.

I remain severely critical, however, of certain aspects of the various stages of major road construction projects, namely, construction studies, route selection options, preferred route selection and compulsory purchase orders. I reiterate that the Department of Transport must make serious changes to the legislation under which the National Roads Authority operates. A statutory provision must be introduced to compel the National Roads Authority to make up-front payments of up to 75% of the total compensation payable on the date of the publication of the compulsory purchase order. Payments should not be made years later — perhaps following arbitration — when the road has been built and everyone else has been paid. Members of the public often enjoy the benefits of a road before landowners, home owners and families have been compensated. A mechanism should be introduced to require that 50% and possibly 75% of the total compensation payable should be paid up front. It is a form of highway robbery to compulsorily acquire land without paying for it.

I am also critical of the enormous discrepancies in the price paid per acre for land acquired under compulsory purchase orders. I condemn the practice engaged in by the National Roads Authority and local authorities of employing expensive teams of consultants. While I accept the expertise of consultants is necessary, an industry has evolved in which consultants tout for business and agencies negotiate on behalf of the families affected. This system is wrong and does not result in the desired outcomes.

Many families and communities who are severely affected by road schemes have been ignored and mistreated by the NRA and local authorities. One might be badly affected even if none of one’s property is taken by a compulsory purchase order because one might live ten feet away. There can be significant inconvenience as a result of a road severing the community. The construction process, which may take a number of years, may also cause major inconvenience and one may not be respected and may be regarded as persona non grata. When a compulsory purchase order is executed, everybody inside its lines is dealt with but the families and ordinary people who live outside the line are also badly affected.

Local authorities must be made more accountable during all stages of the process. Construction studies, route selection, preferred route selection, compulsory purchase orders, notice to treat and the construction process encompass a wide area and have long-term effects on families and communities. There must be an in-built mechanism to enable the necessary changes to be made to the layout during and after the completion of the road works schemes when obvious problems or inadequacies arise. It may not be possible to complete what has been designed [395]and planned. Changes to and tweaking of plans are necessary but there must be a mechanism to allow people to be consulted on and involved in the process.

Some money has been very well spent, but questions remain to be answered on the significant amount which has been very badly spent or wasted. Transparent and accountable procedures should be in place and people should be held accountable when mistakes are made and money is wasted. I often wonder why the NRA was set up as it seems to be another quango to distance the elected and appointed Ministers from the democratic process. Deputies cannot get answers within a reasonable timeframe and questions to the Minister are usually passed to the NRA for reply. A pass the issue approach is taken by county councils and the NRA on matters and it is not good enough. Ministers must come to the House and reply to questions.

There is a new motorway from Cork to Dublin which is a fine project and a much safer road. I was chairperson of the county council when the project was decided upon and signed all the compulsory purchase orders. I also signed a contract, which was hailed as one of the best at the time and was totally modern, for a €260 million fixed price project to be delivered at a certain time and within budget, with penalty clauses if this did not happen. When I attended the sod-turning ceremony two years later when the project had been under way for a couple of months, I nearly fell off my chair when the then chairman of the council said the project price was €460 million.

The cost of the project increased by €200 million within 18 or 19 months. The project was supposed to operate within the contract to which I signed my name. I am not happy about the situation and will not be unless I get proper answers. The road was opened some time ago and I refused to attend the official opening because I got no answers to the questions I asked. At that time, the cost of the road had increased by another €60 million or €70 million but there was a fanfare on the day and it was claimed the road was built within budget and on time, and in accordance with the new type of contract which was signed. Clearly, there were major discrepancies which is not good enough and people must be made more accountable to public representatives such as myself and to the public.

Large land banks near the new M8 were acquired and are now surplus to requirements. I cannot understand why it was necessary to do that. Vast areas of land are now left around the outside parameters of roads. There is a wide open area where transient traders have moved in and cannot be shifted. There are 40 acres of land between Cashel and Mitchelstown which were subject to a compulsory purchase order at very substantial cost, some of which must still be paid for, and which are now left as wasteland. Weeds of all kinds are growing there and transient traders, who do not pay rates or taxes, are taking business from ordinary businesspeople. There are significant questions to be answered. I will support the Government amendment to this motion. I have major issues which I will always state and maintain.

Deputy Frank Feighan:  I wish to share time with Deputies Andrew Doyle, Michael Ring, James Reilly, Pat Breen, John Perry, Shane McEntee and Fergus O’Dowd.

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

Deputy Frank Feighan:  I support this motion. CIE and the NRA are not accountable or transparent. CIE and Irish Rail have done a lot of work on the Sligo line, which now has eight services per day, and over the years a lot of money has been poured into the line which has made a big difference to public transport. However, there has not been a joined-up approach in the provision of public buses, rail services and school transport in rural areas. CIE has failed to provide a national transport system. If one is served by a mainline rail service, one can take a train. If one is travelling by rail from Boyle, Carrick-On-Shannon or Castlerea in Roscommon to Dublin, it can cost €70 or €80 for two adults and two children, but if one gets on in Longford, [396]a town in Leinster, it only costs €20. When I asked the Minister about this, he said it was something for which he was not responsible. We are elected by the people and should be responsible for getting answers to these types of questions.

Bodies such as the NRA, Irish Rail and the HSE have been set up, but it is embarrassing when one writes to the NRA and does not receive a letter or a reply comes back which is nonsense. Many elderly people have a free travel pass, some of whom have not used it for 20 years. The country is divided — if one lives in a rural area one has something which is of no use because one will have to get a lift to a train or bus station to travel to Dublin. One might as well get a taxi to Dublin. While Irish Rail and Bus Éireann have done a lot of good, they have failed us in that regard. The rural transport initiative is up and running and perhaps we should now examine how transport works at a local level because committees are now in place. I understand the rural transport initiative receives €11 million in funding each year and provides a wonderful service with very little finance. It also has a social aspect. It is an area to which we are not paying enough attention.

There are motorways to Belfast, Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway, but there is nothing to the north west. The N4 stops at Mullingar and another road is in place, but it is not good enough. The people of the north west demand a good transport system. Who decided which areas to build motorways to? If one looks at any map, one will see a gaping area in the north of Galway and that the area west of the Belfast line is left without a motorway. It is not good enough but when one questions the Minister on it, he says it is not his decision but rather that of the NRA. It is wrong and puts the two fingers up to the people of the west, the north west and those who live north of Galway.

We have the N61 and bypasses but when one asks for the issue of roads to be examined, one is told there is no provision to address national secondary roads, despite the fact that they are the worst roads in the country and a significant number of accidents take place on them. One can spend €500,000 on putting overlay on a road, but national secondary roads need serious investment. Until the Government, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, are openly responsible for the provision of services such as road, rail and public transport in the country, we will hear the same nonsense we have heard for many years. I do not know why we are afraid of transparency because it is a must.

  8 o’clock

Deputy Andrew Doyle:  The essence of this motion is transparency and accountability in agencies and arms of the State that have commonly become known as quangos and which are at arm’s length from direct accountability to this House. The two bodies referred to in the motion have annual budgets of €20 billion, which was recently as much as the estimated Government deficit. The ghost of FÁS has not left the room either, as it had received €1 billion in Government funding. All the abuses that took place there informed some of the thinking behind the effort to open these Government agencies, quangos and authorities to better scrutiny.

The Government amendment to the motion notes the positive assessments of the value for money reviews which have been completed on the subvention to CIE and rail safety investment. It further notes the comprehensive arrangements in place as required by the establishing legislation and code of practice for the governance of State bodies. However, it took a report from Baker Tilly Ryan Glennon to uncover a series of wrongdoing and corruption, which cannot be tolerated.

The final point of the Government amendment acknowledges that both the NRA and CIE appear regularly before the relevant Oireachtas committees. In seven years, representatives of [397]Dublin Bus have appeared five times, those from Bus Éireann have appeared three times, those from Irish Rail have appeared eight times and those from the NRA have come before a committee 14 times. Although that is not bad, it is still only twice a year over the seven years.

Subvention to Dublin Bus has multiplied by a factor of five in ten years and it has multiplied by a factor of six in Bus Éireann. We must consider value for money. I have a letter from the Minister for Transport regarding the rural transport programme, which is in serious jeopardy. Deputy Feighan mentioned that many people who have free travel passes are not in a position to avail of them, although the rural transport scheme has helped them do so and opened up a new world for them. We have had representations from such people before the transport committee giving a picture of how positive that has been for people. Even if we only consider CIE, it has €6.23 billion and a very small percentage of that figure, by making best use of those funds, could help to ensure that a very efficient rural transport system stays in place.

The commuter train from Dublin to Wexford through Arklow is a particular hobby horse of mine. It currently takes practically as long for a train leaving Amiens Street station to get to Arklow as it does for the Enterprise to get to Belfast. It is an overcrowded service, although it is meant to have received the old Sligo train when the new intercity rail fleet was rolled out. It is still a four-carriage train but it is overcrowded at its busiest time. We are trying to encourage people to avail of public transport.

Deputy Cuffe made a snide comment about Fine Gael’s policy of closing down bus corridors around College Green. When we have a comprehensive and integrated transport system for the city, we could consider such issues in their totality. One cannot make an omelette without cracking an egg. We must be conscious of the repercussions for not doing things right and in the case of the bus corridors, local businesses were an important factor.

All we are trying to do is ensure that public money is spent properly and that we get value for money. The accountability of these bodies to this House must be enhanced. That is not too much to ask. The people have put us here to ensure their money is being spent correctly and without changing our attitude, there will be an air of denial with regard to these agencies. Deputy McGrath has alluded to the fact that these bodies were meant to solve all problems and make more efficient use of public funding but without having some accountability, the temptation in these organisations with such large budgets is to be sloppy, lazy and at worst, corrupt.

I will read from the Minister’s letter. It states:

I am pleased to inform you of the Government’s commitment to the continuation and expansion of the rural transport programme. The recently revised programme for Government states that the provision of a full-scale transport system in rural areas, using the network expertise of Bus Éireann, the physical infrastructure and personal resources of the school transport system and the financial resources currently spent on transport by the HSE and the Department of Education and Science will be explored.

The problem is that there is no mention of private involvement, which has been a core factor in the rural transport scheme. There have been small, independent operators in the rural areas making a living and employing people within that scheme in a very cost-efficient and effective way. There has been value for money way beyond what can be costed in pounds, shillings and pence.

Deputy Upton referred earlier to this being a Trojan horse for privatisation and had concerns about cherry-picking. There is a concern but it is possible for us to have independent health [398]care providers in this country, such as BUPA, which became Quinn, and the others. The aspect of community rating has been built into these. When Telecom Éireann was being privatised, we should have insisted on the bid including a provision to roll out broadband nationally. The final figure for Eircom may not have been as attractive but the cost at the end of ten years would have been cheaper because the broadband network would already have been rolled out. It was a mistake to get rid of the network in the first place.

These issues can be overcome. Nobody in Fine Gael has said that privatisation is a panacea for inefficiencies but by introducing competition, it could play its part.

Deputy Pat Breen:  I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to this Private Members’ motion. As the main shareholder of State and semi-State companies, the taxpayer demands and is entitled to value for money. This guiding principle should underpin the provision and delivery of all services throughout the public sector. Indications in recent weeks of an internal report which suggests that the taxpayer has been exposed to possibly €9 million in costs as a result of alleged malpractices in Irish Rail have once again heightened fears that millions of euro in taxpayers’ money have being squandered and that such practices are rampant throughout the public sector.

Wide-ranging changes need to be made to ensure that public confidence is restored and we want to see an end to the cosy cartel practice of appointments to State boards, which has seen the friends of Government land plumb jobs. This Government can no longer ignore the calls for the introduction of a vetting system for public appointments. We are all familiar with the US Senate hearings and across the water in the UK, vetting powers for MPs were introduced earlier this year which enable a select committee to scrutinise ministerial appointments.

The Exchequer provides over €300 million to CIE, which is distributed between Iarnród Éireann, Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann. It is a substantial amount of money. While the focus now is on the lack of controls and procedures in place at CIE, I point out that the company is engaged in some very worthwhile developments and I have to compliment larnród Éireann for expanding its network, with plans for further expansion. This is in contrast to other semi-State bodies, which are moving to centralise and remove services from the regions.

It is not only CIE which needs to come under the scope of inquiry, as openness and transparency must become the norm in all State and semi-State organisations. We can take the airport sector as an example. In 2004, a decision was taken to separate the three airports but five years later, it was announced that the entire process has been deferred until 2011. I understand from the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, that new corporate governance structures have to be put in place as a result. Under the new structure, the board of the Dublin Airport Authority will assume overall responsibility. The chairpersons of the Shannon and Cork airport authorities will sit on the Dublin board, while a Dublin Airport Authority executive will sit on the Shannon and Cork boards. Shannon and Cork airports have had to play second fiddle to Dublin for far too long. As a representative of County Clare, I emphasise that we cannot afford another board that is constituted in Dublin and does not have adequate representation from the regions. I remind the Minister for Transport that, in the absence of new structures, there is no board at all at Shannon Airport. When the Minister eventually gets around to selecting his nominees, I hope he will give the nod to people from the region with vast experience in aviation, tourism and marketing, rather than doling out jobs for the boys once more.

[399]The Government is great at espousing commitments to balanced regional development, but its record of inaction speaks for itself. It established a task force under the chairmanship of Mr. Denis Brosnan, but it has not implemented any of its recommendations. It has allowed negotiations between Ryanair and the Shannon Airport Authority to break down. I understand that one of the key stumbling blocks to an agreement is the €10 air travel tax, which the Government introduced and therefore can do something about. Many aviation matters are outside its remit, but there is nothing to prevent it from abolishing this tax. When I asked the Minister for Transport yesterday to intervene to get both parties back to the table, he said he has no statutory function in this regard. If that is the case, what was the Tánaiste talking about last Friday in the mid-west when she claimed that talks between the Government and Ryanair regarding the travel tax were ongoing?

The reputations of the many State and semi-State organisations that deliver first-class services in this country are being sullied by the failure of the Government to put a proper and transparent system in place, to agree adequate controls and to demand accountability, which is so important. I agree that the exclusion of certain semi-State bodies from the freedom of information system is not healthy, but instead adds to the suspicion and veil of secrecy. It is important that these bodies’ masters — the Ministers who sit on the deck — should be made more accountable. They should be answerable to this House for the sectors for which they are responsible.

Most speakers have said that the Government must be accountable for the National Roads Authority at a time when a great deal of road building is taking place. It is important that we get the road network completed as soon as possible. I understand that the NRA’s budget will be cut substantially next year. There are rumours that the Castleisland bypass will be the only project to begin in 2010. I hope that is not the case. Regardless of what else happens in a recession, road building should continue because it is extremely important.

Deputy John Perry:  The State is a major purchaser of goods and services. Over the years, there have been many complaints about the public sector procurement system. An endless series of reports has pointed out the failures in the system. New procedures for public procurement have been recommended many times. Quite simply, the enforcement of the existing common sense regulations is badly needed. A simple solution would be to extend the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General to include a special procurement assessment unit. If the Comptroller and Auditor General had the power to conduct evaluations across the public sector, it would ensure that the minimum procurement standards and procedures are observed. The absence of real accountability and transparency in controlling the manner in which vast sums of taxpayers’ money are spent is a problem not just for the two State organisations mentioned in my party’s motion, but for the entire range of Government agencies and authorities.

According to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, local authorities spent €10 billion in 2007, approximately 55% of which related to capital expenditure. Given that this capital spend of over €5 billion represents a large amount of money, it is quite extraordinary that local authorities are not under the control of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. They should be under the control of that office. A recent freedom of information request to a Dublin local authority, in relation to proposed capital expenditure, revealed that no cost-benefit analysis of the project had been conducted by the authority. The proposed expenditure could prove to be a waste of public money. A review of the project documentation showed that data on the benefits of the project were requested from its initiators, but it was not forthcoming.

[400]We have an opportunity to provide for the carrying out of cost-benefit assessments, in which costs can be estimated with some degree of accuracy. The current system, whereby benefits are recorded by means of general statements, does not meet the minimum requirement for a proper cost-benefit analysis. The real shortcomings are evident in such an analysis. The introduction of a proper system of parliamentary oversight for CIE, the NRA and the other agencies and semi-State bodies which receive billions of taxpayers’ funds will be facilitated by the system of cost-benefit analysis I am advocating. I appreciate that the NRA comes under the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General. However, it does not conduct cost-benefit analyses of its projects. It has sanctioned cost over-runs and massive over-spends. It should be possible to compare the actual outcome, across a range of costs and services and under approved headings, to the planned outcomes.

I accept that value for money is not a new concept. It has always been an important element of Fine Gael policy. In the future, there must be a renewed emphasis on better value for money in the various national capital expenditure programmes. We are in difficult times, in which less money is available. People are looking for cost-benefit analyses with a clear emphasis on value for money. The powers of the Comptroller and Auditor General should be extended to local government. We need to examine the special cost-benefit reports that are carried out. Over the past 12 years, when there was plenty of money, no cost-benefit analyses were carried out in certain areas. Money was turfed out. Projects were defined by how many millions of euro were being spent on them, rather than on the out-turn. It is important that we examine the out-turn. The building and construction sectors are exerting considerable pressure for additional capital expenditure to take place during the current economic downturn. In that context, it is even more critical for formal cost-benefit studies to be conducted before projects are approved. The expenditure of hard-earned and scarce taxpayers’ money on new capital projects without proper cost-benefit analysis is no more than another form of corporate welfare. This is inappropriate at a time when social welfare payments to the most disadvantaged people in society are being cut.

I believe this is an important motion. It is important that appointments to boards are scrutinised. Under the US model, people who are proposed for appointment are brought before a committee so that their suitability can be cross-examined. Such a system gives the appointee an understanding of his or her remit. He or she will have an exact understanding of the benefits and responsibilities attached to the job. He or she will have a genuine belief in the responsibilities ensuing from that. The time has come to protect taxpayers’ money. We have a massive deficit. Billions of euro are being curtailed. It is appropriate for us to get value for money. The suitability of political appointees for such positions should be scrutinised by the House. I believe such a procedure of appointment would greatly facilitate accountability and transparency. Ultimately, it would ensure the right people are in the right place.

Deputy James Reilly:  I will truncate my contribution to allow Deputy Sheehan to speak. I was delayed at a parliamentary party meeting. I will be brief. I congratulate the Ceann Comhairle officially on his recent appointment.

The obvious purpose of this motion is to ensure that there is greater accountability on the part of the National Roads Authority and the various elements of the CIE Group, including Bus Éireann, Iarnród Éireann and Dublin Bus. This motion is timely and essential at a time when we are spending so much money on infrastructure. My party colleague, Deputy Fergus O’Dowd has informed me that €6.23 billion has been spent by CIE since 1997 and €13 billion has been spent by the NRA since 2000. I do not suggest that we should not spend so much [401]money on infrastructure — of course we should. We have to be able to assure ourselves and the public that we are getting value for money, but we are not in a position to do so.

The three key principles that underpin everything we do in Fine Gael are transparency, accountability and fairness. One cannot get fairness if one does not have accountability. One cannot get accountability without transparency. We do not have sufficient transparency — that is what is wrong — and therefore these organisations are not as accountable as they should be. The recent collapse of the railway viaduct at Malahide Estuary, which could have cost 1,100 lives, is a case in point. It would have been the greatest disaster in Irish history if it had not been for the quick thinking of the driver who saw the changes in the water and alerted others that something was seriously wrong. We have been told by sea scouts that an inspection took place after they reported changes months earlier. I sat in on a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport with Deputy O’Dowd and it took us two hours to extract a bit of information as to the type of inspection that was done. It was done looking down over the bridge as far as I can make out because the gentleman concerned did not go down in a boat and did not get down and look at the pier. I am afraid that is not something that imbues confidence in the people. Tonight I call on Iarnród Éireann to ensure its inspections are more thorough than that and I have some proposals to make at the end. The point about this is that if we do not have its representatives in here frequently enough and there is not a proper direct reporting mechanism we will not get the reassurances that we need to reassure the public. In the future there should be regular examinations, the nature of which are described, including whether it is underwater or overwater, that details of these inspections are posted on the web and arrangements are made to notify the local authority. It is more than just the viaduct in Malahide involved here; there are others around the country.

Arising from this we have seen how Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann can rise to the occasion by putting on additional buses that go directly from Skerries, Rush and Lusk, Balbriggan and Donabate into Dublin, the 33X, 33D and the 101X. This has been so successful that following representations from me and others, Dublin Bus agreed to continue the service. However, we received notification tonight from Barry Kenny that it will be for a very short period. It is very clear that the trains are chock-a-block when they get closer to town and that this service which has proven to be so successful and well subscribed should remain, not in its entirety but in a slightly slimmed-down version and certainly should not be withdrawn. I am deeply concerned as are the people of Dublin North to hear that some wags in their ivory towers in the Department of Transport are talking about discontinuing this service. I wonder if any of them has ever actually taken the train or bus into town from the north side. If they did they would know exactly what we are talking about.

This brings me to the port tunnel and its safety. I wonder if that influenced them in some way. Deputy O’Dowd has informed me that there is a worrying report that we have not seen in full as yet.

Deputy Fergus O’Dowd:  The NRA would not give it to us.

Deputy James Reilly:  There is a report we have not seen, indicating more lack of transparency. It condemns the safety of the tunnel in terms of the emergency procedures to be carried out. Last year I stood here and asked that nipper buses be put in place around north County Dublin to feed the train stations and reduce the car parking requirements. Even though I am glad to welcome the new car park in Lusk, the old one is to be closed.

In commending the motion to the House, I mention that the metro is essential to the further development of north County Dublin and can bring thousands of jobs in addition to the oppor[402]tunity to develop universities etc. I support my colleague 100%. It is more transparency and accountability we need in our Government not less.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan:  This motion calls for real accountability and transparency in the spending of taxpayers’ money in the transport sector and records that €19.25 billion has been spent over recent years. I am elected to represent Cork South-West and I can find no evidence of 1 cent of this money being spent in my constituency and the Minister will not take responsibility for answering these matters in this House which votes him this money to spend on the taxpayers’ behalf for all the citizens of the country. Let me state that not one railway sleeper has been placed nor has a railway carriage travelled 1 cm in my constituency as a result of the spending of this €19.25 billion. In fact our west Cork railway system was taken from us almost 50 years ago by the then Fianna Fáil Government.

Not one square inch of asphalt has been laid by the National Roads Authority in my constituency. In fact given that it has spent all this money in developing roads between our cities, perhaps the Minister should consider renaming it the “intercity roads authority”. It is no coincidence that investment in our rail network has been developed between the exact same cities often with the road and the rail line running beside each other serving the same towns and cities. The Government has abandoned large tracts of rural Ireland especially south west Cork. Louth, the wee county, is getting a much greater roads grant than Cork County Council which covers one eighth of the total area of the Republic. Where is the fairness in that?

The National Roads Authority has notions of working on the N71 Bandon to Inishannon road but according to its website this is subject to a “constraints study”. This sounds to me like a new administrative term to describe constipation. In fact when I think about it, one way to describe the way the Government is running this economy is that it has changed from a Government with diarrhoea to a constipated Government with a bad smell.

I note that the Government amendment to this motion deletes all words after Dáil Éireann to substitute its own smug self-congratulatory words trying to convince us that nothing is wrong. Well, let me warn the Government that like the Berlin Wall when it falls, it is not in for a soft landing. If the Ministers opposite are not prepared to answer the questions of the elected representatives of the people in this House then it time to stop hiding behind bureaucratic walls and face the people. I commend the motion to the House.

Deputy Fergus O’Dowd:  A Cheann Comhairle, I think I would have to disagree with the reference to Louth as I am sure you would, yourself.

This is a very important motion. The Minister has avoided the issue which is about accountability and transparency. It is about accounting for the €6.23 billion CIE has spent since 1997. It is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, the Comptroller and Auditor General or the Committee of Public Accounts. During the week the Minister said he had grave concerns about an audit into procurement policies in certain divisions of Iarnród Éireann that cost more than €500,000. Last night I brought to his attention and tonight I bring to the attention of the Minister of State present that we are demanding a copy of an internal audit report from 2007 which stated that further significant breaches were found in areas which are outside the scope of the Baker Tilly report including significant non-compliance in the chief mechanical engineers department. Let us have the truth and the facts. Let us find out what is going on in CIE. Let us not have Ministers refusing to make it accountable here in the Dáil and accountable to parliamentary questions.

[403]The Government is currently seeking €4.1 billion in cutbacks across the board. That figure is the same as the €4.1 billion cost overrun the Comptroller and Auditor General pointed out in the National Roads Authority roads programme, which added 60% to the original costs of these projects. The National Roads Authority failed to calculate and manage the costs of these projects yet the Minister, Deputy Dempsey will not hold it accountable to parliamentary questions. What a Government it is. The Minister, Deputy Dempsey, introduced the electronic voting machines, which was a waste of €50 million. The Government decided to put broadband into places where it can never work. It will lie forever unused in many towns and villages around the country. That was another €80 million wasted. Of course €150 million of taxpayers’ money was wasted on PPARS. What did the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, say about it? In October 2005 he said that that loss was “very, very small.”

The Government is refusing to face the fact that many of its quangos are wasting vast amounts of taxpayers’ money. Let me quote an independent authority, the Information Commissioner, Emily O’Reilly, who has stated on several occasions her concern regarding the lack of transparency within aspects of government. She said: “If FOI is about replacing a culture of secrecy with a culture of openness in the Irish public service, I have to say that this objective is being frustrated by the continued exclusion from FOI of several key public institutions.” Why is CIE not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, the Comptroller and Auditor General or the Committee of Public Accounts? Why is the Minister protecting it?

Our motion represents a well thought out analysis of Government failures to instil transparency, accountability or scrutiny of activities into the companies and State agencies it has created. Mark my words; we will make the Government accountable. We will not allow it to continue in the same cavalier and unaccountable fashion. We will not allow it to refuse to give us copies of audit reports, refuse to meet with us or refuse to give us the telephone number of the safety officer at the Dublin Port tunnel, a person who is allegedly independent of the National Roads Authority and should be allowed to do his or her duties without interference from that body. Where is the transparency and accountability in respect of all these entities?

The job of Government is to hold State companies and agencies accountable for the delivery of efficient public services and value for money. This Government has failed miserably in that regard. That is why CIE must come under greater scrutiny and why the National Roads Authority must be accountable to the Dáil in respect of parliamentary questions. Fianna Fáil’s misguided priorities and mismanagement of resources have deprived people of modern public services and efficient public transport and have brought this country to its knees. I commend the motion to the House.

Amendment put.

The Dáil divided: Tá, 77; Níl, 47.

 Ahern, Bertie.  Ahern, Dermot.
 Ahern, Michael.  Ahern, Noel.
 Andrews, Barry.  Andrews, Chris.
 Ardagh, Seán.  Aylward, Bobby.
 Behan, Joe.  Blaney, Niall.
 Brady, Áine.  Brady, Cyprian.
 Brady, Johnny.  Browne, John.
 Byrne, Thomas.  Calleary, Dara.
 Carey, Pat.  Collins, Niall.
 Conlon, Margaret.  Connick, Seán.
 Coughlan, Mary.  Cregan, John.
 Cuffe, Ciarán.  Curran, John.
 Dempsey, Noel.  Devins, Jimmy.
 Dooley, Timmy.  Fahey, Frank.
 Finneran, Michael.  Fitzpatrick, Michael.
 Fleming, Seán.  Flynn, Beverley.
 Gogarty, Paul.  Gormley, John.
 Hanafin, Mary.  Haughey, Seán.
 Healy-Rae, Jackie.  Hoctor, Máire.
 Kelleher, Billy.  Kelly, Peter.
 Kenneally, Brendan.  Kennedy, Michael.
 Killeen, Tony.  Kitt, Michael P.
 Kitt, Tom.  Lenihan, Brian.
 Lenihan, Conor.  Lowry, Michael.
 McEllistrim, Thomas.  McGrath, Mattie.
 McGrath, Michael.  McGuinness, John.
 Moloney, John.  Moynihan, Michael.
 Mulcahy, Michael.  Nolan, M. J.
 Ó Cuív, Éamon.  Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
 O’Brien, Darragh.  O’Connor, Charlie.
 O’Dea, Willie.  O’Donoghue, John.
 O’Flynn, Noel.  O’Hanlon, Rory.
 O’Keeffe, Batt.  O’Keeffe, Edward.
 O’Sullivan, Christy.  Power, Seán.
 Roche, Dick.  Ryan, Eamon.
 Sargent, Trevor.  Scanlon, Eamon.
 Smith, Brendan.  Treacy, Noel.
 Wallace, Mary.  White, Mary Alexandra.
 Woods, Michael.  


Níl
 Allen, Bernard.  Bannon, James.
 Barrett, Seán.  Breen, Pat.
 Bruton, Richard.  Burke, Ulick.
 Byrne, Catherine.  Carey, Joe.
 Clune, Deirdre.  Connaughton, Paul.
 Coonan, Noel J.  Coveney, Simon.
 Creed, Michael.  Creighton, Lucinda.
 D’Arcy, Michael.  Deasy, John.
 Deenihan, Jimmy.  Doyle, Andrew.
 Durkan, Bernard J.  English, Damien.
 Feighan, Frank.  Ferris, Martin.
 Flanagan, Terence.  Hayes, Tom.
 Kehoe, Paul.  Kenny, Enda.
 Lee, George.  McCormack, Pádraic.
 McEntee, Shane.  McGinley, Dinny.
 Naughten, Denis.  Neville, Dan.
 Noonan, Michael.  Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
 Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.  O’Donnell, Kieran.
 O’Dowd, Fergus.  O’Keeffe, Jim.
 O’Mahony, John.  Perry, John.
 Reilly, James.  Ring, Michael.
 Sheahan, Tom.  Sheehan, P. J.
 Stanton, David.  Timmins, Billy.
 Varadkar, Leo.  

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Pat Carey and John Cregan; Níl, Deputies Paul Kehoe and David Stanton.

Amendment declared carried.

Motion, as amended, agreed to.

Deputy Pat Breen:  I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating this debate. While attitudes to mental health have changed over the years, a recent national survey undertaken by St. Patrick’s University Hospital, which examined the attitudes to, and perceptions of, mental health, found that even in 2009 there continues to be a stigma against people who suffer from mental illness. More than one third of people surveyed believe that those suffering mental illness are of below average intelligence and a further one third said they were not willing to accept someone with a mental health illness as a close friend. A total of 40% of respondents would discriminate against someone with a history of mental illness when it came to hiring him or her and 40% felt seeking help and undergoing treatment was a sign of failure.

These findings are an eye opener and they are disturbing. Considering that on average one in four people will suffer from a mental health issue in his or her lifetime, it shows how important it is to dispel these myths. Former US President Bill Clinton once said, “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” The best way of dispelling this stigma is to move away from institutionalising people with psychiatric issues and to integrate them into our communities.

In 2002, when Our Lady’s Hospital in Ennis closed, the Orchard Lodge Hostel, a high support unit was set up in Kilrush. The unit currently supports 17 people, 11 of whom are over the age of 65 years. They have all settled into Kilrush and for the first time in their lives they have a place they can call home. They can go about their daily business, they have freedom, they can go into the local shop to collect their newspaper, have a pint in the local pub or sit and chat over a cup of coffee with their friends. The freedom these people quite rightly now enjoy is being made possible by the care and attention they receive from the team of dedicated staff who look after them. Reports in recent days suggest that these people, who are the most vulnerable in our society, are now going to pay the price for the failure of the Government and the HSE to fund the provision of mental health services in County Clare, that the Orchard Lodge in Kilrush is going to close down and that these people are going to be forced into other facilities where they will not have the same freedom. I cannot understand this. It is a backward step. Does the Minister realise the anguish this will cause to these people and the trauma they will suffer if they have to leave their familiar surroundings?

I understand that a review of the entire provision of mental health services in Clare is under way and that this review is driven by the 21.3% decline in the number of nurses working in the service in the past 22 months. Surely any review of psychiatric services should be driven by what is in the best interest of patients and their families.

Last February, more than 20 geriatric patients were moved from unit 6 of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ennis to a private nursing home in the town and now there is concern that another unit is about to close at St. Joseph’s to accommodate patients from Cappahard Lodge in Ennis. Gort Glas in Ennis is also closing I understand, and patients from there will be transferred to Cappahard.

Depression has increased as the recession takes hold in this country and I have been inundated with pleas for help from many families who are finding it more and more difficult to access basic help for mental illness because of the lack of resources. A local eminent psychiatrist recently warned that the reduction of €4 million in funding for the Clare mental health service, [406]down from €26.7 million in 2008 to €22.85 million in 2009, will mean there will be no money for capital projects such as hostels or rehabilitation programmes for a number of years. He also warned that some patients could be forced to wait up to six months to attend a public psychiatrist or counsellor. Some of the multi-disciplinary teams in Clare are not fully staffed, in spite of the Government’s commitments under the Vision for Change programme and the reality is that the acute psychiatric unit at Ennis General Hospital is stretched to the limit with no step-down facilities in place and we are still without proper 24/7 access to social workers to help families in crisis.

Short-sighted cuts in mental health care for the most vulnerable members of our society will cost the Government more in the longer term, not to mention the cost to those with mental illness and their families, who continue to suffer in silence.

I am delighted to see the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health in the House this evening. I ask him to clarify here in this House tonight, first of all, what is the situation regarding the Orchard Lodge facility, second, when will the review of mental health services in County Clare be completed and, as part of that review, will the Minister ensure that adequate resources are allocated to the Clare mental health service in the forthcoming budget?

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy John Moloney):  I thank Deputy Breen for raising this matter as it provides me with an opportunity to outline the plans for further development of mental health services in County Clare. To put the issue into context I should recall that A Vision for Change, the report of the expert group on mental health policy has been accepted by Government as the basis for the future development of our mental health services. While much has happened and much has changed economically in the three years since the report was launched, it remains a progressive document and our road map, charting the way forward for our mental health services. A Vision for Change proposes a new model of service delivery which is patient-centred, flexible and community based. The report proposes a holistic view of mental illness and recommends an integrated multi-disciplinary approach to addressing the biological, psychological and social factors that contribute to mental health problems. Extensive consultation with service users, their families and service providers informed this policy.

The most pressing priority voiced during the consultation process was the need for an accessible and user-friendly mental health service where service users can be respected as active partners in their own recovery and where they can avail of interventions to enable them remain meaningfully involved in their own communities.

Of course mental health services are provided in many settings, including acute inpatient facilities, day hospitals, day care centres, low support and high support community accommodation. While A Vision for Change recognises that acute hospitalisation will be always required to serve a minority who need intervention in safe, therapeutic settings, it also acknowledges the desire among service users, their families and carers to see an expansion of mental health service options established in local communities so that comprehensive care can be provided.

To turn to Orchard Lodge, in line with best practice, the HSE is currently engaged in a review of mental health services in County Clare with a view to ensuring that the most appropriate services are provided for service users, in the context of their changing needs. The HSE has consulted and engaged with carers, families and clinical and nursing staff and provided opportunities for them to put forward their views and to have a constructive input in the review [407]process. At present there are 16 residents in Orchard Lodge and following individual clinical assessments it has been concluded that 11 of the residents, given their changing needs, would be more appropriately cared for in an older persons setting. It is therefore proposed to refer these residents to the older persons placement panel for consideration as to the most appropriate care setting for each individual. The remaining five residents who at this point require ongoing mental health care, will be accommodated in appropriate rehabilitation facilities.

While it is proposed to discontinue the residential facility at Orchard Lodge, I should clarify that there are no plans at present to change other services provided on this site, including the day service and the west Clare catering service. I should also explain that the closure of the residential facility will release mental health nursing staff and allow for their re-deployment to other areas where nursing staff are required and thus ensure best use of our valuable resources.

While I accept that the prospect of change can be daunting for service users and staff alike, we need to look at the bigger picture and recognise that the change which is proposed by the HSE is for the better. If we want to implement our national mental health policy, A Vision for Change, we need to be able to move forward and embrace change. Our major driver must be to meet the changing needs of individual service users and improve the quality of their care.

The residents of Orchard Grove have been clinically assessed and it has been determined that their needs would be better served in a different therapeutic setting. The HSE, to its credit, is proactively responding to the changing needs of these clients and is trying to provide the best possible care to them in the most appropriate setting. I am confident that the HSE will continue to engage actively with stakeholders and that notwithstanding the considerable challenges it faces, a satisfactory solution will be devised to the ultimate benefit of all concerned.

I fully appreciate Deputy Breen’s concern regarding the stigma attached to mental illness. I intend putting forward a national programme to deal with that issue in January. I also intend to take an overview of the Vision for Change. With six years remaining for the programme, it is timely that we review its successes and acknowledge that the original reform has not been what we hoped it would be.

Deputy Pat Breen:  The facility to which these people will be transferred is outside the town. They will not have the freedom of movement they enjoyed in Kilrush. Tonight’s news is very disappointing in that regard. They integrated very successfully in Kilrush.

Deputy John Moloney:  I thank the Deputy.

Deputy Máire Hoctor:  Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Tááthas orm an seans a bheith agam labhairt faoi Mhicheál Ó Duibhir as Contae Thiobraid Árainn, a fuair bás ins an Bholaiv.

I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to speak about the tragic death of Mr. Michael Dwyer of Brockagh, Ballinderry, Nenagh, County Tipperary, which happened on 16 April of this year. Michael Dwyer was a young man of 24, a carefree and loving son and grandson. The terrible news of his tragic death came to County Tipperary, shocking his parish and the entire hinterland of Ballinderry. Many questions surround the circumstances of his death.

Michael had completed studies in construction management and always had a good work ethic. He was well admired and loved by his companions at college and at school. He attended Borrisokane community college. However, he undertook this journey as he wanted to see the world. He headed off on 17 November 2008 to Bolivia initially intending to stay for a short [408]period of time, approximately eight weeks. He felt this trip would start the trip of a lifetime. He intended to return within a short period of time but in late January 2009, he decided to extend his stay in Bolivia until the end of April or so due to the fact he did not believe there was work available in the areas of construction or security in which he had worked in Ireland previously.

  9 o’clock

On 16 April 2009 he was tragically murdered in Bolivia, a cause of deep sorrow to his parents, Martin and Caroline, and his siblings, Aisling, Ciara and Emmett. His family have been traumatised but softening that tragedy is the support they have received from their local community, their friends and, indeed, the Members of this House. I pay tribute to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, and his staff, Deputy O’Hanlon, Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs, Deputy Woods, and all the Members of this House who met the Dwyer family and listened intently to their case, which was excellently presented to them recently.

On 13 October, the Dublin county coroner held the inquest into Michael’s death. The coroner, Kieran Geraghty, was present along with members of the Dwyer family and other people, including Dr. Marie Cassidy, the State Pathologist. According to the report, Michael had a single bullet wound to the chest which went through his heart and lungs and killed him. The Bolivian autopsy stated that his heart was intact and that there were six bullet entry wounds, one to the front and five to the back.

The report of Dr. Cassidy confirms that there was no bullet exit wound whereas the Bolivian report states there were three bullet exit wounds. While there is conflict and discrepancies in the reports in regard to Michael’s death, there will always be questions. We acknowledge the support from the Department of Foreign Affairs but questions will remain if not answered. The Dwyer family is extremely anxious that progress is made in the communications with the Bolivian authorities, which have been initiated by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and by Deputy O’Hanlon through the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Other discrepancies have been also mentioned in regard to the forensic swabs taken as part of the autopsy at the morgue following a 15-hour delay at the hotel where the shooting took place. The delay and the subsequent handling of Michael’s body call into question the integrity of the reports which emerged from that investigation in Bolivia.

The ballistics report also states that the examination on 22 April took place six days after the shooting when the rooms had been cleaned and when the evidence had been removed. There are many unanswered questions and there is much more to be said about this case.

I put on record my unwavering support for the Dwyer family in this tragedy. I look forward to hearing the response in regard to the family’s call for a well-resourced international inquiry into the death of Michael Dwyer.

Deputy John Moloney:  I apologise that the Minister for Foreign Affairs cannot be here. I acknowledge Deputy Hoctor has raised this issue often not only with the Minister but with the officials. I fully appreciate her concern and commitment to secure transparency and honesty. I also thank her for raising the issue on the Adjournment and I join in conveying my condolences to the Dwyer family on the death of their son and brother, Michael. I recognise the trauma and difficulty for the family.

Michael Dwyer was shot dead by the Bolivian state security services on 16 April in Santa Cruz. After hearing of his death, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, immediately instructed the Irish embassy in Argentina, which is also accredited to Bolivia, to send a diplo[409]matic officer there to represent the Government and also to look after the concerns of the family. The officer initially travelled to Santa Cruz and then to the Bolivian capital.

Following extensive contacts between the Irish embassy representative and officials in Santa Cruz — I acknowledge the involvement of Deputy Hoctor in this process — it was possible to secure the timely release of the remains and arrangements were made for the body to be repatriated to Ireland for burial. Constant updates from officials and the Minister were given to the Dwyer family at this tragic time.

The embassy representative also had meetings with the Bolivian Vice President, the acting Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Vice Minister of the Interior, the investigating attorney in charge of the case and the investigating officer from the anti-crime special force. He expressed the Government’s concern at reports on the circumstances surrounding the death and inquired as to the steps the Bolivian authorities were taking to discover the facts of the case.

The Minister then spoke to Acting Foreign Minister Quintana by telephone and emphasised that our interest in this case related entirely to protecting the consular rights of our citizens abroad. The Irish Government has a duty to seek the facts in a case where one of our citizens has been killed in a violent incident by the security forces in another state.

The Minister emphasised that the Government would welcome an official explanation of what occurred in Santa Cruz and stated that the Government was ready to participate in, and assist with, an international investigation. The Minister then wrote to Minister Quintana to reiterate our consular interest in the case and to welcome his commitment to working with the Government to establish the full facts of the case.

Through our embassy in Buenos Aires, a number of reports have been received by the Minister, namely, the official position of the Bolivian Government on the break-up of a terrorist group, copies of the report of the autopsy carried out on Mr. Dwyer in Santa Cruz, the toxicological and chemical analysis reports and the ballistics report. These have been shared with Mr. Dwyer’s family.

On 15 October, an inquest was held into Mr. Dwyer’s death in the coroner’s court in Dublin. In this case, the jury delivered an open verdict in the absence of evidence strong enough for any other finding to be made. The State Pathologist, Dr. Marie Cassidy, who had carried out an autopsy on Mr. Dwyer directly after the return of his remains to Ireland, testified to the court that Mr. Dwyer had been struck by a single bullet. This testimony was at variance with the Bolivian autopsy which noted six points of impact by gunshot.

Her Excellency, Beatriz Souviron, the Bolivian ambassador-designate to Ireland, who also gave evidence at the inquest, stated that the Bolivian Government’s investigation into the causes of Mr. Dwyer’s death was ongoing. She also indicated the Bolivian Government’s willingness to welcome any assistance which would make the facts of the case clear and she agreed to refer to her Government the request for an international investigation.

Following the inquest, the Minister for Foreign Affairs wrote to his Bolivian counterpart, David Choquehuanca, asking for clarification of the discrepancies between the autopsy carried by Dr. Cassidy and the autopsy which took place in Santa Cruz. The Minister inquired as to progress in the Bolivian Government’s investigation of the events surrounding Mr. Dwyer’s death.

The Minister urged the Government of Bolivia to hold an international investigation into the events surrounding Mr. Dwyer’s death and the death of two other foreign nationals. He reiterated that Ireland is available to provide assistance to, and co-operate with, the Bolivian [410]Government in an international investigation of this matter. We await Minister Choquehuanca’s reply.

I assure the Deputy that the Department of Foreign Affairs will continue its efforts to establish the facts surrounding the death of Michael Dwyer and will provide all possible consular assistance to Mr. Dwyer’s family.

Deputy Chris Andrews:  I welcome the opportunity to raise this Adjournment matter but in light of the previous one, it seems irrelevant. Nonetheless, I welcome the opportunity to speak on it. The Poolbeg chimneys are two of Dublin’s most iconic structures. I am sure everyone knows the candy stripe towers on the Poolbeg peninsula. Poolbeg is adjacent to the now decommissioned Pigeon House generating station where electricity was first generated in 1903.

The first or last things people see when approaching or leaving Dublin by air or sea are these chimneys and the Dublin and Wicklow mountains. The candy-striped chimneys are among the tallest structures in Ireland and are visible from most of Dublin city. No. 1 chimney is 680 feet and nine inches in height and No. 2 chimney is one foot higher. They were designed to minimise atmospheric pollution and the towers now form part of Dublin’s skyline and have been used as a backdrop to some of Dublin’s most well-known films, pop and music videos and paintings, along with political literature from all sides of the political divide and none. Over the summer there has been much speculation as to what will happen to the chimneys when the power station is decommissioned next year. Media reports suggest that the ESB is considering their demolition. I am against any such action. Speaking to residents in Ringsend and Sandymount, Irishtown, Ballsbridge and Donnybrook, I know there would be strong opposition from the local community.

Earlier this year, I wrote to the chief executive of the ESB to ascertain its plans for the towers and to put on record my opposition to any plans which would result in the demolition of the chimneys. I received the standard response that no decision had yet been made about the chimneys. Last year, a motion was tabled at Dublin City Council to have the chimneys added to the list of protected structures which would have made it illegal to demolish them. This motion was rejected but the city planners recommended that a full assessment should be carried out should electricity generation cease at the plant. I ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to seek a guarantee from the ESB that no decision will be made about the future of the chimneys without at least first consulting Dublin City Council, the Department and all other relevant stakeholders.

If these towers had been designed by some famous architect or trendy designer, we would not be having this discussion because their demolition would not be permitted. Given that these towers were accidental iconic structures, some people are of the view that they can be knocked down. The social and historical significance of the chimneys is significant and I call for them to be given protected status.

Deputy John Moloney:  I thank Deputy Andrews for affording us an opportunity to discuss the Poolbeg stacks which are significant features in the landscape not just in the city, but right across Dublin. The Poolbeg stacks were constructed at different times; the first chimney was erected in 1971 and the second in 1978. Following the construction of the second stack, the pair came to be regarded as a significant feature in the landscape, painted by artists and used [411]as a reference point by citizens and visitors alike. The commanding presence that the pair of stacks acquired is primarily social.

Statutory protection of the architectural heritage is primarily a matter for the planning authorities under Part IV of the Planning and Development Act 2000. Under the provisions of the Act, each planning authority is required, for the purpose of protecting structures, or parts of structures which are of special architectural, historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural, scientific, social or technical interest, to include in its development plan a record of protected structures for its functional area. This may be done at the time of the preparation of the development plan or, where appropriate, at any other time.

Section 53(1) of the 2000 Act enables the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to make recommendations to a planning authority concerning the inclusion of specific structures in its record of protected structures. A planning authority must have regard to any such recommendations. Ministerial recommendations are generally based on national inventory of architectural heritage, NIAH, surveys undertaken by the Department and such a survey has yet to be undertaken for Dublin. The making of an addition to, or deletion from, a record of protected structures is a reserved function of the planning authorities.

I understand Dublin City Council issued a report recommending that these twin structures should not be added to the record of protected structures. The reason stated is that while the Poolbeg stacks are considered to be of a certain level of architectural, social and historical significance, they are not considered to be of sufficient value within the meaning of Part IV of the Planning and Development Act 2000 and should not, therefore, be added to the record of protected structures.

I understand the Poolbeg stacks have a limited design life. Engineering structures are typically designed for a 60-year life. Concrete absorbs carbon dioxide from the moment it is poured and, ultimately, combined with pollutants and chlorine from the sea salt, there is degradation and fragmentation. While some older similar stacks survive in other countries, these are generally far from the sea and not subject to the same chloride attack that has clearly taken its toll on the Poolbeg stacks.

I understand the ESB is scheduled to decommission the stacks in 2010 but no decision has been taken as to their future use. Ultimately, it is a matter for Dublin City Council to decide whether the stacks should be added to the record of protected structures.

Deputy Mattie McGrath:  I thank the Chair for allowing me to raise this matter on the Adjournment. More than 50 years ago, a predecessor of mine, a Deputy from Tipperary South — I do not remember his name — put down a parliamentary question about the Burncourt regional water scheme. Burncourt and Fethard regional water schemes have now been bundled together. Both are very important infrastructural projects in my constituency and this cannot be overstated. They used to be two individual projects and I suppose they still are, but they have been bundled in recent times into one project.

In April 1999, some £800,000 was approved to progress the Burncourt regional water scheme. In May 2004, a further sum of €6.1 million was approved by the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to proceed with the scheme. Sad to say, the Celtic tiger was around. He was a cub at that stage and he developed into a full tiger, but he has now left our shores and we still do not have a proper standard of drinking water in the Burncourt and Fethard areas.

[412]I wish to acknowledge the work of the county council, especially South Tipperary County Council and the sanitary services staff, the current Minister, Deputy John Gormley, and his private secretary, Mr. Eddie Keenan, for their co-operation in this matter. I wish to mention Mr. Aidan Fennessy of the sanitary services staff, our plumber, Anthony O’Dwyer, and our water caretakers. One of them is retiring from the county council in two weeks’ time after 37 years’ service. He was a front line worker, along with his colleague, Joe Carrigan. They were called out whenever there was trouble, such as bad water or no water.

Unfortunately, we have been operating under a boil water notice since September at the instigation of the HSE. It was activated by some families who happened to be working as laboratory technicians in private companies and tested the water. They brought the results to the notice of the EPA and the HSE. These bodies had to be prodded into taking action. A large area is currently under a boil water notice, including a school, many local families and communities, a food processing plant, public houses and shops and butchers. It is not acceptable and it is a significant worry.

I plead with the relevant officials to try to progress this as speedily as possible because the situation has gone on for far too long. I acknowledge the support of my colleagues, Deputy Tom Hayes, and the Minister of State, Deputy Martin Mansergh, on the issue as well as the elected local representatives.

I thank the consumers for being so patient. They recently set up a concerned consumers committee which is working very hard and has a lot of expertise among its ranks. Those involved are working tirelessly with the council officials and the EPA and the health board officials. We have made adaptations to make the archaic system safer and better. I also thank Coillte and the An Oige youth hostel and the local farmers for their help. I am concerned because Coillte has planted trees in proximity to the source stream and supply and after harvesting etc. certain dangerous materials can wash into this source. A new abstraction order must be obtained for Fethard and Burncourt. Unfortunately, the two schemes have been bundled together. During the Celtic tiger everything had to be big and wonderful. A scheme costing €7 million was not deemed big enough.

I accept the Burncourt abstraction order has now been completed without objections. Unfortunately, the Fethard scheme had to be re-tendered and is now out for public consultation and it looks promising. However, we will not know until 27 November if there will be submissions or objections or if it will go to An Bord Pleanála. However, I put down a marker here and if that happens I will continue to apply pressure to have the schemes unbundled and, along with my colleagues, lobby to have the Burncourt scheme progressed with haste and to move the matter on.

We are weary and tired of consultants’ reports and other reports going to the Department. In turn, it reverts to the locality some months later with queries. County council officials compile reports for health consultants and they go back to the Department. This has been going on for far too long and it must stop. All the evidence is there and the reports are in place. We must see tender documents prepared and the sod turned for this badly needed project. That would allow the people, young and old, of Burncourt and Fethard, but especially Burncourt, access to clean, safe water on which they can rely and they would no longer have to worry about sicknesses and everything else. I thank the Acting Chairman, Deputy Michael Kennedy, for the time and I look forward to the reply of the Minister of State.

[413]Deputy John Moloney:  I respond on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The Burncourt and Fethard regional water supply scheme is included in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government’s water services investment programme 2007 to 2009. The proposed scheme is intended to boost the water supply in the south east and west of the county and resolve the water quality issues of the present supply. It would involve upgrading and extending the existing supply, including the provision of new treatment plants, storage and network improvements, at an estimated cost of €14.5 million. The Department approved South Tipperary County Council’s design proposals for the scheme last December.

The council is proceeding with the detailed planning of the scheme. As part of this process, the council requires a new abstraction order. The current abstraction rate is almost four times the volume permitted under the existing licence. In addition, the council proposes to relocate the abstraction point further downstream from its present location. Accordingly, a new licence is required before the council can proceed with the treatment plant element of the scheme.

The public consultation procedure in respect of the abstraction order for the scheme is well advanced. The council has advised the Department that the timeline for the delivery of the scheme is dependent on the abstraction licence process.

I am well aware of the interest of Deputy McGrath in this matter and I inform him that the Minister, Deputy Gormley, is also aware that there have been water quality issues associated with the Skeheenarinky section of the Burncourt supply. The day-to-day management and operation of public water supply infrastructure is a matter for the local authority concerned, in this instance South Tipperary County Council. A rigorous statutory supervisory framework is in place under the drinking water regulations, whereby local authorities are obliged to ensure that any failure to meet quality standards in a water supply is investigated immediately to determine the cause. The authority is required to consult with the HSE and, in the case of public supplies, with the EPA to determine whether there is a potential danger to human health, and, if there is, to agree the appropriate action, including the prompt notification of consumers.

South Tipperary County Council has taken the necessary steps, following consultation with the HSE and the EPA, under this supervisory framework to tackle the water quality issues. The council’s water monitoring regime worked successfully in this instance and the recent contaminations were discovered quickly and action by the council has prevented any public health issues that might have arisen. I understand that the council will meet the HSE shortly to agree the criteria for lifting the boil water notice that has been in place since the contaminations were discovered in September. The council has also confirmed to the Department that all recent monitoring results for water quality on the supply meet the drinking water standards but that investigation into the causes of the contamination is still ongoing. The council is also taking other measures to protect the source and will provide ongoing monitoring and assess the feasibility of upgrading treatment to ensure water quality pending delivery of the regional scheme.

In so far as the next phase of the water services investment programme is concerned, local authorities were asked in July to submit an assessment of needs for water and sewerage services to the Department by 23 October last. The Department has commenced consideration of these assessments, which will form a key input to the development of the 2010 to 2012 water services investment programme. In conducting their assessments, local authorities were asked to prioritise schemes and contracts for progression. It is anticipated that the water services investment [414]programme 2010 to 2012 will be published early next year. I advise Deputy McGrath of the Minister’s recognition of his continued interest in promoting this scheme.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 12 November 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 9, inclusive, answered orally.

Questions Nos. 10 to 59, inclusive, resubmitted.

Questions Nos. 60 to 69, inclusive, answered orally.

  70.  Deputy Ulick Burke    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the steps she is taking to reduce the backlog of jobseeker’s allowance claims; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40603/09]

  72.  Deputy Joe Costello    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the steps she is taking to improve processing times for jobseeker claims at social welfare branch and local offices. [40706/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 70 and 72 together.

The average processing times for claims decided in October was 3.14 weeks for jobseekers benefit and 7.38 weeks for jobseekers allowance. In October, 3 out of every 4 claims for Jobseekers Benefit were processed within 3 weeks and 2 out of every 3 claims for the means tested payment Jobseekers Allowance were processed within 6 weeks.

To date, some 378 additional staff have been assigned to Local Offices, new Central Support Units and the Departments Inspectorate to specifically deal with the increase in claims for unemployment payments.

In addition, over the past year the Department has introduced a range of process improvement initiatives to deal with the increased volume of claims.

Over the last three months there has been a steady decrease in the numbers of Jobseekers claims waiting a decision. The numbers have reduced by almost 23% which illustrates that the process improvement measures, coupled with the additional resources that have been assigned to Local Offices are having a positive effect.

[416]One of the most significant initiatives introduced aimed at reducing queuing times and waiting times, involves the customer attending the office by appointment at which time the claim is taken and decided. This system was first introduced in Dundalk and since last August has been introduced in a further 19 offices. The Department is currently finalising plans to extend the initiative to other offices.

The impact of this initiative is very encouraging, the processing times in Dundalk Local Office where the initiative was trialled and first introduced are now less than 1 week for JB and under 4 weeks for JA.

In addition, a range of other process improvements have been introduced which include:

A more streamlined procedure for claimants moving to jobseekers allowance when their jobseekers benefit expires.

A streamlined process for people who had a claim in the previous two years.

Application forms for the jobseeker schemes are now available on the Department’s website. This means that anyone who wants to make a claim can print the form at home and bring it to the local office completed. This helps reduce queuing times.

More straight-forward procedures for providing evidence of identity and address have been introduced.

I accept that processing are still too long in a small number of offices and I can assure the House that the Department is working to improve the situation in these offices as a priority.

Anyone who is under financial pressure while awaiting a decision on their claim for a jobseekers payment can apply for Supplementary Welfare Allowance which is subject to a means test and other qualifying conditions. It is open to any customer who is not satisfied with the decision on their claim to appeal that decision.

I fully appreciate that becoming unemployed and having to claim a jobseekers payment is stressful enough in itself. The Department will continue to introduce initiatives to ensure that the process is as straightforward as it possibly can be.

  71.  Deputy Olwyn Enright    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    when she plans to issue photo identification cards; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40623/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The Department has developed, in conjunction with a number of other Government Departments, the specifications for a Public Service Card (PSC) under the Standard Authentication Framework Environment, or (SAFE), programme. The specification provides for identification features, including a photograph. The aim is to develop a card that acts as a key for access to public services in general, identifying and authenticating individuals as appropriate and where required.

The introduction of the PSC would provide for a card with key security features which would help control access to government services. Features such as photographs and signatures and electronic card authentication would minimise the rate of fraud and error arising from incorrectly identified and authenticated individuals. The PSC would replace cards currently in use, such as the Social Services Card and the Free Travel card with highly secure cards. Other Departments and agencies would also be in a position to use the card.

[417]A further benefit of the PSC would arise from the efficiencies which would be achieved by all agencies using the card. The time spent on establishing identity and authentication would be reduced leading to significant potential savings across the whole public sector.

The project has three streams of work;

Development of new technical systems to support the issue of the Public Service Card;

Design of the necessary organisational change; and

The procurement of a managed service provider for the production, supply and management of the card as well as the provision of associated bureau services.

Development of the new technical systems to support the card requires a procurement exercise and this process has commenced. The organisational change stream is complete and a preferred bidder for the managed service provider has been selected.

Sanction to proceed with the project has recently been received from the Department of Finance and the project will now advance to the next stage. The Department plans to issue the cards to selected groups of its customers, commencing with those eligible for free travel in the latter half of 2010.

Question No. 72 answered with Question No. 70.

  73.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she is satisfied with the arrangements for recording and calculating control savings and pursuing perpetrators of social welfare fraud. [40703/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  Control savings are calculated by applying validated multipliers to the difference in the rate of payment before and after the control activity. Multipliers used in assessing control savings estimate the total future savings to the Department of a revocation or reduction resulting from a control action. The multiplier used is based on the average amount of time the person who signs off will remain off the books before returning. This time varies from scheme to scheme.

Various tracking exercises have been carried out over the years, which have validated the multipliers in use. There is a comprehensive control guideline which sets out:

(a) What constitutes a control saving in the various control activities,

(b) The various multipliers to be used in determining savings,

(c) The method of reporting reviews and savings to Central Control Section.

Control Division carry out on-going validation exercises to ensure control savings are recorded correctly. These involve an examination of the various control savings reported to ensure that savings are being compiled and calculated in the correct manner i.e. in accordance with the guideline for determining control savings.

In addition to validation exercises control division provides on-going control training on control activities and savings. In 2008 Control Awareness presentations were made to 121participants as part of the following courses provided by Staff Development Unit:

Frontline Managers

Advanced Deciding Officers

[418]Local Office Managers

Control Awareness is also a feature of Staff Development Unit’s Induction and Customer Service Training Programmes for new staff.

In addition to the Staff Development Unit training programme Control Division also provided control training to 119 staff in Local Offices and Headquarters during 2008. To date in 2009 over 140 staff have been trained in control awareness and reporting.

In relation to pursuing perpetrators of social welfare fraud it is the Department’s policy to consider for prosecution all cases of fraud against the social welfare system. Factors taken into account in deciding whether a prosecution should be taken include the monetary value, the duration of the fraud and the deterrent factor. Criminal prosecutions are taken in the main by summary proceedings in the District Courts.

Up to the end of September 2009, 201 cases were forwarded by my Department to the Chief State Solicitors Office to initiate legal proceedings. 273 cases were finalised in court and 872 were in the court system at various stages of the prosecution process.

The control programme of the Department is carefully monitored and the various measures are continuously refined to ensure that they remain effective.

  74.  Deputy Joe McHugh    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the number of farmers who may qualify for farm assist payments following the closure of the REP scheme four; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40643/09]

  115.  Deputy Shane McEntee    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the discussions that have taken place between her and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food following the closure of the REP scheme four; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40642/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 74 and 115 together.

The Rural Environment Protection Scheme, REPS 4, was closed to new entrants in July of this year. However, under the Rural Development Programme, a new agri-environment measure will be introduced and individuals who have been affected by the closure of REPS 4 can apply for this new scheme. On this basis, estimation of the number of farmers who may apply to social welfare schemes as a result of the REPS 4 closure is not possible at this time.

Officials from the Department of Social and Family Affairs are in ongoing contact with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in relation to these developments.

In addition, the programme for government contains a commitment to continue to support low-income farmers through the Farm Assist Scheme and adapt it in consultation with the relevant farming organisations. It would be prudent to examine the effects of the new arrangements prior to consideration of any substantive changes to the Farm Assist Scheme. In due course, consideration of any changes to the scheme would take place in a budgetary context.

  75.  Deputy James Reilly    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she is satisfied with the capacity of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service to negotiate on a person’s behalf [419]with financial institutions and sub-prime lenders with regard to mortgage arrears; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40656/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The money advisers throughout the country focus on providing assistance, advice and intense support to people who have financial difficulties. The money adviser works out a budget, negotiates on behalf of the client with all creditors, including financial institutions and sub-prime lenders, to secure better terms for the client in managing the repayment of their debts. Where required by the client, the money adviser can assist with setting up a special account with their local Credit Union into which an agreed amount of money is lodged regularly and from which each month the money adviser makes the repayments to the creditors on behalf of the client.

Focused training programmes designed to equip money advice staff and local management boards to meet the demands on the services are provided by MABS NDL, the national support company. In addition, MABS NDL has introduced a number of community education and other initiatives to assist the local services in managing their increased caseloads.

These include a money management education programme for people facing redundancy to inform them about managing on a reduced income and how to avoid getting into debt.

Under the statutory code of conduct on mortgage arrears published by the Financial Regulator, all financial institutions including the banks and sub-prime mortgage lenders must, where circumstances warrant it, refer a borrower in difficulty for guidance to a local MABS office or to an appropriate alternative.

A new operational protocol ‘Working Together to Manage Debt’ is now in place and is the result of almost 2 years work by MABS NDL and the Irish Banking Federation (IBF), the main representative body for the banking and financial services sector. The protocol sets out an agreed process by which IBF members and the MABS money advisers will approach debt problems experienced by clients. The protocol includes a commitment that no legal action will be taken as long as there is compliance by the client with an agreed repayment plan.

I am confident that the MABS is well equipped to provide a high quality personal service to assist people in overcoming their indebtedness and managing their finances.

  76.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she will review the efficacy of rent allowance and mortgage support with particular reference to the need for early and positive intervention when families have been affected by income reductions, unemployment or illness; if she will ensure that adequate staff are redeployed as required within the sector with a view to eliminating delays and waiting lists; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40701/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The supplementary welfare allowance scheme provides for a weekly or monthly supplement to be paid in respect of rent or mortgage interest to any person in the State whose means are insufficient to meet their needs. The supplementary welfare allowance scheme is administered by the community welfare service of the Health Service Executive on behalf of the Department.

The purpose of the rent supplement scheme is to provide short-term support, to eligible people living in private rented accommodation whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have accommodation available to them from any other source. There are over 91,500 people in receipt of rent supplement of which almost 33,000 are [420]getting a supplement for 18 months or more. The number of rent supplement recipients has increased by 24% since the end of December 2008.

Similarly, mortgage interest supplement provides short-term income support to eligible people who are unable to meet their mortgage interest repayments in respect of a house which is their sole place of residence. The supplement assists with the interest portion of the mortgage repayments only. There are currently just over 14,500 people in receipt of mortgage interest supplement, a 79% increase on the numbers receiving the supplement at the end of December 2008.

Significant improvements have been made to the means test for rent and mortgage interest supplement in recent years. The assessment of means now provides for a gradual withdrawal of payment as hours of employment or earnings increase. Those availing of part-time employment and/or training opportunities can continue to receive rent or mortgage interest supplement subject to their satisfying the standard means assessment rules while those accepted as eligible for accommodation under Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS) may to return to full-time work, also subject to a means test, without losing the entire rent supplement payment. These measures are positive steps in assisting tenants to meet their housing needs while also increasing the financial return for those returning to work or moving to full-time employment.

In recent years, a significant number of people have come to rely on the rent supplement scheme for extended periods. The scheme was not designed to meet long-term ongoing housing needs. The Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS), operated by local authorities, provides access to a range of long-term good quality housing supports for those availing of the scheme. Details of people in receipt of rent supplement for 18 months or more are notified to the local authorities for inclusion in the scheme.

Over 12,260 tenants have been transferred from the rent supplement scheme to RAS since 2005 and an additional 10,630 were provided with social housing following their assessment for RAS.

A review of the administration of the mortgage interest scheme is progressing. The main purpose of the review is to examine how the scheme can best meet its objective of catering for those who require assistance on a short-term basis, where they are unable to meet mortgage interest repayments on their sole place of residence. The full review should be completed in early 2010.

Overall, I am satisfied that the current rent and mortgage interest supplement scheme provides an adequate short-term “safety net” within the overall social welfare system to ensure that people do not suffer hardship due to loss of employment or illness. Nonetheless, I intend to keep the schemes under review to ensure that they meet the objective of catering for those who require assistance on a short-term basis while long-term housing needs are dealt with in a more appropriate manner.

The issue of increased demand that may arise on existing resources is a matter for the HSE in the first instance to prioritise workloads and re-deploy resources where necessary so that frontline services are maintained. The question of any increase in expenditure for staffing within the community welfare service above that currently provided would have to be considered in the context of overall Government policy on public service manpower levels.

  77.  Deputy Dan Neville    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the regularity with which review forms for child benefit payment are issued; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40647/09]

[421]Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The Child Benefit scheme has, in recent years, experienced significant expansion in the volume of claims received, the rates of payment and the diversity of the customer base. The annual cost in 2008 was some €2.46 billion and the payment is now made for children of some 190 nationalities living in Ireland.

Against this background, the control policy for the child benefit scheme has been reviewed to ensure that controls against fraud and abuse of the scheme continue to be effective and relevant. As a result of the review, enhanced and updated control measures have been devised. These include the issue, on a quarterly basis, of certificates to sub-sets of customers for completion and return to the Department to confirm that they continue to satisfy the conditions for receipt of Child Benefit.

In the case of non-Irish national recipients who are resident in Ireland with their children, certification is requested that the children continue to reside here — the proof of such residence can be provided via details of the school or college their child attends or, if the child is not of school-going age, details of the doctor or crèche they attend. This information is used to verify that the children are resident in Ireland, and for no other purpose.

In the case of EU nationals who are working in Ireland but who have qualified children living in another EU state, certification by their employer of continuing employment is requested. Again, this information is not used for any other purpose.

In 2008 some 80,000 certificates issued to non-Irish customers who qualify on the basis of employment or residency. In the course of this exercise, it transpired that some 24,000 had changed residence of which 8,000 had left the country and did not therefore have entitlement to benefit. Certificates are now issued on a quarterly basis to all customers who qualify for child benefit on the basis of employment or residency. Some 315,000 certificates will have issued in 2009.

The issue of certificates to Irish national customers is being assessed in the light of some recent mailshots. A mailshot was issued to 80,000 mainly Irish-national customers, concerning the Early Childcare Supplement scheme. Some 1,000 were returned undelivered and the claims were suspended. The number remaining suspended is 290 and investigation of these claims is continuing. A mailshot was also issued to 1,500 Irish customers who had not cashed their child benefit payment within the six month period allowed. Replies are awaited in 30 of these cases. Both these mailshot projects will conclude in November — when the outcome will inform the nature of further initiatives.

The issue of certification forms is monitored on an ongoing basis in the Department.

  78.  Deputy Joe McHugh    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her views on the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report that stricter controls and more accountability are needed to eliminate high levels of fraud and errors in the welfare system; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40644/09]

  80.  Deputy Bernard Allen    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the control measures she will introduce to assist in reducing fraud; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40596/09]

  89.  Deputy Michael D’Arcy    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the savings made by her Department as a result of fraud detection; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40617/09]

[422]

  102.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she is satisfied that she will reach the savings target she has set for 2009 by the end of the year; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40652/09]

  105.  Deputy Pádraic McCormack    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the position regarding fraud control measures put in place by her Department; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40639/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 78, 80, 89, 102 and 105 together.

The prevention of fraud and abuse of the social welfare system is an integral part of the day-to-day work of the Department. A key objective of the Department’s control strategy is to ensure that the right person is paid the right amount of money at the right time.

The Department processes in excess of 2 million claims each year and it makes payments to over one million people every week. The vast majority of people are receiving the entitlement due to them.

Where overpayments occur the Department seeks to recover the overpayments and in cases of serious fraud, the Department will use all legal avenues open to it to recover the money defrauded and seek redress.

A four-pronged control strategy has been adopted by the Department, namely prevention of fraud and error at the initial claim stage, early detection through effective review of claims in payment, measures to deter fraud and the pursuit and recovery of overpayments.

Key elements of the Department’s control strategy include systematic risk analysis, surveys of the levels of fraud and error within schemes, scheme specific review policies, data matching initiatives with both external and internal parties and investigation of anonymous reports. These control tools ensure that review activity is targeted in the most effective manner and ensure that where overpayments arise they are detected as early as possible.

Over 620 staff at local, regional and national level are engaged on a full or part-time basis on work related to the control of fraud and abuse of the social welfare system. About half of these work full time on control work, while the other half are responsible for routine investigations under the various schemes and for following up suspected cases of fraud where these are discovered.

The rapidly changing economic environment with large increases in the levels of unemployed poses challenges for the prevention and effective management of fraud and control.

The Department’s response to these challenges has been to introduce new measures to target control activity at high risk categories of claimants.

For example:

Control activity is being focused on the prevention of fraud and error at claim application stage.

The Special Investigation Unit is undertaking more regular interviews of jobseeker recipients, particularly those with high risk ratings.

As a preventative measure the option to receive payments by Electronic Fund Transfer (EFT) was removed for new claimants for jobseeker payments. They must attend in person at the post office each week thus confirming their continued residency in the country. Their claim is automatically suspended where two consecutive payments are not collected.

[423]Border regions have put an increased emphasis on controls on claims from applicants with a previous address in Northern Ireland.

One Parent Family Payment recipients with earnings are targeted for on-going review.

The frequency of issue of mail shots to validate continued entitlement to Child Benefit has been increased to 3 monthly intervals for EU worker customers and resident non-Irish national customers.

The number of anonymous reports from members of the public has increased dramatically in the past year, with over 4,600 reports made at end September 2009 compared to approximately 1000 reports made in 2008. Each report is followed-up.

The Department is moving to a risk-based system which will achieve better value for money by focusing scarce resources on the most appropriate cases. For example for Disability Allowance, a new control review policy for the scheme was introduced in January 2009 which involves assigning and recording a risk rating at the award and review stage of all claims in the medical and means categories. A similar risk based control review policy is being piloted for Carer’s Allowance with the same approach planned for Invalidity Pension.

New data matches have been initiated to effectively target reviews and generate savings. In 2009 data was received from The Personal Injuries Assessment Board, The Commission for Taxi Regulation, The Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal and Local Authorities. In addition agreement has recently been reached with The Revenue Commissioners for data on capital assets.

In relation to savings, at the end of September 2009, the Department recorded control savings of nearly €355m, which is 78% of the year to date target of €453m. The annual control target for 2009 is €616.5m. It is difficult to project what the control savings for 2009 will be at this point but it is unlikely that the Department will reach the control savings target of €616.5m.

It must be noted that control activity is currently being focused on prevention of fraud and error at claim application stage. Savings made from the detection of bogus claims at application stage cannot be estimated as the claim will not go into payment. However, this is the most cost effective mechanism of reducing losses through fraud and error in social welfare schemes.

The significant increase in the live register has impacted on the Department’s capacity to review claims. The increase has put pressure on staffing resources and particularly on social welfare inspectors who are responsible both for carrying out means-tests on initial applicants and conducting anti-fraud inspections. Additional staff have been assigned to front line work, including an increased number of inspectors.

This Department works closely with Department of Social Development in Northern Ireland and The Department of Work and Pensions in the United Kingdom. Cases are checked to ensure that claims are not in payment in the Republic of Ireland while also claiming in another jurisdiction.

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report made observations regarding stricter controls and more accountability. Since the introduction of the 2003 Strategy, Control Division has taken a strategic approach to the development of control policy. It has pro-actively supported managers to manage their responsibilities with regard to the control of schemes. Resources available for control activity have focused more effectively on those schemes and parts of schemes that pose the highest risk of fraud and abuse.

[424]As part of the implementation of the Strategy, a number of new policy initiatives were implemented specifically the fraud and error survey programme and fraud risk assessment of schemes. These initiatives have facilitated a more focused and targeted approach to control activity. A key strength in the successful implementation of these policies has been the integrated nature of the control function within the Department. This is in contrast with other jurisdictions where there is a disconnect between scheme administration and scheme control and managers responsible only for scheme administration feel that they have no function in relation to scheme control.

The Department is committed to ensuring that social welfare payments are available to those who are entitled to them. In this regard the control programme of my Department is carefully monitored and the various measures are continuously refined to ensure that they remain effective.

  79.  Deputy Charles Flanagan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her plans to review the habitual residency condition rules in view of the recent decisions of the appeals office concerning cases by asylum seekers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40626/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The requirement to be habitually resident in Ireland was introduced as a qualifying condition for certain social assistance schemes and child benefit with effect from 1st May 2004, in the context of the Government’s decision to open the Irish labour market to workers from the new EU Member States.

The purpose of the habitual residence condition is to safeguard the social welfare system from abuse by restricting access for people who are not economically active and who have little or no established connection with Ireland.

A person who does not satisfy the habitual residence condition is not eligible for specified social welfare payments, regardless of citizenship, nationality, immigration status or any other factor. The social welfare schemes concerned are Jobseeker’s Allowance, One Parent Family Payment, Disability Allowance, Carer’s Allowance, Widow/er’s (Non Contributory) Pension, Guardian’s Payment (Non Contributory), State Pension (Non Contributory), Blind Pension, Supplementary Welfare Allowance (except urgent or exceptional needs payments) and Child Benefit.

The five factors considered in determining habitual residence are: length and continuity of residence; length and purpose of any absence from the State; the nature and pattern of the person’s employment; future intentions; and centre of interest (e.g. family, home, connections). These factors, which were originally set out in European Court of Justice case law, were included in social welfare legislation by the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2007.

The Department’s guidelines regarding the application of the habitual residence condition to asylum seekers reflect a Supreme Court judgment which states that “persons who are allowed to enter the State for the purpose of making an application for asylum fall into a particular category and never enjoy the status of residents”.

The Department is aware of the decisions of the Chief Appeals Officer in a very small number of specific cases involving asylum seekers. Each decision of the Chief Appeals Officer is made in relation to the circumstances of the particular case and the decisions in cases related to certain asylum seekers do not automatically apply to all such cases.

[425]Since these decisions were made, there have been other cases where the Appeals Officer has upheld the decision to refuse a payment to an asylum seeker on the grounds of the habitual residence condition.

The Appeals Officer’s decisions to award payment in a small number of cases are being examined within the Department to establish what, if any, implications they have for the operation of the Habitual Residence Condition. A final decision has not yet been taken as to the appropriate response.

Question No. 80 answered with Question No. 78.

  81.  Deputy Brian O’Shea    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if her attention has been drawn to the limitations of the back to education allowance scheme in respect of unemployed graduates; and if she will reform this scheme to allow graduates to participate in the scheme. [40717/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The objective of the back to education allowance scheme is to equip people on social welfare payments with qualifications that will enable them to obtain employment in the labour market. The scheme covers full-time courses of education from second level to Higher Diploma (H.Dip) level in any discipline or a Graduate Diploma in Education (Primary and Secondary Teaching).

The focus of the back to education allowance is on providing assistance to the highest possible number of those in greatest need in terms of meeting the requirements of the labour market. The scheme is designed to encourage progression in terms of the level of qualifications pursued. Possession of qualifications such as Postgraduate Diplomas, Professional Diplomas and MA courses or post-graduate courses at level 9 or above on the National Framework of Qualifications is not regarded as a prerequisite to re-entering the workforce and, therefore, these courses are not covered by the terms of the scheme.

The Government has devoted significant resources to the back to education allowance. This year, €87.8 million is available under the scheme. The number of participants in the current academic year shows a substantial increase on last year.

The part-time education option under the back to education programme enables unemployed people to attend part-time day/evening courses of education, including post graduate courses, and retain their jobseekers payment provided that they continue to satisfy the conditions of being available for and genuinely seeking employment on an on-going basis. If a person wishes to retain their jobseekers payment while doing a part-time course, they should contact their local social welfare office.

The back to education allowance scheme will continue to be monitored in the light of the changed economic circumstance in order to ensure that it continues to meet its objectives.

  82.  Deputy P. J. Sheehan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the steps she will take to facilitate women, forced out of employment due to the marriage rule, to avail of contributory pensions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40662/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The Government is anxious to ensure that as many people as possible can be accommodated within the social welfare pensions system. A state pension (contributory) is available to those who have contributed to the social insurance system while a means-tested state pension (non-contributory) is available [426]to those who have an income need. Over the last 10 years, means tests have been improved and qualifying conditions for contributory payments made easier.

Many women in both the private and the public sectors left employment upon marriage because they were required to or because that was the societal norm at the time.

Public servants who left the workforce through the operation of the marriage bar were not insured for social welfare pension purposes and, therefore, did not contribute to the social insurance system. Accordingly, the loss of pension rights in their case relates more to their occupational position rather than social welfare pension entitlements.

The Government is currently considering the overall pensions system in Ireland and will make final decisions in the context of the long-term framework on pensions which I expect will be published before the end of the year.

  83.  Deputy Michael Creed    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the steps she is taking to facilitate the transfer from rent supplement to the rental accommodation scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40614/09]

  97.  Deputy Shane McEntee    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the number of persons claiming rent supplement for more than 18 months; her views on the slow transfer of persons from rent supplement onto the rental accommodation scheme; the efforts she has taken to address this problem; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40641/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 83 and 97 together.

There are currently over 91,600 tenants benefiting from a rent supplement payment — an increase of 24% since the end of 2008. Over 33,000 of recipients have been receiving payment of rent supplement for 18 months or more.

The Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS), which was introduced in 2004, gives local authorities specific responsibility for meeting the longer term housing needs of people receiving rent supplement for 18 months or more. Details of these cases are notified regularly by the Department to the local authorities. Local authorities meet the housing needs of these individuals through a range of approaches including the traditional range of social housing options, the voluntary housing sector and, in particular, RAS.

Latest figures from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (DoEHLG) indicate that to date, local authorities have transferred 12,260 rent supplement cases to RAS units. Housing authorities have also transferred a further 10,630 recipients to other social housing options, a total of almost 22,900 transfers between the end of 2005 and the end of September 2009. Almost 7,000 recipients were transferred in 2008.

While progress in relation to RAS was initially slower than expected, the pace of delivery has improved significantly, and in 2009 a target has been set of transferring an additional 7,000 households from rent supplement of which almost 5,000 transfers have been achieved.

In addition to this official target, due to the numbers of unsold affordable stock around the country, an opportunity has been created to make use of some of these properties for RAS and it is expected that there may be an opportunity to achieve further transfers.

The changes made in Budget 2009 to better align the minimum weekly contribution required from tenants under the rent supplement scheme with that under the RAS should also encourage more people to take up RAS offers.

[427]The Department continues to work closely with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in ensuring that RAS meets its objective of catering for those on long term rent supplementation while enabling rent supplement to return to its original role of a short-term income support.

  84.  Deputy Seán Sherlock    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if her attention has been drawn to the expected effect the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes Report proposals on social welfare basic rates and the half rate carer’s allowance would have on the overall income of carers; her views on same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40727/09]

  86.  Deputy Lucinda Creighton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if disability allowance will be protected in budget 2010; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40536/09]

  101.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she has completed her deliberations on the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programme; and if she will outline her conclusions. [40729/09]

  103.  Deputy George Lee    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her views on the recommendations in respect of her Department contained in the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes Report; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40638/09]

  108.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she will give an assurance that those in receipt of social welfare payments are not selectively or specifically targeted for punitive reductions in the course of budget 2010; if she will ensure due regard is had for the difficulties faced by those with special needs, the elderly and families and that a provision be made that a specific clause is introduced to prevent hardship on the vulnerable; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40700/09]

  221.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the steps she proposes to take to ensure that families are not negatively affected by cutbacks contemplated within her Department arising from the current economic climate; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41030/09]

  226.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she will ensure that budgetary cuts expected to be applied by her Department do not impact on the vulnerable in society; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41035/09]

  227.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if her attention has been drawn to the full impact of the economic downturn on vulnerable sectors of the population particularly with the approach of winter; the steps she has taken or proposes to take to address these issues in the short to medium term; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41036/09]

  228.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the action she proposes to take to protect the most vulnerable in society during the winter months in view of the continued economic climate; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41037/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I propose toanswer Questions Nos. 84, 86, 101, 103, 108, 221 and 226 to 228, inclusive, together.

[428]In its consideration of the forthcoming Budget and Estimates, the Government will take account of a wide range of factors including the prevailing economic situation, the need to reduce public expenditure, the recommendations of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes and the impact of such proposals on individuals and vulnerable groups in society. It would not be appropriate for me to comment further at this stage pending the outcome of these deliberative processes.

However, the Government is very conscious of the need to take account of the cumulative impact of measures on individuals and groups when finalising the Budget package.

In this regard, I have requested the newly-formed Social Inclusion Division of my Department to prepare an analysis of the impact of the social welfare and other measures proposed in the Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure on families. The analysis is nearing completion and will contribute to the Government’s deliberations in the Budgetary process.

  85.  Deputy Fergus O’Dowd    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her plans to means test child benefit; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40650/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  As the Deputy will be aware, the rates of child benefit have increased significantly since 2001 having trebled for the first two children and increased by over 185% for the third and subsequent children.

Partly as a result of this and partly as a result of an increase in the number of eligible children, overall expenditure on child benefit grew from just under €965 million in 2001 to nearly €2.5 billion in 2008. This level of expenditure is unsustainable in the current economic crisis and so the Minister for Finance, mindful of the need to address all aspects of the public finances so as to avoid excessive borrowing and to ensure that fairness exists in the allocation of resources, indicated in the Supplementary Budget the intention to tax or means test child benefit from 2010.

The Commission of Taxation was requested to examine the implications of taxing child benefit. The Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes was appointed with a mandate to examine all current Exchequer Programmes across all Departments and agencies to see where savings might be made. Both their reports contain a wide range of proposals relating to my Department’s schemes and services, including the child benefit scheme and decisions in relation to these will be made in the context of the forthcoming budget and subsequent budgets. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on individual proposals at this stage.

Question No. 86 answered with Question No. 84.

  87.  Deputy Pádraic McCormack    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she is satisfied with the average time to process social welfare appeals; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40640/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I am informed by the Social Welfare Appeals Office that during 2008 the average time taken to process all appeals (i.e. those decided summarily and by way of oral hearing) was 22 weeks. However, if allowance was made for the 25% most protracted cases, the average time fell to just over 14 weeks. These [429]processing times replicate those for 2007 notwithstanding the fact that there was an increase of 27% in the number of appeals received during 2008.

However, I am advised by the Chief Appeals Officer that there has been a further increase of 41% in the number of appeals received so far this year and, as a consequence the processing times may be further increased this year.

I am advised that the Chief Appeals Officer is keeping current processes under continuous review with a view to achieving a more effective throughput of appeals having regard to due process in terms of the rights of appellants and adherence to the requirements of natural justice.

Improving processing times remains a major objective of the Social Welfare Appeals Office, however it is necessary at all times, given the quasi-judicial nature of the appeals process, to ensure that progress in this regard is achieved in a manner which is not in conflict with the demands of justice and the requirement that every appeal be fully investigated and examined on all its merits.

  88.  Deputy Tom Sheahan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her plans for carers following the decision not to publish the National Carer’s Strategy; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40661/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The Government is acutely aware and appreciative of the contribution made by carers and has made considerable improvements in services and supports for them in recent years.

The carer’s allowance scheme has been significantly improved in recent years and, in budget 2009, I continued this process. The rate of carer’s allowance for those aged 66 or over by €7 to €239 per week and for those aged under 66 by €6.50 to €220.50 per week. These increases took effect from January 2009. Recipients of carer’s allowance are also eligible for household benefits and free travel and the respite care grant.

Since 1997, weekly payment rates to carers have greatly increased, qualifying conditions for carer’s allowance have significantly eased, coverage of the scheme has been extended and new schemes such as carer’s benefit, half-rate carer’s allowance and the respite care grant have been introduced and extended.

The means test for carer’s allowance has been significantly eased over the years, and is now one of the most generous means tests in the social welfare system, most notably with regard to spouse’s earnings. Since April 2008, the income disregard has been 332.50 per week for a single person and €665 per week for a couple. This means that a couple with two children can earn in the region of €37,200 and qualify for the maximum rate of Carer’s Allowance as well as the associated free travel and household benefits. A couple with an income in the region of €60,400 can still qualify for a minimum payment, as well as the associated free travel, household benefits package. These levels surpass the Towards 2016 commitment to ensure those on average industrial earnings continue to qualify for a full carer’s allowance.

From June 2005, the annual respite care grant was extended to all carers who are providing full time care to a person who needs such care, regardless of their income. The rate of the respite care grant has also been increased to €1,700 per year in respect of each care recipient since June 2008.

It is estimated that the combined expenditure on carer’s allowance, carer’s benefit, the respite care grant and half-rate carer’s allowance will be €650 million in 2009.

[430]During 2008 an interdepartmental group, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach, with secretariat support provided by my Department, undertook work, including a public consultation process to develop a National Carers’ Strategy. However, because of the prevailing economic situation, it was not possible to set targets or time lines which could be achieved. In that context, rather than publishing a document which did not include any significant plans for the future, the Government decided not to publish a strategy. This position remains unchanged.

Question No. 89 answered with Question No. 78.

Question No. 90 answered with Question No. 69.

  91.  Deputy Joe Carey    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her plans to review the mortgage interest supplement scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40607/09]

  116.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    when she plans to reform mortgage interest supplement. [40705/09]

  211.  Deputy Denis Naughten    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her plans to review the mortgage interest supplement scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40840/09]

  213.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the way and when she will reform mortgage interest supplement. [41000/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 91, 116, 211 and 213 together.

The mortgage interest supplement scheme provides support for people who have difficulty meeting their mortgage repayments and whose means are insufficient to meet their needs. The scheme provides a short-term income “safety net” within the overall social welfare system to ensure that people do not suffer hardship due to loss of employment.

A supplement in respect of mortgage interest only may be paid to eligible people who are unable to meet their mortgage interest repayments in respect of a house which is their sole place of residence.

There are currently just over 14,500 people in receipt of mortgage interest supplement, an increase of 79% (6,420) over the number in payment at end 2008.

The assessment for the mortgage interest supplement scheme provides for a gradual withdrawal of payment as hours of employment or earnings increase. Those availing of part-time employment and/or training opportunities can continue to receive mortgage interest supplement subject to their satisfying the standard means assessment rules.

The review of the administration of the mortgage interest scheme is progressing. The main purpose of the review is to examine how the scheme can best meet its objective of catering for those who require assistance on a short-term basis, where they are unable to meet mortgage interest repayments on their sole place of residence.

The review group includes representatives from the department, the Community Welfare Service, the Departments of Finance, Environment, Heritage and Local Government together with a representative from the Office of the Financial Regulator. The group is examining trends in programme and administrative costs, the impact of the Financial Regulator’s statutory Code of Practice on Mortgage Arrears on the mortgage interest supplement scheme and legislative [431]and operational issues arising, including the cap on hours of employment. The review is also considering whether alternative approaches to achieving the scheme’s objectives are warranted in the light of recent changes in the economic climate and the mortgage market. The full review should be completed in early 2010.

  92.  Deputy Mary Upton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the action she is taking to deal with the problem of absenteeism in her Department. [40735/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  In 2008, the Department had just over one million working days potentially available to it. A total of 68,102 days were lost because of sick leave, equivalent to 6.61% of the total. This was an improvement on 2007, when 7.15% of working days were lost due to sick leave.

Almost one third of total working days lost because of sick leave in 2008 were due to one of four categories of illness, each accounting for between 7% and 9% of all working days lost due to sick leave. The four categories are stress, respiratory illness, pregnancy related illness and surgery/post operative debility.

Over 91% of working days lost due to sick leave in 2008 were in respect of absences covered by medical certificates. One quarter of the days lost were due to absences of six months or longer, at which point employees would have been placed on reduced rates of pay.

The total number of days lost due to uncertified sick leave in 2008 was less than 6,000 which is less than 0.6% of the total working days potentially available to the Department last year.

The Department has had an Attendance Management Policy in place since 2005. The Policy is intended to raise awareness of the effects of absences on the work of the Department and its impact on colleagues, often called upon to carry the extra work. It is also intended to provide a management structure to manage absences with a view to bringing about improvement where it is possible to do so, and foster an “Attendance Culture”. A review of the Policy was completed earlier this year and has just been re-issued to all staff.

Measures taken include return to work interviews, early referral to the Chief Medical Officer, a Health Promotion Policy, including the organisation of health screening on a voluntary basis for staff, and supports for staff who are returning to work after a long term illness. The Department also works closely with the Chief Medical Officer who plays a crucial role in advising the department on employee’s fitness for work from a medical perspective. Good attendance is also a requirement for the payment of increments, transfers and promotions.

The Attendance Management policy also confirms the links between attendance, performance, and disciplinary measures. Repeated poor attendance, and or abuse of sick leave procedures will result in warnings, appropriate sanctions, such as disqualification from competitions and transfers, withdrawal of sick leave privilege and ultimately dismissal, if warranted.

The Department’s Absence Management Policy provides for the active management of absenteeism by, among other measures, highlighting the importance to the Department and its services of having the best possible rate of attendance by its employees and clearly setting out the duties and responsibilities of all staff and managers in this area.

  93.  Deputy James Bannon    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the steps she is taking to increase the uptake of family income supplement; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40600/09]

[432]

  212.  Deputy Denis Naughten    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the steps she is taking to increase the uptake of family income supplement; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40841/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I propose to take Questions Nos: 93 and 212 together.

The Family Income Supplement is designed to provide support for people with families who are on low earnings. This preserves the incentive for them to remain in employment in circumstances where they might only be marginally better off than if they were claiming other social welfare payments. FIS is a central element of a programme of reforms targeted specifically at addressing child poverty. The Department has consistently publicised the FIS scheme in order to maximise uptake by qualified families. Significant improvements in the qualifying income limits and ongoing awareness campaigns have resulted in a strong upward trend in the level of new and renewal claims.

There are currently some 25,065 people in receipt of a weekly FIS payment. In 2008 the Department received 42,940 new and renewal FIS claims compared to 36,900 in 2007 and 33,000 in 2006 — an increase of over 14% on 2007 and 23% on 2006. In the first 10 months of 2009 over 40,459 new and renewal claims were received compared to some 37,804 in the same period in 2008 — an increase of over 7%.

The Department currently undertakes a number of measures to ensure that people are aware of possible entitlement to Family Income (FIS). These include the publication of information on FIS on the Department’s website, making information available through the Citizen’s Information Service and through the Department’s network of Local Offices.

To help establish the best ways of promoting FIS going forward, the department commissioned a research project in 2008 to examine factors behind the level of take up for the scheme. The research found that overall awareness of Family Income Supplement among potential recipients is high with nearly three in four claiming to have heard of the scheme. Despite high levels of awareness, there was a lack of awareness and understanding of the eligibility requirements with only one in three claiming to be aware of the qualifying criteria for FIS.

The report recommends that the Department needs to ensure that information about the scheme is advertised in a focused way with the eligibility and qualification criteria communicated as clearly as possible. The Department is addressing this by ensuring such information is highlighted as part of it’s ongoing publicity and advertisement campaigns.

  94.  Deputy Ruairí Quinn    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her plans to review the impact of recent rent supplement changes on recipients before further changes are made to the levels of rent allowed or minimum contributions from recipients. [40723/09]

  100.  Deputy Lucinda Creighton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the amount of rent allowance awarded in each of the past three years; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40535/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 94 and 100 together.

Rent supplement is intended as short-term support for eligible tenants whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs. There are currently over 91,600 people in receipt of rent supplement, an increase of 24% since the end of December 2008. The number [433]of rent supplement recipients, the number of rent supplement claims awarded and expenditure on the scheme for the past three years in shown in the following tabular statement.

Rent supplements are subject to a limit on the amount of rent that an applicant may incur. The objective is to ensure that rent supplement is not paid in respect of overly expensive accommodation having regard to the size of the household and market conditions. Maximum rent limits are prescribed in regulations and are time limited so that they can be adjusted in the light of rent levels generally.

Rent limits were reviewed earlier this year. In testing the level at which basic accommodation can be secured, the Department was informed by analysis of a number of data sources including data published by the CSO on trends in the private rental market. Rent limits and payments to existing rent supplement recipients were reduced to reflect the downward trends in the private rental market. According to the CSO private rent index, rents have fallen by almost 3% since maximum rent limits were last set in June 2009.

One of the reported impediments to the fluid transfer of rent supplement claimants to the Rental Accommodation Scheme is what can be a 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 differential rent scheme. The increase in the weekly minimum contribution from €18 to €24 that individuals make towards their rent under the rent supplement scheme now aligns more closely the rent that local authority tenants have to pay.

The fact that there are over 91,600 people receiving rent supplement indicates that the scheme is effective in meeting the needs of those who require support towards the cost of private rented accommodation.

The operation of the rent supplement scheme is monitored on an ongoing basis and rent limits are reviewed in the light of trends in the private rental market. A review of rent limits would include an assessment of the impact of recent changes made to the rent supplement scheme and take account of the views of interested parties, including voluntary agencies working in the housing area. It is essential to ensure that state support for rent supplemented tenants, who form a substantial section of the rental market, does not give rise to inflated rental prices with particular negative impact on those tenants on lower incomes, including people in low paid employment.

The Department also continues to work closely with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to ensure that the rental accommodation scheme (RAS) meets its objective of catering for those on long term rent supplementation while enabling rent supplement to return to its original role of a short-term income support.

Rent Supplement Recipients and Expenditure from December 2006 to October 2009

Year No. of Recipients No. Claims Awarded Expenditure
€000
End Dec ‘06 59,861 n/a 388,339
End Dec ‘07 59,726 41,197** 391,466
End Dec ‘08 74,038 62,122** 439,739
End Oct ’09* 91,634 91,719** 382,000

  95.  Deputy Brian Hayes    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the discussions she has had in the past 12 months with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform or the gardaí on the sharing of information to combat social welfare fraud; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40630/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The Department of Social and Family Affairs has an extensive legal structure to support the sharing of data with other Government Departments and specified bodies such as An Garda Síochana for the purpose of combating social welfare fraud. Data matching is used as a method of identifying high risk social welfare claims for review.

The main example of on-going co-operation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is data matching with the Irish Prison Service who supply the Department with lists of prison inmates on a quarterly basis. The lists are cross-checked to identify “live” social welfare claims. In such cases, the claim is terminated where it is established that the claimant is the person who is in prison.

Where overpayments occur the Department seeks to recover the overpayments and in cases of serious fraud, the Department will use all legal avenues open to it to recover the money defrauded and seek redress.

A number of DSFA social welfare inspectors are seconded to the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) and the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB). The officers in CAB are actively engaged in identifying and targeting funds accumulated by criminals. They also investigate and review social welfare entitlements of persons who are suspected of deriving assets from criminal activity.

DSFA social welfare inspectors are seconded to the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) to assist in the pursuit of the respective statutory remits with a particular emphasis on welfare fraud and breaches of immigration legislation.

The Garda National Immigration Bureau was established in 2000 with responsibility for all Garda matters in relation to immigration on a national basis. The main capabilities and functions include: the registration in the State of all non-EEA nationals; facilitating the exchange of Immigration data with the UK thus enabling the identification of Immigration offenders from one jurisdiction attempting to enter the other jurisdiction; tracking the details of non-Irish nationals who are granted leave to land or conditioned on entry to the country, those persons refused leave to land, as well as details of all deportation orders that have been issued by the Minister for Justice, Equality & Law Reform.

Persons who are found, as a result of an examination by an immigration officer, to have abused the State’s immigration laws, work permit requirements or benefits system, and who have no permission to remain in the State, will not normally be admitted to the State. Others will be the subject of reports to the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service so that their permission to remain in the State may be reviewed.

There is close co-operation between DSFA and An Garda Síochana on the ground in relation to the multi-agency vehicle checkpoints and personation cases. The multi-agency checkpoints are set-up by the Gardaí and planned in consultation with other participating agencies. At the checkpoints, Gardaí stop vehicles and refer certain vehicles to individual agencies where the occupants are interviewed. Staff participating in these checkpoints from the Department are drawn from the Special Investigation Unit, whose main duty is the detection and prevention of fraud and abuse of the social welfare system.

[435]Cases of personation are referred by DSFA to the Gardaí for follow-up investigation and possible prosecution under the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001.

The DSFA Control Division also deals with individual enquiries from members of the force.

In 2009 DSFA was provided with on-line access to information on the probate index of issued grants. In accordance with legislation a person in receipt of a means tested social assistance payment is obliged to notify the DSFA in writing of any increase in their means within a period of three months of the means increase occurring. The Estate Case Recovery Unit in SWS Sligo raises and collects overpayments from the estates of deceased pensioners who failed to disclose means, which would have affected their entitlements. The Department will be able to identify cases, where information regarding means was not notified, through on-line access to the probate index. The personal representative of a deceased person, who had been in receipt of a social assistance payment, must seek clearance from the Department before they distribute the assets from the estate of the deceased.

In 2009, at the request of DSFA, the Private Security Agency under the Department of Justice and Law Reform, supplied data on security licences issued. Details were matched against the Department’s payment systems and resulted in 1,680 cases being referred for investigation.

  96.  Deputy Joanna Tuffy    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she is in a position to publish a White Paper on pensions. [40733/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  Since the publication of the Green Paper on Pensions in October 2007, the Government has taken several initiatives to respond to the immediate difficulties facing members of pensions schemes, particularly members of defined benefit schemes. We have moved quickly to assist pension scheme members through measures announced last December, and the amendments passed in the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2009, earlier this year. These measures include the establishment of a pensions insolvency payment scheme and a reordering of wind-up priorities so that, in any defined benefit wind-up situation, employees and former employees who have not yet retired may still receive a large proportion of their benefits. The Government has also introduced provisions to allow for more flexible restructuring of pension benefits and stronger regulation regarding remittance of pension contributions.

The Government is aware that the wider and longer-term pensions policy issues require a comprehensive and co-ordinated response. Since the end of the consultation process last year, we have been considering a number of options to address the challenges facing our pensions system and which were raised in the Green Paper process. It is the intention of the Government to deal with all of these issues.

Over the last year, the economic environment has changed considerably and we need to ensure that any decisions we make in the pensions area are robust enough to withstand new and unprecedented challenges.

It is entirely appropriate that the Government takes the time to arrive at sound decisions about the future of our pension system, given the potential of such decisions to significantly impact on this and future generations. Our objective is a system which will deliver an adequate retirement income for all which is, at the same time, affordable and sustainable for the State and for those who sponsor and provide pension schemes.

The Government will continue to discuss further reform options for inclusion in the national pensions framework which will be published in the near future.

[436]Question No. 97 answered with Question No. 83.

  98.  Deputy Billy Timmins    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her plans to review the free travel scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40665/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The current free travel scheme operated by the Department provides free travel on the main public and private transport services for those eligible under the scheme. These include road, rail and ferry services provided by companies such as Bus Átha Cliath, Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann, as well as Luas and services provided by over 80 private transport operators.

While the scheme is free for those who are eligible, all of the transport companies involved, including CIE, are paid for the service by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The estimated cost of the scheme in 2009 is €76.4 million.

All schemes are kept under review as part of the Estimates and budgetary process.

  99.  Deputy Martin Ferris    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her plans to withdraw the free television licence from old age pensioners. [40668/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The free television licence is a component of the household benefits package which also includes the electricity/gas allowance and telephone rental schemes. The package is generally available to people living in the State, aged 66 years or over who are in receipt of a social welfare payment or who satisfy a means test. It is also available to people aged under 66 who are in receipt of certain disability payments or carer’s allowances. Over 380,000 people are in receipt of a household benefits package from the Department.

All schemes are kept under review as part of the Estimates and budgetary process. It would not be appropriate for me to comment further on individual schemes in advance of the Budget.

Question No. 100 answered with Question No. 94.

Question No. 101 answered with Question No. 84.

Question No. 102 answered with Question No. 78.

Question No. 103 answered with Question No. 84.

  104.  Deputy Jack Wall    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the action she is taking to progress the introduction of a unified means test. [40736/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The Department administers a number of social assistance schemes to meet the income support needs of certain people. The associated means tests are designed to reflect the particular circumstances of these individuals and their families as well as the different life cycle stages. Over the years, various developments in means testing have led to the system becoming complex and difficult for the individual to comprehend. The Department would wish to move to a simpler more unified approach to means testing, especially for those of working age.

As a separate but related exercise, the Department is currently examining the feasibility of introducing a single social assistance payment for people of working age. The review will exam[437]ine the rules and conditions, including the means testing rules, that currently apply and the various supports available to people of working age with a view to ascertaining how these could be rationalised in the context of a single payment to meet the objective of supporting people back to work, education and/or training and other development opportunities, as appropriate. It is expected that the feasibility report will be finalised by end of 2009.

An inter-departmental working group was established in March 2009, on foot of a recommendation in the Task Force Report Transforming Public Services, to undertake a detailed study on the feasibility and value of introducing mechanisms to simplify the provision of means information to all public bodies. This working group is chaired by a senior official of this Department. While the group is not examining a proposal for a unified means test, its work will include consideration of all possibilities in relation to simplifying and achieving other efficiencies across all public bodies with regard to means testing arrangements. The work of the group is progressing well and the feasibility report is expected by the end of 2009.

Question No. 105 answered with Question No. 78.

  106.  Deputy John Deasy    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the reason for the delay in processing a contributory State pension application in respect of a person (details supplied) in County Waterford; the date this application was received in her Department; the average processing time for such applications; and when this application will be decided. [40738/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The person concerned first applied for State Pension (contributory) in June 2007. The claim was rejected in September 2007 as she had no paid PRSI contributions and therefore did not fulfill the conditions for receipt of State Pension (contributory).

In April 2008, she submitted an application to have a business partnership between her and her spouse recognised for the purpose of social insurance. A decision that a retrospective partnership had existed was made in June 2009. Following payment of the required PRSI contribution in August 2009 her social insurance record was updated for the period 6 April 1988, the date self employed contributions were first introduced to 5 August 2007, her 66th birthday.

An application for State Pension (Contributory) was again made by the person concerned in August 2009. The Department is currently examining this claim and a decision on her pension entitlement will be made as soon as possible

  107.  Deputy Enda Kenny    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the processing time for each individual social welfare office to deal with a claim for jobseeker’s benefit; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40635/09]

  114.  Deputy Phil Hogan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the average processing time for a claim in respect of jobseeker’s benefit; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40634/09]

  117.  Deputy Phil Hogan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the average processing time for a claim in respect of jobseeker’s allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40633/09]

[438]

  119.  Deputy Enda Kenny    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the processing time for each individual social welfare office to deal with a claim for jobseeker’s allowance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40636/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 107, 114, 117 and 119 together.

The average processing times for claims decided in October was 3.14 weeks for jobseekers benefit and 7.38 weeks for jobseekers allowance. This is the average nationally and there are fluctuations between offices. In October, 3 out of every 4 claims for Jobseekers Benefit were processed within 3 weeks and 2 out of every 3 claims for the means tested payment Jobseekers Allowance were processed within 6 weeks.

The length of time it takes to process claims varies depending on the complexity of the claim, the availability of the necessary documentation from the applicant and or his/her employer and in the case of jobseekers allowance, the need to carry out additional enquires including the assessment of means and whether the claimant satisfies the Habitual Residence Condition.

Processing times can also vary from office to office due to the extent of the increased claimload, the number of staff vacancies, the duration of such vacancies and the turnover of staff in the office which impacts on the overall level of experience in the office. From time to time the average processing time for an individual office can vary considerably. This can occur where an office concentrates on clearing the claims that have been waiting the longest.

I set out a tabular statement showing the average processing time for claims decided in October for each local and branch office. While every effort is made to ensure that applications are processed as quickly as possible, anyone who is under financial pressure while awaiting a decision on their claim for a jobseekers payment can apply for Supplementary Welfare Allowance which is subject to a means test and other qualifying conditions. It is open to any customer who is not satisfied with the decision on their claim to appeal that decision.

Over the past number of months the Department has introduced a range of process improvement initiatives to deal with the increased volume of claims which include: a more streamlined procedure for claimants moving to jobseekers allowance when their jobseekers benefit expires; a streamlined process for people who had a claim in the previous two years; application forms for the jobseeker schemes are now available on the Department’s website. (this means that anyone who wants to make a claim can print the form at home and bring it to the local office completed which helps reduce queuing times); more straight-forward procedures for providing evidence of identity and address have been introduced; the process for casual employees has been streamlined and the employee can now self certify on a weekly basis without recourse to the employer. A compensatory periodic control measure has been introduced for employers. One of the most significant initiatives introduced recently, aimed at reducing queuing times and waiting times, involves the customer attending the office by appointment at which time the claim is taken and decided. This system has already been introduced in 20 offices and the Department is finalising plans to extend it to other offices.

The signing arrangements have also been revised in a number of offices and customers have been given an appointed time to attend the office in order to reduce queuing times.

I fully appreciate that becoming unemployed and having to claim a jobseekers payment is stressful enough in itself. By introducing these initiatives I am trying to ensure that the process is as easy as it possibly can be. I know that processing times in some areas are still too long and I assure you that steps are being taken to bring them back to acceptable levels.

[439]Processing times by Office (in weeks) for claims processed in the month of October 2009.

Office JB JA
National — Average time to decide 3.14 7.38
Achill 0.18 0.59
Apollo House 1.07 3.06
Ardee 3.91 11.36
Arklow 1.07 3.01
Athlone 3.95 6.41
Athy 1.89 8.14
Balbriggan 2.78 6.86
Ballina 4.10 7.60
Ballinasloe 5.03 8.59
Ballinrobe 2.23 8.85
Ballybofey 1.12 2.78
Ballyconnell 3.03 7.41
Ballyfermot 1.47 5.13
Ballymun 2.09 3.16
Ballyshannon 1.09 2.04
Baltinglass 1.27 6.88
Bandon 5.88 9.69
Bantry 1.85 5.72
Bantry CO 1.80 8.60
Belmullet 1.13 1.86
Birr 2.61 5.23
Bishop Square 3.54 8.06
Blanchardstown 2.35 9.61
Boyle 3.13 10.58
Bray 3.16 9.04
Buncrana 3.78 7.50
Cahir 1.98 4.72
Cahirciveen 2.88 4.43
Carlow 1.41 6.90
Carrickmacross 0.94 8.13
Carrick-on-Shannon 1.39 3.57
Carrick-on-Suir 3.77 10.51
Carrigaline 1.67 7.67
Cashel 1.64 4.67
Castlebar 2.71 3.78
Castleblaney 1.27 4.48
Castlepollard 5.40 21.16
Castlerea 3.72 11.20
Cavan 3.46 7.84
Claremorris 2.86 12.10
Clifden 1.30 3.31
Clonakilty 9.42 14.77
Clondalkin 4.64 7.30
Clones 0.98 6.48
Clonmel 1.43 4.11
Cobh 0.82 1.95
Coolock 2.57 5.16
Cork 4.10 8.83
Dingle 1.27 4.46
Donegal CO 0.94 2.08
Drogheda 1.79 12.71
Dun Laoghaire 2.27 9.81
Dundalk 0.93 3.72
Dunfanaghy 1.00 1.96
Dungarvan 2.24 7.96
Dungloe 1.70 3.24
Edenderry 2.86 14.22
Ennis 2.25 4.49
Enniscorthy 2.27 8.95
Ennistymon 1.58 3.22
Fermoy 3.46 7.45
Finglas 1.83 5.79
Galway 9.68 14.61
Gorey 4.30 8.05
Gort 3.09 7.24
Kells 3.19 7.40
Kenmare 2.39 3.35
Kilbarrack 1.32 4.96
Kilkenny 0.75 11.20
Killarney 0.89 9.61
Killorglin 2.02 4.48
Killybegs 0.82 1.99
Kilmallock 2.17 3.43
Kilrush 2.15 3.88
King’s Inns Street 1.46 2.96
Kinsale 8.11 10.41
Letterkenny 1.54 3.35
Limerick 3.55 6.70
Listowel 6.56 7.15
Longford 4.00 12.82
Loughrea 2.75 9.66
Macroom 3.61 5.02
Mallow 3.77 5.34
Manorhamilton 1.73 1.37
Maynooth 4.89 9.17
Midleton 3.33 8.82
Monaghan 1.12 3.21
Muine Bheag 1.20 5.48
Mullingar 3.87 13.12
Navan 2.34 14.66
Navan Road 3.11 8.88
Nenagh 2.47 6.11
New Ross 3.90 9.77
Newbridge 1.84 7.94
Newcastle West 1.29 4.03
Newmarket 8.47 8.62
Nutgrove 1.22 1.64
Portarlington 1.38 10.18
Portlaoise 3.25 6.48
Rathdowney 1.71 7.49
Roscommon 1.41 7.04
Roscrea 1.75 4.12
Skibbereen 1.99 4.82
Sligo 1.37 6.24
Swinford 2.78 6.92
Swords 2.33 5.58
Tallaght 1.80 4.84
Thomas Street 1.46 4.81
Thomastown 5.62 11.20
Thurles 1.40 4.13
Tipperary 2.95 5.63
Tralee 2.10 4.02
Trim 2.02 8.81
Tuam 2.25 11.78
Tubbercurry 0.63 2.72
Tulla 2.15 4.46
Tullamore 1.16 7.98
Tullow 0.82 6.36
Waterford 3.91 7.71
Westport 2.14 2.38
Wexford 2.18 3.97
Wicklow 1.00 6.28
Youghal 1.32 4.18

Question No. 108 answered with Question No. 84.

  109.  Deputy Olivia Mitchell    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    when the measures to fast-track jobseekers’ applications will be rolled out nationally; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40645/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  Over the past year the Department has introduced a range of process improvement initiatives to deal with the increased volume of claims.

One of the most significant initiatives introduced aimed at reducing queuing times and waiting times, involves the customer attending the office by appointment at which time the claim is taken and decided.

Jobseekers at their first point of customer contact are directed to the Reception/ Appointments desks where they are triaged. In those cases where considered suitable for fast-tracking [442]— the customer is given an appointment. They are provided with the relevant applications forms and a list of the supporting documentation required to determine their eligibility to Jobseekers payments. Customers at this stage are encouraged to complete the application forms in advance of their appointment. Appointments are scheduled within 2 days of the customer first calling to the office.

The main benefits of this approach include: improved customer service; a more appropriate control and management of footfall within the office during peak and off peak periods; the elimination of queuing and waiting times for customers making claim applications; enhanced communication and information provision to customers on eligibility conditions and other entitlements; the reduction in repeat customer enquiries or transactions i.e. telephone calls, e-mails etc.

This system was first introduced in Dundalk and since last August has been introduced in a further 19 offices. The Department is currently finalising plans to extend the initiative to other offices.

The impact of this initiative is very encouraging, the processing times in Dundalk Local Office where the initiative was trialled and first introduced are now less than 1 week for JB and under 4 weeks for JA.

  110.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her views on families falling into the hands of money lenders as a result of the Christmas bonus cuts. [40671/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  Each year the Government makes a decision on the payment of the Christmas bonus having regard to the prevailing economic circumstances. This year it has been necessary for the Government to take steps to reduce overall public expenditure so as to restore order and stability to the public finances.

In this context, the decision was made that the Christmas bonus would not be paid in 2009. The decision was announced in the April 2009 Supplementary Budget to give people advance notice so that they could adjust their finances accordingly.

The money advice and budgeting service (MABS) is the main Government funded service which provides assistance to people who are over-indebted and need help and advice in coping with debt problems. The role of money advisors is to help clients to assess their financial situation, make a budget plan and deal with creditors. The MABS is now dealing with increasingly complex debt situations in respect of clients who are presenting with multiple creditors/debts. It is important that people coping with debt difficulties take early action and approach MABS for help and guidance. This can be the first positive step for people in addressing debt problems.

MABS operates from 65 locations throughout the country and can be contacted either through a National Telephone Helpline or a website. The Government is providing almost €18 million this year to MABS to enable them to assist people with managing their finances and coping with debt problems. Currently an additional 19 staff are being recruited for the MABS and this will bring money advice staff to over 270 around the country. This will assist the local services in managing their increased caseloads.

  111.  Deputy Seymour Crawford    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she has advised her inspectors at local level that they are to accept the current economic situation of self-employed persons or those applying for farm assist; her views on whether many of these persons are in a critical situation at the present time; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40533/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  Jobseekers Allowance and Farm Assist are both means tested payments. In most such cases, a Social Welfare Inspector will interview the claimant and make such enquiries as are necessary to ascertain the means of the applicant.

Historically self-employed persons tended to be assessed with their income in the 12 months prior to claiming, and a decision was given on that basis. This was in the context of the relatively stable economic conditions. However, it was always the case that where an applicant had ceased self employment or where an applicant could justifiably maintain that their income in the coming 12 months was likely to be greatly reduced in light of personal or economic circumstances, then Inspectors and Deciding Officers would always take account of this, and exercise their best judgement as to the likely income a person would receive in the 12 months following their claim.

In light of the changed economic environment and recognising that the system of using past-year earnings as a basis for assessing means was no longer as equitable as it had been, the Department issued a circular in May 2008 advising Inspectors of this and pointing out that it would generally be the case that less work was going to be available to a claimant in the foreseeable future. Inspectors were advised that each case should be examined on its merits and that they should apply their knowledge of local conditions to arrive at a fair assessment of the income from self-employment in the coming 12 months.

Where a self employed person’s situation changes after they have made an initial claim for Jobseekers Allowance or Farm Assist, they can apply to have their means reviewed. In addition, it is open to the individual, if he or she is dissatisfied with the means assessed, to make an appeal to the Social Welfare Appeals Office.

In the meantime it is important to remember that people who have urgent income support needs can apply for the means tested Supplementary Welfare Allowance (SWA) and more than 95% of basic SWA applications are decided on, and paid, within the week.

I appreciate the need to ensure that claimants who have been self employed, and whose income is significantly affected by the economic downturn, receive their full and fair entitlements in a timely manner, and I assure the House that we are doing our best to achieve this.

  112.  Deputy Seymour Crawford    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she will ensure that the half carer’s allowance will continue to be paid to widows or widowers in view of the fact that these persons often suffered after the death of a spouse before this scheme was introduced; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40534/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmesput forward a range of recommendations relating to the Department of Social and Family Affairs including recommendations relating to the half-rate carer’s allowance. The Department will consider the Report’s recommendations as part of the Estimates and budgetary process for 2010. Decisions [444]on all of the issues arising will be a matter for Government. Full consideration will of course be given to the impact of all the proposals on the recipients involved.

The Government is acutely aware and appreciative of the contribution made by carers to people needing ongoing care and support. In recognition of this, considerable improvements have been made in recent years in services and supports for carers.

Over the past decade, weekly payment rates to carers have greatly increased, qualifying conditions for carer’s allowance have significantly eased, coverage of the scheme has been extended and new schemes such as carer’s benefit, half-rate carer’s allowance and the respite care grant have been introduced and extended.

It is estimated that the combined expenditure on carer’s allowance, carer’s benefit, the respite care grant and half-rate carer’s allowance will be €650 million in 2009.

It would not be appropriate for me to comment further on budgetary proposals at this stage pending the outcome of these deliberative processes.

  113.  Deputy Emmet Stagg    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she has completed her deliberations on the Commission on Taxation report; and if she will outline her conclusions. [40730/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The Commission on Taxation is a wide ranging report containing many significant proposals. At the time of its publication, the Minister for Finance acknowledged that the Commission’s Report provided a comprehensive examination of the Irish Taxation System that could set the framework within which tax policy will be made for the next decade. The Minister also stressed the longer term importance of the report in which he noted that its strategic perspective and its focus on the future will help shape the taxation system for the next decade and beyond and that the implementation of the many complex and often inter-related recommendations in the report are likely to be phased in over several years.

The Commission’s report addresses a number of areas within my Department’s broad area of responsibility, most notably in relation to the social insurance system, the taxation of retirement savings, the taxation of social welfare benefits including Child Benefit as well as the impact of specific taxation proposals such as a carbon tax on low income groups. I envisage that the proposals of the Commission will be considered on an ongoing basis in the light of emerging policy in these areas. Given the very diverse nature of these issues, I do not intend to present a single set of detailed conclusions around the Commission’s report at this stage. However, my Department has examined the proposals from the perspective of the delivery of income supports.

In relation to retirement savings, the pension elements of the Commission on Taxation report are being considered in the context of the development of the National Pensions Framework. In relation to the taxation of Child Benefit, the Government’s position on this issue will be considered in the context of the forthcoming budget and subsequent budgets and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on individual proposals at this stage.

Question No. 114 answered with Question No. 107.

Question No. 115 answered with Question No. 74.

[445]Question No. 116 answered with Question No. 91.

Question No. 117 answered with Question No. 107.

  118.  Deputy Martin Ferris    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if her attention has been drawn to the fact that most pensioners use the Christmas bonus to heat their homes over the extended Christmas period. [40669/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  Each year the Government makes a decision on the payment of the Christmas Bonus having regard to the prevailing economic circumstances. This year it has been necessary for the Government to take steps to reduce overall public expenditure so as to restore order and stability to the public finances. In this context, the decision was made that the Christmas Bonus would not be paid in 2009.

The Government recognises that there are additional pressures on people dependent on social welfare payments during the winter months. The national fuel allowance scheme provides assistance to householders on long-term social welfare or health service executive payments with meeting the cost of their heating needs during the winter season. The allowance represents a contribution towards a person’s normal heating expenses. It is not intended to meet those costs in full.

This year €400 million has been allocated to national fuel allowance scheme to support approximately 334,000 long-term social welfare recipients with fuel bills over the winter months. In last year’s Budget I increased the value of the fuel allowance by €2 per week to €20 per week from January 2009 with a n additional €3.90 per week paid to those in smokeless fuel areas. I also extended the duration of the scheme by 2 weeks so that the fuel allowance will be paid for 32 weeks a year.

Question No. 119 answered with Question No. 107.

  120.  Deputy Olivia Mitchell    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the facilities she plans to put in place to assist community welfare officers to deal with the extra workload from applications from people in hardship in winter 2009 if the Christmas bonus is not awarded to social welfare recipients; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40646/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  Each year the Government makes a decision on the payment of the Christmas Bonus having regard to the prevailing economic circumstances. This year it has been necessary for the Government to take steps to reduce overall public expenditure so as to restore order and stability to the public finances.

In this context, the decision was made that the Christmas Bonus would not be paid in 2009. The decision was announced in the April 2009 Supplementary Budget to give people advance notice so that they could adjust their finances accordingly.

The supplementary welfare allowance scheme is administered by the community welfare division of the Health Service Executive (HSE) on behalf of the department. The operational arrangements for processing of applications and payment to qualifying individuals, is a matter for the respective community welfare division areas.

The issue of any increased demand that may arise this winter on existing resources is a matter for the HSE in the first instance to prioritise workloads and redeploy resources where necessary so that frontline services are maintained. The question of any increase in expenditure for staff[446]ing within the community welfare service above that currently provided would have to be considered in the context of overall Government policy on public service manpower levels.

  121.  Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    when she will bring forward legislation to provide for recognition of transgendered persons’ self-identified gender as agreed in the revised programme for Government. [40266/09]

  122.  Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if, in view of the agreement in the revised programme for Government, she will provide recognition of transgendered persons’ self-identified gender, in view of the fact that the appeal against a judgment (details supplied) will be dropped. [40267/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 121 and 122 together.

People who have made the transition from one gender to the other, often referred to as transsexuals, increasingly wish to have the transition recognised by official bodies and have their altered sex and/or names reflected in official documents.

The High Court case referred to by the Deputy found that the Irish State is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights in not having a process and a register to legally recognise the acquired gender of transsexual persons. The judgement, however, allows the State a degree of latitude in the design of the mechanisms to give such legal recognition.

In the revised Programme the Government accepts the need to provide legal recognition for transsexuals in their acquired gender. I will be moving to progress this matter in the immediate future. The design of the remedial measures will require careful consideration and consultation.

  123.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Taoiseach    the members of the innovation task force; and the number of times it has met since its appointment. [41005/09]

The Taoiseach:  I appointed the Innovation Taskforce on 29 June 2009 to advise the Government on its strategy for positioning Ireland as an International Innovation Development Hub and to assist in making the Smart Economy a reality.

The Innovation Taskforce members have a wide range of expertise and include individuals with global experience in international companies and entrepreneurs who have recently established and grown successful start-up companies. There is also representation from the higher-education sector and senior representatives from a number of Departments and Agencies. A list of the full membership is attached.

The Taskforce has met in plenary session on three occasions so far – on 17 July, 25 September and 30 October. In addition a full-day consultation meeting for Taskforce members was held on 19 October. The next plenary meeting is scheduled for 14 December.

The Taskforce has established four Working Groups focusing on more specific aspects of its terms of reference to advance particular items. These Working Groups, chaired by Private Sector members of the Taskforce, are meeting regularly.

Membership of the Innovation Taskforce
Mr. Dermot McCarthy (Chair) Secretary General, Department of the Taoiseach
Mr. Lionel Alexander VP and GM, Hewlett Packard (Manufacturing) Ltd
Professor Don Barry President, University of Limerick
Dr. Hugh Brady President University College Dublin
Mr. Damien Callaghan Investment Director, Intel Capital
Mr. Michael Carmody President, Institute of Technology, Tralee
Dr. Steven Collins Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Kore Virtual Machines
Mr. Ned Costello Chief Executive, Irish Universities Association
Professor Frank Gannon Director General, Science Foundation Ireland
Mr. Seán Gorman Secretary General, Department of Enterprise, Trade & Employment
Mr. Joe Harford Chair of the High Level Action Group on Green Enterprise
Dr. John Hegarty Provost, Trinity College Dublin
Dr. Chris Horn Co-founder & former Chief Executive Officer Iona Technologies
Dr. Brian Kelly Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Celtic Catalysts
Mr. Michael Kelly Chairman, Higher Education Authority
Dr. Burton Lee Stanford University School of Engineering
Mr. John Lynch Chief Executive Officer, Merrion Pharmaceuticals Ltd.
Ms Tara MacMahon IP Lawyer
Mr. Dan MacSweeney Chief Executive Officer, Carbery
Ms Brigid McManus Secretary General, Dept. of Education and Science
Mr. Bryan Mohally VP Supply Chain Operations Europe, Johnson & Johnson
Mr. Jim O’Brien Second Secretary, Department of Finance
Mr. Mark O’Donovan Director, Raglan Capital
Mr. Barry O’Leary Chief Executive Officer, IDA Ireland
Mr. Barry O’Sullivan Senior Vice-President, Cisco Systems
Dr. Paul Roben President Celtic Consulting
Mr. Frank Ryan Chief Executive, Enterprise Ireland
Ms Anna Scally Partner, KPMG

  124.  Deputy John Cregan    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    when statutory redundancy will be awarded to a company (details supplied) in County Limerick in order that a former employee will receive their payment. [40762/09]

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Dara Calleary):  My Department administers the Social Insurance Fund (SIF) in relation to redundancy matters on behalf of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. There are two types of payment made from the SIF — rebates to those employers who have paid statutory redundancy to eligible employees, and statutory lump sums to employees whose employers are insolvent and/or in receivership/liquidation.

I am pleased to advise the Deputy that the Redundancy Payments Section of my Department processed an application for a statutory rebate claim submitted by the company concerned in respect of the individual and that payment issued in October 2009.

  125.  Deputy Joanna Tuffy    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    further to Parliamentary Question No. 110 of 10 March 2009, if the employer in [448]this case has refunded her Department the employer’s share of redundancy payment; if her attention has been drawn to the fact that the employer still has not paid the holiday element of the Employment Appeals Tribunal determination; if she will render assistance to a person (details supplied) in Dublin 20 to enforce the EAT determination; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40788/09]

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Dara Calleary):  Further to my response to the Deputy on this issue in Parliamentary Question 110 of 10 March 2009, I can advise the Deputy that the Redundancy Payments Section of my Department received an application for a statutory lump sum claim for the individual concerned and that payment issued in March 2009. I can also confirm that the employer has since refunded to the Department the employer’s liability share of the redundancy payment representing 40% of the redundancy payment.

My Department administers the Social Insurance Fund (SIF) in relation to redundancy matters on behalf of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. There are two types of payment made from the SIF — rebates to those employers who have paid statutory redundancy to eligible employees, and, as in the current case, statutory lump sums to employees whose employers are insolvent and/or in receivership/liquidation.

I understand also that a determination has been made by the Employment Appeals Tribunal in this case under the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 in favour of the employee and that letters requesting voluntary compliance issued to the employer on 19 February 2009. Following an indication from the employer of a willingness to settle the debt, the case was closed by the National Employments Rights Authority (NERA) at that point. The claimant indicated by phone to NERA that she had accepted the employer’s offer of settlement.

If it is the case that the employer is not complying with the EAT determination, the individual would have the option of pursuing legal proceedings against the employer. Alternatively, the employee could also seek to pursue the enforcement aspect through NERA. In order to do this, she should bring the following documentation to NERA; a copy of the EAT Determination, a copy of her P60 form or P45 form and her personal details. NERA will then write to the employer and seek, in the first instance, compliance with the determination.

  126.  Deputy Mary Upton    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    if she will extend the employment subsidy scheme to the tourism sector; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40789/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  The Employment Subsidy Scheme has been introduced to support the maintenance of vulnerable jobs and prevent people from being made redundant in this challenging national and global economic environment that we are facing.

Given the low level of interest in the Employment Subsidy, I have decided to have a Second broader Call for applications with extended eligibility criteria open to both exporting and non-exporting firms, including those from the tourism sector.

The Second Call will be open to many companies that were not eligible to apply for the First Call. Enterprise Ireland who will again manage the Scheme, will shortly advertise details of the Second Call.

  127.  Deputy Dan Neville    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    further to Parliamentary Question No. 1171 of 16 September 2009 if she will provide the name of an official who will be qualified to carry out a feasibility study in respect of the blacksmithing school whose findings the Crafts Council of Ireland would accept. [40801/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  This is a day-to-day matter for the Crafts Council of Ireland and not one in which my Department has any function.

My Department has received no request for the name of a suitable person to carry out a feasibility study but would have been unable to respond to such a request in any event.

  128.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    if she will introduce work programmes such as the old teamwork programme in order to allow newly qualified apprentices to gain practical work experience on building projects; if she will seek a requirement among contractors who take up capital projects funded by Government to require a certain percentage of apprentices to be involved in the project; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40856/09]

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Dara Calleary):  The Teamwork scheme was a temporary employment programme for persons under 25 years old, employed on a full-time basis, which operated from the early 1980s until the mid-1990s. This scheme ran alongside the social employment scheme, which was aimed at persons over 25 years old. Both schemes were subsequently merged into the community employment scheme in the mid-1990s. Community employment continues to provide work experience for those who become unemployed.

In addition, a range of more tailored training and work experience measures are being provided specifically for redundant or newly qualified apprentices. An outline of those measures, along with advice to redundant apprentices is provided as follows for the Deputy’s information. These measures have, will or are supporting a total of circa 4,000 redundant apprentices.

Advice to Redundant Apprentices

If a FÁS registered apprentice’s employment has been terminated due to redundancy or insufficient work being available they should:

inform FÁS Services to Business immediately of their redundant status;

register with their local FÁS Employment Services Office for assistance in securing new employment to enable them to continue their apprenticeship training;

keep FÁS Services to Business informed of all details relating to their apprenticeship employment with a FÁS approved employer so that this time may be credited in calculating the finish date of their apprenticeship.

Information regarding employment vacancies can also be accessed by telephoning FÁS Jobs Ireland at Freephone 1800 611 116 or on the FÁS website (www.fas.ie).

[450]Advice to recently qualified apprentices

Information is also available from FETAC on “Progression from FETAC Advanced Certificate Craft to Higher Education Courses” for recently qualified apprentices. This information is available on the FETAC Website (www.FETAC.ie).

Measures to Assist Redundant Apprentices

FÁS has put in place an interim measure whereby apprentices who are made redundant can progress to the next off-the-job training phase of their apprenticeship, in line with current scheduling criteria.

FÁS has introduced, from 5 January 2009, a temporary Employer Based Redundant Apprentice Rotation Scheme for apprentices who have been made redundant due to the reduction in activity in the Construction Industry. The trades covered by the scheme are

Brick & Stonelaying

Carpentry & Joinery

Plastering

Plumbing

Cabinet Making

Painting & Decorating

Wood Machining

Electrical

The purpose of the Employer Based Redundant Apprentice Rotation Scheme is to give the redundant apprentice the opportunity to complete the on-the-job phase of their apprenticeship in order to gain the required knowledge, skill and competence to successfully progress to the next off-the-job phase or to complete their apprenticeship.

FÁS, with the support of employers, will place a redundant apprentice with an eligible employer, to replace an existing apprentice who has been released to attend a scheduled off-the-job phase of apprenticeship. The employer will provide workplace training and assessment for full or part of the relevant phase of apprenticeship. The maximum period of placement is 26 weeks for apprentices on phase 3 or phase 5 and 12 weeks for apprentices on phase 7.

Employers participating in the Employer Based Redundant Apprentice Rotation Scheme are required to pay the apprentice the agreed industry rates for the specific apprenticeship trade and FÁS will make a contribution of €340 per week towards employment costs incurred based on a 39 hours working week for each week in employment. This scheme will run until December 2009.

The ESB Networks have agreed a programme with FÁS to provide on-the-job training to eligible redundant electrical apprentices at phase 5 and phase 7 of their apprenticeships. This programme will provide up to 400 places over a period of 18 months and this programme is funded by ESB Networks. Redundant apprentices may also avail of existing specific skills training courses, which are trade related to enhance their employable skills. They may also avail of the range of trade related night courses, which are available in FÁS training centres.

[451]FÁS and the Institutes of Technology have agreed a programme, PP5, which will be available to apprentices who have successfully completed phases 1- 4 of their apprenticeships and where an on or off-the-job training opportunity is not currently available. The programme will have two streams — a construction stream and an engineering stream with a number of core skills modules related to apprenticeship and a number of electives in specific skills. The programme will provide apprentices with a level 5 FETAC award and allow for credits for access and transfer to other programmes post apprenticeship. The programme commenced in September 2009. Details of these schemes are available from any of the FÁS Services to Business Offices.

Léargas is providing funding under the EU Leonardo Da Vinci Vocational Educational Training Programme to support the placement of almost 100 redundant apprentices from the trades of electrical, plumbing, plastering and brick and stonelaying with employers in Germany and Finland to complete their phase 7 on-the-job training with assessments. To date, 30 redundant apprentices have fully completed their overseas training.

FÁS continues to monitor the situation in relation to redundant and newly qualified apprentices and will examine further initiatives in the context of the estimates process for 2010. The Deputy will be advised of the outcome in due course.

  129.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    further to her public statement in September 2009 that she was seeking legal advice on the severance package given to a person (details supplied) in view of the claims that information about overspending at FÁS was deliberately withheld by management from the board of directors of FÁS; if she has now received that advice and if so, the action she proposes to take on the matter. [40860/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  As previously stated, I have sought a review of the severance arrangements referred to in the context of information which was not available at the time the arrangements were approved. Full information in this regard must await the completion of a series of 23 FÁS internal audit reports which will be finalised in the very near future.

When these reports are available this will facilitate formulation of the legal advice referred to.

  130.  Deputy Ulick Burke    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    if she will request the Competition Authority to investigate the pricing arrangements at and between meat factories in view of the current prices being offered to farmers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40869/09]

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Mary Coughlan):  I understand the Deputy is referring to pricing arrangements agreed between parties in a contractual business relationship. In general, contact law, enforceable in the courts, governs the terms and conditions entered into by contracting parties.

In so far as competition law has an effect on business relationships, this is in the form of prohibition of certain anti-competitive practices such as price-fixing, applying dissimilar conditions to equivalent transactions with other trading parties thereby placing them at a competitive disadvantage, making the conclusion of contracts subject to acceptance by the other party of supplementary obligations which by their nature or according to commercial usage have no connections with the subject of such contracts, abusing a dominant position, requesting “hello” money and imposing resale price maintenance.

[452]The Competition Authority is the statutory independent body responsible for enforcing competition law in the State. Section 29(3) of the Competition Act 2002 provides that the Authority is independent in the performance of its functions. Under section 30(1)(b) of that Act, the Competition Authority is responsible for investigating any breach of the Act. As investigations and enforcement matters generally are part of the day-to-day operational work of the Authority, I have no direct function in the matter.

That being said, if the Deputy has any evidence of such anti-competitive practices I would urge him to submit it to the Competition Authority for investigation and any action it may consider appropriate.

  131.  Deputy Billy Timmins    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment    the position regarding the case of a person (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41026/09]

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Dara Calleary):  The Employment Permits Section informs me that the above named was issued a work permit on the 14 November 2007 in respect of his position on the premise that a salary of €50,000 was on offer. Prior to the expiry of this permit an application for a green card was made with a salary of €60,000 on offer. The green card application was refused on the grounds that it appears from the P60 provided for 2008 that the above named was not in receipt of the salary promised on her previous work permit application.

The applicant was notified of this decision in writing by letter dated 21 October 2009 and of their right to appeal within 21 days. To-date no such appeal has been received in the Employment Permits Section.

  132.  Deputy Joe Carey    asked the Minister for Finance    his plans for distribution of funds from the national lottery for 2010; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40795/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The Government decides on an annual basis how much funding is to be allocated to subheads which are part-funded by the proceeds of the national lottery. This occurs in the context of decisions on the Estimates for Public Services for the following year.

The allocation of the national lottery funds for 2010 will therefore be considered during the forthcoming Estimates process.

  133.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of pub licences which have not been renewed in the past three years; the location of each in tabular form; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40823/09]

  134.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of new pub licences granted in the past three years; the location of each in tabular form; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40824/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 133 and 134 together.

[453]I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that it is not possible to provide a detailed reply within the time available. Accordingly, I will have the information forwarded to the Deputy at an early date. I am also informed by the Revenue Commissioners that the information provided will be the actual numbers in the two categories requested, in tabular form and on a county by county basis.

  135.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Minister for Finance    the revenue to date in 2009 from the health levy; if it is less than predicted; if so, the amount; and her estimate for revenue in 2009 and the forecast for 2010. [40989/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The 2009 estimate of receipts for the health levy is €1,892m following the doubling of the levy in the 2009 Supplementary Budget. Health levy receipts to end-October amount to €1,217m, some €190m below the HSE profile. I understand from the Department of Social & Family Affairs that a significant element of this shortfall is as a result of timing issues and that this will be reflected in higher receipts than profiled in November and December. In addition, the self-employed element of the health levy is paid over by the Revenue Commissioners in November and December and this information is not yet to hand. At this stage, it is not possible therefore to say what the final outturn will be. The 2010 forecast will be announced in the context of the forthcoming Budget.

  136.  Deputy Martin Ferris    asked the Minister for Finance    the funding given from the Exchequer to non-governmental organisations over the past five years; and if the same level of funding will continue. [40743/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  While there are uncertainties regarding what is meant by the term ‘non-Governmental organisation’, information is provided as follows in relation to the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and the Institute of Public Administration (IPA), which are in receipt of funding from within the Finance Vote.

ESRI Grant-in-Aid 2005-2009 (000’s)

2009* 2008 2007 2006 2005
Current 3,300 3,370 3,168 3,052 2,900
Capital 0 2,130** 132 128 126
Total 3,300 5,500 3,300 3,180 3,026

IPA Grant-in-Aid 2005-2009 (000’s)

2009* 2008 2007 2006 2005
Current 3,700 3,900 3,500 3,401 3,318
Capital 0 0 0 0 0
Total 3,700 3,900 3,500 3,401 3,318

[454]In addition, the Office of Public Works, which also comes under aegis of the Department of Finance, provides capital grants to a number of bodies, outlined as follows.

Office of Public Works — Grants to certain Organisations 2005-2009

2009* 2008 2007 2006 2005
€000 €000 €000 €000 €000
C1 — Grant to Zoological Society of Ireland 3,000 4,000 4,000 4,000 2,539
University Church — St. Stephens Green — Paintings 76 120
Pontifico Collegio Irlandes 750 850 850 250
All Hallowes Library 1,000
Mariners Church Dun Laoighaire 1,000 1,800 500
Maynooth College Chapel 750 2,300
Irish College Paris 250 800 500
Irish Labour History Society 200
Christchurch Waterford 1,300
Glasnevin Cemetery 1,500 2,500 2,500
Total C2 — Grant for Certain Refurbishment Works 1,500 4,500 6,700 6,726 370
C3 — Grant to Louvain Institute 0 2,500 1,000 1,500 1,500

Decisions in relation to expenditure in future years are a matter for the Budget.

Queries in relation to bodies under the aegis of other Departments should be directed to the relevant Department.

  137.  Deputy John McGuinness    asked the Minister for Finance    the cost of the River Nore, Kilkenny city, flood relief scheme; the cost of the separate works undertaken at the Lacken Weir, Kilkenny city; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40784/09]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Deputy Martin Mansergh):  The Office of Public Works (OPW) has spent €44.8 million in implementing the Flood Relief Scheme for the River Nore in Kilkenny City. This compares very favourably with the benefits associated with the Scheme, which are estimated to be in the order of €120 million, and have been calculated using an internationally recognised methodology. The cost associated with the construction of the rock ramp pass and remedial works at Lacken Weir was €171,000. This figure is included in the overall cost referred to above.

  138.  Deputy Thomas Byrne    asked the Minister for Finance    the steps he has taken to ameliorate the position of mortgage borrowers with the various sub prime lenders; the improvements which have been made for these borrowers in 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40816/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The Government took steps in October 2007 via an amendment to the Central Bank Act 1997, to provide for an appropriate system of authorisation and supervision of retail credit firms by the Financial Regulator engaged in specialist or so-called sub-prime lending. Such lenders were not previously subject to financial regulation in respect of lending activities. The primary purpose of this amendment was to [455]extend to customers of these firms the benefit of the consumer protections provided for in the Financial Regulator’s Consumer Protection Code. This regulatory regime has been in place since 1 February 2008 and is being implemented by the Financial Regulator. The Financial Regulator’s Consumer Protection Code, for example, sets out requirements that a regulated entity must contact the consumer as soon as it becomes aware that a mortgage account is in arrears and that it must have in place a procedure for handling accounts in arrears.

Consumer credit, including sub-prime lending, is also regulated in Ireland under the Consumer Credit Act 1995. The Act makes detailed provision for the form and content of loan agreements and for advertising of consumer credit. Some non deposit-taking mortgage lenders are required to notify charges under Section 149 of the Consumer Credit Act, 1995 (as amended) to the Financial Regulator for approval. However interest rates are excluded from this requirement. Also, legal fees tend to be imposed by 3rd parties and then passed on directly by the institution to the consumer. In general these do not require approval.

When approving fees, the Financial Regulator takes the following criteria into consideration:

promotion of fair competition;

commercial justification;

passing on any costs to customers; and

the effect on customers or a group of customers.

The Financial Regulator has a Code of Conduct for Mortgage Arrears, which came into effect in February 2009 and which applies to mortgage lending activities with consumers in respect of their principal private residence in the State. The Code is mandatory for all mortgage lenders registered with the Financial Regulator. Under the Code, where a borrower is in difficulty the lender will make every reasonable effort to agree an alternative repayment schedule and will not commence legal action for repossession until after six months from the time arrears first arise.

I should also point out that people in serious debt or in danger of getting into serious debt can avail of the services of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS). This is a national, free, confidential and independent service.

  139.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will respond to a matter (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40836/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  Following a review of the Agreed Programme for Government 2007-2012, the Government published its Renewed Programme for Government last month. The renewed programme includes a commitment in relation to the tax treatment of pensions to “introduce a single 30% rate for tax relief on private pension provision in the context of the national pensions framework.” The detail and timing of the delivery of this commitment have yet to be decided.

  140.  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has reviewed the pre-budget 2010 submission sent to him on 6 October 2009 by an association (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40847/09]

  141.  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan    asked the Minister for Finance    if his attention has been drawn to the potential employment and Exchequer return that could be realised by reforming the [456]opening hours of licensed betting offices; if such reform is under consideration; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40848/09]

  142.  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan    asked the Minister for Finance    if, in view of the continuing decline in betting duty as confirmed in the recently published official figures (details supplied), he has assessed the impact of remote, telephone and internet gambling on the operation of licensed betting offices; his views on the potential considerable loss of employment nationally arising from this impact; the action he will take, such as reform in the opening hours of licensed betting offices, which could lessen the impact of remote, telephone and Internet gambling on locally operated licensed betting offices; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40849/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 140 to 142, inclusive, together.

As part of the Budget process all submissions are reviewed. I have stated previously that it is my intention to widen, if possible, the tax base on which betting duty would be applied. Bets placed either on-line or over the phone are generally with out-of-State companies so applying betting duty is therefore problematic. My officials, in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General, the Office of the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, are looking at the scope to overcome legal and operational difficulties in this area and will continue to do so, on an ongoing basis.

In addition, my Department is working closely with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform which has initiated a review in order to provide the Government with options for a new and comprehensive legal and organisational framework governing gambling architecture in the State. The review, amongst other things, will consider:

the recommendations contained in the Report Regulating Gaming in Ireland,

the existing law regulating gaming lotteries and other forms of gambling in the jurisdiction,

international developments, in particular the experience of the UK’s Gambling Commission,

developments in relation to remote gambling (e.g. via the internet and mobile phones).

As the Deputy may be aware, due to pressure on the betting sector, I decided to defer the introduction of the increase in the betting duty provided for in Finance (No. 2) Act 2008 pending a review. Accordingly, the Finance Act 2009 contains a provision for continuing the existing betting duty rate of 1% unless and until an order is made bringing the 2% rate into effect, or alternative betting taxation arrangements are enacted. This decision is based on the premise that the betting sector will engage in constructive discussions about putting in place a fair and workable tax base for the sector. Such discussions will, inter alia, touch on issues such as on-line/phone betting, which is largely untaxed, and look at proposals that could potentially bring this area into the tax net, if possible, while also protecting Irish employment in the sector.

  143.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will support the case of a matter (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40859/09]

[457]Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that the postal address and telephone contact numbers for each Revenue District in the Dublin Region are displayed on one page in the “State Directory” section of the telephone book.

There are two public offices for personal callers within the region, and details for those offices are displayed on that page of the telephone book under the heading “Public Offices”. These two offices are located in O’Connell St, and The Square, Tallaght, and deal with all queries relating to personal taxation.

The taxpayer’s claim has been processed and the refund will issue shortly.

  144.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Finance    the relief available to a medical card holder who was charged for dental treatment by a dentist not participating in the General Medical Service scheme. [40863/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The position is that health expenses relief may be claimed by all taxpayers in respect of “non-routine” dental treatment in accordance with Section 469 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997. In order to claim the relief, an individual must hold a completed form Med 2 (Dental) signed and certified by the dental practitioner.

Full information on qualifying treatments and on how to submit a claim may be obtained on the Revenue website at www.revenue or by telephoning the Office of the Revenue Commissioners at 1890 333 425.

  145.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Minister for Finance    the estimated cost or savings in respect of the 2010 tax year of the various tax recommendations of the Taxation Commission. [40985/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The Commission on Taxation proposed the abolition, retention and amendment of certain reliefs. No costings were provided for the amended reliefs. Set out as follows is the table of recommendations for abolition and the corresponding savings.

Ref Commission on Taxation Recommendations — Tax Expenditures for Abolition Yield Estimate €m
8.12 TAX EXPENDITURES — CHILDREN
The capital allowances for childcare facilities should be discontinued.

6
8.13 The income tax exemption for childcare service providers should be discontinued. 1
8.14 The exemption of employer-provided childcare from the benefit-in-kind charge should be discontinued 6
8.16 TAX EXPENDITURES — HOUSING
Income tax relief for rent paid for private rented accommodation should be discontinued.

48
8.18 Income tax relief for service charges should be discontinued. 21
8.19 The rent-a-room relief should be discontinued. 4
8.20 The capital gains tax and stamp duty exemptions on the disposal of site to a child should be discontinued. 38
8.26 TAX EXPENDITURES — HEALTH
Tax relief for long-term care policies should be discontinued.
8.29 The dependent relative tax credit should be discontinued.
The entitlement to mortgage interest relief that is derived from entitlement to the credit in relation to a principal private residence occupied by a dependent relative should continue. A person should be able to avail of first-time buyer levels of relief once in respect of himself or herself and once in respect of a dependent relative who has not claimed for himself or herself.
The separate entitlement to CGT relief on the disposal of a principal private residence occupied by a dependent relative should be discontinued.
1
8.36 RELATING TO PHILANTHROPY
Income tax relief for expenditure on heritage buildings and gardens should be discontinued
6
8.37 The benefit-in-kind exemption on employer-provided art objects in a heritage building or garden should be discontinued.
8.47 TAX EXPENDITURE — ENTERPRISE (INCLUDING FARMING)
The restriction of balancing charges on a building to the relevant holding period for that building should be discontinued for future acquisitions.
8.50 Tax exemption for patent royalties should be discontinued. 84
8.54 Stock relief for farming businesses should be discontinued. 2
8.57 The tax relief for the purchase of milk quota should be discontinued.
8.59 The tax exemption for payments to National Co-operative Farm Relief Services Ltd. and payments made to its members should be discontinued.
8.63 The investment allowance for machinery and plant and for exploration expenditure should be discontinued.
8.76 TAX EXPENDITURES — EMPLOYMENT
Income tax relief for trade union subscriptions should be discontinued.
19
8.91 The PRSI exemption for employee (unapproved) share options should be discontinued. 18
8.94 The income tax exemption for approved share option schemes (APSOs) should be discontinued.
The taxable value of option gains should also be liable to both employer and employee PRSI and to the health contribution levy and the income levy.
3
8.97 The income tax exemption for new shares purchased on issue by employees should be discontinued. 1
8.98 The artist’s exemption should be discontinued; consideration should be given to introducing income averaging in the taxation of income from creative work. 66
8.100 The seafarer’s allowance should be discontinued. 1
8.102 The income tax exemption for payments under Scéim na bhFoghlaimeoirí Gaeilge should be discontinued

  146.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Minister for Finance    the estimated number of taxpayers in the income tax code in the tax year to date in 2009 which are paying no income tax, paying at a rate of 20% and paying at the 41% rate; and the distribution across single married one earner, married two earner families. [40986/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners that the information requested by the Deputy is as follows in respect of the income tax year 2009.

2009 Distribution of Income earners by Personal Status and Tax Rate

Exempt (Standard rate liability fully covered by credits or Age Exemption Limits) Marginal Band Paying tax at the standard rate (including those whose liability at the higher rate is fully offset by credits) Higher rate Liability not fully off set by credits All cases
Number Number Number Number
Single 716,708 2,124 580,743 141,559 1,441,134
Married 1 Earner 190,936 8,878 117,211 54,303 371,328
Married 2 Earners 96,919 4,888 207,230 96,598 405,635
Widowed 44,227 1,170 21,656 7,749 74,802
Total 1,048,790 17,060 926,840 300,209 2,292,899

The figures are estimates from the Revenue tax-forecasting model using actual data for the year 2007, adjusted as necessary to take account of the most recent data available for income and employment trends for the year in question. They are therefore provisional and likely to be revised.

It should be noted that a married couple who has elected or has been deemed to have elected for joint assessment is counted as one tax unit.

  147.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Minister for Finance    the number of taxpayers subject to the special income levy in the tax year 2009 which are paying at the 2% rate, at the 4% rate and at the 6% rate. [40987/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  As Deputy is aware the Finance Act 2009 introduced legislative changes to the income levy to bring into effect an increase in rates and a reduction in rate thresholds from 1 May 2009. As a result of the legislative changes two sets of income levy rates and thresholds apply to different periods in 2009. In addition, the Finance Act 2009 introduced composite annualised rates to be applied for the 2009 year of assessment and these rates are as follows:

Part of aggregate income Composite Rate of Income Levy
The first €75,036 1.67%
The next €25,064 3.00%
The next €74,880 3.33%
The next €75,140 4.67%
Balance 5.00%

I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that the numbers of taxpayers whose highest rate for income levy is 2%, 4% or 6% in the period post 1 May, 2009 are as follows:

Rate of Income Levy Numbers
2% 1,372,100
4% 113,900
6% 21,800

Numbers are rounded to the nearest hundred.

The figures are estimates from the Revenue tax-forecasting model using actual data for the year 2007, adjusted as necessary to take account of the most recent data available for income and employment trends for the year in question. They are therefore provisional and likely to be revised.

It should be noted that a married couple who has elected or has been deemed to have elected for joint assessment is counted as one tax unit.

  148.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Minister for Finance    his estimate of the receipts from income tax, from the health levy, the social insurance levy, the special income tax levy, the public service pension levy in 2009; and the forecast for 2010. [40988/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The Supplementary Budget forecast that €12.5 billion in Income Tax receipts would be collected in 2009, of which approximately €1.1 billion would come from the Income Levy. At end-October, Income Tax was €625 million behind profile with overall tax receipts €1,074 million below target. My Department now expects that overall tax revenues will finish the year in the region of €2 billion below profile.

The Revised Estimates for Public Services 2009 (REV) estimated that for 2009 receipts for the Health Levy would be €1,892 million and that Pay Related Social Insurance (PRSI) contributions would be €7,500 million. In the REV, it was estimated that receipts from the Public Service pension-related deduction in 2009 would be approximately €940 million.

The Pre-Budget Outlook will update the macroeconomic projections for the period 2009-2013. As part of that process, my Department will also set out a technical fiscal forecast on a pre-Budget basis for 2010 and beyond. The Pre-Budget Outlook will be published tomorrow. November is a key month for tax returns and, as usual, the November Exchequer Returns will be published on 2nd December and will give further indications as to the end-year outturn. The White Paper will then be published on 5th December and will set out tax forecasts for 2010 on a technical basis. As is customary, Post-Budget forecasts for both taxes and the levies will be announced in the context of Budget 2010.

  149.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Finance    the funding which was drawn down from a source (details supplied) in each year from 2006 to date in 2009 in tabular format; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41016/09]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan):  The surplus generated by the National Lottery is surrendered to the Exchequer and is allocated to a number of Government Departments in the context of the annual Estimates process. The table of the Revised Estimates for Public Services for each of the years 2006 to 2009 gives a breakdown by Department of subheads which were part funded by the surplus received from the National Lottery. The total outturn [461]on such subheads and the amount which was funded from the National Lottery surplus is as follows:

Year Total Outturn on subheads part funded Of which funded from National Lottery surplus by National Lottery
€m €m
2006 399 200
2007 444 230
2008 472 265

The total allocation for these subheads in 2009 is €419m, of which €270m is funded from the National Lottery surplus.

  150.  Deputy Paul Kehoe    asked the Minister for Finance    if there are facilities within the Government Buildings at a location (details supplied) to accommodate the accessing of services in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, FÁS and the driving test centre. [41083/09]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Deputy Martin Mansergh):  The matter raised by the Deputy is currently under investigation by the Office of Public Works. I will write to the Deputy as soon as the results of the investigation are to hand.

  151.  Deputy Paul Kehoe    asked the Minister for Finance    the position on a building (details supplied); the stage the proposed building is at; the stages it has to go through before construction begins; the start date for construction; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41084/09]

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Deputy Martin Mansergh):  A full reply to this question will be given today by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Parliamentary Question No. 205 refers.

  152.  Deputy Seán Sherlock    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the status of a medical card application by a person (details supplied) in County Cork; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40745/09]

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.

  153.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the position regarding the European Commission’s proposal COM (2008) 40, final, Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Provision of Food Information to Consumers; the further position in respect of negotiations with the Council; and if it is expected that political agreement will be reached in the coming months. [40842/09]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Trevor Sargent):  At present EU food labelling legislation is harmonised by Council Directive 2000/13/EC, transposed in 2002, with several amendments since. In January 2008, the European Commission [462]presented its proposals on updating and harmonising this legislation. The proposal is still under discussion. This proposal consolidated existing legislation in the area of food labelling and introduced new provisions for Country of Origin Labelling, a mandatory nutrition declaration and allergen labelling, amongst others.

In November 2008, Ireland submitted its position paper on the proposal. This paper was informed by submissions made to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) by many of the key stakeholders. Ireland’s position will be further informed by the outcome of an FSAI Consumer Survey. This is expected to be published by the end of November 2009. In its position paper, Ireland indicated amongst other things that it

supports mandatory Country of Origin Labelling,

shares the concerns of a significant number of other member states with regard to National Schemes,

welcomes the proposal for mandatory allergen labelling and supports the highlighting of allergens on labels,

supports the equal treatment of all alcohol products,

asks that consideration should be given to bringing alcohol products into the scope of the legislation,

supports the retention of the Commission’s proposal with regard to the use of “per portion” expression alone in certain cases,

does not support the proposal for a minimum font size of 3mm for display of mandatory particulars and suggests that other aids to legibility, such as contrasting background, be explored, and

supports the inclusion of trans fats in the mandatory nutrition declaration.

Since January 2008 a number of meetings have taken place at European Union Working Group level, attended by officials from Department of Health and Children and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. Negotiations are ongoing. The next meeting is due to take place on 13 November 2009. On 16th March 2009, the European Parliament examined the proposal. Parliament has indicated however, that it will not be in a position to conduct the first reading of the document until early 2010. At this stage, it is likely that the proposal will not be finalised until 2010 at the earliest.

  154.  Deputy George Lee    asked the Minister for Health and Children    her views on whether it is in the best interest of children that the grandfather clause is maintained so that adopted children can be reunited with their siblings; if she will re-introduce this clause in the Adoption Bill 2009 by deleting section 81(1) of the Bill; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41178/09]

  155.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will support the inclusion of a grandfather clause into the Adoption Bill 2009; if she will establish transition measures to facilitate those couples to complete their inter-country adoption application that are underway with countries such as Russia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, China and other countries not [463]ratified under the Hague agreement; if a bilateral agreement will be included with countries that have traditionally been international adoption partners with Ireland. [40741/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 154 and 155 together.

The Adoption Bill, 2009, which is designed to give force of law to the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-country Adoption, has passed through the Seanad and I am actively seeking time for its progression in the current Dáil session. As I have stated on many previous occasions, under the new legislation, prospective adoptive parents will be able to adopt from countries that have also ratified the Hague Convention and from countries with which Ireland has a bilateral agreement that meets Hague standards.

There are transitional provisions contained in the Bill. The issue of further transitional measures for prospective parents who are at an advanced stage in the adoption process, when the Bill is enacted, and who wish to continue with an adoption from a non-Hague, non-bilateral country, have been raised with me by representative groups.

I am currently examining this and other related matters including calls for the insertion of a “grandfather” clause in the legislation to allow for the adoption of a second child from the same country, in a situation where the country chosen will not have ratified the Hague Convention or have a bilateral agreement with Ireland when the Adoption Bill, 2009 is enacted.

However, I must emphasise that the issue of a “grandfather” clause was previously given careful and detailed consideration in the preparation of the legislation and it was decided against including such a provision in the Bill as it would represent a considerable dilution of the intent of the legislation in terms of setting improved standards for inter-country adoption.

Preliminary work has been undertaken on the development of bilateral agreements with Russia, Vietnam and Ethiopia. Future discussions in this regard will need to take account of the provisions of the Adoption Bill, 2009.

  156.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the status of the neo-natal screening programme for cystic fibrosis as announced in 1999. [40748/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The report of the Working Group established by the HSE on Services for People with Cystic Fibrosis was recently published on the HSE’s website. Amongst its recommendations was that a neonatal screening programme should be established.

A Steering Group was established in June 2009, under the Chairmanship of Professor Gerry Loftus, Professor of Paediatrics, Galway. The Steering Group has broad membership from key stakeholders and experts in the field of cystic fibrosis and they will ensure that the operational work required to implement the Screening Programme will take place.

Expert advice from other jurisdictions which have introduced newborn screening for cystic fibrosis is being examined to ensure that Ireland will be in line with the most up-to-date international best practice. In addition to the design of the newborn screening programme, including appropriate quality and governance arrangements, uniform data collection procedures will be developed for the collection of blood samples carried out in maternity units and community care areas.

[464]These actions will be supported by training for all relevant staff and development of appropriate health promotion material for parents/guardians and relevant service providers. An annual audit process is also being put in place.

It is anticipated that the implementation of the newborn screening for cystic fibrosis programme will commence next year.

  157.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if a specialist physiotherapist for cystic fibrosis patients has been recruited for Limerick Regional Hospital; the length of time this post has been vacant; if it is approved to be filled; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40750/09]

  158.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if a consultant doctor with a specialism in adult cystic fibrosis has been recruited for Limerick Regional Hospital; the length of time this post has been vacant; if it is approved to be filled; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40751/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 157 and 158 together.

As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  159.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the position regarding the planned new beds for cystic fibrosis patients in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin 4; the number of beds that are planned; when they will be opened; the way the private funding for this ward is progressing; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40752/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As these are service matters they have been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  160.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the special conditions which have been set in place for cystic fibrosis patients to access accident and emergency care in hospitals here in view of the threat of contracting the H1N1 virus. [40753/09]

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.

  161.  Deputy Seán Sherlock    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the status of a medical card for a person (details supplied) in County Cork; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40755/09]

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.

  162.  Deputy Seán Sherlock    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the status of an application for a medical card by a person (details supplied) in County Cork; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40757/09]

[465]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.

  163.  Deputy Seán Sherlock    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the projected operating budget for Mallow Hospital, County Cork, for 2010; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40758/09]

  164.  Deputy Seán Sherlock    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the annual operating budget for Mallow Hospital, County Cork for 2009; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40759/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to answer Questions Nos. 163 and 164 together.

I have referred the matter to the HSE for direct reply.

  165.  Deputy Ruairí Quinn    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if there has been a recent policy change within the overseas treatment section of the Health Service Executive regarding the funding of specialist treatment for patients who availed of services in the United States of America; if a new directive has been issued by the HSE limiting overseas treatment funding to within the EU; the outcome for patients whose only possibility of treatment is in non EU hospitals such as the case of a person (details supplied) in Dublin 4; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40778/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  Regulation (EC) 1408/71 provides, inter alia, that people who are insured with or covered by the healthcare system of one member state may access healthcare in the public system of another member state in certain circumstances. Article 22 (1) (c) of the Regulation governs the referral of patients for public health services to another member state. In accordance with this article, a person eligible for health services in Ireland must be authorised by the HSE to go to another member state for treatment in the public health system there, where certain criteria are met. When authorisation is granted, Form E112 is issued by the HSE and is confirmation that the HSE will bear the cost of the treatment. These arrangements apply in all EU/EEA member states and Switzerland.

It is a matter for the HSE to determine whether authorisation for treatment abroad (including outside the EU/EEA states and Switzerland) should be granted.

As the case in question is a service matter, it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  166.  Deputy Jan O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of Health Service Executive social workers or child care workers who are on leave of absence on grounds of ill health who were initially suspended due to allegations of child abuse; the number of those cases in which the investigation of the allegation of child abuse was brought to a conclusion; her views on delays in carrying out such investigations; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40781/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  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 a matter for the Executive to [466]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. With regard to the number of social workers or childcare workers currently on leave of absence, as this is a service matter it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  167.  Deputy Jan O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when she will respond to a submission sent to her on 14 October 2009 from an organisation (details supplied) regarding an update on the implementation of the national strategy for service user involvement in the Irish health service; if she will ensure that the Health Service Executive, to whom it was sent on the same day, replies to same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40782/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As the Deputy’s question relates to a service matter it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  168.  Deputy Pat Breen    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she has given consideration to the reconfiguration of psychiatric services in County Clare; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40796/09]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy John Moloney):  As this is a service matter the question has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  169.  Deputy James Reilly    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the EU countries which have already given effect to Commission Decision No. 2003/641/EC of 5 September 2003 on the use of colour photographs or other illustrations as health warnings on tobacco products; the reason for the delay in bringing forward regulations under the Public Health (Tobacco) ( Amendment) Act 2009 in order to give effect to the Commission’s decision; if she has plans to introduce the regulations; and when they will take effect. [40797/09]

Minister of State at the Department of the Health and Children (Deputy Áine Brady):  Combined text and photo warnings have been introduced in Belgium, Romania and the UK. My Department has asked the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to draft the regulations provided for under Section 6 of the Public Health (Tobacco)(Amendment) Act 2009. When the regulations are drafted, the date for the introduction of the new warnings will be agreed following consultation with the relevant stakeholders.

  170.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the premises that are being rented or leased in the Health Service Executive north western area; the location of each unit and the cost of renting each for 2007 and 2008 in tabular form; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40804/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  Arrangements in relation to the rental or leasing of premises is a service matter and the question has therefore been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

[467]

  171.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the premises that are being rented or leased in the Health Service Executive Dublin north east area; the location of each unit and the cost of renting each for 2007 and 2008 in tabular form; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40805/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  Arrangements in relation to the rental or leasing of premises is a service matter and the question has therefore been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  172.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the premises that are being rented or leased in the Health Service Executive Dublin mid-Leinster area; the location of each unit and the cost of renting each for 2007 and 2008 in tabular form; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40806/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  Arrangements in relation to the rental or leasing of premises is a service matter and the question has therefore been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  173.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the premises that are being rented or leased in the Health Service Executive southern area; the location of each unit and the cost of renting for 2007 and 2008 in tabular form; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40807/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  Arrangements in relation to the rental or leasing of premises is a service matter and the question has therefore been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  174.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the statutory basis on which a subvention payment has been withdrawn from a person (details supplied) in County Laois; if it is the case that no carer may avail of subvented respite care; if so, the number of carers affected; the alternative arrangements that are being made to ensure that carers are given respite for part of the year; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40844/09]

Minister of State at the Department of the Health and Children (Deputy Áine Brady):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  175.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the age at which the primary school examination of teeth occurs; if there are best practice indicators suggesting that teeth should be examined at an earlier age in order to catch potential deterioration at the first opportunity; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40857/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  176.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if her attention has been drawn to the fact that dentists are refusing to treat long standing patients who are medical card holders thereby forcing them to either pay for treatment to which they are entitled or to find an alternative dentist; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40862/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  My Department has not received any reports of dentists refusing to treat medical card holders. I would take any allegation of [468]refusal of treatment very seriously. I would like to add that the number of dentists holding DTSS contracts has risen approximately 17% in the last year and there are now 1,275 dentists holding DTSS contracts.

  177.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the position regarding delays and waiting lists for personal assistants services for disabled persons; if her attention has been drawn to the hardship caused by the delay to those awaiting this service; and her proposals in this regard. [40864/09]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy John Moloney):  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.

  178.  Deputy James Reilly    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of risks that have been addressed in full of the 80 risks identified by the Health Service Executive in its hygiene services assessment scheme quality improvement plan report on Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda, published in April 2009; the number unaddressed; if she believes that unaddressed risks are contributing to the outbreak of infection at the hospital; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40874/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  The National Hygiene Services Quality Review 2008 was conducted in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital on 17th October 2008 by the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA). The HIQA audit identified three areas of risk in the hospital and as a result the hospital received an overall rating of ‘Poor’. The areas related to Managing Risks in Hygiene Services (HIQA Criteria 7.1) Contracts Management (HIQA Criteria 8.1) and Physical Environment, Facilities and Resources (HIQA Criteria 9.1). None of the aforementioned risks are known as contributory factors in the current Clostridium Difficile outbreak.

The Health Service Executive requested a Quality Improvement Plan to address the three areas of risk and also to address the recommendations outlined in the HIQA report. A quality improvement plan was developed by the hospital’s Hygiene Committee and Hygiene Team and quarterly progress reports have been submitted to the HSE. The Quarter 3 reports illustrate that 80% of quality improvements identified have been achieved, 19% (refurbishments) are not yet due and one action, outside the remit of the hospital pertaining to a regional service, remains outstanding. I am satisfied that the issues raised by HIQA’s Hygiene Services Quality Review are being satisfactorily addressed.

  179.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will report on the Health Information and Quality Authority inspection of the special care unit at Ballydowd, County Cork; the steps she is taking to address the issues raised; the reason this centre is to be closed rather than reformed; the total number of high support places available and their location; the number of such places which are required; her plans for meeting this demand; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40875/09]

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Barry Andrews):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  180.  Deputy Mary Upton    asked the Minister for Health and Children    her plans to establish a national transplant authority; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40876/09]

  181.  Deputy Mary Upton    asked the Minister for Health and Children    her plans to establish a national organ transplant office; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40877/09]

  182.  Deputy Mary Upton    asked the Minister for Health and Children    her plans to establish national organ donor registry; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40878/09]

  183.  Deputy Mary Upton    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she is satisfied that the optimum number of double lung transplants are being carried out at the national heart lung transplant facility; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40879/09]

  185.  Deputy Jan O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will set up an organ donor registry as proposed by Cystic Fibrosis Ireland; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40881/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 180 to 183, inclusive, and 185 together.

I want to emphasise the importance of both the individual’s decision to be an organ donor in the event of their death and of the family discussion about this decision. Transplantation programmes are fundamentally dependent the decisions by individuals to be an organ donor.

It is my intention to have an organ donation and transplantation unit established within the existing resources and the national structures of the Health Service Executive. Its objective will be to provide a national focal point for reporting, monitoring and assessing the performance of organ donation and transplantation activities. I believe that it is appropriate that these functions are carried out at a national level, on the basis of regular, comprehensive performance data provided by all the transplant centres. I will be raising this issue in the context of discussions between my Department and the HSE about the HSE’s services in 2010. Establishing such a unit would provide a sound basis for reviewing and evaluating performance and other issues related to transplantation.

The most recent report on International Figures on Organ Donation and Transplantation in 2007 demonstrates that Ireland’s rate of organ donation is well above the European average. Ireland also benefits from a popular organ donor card, which has been supported by my Department. I am aware that organ donor registries have been proposed in some countries where there is a lower rate of organ donation. As outlined above, my priority is to have a national unit established within the HSE, which will be in a position to consider and assess options for enhancing organ transplant outcomes, on the basis of good reported national data and evidence, including the case for and against establishing a national donor registry.

I understand that two double lung transplants have been completed in the Mater Misericordiae Hospital this year. In total, seven lung transplants have taken place to date this year, which is the second highest performance since transplantations commenced in 2005. Nonetheless, successful lung transplantation is a very difficult surgical procedure. Since the first lung transplant in the Mater Hospital in 2005, an average of five people have benefited annually from this life-saving procedure. In relation to whether an optimum number of double lung transplants is being carried out, I believe that an organ donation and transplantation unit established within the HSE’s national structures would be best placed to conduct an assessment of any of the transplant programmes in Ireland.

  184.  Deputy Jan O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    her views on the use of close coupled field technology devices to control swine flu and other airborne viruses in hospitals and other health service buildings; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40880/09]

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. 185 answered with Question No. 180.

  186.  Deputy Jan O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will ensure that the pilot project which administers intravenous antibiotics to patients in their own homes under the direction of University College Hospital Galway is continued after its private funding runs out in view of the benefit it brings to patients; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40882/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  187.  Deputy Paul Kehoe    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the reason a person (details supplied) was refused a back to school clothing and footwear allowance. [40994/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the HSE for attention and direct reply to the Deputy.

  188.  Deputy Edward O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the position regarding a medical card application in respect of a person (details supplied) in County Cork. [41001/09]

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.

  189.  Deputy James Reilly    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of applications for sick leave payment for more than 12 months since 1 January 2005; the number she approved; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41023/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  Under the terms of the Department of Health Circular No. 10/71, public health sector employees in ‘officer’ grades may be entitled to receive six months full-pay and six months half-pay in a four year period. Where an employee remains unfit for work, has exceeded sick pay entitlement and there is a reasonable expectation and intention to return to work, they may qualify to receive pension-rate of pay, provided that they have accrued not less than five years service. Under the terms of the circular, the consent of the Minister for Health and Children was required for the application of pension rate of pay. With effect from 15th July 2005, responsibility for the administration of pension rate of pay, in respect of Health Service Executive employees, transferred from my Department to the Executive. Accordingly, I have referred your query in relation to HSE employees, to [471]the HSE for direct reply. My Department is in the process of gathering information in relation to applications from other public health service employees, and it will be forwarded to the Deputy as soon as it is collated.

  190.  Deputy James Reilly    asked the Minister for Health and Children    the number of beds closed nationally at end October 2009; the location of same; the number closed due to cost containment measures, infection control and other matters; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41024/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  In line with international best practice, the measurement of performance of the health service in Ireland must increasingly focus on measurement of service outputs and patient outcomes, rather than primarily on inputs such as funding, staff and bed numbers. The exact number of beds available at any one time will fluctuate depending on the steps taken by each hospital to manage infection control issues, maintenance and refurbishment and to stay within its annual budget.

Irrespective of this, the HSE has concentrated on delivering the levels of activity promised in its 2009 National Service Plan. The latest HSE Performance Management Report shows that by the end of August, approximately 19,000 more patients had been treated as inpatients and day cases combined than had been treated at the same stage last year. The continued efforts by hospitals to reduce the length of time a patient remains in hospital, and converting inpatient procedures to day case work is unquestionably in the interests of patients. It also allows hospitals to treat more patients.

All initiatives which deliver better outputs and better outcomes for patients, within the more limited resources available to us, will continue to have my support. Indeed this type of approach was a central message in the recently published ESRI report. The detailed information requested is held by the Health Service Executive and I have asked the Executive to provide this information directly to the Deputy.

  191.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Health and Children    when a medical card will issue to a person (details supplied) in County Kildare; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41042/09]

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.

  192.  Deputy Edward O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Health and Children    if she will assist in having the immunisation record in the case of a person (details supplied) in County Cork issued in view of the fact that it is required to travel abroad. [41058/09]

Minister for Health and Children (Deputy Mary Harney):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  193.  Deputy Joe McHugh    asked the Minister for Transport    his plans to establish a national standard of cycling, similar to the standards that apply in Britain; his views on an accredited cycling standard in this country; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40885/09]

[472]Minister for Transport (Deputy Noel Dempsey):  Objective 11 of the National Cycle Policy Framework recognises the need to improve cycling standards and cyclists’ behaviour on the roads.

Education of young people in relation to cycling standards will, in my view, be a key intervention that can deliver lasting benefits. On this basis, I have recently established a Working Group on the Establishment of a National Certificate for Cycling for School Children with representation from the Department of Education and Science, the Irish National Teachers Organisation, the Road Safety Authority, An Taisce’s Greenschools Travel Programme, the Dublin Transportation Office, a number of local authorities and my Department.

  194.  Deputy Thomas Byrne    asked the Minister for Transport    the amount of funding approved to a local authority (details supplied) since May 2007 to date in 2009 which has not been drawn down; the projects to which this funding relates; the reason it was not drawn down; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40779/09]

Minister for Transport (Deputy Noel Dempsey):  The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads, in its area, is a statutory function of each road authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act, 1993. Works on such roads are a matter for the relevant local authority to be funded from its own resources supplemented by State road grants. The initial selection and prioritisation of projects to be funded is also a matter for the local authority.

Under section 82 of the Roads Act the Minister for Transport is empowered to pay grants to road authorities and under this power I allocate regional and local road grants to these authorities each year to supplement expenditure from their own resources. Draw down of the road grant allocations provided by my Department in relation to individual projects is a matter for each local authority.

I have set out the details regarding total regional and local road grant allocations and payments provided by my Department to Meath County Council from 2007 to 2009 in the table.

2007 Allocation 2007 Final Payment 2008 Allocation 2008 Final Payment 2009 Allocation 2009 payment to end October
29,653,934 29,492,526 28,402,945 28,053,813 16,566,473 11,954,458

  195.  Deputy Brian O’Shea    asked the Minister for Transport    when a decision will be made regarding the application for funding to finish the extension to the link road from Tallow school to the main road, Tallow, County Waterford; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41004/09]

Minister for Transport (Deputy Noel Dempsey):  The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads, in its area, is a statutory function of each road authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act, 1993. Works on such roads are a matter for the relevant local authority to be funded from its own resources supplemented by State road grants. The initial selection and prioritisation of projects to be funded is also a matter for the local authority.

In August my Department sought applications for consideration for funding under the Specific Improvement Grants scheme in 2010. Waterford County Council has included the Tallow Link Road among its applications for funding.

[473]I will announce the 2010 road grant allocations early in the New Year.

  196.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Transport    if he is preparing a White Paper on the future of Irish aviation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41133/09]

Minister for Transport (Deputy Noel Dempsey):  Ireland’s aviation policy as set out my Department’s current Statement of Strategy, is to promote regular, safe, cost effective and competitive air services linking the country with key business and tourism markets.

To this end, within the European Union, Ireland has consistently supported market liberalisation measures, which have, to date, served as the platform for the rapid expansion of aviation generally. We have also sought to influence the emerging EU and wider international framework for aviation to ensure that it continues to promote competition and innovation in the market-place.

Our approach to the encouragement of air services is complemented by our policy on the development of airport infrastructure within the country. The main objective is to ensure that the three State Airports have sufficient capacity to provide vital international access and to respond to a competitive airline sector. In addition, my Department provides financial support for the six regional airports as well as Public Service Obligation services connecting Kerry, Galway, Knock, Sligo, Donegal and Derry to Dublin.

The further key components of our strategy are to ensure that our aviation safety and security policies comply with, or exceed, the highest international standards and that the policy framework for air navigation services ensures that the requirements of airlines for efficient routings and the avoidance of delays are met as far as possible without compromising safety.

From an Irish economy perspective the overarching priority is to maintain the highest possible levels of connectivity between Ireland and key markets around the world and my Department will continue to closely monitor developments in the aviation sector that impact on that objective. While the economic downturn and high fuel costs continue to have a very negative impact on the sector I do not believe that a review of our strategy for aviation is warranted at this time.

  197.  Deputy Brendan Howlin    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of complaints received by the Garda Ombudsman Commission to date in 2009; the broad categories of these complaints; the number of complaints investigated to date in 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40822/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  In 2009, up to 31 October, a total of 1,781 complaints have been received by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. The main categories of these complaints are, abuse of authority, neglect of duty, discourtesy and non-fatal offences. So far this year, 1,197 complaints have been or are being investigated. Statistics relating to case throughput are available on the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission website at www.gardaombudsman.ie

  198.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the protocols for the gardaí when a person on the sex offenders register comes to live in a neighbourhood and in particular when there are young children living close by; if particular precautions are taken; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40851/09]

[474]Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The Sex Offenders Act 2001 contains a comprehensive series of provisions aimed at protecting children and other persons. The Act makes persons convicted of a range of sexual offences subject to notification requirements under its Part 2. The provisions of the Act also extend to any offenders convicted abroad of the same range of sexual offences who enter the State.

The Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Investigation Unit of the Garda National Bureau of Criminal Investigation is responsible for the monitoring of persons subject to the provisions of the Act. This Unit is supported by a nominated Inspector in each Garda Division, who is provided with all information relating to offenders resident in their area. The Unit maintains all information relating to persons who have obligations under the Act, and this information is updated on a regular basis.

Once a person becomes subject to the legislation he or she is informed by a member of An Garda Síochána of his or her obligations under the Act. An Garda Síochána works closely with the Probation Service in assessing, monitoring and managing potential risks. An assessment of all offenders who have obligations under the Act is currently being carried out. Should they arise, child protection issues are raised with the health authorities, as set out in the Children First Guidelines. Following the enactment of the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008, there is a power of arrest for persons who do not comply with their obligations under the Act.

A member of An Garda Síochána, not below the rank of Chief Superintendent, may apply to the Circuit Court for an order against any sex offender whose behaviour in the community gives An Garda Síochána reasonable cause for concern that such an order is necessary to protect the public from serious harm.

  199.  Deputy Paul Connaughton    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    when the recruitment process for Garda recruits in respect of the first 400 placed in order of merit following the aptitude test which was sat in 2008 will commence; when such candidates will be called for a medical examination; and when they will commence training. [40853/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The moratorium on recruitment and promotions in the Public Service applies to the Garda Síochána, both sworn members and civilian support staff. However, I will keep the situation under review in consultation with the Garda Commissioner and my colleague the Minister for Finance.

  200.  Deputy Olivia Mitchell    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the reason the naturalisation process for a person (details supplied) in Dublin 18 has been with his Department for more than 28 months; if he will ensure an early decision in view of the fact that the average waiting period advertised by his Department is 24 months; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40854/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  A valid application for a certificate of naturalisation from the person referred to in the Deputy’s Question were received in the Citizenship Division of my Department in August 2007.

All valid applications are dealt with in chronological order as this is deemed to be the fairest to all applicants. The average processing time from application to decision is now at 24 months. More complicated cases can at times take more than the current average, while an element of straight forward cases can be dealt with in less than that timescale.

The length of time taken to process each application should not be classified as a delay, as the length of time taken for any application to be decided is purely a function of the time taken [475]to carry out necessary checks. There is a limit to the reduction in the processing time that can be achieved as applications for naturalisation must be processed in a way which preserves the necessary checks and balances to ensure that it is not undervalued and is only given to persons who genuinely satisfy the necessary qualifying criteria.

Officials in the Citizenship section inform me that processing of the application of the person referred to in the Deputy’s Question is at an advanced stage and the file will be forwarded to me for a decision in the near future.

  201.  Deputy Róisín Shortall    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the protocol followed by his office in respect of inviting local public representatives to official functions, such as the opening of new Garda stations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40861/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  There are no protocols in place in my Office in relation to the matter raised by the Deputy. Arrangements in respect of invitations to official functions that I attend are co-ordinated by the host organisation and/or the relevant section of my Department. As to the opening of new Garda stations, I am informed that it is normal practice to invite local public representatives and every effort is always made to ensure that all relevant public representatives are invited.

  202.  Deputy Ulick Burke    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of gardaí at each Garda station in County Galway for each of the years 2006, 2007, 2008 and to date in 2009; the number of gardaí who have retired for each year and the number of replacements appointed to these vacancies for each rank; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40871/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I have been informed by the Garda Commissioner that the personnel strength of Galway Garda Division on 31 December 2006, 2007, 2008 and to date in 2009 was as set out in the following table:

Station 31/12/06 31/12/07 31/12/08 2009
Ahascragh 1 1 1 1
Ballinasloe 39 39 44 46
Ballygar 3 4 4 4
Kilconnell 1 1 1 1
Menlough 1 1 1 1
Mount Bellew 10 10 9 10
Moylough 1 1 1 1
Carna 2 2 2 2
Clifden 25 24 26 29
Lennaun 1 1 0 1
Letterfrack 0 0 1 1
Maam 1 1 1 2
Recess 1 1 1 1
Roundstone 1 1 1 1
Athenry 5 5 4 4
Carn Dolla 1 1 1 1
Galway 199 210 224 229
Kiltullagh 1 1 1 1
Lough George 3 3 3 2
Monivea 2 2 2 1
Oranmore 6 16 24 29
Ardrahan 1 1 1 1
Craughwell 2 2 2 2
Gort 25 28 27 31
Kilchreest 1 1 1 1
Kinvara 2 2 2 2
Shanaglish 1 1 1 1
Eyecourt 1 1 1 1
Killimor 1 1 1 1
Loughrea 33 36 38 41
New Inn 1 1 1 1
Portumna 9 8 8 9
Tynagh 1 1 1 1
Woodford 1 1 1 1
Carraroe 6 6 6 5
Cill Ronain 3 3 3 3
Inverin 1 1 1 1
Leitir Mor 1 1 1 1
Moycullen 2 2 2 3
Ros Muc 1 1 1 1
Salthill 44 43 48 46
Spiddle 3 3 2 2
Uachtarard 6 6 6 6
Ballymoe 1 1 1 1
Barnaderg 1 1 1 1
Corofin 2 2 1 1
Dunmore 3 4 3 4
Glenmady 2 2 2 2
Headford 5 5 5 5
Kilconly 1 1 1 1
Milltown 1 1 1 1
Tuam 47 51 54 55
Williamstown 1 1 1 1
Total 514 544 577 601

[477]The number of Gardaí assigned to the Galway Garda Division, by rank, is as follows:

Year CM DC AC CS SU IN SG GD Total
2009 1 1 8 11 78 502 601

The number of Gardaí that have retired for each of the years 2006, 2007, 2008 and to date in 2009 in the Galway Division is as set out in the following table:

Year A/Comm C/Supt. Supt. Inspector Sergeant Garda
2006 2 3 17
2007 1 1 1 8
2008 1 3 13
2009 2 6 23

Responsibility for the allocation of personnel rests with the Garda Commissioner, in conjunction with his senior management team. Resource levels are constantly monitored, in conjunction with crime trends and other demands made on An Garda Síochána, and are kept under review.

  203.  Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the position regarding an application for a certificate of naturalisation by a person (details supplied); if the person’s application will be favourably considered; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40992/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  A valid application for a certificate of naturalisation from the person referred to in the Deputy’s Question were received in the Citizenship Division of my Department in September 2008.

All valid applications are dealt with in chronological order as this is deemed to be the fairest to all applicants. The average processing time from application to decision is now at 24 months. More complicated cases can at times take more than the current average, while an element of straight forward cases can be dealt with in less than that timescale.

The length of time taken to process each application should not be classified as a delay, as the length of time taken for any application to be decided is purely a function of the time taken to carry out necessary checks. There is a limit to the reduction in the processing time that can be achieved as applications for naturalisation must be processed in a way which preserves the necessary checks and balances to ensure that it is not undervalued and is only given to persons who genuinely satisfy the necessary qualifying criteria.

  204.  Deputy Paul Kehoe    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the number of gardaí recruited into the force in each year from 1997 to date in 2009; the number of retirements from each rank in each of those years; the number of student gardaí in the Garda Training College in Templemore; the number of retirements in each rank who have notified to Garda authorities that they will retire in 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40993/09]

[478]Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  I am informed by the Garda authorities, that the number of retirements in each rank and the number of recruits, from 1997 to date in 2009 is as set out in the following table. There are also a further 326 students in training and it is expected that these students will be attested over the next 6 months.

I should point out that in relation to the 2009 retirements, as of Friday 6th November 2009, 708 members of the Force have already retired or declared their intention to retire, either voluntarily or on age grounds, in 2009.

Number of Gardaí, by rank, who retired from 1997

Year CM DC AC CS SU IN SG GD Total No. Recruited
1997 0 0 2 1 16 10 91 164 284 616
1998 0 1 1 3 13 10 67 169 264 550
1999 0 0 0 9 9 10 62 170 260 570
2000 0 0 0 3 15 6 57 201 282 508
2001 0 0 3 1 8 6 51 169 238 500
2002 0 0 0 6 17 17 77 226 343 546
2003 1 0 1 4 8 8 56 261 339 690
2004 0 0 0 7 13 11 77 304 412 519
2005 0 0 5 8 21 16 86 247 383 1,125
2006 0 0 1 7 15 14 76 191 304 1,114
2007 1 0 1 3 9 6 36 128 184 1,026
2008 0 1 3 4 12 13 52 174 259 926
2009 0 0 3 12 26 31 166 466 704 200
TOTALS 4,256 8,890

Even taking into account the increased rate of retirements this year, the strength of the force is set to reach an all time high by the end of 2009.

  205.  Deputy Paul Kehoe    asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform    the position on a building (details supplied); the stage the proposed building is at; the stages it has to go through before construction begins; the start date for construction; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40996/09]

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern):  The programme of replacement and refurbishment of Garda accommodation is based on agreed priorities established by An Garda Síochána and progressed by the Office of Public Works, which has responsibility for the provision and maintenance of Garda accommodation.

I am advised by the Garda Authorities that a two acre site has been acquired for the provision of the building referred to by the Deputy. The project is at the early design stage and will proceed in the context of the Garda Síochána’s identified accommodation priorities and in the light of available resources. Accordingly, it is not possible to say at this stage when construction will commence.

[479]I am also advised by the Garda authorities that, in the interim, the Commissioner has requested the Office of Public Works to provide suitable additional accommodation to improve facilities at the station and arrangements are currently underway in this regard.

  206.  Deputy Olivia Mitchell    asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism    the status of the application for funding from Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council for the swimming pool refurbishment at Glenalbyn; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40984/09]

Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism (Deputy Martin Cullen):  The Local Authority Swimming Pool Programme, which is administered by the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, provides grant aid to a maximum of €3.8 million towards the capital costs of new swimming pools or the refurbishment of existing pools, subject in both cases to the total grant not exceeding 80% of the eligible cost of the project or, in the case of projects located in disadvantaged areas, 90% of the eligible cost.

A Preliminary Report was approved in 2001 for the refurbishment of the existing swimming pool and the provision of additional leisure facilities at Glenalbyn. Further progression of this project is a matter for the relevant Local Authority concerned. I have been informed that Dun Laoghaire County Council is currently reviewing the swimming pool and leisure facilities throughout the County and bearing in mind the availability of funds and the level of demand and community need, priorities will be decided with a view to continuing the programme of development of leisure facilities in the County.

  207.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs    if a decision has been reached in the relocation of the offices of his Department to Charlestown, County Mayo; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40825/09]

Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív):  As the Deputy will be aware, the Office of Public Works (OPW) are currently in the process of selecting and purchasing a permanent site for my Department’s headquarters at Charlestown, Co. Mayo. I understand that negotiations are still ongoing in relation to a particular site in Charlestown, which the OPW has identified as being suitable.

The Deputy will also be aware that the Department of Finance was approached some time ago by a community development organisation in relation to a property in Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, with turn-key potential as a headquarters building. On foot of this approach, OPW have now carried out an examination of the property in question to ascertain its suitability and is in the process of competing its final report in this regard. I should emphasise that this is a sensible and prudent response to the approach that has been made and implies no decision.

  208.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs    if he will support a group (details supplied) in County Dublin; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40868/09]

Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív):  Fingal LEADER Partnership is one of 36 groups contracted by my Department to deliver the Rural [480]Development Programme Ireland 2007-2013. The Group was awarded an overall amount of €7,766,780 for the duration of the Programme. The Group covers all rural areas of Co Dublin including Portmarnock.

The project in question may be eligible in principle; however, in line with the bottom-up nature of the LEADER approach, Fingal LEADER Partnership is the principal decision-maker regarding the allocation and subsequent management of project funding. I would advise the interested party to contact Fingal LEADER Partnership directly at Unit 14, BEaT Centre, Stephenstown Industrial Estate, Balbriggan, Co Dublin.

  209.  Deputy Joe Costello    asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs    when the Dormant Accounts Fund was established; the amount of money his Department has received from this fund in each year and to date in 2009; the distribution of the total moneys by county; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40982/09]

Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív):  The Dormant Accounts Fund Acts provides for an annual transfer by credit institutions and insurance undertakings of monies in accounts determined to be dormant into the Dormant Accounts Fund (DAF). Since its establishment in April 2003, to the end of September 2009, the transfers to the DAF have totalled some €513.90m, broken down each year as follows:

Year Transferred from Financial Institutions
€m
2003 196.21
2004 56.02
2005 40.82
2006 80.15
2007 66.30
2008 33.03
2009 (to 30.09.2009) 41.37

Funds reclaimed since April 2003 total some €181.27m. The value of the Fund at the end of September 2009, net of liabilities, was some €49.76m. This figure excludes around €46.5m maintained in a Reserve Account to meet future reclaims by account holders and to cover expenses associated with the operation of the Fund.

Details of the individual grants and organisations that have been approved for support from the Fund and their geographical location are available on the Department’s website at www.pobail.ie.

  210.  Deputy Denis Naughten    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the savings made to date in 2009 by her Department as a result of fraud detection; if she will achieve her departmental target by year end in 2009; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40839/09]

[481]Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  At the end of September 2009, the Department recorded control savings of nearly €355m, which is 78% of the year to date target of €453m. The annual control target for 2009 is €616.5m. It is difficult to project what the control savings for 2009 will be at this point but it is unlikely that the Department will reach the control savings target of €616.5m.

It must be noted that control activity is currently being focused on prevention of fraud and error at claim application stage. Savings made from the detection of bogus claims at application stage cannot be estimated as the claim will not go into payment. However, this is the most cost effective mechanism of reducing losses through fraud and error in social welfare schemes.

The significant increase in the live register has impacted on the Department’s capacity to review claims. The increase has put pressure on staffing resources and particularly on social welfare inspectors who are responsible both for carrying out means-tests on initial applicants and conducting anti-fraud inspections.

The Department’s response to these challenges has been to introduce new measures to target control activity at high risk categories of claimants. For example: Control activity is being focused on the prevention of fraud and error at claim application stage. The Special Investigation Unit is undertaking more regular interviews of jobseeker recipients, particularly those with high risk ratings. As a preventative measure the option to receive payments by Electronic Fund Transfer (EFT) was removed for new claimants for jobseeker payments. They must attend in person at the post office each week thus confirming their continued residency in the country. Their claim is automatically suspended where two consecutive payments are not collected. Border regions have put an increased emphasis on controls on claims from applicants with a previous address in Northern Ireland. One Parent Family Payment recipients with earnings are targeted for on-going review. The frequency of issue of mail shots to validate continued entitlement to Child Benefit has been increased to 3 monthly intervals for EU worker customers and resident non-Irish national customers. The number of anonymous reports from members of the public has increased dramatically in the past year, with over 4,600 reports made at end September 2009 compared to approximately 1000 reports made in 2008. Each report is followed-up. The Department is moving to a risk-based system which will achieve better value for money by focusing scarce resources on the most appropriate cases. For example for Disability Allowance, a new control review policy for the scheme was introduced in January 2009 which involves assigning and recording a risk rating at the award and review stage of all claims in the medical and means categories. A similar risk based control review policy is being piloted for Carer’s Allowance with the same approach planned for Invalidity Pension. New data matches have been initiated to effectively target reviews and generate savings. In 2009 data was received from The Personal Injuries Assessment Board, The Commission for Taxi Regulation, The Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal and Local Authorities. In addition agreement has recently been reached with The Revenue Commissioners for data on capital assets.

The Department is committed to ensuring that social welfare payments are available to those who are entitled to them. In this regard the control programme of the Department is carefully monitored and the various measures are continuously refined to ensure that they remain effective.

Question No. 211 answered with Question No. 91.

Question No. 212 answered with Question No. 93.

[482]Question No. 213 answered with Question No. 91.

  214.  Deputy Arthur Morgan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if her attention has been drawn to an upsurge in attendance at Money Advice and Budgeting Service offices; the consequences of the increased numbers on persons seeking this service and on its staff; if the quality of the service is effected; and the effect of that reduced service on its customers. [37608/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) is the main Government funded service which provides assistance to people who are over-indebted and need help and advice in coping with debt problems. The role of money advisors is to help clients to assess their financial situation, make a budget plan and deal with creditors. The MABS is now dealing with increasing complex debt situations in respect of clients who are presenting with multiple creditors/debts. It is important that people coping with debt difficulties take early action and approach MABS for help and guidance. This can be the first positive step for people in addressing debt difficulties.

In 2009, funding of €18 million has been provided to MABS to deliver its services. There is 271 money advice staff working in 65 locations around the country to assist the local services in managing their increased caseloads. This includes an additional nineteen posts which are currently being recruited, of which 6 are currently in place with the remainder been appointed by early December. The capacity of the LoCall telephone helpline has also been strengthened and MABS NDL the national support company has introduced a number of community education initiatives.

In addition to MABS NDL, there are 52 independent MABS companies providing advice, operating nationwide from 65 locations throughout the country. All MABS companies operate an appointment system for clients. Clients with urgent difficulties are prioritised for attention and are dealt with promptly. Less urgent cases are referred in the first instance to the MABS National Telephone Helpline which is available from 9am to 8pm Monday to Friday at LoCall number 1890 283 438. The budgeting and money management information can also be accessed 24 hours a day at www.mabs.ie.

The Helpline handles less complex straight-forward single debt cases such as threatened utility disconnections. In such cases, MABS Helpline staff deal directly with the ESB and An Bord Gais to resolve the issue. Over 90% of callers to the Helpline find that their money management and budgeting issues can be resolved with the assistance of the helpline advisor. Staff have proved to be very effective in supporting clients to take preliminary action to address their debts without the need for a meeting with a money adviser. Some 10% of callers are referred to the local MABS for assistance.

In 2008, over 16,600 clients approached the MABS for assistance with debt difficulties; the telephone helpline dealt with almost 11,000 callers. At the end of October 2009, some 16,300 clients were seen by MABS staff. The MABS helpline received over 20,800 calls in the same period.

I am satisfied that MABS provides a high quality personal money advice and budgeting service to members of the public who may have difficulty in coping with the burden of indebtedness and the additional resources provided will assist them meet the demand for their services.

  215.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the position regarding an illness benefit appeal in respect of a person (details supplied) in County Mayo. [40776/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I am advised by the Social Welfare Appeals Office that, in accordance with statutory requirements, the Department was asked for the documentation in the case and the Deciding Officer’s comments on the grounds of the appeal. In that context, an examination by another Medical Assessor will be carried out. The person concerned will be notified when arrangements for the examination have been completed. The Social Welfare Appeals Office is an office of the Department that is independently responsible for determining appeals against decisions on social welfare entitlements.

  216.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the revenue to date in 2009 from social insurance, distinguishing the contributions from the self-employed, from employers and from employees; if it is less than predicted; if so, the amount; and her best estimate for revenue in 2009 and the forecast for 2010. [40990/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The information requested by the Deputy is set out in the following table:

2009 PRSI INCOME*

Total Employer Employee Self Employed
€5,050 million €3,774 million €1,183 million €93 million

Revenue Estimates 2009 & 2010

In relation to the 2009 and 2010 Revenue estimates the Revised Estimates Volume for 2009 provided for PRSI income of € 7,500 million. Current indications are that this will be achieved and may even be slightly exceeded. The forecast for 2010 is being addressed in the context of the 2010 Estimates and Budget process which is currently underway.

  217.  Deputy Michael Ring    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the number of recipients of a payment in each social welfare payment category; the cost in each category for the year 2008; the average payment made to recipients; the estimated costs for 2009 if same were to proceed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41007/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  Table 1 sets out the number of recipients and overall cost for each scheme for which a Christmas Bonus was paid in 2008. The bonus was paid as 100% of the weekly personal payment. It is estimated that a 100% bonus in 2009 would cost around €223 million and benefit over 985,000 recipients.

[484]Cost of Christmas Bonus for 2008

Schemes Numbers of Recipients Cost at 100%
€m
State Pension Non-Contributory 97,720 20.53
Blind Pension 1,470 0.30
Jobseeker’s Allowance 68,100 15.68
Farm Assist 7,410 1.58
Back to Work Allowance 8,840 1.37
Back to Education Allowance 9,000 1.98
Part Time Job Incentive Scheme 200 0.02
Pre-Retirement Allowance 8,680 1.97
One Parent Family 86,990 19.71
Widow(er)’s Pension (non-con) 2,020 0.37
Guardian’s Payment (non-con) 440 0.10
Social Assistance Allowance 600 0.12
Carer’s Allowance 39,500 7.94
Disability Allowance 95,780 19.84
Subtotal Assistance 426,750 91.50
Invalidity Pension 54,730 12.70
OI Death Benefit 440 0.12
OI Disablement (Workmen’s com, medical care) 13,100 1.32
State Pension (Contributory) 249,000 57.42
State Pension (Transition) 7,500 1.79
Widow(er)’s Pension (Con) 112,140 24.23
Guardian’s Payment (Con) 790 0.17
Deserted Wife’s Benefit 9,030 1.93
Carer’s Benefit 2,500 0.58
Subtotal Insurance 449,230 100.25
Total Assistance and Insurance 875,980 191.75

  218.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the number of persons on the live register at the various employment exchanges in County Kildare at 31 October 2009; the corresponding date in each of the past five years; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41027/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The Government recognises that there has been an increase in the numbers unemployed at national and local level. The National Employment Action Plan (NEAP) is the main welfare to work measure under which all persons between the ages of 18 and 65 years who are approaching 3 months on the live register are identified by the Department of Social and Family Affairs and referred to FÁS for interview with a view to assisting them enter/re-enter the labour market. The NEAP process is a key element in addressing the progression needs of those on the live register.

The Government is now providing, through FÁS, a total of 128,000 training and activation places for the unemployed this year. This is a substantial increase on the approximate 66,000 [485]places taken up last year. In addition, there are 146,700 places available in further education programmes in 2009. This demonstrates the scale of activity being supported by this Government to ensure that people are best positioned to get back into employment.

The data requested by the Deputy is presented in tabular format in respect of the three social welfare offices in Kildare as recorded on the last Friday in October for the years 2005 to 2009, inclusive.

Office October 2009 October 2008 October 2007 October 2006 October 2005
Athy BO 2,430 1,574 1,011 860 850
Maynooth BO 5,785 2,942 1,606 1,422 1,311
Newbridge LO 8,364 5,302 3,045 2,668 2,279
Co. Kildare Total 16,579 9,818 5,662 4,950 4,440

The live register is published monthly by the Central Statistics Office and can be accessed directly through their website at www.cso.ie.

  219.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the steps she proposes to take to improve eligibility for respite grants with particular reference to easing the guidelines having particular regard to the high level of refusals on medical and income grounds; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41028/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The respite care grant is an annual payment for carers who look after certain people in need of full-time care and attention. One respite care grant per year may be paid in respect of each person for whom the carer is providing full time care and attention. In June 2008 the grant was increased from €1,500 to €1,700 per year in respect of each care recipient. In order to qualify for the grant the person being cared for must need full time care and attention for at least 6 months.

The grant is paid automatically to those in receipt of carer’s allowance, carer’s benefit or domiciliary care allowance on the first Thursday in June. Other people providing full-time care who do not meet the criteria for these schemes can apply to the Department for a grant each year. From June 2005, the respite care grant was extended to all carers, regardless of their income, who are providing full-time care to a person who needs such care. This arrangement was introduced to acknowledge the needs of carers, especially in relation to respite.

The refusal rate for respite care grant for those who are not in receipt of a qualifying payment is approximately 15%. There are a number of reasons why an application for the respite care grant might be refused: the medical referee is not satisfied that the care recipient requires full-time care and attention; the full-time care and attention is not being provided by the applicant; the person applying for the grant has already received it, as they are in receipt of carer’s allowance, carer’s benefit or domiciliary care allowance. The Deputy should be aware that an applicant cannot be refused on the basis of income.

I am satisfied that the current guidelines governing the respite care grant ensure that the resources available for the scheme are targeted at those most in need. I have no plans to review the eligibility criteria for the respite care grant at this time.

  220.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the extent to which bilateral social welfare agreements with other jurisdictions have been reviewed; if same will be reviewed within the context of improving or enhancing entitlements; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41029/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  Ireland has social security agreements with Austria, Australia, Canada, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the USA. Most of the agreements came into effect between 1989 and 1999. The Agreement with the Republic of Korea came into effect on 1 January 2009. Ireland also has a bilateral understanding with Quebec since 1 October 1994. In the cases of Austria and Switzerland the agreements have limited application, as the EU Regulations now apply to these countries.

An agreement with Japan was signed on 29 October 2009 and it is envisaged that the remaining formalities will be completed to enable it come into effect before end 2010. The agreements with UK and Australia are the only agreements which have been revised. The current Agreement with the UK, which came into effect on 1 October 2007, provided for the repeal of previous agreements which had been superseded by EU Regulations. Provision was made to extend social security protection for migrant workers moving between Ireland and the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands which are outside the EU. The agreement with Australia was revised mainly to accommodate changes in Australian legislation. The process also facilitated technical updates on the Irish side (changes of scheme names etc.), but no substantive change was required.

Revisions to the agreement with New Zealand are currently being negotiated. The New Zealand authorities are examining the impact on Bilateral agreements of changes to their national legislation. The changes being considered on the Irish side are similar to the technical updating made in the revision of the agreement with Australia. These agreements are working well and meeting their intended purposes. Revision of the substantive provisions on the Irish side are not considered necessary at present.

Question No. 221 answered with Question No. 84.

  222.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she will ensure that child benefit is not interfered with in the course of budgetary reviews within her Department; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41031/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  As the Deputy will be aware, the rates of child benefit have increased significantly since 2001 having trebled for the first two children and increased by over 185% for the third and subsequent children. Partly as a result of this and partly as a result of an increase in the number of eligible children, overall expenditure on child benefit grew from just under €965 million in 2001 to nearly €2.5 billion in 2008. This level of expenditure is unsustainable in the current economic crisis and so the Minister for Finance, mindful of the need to address all aspects of the public finances so as to avoid excessive borrowing and to ensure that fairness exists in the allocation of resources, indicated in the Supplementary Budget the Government’s intention to consider taxing or means testing child benefit from 2010.

[487]In this regard, the Commission of Taxation was requested to examine the implications of taxing child benefit. The Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes was appointed with a mandate to examine all current Exchequer Programmes across all Departments and agencies to see where savings might be made. The reports of this Group and of the Commission of Taxation contain a wide range of proposals relating to my Department’s schemes and services, including the child benefit scheme and decisions in relation to these will be made in the context of the forthcoming budget and subsequent budgets. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on individual proposals at this stage.

In its deliberations the Government will be mindful of the needs of families, particularly those on lower incomes when deciding on the various options in the forthcoming budget.

  223.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the range of back-to-work incentives available through her Department at present; the extent to which she proposes to improve the existing or introduce new schemes in this context; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41032/09]

  224.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    her views on the introduction of an accelerated schemes of back-to-work incentives for persons in both the PAYE and self employed sectors; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41033/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 223 and 224 together.

One of the goals of the social welfare system is to be responsive to the needs of people of working age and to facilitate them taking up relevant employment or self-employment opportunities. In order to respond effectively to the growing numbers on the Live Register and the current employment situation, it was decided in the context of the recent supplementary budget to refocus resources on the back to work enterprise allowance which supports people into self employment. These changes significantly strengthen the supports for jobseekers wishing to move to self employment. The main back to work incentives available from this Department to new applicants for jobseekers payments are the short-term enterprise allowance and the back to work enterprise allowance schemes. Since 1 May 2009, claimants who qualify for jobseeker’s benefit are afforded immediate access to a new short term enterprise allowance, provided they have 104 contributions paid or have established entitlement to statutory redundancy from their latest period of employment. It is payable at the same rate and for the same duration as jobseeker’s benefit.

For jobseekers on the live register, the qualifying period required for access to the back to work enterprise allowance scheme has been reduced from 2 years to 12 months provided an entitlement to jobseeker’s allowance is established. Those who do not have an underlying entitlement to jobseeker’s allowance can access the scheme, as before, subject to a 2 year qualifying period. These changes to improve access to the scheme were made in conjunction with a reduction in the period for which the allowance is payable from 4 years to 2 years at 100% of existing social welfare entitlement in the first year and 75% in the second year. Furthermore, people who previously participated in the back to work enterprise allowance scheme may apply a second time after a period of at least 5 years has elapsed. The back to work allowance employee strand has been closed to new applications since 1 May 2009 but persons [488]who qualified before that date continued to receive their entitlements. The Family Income Supplement (FIS) is a non taxable payment, introduced to provide income support for employees on low earnings with families and thereby preserve the incentive to remain in employment in circumstances where they might otherwise only be marginally better off than if they were fully reliant on social welfare payments.

The Government is determined to ensure that everything practicable is done to help people to stay in work or get back to work or self-employment as quickly as possible. The operation of the back to work scheme has been reviewed and modified over the years to ensure it continues to remain relevant to those needing support. The qualifying conditions will continue to be monitored in the context of the objectives of the scheme and changing economic circumstances. All social welfare schemes are being examined as part of the deliberative process in advance of the annual budget.

  225.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she will ensure that dental and optical entitlements are not interfered with in the course of budgetary reviews in her Department; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41034/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  Any proposal to amend entitlement to dental and optical benefit will be considered as part of the Estimates and Budget process for 2010. This will include consideration of the report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes, and the decisions on all of the issues arising will be a matter for the Government. It would not be appropriate for me to comment further at this stage pending the outcome of these deliberative processes.

Questions Nos. 226 to 228, inclusive, answered with Question No. 84.

  229.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    if she has carried out a review in her Department to determine the extent to which the services she has in place are adequate to meet the full range and nature of inquiries presenting; her view on the necessity to respond more rapidly to the various applicants for social welfare payments during the economic downturn; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41038/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The Department is committed to delivering a quality service to all its customers. A continuous programme of process improvement initiatives is underway aimed at streamlining the processing of claims, supported by modern technology. Operational processes and procedures and the organisation of work are continually reviewed to ensure that processing capability is maximised and that claims are processed as expeditiously as possible having regard to the eligibility conditions that apply to each scheme. Since early 2008, the Department has experienced significant pressure on customer services due mainly to the increase in the Live Register. In recognition of this pressure, the Government has approved an increase in the number of staff working in the Department. A range of process improvement initiatives to deal with the increased volume of Jobseekers claims has been introduced. In addition, five Local Office Support Units have been set up around the country to support the processing of claims. These measures, coupled with the additional resources assigned to Local Offices, are having a positive effect on customer service.

[489]To ensure that claims are processed as efficiently as possible and that customers receive their entitlements in a timely manner all application forms have been designed to facilitate the use of scanning and automated processing. An on-line facility to enable applications for a number of schemes, i.e. State Pension (Contributory) and Household Benefits, to be completed and submitted on-line, has been implemented. This facility will be extended to other schemes in the coming months. The objective is to enable people to access services at a time and place that best suits their needs. The use of on-line application forms reduces the administrative burden for customers and facilitates efficient processing of claims by the Department. A new telephony system and call management software, as well as new working arrangements, have been introduced in headquarter buildings and local offices to deal with some half-a-million telephone calls received per month. These initiatives have resulted in a noticeable improvement in telephone response times and overall call management. I am satisfied that the initiatives underway in the Department, the improvements to processes and procedures, and the Department’s use of modern technology will deliver an improved and efficient service to customers.

  230.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs    the options available to persons (details supplied) in County Kildare to allow them to legitimately take up periodic employment without loss of social welfare entitlement; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41041/09]

Minister for Social and Family Affairs (Deputy Mary Hanafin):  The person concerned is in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance at the rate of €443.90 a week comprising of the personal rate of €204.30, an increase for a qualified adult of €135.60 and increases for four qualified children totalling €104. Jobseeker’s allowance is a means tested payment consequently all earnings from employment are assessable as means and would affect entitlement with the exception of a disregard of €60 a week (€20 a day for three days) in respect of insurable employment. Sixty per cent of the balance of earnings, after the application of the disregard is assessed as means. All income from self employment is assessable as means for jobseeker’s allowance purposes — there is no disregard where self employment is concerned. The loss of entitlement due to employment depends on the type and nature of the employment and the level of earnings involved and on the circumstances of the case.

Should the person concerned and/or their spouse take up periodic employment, means would be determined by averaging the earnings over a period which would depend on the pattern of the employment. It is not possible to be specific in this case given the paucity of information relating to the type of employment envisaged. The persons concerned should seek an interview with the Manager of the Social Welfare Local Office at Blackhall Street, Mullingar for information and advice relating to their circumstances. If they are interested in information and guidance with regard to employment retraining and education options they should also seek an interview with a Job Facilitator at the Local Office in Mullingar.

  231.  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan    asked the Minister for Defence    the cost of purchasing and the fitting out of the containers which were procured for living accommodation at Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin 6 in 2008; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40846/09]

Minister for Defence (Deputy Willie O’Dea):  Twenty containerised accommodation units have been provided for temporary accommodation for third-level students in Cathal Brugha [490]Barracks. These units were built as accommodation units for single occupancy. The units consist of en-suite accommodation and are fully furnished and heated. The Military authorities advise me that the units are compliant with all relevant regulations, and are similar to units used for accommodating troops in some missions overseas. The units were purchased pending completion of the living-in accommodation study, which is currently ongoing. The cost of purchasing the accommodation units was €164,741 (VAT inclusive) and the fitting out of the containers cost an additional €40,000. These containers have an expected life of 12-15 years and will, once the need for them in Cathal Brugha Barracks has passed, be retained for use in training location in Ireland or on overseas missions.

  232.  Deputy Thomas Byrne    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    if a person who is a homeowner is liable to pay non-principal private residence tax on that property if he or she is forced to rent and live in a separate property due to work commitments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40819/09]

Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy John Gormley):  The Government has decided to broaden the revenue base of local authorities through the introduction of this charge on non-principal private residences, which is set at €200 per dwelling and is being levied and collected by local authorities. It will be used to support the provision of local services and income from the charge will be retained by individual local authorities that collect it. The Local Government (Charges) Act 2009, which sets out the detail of the charge, is structured with a starting position of a universal liability for residential property in respect of the charge. It goes on to exempt certain buildings and owners from this liability, the most important exemption being where a property is occupied by the owner as his or her sole or main residence on the liability date. In a case where a person owns a property in which he or she does not live and his or her sole or main residence is a rented property, there would be a liability for the charge in respect of the property owned by the person unless it is otherwise exempt under the provisions of the Act.

  233.  Deputy Pat Breen    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    his plans to introduce legislation in relation to the licensing of septic tanks; if so, his views on the cost implications of licensing for the elderly and the less well off; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40739/09]

Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy John Gormley):  I refer to the reply to Question No. 230 of 4 November 2009. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that Ireland failed to fulfil its obligations under Articles 4 and 8 of the Waste Directive as regards domestic waste waters disposed of in the countryside through septic tanks and other individual waste water treatment systems.

The renewed Programme for Government includes a commitment to introduce a scheme for the licensing and inspection of septic tanks and other on-site waste water treatment systems. My Department, which has already established a task force to consider the matter, will be developing proposals to give effect to this commitment and to respond in full to the ECJ judgement; this will involve consideration of the impacts of any proposals, including the costs generally and to particular groups.

  234.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    when he will sanction Mayo County Council to proceed to tender for a project (details supplied) in County Mayo; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40780/09]

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy Michael Finneran):  On 30 January 2009 I announced funding of €13 million for the improvement of five disadvantaged local authority estates at various locations around the country including Parkview, Charlestown, Co. Mayo. The project involves, inter alia, the refurbishment of 23 dwellings and the construction of 7 new units. A detailed design and cost plan was submitted to my Department by Mayo County Council on 10 September. This is being examined at present with a view to approving the project to progress to tender stage.

  235.  Deputy Dan Neville    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    if he will allow extra time for persons to pay the residential property tax on second homes in view of the lack of information available to persons who had queries relating to this tax; his views on changing the date that the second payment is due that is in 2010 to at least 12 months from the date they would have applied in 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40792/09]

Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy John Gormley):  The Government has decided to broaden the revenue base of local authorities through the introduction of this charge on non-principal private residences. The charge is set at €200 per dwelling and is being levied and collected by local authorities. It will be used to support the provision of local services and the income from the charge will be retained by the individual local authorities that collect it.

The liability date for 2009 was 31 July 2009 and payment became due two months later, on 30 September 2009. There was then a further period of one month’s grace before late charges commenced on 1 November 2009. There was thus ample time — a total of three months — for a person to pay the charge before any penalties commenced. The charge is payable on a point-in-time basis on a single liability date in each calendar year. That liability date will be 31 March in 2010 and in future years.

  236.  Deputy Phil Hogan    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    when approval will be granted to proceed to contract for the Tullow waste water treatment plant in County Carlow; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40798/09]

  237.  Deputy Phil Hogan    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    when approval will be sanctioned to build the Rathvilly waste water treatment plant in County Carlow. [40799/09]

  238.  Deputy Phil Hogan    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    when funding will be approved to construct the Carlow town north regional water supply scheme phase two and Carlow town water supply network. [40800/09]

[492]Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy John Gormley):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 236 to 238, inclusive, together.

The Tullow/Hacketstown/Rathvilly Treatment Plants Sewerage Scheme is included for funding in my Department’s Water Services Investment Programme 2007-2009 at an estimated cost of €6 million. My Department awaits the submission of Carlow County Council’s Preliminary Report for the scheme.

The Carlow North Regional Water Supply Scheme Stage 2 (Main Scheme) is also included in the Programme at an estimated cost of €33 million. This scheme involves the upgrade and expansion of water treatment plants at Rathvilly, Tullow, Sion Cross and Raheenleigh, the upgrade and provision of new distribution systems in the north of the County and a rising main which will augment the water supply for Carlow Town from the Rathvilly plant. The scheme will also involve the construction of new reservoirs at Rathvilly, Graiguenaspidogue and Brownshill near Carlow Town. The necessary works have already been carried out at the Sion Cross plant and Carlow County Council will shortly seek tenders to upgrade the Raheenleigh plant. My Department awaits the submission of the Council’s contract documents for the remaining works under the Regional scheme.

Local authorities were asked in July to submit an assessment of needs for water and sewerage services to my Department by 23 October last. My Department has commenced consideration of these assessments, which will form a key input to the development of the 2010 to 2012 Water Services Investment Programme. In conducting their assessments, local authorities were asked to prioritise schemes and contracts for progression over the coming years based on key environmental and economic criteria. It is anticipated that the Water Services Investment Programme 2010 to 2012 will be published in early 2010.

  239.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government    the number of landlords who have registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board; the compliance level that is being achieved by the registration system; if he will indicate the number of compliance notices or proceedings that have arisen in respect of registration; and his views on whether the legislation is adequately framed to allow residents to inform themselves of the identity of landlords who may not be fulfilling their obligations in the neighbourhood. [40855/09]

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy Michael Finneran):  I have no function in the operational matters of the Private Residential Tenancies Board (PRTB), an independent statutory body established under the Residential Tenancies Act 2004.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that since its establishment, the Board has achieved considerable success in the registration of tenancies and I understand that in excess of 227,000 active tenancies are currently registered with the PRTB. This represents more than 112,000 active landlords and some 388,000 active tenants. It is not possible to estimate the number of landlords who have yet to comply with the registration requirements of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. It is nonetheless noteworthy to compare the number of tenancies now registered with the previous system of registration with local authorities when registrations did not exceed 30,000.

[493]The PRTB enforces registration requirements in accordance with the provisions of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, specifically sections 144 and 145, which provide for the issuing of notices to landlords and/or occupiers of the dwellings in question and the prosecution of offenders for non-compliance with the registration requirement. Since 2004, the Board has examined more than 8,000 cases of non-registration and has subsequently issued over 12,500 enforcement notices to landlords and/or occupiers of dwellings. These measures generally ensure compliance and as a result the Board has only had to prosecute a landlord for non-compliance on one occasion.

The Residential Tenancies Act provides for a third party, subject to certain conditions, to refer a dispute to the Private Residential Tenancies Board against a landlord who has failed to enforce tenant obligations. The Board can direct the landlord to ensure that tenants comply with their obligations and can enforce compliance through the Courts.

A specific condition is that the third party complainant must have taken all reasonable steps to resolve the matter by communicating or attempting to communicate with the parties to the tenancy concerned. Under section 77 of the Act, the Private Residential Tenancies Board may furnish to a person proposing to make a third party complaint the name and address of the landlord concerned or his or her agent. The Board may be contacted at their offices at O’Connell Bridge House, Dublin 2, or by phone or email, contact details of which are available on their website.

  240.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources    when a decision will be made regarding the location of the headquarters of Inland Fisheries for the western region; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40809/09]

Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Conor Lenihan):  The Government has recently agreed to the retention of offices in both Ballina and Galway within the new inland fisheries management structures, given the scale of operations in the Western River Basin District.

  241.  Deputy Michael Creed    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food    if he is undertaking an investigation in relation to sheep movements and lamb imports, the claiming of flat rate VAT refund on imported lambs at lamb processing facilities; the processing facilities involved; the details of the investigations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40810/09]

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Brendan Smith):  I can confirm that, as part of an investigation into movements of sheep, officers from my Department have visited a number of farms and slaughtering establishments. The information that has been gathered as a result of these visits is being examined, and the investigation is continuing. In the circumstances it would be inappropriate to comment further pending the outcome of the investigation.

  242.  Deputy Michael Creed    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food    his views on compulsory electronic sheep tagging; and the action he has taken and the progress he is [494]making at European level to secure a voluntary option on electronic tagging for sheep farmers here. [40811/09]

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Brendan Smith):  The introduction of electronic identification (EID) for sheep was agreed at EU level in late 2003. At that time, it was agreed to defer the implementation date until January 2008. The Council revisited this issue in December 2007 when it was agreed that the deadline for the compulsory introduction of EID should be set for 31 December 2009, 6 years after the original decision was taken.

I have always had the greatest reluctance in relation to the mandatory introduction of EID. My consistent view has been that the introduction of EID of sheep should only have been introduced on a voluntary basis. There has, however, been a lack of support from other EU Member States or from the European Commission for a voluntary scheme.

In the discussions in Brussels, a number of measures have been negotiated intended to minimise any inconvenience in its introduction. In particular, provision has been made to exempt from EID, lambs under 12 months of age and that are intended for slaughter. This means that the vast majority of Irish sheep will not be affected by the EID requirement. Primarily only those animals retained for breeding over the coming years would have to be electronically tagged and so the additional costs to farmers in any given year are being kept to a minimum.

It is my intention that the scheme to be introduced during the course of next year will be implemented in consultation with the stakeholders and will take appropriate account of Irish conditions.

  243.  Deputy Pat Breen    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food    when a revised scheme to replace the REP scheme will be finalised; if discussions with the European Commission have been completed in relation to the scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40813/09]

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Brendan Smith):  My Department has submitted proposals for a new agri-environmental scheme to the European Commission as part of a draft amendment to the Rural Development Programme 2007-13. Initial bilateral discussions have taken place. The Commission has set out its comments and questions in writing. My Department will give its response this week and further bilateral discussions will take place shortly. I am hopeful that an amendment to the programme will be approved in December so that the new scheme can be introduced early in 2010.

  244.  Deputy Martin Ferris    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food    if he will ensure the opening of the operational programme for fisheries in order to ensure funding for the aquaculture sector. [40815/09]

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Brendan Smith):  The delay in the launch of the National Seafood Development Operational Programme 2007-13 arose as a result of concerns raised by the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on behalf of the Central Fisheries Board, during the public consultation process. The concerns related to the grant aiding of projects where environmental issues had been identified regarding compliance with the EU Birds and [495]Habitats Directives and sea lice control on salmon farms. Pending resolution of these issues, the National Seafood Development Operational Programme has not yet been adopted. In an effort to ensure support and assistance for the continued development of aquaculture sector and the employment that aquaculture projects support, my officials entered into discussion with the European Commission, which agreed to the continuation of grant aid under the previous operational programme 2000-06 until 30 June 2009. As a result of these discussions, a provision of €5 million was made available for aquaculture development in the Agriculture Vote for 2009. I approved the spending of €4.5 million of this for aquaculture projects in the Border, Midlands and Western and the Southern and Eastern regions. In order to ensure continued funding of the sector, my Department is in close liaison with the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the European Commission with a view to agreeing an approach that will give the necessary assurances on the concerns raised that can facilitate the approval of the National Seafood Development Operational Programme 2007-2013.

  245.  Deputy Joe Carey    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food    when a person (details supplied) in County Clare will be awarded forestry payments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40817/09]

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Brendan Smith):  I understand that, as confirmed by the applicant’s forestry company, the relevant provenance certification has not been lodged in my Department. The forestry company concerned expects to be in a position to submit the documentation within a week and provided the documentation is in order, payment will be made within a further two weeks.

  246.  Deputy Joe Carey    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food    when he will expect to be in a position to pay both disadvantaged area payments and 70% single farm payment to those farmers who await 2009 plots to be digitised or redigitised on the land parcel identification system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40820/09]

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Brendan Smith):  Payments under the Disadvantaged Areas Scheme commenced on 22 September, while the 70% advance payments under the Single Payment Scheme commenced on 19 October. Payments under both schemes initially issued in respect of those cases cleared for payment at that stage. Payments have continued to issue as outstanding matters are resolved. To date, payments to the value of €213,449,438 have issued to 95,839 applicants under the Disadvantaged Areas Scheme, while payments worth €857,578,936 have issued to 120,149 applicants under the Single Payment Scheme. Payments under both schemes may be made only in respect of eligible land. Applicants are obliged annually to declare the land parcels available to them. Details of the eligible area of the land parcels are recorded on my Department’s Land Parcel Identification System. Details of the use and area claimed for each of some one million parcels on the Land Parcel Identification System are registered and continually monitored by my Department. Each year in advance of the closing date for the Single Payment Scheme. which is 15 May, my Department sends pre-printed application forms, including a list of parcels declared by the applicant in question the previous year, to each applicant. It is the responsibility of all applicants to ensure that the details in each year’s application are accurate. Therefore, applicants are advised of the need to confirm their right to declare such parcels and to make the appropriate deductions to [496]the area of eligible parcels as necessary, for example where a house or other building has been constructed, and to submit maps with their applications to allow accurate deductions to be made. It is also necessary for applicants to exclude ineligible features such as scrub. Therefore, the Land Parcel Identification System database has to be amended on an ongoing basis to reflect any permanent changes such as parcel boundary changes, addition of new parcels, etc.

  247.  Deputy Joe Carey    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food    when the disadvantaged area payment 2009 and 70% single farm payment will be awarded to a person (details supplied) in County Clare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40821/09]

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Brendan Smith):  An application under the 2009 Single Payment and Disadvantaged Areas Scheme was received from the person named on 30 April 2009. The application of the person named has been fully processed and payments under both the Single Payment and Disadvantaged Areas Scheme will issue shortly.

  248.  Deputy Martin Ferris    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food    if he will honour the commitments made in the Crawley report; and if funding for the operational programme will be made available in 2010. [40830/09]

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Brendan Smith):  The Cawley report, Steering A New Course, is the national strategic blueprint for the Irish fishing industry and the wider seafood sector. Progress has been made on a number of fronts, including a substantial decommissioning scheme, which was a key recommendations of the Cawley report and has been completed. This scheme was funded from the EU Co-funded Operational Programme 2007-13 which was approved by the EU Commission on 9 September 2008. Bord Iascaigh Mhara is the implementing authority for this operational programme, which covers decommissioning of fishing vessels, environmental and inshore management and sustainable development of coastal fisheries. The adoption of the National Seafood Development Operational Programme 2007-13, which covers a number of other priority areas including seafood processing and aquaculture development, has been delayed arising from concerns relating to environmental compliance raised by the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on behalf of the Central Fisheries Board, during the public consultation process. I am working to address these concerns with a view to the early adoption of this Operational Programme. The implementation of certain strategies contained in the Cawley strategy involves funding support for the sector. The rate of progress in these areas will depend on the availability of funds and the adoption of the National Seafood Development Operational Programme. However, many of the recommendations involve improved practices, improved organisation and better co-ordination and co-operation and do not depend on public funds. I will continue to work closely with all parties to drive the process forward to deliver on and further develop the strategic change necessary to support Ireland’s fishing industry. The quantum of funding for 2010 will not be known until after budget 2010 has been announced by the Minister for Finance. I am committed to ensuring that available support is targeted on priority areas for the sector identified by the Cawley strategy.

  249.  Deputy Ulick Burke    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food    the number [497]of cattle slaughtered for each of the past six months at each of the meat factories in County Galway; if he will state the way in which this compares with the same period for each of the past three years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40870/09]

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Brendan Smith):  There are no bovine slaughtering establishments, approved by my Department, in County Galway. The last such establishment ceased bovine slaughter in January 2007. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland advises my Department that there are nine bovine slaughtering establishments approved by the Galway County Council Veterinary Service. As the throughput quantities in individual establishments are regarded as commercially sensitive, it is not considered appropriate to provide such figures for each establishment. The authority has provided the following total slaughtering figures in those establishments for the six-month periods ending in June 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009:

Month Number Slaughtered 2009 Number Slaughtered 2008 Number Slaughtered 2007 Number Slaughtered 2006
January 191 242 229 222
February 158 158 203 183
March 191 173 200 197
April 213 214 191 176
May 168 161 207 225
June 205 182 176 168
Total 1,126 1,130 1,206 1,171

  250.  Deputy Tom Sheahan    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food    the position regarding a REP scheme 3 payment due to a person (details supplied) in County Kerry since August 2009; when payment will be awarded to this person; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40872/09]

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Brendan Smith):  My officials have requested information from the REPS planner acting for the person named. Until that information is received, processing of the payment application cannot resume.

  251.  Deputy Edward O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food    when payment of installation aid will be awarded in respect of a person (details supplied) in County Cork. [41002/09]

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Brendan Smith):  The person concerned is an applicant under the Young Farmers’ Installation Scheme, which has been suspended for new applications since 14 October 2008. Under the terms of the scheme, payment of the grant concerned is made once it has been established that the requirements of the scheme have been met, including the conditions in relation to property, education and income. In this case, an initial application (YFIS 1) was received by my Department on 5 August 2008 and an application for payment (YFIS 2) was received on 6 March 2009. The outcome of my Department’s examination of the application will be made known to the applicant shortly.

  252.  Deputy Ruairí Quinn    asked the Minister for Education and Science    further to Question No. 115 of 20 October 2009, the person from whom he received the legal opinion that a sworn affidavit does not verify the contents of it; if his attention has been drawn to the commonly held fact that a sworn affidavit is equivalent to making sworn oral evidence before a judge in the High Court; if his further attention has been drawn to the fact that falsifying an affidavit can lead to prosecution for perjury and that conviction for perjury can lead to imprisonment; if he will acknowledge that his reply was inaccurate in this regard; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40744/09]

Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe):  In order to clarify the matter raised by the Deputy, I refer to my reply to Question No. 115 of 20 October 2009 which stated that the role of a Commissioner for Oaths or practising solicitor is to witness the signature of a person making an affidavit, rather than to verify the contents of the affidavit itself. It is not at issue that the person swearing the affidavit is accountable in law for the veracity of its content in the manner outlined by the Deputy. In relation to student grants, in circumstances where it is not possible for a student to produce the documentary evidence normally required to establish independent residence in the relevant period, a local authority or VEC may, at its discretion, agree to accept other documentary proofs. In such cases, an affidavit, if accompanied by other supporting documentation, may be accepted as evidence of independent living. My Department has reviewed the use of affidavits in the context of proof of independent living and is satisfied that the current practice in this regard is reasonable and appropriate.

  253.  Deputy Ruairí Quinn    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if his attention has been drawn to the recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which has outlawed the use of crucifixes in State classrooms; whether this could impact on schools here, in particular, the nominally secular schools run by the vocational education committees; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40746/09]

  257.  Deputy Ruairí Quinn    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if his attention has been drawn to the recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which has outlawed the use of crucifixes in State classrooms; whether this could impact on schools here, particularly the nominally secular schools run by the vocational education committees; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40777/09]

Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 253 and 257 together.

I am aware that there has been a recent ruling by the European Court in relation to the display of crucifixes in state schools in Italy. My Department will be considering the European Court ruling to determine the implications, if any, for the Irish context. I am also aware that recent media reports suggest that the Italian government intends to appeal the ruling and my Department will also monitor the position in this regard.

  254.  Deputy Emmet Stagg    asked the Minister for Education and Science    if, in the view of the fact that outline planning permission has been granted for the building at a new school (details supplied) in County Kildare, he will appoint a design team for this project; and if he will confirm that the site has been purchased for the new school. [40761/09]

[499]Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe):  My Department has confirmed to the VEC that it is in order to close on the proposed acquisition referred to by the Deputy. The further progression of the proposed project will be considered in the context of the capital budget available to the Department for school buildings generally.

  255.  Deputy Jim O’Keeffe    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the position regarding the review of the school transport scheme and the reconfiguration of school catchment boundaries; when the report will be available; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40763/09]

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Deputy Seán Haughey):  The Value for Money Review of the School Transport Scheme, including catchment boundaries, is currently underway and is due to be completed before the end of this year.

The Steering Committee is looking at the original objectives of the scheme, whether these objectives remain valid today, the extent to which the objectives are being achieved and whether there are possibilities for economies or efficiencies that would improve the value for money of the scheme. In this context, the review is also looking at fundamental issues such as catchment boundaries.

The review, when completed, will be published and sent to the Oireachtas Select Committee on Education and Science

  256.  Deputy Brian Hayes    asked the Minister for Education and Science    when a school (details supplied) in County Cork will be provided with school transport for a number of students; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40775/09]

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Deputy Seán Haughey):  Under the terms of the Section 1.4 of the primary school transport scheme a service may be continued for as long as there are four eligible children and a minimum of six fare-paying children availing of the service.

Bus Éireann, which operates the School Transport Scheme, on behalf of my Department, advised that the number of children availing of the service to the school referred to by the Deputy, in the details supplied, had fallen below the minimum number required to maintain this service. As a result, and in accordance with the terms of the scheme, the service was withdrawn with effect from the commencement of the current school year.

The school in question has now submitted an application for transport in respect of a number of additional pupils, who according to Bus Éireann had not previously applied for transport. In this regard, the provision of a transport service is currently under review.

Question No. 257 answered with Question No. 253.

  258.  Deputy John McGuinness    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the reason for the delay in approving grant applications by vocational educational committees; if a grant application in respect of a person (details supplied) in County Kilkenny will be expedited and approved; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40783/09]

Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe):  The process of assessing eligibility for third level grants and the organisation, management and payment of student grants [500]are matters for the relevant local authority or VEC. These bodies seek to ensure students get decisions on their grant applications and are paid as soon as possible.

  259.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the names of post-primary schools in County Mayo that are renting prefab accommodation which have made an application to the building unit of his Department for construction or refurbishment work in tabular form; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40802/09]

  260.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the names of primary schools in County Mayo that are renting prefab accommodation which have made an application to the building unit of his Department for construction or refurbishment work in tabular form; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40803/09]

Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 259 and 260 together.

The details of the primary and post-primary schools renting prefabricated units in Co. Mayo are given in the following tabular statement. I have also included a statement listing the schools in the county that have applications with my Department for major extension/refurbishment.

Roll No. School Name Address County Type
04796R Brackloon NS Brackloon, Westport Mayo Pre-fab
07054L Scoil Naomh Bríd Culleens, Killalla Rd., Ballina Mayo Pre-fab
11725I Behymore NS Behymore NS, Ballina Mayo Pre-fab
12206M SN Padraig Corrabheagain, Knockmore, Ballina Mayo Pre-fab
13152U St Josephs NS Derrywalsh, Castlebar Mayo Pre-fab
13659I Bekan NS Claremorris Mayo Pre-fab
13758K Templemary NS Carbed, Killala Mayo Pre-fab
13781P St. John’s NS Breaffy, Castlebar Mayo Pre-fab
13945J Eskeragh NS Eskeragh, Bellalorick, Ballina Mayo Pre-fab
14400S Richmond NS Crossmolina Mayo Pre-fab
15113U St James’ NS Barnacogue, Swinford Mayo Pre-fab
15539I St Johns NS Claremorris Mayo Pre-fab
15555G Breaffy NS Breaffy, Ballina Mayo Pre-fab
16021U Lisaniska NS Lisaniska, Foxford Mayo Pre-fab
16122D Scoil Mhuire Knock, Claremorris Mayo Pre-fab
16170O Cloghans NS Cloghans, Knockmore, Ballina Mayo Pre-fab
16832L St Augustine’s NS Murrisk, Westport Mayo Pre-fab
16904K Lankill NS Lankill, Westport Mayo Pre-fab
16911H Lahardane NS Ballina Mayo Pre-fab
17082W Scoil Chomain Naofa Hollymount Mayo Pre-fab
17119T Sn Ball Alainn Balla, Castlebar Mayo Pre-fab
17209U Caoneal NS Caoneal, Ballina Mayo Pre-fab
17483R Carrowholly NS Carrowholly, Westport Mayo Pre-fab
18070U Muire Gan Smal Claremorris Mayo Pre-fab
18145C St Tiernans NS Ballyhaunis Mayo Pre-fab
18542M St. Patrick’s NS Castlebar Mayo Pre-fab
18561Q St Josephs NS Ballina Mayo Pre-fab
19375B St Brid’s Spec NS Pavilion Road, Castlebar Mayo Pre-fab
19402B Ballyvary Central NS Ballyvary, Castlebar Mayo Pre-fab
19451O Holy Family NS Newport Mayo Pre-fab
19903A Kiltimagh Central (St Aidan’s NS) Kiltimagh Mayo Pre-fab
19972T GS Uileog de Burca Lochan na mBan, Clar Chlainne, Mhuiris Mayo Pre-fab
20142I Scoil Iosa Abbeyquarter, Ballyhaunis Mayo Pre-fab
20230F Scoil Iosa Abbeyquarter, Ballyhaunis Mayo Pre-fab
64570E Our Lady’s Sec School Belmullet Mayo Pre-fab

Roll No. Address Curreny position Band rating
91461C Ballyhaunis Community School, Knock Road, Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo In early Architectural Planning Band 2.4
20046M Gaelscoil Na Cruaiche, Cathair na Mart, Co. Mayo In Advanced Architectural Planning Band 1.1
64570E Our Lady’s Secondary School, Belmullet, Co Mayo In advanced Architectural Planning Band 2.2
64660F Sancta Maria College, Louisburgh, Co Mayo In advanced Architectural Planning Band 2.4
13667H St. Josephs NS, Bonniconlon, Ballina, Co. Mayo Detailed Design Band 2.2
19387I/ 19773N St. Dympnas and St Nicholas Special Schools Construction 2009 Band 1.2
72050U St. Brendan’s College, Belmullet Construction 2009 Band 2.2
76060U Davitt College, Castlebar Construction 2009 Band 4.1
20142I Scoil Iosa, Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo In advanced Architectural Planning Band 1.4
04796R Brackloon N S Westport (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
05215W S N Croi Iosa Ballina (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
07054L Cullens National School, Knockduff, Beal Atha An Fheadha Awaiting Appointment of Design Team Extension/Refurb Band 2
11725I Beheymore N S Ballina (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
12568A Sn Inbhear Barr Na Tra (Mayo) Application New School Band 2
13145A S N Naomh Colm Cille Westport (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
13174H St Columbas N.S. Inishturk (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
13389F Sn An Trian Lair Beal Atha Na Muiche (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
13659I Beacan Mixed N S Bekan (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
13797U Lecanvey N S Westport (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
14195U An Gleanna Mhoir S N Crossmolina (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
14205U S N Mainistir Muigheo Claremorris (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
14671D S N Na Craobhaighe Carrowmore-Lacken (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
14808E Irishtown N S Claremorris (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
15257V Quignamanger N S Ballina (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
16021U Lisaniska N S S N Lios An Uisce (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
16122D Knock N S Claremorris (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
16173U Kinaffe N S Swinford (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
16283E S N Pol A Tsomais Beal An Atha (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
16832L Muirisc Ns Muirisc (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
16904K S N Lainn Cille Cathair Na Mart (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
18002D Drumgallagh N S Ballycroy (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3

Roll No. Address Curreny position Band rating
18070U Convent Of Mercy N.S. Claremorris (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
18175L S N Beannchair Carrowmore (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
18542M S N Naomh Padraig Castlebar (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
18561Q S N Naomh Ioseph Raithini (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
19248R St Anthonys Special Sc Humbert Way (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 1
19375B St Brids Special Sch Pavilion Road (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 1
19451O Newport Central Baile Ui Bhfiachain (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 1
19808G Tavrane Central Ns Kilkelly (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
19812U Foxford Central Ns Foxford (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 1
19832D Scoil Raifteiri Faiche An Aonaigh (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
19903A Kiltimagh Central Kiltimagh (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
19972T S N Uileog De Burca Clar Chlainne Mhuiris (Mayo) Application New School Band 2
20037L S N Padraig Naofa Louisburgh (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
20084U Gaelscoil Bheal An Atha Corrai Mhuireann (Mayo) Application New School Band 2
20230F Scoil Phadraic Westport (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 1
20256A Scoil Náisiúnta Thuar Mhic Éadaigh Trianláir (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
64500G Balla Secondary School Balla (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
64510J St Muredachs College Sligo Road (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
64520M St. Mary’s Secondary School, Ballina Awaiting Appointment of Design Team New school Band 2
64590K Naomh Iosaef Clochar Na Trócaire (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
64640W St Joseph’S Secondary School Foxford (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
64690O Scoil Muire Agus Padraig Swinford (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
64691Q Coláiste Mhuire Tuar Mhic Éadaigh (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
64700O Rice College Castlebar Road (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
64710R Sacred Heart School Westport (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
72070D Mchale College Achill Sound (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 4
72100J St. Tiernan’S College Crossmolina (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
72160E Carrowbeg College Westport (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
76060U Davitt College Springfield (Mayo) Application New School Band 2
91494R St Louis Community School Kiltimagh (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2

  261.  Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the number of full-time second level students enrolled at a school (details supplied) in County Kildare; the anticipated future enrolment trends for this school; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40808/09]

Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe):  A new school to cater for 400 pupils is currently under construction for the school referred to by the Deputy. It is envisaged that the building will be completed by the end of the year.

Enrolments in the school for the past three years are as follows: 2008 — 251; 2007 — 234; 2006 — 246.

  262.  Deputy Olivia Mitchell    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the reason for the delay in granting permission for the refurbishment of the school hall at a school (details supplied) in Dublin 16; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40812/09]

Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe):  A major capital project at the school to which the Deputy refers is currently at an advanced stage of architectural planning.

The progression of all large scale building projects, including this project, from initial design stage through to construction is dependent on the prioritisation of competing demands on the funding available under the Department’s capital budget.

The proposed building project will be considered in the context of the Department’s multi-annual School Building and Modernisation Programme for 2010 and subsequent years. However, in light of current competing demands on the capital budget of the Department, it is not possible to give an indicative timeframe for the delivery of the project at this time.

My Department has received correspondence from the school regarding possible progression of the school hall element of the major project. My Department has responded directly to the school in this regard with a request for more detailed information on what is proposed.

  263.  Deputy Pat Breen    asked the Minister for Education and Science    further to Parliamentary Question No. 1675 of 24 September 2008, the status of a project (details supplied) in County Clare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40814/09]

Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe):  I can confirm that my Department has received an application for major capital funding for the provision of an ASD Unit for the school referred to by the Deputy. The application has been assessed and has been assigned a band 1.2 rating under the prioritisation criteria for large scale projects. The priority attaching to individual projects is determined by published prioritisation criteria, which were formulated following consultation with the Education Partners. There are four band ratings under these criteria, each of which describes the extent of accommodation required and the urgency attaching to it. Band 1 is the highest priority rating and Band 4 is the lowest. Documents explaining the band rating system are also available on my Department’s website.

The progression of all large scale building projects, including this project, from initial design stage through to construction phase will be considered in the context of the Department’s multi-annual School Building and Modernisation Programme. However, in light of current [505]competing demands on the capital budget of the Department, it is not possible to give an indicative timeframe for the progression of the project at this time.

  264.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the names of post-primary schools in County Mayo that have made an application to the building unit of his Department for construction or refurbishment work which has not yet been sanctioned, in tabular form; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40826/09]

  265.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the names of primary schools in County Mayo that have made an application to the building unit of his Department for construction or refurbishment work which has not yet been sanctioned, in tabular form; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40827/09]

  266.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the names of post-primary schools in County Mayo that have made an application to the building unit of his Department for construction or refurbishment work which have been refused, in tabular form; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40828/09]

  267.  Deputy John O’Mahony    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the names of primary schools in County Mayo that have made an application to the building unit of his Department for construction or refurbishment work which have been refused, in tabular form; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40829/09]

Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 264 to 267, inclusive, together.

Information in relation to the current school building programme along with all eligible applications for major capital works, including primary and post primary projects in County Mayo as referred to by the Deputy, are now available on my Department’s website at www.education.ie. The following table shows the relevant extract from the website.

All applications for Major Capital Funding are assessed by my Department. My Department does not keep a centralised record of refused or ineligible applications. Eligible projects are then assessed in accordance with the published prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects and assigned an appropriate band rating. The priority attaching to individual major capital projects is determined by published prioritisation criteria, which were formulated following consultation with the Education Partners. There are four band ratings under these criteria, each of which describes the extent of accommodation required and the urgency attaching to it. Band 1 is the highest priority rating and Band 4 is the lowest. Documents explaining the band rating system are also available on my Department’s website.

The progression of all large scale building projects, from initial design stage through to construction phase will be considered in the context of my Department’s multi-annual School Building and Modernisation Programme.

[506]Mayo Primary and Post Primary Major Capital Projects

A1.3 Projects in Architectural Planning (July 2009)

County Roll No. School Current Status Band Rating Project Description
Mayo 13667H St. Joseph’s NS, Bonniconlon, Ballina, Co. Mayo Detailed Design 2.2 New School
Mayo 20142I Scoil Iosa, Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo In advanced Architectural Planning 1.4 Extension/Refurbishment
Mayo 64570E Our Lady’s Secondary School, Belmullet, Co Mayo In advanced Architectural Planning 2.2 Extension/Refurbishment
Mayo 64660F Sancta Maria College, Louisburgh, Co Mayo In advanced Architectural Planning 2.4 Extension/Refurbishment
Mayo 91461C Ballyhaunis Community School, Knock Road, Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo In early Architectural Planning 2.4 Extension/Refurbishment

C1.1 Applications for Major Capital Works

County Roll Number School Current Status Application for Provisional Band rating
Mayo 04796R Brackloon N S Westport (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 05215W S N Croi Iosa Ballina (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 07054L Cullens National School, Knockduff, Beal Atha An Fheadha Awaiting Appointment of Design Team Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 11725I Beheymore N S Ballina (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 12568A Sn Inbhear Barr Na Tra (Mayo) Application New School Band 2
Mayo 13145A S N Naomh Colm Cille Westport (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 13174H St Columbas N.S. Inishturk (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 13389F Sn An Trian Lair Beal Atha Na Muiche (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 13659I Beacan Mixed N S Bekan (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
Mayo 13797U Lecanvey N S Westport (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 14195U An Gleanna Mhoir S N Crossmolina (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
Mayo 14205U S N Mainistir Muigheo Claremorris (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 14671D S N Na Craobhaighe Carrowmore-Lacken (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 14808E Irishtown N S Claremorris (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3

[507]C1.1 Applications for Major Capital Works — continued

County Roll Number School Current Status Application for Provisional Band rating
Mayo 15257V Quignamanger N S Ballina (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 16021U Lisaniska N S S N Lios An Uisce (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
Mayo 16122D Knock N S Claremorris (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
Mayo 16173U Kinaffe N S Swinford (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
Mayo 16283E S N Pol A Tsomais Beal An Atha (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
Mayo 16832L Muirisc Ns Muirisc (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 16904K S N Lainn Cille Cathair Na Mart (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 18002D Drumgallagh N S Ballycroy (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
Mayo 18070U Convent Of Mercy N.S. Claremorris (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 18175L S N Beannchair Carrowmore (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 18542M S N Naomh Padraig Castlebar (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 18561Q S N Naomh Ioseph Raithini (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 19248R St Anthonys Special School Humbert Way (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 1
Mayo 19375B St Brids Special School Pavilion Road (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 1
Mayo 19451O Newport Central Baile Ui Bhfiachain (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 1
Mayo 19808G Tavrane Central Ns Kilkelly (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 3
Mayo 19812U Foxford Central Ns Foxford (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 1
Mayo 19832D Scoil Raifteiri Faiche An Aonaigh (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 19903A Kiltimagh Central Kiltimagh (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 19972T S N Uileog De Burca Clar Chlainne Mhuiris (Mayo) Application New School Band 2
Mayo 20037L S N Padraig Naofa Louisburgh (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2

[508]C1.1 Applications for Major Capital Works — continued

County Roll Number School Current Status Application for Provisional Band rating
Mayo 20084U Gaelscoil Bheal An Atha Corrai Mhuireann (Mayo) Application New School Band 2
Mayo 20230F Scoil Phadraic Westport (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 1
Mayo 20256A Scoil Náisiúnta Thuar Mhic Éadaigh Trianláir (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 64500G Balla Secondary School Balla (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 64510J St Muredachs College Sligo Road (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 64520M St. Mary’s Secondary School, Ballina Awaiting Appointment of Design Team New school Band 2
Mayo 64590K Naomh Iosaef Clochar Na Trócaire (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 64640W St Joseph’S Secondary School Foxford (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 64690O Scoil Muire Agus Padraig Swinford (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 64691Q Coláiste Mhuire Tuar Mhic Éadaigh (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 64700O Rice College Castlebar Road (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 64710R Sacred Heart School Westport (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 72070D Mchale College Achill Sound (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 4
Mayo 72100J St. Tiernan’S College Crossmolina (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 72160E Carrowbeg College Westport (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2
Mayo 76060U Davitt College Springfield (Mayo) Application New School Band 2
Mayo 91494R St Louis Community School Kiltimagh (Mayo) Application Extension/Refurb Band 2

  268.  D’fhiafraigh Deputy Dinny McGinley    den Aire Oideachais agus Eolaíochta    an bhfuil stádas scoile Gaeltachta ag scoil (sonraí tugtha), cad í teanga teagaisc na scoile mar a chuirtear ar fáil go bliantúil don Roinn, mura bhfuil an scoil rangaithe mar scoil Ghaeltachta cathain ar athraigh sé seo agus ar chuireadh an scoil ar an eolas faoi; agus an ndéanfaidh sé ráiteas ina thaobh. [40978/09]

Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe):  Tá socrú déanta agam go ndéanfaidh oifigeach de chuid mo Roinne teagmháil leis an Teachta maidir leis na ceisteanna a ardaíodh sa cheist.

  269.  Deputy Richard Bruton    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the number of schools which are at the stage of advanced architectural planning; the aggregate value of completing projects in that phase; if he has ranked projects for priority release; and the position in the ranking of a school (details supplied) in Dublin 3. [40979/09]

Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe):  The project to which the Deputy refers is at an advanced stage of architectural planning. It is one of over 130 projects which are similarly advanced. The aggregate value of these projects will be dependent on market conditions at the time each will go to tender. This project has a priority band rating of 2.4. Details of all projects in architectural planning along with their respective priority band ratings are available on my Department’s web-site at www.education.gov.ie.

The progression of all large scale building projects, including this project, from initial design stage through to construction is dependent on the prioritisation of competing demands on the funding available under the Department’s capital budget. The Deputy will understand that it is not possible to advance all projects at the same time. The proposed building project will be considered in the context of the Department’s multi-annual School Building and Modernisation Programme for 2010 and subsequent years. However, in light of current competing demands on the capital budget of the Department, it is not possible to give an indicative timeframe for the delivery of the project at this time.

  270.  Deputy Dinny McGinley    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the position regarding the provision of a new school (details supplied) in County Donegal; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40983/09]

Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe):  I am pleased to inform the Deputy that my Department has recently issued Co Donegal VEC with approval to proceed to seek tenders for this project to provide a new school building.

  271.  Deputy Paul Kehoe    asked the Minister for Education and Science    his plans to support and recognise the nominational training colleges for primary teachers; his views on whether the training colleges are providing an adequate number of trained primary teachers; his further plans to continue to recognise courses which are completed for the training of teachers on an on-line basis; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40997/09]

Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe):  As the Deputy is aware, five State funded Colleges of Education offer the Bachelor of Education for primary teaching. [510] Hibernia College, a private on-line college, and four of the State funded Colleges of Education also offer a post graduate conversion course. These qualifications have been fully recognised by my Department for teaching in the primary sector.

The recognition of teacher qualifications is now a matter for the Teaching Council, the body with responsibility for establishing and maintaining standards in the teaching profession. The Teaching Council’s Registration Regulations, which I recently approved, continue to recognise these qualifications for registration as a teacher in the primary sector.

The issue of supply of qualified primary teachers is under constant review within my Department and is currently being considered in the context of likely demands in the system in the coming years and the resources available. In the short term, taking into account many factors such as demographics, the level of retirements, the school staffing schedule, and so on, it is considered that there is an adequate supply of trained teachers from the colleges to meet the current demand.

  272.  Deputy Joan Burton    asked the Minister for Education and Science    the number of times the review committee on higher education has met in 2009; and when he expects to receive its report. [41006/09]

Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe):  The process to develop a new national strategy for higher education is being led by a high level Strategy Group under the Chairmanship of Dr Colin Hunt. The group has met on seven occasions since its establishment in February 2009.

A vibrant responsive higher education system will be crucially important in terms of Ireland’s future development and the Strategy Group are cognisant of the need to fully engage with all stakeholders in the sector and wider society. A first round of consultation was completed in the Summer under which an open call for written submissions elicited a significant and valuable response. More than 100 submissions were received and are available on the Higher Education Authority website: www.hea.ie. I understand that the Strategy Group are undertaking additional detailed consultations to fully inform the development of the new strategy. I expect that the overall process of finalising the strategy report will be completed early in the New Year.