Dáil Éireann

16/May/2012

Prelude

Priority Questions

Nursing Home Repayment Scheme

Contaminated Blood Products

Medicinal Products

Other Questions

General Practitioner Services

Care of the Elderly

Prescription Charges

Hospital Services

Topical Issue Matters

Topical Issue Debate

Mental Health Services

Medical Cards

Civil Registration Act

Child Care Services

Message from Select Committee

Leaders’ Questions

Order of Business

Credit Guarantee Bill 2012: Order for Second Stage

Credit Guarantee Bill 2012: Second Stage

Message from Seanad

Estimates for Public Services 2012: Message from Select Committee

Regulation of Debt Management Advisors Bill 2011: Second Stage (Resumed)

Regulation of Debt Management Advisors Bill 2011: Referral to Select Sub-Committee

Written Answers

Mental Health Legislation

Health Services

Symphysiotomy Report

Hospital Services

Long-Term Illness Scheme

Public Procurement Contracts

European Court of Human Rights Judgments

Primary Care Centres

Hospital Services

Tobacco-Related Diseases

Vaccination Programme

Pharmacy Services

Hospital Procedures

Health Insurance

Hospital Staff

Health Services

Food Safety

Hospitals Building Programme

Health Service Staff

Medical Cards

Obesity Levels

Hospital Accommodation

Eating Disorders

Services for People with Disabilities

Treatment of Rare Diseases

Positive Ageing Strategy

Health Insurance

Suicide Incidence

Palliative Care Services

Hospital Services

Nursing Home Repayment Scheme

Health Service Reviews

Hospital Services

General Medical Services Scheme

Patient Safety Authority

Departmental Strategy Statements

Hospital Services

Tobacco Products Directive

Health Services

Medical Cards

North-South Feasibility Study

National Asset Management Agency

Health Services

Hospital Services

Northern Ireland Issues

Human Rights Issues

Passport Applications

Foreign Conflicts

Official Engagements

Foreign Conflicts

Northern Ireland Issues

Fuel Prices

Mortgage Arrears

Departmental Functions

VAT Rates

Credit Availability

Tax Reliefs

Fiscal Policy

Disabled Drivers

Banks Recapitalisation

Financial Services Regulation

Tax Code

Financial Services Regulation

Tax Code

Vocational Education Committees

School Staffing

School Accommodation

School Staffing

Redundancy Payments

School Accommodation

Scoileanna Gaeltachta

Institutes of Technology

Bullying in Schools

Schools Building Projects

Departmental Agencies

School Patronage

Literacy Levels

Schools Building Projects

Teachers’ Remuneration

School Accommodation

Proposed Legislation

Export Controls

Work Permits

Civil Registration

Community Employment Schemes

Mortgage Interest Supplement

Rural Social Scheme

Social Welfare Code

National Internship Scheme

Job Creation

Pension Provisions

Rent Supplement

Departmental Agencies

Planning Issues

Household Charge

Regeneration Projects

Household Charge

Planning Issues

Flood Relief

Social and Affordable Housing

Property Taxation

Motor Taxation

Interdepartmental Committees

Liquor Licensing Laws

Garda Deployment

Asylum Support Services

Management of Sex Offenders

Deportation Orders

Drug Seizures

Garda Strength

Garda Operations

Crime Levels

Citizenship Applications

Residency Permits

Interdepartmental Committees

Anti-Social Behaviour

Defence Forces Recruitment

Erection of Memorial Plaque

Aquaculture Licences

Agri-Environment Options Scheme

Habours Expenditure

Agri-Environment Options Scheme

Departmental Bodies

Harbours Fees

Children in Care

Inter-Country Adoptions

Mental Health Services

Hospital Staff

Medicinal Products

Medical Cards

Drugs Payment Scheme

Health Services

Hospital Services

Suicide Prevention

Hospital Waiting Lists

Health Service Staff

Hospitals Building Programme

Primary Care Strategy

General Practitioner Services

Health Services

Public Health Awareness

Primary Care Services

Mental Health Services

Medical Cards

Health Service Staff

Medicinal Products

Health Insurance

Health Service Reform

Mental Health Services

Hospital Services

Long-Term Illness Scheme

Nursing Home Services

Hospital Staff

School Health Examinations

Health Services

Hospital Accommodation

Health Service Staff

Primary Care Services

Departmental Properties

Care of the Elderly

Hospital Accommodation

State Airports

Employment Support Services

Bus Services

Vehicle Registration

Road Safety

Bus Services

National Car Test

Taxi Regulations

Olympic Torch Relay

Road Network

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

Paidir.

Prayer.

  1.  Deputy Billy Kelleher    asked the Minister for Health    the terms of reference of the fair deal review; if this review will take into account broader issues regarding the State’s care for the elderly; the person who will be carrying out this review; if it will be a private company; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24407/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  The nursing homes support scheme was introduced in October 2009 with a commitment to review its operation after three years. The reason for allowing this period to elapse was to ensure trends and statistics would be available to inform the work. The review of the scheme will look at, among other issues, the ongoing sustainability of the scheme, the relative cost of public versus private provision, the effectiveness of current methods of negotiating price in private nursing homes and setting price in public nursing homes, and the balance of funding between residential and community care.

The terms of reference for the review are being finalised at present. The Department of Health will seek tenders through the public procurement process for the carrying out of the review. This process will take approximately four months. It is also intended to carry out a public consultation over the summer to inform the review. It is anticipated the review itself will take approximately three months to complete. It is expected the review will commence in the last quarter of this year and be completed in early 2013.

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  In the context of the fair deal scheme, most people accept it has brought certainty in terms of funding for relatives in nursing homes. It is clear, however, that the longer the review goes on, the more it undermines confidence and certainty in the scheme in terms of ensuring that funding will be in place when people need nursing home supports. I am amazed that in advance of the review up to 1,000 community nursing home beds will be taken out of the system. Some have already been taken out and 100 per month will be lost per month up to the end of October. While the nursing homes scheme has been a success in terms [516]of bringing certainty to the funding, equally, the decision of the Government to reduce the number of nursing home beds in advance of the review being finished and adjudicated upon seems to indicate the cart is well before the horse in this case.

The terms of reference are critical. Public versus private care is an issue. I frequently look back over the transcripts of the Dáil to find out the thinking of the Government when in opposition. It is clear there was much concern at the reduction in the number of public nursing home beds but that seems to have changed completely in the past 12 to 14 months in terms of commitment to funding community nursing home beds.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Could the Deputy ask a question please?

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  Does the Minister of State not accept that the longer the review goes on — we might have to wait ten or 12 months before the review is finalised and acted upon — the more uncertainty is created? Equally, does she not agree that grave concerns were propagated previously about property and the 5% per year up to a maximum of 15% over three years? The Minister of State has opened up that debate again. What is her thinking behind the reliance on the property aspect of the home for funding the scheme?

Deputy Kathleen Lynch:  There is no uncertainty about the scheme. We could not have made it clearer. The funding is available. It is ring-fenced and will be available in the future. No one who is in need of long-stay nursing home care for older persons will be in any doubt about that.

While I accept that beds are closing, equally, many beds are opening. I refer to Ballincollig, for instance, which the Deputy knows very well, and to other areas of the country where we are opening other beds. It is not the case that we are depleting bed numbers. We are opening a different type of centre and offering a different type of care.

On whether the scheme is sustainable in terms of property values, that is irrelevant at this stage. The review will deal with that. I will not pre-empt what the review will come up with. I am sure the Deputy will appreciate that. Equally, it must be said loud and clear that only 17% of the people who have applied for the nursing home subvention or loan scheme are relying on the sale of property after death. Everyone else is paying upfront. That must be part and parcel of the review.

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  That reinforces the view that there was a great deal of scaremongering when the scheme was being established in 2009 in terms of the number of people who would be forced to sell their homes to fund the scheme. There is no getting away from the fact there will be fewer beds in the system. There is no doubt about that. The number of beds is being reduced continually and the figures exist to prove it. Not only is the fair deal nursing home scheme going to come under additional pressure because of the reduction in bed numbers but also it will have a knock-on effect on acute hospitals and moving people from the acute setting into community nursing homes. Could the Minister of State provide an assurance, while we await the review, that funding will be available for everyone who applies under the nursing home support scheme? When the review is completed, it will probably be published in January or February 2013. Can the Minister of State indicate whether funding will be available in December, for example, for next year because we need certainty in that regard?

Deputy Kathleen Lynch:  What is certain is that not everyone who applies will receive funding because not everyone who applies is in need of long-term care. From the information available in the reviews completed, it is clear that approximately 40% of people in nursing homes should not be there in the first place. We must seriously examine the situation.

[517]The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government with responsibility for planning and housing, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, and I have been examining other forms of assisted living with all the voluntary groups. We are committed to ensuring funding will be provided for anyone who needs — as opposed to applies for — long-term care. There will be sufficient beds within the system. There are particular areas where we must ensure we act where the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, is involved and has decided the accommodation is not appropriate. I am sure the Deputy would agree with that. HIQA was established by the previous Administration and is one of its most useful initiatives.

  2.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health    if he will use his powers under the Hepatitis C Compensation Tribunal Act 1997 to make available the measures provided for the majority who have tested positive, to the small number of women who received blood products from contaminated batches of anti-D in the 1977-79 and 1991-1994 periods but who are testing negative while experiencing severe health problems consistent with testing positive. [24409/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The Health (Amendment) Act, HAA, card is given to men, women and children who contracted hepatitis C from the administration within the State of blood or blood products. Under the Health (Amendment) Act 1996 the entitlement of an individual to an HAA card and to related services is decided by the chief executive officer of the Health Service Executive. The latter is bound by the definition of eligibility in the Hepatitis C Compensation Tribunal (Amendment) Act 2006, which requires a positive diagnostic test for applications received by the tribunal after the specified date of 20 June 2006.

A great deal of consideration has been given to the issue of recipients of anti-D who have neither tested positive for hepatitis C nor had a positive tribunal decision in their favour. A number of women who have tested negative for hepatitis C have experienced a variety of symptoms. However, there is no scientific proof that these symptoms are specific evidence of hepatitis C infection. In fact, some symptoms of hepatitis C, such as fatigue, fibromyalgia and depression, are common conditions that occur in the general population or are also associated with other illnesses. It is estimated that up to 16,000 women in Ireland were exposed to potentially infectious batches of anti-D and that approximately 1,000 of these were infected with hepatitis C. Extending eligibility for HAA cards to those who have tested negative for hepatitis C would have significant implications for the scheme overall.

I am sympathetic to the women in question. However, taking account of international practice and the rationale which led to the passing of the 2006 Act, I am satisfied that the present arrangements are reasonable in the circumstances.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  I understand that the cohort of women described in my question is 15 in number, two of whom are currently seriously ill. I take this opportunity to send my best wishes to them and their families at this very difficult time. The women who make up this tiny minority are very disappointed to have been excluded from the measures provided for the majority who have tested positive, including access to Health (Amendment) Act cards. I strongly urge the Minister to revisit the matter. Section 9 of the Hepatitis C Compensation Tribunal Act 1997 states:

The Minister may, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, by regulations extend the class or classes of persons who may make a claim for compensation before the Tribunal.

[518]This provision provides the Minister with the means to address a long-standing injustice. Given the small number of women involved, where there is a will there must be a way.

Second, funding for the organisations representing the women concerned, both those who have tested positive and those experiencing illness but not testing positive, has been reduced. These bodies were the subject of some very unfair media coverage in recent times, even though their expenditure was in all cases prior-approved by the Department. Will the Minister acknowledge that? I understand he has already met with one of the organisations, Transfusion Positive, on this issue. Will he undertake to meet with representatives of Positive Action as well?

Deputy James Reilly:  I too send my best wishes to anybody who is acutely ill at this time. I realise the difficulties attaching to this issue and am sympathetic to the plight of those involved. However, as I said in my reply, in the absence of some other method of defining the cause of illness, it is very difficult, under the legislation, to deal with the cases outlined. The Deputy observed that a very small number of women fall into this category, but the symptoms outlined are so prevalent with many other conditions that it would be difficult to confine any measure in this regard to the cohort we are discussing. Having said that, I am certainly prepared to review the matter with a view to finding some definable way of addressing it to everybody’s satisfaction.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  I have a note before me, which I will pass on to the Minister, setting out the most up-to-date medical information relevant to this case. The absence of serological markers for hepatitis C does not exclude the distinct probability that an individual was exposed to virus-contaminated anti-D immunoglobulin. There is very good evidence that some individuals, when exposed to the hepatitis C virus, have an acute resolving infection that can leave the previously infected person with none of the usual diagnostic metrics of the past infection, such as seropositivity. In regard to the patients we are discussing, the case of donor Y has been described as the clearest example of this progression within the context of the natural history of hepatitis C infection. The details are outlined in the report of the expert group on the Blood Transfusion Service Board of January 1995, pages 29 and 30. The report states that a large volume of plasma was collected from donor Y in 1989. This plasma was found in retrospective testing in 1994 to be positive for the hepatitis C virus, yet donor Y was independently tested by the then BTSB for evidence of hepatitis C viral infection and tested negative under the third-generation ELISA test.

These facts provide a means for the Minister to progress this matter. I do not doubt for one moment that it is his personal wish to do so. As such, I hope that what I have recounted today gives him the formula and wherewithal to proceed. To reiterate, we are speaking about a very small number of women who desperately need our help.

Deputy James Reilly:  I thank the Deputy for his comments. I will certainly undertake to consult again on this matter. There are specialists particularly proficient in this area who would be of assistance to us. I do not mean this as a defence, but the Attorney General must be consulted in this matter lest it create a precedent which might cause problems. The primary objective must be to support any woman who was infected by or has suffered as a result of receiving infected blood. My goal is to do so within the parameters and strictures under which I must operate. If we can manage it, we will certainly act on this. The Deputy said that where there is a will there is a way. There is a great deal of willingness on this side of the House if we can find a way.

[519]

  3.  Deputy Joan Collins    asked the Minister for Health    the reason holders of the HAA cards under the Health Amendment Act 1996 are being denied access to boceprevir - Victrelis - and Telaprivir; if he will reiterate the obligations this State has to citizens who contracted hepatitis C through the Blood Transfusion Service Board, especially in relation to access to drugs that increases their quality of life. [24411/12]

Deputy James Reilly:  I am pleased to confirm that a decision has been made to make boceprevir, marketed as Victrelis, and telaprevir, marketed as Incivo, which are hepatitis C protease inhibitor drugs, available within the hospital system for the treatment of hepatitis C. The new treatments have been found to be effective in treating adult patients with hepatitis C genotype 1 infection who have compensated liver disease and are previously untreated or who have failed previous therapy. The use of these drugs requires a detailed programme of treatment and monitoring of progress. The HSE is putting in place the protocols and structures to allow treatment to begin as soon as possible. Anyone who meets the criteria under the protocols will have access to these new treatments.

Deputy Joan Collins:  I welcome the Minister’s reply. There was an intake of breath by members of Positive Action and other organisations representing people infected by hepatitis C when it was indicated that there might not be access to these treatments. The situation has clearly moved on since then. Can the Minister indicate how soon treatment programmes will be initiated and what the associated protocols will be? Positive Action, Transfusion Ireland and other survivors will welcome this news.

Deputy James Reilly:  I have discussed this issue with Dr. Barry White, national director of clinical strategy and programmes with the Health Service Executive. He is very much involved in this area as somebody who treats patients with haemophilia, many of whom contracted hepatitis C through contaminated blood products. There are medical protocols around this, which I will not go into, because there is a possibility of serious side effects associated with the treatment. For instance, the administration of these medicines to patients who are hepatitis C negative would not be considered justified in terms of the down side that can possibly occur.

Having said that, these drugs are a real breakthrough. They are the first to have been shown to clear the body of the virus. This is a welcome development, one that offers real hope of a normal life for persons who have suffered as a consequence of contracting hepatitis C.

Deputy Joan Collins:  As far as I am aware, some members of Positive Action embarked on the new treatment some months ago and are ready to move. Will the Minister ensure those who have embarked on the programme can move quickly? They were supposed to start the 48 week process in January and then in February. Is the Minister saying those who are on the programme can move quickly to the long-term treatment needed? As he said, the new treatment is fantastic for persons who have been affected by hepatitis C.

I reiterate what my colleague said. There have been requests from Positive Action to meet the Minister to discuss a number of issues that have arisen. I would appreciate it if this meeting could be arranged as soon as possible.

Deputy James Reilly:  Those who have been assessed and are on the drug will progress quickly, while others must go through the process to ensure they are suitable.

With regard to meeting Transfusion Positive——

Deputy Joan Collins:  Positive Action.

[520]Deputy James Reilly:  I am sorry. I have met Transfusion Positive and have no problem meeting representatives of Positive Action.

  4.  Deputy Billy Kelleher    asked the Minister for Health    if he will consider reversing the decision of the National Centre for Pharmaeconomics to halve the threshold used to measure value for money; if his attention has been drawn to the knock-on effects this decision is having on sufferers of major illnesses including prostate cancer; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24408/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  The National Centre for Pharmoeconomics, NCPE, plays an important role in the assessment process for new medicines. Its findings are not, however, the sole deciding factor in the process of allocating resources for new and expensive treatments. Its report is an input into decision making, but it is not the decision. The NCPE investigates the robustness of pricing proposals and cost-effectiveness documentation forwarded by pharmaceutical companies at a range of values. It is entirely appropriate to investigate cost-effectiveness at a range of values. Such investigations provide very useful information for the HSE on the most appropriate use of resources and potential negotiating positions with pharmaceutical companies when discussing price. Furthermore, the assessment process may identify where additional information is required from a pharmaceutical company.

The assessment process conducted by the HSE and the NCPE is a perfectly legitimate tool in assessing the best application of limited resources. It is designed not to prevent access to medicines but to ensure the best value can be achieved in order that more medicines can ultimately be provided from within limited budgets. The NCPE economic assessment process is robust and internationally respected and an important input for decision makers.

There are a number of new and expensive drug treatments being considered by the HSE. Drugs for the treatment of prostate cancer, including Zytiga and Jevtana, are within the decision making process. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further while this process is ongoing.

There has been recent media coverage of reimbursement approval for new and expensive medicines. Following on from recent discussions in this regard, the Chief Medical Officer is exploring with the HSE the adoption of a new and robust system for decision making on drugs in order to promote and drive evidence-based prescribing. This should help to create capacity on a sustainable basis to provide for necessary new drugs when there is evidence to support their use.

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  I am disappointed with the decision of the HSE to reduce the threshold used for determining cost-effectiveness. The NCPE makes recommendations, but these are based on values of life expectancy and quality of life. The HSE has decided to reduce the threshold from €40,000 to €20,000, which will have a negative impact on many people who are waiting for breakthrough medicines or new drugs that are coming onto the market on a continual basis. The example of Ipilimumab is a case in point. This drug was recommended some time ago for the treatment of melanoma, but the HSE had to be dragged kicking and screaming into making it available. There is a difficulty in that regard. We must get used to the fact that there will be continual advances in technology and increases in the number of available medicines, while life expectancy and survival rates, particularly for people with cancer, will continually increase. That is the most positive thing we can say about the national cancer care strategy. Does the Minister of State accept that reducing the threshold of adjudication from €40,000 to [521]€20,000 will mean that many people may not receive life-saving treatments because of cost-cutting measures and that this will have a detrimental impact on quality of life and even on life itself?

  3 o’clock

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  We must consider these matters in the context of the overall cost of the drugs budget. We spend about 16% of the health budget on drugs, which amounts to almost €2 billion. By any standard, that is a very high proportion and it is not sustainable into the future. That is why there is an onus on all of us to ensure we get better value for money in terms of drug costs. We all want to see new and effective drugs coming onto the market as quickly as possible. The HSE estimates that if we were to approve new drugs that are clinically effective, the cost of providing them could be up to €30 million. There is no new pot of money from which we can take more money for the drugs budget. It is a finite budget and there is no potential for increasing it. I do not need to tell the Deputy the reason there is no new money available. We want to ensure these new drugs can be brought onto the market, but it must be done in the context of reducing the prices of other drugs for which we are paying, many of which are over and above the prices in other countries.

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  I appreciate the Minister of State’s reply, but we must recall that the Minister for Health, when on this side of the House, accused a previous Minister of criminal negligence with regard to the delay in the roll-out of the HPV vaccination programme for girls. What we are looking at is a reduction in the threshold for determining value for money which will ensure people will die because they will not be able to access the necessary breakthrough drugs. A case in point was Ipilimumab, but there are many more, including Pradaxa, Sycrest, Victrelis, Brilique and Gilenya. These are all drugs that should be made available, but the HSE has reduced the threshold from €40,000 to €20,000, which means it has put a lower value on life.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The HSE has no role in determining the threshold. It is the role of the NCPE to consider a number of aspects with regard to how new drugs are to be assessed. I want to make it absolutely clear that there was no reduction in the threshold. I was in touch with the unit today and confirmed that since 2009 cost benefit analyses had been done on two levels, €45,000 per quality-adjusted life year, QALY, and €20,000 per QALY. It is absolutely legitimate that new drugs are assessed on this basis and that has been the practice since 2009. There has been no change in this regard.

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  There has been a change.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Many new drugs either above or below these levels are approved, while many others above or below them are rejected. That input from the NCPE is only one of a number of elements taken into consideration in the decision making process to approve a new drug for reimbursement.

  5.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health    if new procedures will be put in place to address both the recurrent problem of supply to pharmacists of vital prescription drugs and the need to make the most effective drugs and treatments available as soon as possible to public patients as shown by the recent case of the cancer drug ipilimumab. [24410/12]

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Shortages of essential medicines are a source of concern not only in Ireland but also throughout Europe and the rest of the world. It is a global problem affecting health systems in all countries and impacting on patients worldwide. Medicines shortages can be the result of one, several or any combination of factors throughout the pharmaceutical supply chain such as manufacturing difficulties, industry consolidation and commercial [522]decisions by manufacturers to withdraw unprofitable lines. In some cases, pharmaceutical manufacturing is concentrated to such an extent that a production problem in one pharmaceutical plant can have a wide-ranging and international impact on health systems throughout the world.

Irish medicine regulations place an obligation on both manufacturers and pharmaceutical wholesalers within the limits of their respective responsibilities to ensure the adequate availability and supply of medicines on the Irish market in order to meet patient needs. My Department has been engaging with the Irish Medicines Board, IMB, the Health Service Executive, HSE, and the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, PSI, to identify ways in which the Irish system can manage medicine shortages as effectively as possible to minimise the impact on patients. International efforts to manage medicine shortages effectively are also being considered.

Pharmaceutical production is carried out by private enterprises and the State or my Department can only intervene to a limited extent to prevent medicine shortages occurring. The IMB and the HSE continue to work closely to manage operationally medicine shortages when they arise. The PSI works with the pharmacy profession and has recently published guidance for registered pharmacists on managing medicine shortages. Manufacturers, wholesalers and pharmacies all have a responsibility to work together to identify shortages quickly and implement alternative arrangements to meet the needs of patients.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Medicine shortages are not related to the negotiation of pricing and the reimbursement of new and expensive medicines such as Ipilimumab. The recent issue regarding this drug was related to the current pricing and supply agreement with pharmaceutical manufacturers. The Department and the HSE are in contact with the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association, IPHA, with the intention of securing a new pricing and supply agreement to replace the existing agreement which expired on 1 March. The terms of the previous agreement and savings secured thereunder will continue to apply pending successful negotiation of a new agreement. The Department is committed to securing additional savings in the price of medicines in any new agreement.

There has been recent media coverage of reimbursement approval for new and expensive medicines. The position of the Department and the HSE in the ongoing contacts with the IPHA is that financial space needs to be created within current drug expenditure to facilitate the cost of the new and innovative drugs awaiting reimbursement approval. The Chief Medical Officer is exploring with the HSE the adoption of a new and robust system for decision making in regard to drugs to promote and drive evidence-based prescribing. This should help to create capacity on a sustainable basis to provide for necessary new drugs when there is evidence to support their use.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  I welcome the fact that the cancer drug in question has been approved. Given the debate on the issue, will the Minister of State bring forward, in conjunction with her colleagues, the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, a policy to ensure cancer patients and others who require advanced drugs and treatments will receive what they need as soon as possible? Will the Minister of State take on board the current inequity of access? There is a disparity in the approach of the various HSE regions. Tysabri is available in some HSE regions but not in all and that issue needs to be addressed.

Referencing the Minister’s reply to Deputy Joan Collins, will the Minister of State confirm that the triple treatment with protease inhibitors for hepatitis C will be available to all affected women as prescribed? Does the Minister of State accept that under the terms of the Health [523](Amendment) Act 1996, women have a statutory entitlement to all new prescription drugs, as prescribed? Will she ensure all the women affected who require the medication in question will be able to gain access to it without delay?

On last night’s “Prime Time” programme a representative of the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics stated that in cases in which it had not approved particular drugs because of their cost, it had been able to negotiate a lower price with the pharmaceutical companies involved. Does this not expose excessive profiteering by the pharmaceutical companies? What does the Minister of State and her colleagues intend to do about it? This is an issue on which each of the Ministers has reflected when in opposition.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  As I stated, cost is but one of the elements taken into consideration. Whatever recommendation is made by the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics is but one element in the decision making process. Other issues of concern include clinical effectiveness. This is the main factor taken into consideration. Cost-effectiveness, severity of disease, unmet needs, policy considerations, available funding and other funding priorities must also be examined. We need to be reasonable and balanced when taking these factors into consideration.

As I stated, we have a very large drugs bill and must work very hard to reduce it. There is an onus on all the players concerned to reduce it. We need to address this issue from a prescription perspective and also the overall cost of medicines. That is why it is important that people discuss how we can ensure the supply of medicines is guaranteed on a sustainable basis. As the Deputy stated, we are spending a considerable amount on drugs. Expenditure amounts to almost €2 billion. We need to make space within this budget to allow for new drugs to come onto the market. The Government side, just as much as the Opposition side, and those working in the health service and, most of all, patients want to see the new, effective drugs coming onto the market as soon as possible. This is achieved within a limited envelope. If funding must be provided for new drugs, we must secure a better deal on the cost of existing drugs.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  The Minister of State did not address the issue of the availability of tysabri in all HSE areas. Will she, please, do so? Will she reiterate and confirm the position outlined by the Minister in response to Deputy Joan Collins’s question on women testing positive for hepatitis C? This is very important. The women concerned have a statutory entitlement under the terms of the 1996 Act.

It is not entirely a question of cost, but it is most certainly is a question of availability. The United States Senate has introduced legislation to address what it is referred to as “price gouging” by certain pharmaceutical companies which are driving up the price by making fewer drugs available than are demanded. Has the Minister of State any concerns that such practices are taking place in this jurisdiction or in supply lines to our market?

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  My understanding is that tysabri is prescribed on the basis of clinical indications. If there are regional variations, I am not aware of them. I will check and revert to the Deputy later in the day.

I agree absolutely with the Deputy that we need to be very vigilant about the prices charged for medicines. In many cases where new drugs are coming onto the market, the suppliers have a monopoly. That is why we need very rigorous assessment of the value for money achieved in the prescribing of the drugs in question. We cannot accept any new drug coming onto the market. There ought to be a very rigorous assessment and such an assessment is absolutely legitimate. History shows that, in many instances, we paid over the odds for drugs. This is partly the reason our drugs bill has increased from €400 million in 1998 to almost €2 billion today. This is not sustainable. We must ensure drug companies, the presence of which in the country we very much welcome because of their research and the employment they provide, [524]are responsible in their pricing systems. If we are paying more for drugs, the cost must be met somewhere else. It means a service cut somewhere else. That is the reality and there are serious implications on foot of a service cut. It is a question of ensuring we are reasonable and that we can bring the drugs budget under some control while ensuring new drugs are made available.

  6.  Deputy Micheál Martin    asked the Minister for Health    the consultations he has held with general practitioners regarding the extension of free care to those with long-term illnesses; the expected cost of this scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24288/12]

  37.  Deputy Charlie McConalogue    asked the Minister for Health    if he has consulted with the Irish Medical Organisation regarding the provision of universal general practitioner care; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24290/12]

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 37 together.

The programme for Government commits to reforming the current public health system by introducing universal health insurance with equal access to care for all. As part of this reform programme the Government is committed to introducing universal GP care within the term of office of this Government. I have established the universal primary care project team which has been tasked with working through the issues relating to the introduction of this commitment. Officials from the Department and the HSE are represented on this project team. The project team has been meeting regularly, approximately fortnightly since February.

The Government has given its approval to the preparation of heads of a Bill to progress the phased introduction of free GP care in line with the programme for Government. I intend that this Bill will be published and enacted prior to the summer recess. It is envisaged that the first phase in the programme will provide for the extension of access to GP services without fees to persons with illnesses or disabilities to be prescribed by regulations under the new legislation. A provision of €15 million was made available in the 2012 Estimates for the first phase of the programme.

I have had preliminary discussions with the IMO and the Irish College of General Practitioners to outline policy in this area. I expect to engage in further discussions with GPs and the IMO at the appropriate time.

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  This will involve a contractual change in terms of how the Department assesses medical card qualification because up until now it was based on means, not on illness. This change will involve contractual discussions with GPs. The GPs represent the front line in the delivery of care, as the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, more than anybody else, will be aware. We are talking about the establishment of primary care units and primary care teams, and the GP will be the focus.

If the legislation is to be published in the middle of this year and enacted thereon, surely there must be some form of discussions and contractual changes with GPs in the country to deliver this new service because it will impact on their contracts.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Would the Deputy raise a question?

[525]Deputy James Reilly:  I apologise for interrupting. There is a lot of noise coming from the background and I cannot hear the speakers.

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  Could we get clarity as to whether the Minister intends to sit down on a formalised basis with the IMO and others to tease out the issue of the contractual changes that will be required in the implementation of the first phase of free primary GP care?

In terms of the funding of this roll-out and the fact the Minister is talking about having free GP care available to everybody by the end of the term of the Government, has he analysed the charge on the Exchequer? While we are talking about free GP care for everybody, we are currently, in Kilkenny and Carlow, counting the number of incontinence pads being given to persons in nursing homes. As we speak, they are rationing incontinence pads. I am in favour of trying to make GP care available to as many people as possible, but in the meantime that is what we are doing to the elderly in nursing homes in the State.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  That issue of a limit being placed on incontinence pads should never have arisen and that decision has been reversed. It is no longer the case. It was unfortunate it happened, it should not have happened, and it has been dealt with.

On contractual changes, it is not envisaged there will need to be a change to the GP contract to begin the process of introducing free GP care. It is true what Deputy Kelleher stated, that the existing system operates on a means basis. That is why we are introducing legislation to enable us to provide by regulation for certain categories of person to be given a doctor visit card. That is the purpose of the legislation.

We do not foresee that causing difficulties with or any concerns about the contract. What we have seen over recent years with the recession is a big increase in the number of medical cards issued and GPs have taken on that additional work. There is no reason the extension of the doctor visit card should cause any difficulty. I do not foresee that being a problem.

I have had informal discussions. I made it clear to the ICGP from the beginning. I outlined Government policy, the plans we are making and the preparatory work that is under way through the universal primary care project team. I also met the IMO on a couple of occasions recently to outline the preparatory work that is going on. We will be engaging more closely as the legislation develops. We are applying a good deal of pressure to get it through before the summer.

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  In the context of long-term illness, as far as I can ascertain in research, there has been no long-term illnesses added to the scheme since the mid-1970s. Will there be an extension of the illnesses that will qualify as long-term illness? Motor neurone disease, asthma, bipolar disorder and many others are not part of the long-term illness scheme. In the context of the roll-out of free GP care for those who are on the long-term illness scheme, will there also be an extension?

I have a slight difficulty when the Government talks about free GP care for everybody. Free GP care for everybody sounds great, but the difficulty is there are many who should be entitled to free GP care who are not getting it and the Government is talking about this grand design and plan of rolling it out to everybody. In the meantime, there are people dying of motor neurone disease or many other major long-term illnesses who will not qualify. Will the Minister of State carry out a review of the long-term illnesses and diseases that will qualify for same?

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  As I outlined, in situations where people are dying, special arrangements are in place to provide medical card cover, details of which have been circulated to all Members of this House.

[526]Deputy Billy Kelleher:  I accept that.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  The Minister of State, please.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Let us be clear about that.

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  Qualification of diseases.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  The Government is committed to introducing free GP care within its term and it will be over a four-year period. The issue is the phasing of that and identifying the best way in order that we can do it in a controlled way to ensure the budget does not run out of control and the system is geared up. We are aware that primary care is underdeveloped. We want to see more GPs involved and more practice nurses and other allied health professionals. We must gear up. That is why it is being phased over a number of years.

There are different ways of dealing with the issue of category of person but we are trying to do it logically and within the budget provided. I accept the point the long-term illness scheme is problematic. It is far from ideal. In phasing in free GP care, we are trying to look at how we can target those not covered currently by a medical card but who are the most sick, and those within the long-term illness scheme are part of that. We will look then at other groups to whom we will extend the free GP care. That is why we are talking about enabling legislation and it is why we will look in greater detail at the nature of the regulations we will introduce, which will enable us to include the greatest number of persons in the greatest need within the budget available to us.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  When will the promised costing structure of the proposed health reforms based on health insurance be available? This has been signalled for some time. Can the Minister of State give Members an indication as to when that will be available?

Will the Minister of State clarify the step approach to the roll-out of GP care for all? Is it on a two-step basis — those who currently hold the long-term illness card and then all citizens — or on a category-by-category phased basis? Can she give the House some sense of how many steps there will be towards the ultimate roll-out? Is there a timeframe in which she expects that to be concluded?

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  On the bigger questions about funding and the model, as Deputy Ó Caoláin will be aware, the Minister, Deputy Reilly, established the UHI implementation group earlier this year. That expert group, drawn from a wide range of expertise in different fields, has been tasked with drawing up a White Paper on UHI, and the aim is to have that White Paper before the end of the year.

Separately, I established the universal primary care project team, which is working through all of the issues involved in developing primary care. It is not only about the introduction of free GP care. It is about all the other elements as well — ensuring there are sufficient allied health professionals in the right places and there is decent accommodation for primary care centres. Work is also being done in respect of the contract. Many different issues are being addressed and one of the most important of these is ring-fencing the budget relating to primary care. The budget in respect of such care has never previously been ring-fenced.

We are going to phase in the introduction of free GP care this year, starting with the category of people to whom I already referred. The budget for this year is €15 million and we expect to have a similar amount next year. We are working through how we might devise the regulations in order to ensure the phasing-in process is done in the most appropriate way. We do not want to become involved in the expensive business of means testing. We are, therefore, taking the [527]approach of identifying different categories, namely, those which contain people who are most sick, and ensuring they will be included in the initiative at as early a stage as possible. The overall timescale will be four years. Everyone will eventually be covered by then.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  So it will be more than a two-step process.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  It will be a four-step process at least.

  7.  Deputy Brian Stanley    asked the Minister for Health    if he will provide a guarantee that the decision to close Abbeyleix Hospital, County Laois, will be reversed, that the hospital will be retained and maintained by the Health Service Executive as a facility for older persons in the midlands; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24202/12]

Deputy Kathleen Lynch:  I wish to reassure the Deputy and, more importantly, the residents of Abbeyleix community nursing unit, and their families, that no decision has been made to close the unit. During 2011 the Health Service Executive was considering a proposal to close Abbeyleix community nursing unit. However, following the instigation of court proceedings, it became clear that it was not appropriate for the HSE to make a decision to close the unit without a prior consultation process.

On Friday, 27 April 2012 the HSE issued a statement confirming that it will commence consultation on the planning and provision of services for older people in the midland counties of Laois, Longford, Offaly and Westmeath. I have been advised this consultation process will commence shortly. I understand this will include a proposal to consolidate nine of the community nursing units in the region into seven such units, with the possible closure of Abbeyleix community nursing unit and St. Brigid’s Hospital, Shaen. This will involve engaging with residents, relatives, staff, public representatives and other stakeholders. The process will be completed within a period of three months from commencement. Should the HSE conclude that full closure of any unit is necessary, a recommendation to this effect will then be made.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  The Minister of State is clearly aware that as recently as Monday last the HSE was still stating that the promised consultation process relating to Abbeyleix community nursing unit and the care of older people in the midlands has not yet commenced. This process was promised last year and it is now May 2012. Nothing has been heard about the process in all of the months that have passed. As the Minister of State indicated, on 27 April last, two days before a second major rally in support of the unit, the HSE advised the process would be commencing soon. We have heard this before and I am of the view that greater certainty is required in respect of this matter. I would also like an assurance to the effect that the process will take place.

Will the Minister of State admit that the policy of downgrading public nursing homes and of closing some is completely wrong and that it must be reversed? When addressing the annual conference of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, the Minister, Deputy Reilly, stated that not a single acute hospital bed that has been closed will be reopened any time soon. What is the position with regard to closing public nursing homes? Where are people who are being displaced to go? We are heading for a calamitous situation in the context of the closure of beds in acute hospital settings and also, perhaps, with regard to the imminent closure of public nursing homes in some circumstances. Ultimately, the position will become impossible.

Deputy Kathleen Lynch:  I have always been of the view that when one is discussing people who are easily convinced of the doomsday situation, one must be very careful with regard to [528]the language one uses. I refer here to the use of words such as “disastrous” and “calamitous” and to asking where people should go. We have not reached that point and I do not believe we will reach it. Families and communities in this country are extremely caring.

A recommendation has not yet been made. The consultation process will take three months to complete and if a recommendation is made at that point, then HIQA will have to be given six months notice in respect of it. It is all in Abbeyleix community nursing unit’s favour that the process involved is slow. Neither the relevant files nor the consultations in which I have engaged with the Department have indicated there is a foregone conclusion in respect of this matter. When discussing older people who always feel a degree of insecurity with regard to their position, we must be very careful with regard to what we say. I appeal to the Deputy to allow the process to take its course. The process will take as long as it takes.

There is no policy in respect of the downgrading of public facilities. The Government is committed to ensuring there will be a sufficient number of public beds to cater for people who require long-stay care. In the context of two areas, namely, mental health and disability, I have been charged with removing people from institutions. There is a rush to place older people into institutions and I am of the view that we need to consider a different way to do things.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  I sincerely hope that the situation at Abbeyleix will not present as being calamitous at any time in the future. However, the situation for older people across the State who are awaiting discharge from hospital settings and who cannot access nursing home beds is indeed calamitous for them and their families. I make no apology for using that language.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  A question please, Deputy.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  I am not trying to incite fear at all, I am merely attempting to spell out to the Minister of State and her colleagues in the Chamber the fact that we are dealing with a very serious situation. The Minister of State indicated that there is no policy. Will she impress that fact upon the HSE? In respect of the service plans that were announced earlier this year, the HSE stated there will be reductions in bed numbers at different locations throughout the State, including in the HSE area in which I live.

Deputy Kathleen Lynch:  The Deputy should be aware that we have set aside a substantial sum of money, €28 million, in order to ensure that a programme relating to frail elderly people will be put in place. Such individuals are those who will require respite care when they come out of hospital and also access to physiotherapy services. They will also require to be assessed and it is important that assessments in respect of long-stay care patients be performed outside the hospital setting and in more familiar surroundings. In the past, such assessments were carried out in surroundings with which older people were not familiar and, as a result, they became quite confused. Half of the 40% of people who are in long-stay care settings and who do not need to be there could be accounted for in this way. We are definitely considering other ways of operating.

Not everything relates to long-stay care. However, I wish to reassure those who require such care that the necessary funds are available. I also wish to reassure those who will need a different type of care, namely, that which will facilitate them in the context of transitioning back into their own communities, that the relevant service will be available within the next few weeks. That is a good thing. This is a different way of operating and I know the Deputy will agree with me in this regard.

[529]Deputy Charles Flanagan:  I put it to the Minister of State that in the case of Abbeyleix community nursing unit, the HSE is operating in the context of a preordained policy of closure and that the consultation process is no more than window dressing. Will she outline exactly what is meant by a consultation process which will involve public representatives? As a long-standing public representative for the county in which Abbeyleix community nursing home is situated, will the Minister of State indicate precisely how the consultation with public representatives will proceed and what will be the outcome of it?

Deputy Kathleen Lynch:  As a long-standing public representative, I have great faith in the democratic process and I would never downgrade public representatives. The essential aspect is that families, residents and support workers within communities will be the priority. Consultation with the public representatives will be just one part of that.

Deputy Charles Flanagan:  It has not happened, however.

Deputy Kathleen Lynch:  If we wish for something to happen long enough, then sometimes our wish will come true. The Health Service Executive is not preordained in this instance. I am convinced the best possible outcome that we could wish for will occur in this case. We need to reassure those with loved ones in nursing homes, not just Abbeyleix, that their best interests, as well as their will and preference, must be taken into account. The process will begin and all stakeholders, including public representatives, will be contacted and consulted on this. We all wish that at the end of this consultation process the best possible outcome will be achieved for those whose home it is.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  I hope that model will apply to all homes.

Deputy Kathleen Lynch:  It will apply in this case.

  8.  Deputy Michael Colreavy    asked the Minister for Health    if he will fulfil his commitment to abolish prescription charges for medical card patients; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24201/12]

Deputy James Reilly:  Medical cardholders are required to pay a 50 cent charge for medicines and other prescription items supplied to them by community pharmacists, subject to a cap of €10 per month for each person or family. Charges are not payable in respect of items supplied under the long-term illness scheme. Prescription charges do not apply to children in the care of the HSE or to methadone supplied to patients participating in the methadone treatment scheme.

Prescription charges result in savings to the HSE of approximately €27 million annually. I regret that, due to the current financial climate, I am not in a position to remove the 50 cent prescription charge, one of my goals on entering office. However, despite the very difficult budgetary situation, the Government has ruled out an increase in prescription charges.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  At the time prescription charges for medical cardholders were introduced by the then Minister, Mary Harney, in 2010, the then Fine Gael spokesperson on health — I wonder who that would have been — described them as “aimed at the most vulnerable, sickest and weakest in our society”. He pointed to international research showing that “any disincentive for people to take medicine should be avoided as certain patients will inevitable end up in hospital.” He went on to point out that the cost of a single day in hospital would wipe out any supposed savings from the charges for prescriptions.

[530]What has changed with the Minister? Why has his response changed from the position he articulated quite correctly in 2010? Why are we seeing the continuation of prescription charges for medical cardholders?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Thank you, Deputy.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  The Government’s policy was to repeal the imposition of prescription charges but it has never been given effect. Recently, I presented a Bill to repeal this charge to the respective office in the Oireachtas for consideration but it was rejected on the basis that the repeal of a charge by an Opposition Deputy would represent a charge on the Exchequer. Every obstacle is put in our way as Opposition voices to try to have this outrageous charge not only addressed but reversed.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Thank you, Deputy. I must call the Minister.

Deputy James Reilly:  I thought my answer was clear on how the situation had changed. However, the old saying comes to mind, “There are none so blind as those who will not see and none so deaf as those who will not listen.” The reality is that not alone were the coffers empty when we arrived in government but there was a stack of IOUs in them as well. The money is not there to do what I wanted to, as already stated in my original reply. It was also one of the first actions I wanted to take on first becoming Minister. I still believe any barrier to someone taking their medicines is to be avoided.

There are many other ways, which we are investigating, for reducing the drugs bill and the amount of drugs prescribed, which are sometimes hoarded by people of which I had personal experience as a GP. This can be done with the aid of pharmacists monitoring what is prescribed and double-checking whether a person has used his or her full amount of medication. Some medications are prescribed on a PRN, pro re nata, basis. Much work can be done in this regard.

It is clear with the difficult financial situation in which this country finds itself and with €2.5 billion gone out of the €16 billion health budget in the past three years, we are not able to do many of the things we would like to do. That does not mean that sometime in the future we will not be able to achieve that goal of repealing these charges.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  The Minister knows best about those who do not want to hear because he does not want to hear what he said himself when he was in opposition. He will be reminded of it time and again.

The Minister would have the support of all voices in this House if he proceeded with Mary Harney’s promise of reference pricing and generic substitution. Legislation was promised to address that. These are critical points. For all her failures, which were legion, at least she identified an area that needed to be addressed and which we could support. Although this Bill was promised, it has yet to be published. What is happening in the Minister’s Department that there is not significant progress at least to signal the intent to bring in this legislation?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Thank you, Deputy. I must call the Minister.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  Will the Minister address that matter? Will the Minister indicate to the House his intention to repeal this charge on medical cardholders that is an impediment to access to essential medication?

Deputy James Reilly:  I have just signalled very clearly that in the future I hope to be able to introduce the repeal of these charges as the economy improves and we make savings in [531]health as we have done to date. Last year, through the new clinical programmes and the special delivery unit in conjunction with front-line services, we saved 70,000 bed days at a value of €63 million to the State. That money has been reinvested in health to ensure more patients can be treated more quickly. Similarly, in a pilot money-follows-the-patient scheme in orthopaedics, it was insisted patients be admitted on the day of the procedure rather than the night before, as long as there was no co-existing morbidity. We saved €6 million in this move. We hope to do much better this year.

The costs of drugs are a major issue, as was addressed by my colleague, Deputy Shortall, earlier. It remains a bone of contention between us and the pharmaceutical industry. Nonetheless, the industry has to come to the party. There is a limited pot. If we have to make room for new drugs, then older drugs have to fall in price to accommodate that. There must be some risk-sharing by the pharmaceutical industry and more involvement with patients and patient groups in this area. It has already been successfully done by the Irish Haemophilia Society, in conjunction with the Department, in acquiring blood products. Through the pressure it brought to bear considerable savings were ensured.

Drug reference pricing legislation is a key priority and it is out for consultation. It has elicited an alarmed response from the pharmaceutical industry. The industry must acknowledge, however, this country can ill afford, much less than many other countries, the high prices we are charged for drugs.

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  The Minister made a statement some time ago about the abolition of prescription charges. The first parliamentary question I tabled to this Government was to the Minister for Finance. He informed me Government members were fully aware and briefed in advance of the programme for Government of the difficult circumstances in every Department. Yet, the Minister for Health still made a statement on the abolition of the charges after taking up office. He looked into the cupboards, knew they were bare, saw the IOUs but still made the promise. It is not factually correct for the Minister to claim he was unaware of the difficulties. He was fully aware of them and he still insisted on making the commitment to abolish the prescription charges.

Deputy James Reilly:  As we are having a little history lesson, may I remind the Deputy that I was only in the door as Minister for Health when I gave that interview on prescription charges and that I had not had the opportunity to examine every cupboard? I certainly was not given the opportunity to check behind all the radiators where certain other reports had been lost. The Deputy might ask his leader about those.

I stand and acknowledge fully that I sought to get rid of the prescription charge because I believed it could have been a barrier to some people maintaining medical care. It may have been to their detriment and at greater cost to the State. I hold that belief still but I am not in a position to repeal the charge because I do not have the extra €27 million. I need not remind the Deputy of the reasons for this.

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  The Minister maintained it would be budget neutral.

Deputy James Reilly:  It is not budget neutral at all. It brings in €27 million per annum, and I would dearly love to find that money elsewhere. I will continue to seek it elsewhere so that I can fulfil that promise. I, along with many other people in the country, was not aware of the depth of the destruction the Deputy’s Government wreaked on the country until we got a complete look at what was going on in individual Departments. One might have an overview, but it is only when we get to the nitty-gritty of each Department that we can see the true extent [532]of the damage and disaster that resulted from the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats Government.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  I call the next question in the name of Deputy Brendan Smith.

Deputy Mick Wallace:  What about the Greens?

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  Who?

Deputy James Reilly:  Exactly. Who are the Greens?

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  What about the builders?

  9.  Deputy Brendan Smith    asked the Minister for Health    if his attention has been drawn to the fact that nine hospitals have amended criteria for categorising patients on trolleys as a way of reducing the appearance of overcrowding in accident and emergency; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24271/12]

Deputy James Reilly:  I am aware that Deputy Kelleher has claimed there may be some issues with trolley counts in some hospitals. I draw the Deputy’s attention to the statement issued by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, acknowledging and confirming the reduction by 17% overall in the numbers of people on trolleys in accident and emergency departments in the first four months of 2012 compared with the first four months of 2011. This overall reduction reflects a 23% reduction in the Dublin area and a 13% reduction for the rest of the country. This follows from a 27% reduction nationally in 2011.

Reduction of trolley numbers was a key priority initiative for the special delivery unit, SDU, in my Department for 2011. Building on the achievements of 2011 and the first four months of 2012, the SDU will work with the National Treatment Purchase Fund, the HSE clinical programmes and hospitals to minimise patient waiting times in accident and emergency departments further. There are still too many people on trolleys but the next phase of work by the SDU will include the introduction of an unscheduled care target to be introduced in 2012 and a change of focus in accident and emergency departments to patient journey time monitoring, in addition to trolley waits, as part of the new national scorecard for measuring performance. The ultimate aim is to ensure 95% of all attendees at accident and emergency departments are discharged or admitted within six hours of registration and those who need to be admitted through the department wait no more than nine hours from registration.

Deputy Billy Kelleher:  Selective quotations are in vogue. At the same conference, the secretary of the INMO stated the management at up to ten hospitals were putting pressure on nursing staff to move patients from the accident and emergency departments to inpatient wards. Does the Minister accept the veracity of that statement and if it is the case, would it not put significant pressure on people to take shortcuts with patient safety? Does the Minister agree that if we are to benchmark quality of care and patient safety, the idea that people would be forced or requested by hospital management to comply with the guidelines of the Department and SDU to move to inpatient wards is against all the protocols, as that should only happen when full-capacity protocols are enacted in a hospital?

Deputy James Reilly:  I am glad the Deputy qualified his statement. If there is a question, as has been suggested by some, that patients are being hidden around hospitals, it will be fully investigated. I would be pleased to deal with anybody engaging in that practice. There is abso[533]lutely no question that international information shows very clearly the patient is better off in a ward than in an accident and emergency department. A problem is better spread through a hospital rather than focused in an accident and emergency department. That argument has been well discussed and it is over.

There have been suggestions that people have not been waiting for full protocols to be in place and I am very happy to examine any area where that has happened. I know we now have consultants coming in on Saturdays and Sundays to do ward rounds. I know diagnostics are being read at weekends and patients are being discharged seven days a week rather than the five days a week that was true in the past. We want the measures that have been put in place on the ground formalised through the Croke Park process, and talks will begin imminently to achieve that.

Ultimately, we do not want to see discussions about inputs but rather outcomes for patients. We are discussing the patient experience and journey as well as how to improve incomes and ensure recovery is quicker and more complete.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  If I could——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  I cannot even allow Deputy Kelleher ask a supplementary question as we are out of time. It is his question.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  This is Question Time.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  It finishes at 3.45 p.m. and it is already 3.46 p.m.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:  The clock is fast.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  I have five clocks in front of me and they all read the same. We will get back to those issues.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.

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 27A and the name of the Member in each case: (1) Deputy Pat Deering — the ambulance service in Carlow and the fact all ambulances have to go to St. Luke’s Hospital in Kilkenny although a GP makes a call that the patient needs to go to Waterford Regional Hospital; (2) Deputy Dessie Ellis — to discuss the need for the reinstatement of rent supplement in the Ballymun area as the regeneration project nears its end; (3) Deputies Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Joan Collins, and Michael Conaghan — the need to prevent the closure of crèches at Ballyfermot, Whitehall and Cabra vocational education colleges; (4) Deputy Jim Daly — the need for an extension to Knockskeagh national school, Clonakilty, County Cork; (5) Deputy Timmy Dooley — to ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if he is satisfied with the security arrangements at Dublin Airport; (6) Deputy Regina Doherty — the current rent limits for the greater Dublin area; (7) Deputy Thomas P. Broughan — the selection of a site for the proposed regional wastewater plant in north Dublin; (8) Deputy Dara Calleary — the impact on the operation of Ireland West Airport Knock of the recent Government decision on Shannon Airport; (9) Deputy Anne Ferris — the need for a new school building for Coláiste Ráithín, Bray, County Wicklow; (10) Deputy Dan Neville — recognising International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia on Thursday, 17 May, the need to combat homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools; (11) Deputy Ciarán Lynch — the progress made in the processing of medical card applications and review [534]of delays; (12) Deputy Tom Hayes — the need to allow for the registration of Irish deaths abroad; (13) Deputy Charlie McConalogue — harmful drinking behaviour and the increased severity in mental health problems; (14) Deputy Eoghan Murphy — to ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if he is aware of the closure of the Ryanair website and online check-in facilities this weekend; (15) Deputy Mattie McGrath — the urgent need for the Minister for Health to explain the regional discrepancies in the provision by the HSE of home care for young children and the Government’s proposals to provide adequate home care to all children in need of it; (16) Deputy Simon Harris — the urgent need for a new building for Newpark Comprehensive School, Blackrock, County Dublin; (17) Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett — the postponement of the new school building at Newpark Comprehensive School, Blackrock, County Dublin until 2015; and (18) Deputy Ciara Conway — the need to re-examine the definition of family as set out in the Irish Constitution and to bring it in line with the UN definition of family.

The matters raised by Deputies Tom Hayes; Charlie McConalogue; Ciarán Lynch; and Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Joan Collins and Michael Conaghan have been selected for discussion.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue:  I raise this issue on the back of a report published today by Headstrong in association with academic staff in UCD. This was a survey of 14,000 teenagers and young adults which found 38% of participants had problematic or harmful drinking behaviour, with a further 7% having signs of alcohol dependence. According to Dr. Barbara Dooley, a lecturer at the UCD school of psychology, for young people there is a link between excessive drinking and mental health. The survey indicated that by sixth year in secondary school, almost half of students experience problem or hazardous drinking or possible dependence, with up to 7% showing some reliance on alcohol. This is an epidemic which has been growing in the country in recent years. The results of this survey have been suspected, which is that alcohol abuse and mistreatment by younger people is related to mental health issues. Those who abuse alcohol show a much higher incidence of depression and mental health issues.

What will the Government do to try to address this growing problem? In my own locality on one night last October, 26 students were checked into the accident and emergency department in Letterkenny General Hospital because of alcohol poisoning. That came as a result of a 99 cent drinks promotion. It is the extreme end of something that is a much wider and growing problem with our young people.

Unfortunately, our country has traditionally been very much associated with alcohol and we often see this played out when foreign leaders come here. Some of our larger and more successful companies are involved in the drinks industry.

This issue is affecting our young people and showing that as they progress in life, there will be an impact on mental health and the ability to be successful and lead productive lives. We should see some action on this from the Government so what is the Minister of State’s response to this very timely report? What will happen to address this problem in the coming years?

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue that poses challenges for us a country. I hope we will all agree on tackling this issue in a meaningful way in the coming months.

[535]The finding to which the Deputy refers comes from a joint Headstrong/UCD survey entitled “My World”, which interviewed more than 14,000 young people between the ages of 12 and 25, the objective of which was to deepen what we know about young people’s mental health so that we can be more sensitive to their real needs. The number one health issue for young people is their mental health and good mental health in adolescence is a requirement for their optimal psychological development. In that regard, I am encouraged to see from the survey that the majority of young people interviewed were found to be functioning well across a variety of mental health indicators. I fully accept, however, the points the Deputy made about other critical findings in the survey.

We must be as proactive as we possibly can in developing and promoting better services to support young people’s mental health. It is clear from the survey that the period between the ages of 15 and 25 is critical in their development, and if we can identify issues as they emerge, research tells us that early and brief intervention prevents people from experiencing lifetimes of pain and lost opportunities. Additional funding of €35 million was provided in the budget for mental health services, a significant portion of which will be used to strengthen and complete the professional profile of community mental health teams, including child and adolescent teams. We must make renewed efforts to encourage young people to seek help when they are in difficulty. It is clear that those who share their problems enjoy better mental health so we need to reach out to those around us who may be in distress, to engage with them and to encourage them to seek help.

Having regard to the specific issue of harmful drinking behaviour in teenagers and young adults, the report of the National Substance Misuse Strategy Steering Group launched last February is the roadmap for the future direction of policy in Ireland to deal with the use and misuse of alcohol. The steering group reported that Irish children are drinking from a younger age and drinking more than ever before. It added that more than half of Irish 16 year old children have been drunk and one in five is a weekly drinker. Furthermore, it declared that alcohol marketing leads to young people commencing drinking at a younger age and drinking more. In this respect, it found that Irish 16 to 21 year olds list alcohol advertisements as five of their top ten favourite advertisements.

We as a society can no longer tolerate the level of alcohol abuse in this country, particularly among young people. There is no room for ambivalence in our approach. My Department is now working on developing an action plan on alcohol, based on the recommendations in the substance misuse strategy report. I expect its recommendations will enjoy cross-party support when we move to implement them in the coming months.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue:  Will the Minister of State clarify if the Government intends to ban alcohol advertising in sports events? It was mentioned as a key part of the substance misuse strategy but will it be banned?

Alcohol abuse has become a cancer in our society in recent years. It was always a problem but it has grown. We are seeing it show up in our young people now, and from a younger age. It is essential from the point of view of looking after our citizens that we address this and take every possible measure. It also makes sense from a financial point of view. The data on the impact of alcohol show it is responsible for 2,000 hospital beds being occupied every night. Alcohol-related illness cost the health care system €1.2 billion in 2007. In the same year, alcohol-related crime cost €1.19 billion. That demonstrates the financial merit of investing in this.

Today’s report showing the impact of alcohol abuse on the mental health of young people emphasises that we must address this. There is now a report before Government. We need to see action to tackle this growing problem that will lead to a more sensitive approach across [536]Irish society, particularly among younger people. Is the Government committed to banning advertising of alcohol in conjunction with sports events? We should promote sports as an alternative to those who are drinking too much but instead it is intrinsically associated with sporting events. What other commitments will the Government make, apart from developing a plan?

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  There is no doubting we have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol in this country. There is a cultural problem with alcohol and we must address this matter in a comprehensive way. That is why the strategy was drawn up and we are now working on implementing different aspects of that strategy. It is my intention to bring a memo to Government before the summer to provide for a number of measures. I am meeting separate Ministers and Departments on this. We are keen to introduce minimum pricing and are watching carefully what has been happening in Scotland in this regard. We also know that when it comes to young people, sports advertising and sponsorship by alcohol companies is effective. That is why so much money is put into it. I am committed to phasing out that over a reasonable period of time. There are contractual arrangements in place at present and I am working with the different national sporting bodies to agree a proposal to phase out that over a period of time. We must tackle this on a number of fronts and as I have already said, I look forward to support from all sides of the House on the measures I will be announcing shortly.

Deputy Ciarán Lynch:  I thank the Ceann Comhairle’s office for allowing me to raise the inordinate delays that can occur when medical card applications need to be reviewed.

On 22 February, in reply to a topical debate on the processing of medical card applications, the Minister of State told the House she expected the backlog of applications to be dealt with by the end of April. I would be grateful if the Minister would update the House on whether this target has been met. My office, which is in regular contact with the primary care reimbursement scheme, reports a considerable improvement in the ability to make contact with the PCRS staff and an improvement in the through-put of applications.

It appears, however, that there are still anomalies in the system that relate specifically to situations where applicants supply additional or revised information to the PCRS. In those cases, it takes an extremely long time to have the application reviewed. It is not the application that is the problem but if a review process is started, it creates a delay that can go on for an indefinite period.

In one case that prompted me to raise this issue, the most recent phase of one constituent’s application for a medical card began in February of this year. Subsequent evidence was requested and supplied. That evidence related to home improvement loans needed to upgrade the heating to the standard necessary given the spouse’s medical condition. This person had a circulatory problem and the central heating had to be installed to address this. It took a month to review the submitted information, which was ultimately rejected as evidence of a home loan.

This creates an anomaly. The reason the loan was refused was that the person had the central heating installed by the gas company instead of getting a loan from the credit union. Because the gas company was involved, it was not classified as a home loan and was therefore outside of the assessable means. It is strange that if someone gets the gas company to install central heating, the PCRS staff do not classify that as a home loan but if the person goes to the credit union to pay for the installation, it is classed as a home loan. I hope this anomaly will be corrected.

[537]The second problem arose regarding the household income. The person got home help hours but ceased working as a home help and because of this another review was required. Proof was provided that the household had no income other than social welfare payments and receipt of this information was acknowledged on 25 April 2012.

However, some 15 working days later the promised review had not been completed and, to my knowledge, it has still not been completed as of this afternoon. This highlights a second anomaly. The HSE website suggests a medical card application can be processed from start to finish within 15 days. However, an apparently simple review cannot be completed in that time. Between my contacts and those of the staff in my office, we have made 25 separate contacts with the Primary Care Reimbursement Service during April and May on this single case. Although not as extreme, similar delays have occurred with other applications for review.

I emphasise that this is not an exercise in criticising the HSE or the PCRS. Rather it is an attempt to relieve the distress of a couple who urgently need the benefits of a full medical card. It is also an attempt to highlight the anomaly in the system. Is the planned provision of general practitioner visit cards for patients with a long-term illness on schedule? Ultimately, there is an anomaly and I would be grateful to hear how the Department will respond to it.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  I thank the Deputy for raising this issue as it provides me with an opportunity to report on what is taking place in the processing of medical card applications. Members will be aware that a decision was made some years ago to centralise the processing of all medical card applications. This was to be done on a phased basis. Last July a decision was taken by the HSE to centralise the records of the country overnight. I took the view that this was an unfortunate decision. The mistake was to do it overnight rather than to phase it in and build capacity. We have spent a good deal of time since dealing with the fall-out of that decision and trying to resolve the issues that have arisen.

  4 o’clock

For the first time in the State’s history, a single, uniform system of application processing has been put in place. This system replaces the various systems previously operated through more than 100 local offices throughout the country. Among the changes introduced are the online service on the www.medicalcard.ie website and the standardisation of medical card assessments. Ultimately, the new arrangement should provide for a more accountable and better managed medical card processing system. I am aware, however, that there have been many serious difficulties with the centralisation project which have given rise to a large backlog and long delays for both new applicants and medical card renewal applicants. Several factors have given rise to these problems, including the processing of medical card applications being centralised before the necessary resources were in place. That was the key mistake made. The system was not geared up to deal with the significant increase in volume. There was already a significant backlog prior to centralisation. There has been poor communication with medical card applicants and the public. There has been limited support from local health offices and poor communication between local offices and the centralised system. Poor practices and procedures in the handling, filing and processing of medical card documentation have been a feature of the system. There have been problems across the board.

These issues were a source of serious concern for me and I held several meetings with the HSE during the past six months to express my concerns. As a result, the HSE has introduced several changes to the administration of the medical card application system in recent months. These changes include increased staffing levels in the centralised processing service to the full complement; improvements to the way medical card renewals are assessed and the frequency with which they are assessed; increased flexibility for GPs to add certain categories of patients [538]to their GMS list; and the fast-tracking of backlogged cases and cases in which documentation has been misfiled.

I emphasise that in no circumstances should a medical card holder who genuinely engages with the review of his or her medical card have his or her entitlement withdrawn before the review is complete and a decision made. Some such cases were brought to my attention and these occurrences are unacceptable. The HSE is taking steps to ensure this rule is properly implemented.

While several customer service and communication issues remain to be addressed, the HSE has made significant progress in eliminating the backlog and preventing further backlogs from occurring. I am pleased to note that a backlog of 58,000 applications from last year has been completely cleared. Typically, the HSE receives up to 50,000 applications for medical cards each month. More than 90% of complete applications are processed within 15 working days. A review of medical card application processing has been undertaken by PricewaterhouseCoopers. It contains several recommendations which the HSE is addressing. I continue to monitor the situation and meet representatives from the HSE on a regular basis to discuss the quality of service provided for the public and address issues which may arise. I will be happy to take up the specific issues raised by the Deputy to ensure they are addressed.

Deputy Ciarán Lynch:  I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive response and acknowledge the commitment she has given. Her efforts have been clearly demonstrated in rectifying many of the processing difficulties that have arisen. On the whole, my experience and that of the staff in my office of the processing of fresh applications indicates that the process is working well. Applicants receive text messages stating their medical card is in the post. As I have outlined, the difficulty lies in the review process. It almost makes sense in some cases for people not to request a review but to make a fresh application and enter the information already submitted for review as part of a new application. I call on the Minister of State to re-examine the review process with a view to rectifying the difficulties that have arisen to make the process run smoothly. Anomalies remain, including one whereby a loan received from one agency is not categorised as a home loan because it has not been received from a lending institution but from a service provider.

Deputy Róisín Shortall:  While a good deal of progress has been made in recent months in clearing the backlog, glitches remain in the system. There are particular difficulties with document handling and filing and these must be ironed out fully. We are working on these issues and there is now a good quality control system in place. I accept the Deputy’s point that sometimes it is easier to start from scratch. However, the figures I have received indicate 90% of applications are turned around within 15 days. These are cases in which all the documentation has been sent in and is complete and uncomplicated. However, issues remain where people are trying to interact with the PCRS to explain certain information, for example, the source of a home loan. These remain to be ironed out. I fully accept that there are customer service issues which have not been fully resolved. However, we are working on them. I will be happy to pursue the case referred to.

Deputy Tom Hayes:  I thank the Ceann Comhairle for choosing this issue which is important to me and some of my constituency people. I thank the Minister for being present to respond to it. I wish to discuss the registration of the deaths of Irish citizens abroad or, to be more precise, the lack of registration. The Minister will be aware that the Civil Registration Act 2004 covers the registration of births, stillbirths and deaths. Under current legislation, the death of [539]an Irish citizen abroad is only recorded and registered where it falls into one of three categories: first, the person dies in an aircraft or on an Irish ship abroad; second, the person dies in a foreign aircraft or on a foreign ship; and third, the person is a serving member, or the spouse of a serving member residing outside the State alongside his or her partner, of An Garda Síochána or the Defence Forces. In effect, this means the vast majority of deaths of Irish citizens abroad are never recorded or registered in Ireland.

The absence of registration in Ireland of a death abroad makes life considerably more difficult for the family members left behind. As many Members are aware from personal experience, a death certificate is usually needed to finalise affairs, including the closure of bank accounts, the cancellation of a passport and other issues that must be dealt with on a regular basis. The name of the deceased appears in certain documentation and the production of a death certificate can result in finalisation, something people are keen to attain.

There is a genealogical aspect to this matter also. The official annual death figures are not fully accurate since they do not account for hundreds of deaths of Irish citizens outside the State each year. Future generations will find it extremely difficult to trace their ancestors if one of them died overseas. That is the hard reality. I have no doubt the Minister will agree these people are not just statistics. They deserve the right to be recognised in their own country, even after death.

I know from experience the pain this has caused families and friends who have lost loved ones overseas. There are two exceptionally sad cases in my constituency. Mary Britton, who lost her husband, has been campaigning on this issue here in Leinster House and with previous Governments, and continues to fight her case in an understanding and caring way. Similarly, Dolores Millea, whose son died in Germany in 2007, believes resolving this issue could prevent future families suffering some of the distress with which those two families have had to deal.

This proposal would be a normal way to help those who have suffered so much. It would be a caring act we could do for those people, including the two examples I have given of the people in my constituency. It is an issue we should try to resolve and if the Minister cannot give me a full answer today, she might indicate a timeframe of what will be done to end this difficult situation.

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Joan Burton):  I thank Deputy Hayes for raising this important and sensitive issue. I appreciate it is of enormous difficulty and concern to many families. I am aware the Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection examined this issue in the past.

The provisions and procedures governing the registration of deaths in Ireland are contained in Part 5 of the Civil Registration Act 2004 and are as follows. Where a death occurs in the State it is the duty of a qualified informant, usually a relative of the deceased, to attend at a registrar’s office and register the death on foot of a certificate of cause of death supplied by a registered medical practitioner. Where a death is referred to a coroner, the death is registered by a registrar on foot of a coroner’s certificate.

Section 38 of that Act makes provision for the registration of a death of an Irish citizen domiciled in the State in certain specific circumstances. Where the death of an Irish citizen domiciled in the State occurs abroad, the death may be registered here if there was not at the time of the death a system of registration of deaths in the place where the death occurred, or such a system that applied to such a death, or it is not possible to obtain copies of or extracts from civil records of the death, that is, a death certificate. In other words, if the death could not be registered or if a death certificate could not be obtained, the death can be registered [540]here. Although the number of such cases is extremely small, it is considered reasonable to make provision for them.

The reasoning behind these provisions is to ensure that where deaths cannot be registered abroad, they can be registered here, and that in all cases the relatives of the deceased have available to them a certificate of the death for personal, legal and administrative purposes. When an Irish citizen dies abroad, the death is usually registered by the civil authorities of the place where the death occurred, and a certified copy of the death registration is obtainable. This certificate, translated if necessary, is normally sufficient for all legal and administrative purposes here, and for those reasons alone there is no necessity for the death to be registered in this State.

Any broadening of the current provisions will require careful consideration. It will be appreciated that the number of people who live and die in other countries and who have or are entitled to have Irish citizenship is very large. This would have implications both for the registration process itself and for the vital statistics relating to deaths which are derived from registered events.

The number of Irish citizens who are domiciled in Ireland and who die abroad is relatively small in the context of total deaths occurring here in any given year. The figures available in respect of 2011 was 190 and 210 in 2010. Those figures refer to cases where consular assistance was provided and probably represent only a proportion of deaths of Irish persons who die abroad each year. My understanding is the majority of the people who died abroad were travelling abroad for leisure or business purposes. I am conscious each figure on a death represents a tragedy and because the death takes place away from home, it is an additional heartache for the family.

A death certificate is readily available in the overwhelming majority of these cases. However, I appreciate that many families of the deceased feel strongly that by registration of the death, the person’s death is given recognition in his or her own country and also that this fact would assist during a period of considerable grief. I am aware the Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection has recommended in the past amending the current legislation to enable deaths of Irish citizens who have died abroad be registered here. Any broadening of the current provisions requires careful consideration given the number of people who live and die in other countries and who have, or are entitled to have, Irish citizenship. I hope to be in a position to introduce legislation on this and other aspects of civil registration in 2012.

Deputy Tom Hayes:  I thank the Minister sincerely for giving such a comprehensive reply. This is a very sensitive issue for people. The Minister said she hopes to be in a position to introduce legislation in 2012. I will be happy if that happens and will write to the Minister on the many aspects. This is a very sensitive issue but people need that finality. I thank the Minister for what she has done so far.

Deputy Joan Burton:  I thank Deputy Hayes for raising this issue. I understand its importance to many of the bereaved families. I have undertaken to have further legislation on civil registration. This is one of a number of matters which need to be addressed and it is my intention to do that when the heads of the Bill and so on have been drafted. There may be a role in that respect for the committee or for the Seanad to examine some of the issues because aside from the issue of the registration of deaths of Irish people who die abroad, a number of other issues arise which require to be addressed also.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh:  This matter relates to several crèche closures which are preventable but also illogical because the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, has it within her capacity to ensure proper funding is given to these community crèches which are run under the guise of the vocational education committees. These crèches provide child care places for young people who have returned to college or who are availing of further education. The three in Dublin are in Ballyfermot, Cabra and a brand new facility in Whitehall which opened only last year at a cost of more than €1 million. It is illogical that they would be even under threat of closure.

If these crèches close some of the people in the further education field who are trying to break the cycle by getting themselves a certificate or a degree which will give them access to the workplace, and much emphasis has been placed on transition and ensuring people have activation and the opportunity to go back into the workforce or at least access work, will end up dropping out of the system because they cannot afford the cost of child care. One of the reasons they chose those colleges was because of the child care facilities available. In Ballyfermot it will mean the loss of 23 places, 14 in Cabra and 34 in Whitehall. Other students, some of whom are in Youthreach, depend on these facilities also. If the Minister is not willing to withdraw the cut there is a danger of all of those students dropping out or at least being severely punished financially.

Deputy Joan Collins:  I am glad this matter, which I submitted last Thursday, has been selected for discussion. Last Wednesday, I was contacted by the Ballyfermot College of Further Education which shortly beforehand had been informed, in an underhanded way when students were taking examinations, that the college crèche would close due to lack of funding. This decision contradicts the announcements the Government made only two weeks ago that it wanted to introduce Scandinavian type child care services and had decided not to proceed in the next budget with a proposed measure to reduce the threshold for lone parent’s payment to seven years.

The closure of crèches by the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee will result in the loss of 73 child care places in Ballyfermot, Cabra and Whitehall. Crèches in vocational education colleges in counties Cork, Limerick and Carlow will also close, while crèches in ten of the 30 VEC colleges are threatened with closure. Child care provision is part and parcel of the integration of communities. Lone parents need crèche supports to access education. One Ballyfermot college student, whose partner’s twins attend the crèche, indicated he will be unable to continue his studies without the valuable support of the crèche. His hopes had been dashed, he said, adding, “We just cannot afford child care in this country.” The Government must address this problem. I hope the Minister of State will indicate that funds will be provided to ensure the closures do not proceed.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh referred to a state-of-the-art VEC crèche in Whitehall which was opened only last year by the then President, Mary McAleese. Will the Government send President Michael D. Higgins to officially close it in June?

Deputy Michael Conaghan:  I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important issue. I was very concerned to hear recently that the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee is to close three crèches at the end of June, including one in Ballyfermot College of Further Education. The facilities in question play a most important role in ensuring access to education. They make high quality child care available to students who otherwise would not be in a position to attend college. The provision of child care makes access to education a reality for many young women and the City of Dublin VEC deserves particular [542]credit for its work in establishing crèches. As a board member of the VEC from 1991 to 2010, I saw at first hand how it consistently adapted and improved to meet the needs of students. As the profile of students changed, so too did the services provided. The opening of the crèche in Ballyfermot college was a prime example of this.

The provision of child care services did not happen overnight but came about as a result of an extensive campaign by many hardworking individuals. Such facilities are a mark of the commitment of vocational education committees to their students and a desire to create opportunities in education. Students must remain the priority and we must strive to ensure the crèche service continues. If, despite the best efforts of all involved, the VEC cannot continue to provide the service, we must ensure an alternative is found. To this end, engagement is needed between various partners to ensure a solution can be reached. I have spoken to a number of people about this issue in recent days and I understand engagement may be under way. This service must continue and I urge the Minister to play his part, to engage in this process and to ensure suitable arrangements can be made.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Ciarán Cannon):  I thank Deputies Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Joan Collins and Michael Conaghan for raising this issue. I understand the importance of assisting parents to participate in further education and training courses by supporting child care provision. The child care support that has been provided in the crèches in question can be made available in other local childcare services so parents will not lose out.

I propose to explain the background to this issue. Until September 2010, my Department provided funding to vocational education committees and FÁS to provide child care support for participants in a range of further education and training courses, either by VECs in crèches they own or by providing a weekly subvention to parents who would source child care locally. This subvention was set at a maximum of €63.50 per week. Alongside this scheme, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs provided support of up to €100 per week under the community child care subvention, CCS, scheme to certain eligible participants.

With the different schemes in operation, inequalities and inefficiencies arose. For this reason, as part of budget 2010, a decision was taken to explore the potential for rationalising the child care support schemes in operation under the CCS framework to deliver improved supports in a more efficient, transparent and equitable way. Following discussions, the child care education and training support, CETS, scheme was established from September 2010. Under CETS, community and commercial crèches, including VEC owned crèches, can tender to provide free child care places for participants in a range of further education and training courses. VECs and FÁS advise the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on demand and the Department contracts with successful tenderers to provide the required places. Since its inception, weekly subventions under the CETS scheme have been €170 per child per week, an increase from the previous maximum level. However, from September 2012, this figure is being reduced to €145 per place and crèches may seek a contribution of up to €25 per week from participants. This still represents a significant improvement in the level of support available.

A number of VECs own crèches and some have indicated that these may not be financially viable under the new arrangements in the long term. This is mainly because their operating costs are higher than those of commercial or community crèches, which are maintaining financial sustainability under the new model. In 2010 and 2011, my Department provided additional grant aid to VECs, including City of Dublin VEC, to assist in the transition to the new scheme, but this is not sustainable in the long term, as VECs were informed from the outset. My Department is engaging with the VECs which are experiencing difficulties, the Irish Vocational [543]Education Association and relevant employee representative organisations to resolve any issues locally.

Under the CETS programme, the places that were provided in VEC crèches can be made available to alternative local child care services, thus ensuring there is no reduction in the number of places available to parents participating in further education and training.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Thomas P. Broughan):  I ask Deputies to pay attention as this is an important issue.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh:  The Minister of State is not living in the real world if he believes alternative child care services are available locally. In Ballyfermot, for instance, the area I know best, another crèche is under threat of closure for an unrelated reason. This will reduce further the number of spaces available in the area where there are already waiting lists in most cases. I do not know where students at Ballyfermot College of Further Education will be able to source local, affordable child care places. This gives a lie to the Minister of State’s contention that students will be able to source child care places elsewhere. The proposed closure is a backward step.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Thomas P. Broughan):  I call again on Deputies to pay attention as this is an important issue.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh:  It is illogical and should be reversed immediately. Changes should take place over time rather than at the end of a college term. It should be noted that Ballyfermot College of Further Education has produced Oscar winners. The Government, by its actions, may deny future Oscar nominees an opportunity to complete their education because the closure of the college’s crèche threatens to cause many of the students who avail of the service to drop out of education.

Deputy Joan Collins:  We heard wise words from Deputy Ó Snodaigh. The crèche places available at VEC colleges are for people the Government has said need child care facilities.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Thomas P. Broughan):  I ask Deputies for the last time to pay attention to the speakers. They are raising a very important issue.

Deputy Joan Collins:  The Government should be proactive and immediately indicate that the closures will not proceed. The colleges state it costs €234 per week to provide child care for one child. Following the cut from €170 to €145 in the subvention, the VECs sought to part-fund places but are unable to continue to provide child care support. Three crèches will close in Dublin at the end of June. I call on the Minister of State to be serious about this and make sure that those child care places are in the colleges next September. Will he send out the new President officially to close the crèche in Whitehall, as his predecessor opened it only a year ago?

Deputy Michael Conaghan:  The VECs have made further education a reality in this country for all social classes, and that has been a resounding success. Supports like those we are talking about is a vital ingredient in making and keeping it accessible. I believe that arrangements must be made. I have spoken to some potential partners already about this, and the Minister of State can turn those arrangements into a reality by engaging with people who are already sitting down to find a way of ensuring the high participation levels among students in all social classes going to colleges of further education will continue. We must ensure that they continue, and I look to the Minister of State for that to happen.

[544]Deputy Ciarán Cannon:  The Department readily acknowledges the value of providing child care for people who wish to gain access to adult and further education opportunities. It is regrettable that certain crèches need to close, but ultimately it is a decision for each VEC, having regard to the level of funding available to it. Both community based and privately funded crèches in these areas are able to sustain a child care facility using that grant that is available. I just wonder why that cannot happen within a VEC setting. Where the VECs take a decision to close a crèche, eligible staff who operate in that crèche will be redeployed or offered voluntary redundancy as appropriate, but places provided in that crèche under the CETS can be made available to other local child care services. Therefore, it is not expected that there will be any significant loss in places as a result of the closure of these crèches, and little or no impact on lone parents in disadvantaged areas who are returning to education.

A number of VECs received a capital grant from Pobail for the building of specific child care centres, and I understand from the VECs that Pobail has advised that the grant is subject to a fixed contract. Should the VEC not be in a position to complete the contract, there is a possibility to engage in a process of decommitment and recovery. There is also a provision for the change in operation of the facility, with the permission of Pobail, for example to transfer the building and the crèche operation to an existing local community organisation, which would operate under the aegis of the county child care committee.

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Select Sub-Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport has completed its consideration of the Road Safety Authority (Commercial Vehicle Road Worthiness) Bill 2012 and has made no amendments thereto.

Deputy John McGuinness:  I want to welcome the shift in debate on the treaty towards a focus on growth and investment. In that regard and during the course of this campaign, we have witnessed a vagueness from the Government side about that growth and that investment. We had more of that yesterday following the announcement by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the sale of €3 billion worth of State assets. What will the Taoiseach say about that in his meeting with European leaders on 23 May? As the emphasis shifts onto the European Investment Bank and other investors, as the Minister described it, where will that money come from? At the moment, the small businesses of this country cannot get money from the banks. The Governor of the Central Bank said Ireland was the most difficult place in the EU to get money. The Central Bank has expressed concern that there was very little competition in the marketplace.

The Taoiseach told the House yesterday that €3.5 billion would be earmarked for small businesses in the course of this year. The fact is that owners of small businesses will tell us, as we canvass for this treaty, that it is the same environment as 2011, 2010 and 2009, and that they are simply not lending money. The office that exists to process appeals to the bank is simply not being used to the extent that we would all like, because there is a fear that it will impact on their relationship with the banks concerned. The money is not being taken up. Businesses are not being allowed the freedom to advance their enterprises on the basis of loans from the bank, yet we are being given misleading information from the bank on this issue.

What action will the Government take? We have had activity, but we require action within the business world to help the backbone of the Irish economy, which is made up of the SME sector creating 700,000 jobs and made up mainly of families who are central to community developments and so on. What will we do directly to assist them right now, rather than wait for the investment promised by the Government from the sale of State assets?

[545]The Taoiseach:  I thank Deputy McGuinness for his question. The growth agenda has now become a feature of most comments made by European leaders, and I am very glad about that. We have made that case on behalf of the country for the last number of months, and I am glad it has crystallised with the election of President Hollande in France. The President of the EU Council, Mr. Van Rompuy, has called the meeting on 23 May the first European summit on growth for a long time. I welcome that unreservedly. It is also very clear, as Deputy McGuinness pointed out, that the agenda of the French President represents an additional factor to the elements contained in the fiscal stability treaty, on which people here will vote on 31 May. The discussions which took place yesterday between the Minister for Finance, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the EIB are part of the agenda set by the Government for investment in infrastructure projects and the development of the economy. Following several discussions with the troika, the Government has set a target of €3 billion to be realised from State assets, to be put on the market at the appropriate time and to realise the best possible benefit. The extent of what will come from that has also been discussed with the troika. The discussions that took place with the EIB revolved around the blockages in the system for the release of public private partnerships, for which the EIB is a major funder. Were those blockages to be released, then clearly a range of infrastructure sectors could certainly benefit from that in Ireland. However, that will not happen in the immediate future. There will be intensive follow up to the constructive meeting that took place between the Ministers and the EIB.

The Minister of State, Deputy Perry, has focused specifically on the issue of credit to SMEs in Ireland. The Department of Finance, the Government and the Economic Management Council are constantly in touch about the issue. This means face to face meetings with representatives of the banks, which have set out their programme on new lending for this year. The Deputy knows it is very difficult to force a bank to lend in a time of recession, and I get the same complaints as he does. I am unhappy about those complaints, but if the banks are able to deliver on the plans they have produced, then they certainly will be constructive. Many small businesses previously got money on the basis of property assets. That is no longer available to them, because banks now have to lend on the basis of assessed risk and cash flow projections. Small businesses have not had that capacity in the past either. There is a delay there, which I can see myself, where the proper cash flow projections should be put forward as part of the plan.

The Economic Management Council, which I chair, will be meeting the banks again before too long. This is a central issue. It is very important that the opportunities be put in the marketplace for small and medium enterprises to have access to credit. That is why we published the legislation for partial loan credit guarantees and for the micro-finance agency, on which a great deal of work is ongoing in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Finance.

The Deputy is right to raise this issue. It is of considerable importance to the Government and we will continue to focus on it.

Deputy John McGuinness:  We know that, and the Taoiseach said some of it yesterday in his reply to Deputy Micheál Martin. However, 50% of businesses that have applied for loans have been refused. Some 91% tell us the banks are more difficult to deal with. This is the analysis of a survey carried out by a national organisation associated with small businesses. Some 79% of businesses say working and dealing with their bank has become much more difficult and they simply cannot get money.

Vast sums of taxpayers’ money have been put into the banks by the Government and the previous one. The Government has promised €3.5 billion in the course of this year. Despite [546]this, 92% of those surveyed say that what the Government is doing is having no impact whatsoever on lending by banks. If the Government is to recover that State money, if we are to get money from investors and if we are to get people back to work, it is essential the banks be forced to assist small businesses.

The Taoiseach said something critical yesterday and again today. He said the banks have changed their approach to lending money. I would expect that from them. They have changed it to such an extent, however, that the majority of small businesses, which are responsible for 700,000, jobs, cannot get the money, which is taxpayers’ money that we put into the banks. We seem to be sitting on our hands and talking about the activity of all of this while businesses throughout the country go broke and jobs are lost. Confidence within the business sector, and therefore job creation, is now falling through the floor and we are not responding in any meaningful way. Promises will not do anymore. Whatever the Taoiseach does, I ask him to ensure he comes heavy with the banks and insists on the money going to the SME sector to create the jobs which are much needed.

The Taoiseach:  I do not accept Deputy McGuinness’s premise. I am not a spokesman for the banks — far from it. The Government has this matter as a central priority. In the past, during the Deputy’s time in government, banks swamped businesses with money, which in some cases they had not even asked for and on the basis of little evidence or proper facility. Things have now swung the other way. Regulations and conditions make the capacity to get money from banks difficult. In a time of economic challenge, banks have tightened up. They have been very clear, however, on the scale of new lending for this year.

I would like to see small and medium sized enterprises use the Credit Review Office to a greater extent. I do not accept they are reluctant to appeal to the office for fear of being in bad taste with the local bank manager. Bank managers move around the country regularly. I do not accept that premise at all. Business is business and does not stand on sentiment or who the local bank manager is. Things are very different from 20 years ago. As a business man himself, Deputy McGuinness can take it the Government will continue to interact with the banks and to exert pressure in this regard.

Deputy Finian McGrath:  It is not being delivered.

The Taoiseach:  The banks now tell me they are holding open days and attending functions and chambers of commerce meetings. They say they have been recapitalised, have money to lend and people should talk to them. I do not know the details of all those conversations, but it might be a good idea to have a discussion in the House on the types of cases mentioned by the Deputy, without giving details or names, obviously. Such a discussion would be important in making the banks aware of the extent of what the Deputy is talking about but also in pointing out what is being done.

Great work is being done on the personal insolvency Bill, which is part of this critical area. The Bill is complex and is expected to be published by June.

I do not accept the Deputy’s premise that we are sitting on our hands. There is very direct contact with the banks about lending credit to businesses.

Deputy John McGuinness:  The figures I quoted came from an independent survey.

The Taoiseach:  Yes, we have to change that.

Deputy Gerry Adams:  Níos luaithe ar maidin inniu, bhíomar uilig ag ocáid chuimhneacháin Éirí Amach 1916, ocáid a bhí go han-mhaith. I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that today’s [547]ceremony was very moving and a reminder of how much we owe the men and women who proclaimed the Irish Republic, in defiance of an empire, 100 years ago.

In this context, I raise the issue of the deplorable state of the national monument at 14 to 17 Moore Street and the surrounding laneways, which the Taoiseach has visited and which he has described as the lanes of history. This iconic area marks one of the most important sites in modern Irish history. It must be protected and developed as an historic quarter and battlefield site in time for the centenary of the Rising. The Taoiseach has seen 14 to 17 Moore Street. Its condition is a disgrace and is an insult to the memory of those men and women whom it should honour.

É sin ráite, léiríonn a bhfuil ag tarlú i leith an tsuímh seo i láthair na huaire achan rud atá mícheart leis an Stát. Cad é sin? A developer, Mr. Joe O’Reilly, one of the Maple Ten golden circle, is planning to demolish the surrounding area for the building of a shopping complex. This developer is in NAMA, which is now considering funding this development. In other words, Irish taxpayers — Irish citizens — may be asked to pay for the vandalising of a national monument. This is wrong. It stands in stark contrast to the way other states acclaim those who fought for freedom and independence and it totally contradicts the tone of our commemoration this morning.

Will the Taoiseach support the proposition put forward by the families of the 1916 leaders to ensure the 1916 national monument at 14 to 17 Moore Street is fully protected and preserved in its entirety as designated, and that the surrounding buildings, streets and laneways, which the Taoiseach, rightly, called the lanes of history, are retained in order that the potential for this area can be fully developed into a 1916 historical or cultural quarter?

The Taoiseach:  Bhí mé i láthair ag an ócáid ar maidin agus aontaím leis an Teachta Adams go raibh sé thar a bheith oiriúnach. Is maith an rud go mbíonn an cuimhneachán ann mar atá. Tá sé tábhachtach do stair na tíre agus don aos óg go gcuimhneoimís ar a thárla i 1916.

Nos. 14 to 17 Moore Street are designated under law as a national monument. Approval for development in the vicinity of any national monument must have the approval of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. The Minister, Deputy Deenihan, has been quite interested in this matter for some time.

There is potential for a major project here. The Constitution allows for the right to own private property. The developer bought the property in the vicinity of 14 to 17 Moore Street, as he was entitled to do, and Dublin City Council gave approval for a particular form of development. The question now is whether the development is in order and whether such a development could be allowed in the vicinity of the national monument where Clarke, Plunkett, Collins and Connolly, of the Provisional Government, offered their surrender.

As this small country was one of the first small states of the last century to achieve its independence and as the 1916 Rising, in its own way, took the first fledgling steps towards economic and political independence and sovereignty, there could be a marvellous opportunity for that to be remembered in a fitting fashion. By that, I mean the use of the lanes of history in a way that would allow for a more appropriate structure than currently stands where the Carlton Cinema, which was the subject of the planning application, and other buildings nearby are concerned. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, will be happy to respond to a motion Sinn Féin will bring to the House shortly.

It is a case of judgment in respect of the preservation of the monument, which when I was there recently does not look edifying. It is not the kind of place one would like to bring people from abroad who might be students of history or the progress of small nations towards independence to see where the Provisional Government of that time offered its surrender. [548] There is major potential in this project, up as far as the Rotunda, on which the guns were placed or the street down below where the actual surrender took place or where The O’Rahilly was shot and where he died and the commemoration that is there. We must have a rational discussion about what we want to do with Nos. 14 to 17 Moore Street and the buildings in proximity to what is under law a national monument.

Deputy Gerry Adams:  First, the terrace is a slum. That is the truth of it. Second, the city council has unanimously asked the Minister to designate the entire terrace as a national monument. It has not been developed at all. The families of the 1916 leaders and others have done significant work in publicising the issue and campaigning for a fitting national monument. I thank them for that. Tá mé fíor bhuíoch dóibh agus caithfimid uilig a bheith buíoch dóibh. As the Taoiseach correctly stated, this was the last headquarters of the Provisional Government. It is where Connolly, Pearse, Clarke, MacDiarmada and Plunkett all came together. It is where The O’Rahilly was killed, but under the developer’s plan the place where he was killed would disappear and the terrace would disappear. What is being proposed is that an historic quarter would be developed from Tom Clarke’s shop, which is now hidden behind neon and plastic, to the Rotunda where the volunteers were marshalled and stripped naked by the British, to where the surrender was handed over, right down Moore Street and further down into the GPO. The State controls the site through NAMA. It has been NAMAed. The Joe O’Reilly project is under the control of NAMA. It says a lot about the state we are in. We are also facing the centenary of——

An Ceann Comhairle:  Could we have a question please from the Deputy?

Deputy Gerry Adams:  Okay. We are facing into the centenary of 1916 and the relatives have put forward sound proposals which are fitting for such an iconic holy place but which would also help to revitalise the north side and the centre of the city in a way which we have seen in other states and countries. This is not a Sinn Féin issue; it is bigger than us. I simply ask that the Government would support what the relatives of the men and women of 1916 are asking to be done.

The Taoiseach:  I do not recall using the word used by Deputy Adams, “slum”.

Deputy Gerry Adams:  I used the word.

The Taoiseach:  Gabh mo leithscéal, a Theachta. I brought people to look at Nos. 14 to 17 Moore Street. It is not an edifying site and not the kind of place one would like to send people to have a look. Given modern technology and the availability of computer applications — apps — when one walks out the side door of the GPO and turns left — as all those who were evacuating the building did and broke in through the side wall of the building out onto the street——

Deputy Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan:  They were all breaking the law.

The Taoiseach:  ——one would like to see all the information relevant to each of those steps of history available in whatever language people wish. I am not an architect but it is clear that the proposal made was given a decision by the elected representatives of the city council and Nos. 14 to 17 Moore Street are preserved under the national monuments legislation.

We are in a different position than we were a number of years ago in terms of developments and taking into account people’s rights in respect of ownership and development under conditions under the Constitution, there could well be a meeting of minds to develop a worthwhile [549]historic quarter, as Deputy Adams indicated, in respect of what was the central location and the culmination of centuries of activity in this country, which culminated in 1916. The point raised by Deputy Adams is beyond any party. The children in the Gallery will read about that in their history books as they learn stair na tíre. It behoves us who are currently the representatives of all the people of the country to reflect on what is best. It is clear that there are requirements and responsibilities on the city council and the planning officials under the planning legislation but its potential speaks for itself both as a tourism entity in its own right, as an historic quarter and as an indication of one small island in the north Atlantic being one of the first countries at the beginning of the previous century to achieve its independence. The issue raised by Deputy Adams will be brought to the attention of the Minister who will be happy to respond to him when we have a debate on the matter in the next fortnight.

Deputy Gerry Adams:  To clarify, the part of the country I come from is not yet independent.

The Taoiseach:  I was conscious of the flicker of Deputy Adams's eye when I mentioned that. He was trying for 30 years at it.

Deputy Thomas Pringle:  Last week the Government published the European Stability Mechanism Bill. Article 15 of the ESM treaty provides for the recapitalisation of financial institutions across Europe. The panacea of the ESM, which the Taoiseach says is needed for future funding of the Irish State, is going to sign up Irish taxpayers to the continued funding of bank bailout debt right across Europe. The only guarantee of the ESM is that it has the most gigantic pot of taxpayers’ money in Europe. The ESM cannot recapitalise banks directly. It loans money to taxpayers who give the money to the financial institutions, creating the biggest socialisation of bank debt right across Europe. Will the Taoiseach tell the House why he thinks the biggest socialisation of bank debt is good for the Irish people post our 2008 experience?

The Taoiseach:  I understand that Deputy Pringle has instituted proceedings in the High Court which include the seeking of an order to compel the State to hold a referendum on the ESM. He has also challenged the process to amend Article 136 of the treaties of the European Union, which is the Lisbon treaty, which is already under way. Therefore, I do not propose to comment on something that might be before the court, except to say to Deputy Pringle that what the people are being asked to vote on, on 31 May, is for their permission and authorisation to ratify the fiscal stability treaty. The process of that ratification will be the fiscal responsibility Bill which will be introduced in the House if the people decide to give that authorisation. The Bill will be debated both in this House and in the Seanad without delay and in proper fashion.

  5 o’clock

What is involved are three fundamental issues, first, the signal that approval of the treaty will send out, not just to Europe but worldwide that this country is open for business and that the long line of continuous investment in this country will be able to continue; and second, that the insurance policy or backstop of the ESM will exist for consideration by investors who want to invest in the country if that were ever to be required. As far as the Government is concerned, we want to be out of the bailout programme at the end of 2013. That means that this country must be able to get back to the financial markets and borrow as a sovereign country. Deputy Pringle is aware that we are in a programme at the moment that is assessed by the troika. It will be infinitely more difficult to achieve that realisation if this country were to turn down the fiscal stability treaty. We need clarity, confidence and decisiveness. From my perspective, the request to the Irish people is to give this House the authorisation to ratify the conditions of the treaty. It will allow for continued investment, a backstop and insurance, which is a fundamental issue for investors in the country.

[550]The provisions of the treaty will allow us to legislate for good housekeeping requirements and ensure good fiscal discipline in this State. It will oblige us to put our own house in order. Everybody would agree that we do not want to go back to the old ways.

Deputy Thomas Pringle:  The question about whether we have a referendum on the ESM will be decided by the courts, and I hope to see the Taoiseach down there. My question related to the substance of the treaty itself and its provisions. Article 15 provides that the ESM may decide to grant loans for the specific purpose of recapitalisation of the financial institutions of an ESM member state. To clarify, those loans are provided to the member state to give to the banks and there is no question of the ESM recapitalising banks directly. Does the Taoiseach consider this a good deal for the taxpayers of this country and across Europe?

The Taoiseach:  I mentioned this possibility in Dublin Castle some weeks ago and I note the IMF has made similar comments. There is concern being expressed about the banking situation in Spain, for instance, which may require an analysis similar to what was carried out in this State. There is no appetite for a second situation arising in this country where the State would have to borrow to pay off the banks. In the event that something like that were to happen in another country and the ESM were to be availed of to capitalise those banks, I am of the view that the same would have to be made retrospective to Ireland. That is a possibility as an alternative to what is currently being discussed with the troika by the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of the promissory notes, with a view to making our recapitalised debt — the moneys borrowed to pay off the banks and put onto the sovereign debt — more manageable in the context of our deficit and, therefore, our debt repayments. These matters are being monitored closely by Government and, in respect of the promissory notes, are the subject of continuous discussion between the Department, the troika and the European authorities.

The Taoiseach:  It is proposed to take No. 6, Credit Guarantee Bill 2012 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage. Private Members’ business shall be No. 36, Regulation of Debt Management Advisors Bill 2011 — Second Stage (resumed), to conclude at 9 p.m. if not previously concluded.

An Ceann Comhairle:  There are no questions to put to the House. Does Deputy Willie O’Dea wish to put a question to the Taoiseach on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party?

Deputy Willie O’Dea:  Is the Ceann Comhairle asking me to put a question to the Taoiseach on the Order of Business for today as outlined by him?

An Ceann Comhairle:  I am inviting the Deputy, if he so wishes, to ask a question. There is no obligation whatsoever to do so.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  You do not have to do it, Willie.

Deputy Willie O’Dea:  I have a question, if I can get the Taoiseach’s attention. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, has said that proposed changes to the law on media mergers will be part of the forthcoming competition Bill. On the other hand, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, [551]has indicated an intention to extract this matter from the competition Bill and present it to the House as stand-alone legislation. Which of these indications is correct?

The Taoiseach:  This issue will be dealt with in the competition Bill, as outlined in the programme for Government, and is being actively pursued by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and his Department.

Deputy Willie O’Dea:  Does that mean the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural, Deputy Rabbitte, is out?

The Taoiseach:  No, he is very much in and is a very important Minister in this Government. In respect of the matter to which the Deputy referred, it will be dealt with in the competition Bill, as set out in the programme for Government.

Deputy Willie O’Dea:  That is very interesting. I thank the Taoiseach for his clarity.

The Taoiseach:  Everything in here is interesting.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Gerry Adams:  The Government has indicated its intention to sell off State assets worth €3 billion. In March, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, committed to identifying what legislation and other measures would be needed to facilitate this proposal. Does the Government plan to bring forward such legislation and, if so, when can we expect its publication? The selling off of the State’s wealth makes no sense whatsoever because these assets could be the engine of economic recovery.

An Ceann Comhairle:  That argument is for another day.

The Taoiseach:  The Government will bring forward a detailed list of assets for potential sale in the not too distant future. That is not say these assets will be hived off just like that. Any agreement from Government regarding the sale of a State asset will be properly considered and done at the appropriate time. Therefore, there will be no rush to legislation in this regard.

Deputy Gerry Adams:  Will the Taoiseach define what is meant by “in the not too distant future”?

The Taoiseach:  I expect that before mid-summer the Government will be in a position to present a list of assets that could be considered for potential sale.

Deputy Arthur Spring:  It is envisaged that the Government, in the course of its term in office, will have to introduce legislation to deal with regional aid and the boundary changes that are to take place. I understand the Commissioner for Regional Policy, Mr. Hahn, will be in Ireland this week. Inequalities exist throughout this country whereby, for example, grant aid can be provided to the Border, midlands and west, BMW, region but not to County Kerry, where I understand the Taoiseach will be meeting the Commissioner.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Where is the Deputy going to?

Deputy Arthur Spring:  We are going to Kerry and will get some quality back into the county. The Taoiseach will have an opportunity in his meeting with the Commissioner to address whether we will be able to do something about this.

An Ceann Comhairle:  To which legislation is the Deputy referring?

[552]Deputy Arthur Spring:  I refer to legislation in regard to regional aid. Will the Taoiseach discuss this matter with the Commissioner and how he foresees the implications for this State?

The Taoiseach:  I will be happy to discuss the issue with the Commissioner during our meeting. It is a matter of interest to a great number of people. I do not have a date for the Deputy in respect of any legislation but, following my meeting with the Commissioner, I will be happy to advise him as to how the landscape is looking. From my experiences in Kerry, its people have never been too far behind the curve in finding ways of extracting financial injections into that leading county in the area of tourism. Kerry people have never been slow in that regard.

Deputy Joe Higgins:  My question relates to the scheduling of the fiscal responsibility Bill, the Bill relating to the treaty establishing the European Stability Mechanism, and the European Communities Act 1972 (Amendment) Bill. Is it the Government’s intention to have these items of legislation relating to the fiscal treaty, or, more accurately, the austerity treaty, completed before the summer recess? Why will the Taoiseach not debate with us openly on the austerity treaty? Why is he standing behind the shelter of the Dáil and of his minders and advisers?

An Ceann Comhairle:  The Deputy must confine his questions to legislation.

Deputy Joe Higgins:  Will he not come out and debate in any language, Irish or English, so that we can get to the nub of the issue, man to man and woman to woman? Will he agree to debate with us in a public forum? Why is he hiding?

The Taoiseach:  This Chamber is the most open forum of all for debate. I will have that debate any time the Deputy likes, day or night. It makes no difference to me when I discuss the matter with the Deputy or his colleagues. The fiscal responsibility Bill and the ESM Bill will be taken in the House after the people make their decision in respect of the referendum. Far be it from me to determine in advance what the people might do, but I hope they make a resounding “Yes” decision. The process of ratification of the conditions of the treaty will be done through the fiscal responsibility Bill. It would be completely inopportune to take it in advance of a referendum. If the people approve the referendum proposal, as I hope they will, the Bill will follow in this House and in the Seanad.

Deputy Joe Higgins:  Will it be brought forward before the summer recess?

The Taoiseach:  Yes, I would expect there to be proper and comprehensive discussion of it, including contributions from the Deputy. If the referendum is passed, we will move on and complete the ratification process without delay.

Deputy Joe Higgins:  Will the Taoiseach step outside the House and debate the matter with us?

(Interruptions).

An Ceann Comhairle:  We do not deal with challenges on the Order of Business.

A Deputy:  Deputy Durkan will hold Deputy Higgins’s coat.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  There is no need.

Deputy Michael McCarthy:  I welcome the fact that the Government is allowing the Fianna Fáil Private Members’ Bill on the regulation of debt management advisers to pass Second Stage. The Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy [553]John Perry, advised the House last night that the Government intended to enact similar provisions by way of amendments to the Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Bill 2011.

Deputy Emmet Stagg:  Tell Deputy John McGuinness how it came to cross the floor. It happened on a Friday.

Deputy Michael McCarthy:  How quickly would the Taoiseach hope——

Deputy Emmet Stagg:  The Deputy can see the value of sitting on a Friday.

Deputy Michael McCarthy:  If the Deputy will allow me to ask the question——

Deputy John McGuinness:  For €90,000.

Deputy Emmet Stagg:  It does not matter whether the Deputy had an audience. Look at the good work that was done.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Will Deputy Stagg, please, allow Deputy Michael McCarthy to finish his point?

Deputy Paul Kehoe:  Deputy John McGuinness is wrong about the €90,000.

Deputy Michael McCarthy:  A Cheann Comhairle, I am asking a question.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Go on.

Deputy Michael McCarthy:  How quickly does the Government hope to have the legislation enacted and institute regulations for the sector?

On the personal insolvency Bill which we understand is to be published in full in June, when does the Government hope the Bill will have passed all Stages in this House in order that the new non-judicial debt settlement system can be established for the thousands awaiting the putting in place of such a system?

The Taoiseach:  The Minister had no objection to the Private Members’ Bill. Most of the details, or certainly elements of the Bill, were published on 24 April, as the Deputy is aware. The Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Bill is awaiting Committee Stage. The amendments to the Regulation of Debt Management Advisors Bill 2011 can be discussed on Committee Stage and incorporated into it. I expect the personal insolvency Bill to be published by June and would like to see it passed as quickly as possible, although I can tell the Deputy it is quite complex. I expect it will be early autumn before we move through the process of dealing with it. I hope, however, that it will be concluded by early autumn, but I do not want to lock myself into this because there will be much discussion and comment on the Bill when it is published. Believe me, a great deal of complicated work has been done on it.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae:  The Gaeltacht Bill will provide for a redefinition of the Gaeltacht based on language planning criteria, reduce the size of the board of Údarás na Gaeltachta and dispense with Údarás na Gaeltachta elections. I have great reservations about this. Will the Taoiseach give us a clear indication of what the Government proposes to do with regard to the Bill?

The health information Bill is to provide a legislative framework for the better governance of health information in order to enhance individual patient care and safety and achieve wider health service goals, It is also to provide a streamlined structure for multi-site health research ethical approval. What are the Government’s intentions with regard to this Bill?

[554]The Taoiseach:  Is féidir liom a rá leis an Teachta go mbeidh an Bille faoin nGaeltacht tugtha isteach an seisiún seo. Caithfidh go dtabharfar isteach é go luath san seisiún seo.

The health information Bill will be introduced later this year.

Deputy James Bannon:  The publication of the dissolution of the county and city enterprise boards Bill is to take place in 2012. Will the Taoiseach be more specific about the actual date? From listening to him this morning, I know we have a busy programme for the remainder of the year.

An Ceann Comhairle:  We will see what we can do for the Deputy.

Deputy James Bannon:  It is very important for the rural economy and small and medium-sized businesses up and down the country which are struggling to survive. As Deputy John McGuinness said earlier today, they are having difficulties in accessing funding from banks.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Can the Taoiseach help this man?

The Taoiseach:  I can. The Deputy wants me to be more specific about the date of publication. The heads of the Bill are being drafted. It is separate legislation that does not take from the importance of the county enterprise boards and the role they play. The Government has made a decision about it. The heads are being drafted and we will keep the House informed. It will not interfere with the ability of county enterprise boards to drive local initiatives.

An Ceann Comhairle:  Last but not least, Deputy Bernard Durkan.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  On promised legislation——

Deputy Brendan Griffin:  The Deputy is like the cuckoo.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan:  No, this fellow will be heard before the cuckoo and is not as rare.

In view of the importance of job creation and job training facilities, I ask the Taoiseach the extent to which the heads of the further education and training authority Bill have been discussed.

The Taoiseach:  This issue is of importance not just here but throughout Europe. Work is being driven by the Minister of State in this regard. I expect it will be later this year before the Bill is finalised.

Bill entitled an Act to enable the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to give guarantees to lenders of a certain class in respect of loans made by such lenders to enterprises of a certain class; for that purpose to provide for the making of a scheme or schemes by that Minister of the Government in relation to the giving of such guarantees; and to provide for matters connected therewith.

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Richard Bruton):  I move: “That Second Stage be taken now.”

Question put and agreed to.

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Richard Bruton):  I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

I am pleased to introduce the Credit Guarantee Bill 2012 to the House. The Bill has been long awaited and a concern of many, particularly in the small business realm. The Minister of State with responsibility for small business, Deputy John Perry, has been a strong advocate of the need for such legislation and has in recent weeks been engaged in consultations with small businesses, together with the Department of Finance, to achieve a better understanding of where the boot is pinching with regard to access to credit.

This initiative which is an important element of our ability to respond to the challenges for indigenous business is one of a suite of measures we are seeking to introduce. As Deputies know, the programme for Government includes an initiative for micro-finance for very small start-ups. This initiative deals with loan guarantees for established small businesses which are being turned down for credit because of the risk aversion of banks. We have also introduced a number of initiatives such as the development capital fund for larger but indigenous companies which have the capacity to grow but cannot access funding because their balance sheets are not strong enough. We also have the innovation fund which, to be fair, was an initiative developed by the previous Government. This allows access for companies to fresh capital, particularly in respect of high-growth opportunities in the innovation sphere. This suite of policies, with the traditional supports provided by Enterprise Ireland, probably the largest provider of seed capital funding in any state in Europe, represents an important and needed response to the challenges businesses are facing in accessing credit. Most Deputies will have numerous examples of cases in which this has been a real constraint.

I draw the House’s attention to the Credit Review Office, which was set up by the previous Government. It constitutes a very important service whereby people can have reviewed decisions by the banks to refuse credit. The service is offered after an internal appeal has been made. Given the level of discontent over access to credit, I am surprised by the relatively small number of cases appealed to the Credit Review Office. It serves as a very important window for the Government on what is happening in the banking area. It is interesting that Mr. John Trethowan, the credit reviewer, has overturned the decisions of banks in approximately half the cases in which he has made a final decision. His office is an important means of review for businesses. The more people who use it, the better our understanding. Its work complements the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, and the new Secretary General in the Department of Finance on getting a better handle on this challenge.

I am delighted to present the Credit Guarantee Bill 2012 to the House. The Bill presents one of the key targeted actions in the Government’s Action Plan for Jobs 2012 to address access to credit and support lending to SMEs, and it will prove to be a practical way of facilitating additional lending to SMEs. I do not refer to a grant or support for ailing businesses; the scheme is intended to address specific market failures that prevent banks lending to some commercially viable businesses by providing a 75% guarantee to banks against losses on qualifying loans to job-creating firms. The target beneficiaries are commercially viable SMEs, that is, those which display a repayment capacity for additional credit facilities but which cannot secure credit facilities under current conditions due to two market failures, namely, insufficient collateral or a lack of appreciation by the credit institutions of the expansionary business model.

Let me outline the background to the rationale for introducing a credit guarantee scheme for SMEs. In February this year, the Government launched a range of measures under the action plan for jobs to improve the competitiveness of the economy, to improve supports for job-creating businesses and to remove barriers to employment creation across the economy. [556] Every Department and more than 35 agencies and offices of the State are engaged with actions to support jobs which will be delivered in this calendar year. The plan is an engine for change and will be reviewed and revitalised every year. It is the start of a programme of strategic interventions designed to aid economic recovery, and clearly shows this Government’s determination to get our economy back on the right path to sustainable, exporting, innovative and enterprise-led growth and through that the creation of sustainable jobs. The introduction of the State-backed guarantee scheme this year is one of the commitments my Department and I made that will quickly deliver positive results for the vulnerable SME sector.

The Government has placed supports for the SME sector at the heart of its strategy for economic recovery because of the important role that SMEs play and in recognition of the challenging environment in which they have operated in recent years. SMEs play a critical role in economic life and form the majority of all businesses in the State. They are the creative and innovative backbone of the economy and the job creators of the future. It is imperative that Government policy help them to grow and prosper. The Government is absolutely focused on ensuring that entrepreneurs and all companies throughout the economy are supported in every way possible to develop their businesses, to increase exports and to maintain and create jobs. This strategy will revitalise and rebuild the economy and lighten the burden we have all been carrying in recent years as a result of a failed economic model. The Credit Guarantee Bill is one of the Government’s initiatives to give substance to this focus and commitment.

By far the most talked about problem in recent times facing the Irish small business sector is the lack of availability of adequate credit facilities. Financing of the economy is critical to long-term economic success. While large businesses have various options open to them, including the capital markets, SMEs are heavily dependent on the banking system. Therefore, a crucial aspect of supporting growth and recovery is fostering a favourable business environment including a well-functioning financial system. Clearly, to support the recovery, we need to find ways to ensure that creditworthy borrowers have access to needed loans. While this problem is not unique to Irish SMEs, but rather a worldwide phenomenon, it is a problem which the Government feels requires to be redressed urgently; hence, the movement on this Bill.

The Government has been, and remains, particularly active in the context of addressing the issue of credit accessibility since it took office last year. The House will be aware that the Government secured a commitment from the main lenders, AIB and Bank of Ireland, that each would make available not less than €3.5 billion next year and €4 billion in 2013 for new or increased credit facilities to SMEs. The aim is to restore the lifeblood of the market economy, that is, the lending and borrowing that help fuel business investments, run factories, buy machinery and equipment, pay wages, etc. This remains a key task, and the establishment of this facility is another step in addressing market weakness in this area.

New initiatives must complement, rather than substitute for, the main banks’ lending commitments and activities under the recapitalisation package and they must represent value for money from the taxpayer’s perspective. I have endeavoured to ensure this guarantee scheme facilitates additional lending of up to €150 million each year that otherwise would not have been extended by the banks. This is to assist businesses directly while at the same time ensuring appropriate safeguards are in place to protect the taxpayer.

Despite all the efforts of the Government on getting credit moving, I must emphasise that it remains the responsibility of the banking system to provide credit to businesses. The Government is prepared to offer additional targeted supports by identifying and addressing specific credit gaps or market inefficiencies that are impediments to lending. We have identified two distinct characteristics of the Irish SME lending market, namely, lack of collateral and lack of comprehension of new markets or models by the banks which provide the rationale for a [557]temporary partial credit guarantee scheme, as follows. There are commercially viable companies in the SME sector with growth potential that have experienced difficulties accessing credit as they do not have the security required for conventional collateral-based bank lending. There is also an issue that predates, but which has been exacerbated by, the banking crisis whereby new or expanding companies engaged in new sectors, new technologies and markets struggle to secure finance. This can be due to a lack of familiarity or understanding on the part of the banks of the new industry, new product or potential of new markets. These market failures in the provision of credit to viable businesses became particularly acute in Ireland during the period of the property bubble, during which time the Irish banks lost capacity to assess credit risk in real-economy companies that were unable to offer property-related collateral.

The guarantee scheme will encourage lending to commercially viable SMEs and reorient lending to the real economy. It will encourage banks to lend to commercially viable SMEs in new sectors, technologies and markets and in so doing place Irish firms on a more level footing with other international competitors that have access to similar schemes, thus making them more competitive and their jobs more sustainable and secure. The scheme will allow a business not only to acquire a loan it could not otherwise obtain but also to establish a favourable credit history with a lender so it may obtain future financing on its own. It will realign bank lending with enterprise policy and secure the economic benefits from additional lending through increasing export creation, sustaining jobs and facilitating investment in the real economy.

The net Exchequer cost for an annual portfolio of €150 million of guaranteed lending is approximately €6.38 million. However, this cost should be seen in the light of the benefits that will be generated by the additional lending attributable to the scheme. Economic gains arise in terms of improving the financing environment for SMEs, encouraging a banking system that is fit for purpose, increased GDP, improved competitiveness, higher innovation activity, jobs sustained and created, savings on welfare payments and increased direct and indirect tax payments.

The benefits forecasted to arise from this intervention in each year of operation, assuming €150 million in additional lending, include the creation of more than 1,000 jobs, more than €25 million of Exchequer benefits in tax revenue and welfare cost savings, and a 398% return on the State’s investment, in other words, a benefit-cost ratio of 4:1.

Section 1 defines certain commonly used terms in the Bill. Section 2 provides for certain conditions that must be satisfied by participating lenders. The Minister will enter into an agreement with each lender and accredit the lender to participate. For lenders to participate, we will require detailed consideration of how a lender will use the scheme to support lending over and above that being achieved. To demonstrate an understanding of the additionality principle, lenders will be requested to provide examples of where the scheme could have been used in the past, that is, examples of viable lending applications that were declined specifically owing to the circumstances the scheme is intended to address.

Section 3 provides for specific eligibility criteria for qualifying enterprises. The guarantee scheme is targeted at micro, small and medium enterprises employing not more than 250 staff as defined by the European Commission.

Section 4 confers on the Minister power to enter into agreements with the banks to give them a guarantee for qualifying enterprises. The aggregate of loans permitted within the scheme shall not exceed €150 million in any one year, thereby capping the State’s liability. Having considered a range of possible combinations of guarantee rate and portfolio default limit which, when applied to the guaranteed portfolio, will deliver the desired overall risk share, a guarantee rate of 75% and a portfolio default limit of 10% have been agreed by the Government, in other words, 75% can be lost on an individual loan but the limit across the portfolio held by the banks is 10%. This sets the overall portfolio claim limit at 7.5%. For a given portfolio of lending [558]allocated to each bank, each loan in the portfolio will carry a 75% guarantee, but potential claims under the guarantee are capped by portfolio claim limit. Therefore, the default performance of a portfolio may, in fact, exceed the portfolio default limit. However, the extent to which the State will cover overall losses is capped at the default rate of 10%. Any losses in excess of this figure must be borne by the lender.

Section 5 provides for the Minister to make a credit guarantee scheme which may make provision for various terms and conditions such as conditions with which the participating lenders must comply, the purposes for which the loan may be given, reports and information given by lenders to the Minister, conditions with which SME borrowers shall comply and other matters. Section 6 requires the Minister to lay the scheme before both Houses of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after it is made.

Section 7 permits the Minister to appoint an operator via a commercial contract to administer the scheme, after consultation with the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the terms and conditions of the contract.

Section 8 provides for a premium to be charged to participating borrowers in respect of loans guaranteed under the scheme. The 2% premium will be paid directly by the borrower to the State. The costs of the scheme will be partially offset by the receipt of premiums paid by borrowers.

Section 9 confers on the Minister power to withdraw a guarantee if a lender fails or refuses to comply with the terms of the scheme. It also provides for protection for the SME borrower in the event that a guarantee is withdrawn from a lender, in that a lender cannot impose less favourable terms on the borrower, upon withdrawal of a guarantee.

Section 10 provides for review of the guarantee scheme at any time. I have committed to review the scheme after 12 months of operation. The Minister must also submit a report on the review to both Houses of the Oireachtas not later than two months after the review has been completed.

Section 11 provides that costs associated with administering the scheme will be subject to sanction by the Minister for Finance, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, and met from moneys provided by the Oireachtas. Section 12 provides for the Short Title, the Credit Guarantee Act 2012, and commencement.

I emphasise that facilitating small business financing is not particularly simple or straightforward. Notably, the term “SME” encompasses a heterogeneous mix of enterprises and each SME faces a unique combination of local economic conditions and complex relationships with customers, suppliers and creditors. Hence, I am not advocating a one-size-fits-all solution. The scheme is designed to support commercially viable small businesses which are on the margins of SME commercial lending decisions. We envisage the initiative will involve approximately 2% to 4% of total lending to SMEs. The initiative is a small step towards a more sophisticated and accessible financing environment for small and medium enterprise in Ireland. It is only one component in the suite of initiatives aimed at ensuring a flow of credit.

Backing enterprise by providing State guarantees for those who struggle to obtain credit from lenders meets a vital need. These are the types of Government interventions that give confidence and encourage small business owners and consumers to expand their business, invest in new plant and machinery, conduct marketing campaigns, be innovative, recruit new employees and get their businesses and the economy growing. Therefore, the initiative will add value to the measures already taken to address the SME credit supply issue and represent value for money for the State.

[559]I thank the officials who worked hard to put this legislation together and the many who advised us in the development of the scheme. This is new for the Government. It was considered by previous Governments which decided not to adopt it.

In talking about extending credit guarantees to take on some businesses risks, many will probably be sick of extending guarantees to financial institutions. That is why this legislation has been carefully designed. I am sure some will say it should be more ambitious and be on a bigger scale, but we are using taxpayers’ money to underwrite the risk. We must target businesses which clearly are viable in areas in which there is a genuine market failure and the banks are not stepping up to the mark. We are not in the business of substituting in respect of the risk banks should take. Banks need to learn that the future lies in funding small and export-oriented businesses which are the backbone of the economy. In some cases, they must re-learn their trade. We are willing to intervene in a targeted way, which is what the scheme involves, as in the case of other interventions I mentioned. We are in a challenging period and the Government must take new initiatives. That is why we are taking on this scheme.

I commend the Bill to the House. I am interested to hear how we can develop not only this scheme but others to support access to credit for business and get more sustainable employment creating enterprises off the ground.

Deputy Willie O’Dea:  I am sharing time with Deputy John McGuinness.

I listened to the Minister with great interest because I have an interest in this scheme. It is over a century and a half since the potato famine devastated the economy. The effects of the credit famine we are experiencing are somewhat less pernicious but no less devastating in their consequences for the economy. It is ironic that the same institutions, the financial promiscuity of which did so much to bring about the problem, are practising a new form of financial parsimony which is preventing the crisis from being solved. The banks are engaged in an Orwellian exercise. I use the word “Orwellian” deliberately because they are behaving like the employees of the famous Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 who are trying to convince us to disbelieve the evidence of our own senses. They have issued a plethora of reports, studies, interviews and analyses which ask us to believe there is no credit problem in the country. The banks and financial institutions were, according to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, “stuffed” with capital which did not come out of thin air, rather it was borrowed on behalf of taxpayers and must be repaid with interest. It was not borrowed because we had a residual affection for the banks or because we regarded them as venerable institutions or national monuments that had to be preserved, rather it was borrowed because we wanted them to lend to the economy because credit was the oxygen of business.

The economy cannot grow without a proper supply of credit. The banks, however, have failed to adhere to their side of the bargain. It is a contemptible insult to the intelligence of the electorate for the banks to produce reports, as they continue to do, purporting to show a certain amount of people applied for credit, that 90% were successful and that, therefore, everything is normal. There is not one word about the majority of people who are told not to bother wasting their time or money because they will simply not qualify. Neither is there any mention of those who, in theory, satisfy the criteria but who will not be able to obtain loans because the bar has been raised yet again.

The attitude of the banks to Irish business reminds me of the famous scene from “The Simpsons”, where Moe, the tavern owner, seeks a loan and is advised by the bank that he cannot have one because it does not like either his collateral or his cash-flow projections. Eventually, he is directed to the leader of the local Mafia who offers him a loan. However, the latter also does not like his collateral or his cash-flow projections and states that while the [560]money will be provided, the Mafia will have to take the preliminary precaution of breaking Moe’s arms and legs in advance.

There are 200,000 small businesses in this country and they employ more than 655,000 people. Small business is the backbone of the economy but it is being starved of credit. The Minister need not take my word for that. No less an authority than the Governor of the Central Bank, Professor Patrick Honohan, has stated that for small businesses, Ireland is the most difficult country in the eurozone in which to access credit. That is some statement from the Governor of the Central Bank. As the Minister indicated, the Government imposed lending targets on the domestic pillar banks. The figures were €3 billion for 2011, €3.5 billion for this year and €4 billion for 2013. The difficulty is that a study produced by Fergal McCann of the Central Bank found that for the first nine months of 2011 — these are the most recent figures available — the amount advanced by these banks was €1.6 billion. At the same time, however, they removed €2.4 billion in credit through the closure of credit facilities. For the first nine months of 2011, therefore, overall lending to SMEs was down by approximately €800 million. This downward trend appears to be continuing.

The Minister referred to the Credit Review Office, which was established by the previous Government. While we like to claim credit for things we do in life, I am not going to claim any in respect of the activities of that office. The Credit Review Office accepted, at face value, the figures provided by the banks. The latter counted approvals instead of drawdowns as evidence of lending and the restructuring of loans as new credit. The Credit Review Office swallowed this whole and its figures reflected those provided by the bank, which were completely false.

A study carried out by the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, ISME, last March indicates that 91% of small firms are of the view that the banks are making it more difficult to access finance and, unsurprisingly, that 92% of SMEs state that the Government is at best making no difference to the situation or is at worst having a negative impact on it. Mark Fielding, CEO of ISME, stated, “access to credit is abysmal, the application process is getting longer ... the banks are simply the living dead ... They restrict credit lines, delay decisions, miss deadlines and generally hinder progress”. Mr. Fielding was not overly impressed with the Government and said, “While the Government dithers and waffles, vulnerable small business owners are being terrorised by bankers, leading to a massive build-up of anger and frustration within the business community.”

I would like the Minister to address not only these issues but also that of the micro-finance guarantee facility from the EU. What is the exact position in respect of that facility? Will the Minister also comment on the commitment contained in the Labour Party’s manifesto for the most recent general election and in the programme for Government in respect of establishing a strategic investment bank? I notice the concept of a bank has been dropped and that what is now proposed is a strategic investment fund. This sounds suspiciously like a strategic investment fudge.

On 4 April, when the Government had been in power for more than a year, we were at last presented with the legislation to establish a credit guarantee scheme. I take no satisfaction from stating that I find the Bill before the House extremely restrictive and very disappointing. I detect the hand of the Department of Finance in literally every line on each page. My heart sank when, for example, I read section 5(1) which gives the Minister the right, with the consent of the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, to establish a scheme. We are some 15 months into the lifetime of this Government and thousands of small businesses have gone under while we were awaiting this legislation. However, what we are not told is that all the Bill will do is allow for the scheme to be established. When will it be established and — this is a matter of equal importance — to what sort of scrutiny will it be subjected? I very [561]much doubt it will be brought before both Houses of the Oireachtas in order that Members might scrutinise its terms. The meat of this matter lies in the scheme, which the Bill gives the Minister only the right to establish.

The Bill has finally been brought forward but we remain in the dark. More importantly, business people who want to access the scheme are also in the dark in respect of fundamental matters such as the minimum and maximum amounts that can be lent, the conditions that will apply and the type of enterprises that will be covered and the type that will be excluded. There is no information on whether the banks will be still able to request personal guarantees in respect of Government-guaranteed loans or on whether they will still be able to insist on people using their private residences as security for such loans. We are completely and utterly in the dark in respect of these fundamental details.

The Minister stated that there is additional lending involved here. He paid lip service to the idea that it must be additional. I can envisage what will happen here, namely, in respect of loans they would issue in any event, the banks will inform the Government that they will not issue them unless they are guaranteed. There is a grave danger that there will be no additional lending and that the Government and the taxpayer will end up guaranteeing loans which the banks would have advanced in any event. The Minister indicated that he does not want this to happen. That is fair enough and I agree with him in this regard. He states that he has taken steps to ensure that it will not happen. What are those steps? I have perused the Bill from beginning to end and I cannot find them. There is nothing in the Bill which will prevent what I have outlined from happening.

What constitutes a loan is defined in section 1 and overdrafts are specifically excluded in this regard. That is very disappointing because it means the re-financing of existing loans will not be covered by the credit guarantee scheme. As a result, the scheme will be extremely restrictive. I have considered the schemes in other countries and I am convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, that Ireland’s will be by far the most restrictive scheme in the world. The Minister will be aware that many companies have overdraft facilities which are used for day-to-day trading. This is because payments in respect of goods and services are being made later and later. It is small wonder that ISME described the scheme as marginal.

In the United Kingdom, new guaranteed loans can cover the re-financing of existing loans where the loan is at risk due to deteriorating value of security or where for cash-flow reasons the borrower is struggling to meet existing loan repayments. The UK scheme also allows for conversion of an overdraft to a loan in order to release capacity in the overdraft to meet working capital requirements. It further allows for guarantees on invoice finance facilities. The type of activity in respect of which loans can be granted in this country is nowhere to be found in the Bill. This will be only contained in the scheme, whenever it is brought forward.

In Canada loans can be used for financing up to 90% of the cost of purchasing or improving land, real property or immovables, purchasing new or existing leasehold improvements or purchasing or improving new or used equipment such as commercial vehicles, etc. In the United Kingdom, loans can be given for the re-financing of existing loans. The overdraft guarantee which will provide a guarantee on new and increased overdraft borrowings for small and medium sized enterprises, SMEs, is viable but it is inadequate security to meet a lender’s normal requirements.

In the UK, there is a target of 20 working days from application to decision. In Canada, the UK and even in Chile, the schemes are more imaginative, expansive and more accessible than what is in prospect here. The Minister stated it will be a three year guarantee. In my experience, many SMEs cannot get a loan for three years or less and, instead, have to take a five year loan. What happens in year three when the guarantee is withdrawn? Technically, at that point the [562]borrower is in breach of the terms of his loan because it is no longer covered by the State guarantee. Can the loan be instantly withdrawn at that stage?

The 2% upfront charge may seem small but it must be remembered SMEs are experiencing unprecedented cash flow problems as well as lack of access to credit. Why does this have to be an upfront payment? The Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, ISME, and others accept there has to be some charge but it should be payable in instalments and at the same time as full loan repayments are made. This suggestion seems to me to be imminently sensible.

In the last 12 month period for which figures are available, the loans outstanding to small businesses were in excess of €58 billion. This Bill proposes an extra €150 million a year in extra lending. It gives me no satisfaction to say it but we are barely scratching the surface with this legislation. The explanatory memorandum and several press statements made by the Minister state this scheme will be demand led. At the same time it is capped, however. Those two concepts are mutually exclusive.

The Minister has stated that while the scheme may cost €6.38 million per year, the direct benefit to the Exchequer from increased business activity will be €25 million, a 400% return on the investment. If there is going to be a 400% return, why not increase the investment? If someone was offering me a 400% return, I would mortgage my house and get access to as much cash I could from whatever sources to rush in to invest in it.

I thought this scheme would be an imitation of the UK’s scheme. Now I find it is just a pale, skeletal and restricted imitation. It is supremely ironic that on 4 April, the day this Bill was published, it was announced in the mainstream UK media that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Osborne, had brokered a deal with the organisation representing hedge funds in the City of London to arrange for them to lend to small businesses. The reason for this was the UK scheme, which is in many ways superior to ours, had proved to be a failure.

My party has asked me about this legislation. Whatever we might say about the scheme, it improves the situation somewhat, however marginal that may be, so I cannot, in conscience, advise my party to vote against this Bill. I am not trying to be political but my advice to the Minister is that, as we have waited 18 months for the Bill anyway and there is a real, pressing and genuine problem for SMEs, he should go back to the drawing board with this scheme. He must go back to the Minister for Finance and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and introduce legislation to expand this scheme which will contain the scheme’s details so at least we know where we are going and that will give real hope and opportunity to small businesses which are starved of capital.

Small businesses are the backbone of this country and employ almost 700,000 people. In many cases they are under the most immense and unimaginable pressures, struggling from week to week to survive without much help from the banks. This legislation has been a long time in gestation. The Minister is correct the previous Government considered the scheme but did not go ahead with it. That Government was wrong and should have gone ahead with it. If it had, I would have been extremely disappointed if it had produced a scheme as restrictive and limited as this one, however.

I do not doubt the Minister’s sincerity or intentions but I believe this scheme is not enough. It will not make any difference in reality. It is a marginal improvement on the situation in place. However, that is setting the bar very low because it would not be very hard to improve on that. Fianna Fáil will not be opposing the legislation but I urge the Minister, if only between now and Committee Stage, to rethink it.

[563]Deputy Peadar Tóibín:  Tá sé deacair go leor fáilte a chur roimh an mBille seo. Ní thugann sé an tacaíocht atá riachtanach do ghnólachtaí beaga na tíre seo. Dúnadh 1,600 gnólacht an bhliain seo caite. Dúnann sé ghnólacht gach uile lá. Tá sé sin níos mó ná an méid a osclaíonn gach lá.

It is difficult to welcome this Bill because each of the 1,600 businesses that become insolvent every year represents jobs lost, hope broken and debt incurred. No one starts up a business to fail. It is a significant challenge, as well as an emotional and human investment, never mind the financial end of it. It is a tragedy for a business owner when his or her business fails, as well as for the families and communities involved. What makes it more frustrating is that many businesses are closing because of a lack of credit. Credit flow to business is a disaster. ISME stated just under 50% of its businesses which it surveyed have been refused credit. Not long ago, the Dáil debated the Construction Contracts Bill which highlighted the contagion effect in different sectors of enterprise when a subcontractor does not get paid. Credit is a major part of the hole in the system which is bringing down these businesses.

This legislation could be used as a possible component in a suite of solutions for small business funding. However, it has been very slow in coming. For many businesses it is too late. Since this Government took office, almost 2,000 companies have become insolvent. With ISME’s figure of 50% of SMEs not being able to get credit, just under half of those would have had a better chance of survival had credit been available to them. This proposed credit guarantee scheme is not new. Partial loan guarantees are in place in up to 100 countries with up to 2,000 schemes in operation.

A scheme in the North has been operating since the 1980s. That is another example of how, if there is joined-up thinking on the island of Ireland, we could learn from and work with each other.

  6 o’clock

Loan guarantee schemes have been evaluated and developed over decades but this Department only started such a process in 2009. It was promised over a year ago by the Government and only now are we getting a chance to scrutinise an enabling Bill that does not fully outline the scheme it is hoped to operate. The idea of “better late than never” does not have currency here for the thousands of businesses which have closed in the interim. This Bill has come about due to the failure of the banking system and the inability of banks to understand small businesses. Over the past two decades we have seen banks migrate from giving loans to small businesses to giving loans to property developers, with property as the basis. In that period, an entire generation of expertise in banking that delivered loans to small businesses has left the banking industry, and many individuals in the banking industry currently do not have the expertise to formulate loans to small businesses. They do not have the expertise to examine cash flows and understand the necessity for loans to those businesses.

We need a complete refocusing of the banking industry on the small and medium enterprise, SME, sector. The Minister has outlined how the Bill is measured, as it were, in scale, but in reality it is very modest. The State seeks to guarantee up to €150 million in any year over three years, targeted at growth of SMEs and small businesses, especially those with a lack of collateral. We welcome that targeting but the scheme is limited, with benefit accruing to between 2% and 4% of SMEs. Market failure is not limited to 4% of SMEs, and I have noted how almost 50% of ISME’s clients cannot get credit. The question must be considered of what will happen to the 96% of businesses which still have difficulty in the market.

Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks, AIB, are by far the biggest lenders to SMEs and they have both failed to step up to the plate in delivering credit. The Central Bank recently found that a third of SME loans went to the construction sector and of these, 60% went to [564]roll-over funding for non-performing loans. The construction sector, which is now only a small part of the SME area, is still a massive target of lending for Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks, with a good chunk of the lending roll-over lending rather than new lending.

This current pattern of SME lending highlights the need to deal definitively with underperforming loans that are dragging down viable businesses. Throughout the State one can see people who have functional businesses on one side but investments in property portfolios that no longer function on the other. The businesses that are functioning are being brought down and annihilated by the non-functioning elements of business. Therefore, people who are working daily to keep a business running and make a profit, and who may be doing a good job in that element of business, are losing their jobs. That issue should be tackled.

The Government must assert its position as owner of AIB and major stakeholder in Bank of Ireland, and the Minister and his colleagues must assert the power of that shareholding within this sector. It is ludicrous these banks have access to low-cost loans from the European Central Bank, yet many SMEs struggle to gain access to loans at accessible rates. We have seen time and again in this State how the unreal economy is flush with cheap loans but the real economy struggles to get any credit flowing. The Government must exercise the full extent of its investment within the banks. This legislation may be part of a suite of action to address the issue, and as such, we are giving it a cautious welcome. We must look to shape the practices of the banking sector, holding it to account for the significant sums of money it has received over recent years.

Other sectors involving SMEs should also be addressed, including the micro-enterprise sector. That is the layer which sits at the bottom of the SME sector and requires specialised and tailored support. It is often the most vulnerable of the elements of small business. When the Government first announced it would proceed with a partial loan guarantee scheme, it also promised to proceed with a micro-enterprise scheme. More than a year has gone by while this has been talked up but not a single loan has been delivered. At the same time, €200 million became available under the European Progress micro-finance facility, which was operational since before March 2011. In February this year I asked the Minister of State responsible for small business, Deputy John Perry, and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade about this but neither gave a satisfactory answer as to why 11 other countries in Europe had managed to draw down from that pot of money but this State had not drawn down a shilling.

We have concerns about the Bill and want to see them addressed. This is enabling legislation and gives the Minister considerable power to determine the range and conditions of loans. We welcome the fact that loans are limited to firms with fewer than 250 employees and €50 million in turnover. Larger firms would have a bigger draw on the fund, meaning the money would not see to as many business needs. Those firms would have a better chance of gaining loans from the traditional banking sector in any case, and companies further into development should be dealt with through the banks.

This programme cannot allow the banks to abdicate or substitute in any way their responsibilities towards SMEs. The programme is designed to deal with market and banking failure but it should be additional to existing bank lending rather than lead to any level of displacement. I ask the Minister to outline the steps he intends to take to ensure loans which should be dealt with through the banks are not added to in any significant way. We have heard through the grapevine the stories of funds coming through the European Investment Bank to Irish banks to be delivered to new businesses, but some banks use the funding to supplement existing loans. In other words, they would deleverage from the risk initially involved by substituting new funds from Europe for those loans. The real economy does not see those loans.

[565]We welcome the arrangement by which the risk is shared with lenders and the liability of the State is set at a maximum of €11.25 million per year on a total guarantee of loans not exceeding €150 million per year. However, in limiting the exposure of the State, the legislation is silent on the value of any security offered if there is a default. If the lender requires security against a loan, will there be a pro rata process with the Government on any call on security if the loan fails? Will the lender recover the losses before the State can take a call? I note this will be an issue for discussion with the lender but I ask the Minister to outline his thinking on the matter.

Section 7 deals with public accountability. We welcome that the credit guarantee schemes will be placed before the Oireachtas and I ask the Minister how that process will be used in practice. Will there be a statement, debate or publication of the scheme and how will the approach deal with commercial confidentiality and accountability for the spending of public money?

We are concerned about section 8 which places a 2% charge on the borrower, which may be an excessive burden on an SME and undermine the objectives in the scheme in the long run. It should be noted the banks have received €64 billion in bailouts by successive Governments and can achieve cheap European loans. We are putting an extra burden on the real economy, made up of small businesses, and flushing the unreal economy with cheap loans and free money. It may be more appropriate for the lender — the bank — to absorb the cost, or if the EU requires that the lender pay this fee, it should be paid to the Government.

Will the Minister outline the options the Department examined to minimise the costs to business and to ensure the cost of the loans will not be prohibitive?

Section 10 provides for the Minister to conduct a review of the operation of a credit guarantee scheme. This is a sensible provision. Given this is a new programme, will the Government agree to produce an annual review of the operation of the whole scheme? This will allow for greater oversight and assessment.

I note in publishing the Bill and within the regulatory impact assessment, a number of assumptions were made that would provide a robust framework for the assessments, including the target of 1,875 business loans, with an average value of just under €80,000 and the creation of 1,000 jobs, as well as other assumptions regarding additional sales, default rates and so on. In a reply to a question from my colleague, Deputy Sandra McLellan, the Minister set a target of 1,300 new jobs and more than €25 million in Exchequer benefits through tax revenue and welfare savings. If these assumptions are to be of any value, they should form part of the annual report on the operation of the scheme. There is a danger that we set targets at the launch of these schemes but the targets are like seagulls flying over Phoenix Park, they are never analysed.

I ask the Minister to look again at the cost of the scheme and identify where savings can be realised. I note again in the reply to my party colleague, Deputy McLellan, the Minister said the operation of the initiative would be outsourced by the Department as it would not have the infrastructure, capacity or skills to resource and operate the scheme. I ask that the infrastructure, capacity and skills, if they are not available in his Department, should be sought in the Department of Finance or Central Bank so the State delivers this.

Administration costs are set at €500,000 per year and are aggregated over the potential eight years of the programme. Does this mean that over the last two years of the project, when there are no functioning loans, or the loans have all been given out, the State will continue to pay €500,000 to administer possible defaults?

I hope the Minister will clarify these points. We all share the common concern and desire to see businesses have the opportunity to develop and grow. Small businesses are key. It is a [566]fragile area of Irish society. Six businesses are closing every day, more than are starting up each day. The trend for business closure has accelerated in the first quarter of this year compared to last year. It is vital this is expedited and that micro finance is made available. It is important costs are not levied on businesses that are already struggling. It is also important that the banks are re-engineered to do the job they are meant to do and that the Government flexes its shareholder muscle in the banks so they function for the real economy. That must be to the fore of the Minister’s thinking when he is developing this Bill.

Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan:  Everyone agrees growth is the key to recovery; just yesterday the Taoiseach made that point in this House. We are asking what will stimulate growth, and central to that are jobs, not just job creation, but job retention as well. We have not been paying enough attention to job retention and we have seen small businesses going out of business needlessly, when injections of small amounts of capital would have prevented that. I hope this Bill will provide the practical support to allow banks and credit institutions to do this.

We all know of small businesses, many in families for generations, that are part of the fabric of the community that have had to close. Apart from the effect on business and employment, there is a demoralising effect on the community when people are looking at a boarded up premises that was once a thriving business. These premises also bring another problem; they become targets for vandalism.

Over the years we have seen the banks use marketing slogans to give the impression that they are friendly, supportive and available. Unfortunately that was true for the bigger businesses, multinational corporations and developers, where prudence and caution were replaced by reckless abandon, which led to disastrous consequences as a result of the lack of good governance. I would not get into a car without brakes but that seems to be how the banks functioned. They went on and on and on but never helped those who might have been able to stay in business if even a small proportion of this capital had been directed towards them.

I was alarmed to read the press release from the Simon Community some days ago that reported an increase in the number of former business owners who are now homeless. The figure was 2% during the boom but it has now increased to 4%. It is a small number but the fact it has doubled is significant. No one wants to see that number increase. This shows how homelessness can happen to anyone. The Wall Street Crash and Great Depression show us many examples of this.

The Simon Community pointed out that the steps from unemployment to homelessness can be gradual and take years. We are only now seeing business people affected by the crash becoming homeless. With the loss of employment and businesses come the loss of homes and, significantly, loss of confidence and self esteem, with resulting effects on health. For some we see a drift into alcohol and drug dependency. For each of those people, there are other people, families, friends and employees, who are also affected and I hope this Bill will do something to prevent those journeys.

During the debate on the second referendum on the Lisbon treaty, we were practically brainwashed that voting “Yes” equated with voting for jobs. That did not happen, instead there was an increase in unemployment. Current unemployment figures would be even higher were it not for emigration. In the lead up to the referendum on the fiscal treaty, the “Yes” campaign consistently refers to the need to increase confidence in the euro to increase foreign investment in Ireland. That is fine but I have seen an email from the American Embassy in the past day on a conference the ambassador is hosting in June called “Levelling the Playing Field — Strengthening Ireland’s Competitiveness” and it is being addressed by various well known figures. The blurb makes the point about diversity and opportunity being key drivers of econ[567]omic recovery and the importance of ideas and innovation for Ireland to be a strong competitor. On the foreign investment line, there have been examples of foreign investment where jobs were created that were beneficial to the local communities where the businesses were located. Sometimes, however, we place too much focus on the foreign investment to the detriment of domestic business. Foreign investment can be sporadic and inconsistent. How much do these foreign companies contribute to the economy? Our corporate tax rate is low, which attracts them in. I do not believe an increase of even 1% would be a deterrent and I have my doubts that we are collecting all of the 12.5%. It also does not prevent foreign investors from high-tailing it when it suits them.

Small and medium enterprises, however, create sustainable employment for local people and use local expertise. The Governments says it is doing what it can to make business life here easier but small and medium enterprises are being crippled by austerity measures. Most struggling businesses agree that the cost of doing business has been increasing. There is no doubt that upward only rents have been an absolute scourge to small business. In times of recession, it is incredible this cannot be altered. I know there are legal obstacles but surely the law exists to serve the people, not to inhibit them from living full lives. There are businesses that would exist today if there had been greater accommodation on the rent issue. I cannot understand how getting no rent is better than getting some rent.

Comparable businesses in other countries are aghast at the rents small businesses must pay here. Commercial rates are also a heavy burden on small, struggling businesses. Surely it makes sense to be accommodating to prevent a business from closing. An ISME survey published last year showed that one third of small businesses are unable to pay rates. In times of recession we increase costs and the recent increases in gas and electricity prices have added to the pressures on small businesses.

A phenomenal amount of money is spent annually on public procurement. This is an important market to which small and medium sized businesses should have access. However, the tendering process tends to favour larger companies which have greater resources. The system is rather bureaucratic, costly and time-consuming. There is a basic unfairness in this area and it results in the squeezing out of small businesses. This is partly a result of agencies bundling contracts and using only a limited number of suppliers. Usually multinationals and large companies do this as well. There is a need for improved public procurement policy to encourage more involvement of small and medium sized enterprises.

One particular segment of the small and medium sized business sector is the printing industry. This area involves many small, long-established businesses which are under severe pressure. Several have closed recently. The Government and previous one could have done a good deal more to ensure the printing business could survive in this country. We should be fair to businesses in this country. I have heard of soccer, rugby and GAA ticket contracts worth €1 million in total being printed abroad. There will probably always be someone abroad who will do things cheaper. This is because rates, rent, service charges, etc. are cheaper abroad. If the economy is to survive, however, and if we wish to stem the increase in unemployment, we must hold on to the jobs already in place here. I know of printers who had invested heavily in new machinery to secure contracts but they were unable to secure them. Quality or ability to do the job were not the issue and, therefore, price was the only issue.

There should be an opportunity for negotiations to keep contracts in the country and to keep jobs here. Recently, large tenders involving the Courts Service and the Garda Ombudsman went to the North. We must concentrate on our businesses here. The loss of revenue to the State as a result of those companies sending printing requirements out of the country is no wonder. An issue arose during the last election whereby certain posters and literature carried [568]the imprint of a name and address in Dublin. However, when people investigated the matter, it turned out that the printer was not based in Dublin or in Ireland. Certain parties sent work abroad but gave the impression that they were giving to work to printing companies in this country. Magazines and books are not being printed here but are being sent for publication in England, Spain and even to China instead.

There is a need for positive discrimination in favour of Irish businesses and jobs. I have seen many examples of entrepreneurship during my teaching career, involving young people with great ideas and great innovation. Mini-companies have been set up by young entrepreneurs and young scientists and so on. The Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, envisages great potential in the social enterprise and entrepreneurship areas. Science Foundation Ireland is funding a vast amount of research. Dublin has been recognised as the European city of science for 2012 and a major forum is due to take place here in July. This is another potential area for employment. Other positives include the micro-finance fund and the development capital scheme. There is a need to consider upskilling as well.

The late payment of invoices is also an issue for smaller businesses. They are not being paid on time by larger businesses. There are examples of larger businesses leaving the country to secure lucrative contracts abroad while smaller businesses are left here. We must tackle the banks’ bias to lend to larger companies and corporations. I hope the Bill will do so. Although long awaited, it is a good initiative. However, it is only one initiative and I hope there will be more.

Deputy Seamus Healy:  I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this legislation and I welcome it. Small and medium businesses have long been a vital and important part of the Irish economy. Many of these are family businesses which have been handed down over the years. Most, if not all, are local businesses that employ local people and buy in local services. In recent years, small businesses have been especially hard hit by the recession and by the lack of and cost of finance. Most, if not all, Members will have heard from entrepreneurs and local people in their constituency offices who have detailed the difficult circumstances of old, established family businesses going to the wall. This is having a serious effect not only on the local economy and local jobs but also on the families and friends of those involved and on their medical situations as a result of stress related illnesses. There is no doubt this has been an horrific time for small businesses, which have been and continue to be a vital part of the Irish economy.

Anything we can do to retain or create jobs in this area is important and welcome. We have put vast sums of money into the banks in recent years. I understand the figure is approximately €60 billion. We are informed we own most of the banks now. There is an obligation on the banks to ensure small and medium enterprises are supported and finance is made available to them at a reasonable cost. The Bill represents an attempt to help in this regard and is welcome. A recent Central Bank report stated:

From a policy perspective our key findings are as follows: the lending market for all enterprises has become more concentrated since the onset of the 2008 crisis; the lending market for SMEs is significantly more concentrated, and the trend is towards even higher concentration; foreign bank penetration has diminished in Ireland since the crisis. Having distilled the lessons from the literature on the likely effect of increased concentration and lower foreign bank penetration in the Irish SME lending market, it appears most likely that the predictions of the Market Power Hypothesis will prevail, leading to tougher conditions for SMEs seeking to access finance. Policy measures such as a loan guarantee scheme, micro-[569]finance fund and credit register should help to mitigate these adverse effects somewhat, but it is clear from the analysis presented here that challenges will remain in the medium term.

The Governor of the Central Bank, Patrick Honohan, also stated recently that “credit conditions for SMEs are tougher in Ireland than anywhere elsewhere in the euro area both in terms of cost and availability”.

This is the background to this scheme, which will facilitate up to €150 million for small and medium enterprises each year. I hope the €150 million will be additional moneys. I realise this is the intention of the Oireachtas. Under the Bill, the funding is supposed to be from additional moneys but in the past this has not happened and similar funds were put into another area. I hope there will be constant monitoring and reviews of the situation to ensure the €150 million represents additional moneys made available to small and medium enterprises.

Any initiative to maintain or create jobs is vital and should be undertaken and I welcome the Bill on that basis. However, as everyone is aware, the Bill is, of itself, only scratching the surface. In terms of the background to this Bill, this economy has been bled dry in recent years. We have taken approximately €20 billion out of the economy and under this fiscal treaty we are proposing to take huge sums of money out of the economy again in the next few years. It will be in the region of €6 billion between now and 2015, in addition to the €8.5 billion we have already earmarked to take out of the economy. Meeting the 60% debt to GDP ratio will require further austerity for a period of almost 20 years from 2018, something in the region of €4.5 billion per year. In that situation job creation is not at the races, so to speak, because if we continue to take that amount of money out of the economy, it will contract and jobs will be lost. Already, approximately 430,000 people are unemployed and about 100,000 people are emigrating and if we take that amount of money out of the economy on an ongoing basis, we will be faced with economic stagnation. One only has to walk down the main street of any city, town or village to see the effects of what has been happening. Shop after shop is closed. There have been a significant number of closures and liquidations in most of our towns and villages, and there is a very high level of unemployment. If we continue in this vein, the future for employment and the economy is bleak. The Government should now examine that situation because austerity is not working. Anybody who has eyes in their head can see austerity is not working and that we need growth and stimulus in the economy.

If budgets are run here on the basis of cuts and additional taxes year after year, and if that is done by our trading partners in the rest of Europe such as is proposed in this fiscal compact, it will result in markets reducing, loss of jobs and stagnation. That is something that has never worked. There is no historical precedent for getting out of a recession by imposing austerity. The priority of this Government is on imposing more austerity. It will have to ensure there is a real growth package and that jobs are created.

While jobs will be maintained as a result of this measure, and I hope some jobs will be created as a result of it, the bigger picture is that the very wealthy people in this country are on an investment strike and have been for recent years. If jobs are to be created here they will have to be created directly by the State because the so-called entrepreneurs are on an investment strike and have not been putting the money into job creation. It is not that they do not have the money. We know from various reports, including from the Central Statistics Office, that significant moneys and assets are available to a very small number of people here. Approximately 5% of people own assets to the value of about €239 billion. Those are the people who are on strike, so to speak, and it is not only that they own those assets. In 2009 and 2010, they increased those assets by €46 billion. That was done in the teeth of the recession. Those figures are not mine; they are from a Central Statistics Office report. A further report from the Central Statistics Office shows that while 90% of the population lost income in recent years and 25% [570]lost significant income, 10% of people made additional income during the course of this recession. Those are the people who are on an investment strike and if they will not invest, the State must urgently create the investment. Otherwise, middle and lower income families will be bled dry. They are under severe pressure as we speak and it is the duty of the State to create jobs, not just the environment for jobs. The State must become directly involved in job creation. Otherwise, we will have a continuation of the current high unemployment and emigration levels.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett:  I have mixed feelings about this Bill. Any measure that would assist in any way the struggling small and medium enterprise sector must be welcomed and any measure that focuses on enterprises that may lack collateral or that have a track record in that regard, new businesses and so on and can afford them some support in terms of credit would be helpful. For that reason I support the Bill, not that I am enthusiastic about it but because if a single extra cent can get to the struggling small and medium business sector, which is on its knees, and help even one extra business create a few jobs and get some economic activity going in an economy that is being decimated, one could not possibly oppose it.

While we support this Bill because it might give some assistance to a few businesses, at best it is piddling in the wind, so to speak, and at worst it is more mollycoddling of the banks which caused the crisis and were responsible for small and medium enterprises being devastated, and half the towns in the country looking like ghost towns. The way things are going it will not be long before tumbleweed is rolling down the high street of towns and villages throughout the country. When tumbleweed is rolling down O’Connell Street and Dublin city centre has become a ghost town, the penny might drop with this Government that we need serious, radical measures to stimulate economic activity, get people back to work and support small and medium enterprises. This Bill is far from that radical measure and it will do nothing to stanch the massive haemorrhaging of jobs in the domestic economy and the massacre taking place of small and medium enterprises where those enterprises are going out of business day after day, week after week and month after month as a result of the activities of the banks which crashed our economy and the austerity this Government continues to impose at the diktat of the troika. It is now proposing to sign us up to even more austerity with this insane fiscal treaty which will further devastate the very small and medium enterprises this Bill purports to want to support.

The premise of the Bill is that by providing the banks with a guarantee because they are not lending, we may encourage them to lend. Although we will welcome the Bill if the banks lend money to struggling small and medium sized enterprises, why do we have to incentivise and guarantee the banks given that we finance them? They would be on the floor but for the decision to shovel €70 billion into them. Despite this, we still do not control their policies, nor can we make decisions on who they lend to, whether they invest in the economy and whether they support the small and medium enterprise sector. It is unbelievable that, having given the banks €70 billion, we must now provide them with guarantees to persuade them to give money to small and medium enterprise. Given that we financed them, why do we not bloody force them to give money to small and medium enterprises? Why do they remain a law unto themselves? One could not make up this.

The same position obtains across Europe. Almost €1 trillion has been given to banks across Europe in the past two or three months, yet this money is sitting in the banks while the European economy contracts under the impact of austerity. Small and medium enterprises all over Europe are starting to go to the wall and are being crushed while the money we provided is sitting in the banks. We still are not telling them what to do, even though they would have collapsed but for the money we shovelled into them. Perhaps the Minister will explain the [571]bizarre logic of shovelling money into the banks, praying they will reinvest it in the economy and providing them with a guarantee, because I do not get it.

This is a win-win scenario for the banks. If a bank provides a loan to a small and medium enterprise which is then successful, as I hope it would be, the bank makes a profit on the loan it has provided and the State gets nothing. If, however, the business which secured the loan goes belly up, the State covers the bank’s losses. If citizens must take the risk of a possible failure of the business, logic dictates that we should also benefit if it is successful. The Government’s approach is a mini-version of the madness evident in the blanket bank guarantee provided by the previous Government under Brian Cowen. It offers another win-win scenario to the banks which knew at the time of the guarantee that they would make a fortune if their speculation worked out, but that Muggins, in other words, members of the public, would pick up the tab if their speculation failed. As it transpired, it failed and the banks’ losses were covered.

Rather than introduce a piddling measure worth €19 million which will have an infinitesimal effect on a domestic economy that is being massacred, why not do the job properly by nationalising the banks and forcing them to provide credit to small and medium enterprise? The banks are not the only problem in these circumstances. While I do not have any time for bankers, there is a certain logic to their position of refusing to lend. If the owner of a small or medium enterprise visits his bank manager seeking a loan to sustain and develop a business, it is hardly surprising that a banker, who can see the collapse in demand in the economy and knows austerity will be imposed for the next three, four, five or six years under a fiscal treaty that will slash incomes, cut social welfare payments and depress spending power in the economy, will not be convinced the business has a sustainable future. Aware that nobody is spending money, the bank manager will choose not to give out loans.

If we are serious about promoting the interests of small and medium sized enterprises, the other side of the equation must be to stimulate demand in the economy. This will require abandoning the austerity madness that is directed at low and middle income earners. Demand on the high street is depressed because people no longer have money to spend as a consequence of Government decisions to cut social welfare payments, including rent allowance, lone parent’s payments and child benefit, and slap on to incomes the universal social charge and other levies. The shops in which people used to spend are going out of business.

We also have cuts to public services. The biggest employer in the centre of Dún Laoghaire, which is turning into a ghost town, is the hospital, a public service employing some 600 or 700 people. If the Government continues to cut health budgets, nurses’ pay and the number of people in the health service, the hospital in Dún Laoghaire will have fewer staff on lower pay spending less in the local economy. If, God forbid, it is closed down as a result of further cutbacks in the years ahead, what will be the effect on the small and medium enterprise sector in the town? One could ask the same question about any town or village in the country. The decline in spending power caused by cutting the incomes of public sector workers is depressing small and medium enterprises in the private sector. Playing off the public and private sectors is utterly futile and stupid because they depend on one other. Investment in public services and improving the incomes of ordinary workers will stimulate demand in the economy and promote the interests of small and medium sized enterprises.

I do not have time to discuss in detail the issue of cartels other than to note that promoting the interests of small and medium enterprise requires measures to break up cartels such as CRH, which is engaged in price fixing activities in the concrete sector that are driving small and medium enterprises out of business. The Government should also address issues such as rates, parking charges and other costs that are crippling small and medium enterprise.

[572]While we welcome the Bill, it is nothing more than a gesture given that the domestic economy is being slaughtered by austerity. It is madness to propose to continue austerity for another decade by signing up to the fiscal treaty madness. The Bill is piddling in the wind.

Deputy Joe O’Reilly:  I congratulate the Minister on the initiative provided for in the legislation. In contrast to the previous speaker, I believe it is more than a trifling matter and will have a considerable impact. I will elaborate on that issue presently.

The Bill forms part of a strategy and sequence of actions taken by the Government that have put jobs to the fore. The jobs budget early in the lifetime of the Government included significant initiatives such as the lowering of the VAT rate on food in the tourism and catering sectors which continues to have a significant impact. The JobBridge initiative taken by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, has also had a considerable impact. The entire strategy of putting our public finances in order has won us international confidence, resulted in the postponement of the payment of the €3.1 billion promissory note and delivered a reduced interest rate on our borrowings, accruing savings of €10 billion. In parallel with these tangible achievements, we are increasing economic competitiveness, which is a sine qua non for creating employment. All the actions of this Government are concerted and strategic and they are part of a pattern of activity with the goal of creating jobs. This is a further important step. The businesses which do not have sufficient collateral or which have a unique idea can access funding because of the State guarantee. That is critical for them and it is very important when the assets do not stack up. That is the reality for many small and medium enterprises and it will make a huge difference.

It is interesting to note the statistic that €125 million lent to small enterprises has a net gain to the Exchequer of €25 million, due to unemployment assistance not being paid and the multiplier effect in the economy from taxes and so on. The impact of lending in this area is colossal. We all have enough anecdotal evidence from our clinics and from canvassing that the banks have not been lending as freely as is required by the small enterprises. This initiative will help that. Not only will it be valuable to those who access it, but also it will help to accelerate general lending, and that is an important consideration.

The legislation will empower the Minister to give a 75% loan guarantee. It will allow him to establish procedures for participating institutions, to establish a 2% premium charge by the participating borrowers, and to set up eligibility criteria. A review is possible at any time and a contractor will be assigned to oversee the scheme. These are the salient elements of the legislation, but the important thing is the money will come on stream for small businesses. The State will enter into an agreement with each lender and will accredit the lender to be part of the scheme for a three year period. I understand from the Minister’s speech that it will be reviewed after a year, and that is important.

In 2007, 90% of loan applications by SMEs were successful, but that was down to 50% in 2010. The level of applications was down from 37% in 2007 to 31% in 2010. Professor Honohan has said that credit conditions are tougher here than in any other eurozone member state, and that was the case up until the creation of this Bill. It is important to note, with reference to what Deputy Boyd Barrett said earlier, that there are lending targets for the banks and that they are being scrutinised. This Bill has been welcomed by Mr. Mark Fielding, the CEO of ISME, which is significant because the people in ISME are at the coalface and will be affected by it one way or another.

We all accept the basic thesis of Deputy Boyd Barrett and his colleagues that we need a stimulus. While there has been a level of it, we need increased stimulus. That is not in question, but where the Deputy and his colleagues get it wrong is that we have to create the conditions. [573] We had to win international confidence, we had to get the national finances in order, and we had to work in a strategic tactical fashion to arrive at a point where we would have the international confidence to get the stimulus in place. This is a good Bill, it is a step in the right direction and I hope it will work in practice. We will monitor that.

Deputy Damien English:  I welcome the chance to say a few words on this Bill, and I am glad the Minister has had a chance to bring it in. I know it was a complicated Bill to bring together, but it is something we have been talking about for a number of years and we should have had it as far back as 2008 and 2009 when it was needed immediately. It will still be very beneficial. It is still needed and Deputy Boyd Barrett is right in that respect. It is to be hoped this Bill will help close the gap where banks are afraid due to the risks involved, or when they cannot assess the risk, or whatever, and encourage extra lending. I have no doubt it will be successful. It has worked in other countries and is another small step that will make a difference.

I have said in opposition and I will say again now that businesses need credit. Credit is a tool of business. Almost all businesses cannot function unless there is access to credit. I accept there have been some improvements in the past year, but we still do not have enough improvements and there are still far too many businesses which cannot get the credit they need to survive week to week, do their business, create jobs and increase their turnover. I know this because I deal with people weekly, either as a Deputy in Navan or on the Oireachtas committee of which I am a member. I know of people who own businesses that have ideas, who have a chance to grow their business, who could do better and create more jobs, but who cannot get credit. I have met representatives of the banks in recent months, and while I can see there have been improvements, we need Bills such as this to force that improvement, because we simply have to get money out to businesses.

This Bill is one part of the jobs action plan. I think there are about 270 actions in that plan this year. Some of them are very basic. The managing director of Hewlett Packard was at our committee today and he made it very clear that even those basic things need to be done. For too long in this country, when it comes to business and enterprise, we have not been ticking those boxes. They have been ignored. We must get back to basics and get things right. That means cutting red tape and having access to money, information, planners and so on. The action plan for jobs focuses the minds of officials in every Department to think jobs and enterprise. I commend the Minister, the other Ministers who helped me and the Taoiseach on driving it on. This is part of it and it is needed.

There is an issue with the banks in respect of the skills base required to assess risk. I do not believe the banks have enough people with the skills needed to assess loans, to judge cash flow statements and to work it all out. That is why they are reluctant to lend, even when they have got money, because there is no doubt they have been recapitalised. They should have money and there is no excuse not to have money, but they have not got the ability or the skills in some areas to lend that money. This Bill, which takes some of the risk away from the banks, will encourage that, and one hopes we will see credit being given out more quickly.

Credit has to be given to viable businesses. There is no point in giving credit to businesses which are not viable and which do not have a market in which to operate. It has to be for businesses that have an opportunity and a chance in the future, and there are many of them. It is important that people realise there is hope for this country. We meet people of all ages every day with a new idea and a new business, and they have the guts to go out and try it. The Government is trying to help them get those ideas off the ground. They will do that and create jobs. We meet people every day whose businesses are beginning to grow again and who are creating jobs. There are now 11,000 extra jobs than there were a year ago, and yet most people we talk to on the doorstep do not know that. I accept 11,000 is a small amount compared with [574]more than 300,000 people with no job at all, but it is a step in the right direction as it is the first time in four years we have had growth.

  7 o’clock

It is about time we started talking about positive things. I have no problem dealing with negativity. I go through problems and answer queries and so on, but there is a duty on all Members of this House to let the people know there is some hope. This Bill will increase that hope. We have to sell the positivity and let people know about this. I ask every small business owner to engage fully with the process, whether in this scheme or even just with the banks. They should see the process through. They should not accept the telephone call telling them they will not get it. They should see it through, do the paperwork and make the application, and then we can follow it up to ensure it was dealt with properly, or find out why it was refused if it was refused. It is no longer acceptable to be taking a telephone call saying it will not be granted.

May I say one last thing on behalf of the Select Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation? The members of the select committee know this is an urgent matter and we will make arrangements to expedite Committee Stage of the Bill. We know this is an important Bill and we will deal with it as quickly as we can.

Deputy Kieran O’Donnell:  I am delighted to speak on the Bill.

Deputy Boyd Barrett made reference to public sector jobs in, for example, hospitals. I agree with what he said but we must not forget that enterprise provides the taxes to pay for public services. It is my fundamental view that we must support private enterprise. It provides jobs as well as taxes. It enables us to provide public services and to look after the less well-off and the vulnerable. People working in the public sector also contribute to the economy through their taxes.

The Bill will assist banks in providing credit to the SME sector. I agree that the banks should be lending more. They have become extremely risk averse. We have come from a situation where all bank lending to the SME sector was underpinned by property as security and there was not sufficient oversight of cash flows, business projections and project viability. Banks have now swung away from property related lending. The scheme to be established by the Bill specifically excludes property related lending, and that is good. We are getting back to the core of what the SME sector is about, which is showing a viable project.

As an accountant in my constituency of Limerick city, I worked for many years with the SME sectors. There is an old saying that cash is king. A business that does not have credit cannot survive. This is why I welcome the Bill. Based on projections, it will contribute to a gain of 1,344 jobs over the three years of the scheme, consisting of 1,020 direct jobs and 324 indirect. There will be a net Exchequer gain of more than €25 million. That is positive.

Banks have become so risk averse that marginal projects which should be getting funding are not being given it. The scheme will guarantee up to 75% of the value of a loan, it will apply to new lending and is completely geared to the SME sector.

Businesses that avail of the scheme will pay a premium to the State. It is extremely important, therefore, that banks do not put an interest loading on loans given under the scheme. Qualifying businesses should be charged the same competitive interest rate as loan applicants who are not availing of the scheme. I feel strongly about this. We must ensure that banks work within the spirit of the scheme and do not use it as a means of placing an interest loading on customers who badly need credit.

The loans given must facilitate business. We do not want to see people taking loans for too short a period. The scheme runs for three years and applicants may be anxious to have a three [575]year loan, although repayment in such a short time might put too much pressure on the business. The scheme should provide a cushion of an initial three years after which time a business should not need to have its loan guaranteed.

It is important that the maximum possible number of banks take up the scheme. Any bank that is involved in SME lending should be encouraged to apply for the scheme so that a broad range of businesses can be catered for. Every Deputy in the House has spoken to people who have good viable businesses but, because banks have become so risk averse, cannot get loans. The scheme will guarantee up to 75% of the value of a loan over a three year period. This puts it up to the banks to deal with business people and to lend to them.

The multinational sector is extremely important to the economy. It provides in excess of 200,000 jobs and is a huge contributor to growth and employment, certainly in the Limerick and mid-west region. Equally, the SME sector is the lifeblood of the economy. The issue most often raised by those working in the sector is access to credit. The banks will now have to step up to the plate. The Government is introducing a loan guarantee scheme and it is now up to the banks to lend in a transparent and proactive manner to the SME sector.

I have been calling for a scheme such as this for a long time, even when in opposition. We must support the SME sector. On a related matter, I have always felt the self-employed should be entitled to some form of job seeker’s payment. We must establish a model of fostering enterprise. Some businesses will not succeed. We must create a culture in which a person who sets up a business and fails is given the opportunity to try again. People learn much from being in business. Business owners who are forced out of business will probably not qualify for job seeker’s allowance, and if they do it will be a considerable time before they receive it. Such people go through a difficult time and many of them have young families.

The Bill contains a tapestry of measures to deal with the self-employed. One of its key measures is access to credit. I welcome the Bill. It is important that the banks do not put an interest loading on qualifying businesses. People are entitled to competitive interest rates. We need to ensure the scheme is administered efficiently so that the loans come through quickly. The scheme will lead to the provision of extra jobs and the further recovery of the economy. I salute all those self-employed people who are going through difficult times. I hope this measure will ensure many of them survive and will encourage many new entrepreneurs to set up their own businesses and contribute to the economy.

Deputy John McGuinness:  I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Bill and associated issues, including small businesses in this country. I welcome the Bill and what it sets out to do. It has been a long time in the making. While the Bill will assist with the provision of finance to small businesses in this country, it is not necessarily the answer to all their problems. We must reflect on what is happening currently and focus on the ISME research into the feelings of business people throughout the country and the actions of banks in regard to those businesses.

The issue was raised today and yesterday with the Taoiseach on the Order of Business. We have been talking about it since the crisis began a number of years ago. Nothing has been sorted out with the banks. The Minister made the point that this is no substitute for the regular business of lending by the banks, but there is no regular lending going on from banks to the small businesses of this country. That is the problem.

Regardless of what the previous Government did and, in particular, what the Government is doing in the current year, small businesses are not being approved for loans. That is what is happening. It is not just I who is saying it; it is the result of the quarterly banking watch conducted by a national business representative organisation in this country. We must ask what exactly the banks are doing with the €3.5 billion they are supposed to lend to small businesses. [576] We must ask what they were doing last year and the previous year. They have been calling in businesses throughout the country, restructuring their overdrafts into loans and describing it as new business. That is not new business. They have been grabbing lodgements made to businesses and offsetting them against loans rather than putting them into a current account and holding businesses to account in that way. That is not necessarily doing business as the Government set down for the banks in this House in terms of the money they received to fund the small businesses of this country. We should not tolerate it. Somebody must call in the banks. I am regularly told the Government calls in the banks and sets down the reasons they should lend. The Government gives the banks the money but small businesses are not getting it. One could ask how the economy could function properly and how jobs could be sustained or created on the basis of banks simply not banking. They are not acting as bankers to businesses in this country.

In the survey to which I referred, 92% of those surveyed said the Government action was having a negative impact, or no impact, on banks and their relationship with banks. We must understand that because by announcing the Bill and the money associated with it or the announcement again by the Taoiseach of the €3.5 billion for the two pillar banks, one is creating an expectation that in some way the problem will be solved when it is not being solved. Until the attitude of the banks is changed, they will not lend money to SMEs. What they are doing is correcting their own balance sheets, doing their own business and not lending money. That cannot continue. Everyone on all sides of the House has articulated that point of view. We are not making up the stories. We are giving the facts in the course of many debates in the House, yet nothing has happened. There is a great deal of activity but no action. That is not a political point. It is what is being said by small businesses throughout the country. They are looking for real action and real banking. Until they get that, this economy will perform poorly or not as well as it should and is not going anywhere in terms of job creation. We continuously await a new direction from Government or a new direction from the banks.

The Governor of the Central Bank, Mr. Honohan, has said the same thing, that this country is the most difficult place within Europe to get credit. The Central Bank is concerned there is very little competition in this country and that foreign banks have left the marketplace, which essentially leaves people to deal with AIB and Bank of Ireland. I do not know what they are telling the Minister but it cannot be the complete truth about small businesses because what small businesses are telling their business organisations, representative groups and Members of the House, and what the Taoiseach said today, is that banks simply are not lending. One could ask how long more this can go on.

A total of 700,000 people rely on jobs created by small businesses in this country. Small businesses include single entrepreneurs, families and businesses that are central to every community and parish in this country. They are telling us they cannot function because of the banks. Currently, most people involved in conducting a business – if they are lucky enough – are transacting in cash, not because they are avoiding tax, but because they are avoiding the banks. The banks in turn are getting substantial sums of taxpayers’ money and are not doing what they were told to do with the money. They are not supporting businesses.

I dispute the policy the Government is now to undertake on county enterprise boards. Bringing them under the remit of local authorities is the wrong step. There is no culture of entrepreneurship in local authorities. Let us examine what they have done. They privatised waste disposal because they could not do it themselves.

Deputy Sean Sherlock:  The memorandum of understanding has not been agreed yet.

[577]Deputy John McGuinness:  Everywhere there was money to be made, they outsourced it. They got rid of it because they could not manage it. Now we are asking local authorities to do the work of the county enterprise boards.

Deputy Sean Sherlock:  The Deputy is being a bit premature.

Deputy John McGuinness:  Why do we not leave them alone and give county enterprise boards substantial funding in order that people can access the funding directly and deal with county enterprise boards which understand local needs? Credit unions seem to understand their client base much better in terms of their business needs by comparison with banks. Why do we not allow them to do that business? Why is it that this debate goes on in an endless way with very little happening to support those businesses of which we are all so proud?

It is time for the Government to think differently about relying on the two pillar banks and to take into consideration the much more effective way of dealing with the issue through current structures such as county enterprise boards and credit unions. Why do we not create that alternative space in the market for those businesses to engage with? They are grossly misunderstood by the banks which almost refuse to give a decision in some cases. I am aware of business people whose application is with the bank for the past 18 months with no decision. I can give a list of such cases. Businesses do not function like that. They have to function on the basis of being able to decide in reaction to the market or by leading the market in an immediate fashion knowing that they either have a loan or an overdraft to do the business. They cannot do that anymore, and not because they have a bad business – I do not expect anyone to support a poor business idea. We should support businesses in a different and more direct way. The Bill goes some way towards providing a resolution but the Government has a lot more work to do.

Deputy Dara Calleary:  I welcome the publication of this Bill and pay tribute to the Minister and his Ministers of State for their persistence in bringing it to the floor of the House. Work on the legislation began under a former Minister, Batt O’Keeffe, but the persistent blockage to which it was subjected came, as with so many other measures, not from the sponsoring Department but from the Department of Finance. The latter simply does not comprehend the real world and how serious the situation is, not only for small businesses but for everybody in this country. Its stake in the so-called rescue of our banks and their return to a feasible situation means the Department of Finance is blind to the reality of our domestic economy. By focusing on restoring our banking system at all costs, it will continue to be blind. Against that opposition, credit must be given to the ministerial team at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation for bringing the legislation thus far. However, I remain sceptical, in view of that opposition, as to whether this scheme will see the light of day. I am concerned that it will end up, like other schemes, choked by administrative and other obstructions. It will be a good day for business when we see people actually receiving money under the scheme.

It is important to note the finding — provided not by the Fianna Fáil research office but by the Central Bank — that in the first nine months of 2011, €1.6 billion was issued in new loans to the small and medium-sized enterprise sector. The banks have pointed to this headline sum as evidence of the great job they are doing in regard to new lending. What they are not telling us, however, is that in the same period, they withdrew €2.4 billion in funding by closing existing credit facilities. For example, a business owner who seeks to renew his or her overdraft is informed that it is being converted into a term loan. Likewise, cashflow loans, stocking loans and so on, facilities that were always previously available to businesses, are instead offered as term loans, if at all, and overdraft limits are halved. This is not the fault of local branches whose staff are familiar with their customers’ needs. Instead we now have a bizarre, Russian [578]politburo-style central decision-making process whereby everything is done on a form. In contrast to the madness in lending that went on for many years, we are now at the other extreme where the lack of lending and withdrawal of credit facilities are bringing businesses throughout the State to the brink of closure.

I do not doubt the Government’s good intentions in bringing forward this Bill, but the reality is that it is too late for the tens of thousands of SMEs which, in the two years it has taken the Department of Finance to get its act together and provide funding for these provisions, have had to shut up shop for want of credit. Many of these were solid businesses that were operating for generations and had already come through very difficult economic times. Their failure in recent months and years is a consequence of the inability to access the traditional forms of bank lending that are the oil of any economy. Against this background these provisions are to be welcomed, but we must wait to see what happens after they get through the House and past the great purveyors on Merrion Street.

As other speakers observed, we have no problem talking the talk in regard to SMEs. There is no doubt that we are having a very good year in terms of foreign direct investment, with several excellent announcements in recent months, to be followed, we all hope, by more. However, the real powerhouse of this economy is the small business sector. It is the companies throughout the State which employ as few as five, three or even one member of staff that are keeping the country going. Yet there is no trumpeting of their achievement in managing to keep their doors open despite the bizarre odds stacked against them. Some, for example, are faced with rents that were negotiated back in 2005 or 2006. As a consequence of the ancient property law enshrined in our Constitution, we are afraid to take on that situation. The proposed constitutional convention will discuss a range of important social issues, but here is an issue that is closing businesses down and leading to job losses. Once again, it comes back to the Department of Finance and its mother ship, the National Asset Management Agency, which tells us nothing can be done on upward-only rent reviews.

We all, Government and Opposition, must start walking the walk when it comes to providing support to SMEs. It is not good enough to participate in a debate on this issue every few months in which we merely outline our concerns and then return to our constituency offices to pull our hair out in an effort to deal with the problems facing small businesses. One of these problems is rates. The basis of the rating system in this country is to be found in pre-independence times. The Government has indicated its intention to undertake a re-rating of every property in the country. That will take ten years to complete and, knowing how these matters proceed, will probably be based on 2005 or 2006 values which are entirely unrealistic. Local authorities do not have the capacity to offer flexibility in the form, for instance, of offering new businesses a rate remission for one or two years and attaching that remission to employment targets. As a result, many businesses are not even getting off the ground. The working capital is there to get them through but because of these rates, for which they receive nothing in return, they cannot get up and running.

Will the Minister of State indicate who will be responsible for running the scheme? Will it be the banks or will there be some type of independent mechanism for that purpose? With all due respect to the Credit Review Office, it is simply not hitting the target because it is not taken seriously by the banks. One is put in mind of the teacher who puts on a good show on the day of the school inspector’s visit before reverting top type the following day. The Credit Review Office says its targets are being met, but its calculations are based on credit approvals. As Deputy McGuinness observed, it is all very well for banks to say they sanctioned such and such a credit facility but, in reality, they are demanding as security an applicant’s left arm, right leg and, for good measure, the family home if it has not been taken already. There is an [579]enormous difference between credit approval and credit draw-down, a difference which is found in the comparison between the €1.6 billion issued in new loans and the withdrawal of €2.4 billion in existing credit facilities.

If the Credit Review Office is to be taken seriously by the banks and the SME sector it must change how it does it business, part of which is to report what is actually happening as opposed to accepting the pronouncements of mission control at bank headquarters. If the banks have control of the day-to-day running of this scheme they will simply reassure us, a year or so after it is established, that they are lending the amount they undertook to provide, but they will not tell us the conditions attaching to that lending. They will not tell us how much money they have withdrawn from other business facilities as a result of being able to hide behind the funding allocated under this initiative. Whatever authority is charged with arbitrating the scheme must have robust powers, the necessary resources and staff who know what it is like to work in the private sector, who understand the pressures of having to keep one’s door open and pay one’s staff while forgoing one’s own salary because there is no money left. Those charged with rolling out the scheme must have experience at the coalface of the small business sector. Only then will there be the possibility of it having the impact that is required in terms of job creation. Only in those circumstances can the initiative have a chance of instilling a culture of respect for the endeavours of small business.

SMEs fail for many reasons. We must ensure the supports are in place to get them back on the horse. Government policy — not just party policy — must change in order to take the small business sector seriously and give small business owners the break they need. This legislation represents a small start in that direction, but I am concerned that it will be mangled by the system before it can be put into operation. The scheme includes several restrictions which are unfriendly to some sectors. For instance, the agricultural sector is being talked up as the great saviour of the economy, yet these proposals do very little for small food businesses. I genuinely hope to be surprised by how this scheme works out in practice. Until then, however, I am obliged to be sceptical.

Debate adjourned.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Seanad Éireann has passed the Education (Amendment) Bill 2012, without amendment.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade has completed its consideration of the following Revised Estimates for public services for the year ending 31 December 2012: Vote 27 — International Co-operation and Vote 28 — Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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

Deputy Seamus Healy:  I welcome the Bill and also the indication from the Government that it will take into consideration the items raised in it when amending the Central Bank [580](Supervision and Enforcement) Bill currently before the Oireachtas. That is a welcome development.

The debt management industry has flourished in the years since the recession took hold. However, it is completely unregulated. Because it is such a sensitive issue, significant regulation by the Central Bank is required to ensure those who are forced to use these services know that they are above board and that they will not find themselves in an even worse position after using them. A significant number of individuals and organisations providing debt management services were previously in the business of organising mortgages and, in many cases, used dubious methods to ensure mortgage applications were successful, which often resulted in difficulties for borrowers. Now, in providing debt management services, they are getting a second bite of the cherry. This is an industry that needs regulation and it is reasonable to suggest the regulating authority should be the Central Bank and that these debt agencies and advisers should be licensed or authorised.

Another aspect that results in difficulties for those who avail of these services is that there is no indication at the beginning of the fees to be charged for the services provided. Often, people find themselves in further financial difficulties after using debt management advisers. Sometimes advisers ask clients who are not au fait with the procedures to pay by direct debit, with the first number of payments going directly to them as fees. This issue needs to be dealt with.

A related issue, one that is important, is mortgage interest supplement. This scheme needs to be re-examined and the 30 hour work rule should be abolished. It would also be helpful if legal actions were precluded while mortgage interest supplement was being paid and if mortgage payments were interest-only during that period.

I thank other agencies involved in this general area, including the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, and the credit unions, as well as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The Minister should examine the position of the MABS which is under severe pressure and has neither the resources nor the staff to deal with its current workload. I am aware of this from numerous calls to my constituency office, as are other Members of the House. I ask the Minister to consider this issue.

Deputy Tom Fleming:  I welcome the Bill and compliment Deputy Michael McGrath and his colleagues on their excellent recommendations. I am sure the Government will agree with the main thrust of what is being presented. According to up-to-date figures, approximately 71,000 mortgage accounts are over 90 days in arrears, while a further 36,000 are the subject of repayment schedules with the banks. These statistics are increasing steadily by the week. In the Bill we need to ensure we have a robust system overseen by the Central Bank and that people can repay debt in a meaningful, representative and humane way.

One report published more than 12 months ago by the European Union and the Council of Europe concluded that a high level of consumer credit was not necessarily an indication of debt problems. The same report attributed the problem of indebtedness to unforeseen events such as unemployment, illness and changes in family circumstances. The problem of repayment capacity is likely to deteriorate for some time as spiralling costs take their toll, including increases in mortgage repayments, fuel costs, child care and utility bills. For example, I have been informed by some constituents who are customers of Electric Ireland that when they were 15 days in arrears, the company hired a UK debt collection company to contact them. This is an extreme action. We urgently need regulation and legislation to protect consumers from actions such as these taken by this company which is pursuing its customers in an aggressive manner. If an instant response is not forthcoming, customers are threatened with disconnection. [581] This is a harsh action, particularly in wintry conditions, when people are left high and dry without a service to their households.

The MABS is the best model for a debt advisory service. It provides assistance which is free, confidential, independent and non-judgmental, and acts in a prompt and efficient manner. It works with its clients by supporting them, drawing up realistic budgets and maximising their incomes. I urge the Government to consider locating additional MABS offices countrywide to the 60 currently operating. In County Kerry there is only one such office which is based in Tralee. Its staff are under pressure, weighed down by continuous demands on its scarce resources. There is an immediate need for at least one more office in the country. I suggest this could be strategically located in Killarney to cater for the southern and eastern parts of the county. I commend the MABS for the fact that there are four offices located in County Donegal, as well as four in Cork city and county. This ensures the public in these expansive counties have good access to services. As County Kerry is of similar size and has similar terrain, I ask the Government to address this deficiency as a matter of urgency.

I welcome the inclusion of the Law Reform Commission’s proposals in the Bill. In the debate on residential mortgage debt in this Chamber on 4 May 2011, I advocated that legislation be enacted to adopt some of the excellent recommendations in the commission’s report to reform our debt laws radically. Twelve months later, nothing has been done. The most relevant recommendations in the commission’s report, which are included in this Bill, are paramount if there is to be a radical overhaul of existing insolvency law, which is better suited to Elizabethan times. There are some excellent recommendations and I hope they will be adopted. I hope the Bill will be passed.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:  Deputy Heather Humphreys is sharing her time with Deputies Jim Daly, Peter Mathews, Eamonn Maloney, Liam Twomey, Michelle Mulherin and Simon Harris.

Deputy Heather Humphreys:  I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Regulation of Debt Management Advisors Bill 2011. I commend Deputy Michael McGrath on introducing it as it provides us with an opportunity to discuss the difficulties many are experiencing with debt management. We are all well aware of the financial difficulties people are encountering. This problem is not unique to any county or area as people are struggling throughout the country. The nature of the collapse, in Ireland in particular, has meant many have been left with unsustainable debt. Prime examples include young couples who bought their homes at the height of the boom and who may have lost their jobs subsequently. They now face the prospect of having to make mortgage repayments they cannot afford on a house in negative equity. These are the people who are in extreme difficulty and who genuinely need help. I welcome that, since taking office, the Government has sought to address the matter. The introduction of the personal insolvency Bill will provide some light at the end of the tunnel in this regard.

Not wanting to talk about one’s financial struggles is an inherently Irish trait. Rather than addressing the problem, we ignore it. As the saying goes, one can hide poverty but one cannot hide wealth. People are embarrassed about having to ask for advice on their finances. In some instances, they do not even know who to ask for help. It is when people are most desperate and vulnerable that unprincipled debt management agencies are able to attract them. People need to be made fully aware that they have other options.

MABS has a long-standing and excellent record of assisting people in difficult financial circumstances. It is important this organisation’s experience and skills be used to good effect when progressing the matter of debt management. We must build on the strength of MABS and further expand its excellent service. When I was a credit union manager, I worked closely [582]with MABS and gained first-hand experience of its great work and the respect it enjoys from both clients and creditors. MABS takes an holistic approach to debt management and considers all the issues that need to be addressed.

I ask the Minister to consider appointing a team of debt management advisers to enhance further the skill set and capacity of MABS. These advisers could work under and within the MABS structure and sign up to the operating principles, culture and not-for-profit ethos of the organisation. As part of the MABS structure, they would comprise an independent and impartial resource for people in financial difficulty to call upon. Their role would be to negotiate with the banks on behalf of people in financial difficulty. These advisers would have an accredited qualification to enable them to deal with the more complex and difficult financial circumstances in which many people find themselves. These advisers could be appointed by the Department of Social Protection and funded by the banks. The reason I am recommending they be funded by the banks is that, as we all know, early intervention can often prevent much more serious and costly steps, such as legal action. It would be in the banks’ interest to have a mutually agreed solution that is workable and achievable to avoid unnecessary legal action.

There are other private providers of debt management services and it is important they be properly regulated in the interest of those who use them. In this regard, I welcome the objective of this Bill, which is to ensure the effective regulation of the debt management sector. I fully support this and welcome that the Government has included a provision in regard to the regulation of debt management as part of its Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Bill 2011. I commend the Minister on his work to date on this matter and urge him to continue to monitor the problem. People are in distress over their personal finances and we must not allow them to feel isolated or abandoned.

Deputy Jim Daly:  Cuirim fáilte roimh deis labhartha ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. Tá sé an-tábhachtach go ndéanfaimid ár ndícheall gach uile rud a dhéanamh do na daoine i gceist. I welcome very much the opportunity to contribute on this important debate. A very sensible and practical approach has been taken by Deputy Michael McGrath in proposing this Bill. This is usual for the Deputy and I commend him on it. It is fair to say all sides of the House are in agreement on this issue. I am pleased consumers’ interests are at the core of the Bill.

As a Member of Parliament in a country with the highest ratio of indebtedness among all the countries in the OECD, I believe it is timely we deal with the massive issue of personal debt. Was it Rahm Emanuel who said one should never waste a good crisis? The debt management companies have reacted to our unfortunate circumstances and they have grown in strength. Unfortunately, their trade has multiplied in recent years. It is all the more important, therefore, that strict and durable regulation be introduced in this area.

The consumers we are seeking to protect in this Bill are the most vulnerable citizens. Those who are forced to go to debt management agencies are at a very low ebb, are very vulnerable and can become victims very easily. These consumers are primarily people who are already failing to manage their own financial portfolios. They go to someone they can trust for professional advice to help them to budget to ensure they always have sufficient funding to pay everyday bills, such as utility bills and mortgage repayments.

Last year, a number of cases arose when organisations such as Home Payments Limited went bust. The small amounts of money people had given in trust to such private firms were effectively stolen from them. Firms that went bust had not got the funds to pay the utility bills on behalf of their customers, thus leaving them with the double whammy of debt. They were really let down by this sector of professional businesses and also by the legislation in place that [583]allowed these types of businesses to go insolvent at an enormous financial costs to their customers.

As Deputy McGrath will be aware, I welcome the fact the Minister has published, for consultation, the heads of legislation to deal with the regulation of debt management. The associated material was published on the Department’s website on 24 April this year. It indicates the willingness of the Government to deal with this issue and affords an opportunity to strengthen the existing legislation, which is insufficient.

I wholeheartedly welcome regulation by the Central Bank of this sector of business. It is vital that consumers’ interests in cases such as these be regarded as paramount at all times. I would like to see in place a system, such as a bond system akin to that of insurance companies, that would operate at all times within limits, and with adequate protections and funding to cover the costs of unforeseen or negative circumstances that could arise in regard to private firms offering the kinds of services in question to customers.

It is wrong that people who in good faith give their money, sometimes all or most of it, to debt management services in the belief the latter will pay their bills when they should be paid find out not only that their bills are not paid but also that the money they are giving, which can be between €500 and €700 per month, will never be seen again. It ought to be the case that if a firm managing people’s money ends up insolvent and must be liquidated, there is an adequate bond or insurance cover in place to protect the consumer at all times. It is vital the consumer be protected. This Bill will largely address that, as will the proposals the Minister has brought to the Government for the regulation of the firms in question. These were published for consultation in April on the Department’s website.

Deputy Peter Mathews:  I congratulate Deputy Michael McGrath on bringing forward this Bill. I commend him, in particular, because he brings his knowledge, experience and qualifications to bear on an area where the country and its people are hurting to a significant extent.

I was delighted to hear the excellent contributions of Members last night. I stayed in the House for an hour and a half and I must say Deputy Michael McGrath’s colleagues in Fianna Fáil, Deputies Calleary, Sean Fleming, Browne and Cowen, made excellent contributions in support of his Bill, as did, from our side, Deputies Tom Hayes and Buttimer and Deputy Ciara Conway of the Labour Party, and also Deputy Pearse Doherty of Sinn Féin. What came out of all of their contributions were the human stories and the hurt, tantamount almost to a nervous breakdown, that people are under such pressure. We heard about gas and electricity being cut off, and then these slick guys coming in and taking advantage, by up-front fees, by sloppy advice and by hijacking the perilous position of their clients. It needed to be addressed straightaway.

On why I support the Bill — I note the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, has the amendments on Committee Stage coming through on the Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Bill 2011 — this is really reaching a crisis point and it deserves the utmost attention and to be dealt with comprehensively, including all aspects of advice, money management, money transmission, probity of those involved in these businesses and the correct operation of companies and partnerships, activities addressed both by Deputy Michael McGrath’s Bill and by the amendments to the Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Bill 2011.

The Bill encapsulates some of the headline aspects of what happened in the Home Payments Limited case. Customers were using Home Payments Limited for almost 50 years to help them, supposedly, manage their household budget. Last August they arrived at the premises to read a note on the window informing them it had ceased operating with immediate effect. The company collapsed owing its customers more than €6 million. Twenty-three of its customers [584]were owed more than €10,000. Home Payments Limited had used its customers’ funds to invest in ten properties. Comments from customers sum up that situation. A customer was quoted as asking who gave them permission to spend his money on anything other than paying bills. Another customer stated that the directors should be arrested because if somebody gave him money to pay a bill and he did not do it, he would be arrested for sure. It is those typical stories that lead me to support the objectives of this Private Members’ Bill.

It is an area that must be tightly regulated. I note the Minister will examine the proposals in Deputy Michael McGrath’s Private Members’ Bill and will ensure its objectives are taken into account in the proposed Government Committee Stage amendments. I congratulate Deputy Michael McGrath for bringing forward the Bill, particularly because it is the area where he has relevant and qualified experience and expertise.

Deputy Eamonn Maloney:  I want to be associated with Deputy Mathews’s remarks about supporting in principle Deputy Michael McGrath’s Bill.

The business of this Dáil, in its 15 months, unlike any previous Dáil — I am not here that long — is in its nature almost dominated by discussing credit or regulation. It is where we are after four or five years of a fairly depressing collapse.

I suppose, for a country as young as Ireland, people will always refer to legislators and ask why there is not a Bill to do this or legislation to that, but we had never gone through previously what we have gone through. We are in a post-Celtic tiger period. No doubt, Deputy Michael McGrath’s amendments will not be the last with which this House will deal because it is fairly new territory.

I will not repeat points that have been made by others, including Deputy Mathews. I have no difficulty whatsoever in principle with the advisers in receipt of remuneration, and the amendments refer to that. Most of us have no difficulty with that, provided, of course, as was pointed out, that it is properly regulated and that it is seen to be fair and transparent.

The other point, more dear to my heart and which has been mentioned by others, is the issue of debt management and budgeting. I want to praise the work of MABS, which is a wonderful organisation. It has done great work in the past, particularly for those who would be at the bottom of the social ladder, principally the working class who in many cases would be on or below the industrial wage. In many cases, MABS has been the first port of call for many politicians like myself in guiding constituents to resolve financial problems. I mention MABS for that reason. Whatever about legislation in future and however this Bill turns out at the end, in resolving the issue that Deputy Michael McGrath has raised it is important that MABS plays a central role and that the State recognises, above all, the expertise of MABS and that such expertise is used by the State, especially given that it is taxpayers who fund MABS. I compliment MABS on its work. Perhaps we are not as fulsome in recognising and appreciating the work it has done.

Deputy Simon Harris:  I begin, as other Members did, by thanking Deputy Michael McGrath and his party for putting forward this Bill, which is worthy of serious consideration. I am glad the Government is giving it that.

This Bill follows on from work done by Government, which has already been outlined by various Ministers over the course of this debate, on regulating debt advice, budgeting and management through the Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Bill 2011, on which there is ongoing consultation.

Frankly, any member of the public, any hard-pressed taxpayer, any struggling homeowner and families gathered round a kitchen table tonight do not care from which side of the House [585]proposals come on this issue. They want action. The debate over the course of tonight and last night has been very much based on that, taking a bipartisan and proactive approach, and I thank Deputy Michael McGrath for the opportunity to contribute to this debate by his tabling of this Bill.

The Irish people want, need and deserve assurances that any cowboy antics, any attempt by persons to make a quick buck on the backs of the difficulties of others, will not be tolerated. I hope that tonight we further advance sending that strong message out from Parliament.

When we have this discussion about regulating debt it is also important that we have it in the context of the reason we are experiencing such an issue with debt regulation and with people having to go to those who all too often act in a cowboy fashion. It is because of the considerable burden of debt being faced by the Irish people. We have significant conversations in this House about billions of euro — it is all about billions of euro these days — but new figures provided by the Central Bank, which were the subject of coverage by the media yesterday, provide evidence of the significant burden being shouldered by ordinary families in the context of debt.

According to those figures, the average debt for every man, woman and child in this country stands at €41,000. While this is down from €47,400 four years ago, which shows clearly that people are doing their very best to chip away at their debts, it is still remains significantly above the EU average. Irish households now owe debts amounting to €184.5 billion. For every €100 earned in income by Irish people, €200 is owed in debt. The EU average in this regard is €130.

People are experiencing great difficulties. While I support the proposals contained in this Bill and those which are available on the website of the Department of Finance, we must get serious in the context of ensuring the regulations being put in place are enforced. We have a great history of introducing legislation and not enforcing it. The banking crisis and this country’s economy going down the Swanee were not the result of a lack of laws on the Statute Book but rather due to a failure to enact the relevant provisions. In addition, the regulators failed to regulate. That is quite an important point.

Deputy Maloney referred to the excellent work being done by MABS, funded through the Citizens Information Service. MABS is overloaded with work at present. As a result, hard-pressed families that would normally go to MABS as a first point of call are, in desperation, resorting to seeking help from those who may not have their best interests at heart and who are more concerned with making money. The Government should do everything possible — I know the Minister of State will share my view in this regard — to support organisations such as MABS in their work.

  8 o’clock

There is a need to implement the recommendations in the Keane report with regard to assisting families to mediate with banks in respect of mortgage arrears. The mediators who are appointed must have real powers. At our weekly clinics, we all meet people who are trying to negotiate with the banks. Many banks are acting in a responsible, helpful and constructive manner but it is very intimidating for people to be obliged to negotiate with their banks. I refer to people who have never perhaps been in a position whereby they have been obliged to negotiate in respect of their family homes. We must give these individuals the support they require and I encourage the Minister for Finance to fast-track the proposals contained in the Keane report in respect of the appointment of mediators. Such a development would be very welcome.

Those who are in a difficult position, who are the subject of legal action as a result of their debts and who cannot pay for private legal representation are now approaching the Legal Aid Board. When they do so, they are advised they will be obliged to wait months before legal aid is provided. My constituency has the awful accolade of having the longest waiting list in the [586]country in this regard. These are practical matters with which the State must deal, above and beyond ensuring regulations are enforced. It must see to it the practical tools required are put in place. While I fully welcome the Bill, I feel I must make that point.

The credit union movement has been very supportive in the context of helping families in every community on this island that may not have been able to access credit from other sources and also in respect of dealing with debt in a compassionate manner. It is very important the Government and the House should send out a message to credit unions which are intent on supporting communities and which will work in a compassionate, rather than a commercial, manner to negotiate in respect of people’s debts. At the credit union movement’s annual conference, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, indicated credit unions will continue to be supported and stated they occupy a crucial position in Irish society.

Deputy Michael McGrath introduced a Bill to amend the legislation relating to the financial Ombudsman. Again, this was another common-sense measure which received support from all sides of the House. However, a long period elapsed between the financial Ombudsman seeking an extension to his powers and the relevant legislation eventually being introduced in the Dáil. It is 2012 and we are debating a matter in respect of which the Law Reform Commission made recommendations in 2009. There is a need for the political parties, this Parliament and the Government to engage in a discussion about what should be done with the advice we request from experts and independent organisations. Families cannot afford to wait three years for a Government, regardless of its hue, to implement the recommendations contained in particular reports. That is something of which we must be conscious in the context of our work.

I welcome the fact the Government published proposals in respect of debt regulation on the Department of Finance’s website. However, there is a need for the Government and the State to consider new ways — through social media or whatever — of promoting the consultation periods that apply in respect of such proposals. How many people are aware the Government’s proposals on debt regulation are available on the Department’s website? I was not aware they were there until I began researching my contribution to this debate. If we are genuine about consultation, it cannot simply be a matter of lobbing the relevant information onto the Department’s website, establishing a consultation period and then saying that when the latter closes, the box has been ticked. If we really want to elicit people’s opinions and read details of the type of human stories to which some Deputies have referred, we should consider doing everything possible to promote the concept of consultation. There would be no need to go to extravagant cost, and the new technologies the Government is beginning to embrace would provide an opportunity in this regard.

I again thank Deputy Michael McGrath for tabling this Bill and I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the debate on it. I look forward to seeing the Government advance the proposals it contains on Committee Stage.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae:  I am sharing time with Deputies McConalogue and Ó Cuív. I thank Deputy Michael McGrath for and compliment him on bringing forward the Bill. I also thank his party for providing me with the opportunity to speak.

This legislation is very important for everyone in Ireland. The area relating to debt management and advice and household budgeting services is entirely unregulated at present and is giving rise to growing concerns. This sector has expanded greatly in recent years as personal debt levels have increased substantially. Many distressed borrowers signed up to seemingly attractive offerings of some providers in this area and subsequently found themselves in further financial trouble and in a less secure position.

[587]It is stated in section 11 of the Bill: “It shall be an offence for a debt management advisor to receive from or hold on behalf of a consumer to whom it is providing debt management advice any monies other than monies paid by the consumer for the provision of debt management advice.” If such a provision had been in place, the events to which Deputy Mathews referred and which occurred last year would never have taken place. On radio last summer, people recounted stories about what had happened to them and about how they had been so badly treated by those who were supposed to help them. That really highlighted the situation in which we find ourselves. In the intervening 12 months, the position has become much worse. Deputies, Senators, councillors and everyone else who is trying to help and advise members of the public experiencing difficulties at present is aware of the true extent of the hardships being experienced.

When it gets dark this evening, there are many houses throughout the country in which people will not be able to turn on their lights because they have no electricity. In others, home heating oil tanks are empty. These are the conditions in which people are living in the Ireland of 2012. This is why treating people who are in debt with respect is very important. I do not like tarring everyone with the same brush but I am very angry with some of those who advanced loans and massive mortgages to people and who encouraged them to accrue huge debts. Those to whom I refer are now not being helpful in the context of putting in place a proper framework to allow people to deal with their debts. Instead, they are harassing and haranguing people and that is why there is so much anger. Young couples who were previously doing their best, who each had jobs and who wanted to better themselves and their families were encouraged by the banks and everyone else to get on the train lest they be left behind. They did what they were advised to do and they have been left with massive debts which they are struggling to pay. As a result of this, they have been willing to turn to anyone whom they think would be in a position to help them. Unscrupulous individuals have taken advantage of them and tried to make money out of their misfortune. That is why the work done by Deputy Michael McGrath and several of his colleagues in drafting this Bill is so important. Solid regulation by the Central Bank is of vital importance. People have to be helped and encouraged to work their way out of debt and many will do so if they are given a chance. However, a one-shoe-fits-all solution is impossible to achieve as everyone’s personal circumstances are completely different. Having been involved in many such cases, I have seen debt management advisers who are genuine and good at their job help people to get out of their debt problems. However, one has to be willing to do so. Those who gave the money in the first instance also have to be willing and flexible enough to ensure different programmes are put in place and proper advice is given.

There has been much talk about mortgage and personal debt. There is another category which was raised several months ago by the other Deputy McGrath.

Deputy Michael McGrath:  Which one — Finian or Mattie?

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae:  Mattie. It concerns the repossession of machinery from farmers and contractors. Certain individuals were going into farmers’ and contractors’ yards in the middle of the night, like a thief, breaking locks, opening machines, loading them up and traipsing out of the yards as quickly as they could. In some cases, in the excitement and frenzy, machines were taken to which there were no debts attached and had to be returned. This issue has to be highlighted. Just because an individual owes an institution money, it does not mean that institution has the right to treat him or her like a criminal. It is not a criminal offence to have tried to better oneself, whether through purchasing a house, an apartment, farm machinery or machinery for hire. Such individuals were only trying to work, make a living for themselves and create employment for others. I do not want to tarnish everyone involved in banking as there are great people working in lending institutions. However, bank managers and bank [588]employees must realise those who owe money must be treated with respect and consideration. They have families and are trying every day to survive. It is incumbent on every Member to make sure they are treated with the respect they deserve.

People in debt get depressed and down and feel the whole world is closing in on them when the threatening letters arrive from the banks. It is no wonder the incidence of suicide is on the increase. Families are being put to the pin of their collars. Young people going to school need to have proper clothing and schoolbooks, yet their parents are struggling. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy John Perry, on his contribution last night which was positive, as one would expect. I compliment all Members for uniting in this common cause of protecting those in debt who are in vulnerable positions. It is our job to protect and support them, while putting the scoundrels off the road who, like leeches, are trying to make money out of other people’s misfortune. The Bill will go a long way towards ensuring we will not have similar occurrences to that outlined by Deputy Peter Mathews involving a company which last year did awful things to genuine people, leaving them in the lurch and taking their money for wrongful purposes.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue:  I commend my colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, for introducing the Regulation of Debt Management Advisors Bill in Private Members’ time. The importance of the issue being addressed in the Bill is reflected in the fact that the Government is willing to incorporate the legislation in a forthcoming Central Bank Bill, which is a worthy approach. It is entirely appropriate when the Opposition comes up with constructive proposals that the Government is willing to take them on board. This could have happened more before now, but it is welcome that in this instance the Government has decided to take this approach.

The Bill addresses an industry that requires regulation and which the Government has not addressed since it took office. Debt management advisers and companies have been operating unregulated and, in some cases, preying on people already in desperate straits. There have been many instances of companies drawing on people’s worries and, as a result, making a profit from them. One company, advertising on the Internet, stated it could reduce clients’ debts by thousands of euro, even by up to 50%. It was taking money in from people to do this and then simply vanished. The Central Bank advised all of the company’s clients to cease all payments but for many, the damage had already been done.

The Bill will ensure those who find themselves in an already difficult position with their debts will not be subject to an unregulated part of the financial sector. Now more than ever, people are desperately seeking advice on how they can turn things around. This is from where the growth of the debt management industry and debt advisers stems. The Debt Management Association of Ireland states all clients in debt must be dealt with in a professional, compassionate and effective manner and helped to become debt free as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, as in many unregulated areas, one sees some good and bad practices. The people, unfortunately, have experienced the bad again with some debt management advisers.

No one can blame the public for being naturally drawn to these offers of financial stability and sound advice. People will not visit the Central Bank’s website to check if their adviser has been approved, presuming these companies are already being monitored and regulated, which is not an outlandish presumption. Instead, they are drawn in with false promises and left with more debt, stress and worry. This could have been avoided had more emphasis been placed on the Money Advice and Budgeting Service by the Government while ensuring the excellent service it provided was properly resourced. However, the service has been put under strain. By virtue of the fact that the private debt management advisory sector is unregulated, people have been lured by much more glamorous promises made by private debt management advisers. The reality is that many are suffering in a way they never did in the past. We should ensure [589]there is a well resourced State debt management service available as the first point of contact. Over 1 million people owe money, a figure which, unfortunately, is growing, yet the Minister stated only 30,000 had availed of the services of MABS last year. That is why the Bill states that debt management companies must make the people seeking their advice aware of the services offered by the Money Advice and Budgeting Service.

This Bill ensures debt management advisers will be regulated financially and client funds will no longer be controlled by such companies. Similarly, a client will no longer have to pay up-front a fee for advice or end up further in debt as a result of seeking advice from these companies. The industry has proved it cannot regulate itself, which is unfortunate for those who operate in an ethical manner. Experience tells us that when one is in a sector that handles money, there must be regulation by the State. The need for training within the industry is also vital for its future, and this Bill suggests that a financial adviser qualification be a necessity for those who want to work in the field. Currently, there are few or no entry requirements in becoming a financial adviser, and our measure will ensure that people serving the public offer a service that might, in some way, improve their position. That is why it is so important that the Bill is in front of us.

I mentioned before that a survey in 2011 indicated that over 1.5 million Irish people owe money on an unsecured credit product, such as a credit card or personal loan, with approximately 250,000 in arrears now. Worryingly, approximately 93,000 people were three months or more behind on payments in that survey, which also highlighted the growing debt problem among those who are unemployed, with 40% of unemployed people behind in debt repayments. This is the current scenario facing the country, and it is a poor reflection on us in many ways that it is only now that we are coming to deal with regulating the sector. With a little bit more prior planning and forward thinking, we should have been aware that such regulation was required.

In towns and villages around the country estate agent offices are in many cases being replaced by people offering financial management advice, and that reality will not change in the very near future. Part of the problem stems from the urgent need for the Government to get its head around how it will assist those people with personal debt, credit or mortgage arrears problems. The banking debt has had to be addressed, partly because of pressure from Europe that left us no option, but we have kicked the can of mortgage debt down the road for a period. There are people out there in serious positions, as many cannot pay down debt and others can afford to pay it but are facing a lifetime in a job with the majority of disposable income going to feed a mortgage debt. Poor timing and bad luck would have led to such people taking on that debt.

I commend the Minister of State for accepting this Bill and I urge him to ensure it is progressed quickly within the Government’s legislation. It is the least we can do for the people in debt who may require debt advisers in the coming time.

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Deputy Brian Hayes):  I congratulate, on behalf of the Government, Deputy Michael McGrath and his colleagues on this very positive Private Members’ Bill that was introduced last night. I believe it has been accepted on a cross-party basis. The Deputy has made a habit of putting forward Bills that are being accepted by the Government and he is probably more prodigious in producing legislation than we are on this side currently, which is important. It is indicative of the Deputy’s very positive approach, rather than the grandstanding seen in others.

By having this legislation before the House, pressure is being put on the Government to bring forward the necessary amendments to the legislation currently in the consultation process, the Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Bill. The logical question to be asked by [590]Deputy McGrath and his colleagues is where stand the amendments and when will we see and proceed with the legislation. My understanding is that the consultation process is due to be completed by the end of this month, and we will have to take account of that process before proceeding to the drafting of necessary amendments following the advice of the Attorney General. I also take the point made by Deputy Harris that there is a responsibility on us to ensure that the widest possible consultation occurs so people with a view can express it.

I will turn to some of the issues raised last night and this evening. During the debate, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, was mentioned on a number of occasions. The Government is aware of the sterling work carried out by this national, confidential and free service. My colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, has indicated she is fully satisfied that MABS has sufficient resources to assist and support its clients. I am informed, based on the latest information available, that at the end of February 2012, the average waiting time from first point of contact to first appointment with a money adviser in MABS was approximately three and a half weeks. It is important to note that 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 they have taken steps to assess their situation and, if appropriate, they are supported to take “holding action” with their creditors.

It was mentioned in the debate that there is no law with regard to debt management companies. However, I confirm again to the House that some debt management firms which process payments on behalf of clients are subject to regulation under the EU Payment Services Directive, which was transposed into Irish law. Under that directive, any firm which provides payment services, as defined by the legislation, requires authorisation to trade from the Central Bank.

Deputies on both sides referred to the appalling scenario facing so many of our people in mortgage debt, and I had the opportunity to address the Seanad yesterday on that issue. I assure the House of the firm resolve on the Government’s part to take whatever action is required to deal with the issue and bring forward a suite of options for people in a distressed position. The House is aware that the Taoiseach recently formed a new Cabinet sub-committee to deal with the matter, which highlights the prioritisation afforded to the issue at the heart of the Government. The House is also aware of the Keane report recommendations, which the Government accepts, and I understand by the end of this month the various banks — in daily communication with the Department of Finance and the Central Bank — will bring their plans to fruition. It is anticipated that in the second half of this year, substantial new proposals from the banks will be put to the market that will provide options for people, particularly with regard to writing down or rescheduling debt and giving choice through the likes of negative equity or shared loans, for example.

The issue of advisers, dealt with in a recommendation of the Keane report, is being actively considered by the Government, and the Minister for Social Protection is working on a scheme that she will make announcements about very shortly. It will deal with how such advisers will be used. The key issue is that the banks have been recapitalised and there is frustration on both sides of the House because of the need for the banks to get on with the task of restructuring people’s debts. We have seen some signs of positive action to date but it is not half enough in my view. We require an independent middle man or woman to examine the proposals from borrowers and lenders before coming to a considered, independent view on a sensible way forward. At the moment, borrowers have virtually no power. They can appeal to an appeals committee within the bank but that committee does not have the imprimatur of a State agency or adviser to come up with a fair and independent assessment as a third party. We must get to [591]that point because this is an area of expertise that must be regulated in a way that will give confidence to everyone involved in it.

I am advised there is a provision in the Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Act 2011 to make regulations about giving information regarding costs and associated charges relating to financial services. The consumer protection code, which was revised with effect from January, also has provisions relating to the disclosure of fees. On enactment of the proposed legislation, the Central Bank will have the power to make regulations, in consultation with the Minister for Finance, regarding the new provisions that relate to debt advice and debt management companies. This will include information regarding charges and other costs.

I sincerely congratulate Deputy Michael McGrath. His initiative will rightly put pressure on us to bring consultation on this matter to a conclusion and to produce the necessary amendments that will embrace all the objectives he has set out in this Bill. By having this Bill before the House, the onus has been placed on the Government to get on with drafting the amendments. The Government is sometimes frustrated in what it can achieve in the timeframe we all want, but the legislative initiative taken by Deputy McGrath has helped us to bring this matter to a conclusion and I congratulate him on that.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív:  I welcome the positive attitude of the Minister of State to the Bill and the recognition there is a problem to be solved. This issue shows the ingenuity of people in creating niches for themselves but there is now an urgent need to regulate the sector.

As a former Minister for Social Protection, I acknowledge the fantastic work done by MABS. MABS was doing this work for years, long before there was a debt crisis. Its workload, however, has increased hugely since the downturn. Whereas a lot of the debate centres on mortgage debt, if people only had a mortgage debt problem, it would be black and white and would not be difficult to resolve. The reality is, however, that most people have every kind of debt when they are in trouble. When they start to run into trouble with the mortgage, they start to hold back on utility bills and other bills. They put off taxing the car for a month or two and, in most cases, there is a raft of other loans, some taken out to repay other loans and some to buy goods. There are credit card debts and myriad other borrowings. In many cases, if all the loans were stacked up together and the mortgage provider took them on, a sustainable repayment pattern might be possible.

One thing I notice when talking to people with financial difficulties is that it is often illuminating to write down a list of all the people owed money, the capital amount outstanding and the weekly or monthly repayment. Sometimes, huge repayments on quite small loans are the cause of the problems. It is important, therefore, we assist people to resolve these issues. MABS, because it works through this with people, has done incredible work.

Most people’s reaction to debt is to act like a hedgehog. We all have a tendency to curl up into a ball, put up the spikes and hope the problem will go away. We know what happens to the hedgehog when a car comes; it simply drives over the spikes. People who are not sleeping at night because of debts often feel better if someone simply goes through the figures with them and explains that there are protections in law for them. What happens in law if they do not repay an unsecured creditor? It is not the end of the world. A person cannot be ordered by a court to pay what he does not have. Even if we could get people to that phase of interaction with someone reputable, it would be huge step forward in rationalising the problem and would prevent hopelessness and even suicide. Much of it is due to fear because they never rationalised the worst case scenario. Such a scenario dealt with in a rational way is a lot better than the more horrendous ideas they are contemplating. Collectively we have a huge job to encourage people to talk to someone about debt.

[592]MABS has done a great job. When I would ask the service about average debt levels, many of those it was dealing with had relatively small amounts of debt, with the average being around €30,000. Many people imagine those going to MABS have debts of €150,000, but many of those using the service did not have huge debts in an absolute sense but had impossible repayments. There is a major difference between the total amount of the debt and the repayment.

It is fair to say that with the problem being so widespread, there will be people who do this professionally. In some cases, those who were giving out the money as brokers have turned around and are advising how to repay the money. Many of us would be aware of people coming in to talk about debts but only telling half the story. One of our human attributes must be to get them to tell us everything, to give us all the information and for them not to be afraid we will be shocked about what they say. They must be convinced that many people are in the same boat, no one will look down on them for getting into financial problems and there are people who want to help them. There is a job to be done and there is a role to be played by those who do this professionally, but this is an area that requires professionalism and needs people who are properly qualified to do the job and who understand the legal avenues and processes involved. These people must understand the human dynamics of this and be qualified to do the job.

We are talking about people’s money so the industry must be regulated, which is what this Bill sets out to do. It also sets out to ensure that the highest of standards are maintained, that one cannot go into the job unless one is capable of doing it and that there are some objective standards laid out in law in respect of what is required to take up work in the profession. There are few professions one can take up nowadays without having some qualifications or proof of one’s capability to do the job. We need clear standards laid down to do the job. There must be supervision of these standards to ensure those involved continue to adhere to the highest of standards. That is both important and urgent.

In his speech the Minister of State referred to advisers handling people’s money rather than simply making arrangements. There is a case to be made for an adviser not handling money or, if they do so, at least there should be a bonded system with client accounts and so on. In the past, there have been incidents in various professions. Temptation is a terrible thing for the human. We know what has occurred in certain cases when certain people got their hands on other people’s money. Certain people might have had their own troubles and then misused other people’s money in a professional capacity. If we take the view that other people’s money can be handled we should be careful and include considerable safeguards, including bonding, to ensure that people’s money is secure.

My colleague, Deputy McGrath, has done a good service to the country by bringing forward the Bill and the Minister of State has recognised this. This matter must be dealt with urgently. I realise there are delays in the system. The Minister of State is becoming more aware of them. When one is on this side of the House it is easy to take the view that the legislation should pop out fast. I have often said that one can get 90% of the way quite fast. One can do it in approximately six months. The final 10%, however, can take several years because of going over and back to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and the Office of the Attorney General since many questions arise at that stage. We must also accept the need to do things well but we should not allow the desire to cover every angle that could arise in the next 20 years to hold back urgent legislation into the distant future. It is not a case of including anything that is wrong but perhaps we will not cover every subject first time around. The process should involve the inclusion of the essentials quickly. We should see it as a child sees a Lego set. We can keep adding to it as long as whatever we have done is sound. However, we should not allow the add-ons to delay the legislation interminably.

[593]I realise and accept that it is difficult to prepare legislation on this side of the House that will pass the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. The office will always have queries and questions and I accept the good faith of the Government in this regard. It is an inevitable part of the system that those responsible will go through the legislation and point out what they deem to be flaws in the way it is drawn up. That is fair enough. Anyway, it is important that we see this as something we can do for people and to protect people. People are in enough trouble without being charged vast fees for bad advice and without their fears being further exploited by unscrupulous people.

I suggest to those working in the industry in a private capacity and who are doing a good job that this legislation is equally important for them. They need to be able to put it to their clients that they are accredited, approved, that they have the necessary qualifications, that they are supervised and, therefore, that the client can trust that what the adviser is suggesting can be achieved and that the adviser is qualified and capable of realising it. I have no doubt that the legitimate people in this business will welcome the speedy enactment of legislation to protect them.

Molaim an Bille seo. Bille thar a bheith tábhachtach atá ann. Tá tábhacht faoi leith ag baint leis do dhaoine atá ag fulaingt go mór i measc an phobail agus tá súil agam nach fada go bhfeicfimid na leasuithe a luaigh an tAire ag teacht faoi bhráid an Oireachtais.

Deputy Michael McGrath:  At the outset I thank every Member who made a contribution to the debate either last night or tonight. I was not in the House last night. The Minister of State will note that I was at a public meeting on the referendum in Dunleer, County Louth, organised by Fianna Fáil. The meeting went well. The majority of Fianna Fáil supporters will be voting “Yes” on polling day.

I have read the transcripts of contributions from Deputies on all sides of the House. All the contributions have been constructive and positive and this is to be warmly welcomed. This is the template we should follow wherever possible when dealing with issues in the public interest.

I thank Deputy Sean Fleming for moving the Bill and for setting out a comprehensive Second Stage speech. I wish to put on record that the Bill was drafted by Senator Thomas Byrne. He has done an outstanding job in preparing the Bill. We first published the Bill in June of last year but we did not get it formally moved in the House until last September. It has been around for some time but we are pleased to have the opportunity to debate it on Second Stage in the House.

I welcome the fact the Government is embracing the principles of this Bill and I realise people are working on the Government side on amendments to the Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Bill. I also realise the Government is keen to enact that legislation as quickly as possible to ensure this sector will be regulated. I urge the Government and the supporting officials to read the Bill carefully and closely. I further urge them not to be afraid to take as much from it as possible. A considerable amount of work went in to the drafting. The definitions are carefully thought through and they may be of benefit to the Government when it drafts the necessary amendments to the Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Bill. The Government should feel free to take from this Bill what it wishes in order to enact the provisions as quickly as possible.

One theme running through all the contributions in recent evenings has been the human experience and the fact that this is all about people. There are people in every constituency in the country who are in awful financial situations. Last week a couple came to me with personal unsecured debts of more than €80,000. They have a mortgage of more than €300,000, their debts total approximately €400,000 and the household income is approximately €30,000. There [594]are so many relevant issues that must be dealt with. MABS is involved and is trying to help them. Even after teasing out and working through all the issues, there will be legacy problems for these people and they fully accept this.

The issue we have highlighted through this Bill is only one part of a multifaceted approach that will be necessary to solve the overall problem of personal indebtedness to the greatest possible extent. The personal insolvency Bill that the Government is due to publish next month is of critical importance in this regard. I welcome the comments of the Taoiseach on the Order of Business today. He said he hoped that legislation could be enacted in the early autumn. That may be ambitious but it is what we should aim for. Thousands of people will need to avail of a non-judicial debt settlement system. It is needed urgently and I hope the Government prioritises it and brings it forward as quickly as possible.

As several speakers pointed out last night, there are legitimate providers in the industry we have highlighted and there is a role for debt advice in Ireland. While MABS provides an excellent service and it is appropriate that clients of debt advisory firms should be aware of the service it offers, other service providers can play a role in meeting the needs of distressed borrowers. Some customers may consider they need the ongoing hands-on support a debt adviser can offer and, in some cases, by keeping a client out of court the debt adviser may offer a cheaper overall solution for the consumer. However, the debt advisory firms which are playing by the rules and following best practice — it should be acknowledged that there are some such firms — are being put at a disadvantage by rogue operators within the industry which has mushroomed, as Deputy Michael Healy-Rae stated, following the economic collapse. This created an opportunity for the sector to develop and it has done so, creating major problems and issues for the consumers of its services in the process.

A number of United Kingdom companies are offering services in Ireland, despite not having a presence in the country, and have little understanding of the market here and the needs of Irish customers. This highlights how vulnerable and exposed consumers are when they avail of the services provided by firms in this industry.

In preparing the Bill and for the debate we spoke to the more reputable providers in the debt advice and debt management sector and they wanted regulation. They support the need for regulation and set up the Debt Management Association of Ireland, the establishment of which was welcomed by the Irish Banking Federation. The association has highlighted some of the key areas and has its own code of practice dealing with matters such as training; marketing; advertising; the information to be provided for customers; contract terms; customer accounts and so forth. However, in general, self-regulation is not sufficient and the entire sector must be brought under the supervision of the Central Bank.

I acknowledge the point made by the Minister that some firms which are administering payments are governed by existing legislation, but many others are not. It was only following the collapse of Home Payments Limited in August last year that the Central Bank conducted a study of the area and found many firms which should have been regulated and subject to authorisation by it were operating without such authorisation. They will now be brought under its umbrella.

The case of Home Payments Limited has been well documented in this debate, but there are others. Dunne and Maxwell, trading as yourmoney.ie., had been operating for seven years, promising on its website that it could reduce people’s debt by 50%. In January, in an unprecedented initiative, the Central Bank wrote to hundreds of customers of Dunne and Maxwell to strongly recommend that they suspend all payments to it immediately. The letter was unusual in its directness. It informed people that they should consider contacting the Garda if bill [595]payments to be made on their behalf by the company were not up to date. The company disappeared overnight. This proves that when the shadow of regulation falls on many of these firms, they do not stand up to scrutiny and fold up their tent. For the customers concerned, it may have been the best outcome and may well have prevented some of them being burned in the way the customers of Home Payments Limited had been burned.

Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív has rightly raised the issue of the qualifications of those who can legitimately provide this service in the new regulatory environment which will be created as a result of the Central Bank Bill. We support the need for those involved to have proper professional financial qualifications because they are being entrusted with people’s money and giving advice to individuals who may not have the wherewithal or skills to deal with their financial problems. The least these customers deserve to know is that such advisers are appropriately qualified and competent to do the job they are being taken on to do.

The issue of fees was well vented in the debate on both evenings and a number of examples were given. I learned about a case today in which a customer had paid €1,800 in fees alone in the first three months of engagement with a debt management firm. That is an example of the abuse taking place in the absence of regulation. Therefore, we need to see such regulation as quickly as possible. In the Bill we are calling for a code of practice to be published by the Central Bank within a defined period after the Bill is enacted.

The Minister of State, Deputy John Perry, set out last night a comprehensive response on behalf of the Government and rightly divided the sector into three broad areas. The first encompasses firms which are not administering payments but providing debt management advice. The Central Bank estimates that there are 30 to 40 such firms. The second category includes budgeting firms which administer payments on clients’ behalf. Apparently, there are only two or three such firms remaining. The third category includes debt management firms which offer to negotiate with a client’s creditors to secure a write-down or a better deal. They, too, can administer payments. It is estimated that there are about 20 such firms. Approximately 60 firms have been identified as being in the marketplace providing services.

In the context of the Personal Insolvency Bill due before us shortly, it is all the more important that regulation is introduced in this sector because far from that Bill sounding the death knell for the industry, it will give it an enormous fillip because it will present an opportunity to guide vulnerable consumers through the new insolvency regime and advertise the potential outcomes in an effort to attract new customers. The Government should ensure, therefore, that the sector is strictly regulated in advance of the Personal Insolvency Bill being enacted in the coming months.

I welcome the positive approach adopted by the Government to this legislation. From the perspective of Fianna Fáil, it does not matter which Bill leads to the outcome we all want to secure — the regulation of those providing services for consumers in this industry. It is all about protecting consumers. What we have done in this debate is use the opportunity afforded by Private Members’ time to put the spotlight on an issue that is unquestionably and indisputably of concern to a growing number of people. If the problem is not addressed, it will affect many thousands more in the years ahead. That is the reason we have used Private Members’ time to put the spotlight on this issue and pressure on the Government to complete the process it has started. It is welcome that it has been started. I will bring the expertise we have gained in conducting research and our preparation of the Bill to bear when it comes to discussing Committee Stage amendments to the Central Bank Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Deputy Michael McGrath:  I move:

That the Bill be referred to the Select Sub-Committee on Finance pursuant to Standing Order 82A(3)(a) and (6)(a) and 118.

Question put and agreed to.

The Dáil adjourned at 9 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 17 May 2012.

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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.

  10.  Deputy Sandra McLellan    asked the Minister for Health    his plans for review and reform of mental health legislation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24209/12]

  58.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health    if he will give assurances that the review of the Mental Health Act will address the situation of the lack of safeguards for voluntary patients, many of whom remain in mental health hospitals without any requirement of external review of admission or detention, the lack of adequate protections in relation to electro-convulsive therapy, the lack of automatic access to an advocate, how and when people are re-graded from involuntary to voluntary ahead of a tribunal and the need for the Mental Health Act to interplay with the provisions of the upcoming capacity legislation. [24191/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 58 together.

The Programme for Government includes a commitment to review the Mental Health Act 2001, “informed by human rights standards and in consultation with service users, carers and other stakeholders”.

The Government and I attach great importance to this review and in June of last year I established a Steering Group to oversee the review with Terms of Reference including the need to have regard to the recommendations of ‘A Vision for Change’ and the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

To ensure that the review attracted wide attention, a public consultation campaign was launched in September 2011 and 100 submissions were received from a variety of organisations with an interest in mental health as well as from individuals with experience of or comments on service delivery prompted generally by their own experience or that of a family member.

Since July 2011 the Steering Group, which was tasked with producing an interim report in the first instance, has met 9 times to discuss the main issues arising, while a further 15 meetings with key stakeholders were also held.

The interim report has now been completed and is under consideration within the Department. The second and substantive phase of the review should commence in the near future.

The purpose of the Mental Capacity Bill is to bring Irish capacity legislation into line with current thinking and modern legislative frameworks worldwide, including the Convention on [598]the Rights of People with Disabilities, by establishing a comprehensive framework to support persons lacking the mental capacity required to exercise their legal capacity. I am aware that what emerges from the review of the Mental Health Act will need to dovetail with the Mental Capacity Bill.

The issues of safeguards for both voluntary and involuntary patients in general, and specifically in relation to the administration of ECT, as well as the regrading of involuntary patients and access to advocacy services, are issues that have arisen in the context of the interim review and will be further examined in the substantive phase of the review.

  11.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Health    the degree to which it is expected to maintain the highest possible quality, standard and range of health services in all regions throughout the country in the current and future years notwithstanding the budgetary curtailment commitments entered into by his predecessors; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24190/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The HSE National Service Plan sets out the type and volume of service the HSE will provide directly, or through a range of funded agencies, during 2012. The Plan was prepared in the context of the challenges faced by the health services this year in terms of reduced staffing levels, and a reduced budget, combined with increasing demand for services. The Plan also takes account of additional funding being invested this year in areas such as mental health services, primary care, Fair Deal, the national clinical care programmes and children’s services. In line with the Plan, the HSE will minimise the impact on front line services by fast tracking new, innovative and more efficient ways of using reducing resources. New models of care will be introduced across all services, which will treat patients at the lowest level of complexity and provide quality services at the least possible cost. The roll out of the National Clinical Care Programmes and Special Delivery Unit initiatives will also deliver greater productivity. My Department continues to work with the HSE to mitigate the impact of retirements and to ensure that the contingency plans are operating satisfactorily and that all critical front line services continue to be delivered across all regions. This includes using the provisions of the Public Service Agreement such as greater flexibility in work practices and rosters, and maximising redeployment. Staff resources will continue to be allocated to areas of greatest priority. Clearly, the need for dynamic and pro-active management of the impact of reduced staffing and budgets will continue throughout the year and in this context the National Service Plan is the subject of continuous review by the HSE Board. The Government is committed to developing a universal, single-tier health service, which guarantees access to medical care based on need, not income and that continues to be our aim. This year we will deliver two important measures with the allocation of €35m for new mental health services and €15m necessary to provide free GP care for people with specified illnesses, which were promised in the Programme for Government. This underlines our commitment to health service reform and to the maintenance of high quality services to the greatest extent possible within the resources available.

  12.  Deputy Billy Kelleher    asked the Minister for Health    the reason for the further delay in the publication of the report on symphysiotomy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24268/12]

[599]

  15.  Deputy Mick Wallace    asked the Minister for Health    the progress that has been made to date regarding the report on symphysiotomy commissioned by the Chief Medical Officer in his Department last year; when the draft report will available for consultation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24343/12]

  56.  Deputy Gerry Adams    asked the Minister for Health    when the report he commissioned on symphysiotomy will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24196/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 12, 15 and 56 together.

My Department has received a draft report from the independent academic researcher who was appointed to complete a report into the practice of symphysiotomy in Ireland.

I asked the Attorney General to consider the draft research report and I have recently received her advice. There is no legal impediment to publishing the research with certain clarifications included. In line with best practice on research, a peer review process has been initiated. I propose to make the draft research report available for consultation this month. Following the consultation process with relevant individuals and bodies and the outcome of the peer review, the report will be then finalised by the academic researcher and published by my Department.

I also understand that there may be court proceedings pending in respect of women who underwent this procedure. The consultation process will need to take account of such proceedings in order to ensure that nothing is done that might impede these cases pending.

I am determined to bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion for all women concerned as soon as possible. I am very conscious of the distress that this procedure has caused to a number of women in the past and recognise the pain that this issue has caused to those affected by it. The Government is committed to dealing with this matter sensitively, so that if at all possible, closure can be brought to those affected by it.

  13.  Deputy Catherine Murphy    asked the Minister for Health    if he will confirm that access to specialised treatment services which are solely available at a specific public hospital can sometimes be denied to public patients when those patients live outside that hospital’s catchment area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24237/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  Under the provisions of the Health Act 1970, eligibility for public health services in Ireland is based primarily on residency and means. All persons normally resident in the state are eligible for in-patient and outpatient public hospital services including consultant services. It is unacceptable for a patient to be informed at short notice that a hospital will not treat them because they are in the ‘wrong’ catchment area and my Department has been working with the HSE to clarify its policy in this area.

I can confirm to the Deputy that a letter issued yesterday from the National Directors of the HSE and the Chief Operating Officer of the SDU setting out the position in relation to catchment areas.

With immediate affect all hospitals will be requested to:—

Refrain from any further limiting of historic catchment areas i.e. No further refusals of referrals from areas which such referrals have been accepted since 2009.

This will be retrospective to the start of this year in most cases subject to discussion.

[600]

This will apply to both “new referrals” and also to existing patients in long-term care / treatment.

I am confident that working with the RDOs and the hospitals that this particular issue will be quickly resolved. The SDU will continue to work with the HSE to embed improved GP referral systems which will enhance patient access to the health services.

  14.  Deputy Barry Cowen    asked the Minister for Health    if he will consider including sufferers from epidermolysis bullosa in the long-term illness scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24280/12]

  19.  Deputy Timmy Dooley    asked the Minister for Health    the reason persons suffering from motor neuron disease are not covered by the long-term illness scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24283/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 14 and 19 together.

There are no plans to extend the list of conditions covered by the Long Term Illness Scheme. Under the Drug Payment Scheme, no individual or family pays more than €132 per calendar month towards the cost of approved prescribed medicines. The scheme significantly reduces the cost burden for families and individuals incurring ongoing expenditure on medicines. In addition, people who cannot, without undue hardship, arrange for the provision of medical services for themselves and their dependants may be entitled to a medical card. In the assessment process, the Health Service Executive can take into account medical costs incurred by an individual or a family. Those who are not eligible for a medical card may still be able to avail of a GP visit card, which covers the cost of general practice consultation.

The Programme for Government commits to reforming the current public health system by introducing Universal Health Insurance with equal access to care for all. As part of this, the Government is committed to introducing Universal GP Care within its first term of office.

Primary legislation is required to give effect to this commitment. The Department of Health is currently drafting legislation to provide for the phased introduction of a universal GP service without fees in line with the commitment set out in the Programme for Government. Initially it is intended to extend GP cover without fees to persons with illnesses or disabilities to be prescribed by regulations under the new legislation. It is my intention to have the Bill published and enacted before the summer recess.

Question No. 15 answered with Question No. 12.

  16.  Deputy Pat Deering    asked the Minister for Health    if his attention has been drawn to the disquiet surrounding the ongoing Health Service Executive tender for enhanced home care services and the complaints regarding the running of the tender (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24073/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  The Health Service Executive (HSE) recently finalised a new Procurement Framework, which will be operational shortly. This means that in each Local Health Office area selected providers meeting certain specified standards will be available to deliver home care packages to HSE clients.

[601]The HSE indicate that it is satisfied that the tender has been carried out in accordance with all appropriate EU legislation. There were ninety two tenders received across thirty two lots (Local Health Offices). Twenty six successful tenderers have been identified across these lots, and a comprehensive debriefing process has now been carried out with all unsuccessful service providers, in accordance with procurement legislation and guidelines. This includes addressing, as appropriate, the specific issues raised by the Deputy. The HSE will be finalising Agreements with successful service providers in the coming weeks.

Companies seeking the assistance of consultants in compiling their tender response is a matter for the individual companies concerned.

In respect of alleged collusion, HSE tender documents (including those used in this tender process) specifically exclude collusion between bidders. The HSE issued clear instructions in this regard as part of this tender process.

It should be noted that the outcome of this tender process will not impact on existing service providers, and will only apply to any new home care packages to be assigned during the lifetime of the agreement. The fundamental motivation for this tender was the introduction of improved standards for enhanced home care services for clients nationwide.

  17.  Deputy Clare Daly    asked the Minister for Health    the terms of reference of the expert group established as a result of the A, B and C case in the ECHR; and if he will confirm if they will receive oral or written submissions from interested parties [24141/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The terms of reference of the Expert Group on the ABC v Ireland Judgment, as approved by Government on 29th November 2011, are as follows:

To examine the A, B and C v Ireland judgment of the European Court of Human Rights;

To elucidate its implications for the provision of health care services to pregnant women in Ireland;

To recommend a series of options on how to implement the judgment taking into account the constitutional, legal, medical, and ethical considerations involved in the formulation of public policy in this area and the over-riding need for speedy action.

The Expert Group is to report back to the Government within six months of establishment by means of a written report. The Group will meet on a periodic basis. I wish to assure the Deputy that the Group may receive written submissions from interested parties and additional relevant experts and professionals.

  18.  Deputy Seán Crowe    asked the Minister for Health    if he will revisit the policy of reliance on public-private partnerships for the development of primary care centres; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24205/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  New primary care centres are being procured by the HSE through two different methods, (1) lease agreements with private developers and (2) Exchequer capital funding. There is no “policy” of reliance on public-private partnerships in this regard. I am actively exploring other options regarding the funding of Primary Care Centres.

[602]Question No. 19 answered with Question No. 14.

  20.  Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Health    the current number of delayed discharges for hospitals in the Dublin South Hospitals’ Group and the equivalent figure for 2010; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24195/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  I have set out the information requested by the Deputy in the following table. The information was supplied by the Busness Intelligence Unit (BIU) of the Health Service Executive. Due to national industrial relations issues in 2010 data was not collected/provided from February 2010 to June 2010. Therefore the closest comparable figures from 2010 are from July.

Delayed Discharges
(Source: BIU 23rd April 2012)
Delayed Discharges
(Source: BIU 12th July 2010)
1. St. James’s Hospital (SJH) 90 73
2. St. Vincent’s University Hospital (SVUH) 66 51
3. St. Columcille’s Hospital (SCH) 15 22
4. St. Michael’s Hospital, Dun Laoghaire (SMH) 9 11
5. The Adelaide and Meath Hospital, Dublin Incorporating the National Children’s Hospital (AMNCH) 51 51

  21.  Deputy Sean Fleming    asked the Minister for Health    the steps he will take to tackle smoking in society before his term of office ends; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24284/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  Smoking is the greatest single cause of preventable illness and premature death in Ireland, killing over 5,200 people a year. Ireland’s public health policy objective in relation to tobacco is to promote and subsequently move towards a tobacco free society. I am committed to moving us closer towards that objective. The Tobacco Policy Review Group will be reporting to me shortly. The report of this group will build on our existing policies and legislation. This group is examining a number of areas which need to be developed or enhanced in order to reduce smoking prevalence in Ireland including the possibility of extending the smoking ban to other areas e.g. educational and health care campuses, playgrounds, public parks, beaches etc. The report will also examine how to develop our cessation services in order to support those people who want to stop smoking. Of major concern to me is the number of young people who are still taking up the habit. The “denormalisation” of smoking within our society is key tool in stopping our children and young people from doing so. To achieve this we must make smoking less attractive to children and increase its social unacceptability. The Deputy will be aware that I recently supported a Private Members Bill, — the Protection of Children’s Health from Tobacco Smoke Bill 2012. The intention of this Bill is to ban people from smoking in cars where there are children present.

  22.  Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Health    if he will set out in full the [603]terms of the indemnity agreement with a company (details supplied) regarding the Pandemrix vaccine; if the company can be called to account financially or in any other manner as a result of the finding that the vaccine is linked to narcolepsy in children vaccinated with it here; if he will investigate the granting of this indemnity; if he will set out the other such agreements with pharmaceutical companies that are in place; if he will review the policy of granting such indemnity; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24194/12]

  30.  Deputy Mary Lou McDonald    asked the Minister for Health    the assistance that will be given to children suffering from narcolepsy as a result of receiving the Pandemrix vaccine; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24193/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  In response to the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, the HSE procured two vaccines. The HSE, with the approval of my Department and the Department of Finance, indemnified the suppliers from and against loss and damage in respect of any claim against the supplier arising from or in connection with the use and administration of licensed or unlicensed vaccine supplied except in cases of negligence, breach of duty or wilful misconduct on the part of the supplier. The indemnity clause in relation to the supplier in question is attached.

This was a necessary response in order to ensure that Ireland could access the vaccine as early as possible during the pandemic. All European countries who accessed pandemic vaccines indemnified the companies who supplied them. No similar agreements with pharmaceutical companies are currently in place.

My Department is working closely with the Health Service Executive (HSE) and the Department of Education and Skills to address the needs of those affected by narcolepsy.

The HSE is providing a range of services and supports to those affected including access to rapid diagnosis, clear care pathways, temporary medical cards and reimbursement of expenses incurred.

Multi-disciplinary assessments which will allow the appropriate individualised health and educational supports to be put in place have commenced. The National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) is currently engaging with the HSE and with the individual schools and parents of children concerned to identify and provide educational supports for the children and adolescents affected. In addition reasonable accommodations will be put in place for students with narcolepsy sitting state exams next month.

My Department is considering all other possible supports which may need to be put in place for those affected. A Memorandum for Government setting out the full response to this issue is being prepared for submission in the coming weeks.

I would like to assure the Deputy that this matter continues to be a priority for my Department.

  23.  Deputy Pearse Doherty    asked the Minister for Health    the procedures in place to ensure a consistent supply of vital prescription drugs to pharmacies; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24199/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  Shortages of essential medicines are currently a cause of concern not just in Ireland but throughout Europe and [604]the rest of the world. It is a global problem affecting health systems in all countries and impacting on patients world-wide. Medicines shortages can be the result of one, several or any combination of factors throughout the pharmaceutical supply chain such as manufacturing difficulties, industry consolidation, and commercial decisions by manufacturers to withdraw unprofitable lines. In some cases pharmaceutical manufacturing is concentrated to such an extent that a production problem in one pharmaceutical plant can have wide-ranging and international impact on health systems throughout the world.

Irish Medicines Regulations place an obligation on both manufacturers and pharmaceutical wholesalers within the limits of their respective responsibilities, to ensure the adequate availability and supply of medicines on the Irish market in order to meet patient needs.

My Department has been engaging with the Irish Medicines Board (IMB), the Health Service Executive (HSE) and the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland (PSI) to identify ways in which the Irish system can manage medicines shortages as effectively as possible in order to minimise the impact on patients. International efforts to effectively manage medicines shortages are also being considered.

Pharmaceutical production is carried out by private enterprises, and the State or my Department can only intervene to a limited extent to prevent medicines shortages occurring. The IMB and HSE continue to work closely to operationally manage medicines shortages when they arise. In addition, the PSI works with the pharmacy profession and has recently published guidance to registered pharmacists on managing medicines shortages. Manufacturers, wholesalers and pharmacies all have responsibility to work together to identify shortages quickly and implement alternative arrangements to meet the needs of patients.

  24.  Deputy Mary Lou McDonald    asked the Minister for Health    the assistance that will be given by the Health Service Executive to the women here who received defective PIP breast implants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24192/12]

  174.  Deputy Joanna Tuffy    asked the Minister for Health    the advice or assistance being provided to Irish women who have had PIP breast implants; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24375/12]

  199.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health    if his attention has been drawn to the immediate and continuing care which will be provided to all those women who received defective PIP breast implants; if he can confirm that all implant removal procedures will be performed at no cost to the women affected; and for those who want replacement implants, that this will be provided at no cost to them also. [24495/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 24, 174 and 199 together.

The Chief Medical Officer of my Department has met and is engaging with the treating clinics with a view to ensuring that best practice and patient support is paramount in the service provided to concerned recipients of PIP implants. He has discussed the concerns raised by affected clients including access to surgeons for consultation and the provision of full medical records in relation to one of the treating clinics.

[605]The provider concerned has advised that it is addressing the Chief Medical Officer’s concerns and is developing a new care plan to provide for an early surgical consultation for all women who have received PIP breast implants, with the option of breast implant removal. The removal of implants will be prioritised according to whether a rupture has occurred or not. Significant detail remains to be clarified and the Chief Medical Officer is continuing to engage with this provider, who has assured him that it accepts that it has a duty of care to the women concerned and that it is fully dedicated to helping its clients as much as it can.

Finally, I must reiterate that the resolution of the implants issue has to be between provider and client and an appropriate solution found between the parties; my Department will continue to encourage all parties to reach an acceptable solution for all concerned.

  25.  Deputy Willie O’Dea    asked the Minister for Health    if his attention has been drawn to the fact that private insurers are designing policies to be less attractive to older persons and thereby evading community rating policies; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24301/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  I am concerned that private health insurance is becoming harder to afford, especially for older people, as insurers increasingly tailor their insurance plans towards younger, healthier customers. I am strongly committed to protecting community rating, whereby older and sicker customers should pay the same amount for the same cover as younger and healthier people. Community Rating means that the level of risk that a particular consumer poses to an insurer does not directly affect the premium paid. It also means that premiums for younger or healthier lives are typically higher than their expected claims would require, whereas for older or less healthy lives, premiums are typically lower than the expected claims would require. It is also useful to note that older people who have been paying health insurance premiums for many years will have supported the older generation when they were younger and could reasonably expect to benefit in a similar way as they themselves now become older.

Community Rating needs a robust system of risk equalisation. Otherwise insurers will have a strong incentive to avoid older customers. Instead they will have a clear incentive to attract and retain only healthy customers who are less likely to make claims. The Interim Scheme of Age-Related Tax Credits and Community Rating Levy was introduced in 2009 in order to provide direct support to community rating. It achieves this by way of a mechanism which provides for a cost subsidy from the young to the old. The Scheme is designed to be Exchequer neutral, neither a cost nor a benefit to the State.

In order to keep down the cost of health insurance for older people, I was pleased to increase significantly the age-related income tax credit for insured persons aged 60 years and over, from 1 January 2012. Without this support, health insurers would have had a strong financial incentive to “segment” the market by offering policies targeted at young people, to the disadvantage of older customers.

The Health Insurance Authority (HIA) is the statutory regulator of the private health insurance market and provides information to consumers regarding their rights and also on health insurance plans and benefits. The HIA plays an important role for customers, both in ensuring that they have accurate information, and in enforcing the implementation of the law protecting consumers in relation to health insurance and where appropriate it issues enforce[606]ment notices to enforce compliance with the Health Insurance Acts. The HIA can be contacted on lo-call number 1850-929166. The HIA’s website www.hia.ie has a useful plan comparison tool which assists in finding suitable and competitive health insurance plans.

In addition, I am keen to explore other available measures to limit the costs related to health insurance. I have agreed with the three commercial health insurers to establish a Consultative Forum on Health Insurance, to tackle issues of mutual concern. This Forum has been established with a focus on generating ideas which would help address health insurance costs, and the insurers have agreed to work cooperatively in driving down costs related to health insurance and to identify savings that could be achieved by both public and private hospitals. Bilateral meetings have taken place with each insurer where they have brought forward their own ideas for cost savings in the market. The Forum will also give a voice to the insurers in the development of the new Universal Health Insurance model. I have also made it clear to the health insurers that I believe that significant savings can still be made, the effect of which can be to minimise the need for increases in premiums. In this regard, VHI has commissioned consultants to carry out a utilisation management review of their claims. The review has commenced and will provide a detailed report on the advantages and disadvantages of moving towards greater utilisation management, a cost benefit analysis and a detailed plan on how this might be achieved including the timelines involved, costs and potential savings, if any, that could be achieved.

The Government’s clear objective is for the health insurance market to remain as competitive and affordable as possible, as we move towards a new system of Universal Health Insurance. Under Universal Health Insurance, everyone will be insured for health care and the current unfair discrimination between public and private patients will be removed.

  26.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Health    the extent to which it has been possible to put in place structures whereby the requisite number of junior hospital doctors become available to hospitals throughout the country on graduation from medical school having particular regard to the dual need of the health service and the need for medical graduates to obtain first hand experience in an environment with which they are familiar; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24189/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  I have forwarded this query to the HSE for direct reply to the Deputy.

  27.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health    if he will intervene with the Health Service Executive to ensure the continued access of voluntary groups (details supplied) to the St. Felim’s complex, Cavan town; if, in the event of there being no willingness, for whatever reason, on the part of the HSE to reverse its notice to quit directive, that he will insist on the HSE offering access to alternative suitable premises in the Cavan town area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24070/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  28.  Deputy Dessie Ellis    asked the Minister for Health    the progress, if any, he has made with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in the North (details supplied), regarding the development of the role of Safefood and the Food Safety Promotion Board; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24211/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  To explore the scope for greater efficiencies and to eliminate waste, both my Department and our counterparts in Northern Ireland are conducting reviews on the roles and responsibilities of organisations working in the food safety, diet and nutrition areas in our respective jurisdictions. These will help clarify the role to be undertaken by Food Safety Promotion Board (FSPB) and will inform our consideration of their Business Plan. It is expected that the DHSSPS review will be completed by end-June 2012 with my Department’s review to be completed soon after. It has been agreed that approval of FSPB’s Business Plan should await the outcome of these reviews and that they be brought to the North-South Ministerial Council for approval at the earliest opportunity thereafter.

  29.  Deputy John Browne    asked the Minister for Health    the position regarding the construction of the acute North Eastern Regional Hospital, County Meath; the funding available and planning requirements; if he is proposing a public private partnership arrangement to fund the hospital; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24272/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  Following the completion of the Comprehensive Expenditure Review by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in 2011, I announced that funding would support the delivery of the new Children’s Hospital and the associated Paediatric Ambulatory and Urgent Care Centre in AMiNCH Tallaght; the replacement of the Central Mental Hospital and its associated facilities; and the National Project for Radiation Oncology. All care programmes would be supported in accordance with the commitments in the Programme for Government with particular attention on primary care.

Any capital development must be considered in the context of the overall HSE capital programme. This multi-annual programme is developed over a rolling five year period. The Executive is required to prioritise the capital infrastructure projects within its overall capital funding allocation taking into account the existing capital commitments and costs to completion over the period. It is essential to assess all projects, other than those where existing contractual commitments are in place, on their merits, to ensure that the limited capital funding available goes to those developments which are of highest national importance.

A draft capital plan for the period 2012-2016 has been submitted to my Department. My Department is reviewing the proposals and following up with the HSE where further details may be required. The proposed plan requires my approval with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Details of the plan will be published by the Executive following its approval.

Question No. 30 answered with Question No. 22.

  31.  Deputy Martin Ferris    asked the Minister for Health    if he will confirm that a FETAC level 5 qualification is not required for long-standing care staff including multi-task assistants [608]and or carers on night duty in community hospitals or otherwise; the qualifications required for such staff; if such standards are applied consistently across the State; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24217/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  Under the Health Act 2007, statutory responsibility is given to the Chief Inspector of Social Services, part of the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA), for the independent inspection and registration of certain categories of designated centres. This includes residential care settings for older people. This responsibility is underpinned by a comprehensive quality framework comprising the Health Act 2007, the Health Act 2007 (Care and Welfare of Residents in Designated Centres for Older People) Regulations 2009, as amended, the Health Act 2007 (Registration of Designated Centres for Older People) Regulations 2009 and the National Quality Standards for Residential Care Settings for Older People in Ireland. Standard 24 requires that “Staff receive induction and continued professional development and appropriate supervision”. The underlying criteria requires that “All newly recruited care staff and those in post less than one year commence training to FETAC Level 5 or equivalent within two years of taking up employment. Long standing care staff have their competency and skills assessed to determine their need for further training and suitable arrangements are put in place to meet their identified needs”.

HIQA commenced this registration and inspection regime for all long stay residential homes for older people, public, private and voluntary in 2009.

  32.  Deputy John Halligan    asked the Minister for Health    the reason a person in Dublin, participating in the fair deal scheme, has had their medical card taken away when (details supplied), the only way to try and get the medical card is for the person to resubmit all these income details and go through the lengthy reassessment process while being charged by the nursing home for incontinence wear, medication and frequent visits to the doctor; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24223/12]

  55.  Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett    asked the Minister for Health    the reason a person (details supplied) in Dublin, participating in the fair deal scheme, has had their medical card taken away when, as a participant in the scheme they are liable to pay 80% of their income to the nursing home and is therefore effectively below the income limits that would leave them ineligible for a medical card and the way, despite the fact that the Health Service Executive is in charge of both the medical card and the fair deal schemes and therefore have all their income details, the only way to try and get the medical card is for the person to resubmit all these income details and go through the lengthy reassessment process while being charged by the nursing home for incontinence wear, medication and frequent visits to the doctor; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24220/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 32 and 55 together.

Under the Health Act 2008, automatic entitlement to a medical card for persons aged 70 and over ended on 31st December 2008. With effect from 1st January 2009, the income thresholds for those aged 70 and over are €700 (gross) per week (€36,500 per year) for a single [609]person and €1,400 (gross) per week (€73,000 per year) for a couple (married couples and couples living together as husband and wife).

In early January 2009, 164,142 letters were sent by the Health Service Executive (HSE) to medical card holders aged 70 or over asking them to inform the Executive by March 2009 if their gross weekly exceeds the specified income thresholds. The person named by the Deputy in this Parliamentary Question declared their income as being above the income threshold and returned their medical card to the HSE and the card was subsequently cancelled.

This person can now submit a new application for a medical card and their application can be considered under the Nation Income Guidelines for Medical Cards / GP Visit Cards where nursing home charges can be taken into consideration. Fully completed application forms received by the central office in PCRS are processed within 15 working days.

  33.  Deputy Seamus Kirk    asked the Minister for Health    the steps he will take to tackle obesity in society; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24287/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The high levels of obesity in all age groups of the Irish population are of increasing concern to me but of particular concern are the rising levels of obesity in young children. The Growing Up in Ireland Survey, 2011 found that 1 in 4 children as young as 3 years of age are overweight or obese.

The situation in Ireland mirrors the global obesity epidemic, with 61% of Irish adults now overweight or obese. 26% of 9 year old Irish children are overweight or obese. WHO Europe Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative, in which Ireland participated in 2009, found that 23% of 7 year olds are overweight or obese. During 2011 I established a Special Action Group on Obesity comprising key stakeholders, and chaired by my own Department. The group includes a representative from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Education and Skills, the Health Service Executive, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and Safefood and its remit is to examine and progress a number of issues to address the complex and multi-factorial problem of obesity.

The Special Action Group is concentrating on a specific range of measures including Healthy Eating Guidelines for the Irish population, calorie posting on restaurant menus, restricting the marketing of food and drink high in fat, sugar or salt to children, nutritional labelling, the promotion of physical activity and the detection and treatment of obesity. The Group is working with other Government Departments in a cross-sectoral approach to help halt the rise in overweight and obesity.

Following agreement by SAGO, I am in the process of initiating a Health Impact Assessment on the potential effects of a tax on Sugar Sweetened Drinks which will provide a strong evidence base on this issue. The Institute of Public Health has agreed to lead the HIA Project Group and the WHO Europe has indicated that their nutrition team would be available to my Department to offer guidance. At that point the results will be used as part of the decision.

As part of the work plan of SAGO, in February 2012, I launched a national consultation to seek opinions on the best way of putting calorie information on menus in Ireland. The consultation, which will inform the next steps in the process, was conducted by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, and gave an opportunity for consumers and the food industry to give their views on how ‘calories on menus’ can be best implemented in Ireland. I expect the final [610]outcome of the consultation to be available shortly when SAGO will be in a position to develop an implementation framework for the overall scheme.

The Special Action Group on Obesity is also progressing the following measures:

Revised Food Pyramid / Healthy Eating Guidelines. The Group has revised the Healthy Eating Guidelines, including the Food Pyramid and I will be making these available in the very near future.

Treatment Algorithms. An adult treatment algorithm has been agreed with health care professionals and is now available with the algorithm for children at its final stages of agreement.

Opportunistic screening and monitoring of children. The Special Action Group on Obesity has been discussing opportunistic screening and monitoring with the HSE with a view to earlier detection of overweight and obesity in children. This will improve the identification of overweight children at an earlier age and prevent these children from progressing into the obese category. Obese children will also be identified early and treated.

Marketing of Foods and Drinks to children. My Department has lodged a submission to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s consultation on the Code of advertising to Children of foods high in fat, trans-fats, salt and sugar.

The National Physical Activity Plan which will contribute to addressing this major health issue is currently being considered by the Department.

Finally, my Department is developing a new Health and Wellbeing Survey to monitor lifestyles and this will be commenced this year and repeated on an annual basis.

  34.  Deputy Mattie McGrath    asked the Minister for Health    the arrangements he is making to ensure that a number of acute psychiatric beds will be ring-fenced in Kilkenny for patients being transferred from South Tipperary prior to the imminent closure of St. Michael’s Psychiatric Hospital, Clonmel; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24072/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  As this is a service matter the question has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  35.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Health    if he will introduce standards to regulate psychotherapists and counsellors working in the area of eating disorders; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24066/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The priority of the Department for the foreseeable future is the statutory registration of the twelve therapy professions covered by the Health and Social Care Professionals Council.

Before statutory registration could be considered for other therapies, such as psychotherapy and counselling, there is a need for each individual therapy to federate so that it can advise, as [611]a single voice, on professional standards. This was a recommendation of the Report of the National Working Group on the Regulation of Complementary Therapists (December 2005).

I am aware that HETAC (Higher Education and Training Awards Council) is currently working with representatives of the professional bodies and of higher education institutions that provide courses in psychotherapy and counselling to determine national standards of knowledge, skill and competence to be required for the award of higher education qualifications in these fields. While academic qualifications are not sufficient in themselves as a means of professional regulation, agreement on academic standards does form a critical building block for any modern regulatory system for professions.

It should be noted that while psychotherapists and counsellors are not subject to professional statutory regulation, they are subject to legislation, similar to other practitioners, including consumer legislation, competition, contract and criminal law.

  36.  Deputy Michael Moynihan    asked the Minister for Health    his views on the fact that the Health Service Executive is failing to assess children with disabilities within legal time limits; the consequences of this failure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24297/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  Part 2 of the Disability Act 2005 was commenced on 1 June 2007 in respect of children aged under 5. It had been intended to have both the Disability Act 2005 and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 fully implemented during 2010 in respect of children/young people between 5 and 18 years of age. In 2008, the then Government decided in the light of financial circumstances to defer further implementation of the Acts.

Part 2 of the Disability Act 2005, inter alia, provides for an assessment of the needs of eligible applicants occasioned by their disability to be commenced within three months of receipt of an application and completed within a further three months.

There has been a very significant rise in overall activity around the assessment process in recent years. The number of assessment reports completed rose to 3,043 in 2011 (an increase of almost 25% on 2010).

While any delay in assessment or intervention for any child is not desirable, the assessment process under the Disability Act does not have to take place in advance of intervention. The process can take place in parallel with any intervention which is identified as necessary.

While the HSE faces a significant challenge in ensuring timely assessments, given the increasing demand and complexity of cases, it has put a range of measures in place to address this issue.

A major emphasis is being placed on reconfiguring disability services for children into geographically-based early-intervention and school-aged teams as part of the Progressing Disability Services for Children and Young People Programme. €1million in additional funding has been allocated in 2012 to help address the needs of children with autism and special needs. This is being focussed on addressing waiting times for specialist therapy services for children who have been diagnosed with autism and on developing early intervention teams.

Targeted action plans have been put in place by the HSE in every region to address delays in assessments including: prioritising assessments, holding additional clinics, contracting the private sector to conduct assessments and reconfiguring resources to target areas of greatest need. These are monitored on a monthly basis by the HSE centrally.

[612]The number of assessments overdue for completion nationally at the end of each quarter has fallen steadily since the third quarter of 2010. There has been a fall of 25% nationally over this period. One region has seen a reduction of over 37% in overdue assessments in the same period.

The Department and the HSE will continue to work together to develop more sustainable approaches within existing resources in this context.

Question No. 37 answered with Question No. 6.

  38.  Deputy Jonathan O’Brien    asked the Minister for Health    the progress, if any, made on proposals for establishing a national centre for rare diseases and a national plan for rare diseases; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24215/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The current priority for my Department in relation to this issue is focussing on the development of a national plan for rare diseases. Ireland has been supportive of the EU proposals on rare disease which concluded with a council recommendation in June 2009. The end point is that countries are recommended to develop plans or strategies preferably by the end of 2013. We are now well advanced in developing this work.

In April 2011, I established a National Steering Group to develop a policy framework for the prevention, detection and treatment of rare diseases based on the principles of high quality care, equity and to be patient centred. The policy will operate over a 5 year period, take account of the Council Recommendation on Rare Diseases (2009) and define priority actions subject to resource availability.

The National Steering Group identified a number of areas relating to rare diseases which it is currently considering including centres of expertise, access to appropriate medication and technology, orphan drug development, research and information and patient empowerment and support.

An integral part of an effective policy framework will be the development of a dedicated HSE clinical programme. The HSE has agreed to establish a National Clinical Programme for Rare Diseases which aims to improve and standardise patient care by bringing together clinical disciplines and enabling them to share innovative solutions to deliver greater benefits to HSE service users. I understand that arrangements are currently being made by the HSE to put in place management and clinical leads for the new programme. The HSE expects to finalise these arrangements in the short term. In addition the steering group is planning to consult with stakeholders on the 11th of June next regarding progress to date and preparation for the final phase of the plan’s development. I expect the plan to be submitted to me later this year.

  39.  Deputy Niall Collins    asked the Minister for Health    if he intends to publish the Positive Ageing Strategy this year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24279/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  The Programme for Government has committed to completing and implementing the National Positive Ageing Strategy so that older people are recognised, supported and enabled to live independent full lives.

[613]The Strategy will set the strategic direction for future policies, programmes and services for older people in Ireland. It will set out a common framework for the development of operational plans by a number of Government Departments which will clearly set out each Department’s objectives relating to older people. Mechanisms designed to monitor the implementation of measures contained in operational plans will also be included in the Strategy. However, I do not envisage that the Strategy will propose new service developments. Rather it will set the strategic direction for future policies, programmes and services for older people in Ireland.

A considerable amount of preparatory work has already been completed. The drafting of the Strategy will proceed within the Department within the constraints of available staff and other priorities. At this stage I envisage the Strategy will be completed and published as soon as possible within these constraints.

  40.  Deputy John McGuinness    asked the Minister for Health    when he expects to publish the White Paper on universal health insurance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24295/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The Government is committed to fundamental reform of healthcare in Ireland that will deliver a single tier health system, supported by universal health insurance, where access is based on need, not income.

A number of key stepping stones are vital to the introduction of universal health insurance. Significant work is already underway on these, including:

strengthening the primary care sector to deliver universal primary care with the removal of cost as a barrier;

reform of the acute hospital sector, including the work of the Special Delivery Unit (SDU) to unblock access to acute services and the establishment of hospital groups; and

the introduction of the more transparent and efficient “Money Follows the Patient” funding mechanism for acute hospitals.

When these key building blocks have been put in place, the health system will be ready for universal health insurance.

In February, I established an Implementation Group on Universal Health Insurance which will assist in developing detailed implementation plans for universal health insurance and driving implementation of various elements of the health reform programme. The initial work of the Group will focus on key workstreams, including hospital financing, hospital structures, regulation of the hospital sector, reform of the private health insurance market and the overarching design of the universal health insurance system.

The Group will also assist my Department in preparing a White Paper on Financing Universal Health Insurance, which will outline the estimated costs and financing mechanisms associated with the introduction of universal health insurance.

Preparation of the White Paper is a complex and important process. It will involve significant analysis of pricing and funding mechanisms, and substantial financial modelling to support different design options. It will also need to estimate the costs of UHI under different scenarios. The White Paper will be published as early as possible within the Government’s term of office.

  41.  Deputy Mick Wallace    asked the Minister for Health    if, in the context of near epidemic levels of suicide in County Wexford, he will consider allocating funding to a proposal (details supplied) to develop a mental health recovery and support centre in order that it might be set up in the county, as a matter of urgency; his plans to increase mental health spending as a percentage of overall health spending to the level recommended by A Vision for Change; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24344/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  As the first part of the Deputy’s question refers to an operational matter within the HSE, I have asked the Executive to reply directly to the Deputy on this issue. The Deputy will appreciate that the current economic environment presents a significant challenge for the health system generally in delivering services. However, mental health is being treated as a priority in so far as we can. Total funding for mental health in 2012 is in the region of €707 million. Like all other care areas, efficiency and other savings were required in 2012 from the Mental Health Service. However, in Budget 2012, a special allocation of €35m for mental health was announced in line with the Programme for Government commitments. Funding from this special allocation will be used primarily to strengthen Community Mental Health Teams in both Adult and Children’s mental health services which will ensure, at a minimum, that at least one of each mental health professional discipline is represented on every team. This is very much in keeping with the policy set out in a Vision for Change.

Some of the funding will also be used to advance activities in the area of suicide prevention and response to self-harm presentations and to initiate the provision of psychological and counselling services in primary care, specifically for people with mental health problems. Some provision will also be made to facilitate the re-location of mental health service users from institutional care to more independent living arrangements in their communities, in line with A Vision for Change.

Over 400 additional staff will be recruited to support these initiatives. It is intended that the additional resources will be rolled out in conjunction with a scheme of appropriate clinical care programmes based on an early intervention and recovery approach.

  42.  Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly    asked the Minister for Health    the current state of reforms to palliative care services; if he will explain the discrepancy between the provision and funding of palliative care services in counties in which good practice is followed, such as Limerick, and counties such as Wicklow, in which palliative care services are inadequate; his plans and targets for equalising service levels between counties or regions. [16913/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  The Health Service Executive acknowledges that historical differences exist between regions in the provision of Palliative Care services. The HSE’s Palliative Care Services — Five Year/ Medium Term Development Framework was published in 2009 in order to detail the required actions and initiatives necessary to address the gaps in palliative care service provision.

The Executive is currently engaged in a process of increasing and developing capacity within existing resources and developing skills in community care and care of the elderly settings specifically in relation to palliative care services. It is also taking the opportunity afforded by integration to identify ways of enabling the delivery of these agreed national priorities. The HSE aims to ensure that patients with life-limiting conditions and their families can easily [615]access a level of palliative care services that is appropriate to their needs, regardless of age, care setting or diagnosis.

The HSE Service Plan 2012 provides funding of €78m for Palliative Care. Palliative care is additionally funded through both acute and community services.

It should be noted that expected activity in the 2012 Service Plan indicates waiting times for access to in-patient specialist palliative care will be broadly similar in Dublin Mid-Leinster (DML) (including Wicklow) and the West (which includes Limerick). In the West it is expected that 86% of patients would have access within seven days while the corresponding figure is 83% in DML. Figures are also comparable for access within seven days to community services. The HSE Regional Service Plan 2012 for DML indicates that given the cost pressure within the Palliative Care Services in DML during 2012 the priority will be to maximise available resources to provide the best possible services for care recipients.

  43.  Deputy Jonathan O’Brien    asked the Minister for Health    the number of delayed discharges for hospitals in the Southern Hospitals Group and the equivalent figure for 2010; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24214/12]

  59.  Deputy Dessie Ellis    asked the Minister for Health    the current number of delayed discharges for hospitals in the Dublin North Hospitals’ Group and the equivalent figure for 2010; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24210/12]

  65.  Deputy Peadar Tóibín    asked the Minister for Health    the current number of delayed discharges for hospitals in the North Eastern Hospitals Group and the equivalent figure for 2010; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24212/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 43, 59 and 65 together.

As these are service matters, they have been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  44.  Deputy Michael Colreavy    asked the Minister for Health    the terms of reference, scope and duration of the review of the nursing home support fair deal scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24200/12]

  45.  Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn    asked the Minister for Health    if public consultation will form a part of the review of the fair deal scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24206/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 44 and 45 together.

The Nursing Homes Support Scheme was introduced in October 2009 with a commitment to review its operation after three years. The reason for allowing this period to elapse is to ensure that trends and statistics will be available in order to inform the work.

The review of the Scheme will look at, amongst other issues:

the ongoing sustainability of the scheme,

the relative cost of public versus private provision,

[616]

the effectiveness of current methods of negotiating price in private nursing homes and setting price in public nursing homes, and

the balance of funding between residential and community care.

The terms of reference for the review are being finalised at present. The Department of Health will be seeking tenders through the public procurement process for the carrying out of the review. This process takes approximately 4 months. It is also intended to carry out a public consultation over the summer to inform the review.

It is anticipated that the review itself will take approximately three months to complete. It is expected that the review will commence in the last quarter of this year and be completed in early 2013.

  46.  Deputy Peadar Tóibín    asked the Minister for Health    if the Health Service Executive review of domestic violence and sexual assault services will include public consultation; when it is expected to be completed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24213/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  This is an internal review by the HSE of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence services and will not include a public consultation. It is envisaged that by year end the review will be completed and a strategic plan for the future provision and configuration of services in this area will be developed.

  47.  Deputy John Halligan    asked the Minister for Health    if cuts are planned to radiology services at St. Columcille’s Hospital, Loughlinstown, County Dublin; if so, if he will provide details of these cuts; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24222/12]

  51.  Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett    asked the Minister for Health    if cuts are planned to radiology services at St. Columcille’s Hospital, Loughlinstown, County Dublin; if so, if he will provide details of these cuts; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24221/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 47 and 51 together.

As these are service matters, they have been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  48.  Deputy Seán Crowe    asked the Minister for Health    the progress, if any, made on developing a new general practitioner contract; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24204/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  The Programme for Government provides for the introduction of a new General Medical Services (GMS) contract with General Practitioners (GPs) with an increased emphasis on the management of chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular conditions. It is envisaged that the new contract, when finalised, will focus on prevention and will include a requirement for GPs to provide care as part of integrated multidisciplinary Primary Care Teams.

[617]The Universal Primary Care Project Team, which involves officials from the Department and the HSE, is examining the changes that need to be made to the GMS contract to facilitate the introduction of Universal Primary Care.

  49.  Deputy Brian Stanley    asked the Minister for Health    the progress, if any, on the establishment of a patient safety authority; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24203/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  My Department is continuing to consider the options and possible organisational structures of the Patient Safety Authority (PSA) taking account of the international experience and the existing structures and organisations in the Irish system. The PSA is a key component of the Health Reform Programme and, therefore, its role and inter-relationship with the health system needs to be carefully designed and developed. It is not possible, at this stage, to indicate when a PSA will be established.

  50.  Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn    asked the Minister for Health    the reason his Department’s Statement of Strategy 2011-2014 was published in May 2012; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24207/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  My Department’s previous Statement of Strategy covered the period 2008-2010. Under the Public Service Management Act 1997 Departments are required to produce a new Statement of Strategy every three years and within six months of the appointment of a new Minister and, accordingly, my Department prepared a draft Statement of Strategy following my appointment as Minister for Health in 2011. Following preparation of a draft, consultations with the Department of the Taoiseach were necessary and publication of all Departmental Strategy Statements followed the finalisation of the 2012 Annual Review of the Programme for Government.

Question No. 51 answered with Question No. 47.

  52.  Deputy Dara Calleary    asked the Minister for Health    the reason his decision on hospital reconfiguration has been delayed until the middle of the year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24277/12]

  62.  Deputy Sandra McLellan    asked the Minister for Health    the date on which the framework for smaller hospitals document will be published; the process by which this document has been drafted; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24208/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 52 and 62 together.

I want to ensure that as many services as possible can be provided safely and appropriately in smaller, local hospitals. On this basis, the organisation of hospital services nationally, regionally and locally will be informed by the ongoing development of the HSE Clinical Programmes. The Framework for the future development of smaller hospitals has been drafted by a joint HSE/Departmental group. Consultation with all stakeholders, including patients and public representatives, will be an integral part of the process of implementing the framework for smaller hospitals.

[618]This framework will demonstrate clearly that the future of smaller hospitals is secure. It will set out what services can and should be delivered safely by these hospitals in the interest of better outcomes for patients. I am currently examining the Framework in the context of the overall reorganisation of the health services. That includes the development of hospital groups. The changes that will and must take place will have a considerable impact on how our hospital services are aligned. As Minister for Health I am eager to initiate improvements to our hospital system, however due consideration must be given to the Framework to ensure that when implemented it will optimise the significant resources smaller hospitals have to offer.

It is my intention to publish the Framework when this process has been completed.

  53.  Deputy Luke “Ming” Flanagan    asked the Minister for Health    if the manufacturers and importers of tobacco products have fulfilled their duties under Article 6 section 1 of the Tobacco Products Directive 2001/37/EC, transposed into Irish law via the European Communities (Manufacture, Presentation and Sale of Tobacco Products) Regulations 2003, that is, submit the ingredients in each of their products by brand and type, and where such details may be accessed now; further in the event that the tobacco companies have not fulfilled the requirements under the directive, the steps he will take to ensure that the National Tobacco Control Office will force the companies to do so; the steps he will take to overcome the problems of the past whereby various scientific formats and scales were a stumbling block to collating the data from the various companies; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24068/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  As indicated by the Deputy there is a legal obligation on tobacco manufacturing companies and tobacco importers to provide a list to the Health Service Executive (HSE) of all ingredients used in the manufacture of their tobacco products. This is a legal requirement set out in Directive 2001/37/EC and given effect to in Irish law by S.I. No. 425/2003 — European Communities (Manufacture, Presentation and Sale of Tobacco Products) Regulations 2003. My Department is liaising with the National Tobacco Control Office, HSE in relation to this and other tobacco related matters. I understand from the HSE that submissions have been received from the majority of the companies concerned. The HSE is writing to the remaining companies requesting this information. Companies are requested to submit the data in accordance with the Practical Guide issued by the EC in 2007 which provides for a common reporting format.

  54.  Deputy Michael McGrath    asked the Minister for Health    when he expects to finalise his plans to close 898 community nursing unit beds; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24292/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

Question No. 55 answered with Question No. 32.

Question No. 56 answered with Question No. 12.

  57.  Deputy Michael Healy-Rae    asked the Minister for Health    if he will consider reverting to [619]the older system of processing medical cards; that is, each county processes their applications. [24071/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  I acknowledge that a number of difficulties arose with the processing of medical cards at the centralised application office in the final quarter of last year. These difficulties gave rise to a very large backlog and long delays for both new applicants and medical card renewals. A number of factors gave rise to these problems including:

the processing of medical cards was centralised before the necessary resources were in place,

a significant backlog already existed prior to centralisation,

poor communication with medical card applicants and the public, limited support from local health offices and poor communication between local offices and the centralised service,

and poor practices and procedures in the handling, filing and processing of medical card documentation.

These issues were a matter of serious concern to me and I had a number of meetings with the HSE over the last six months to raise my concerns. As a result, the HSE has introduced a number of changes in recent months to the administration of the medical card application system. These include:

increased staffing levels in the centralised processing service and in respect of medical card appeals,

improvements to how medical card renewals are assessed and the frequency by which they are assessed,

increased flexibility for GPs to add certain categories of patients to their GMS list,

the fast-tracking of backlogged cases, and cases where documentation has been mis-filed.

While a number of customer service and communication issues remain to be addressed, the HSE has been making good progress in eliminating the backlog and preventing further backlogs occurring. A backlog of 58,000 applications from last year has been completely cleared. The HSE receives up to 50,000 applications per month and over 90% of complete applications are processed within 15 days. A review of medical card processing has been undertaken by PricewaterhouseCoopers which contains a number of recommendations that the HSE is considering.

I continue to monitor the situation and meet with the HSE on a regular basis to address any issues which may arise in respect of medical cards.

Question No. 58 answered with Question No. 10.

Question No. 59 answered with Question No. 43.

  60.  Deputy Pearse Doherty    asked the Minister for Health    the progress, if any, made in implementing the recommendations of the North-South Feasibility Study on co-operation in [620]the provision of health services on the island of Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24198/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The North-South Feasibility Study, finalised in 2009, examined the potential for joint co-operation in health across an extensive range of health and social care services. It set out 10 priority recommendations and many of these are already being taken forward. Areas of ongoing collaboration include — child protection, cancer research, health promotion, suicide prevention, radiotherapy services, paediatric congenital cardiac surgery and a range of initiatives under the Interreg IVA funding initiative. The Study was published on the websites of the Irish Department of Health and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland last December.

At a departmental level co-operation between the two jurisdictions is active and ongoing. “Transforming Your Care: a Review of Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland.” also recommends co-operation on a number of key issues. My officials are liaising with their counterparts in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland on how to progress these issues.

I am committed to working together with my Northern colleagues on issues of common concern and benefit. This is of particular relevance in the current time when both jurisdictions are implementing change and pushing forward health reform.

  61.  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív    asked the Minister for Health    if he has initiated any discussions with the National Asset Management Agency regarding the use of their buildings for primary care centres or the Department of Justice regarding the use of unused Garda stations as primary care centres; the outcomes of these discussions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24298/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The development of primary care is central to this Government’s objective to deliver a high quality, integrated and cost effective health system. The Programme for Government states that primary care will be an immediate priority area. The development of primary care centres, through a combination of public and private investment, will facilitate the delivery of multi-disciplinary primary care and represents a tangible re-focussing of the health service to deliver care in the most appropriate and lowest cost setting.

Within the context of its commercial remit, NAMA advises that it is at all times open to proposals which can contribute to the achievement of broader social and economic objectives and has committed to giving first option to public bodies on the purchase of property which may be suitable for their purposes. The development of the primary care centre network is currently under review. Its delivery must be informed by needs analysis, with priority given to areas of urban and rural deprivation. Therefore it is important to recognise that not all NAMA controlled buildings and sites are appropriately located or suitable. The outcome of this review requires my approval with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

Both Minister Shortall and I have had meetings with NAMA with a view to building on potential synergies between NAMA controlled land and property and the requirements of the health sector, not just in the area of primary care, but in other areas also. The Health Service Executive and NAMA have been engaging constructively in that regard in recent months and will continue to do so.

[621]Minister Shortall has had informal discussions with the OPW regarding unused Garda stations and other buildings. A follow up meeting at ministerial level is due to take place shortly.

Question No. 62 answered with Question No. 52.

  63.  Deputy Martin Ferris    asked the Minister for Health    if he will ensure continuing and adequate funding for the established organisations for those women whose health has been damaged by infected blood products; the meetings he has held to address the funding issue and their outcome; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24216/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The HSE funds over 2,500 organisation, which operate over 4,100 separate funding arrangements to a value of approximately €3.3 billion. These organisations vary in scale and complexity, ranging from large acute hospitals to local community based organisations providing social care services. The HSE National Governance Framework regarding funding of non-statutory organisations commenced in 2009 and was rolled out to all agencies in 2010.

The Framework sets out the requirement that all agencies in receipt of State funding must sign a Service Level Agreement (SLA). This policy was put in place to ensure accountability, probity and good governance in relation to spending of State funding. The HSE had made the organisations referred to by the Deputy aware of the Framework in 2008. Part 1 of the SLA document is generic to all organisations and cannot be changed and Part 2 allows for specific details of the organisation’s role and services to be inserted.

Signing the SLA does not compromise the confidentiality of the work, or members of an organisation.

Discussions are continuing with the organisations referred to by the Deputy regarding their SLAs for 2012 and funding has been provided by the HSE to meet fixed cost commitments, pending agreement to the terms of the SLAs.

  64.  Deputy Clare Daly    asked the Minister for Health    the reason there is no mechanism to establish a clinical review of the level of care in hospitals; and the steps he will take to ensure accountability in that regard. [24142/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  As Minister for Health one of my primary objectives is to embed patient safety and quality standards into the health services.

In this regard the HSE National Service Plan 2012 commits to establishing a culture of continuous quality improvement through effective governance structures, clinical effectiveness, outcome measurements, and evaluation at the centre of its approach to improving services.

I have arranged for the question to be forwarded to the HSE who will provide a more detailed response directly to the Deputy.

Question No. 65 answered with Question No. 43.

  66.  Deputy Dessie Ellis    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade    the work he is undertaking to see that the British Government implements Article 20 of the Weston Park Agreement. [24354/12]

[622]Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Eamon Gilmore):  The various measures included in the package agreed at Weston Park in August 2001 addressed four issues to assist in the successful implementation of the Good Friday Agreement: policing, normalisation, the stability of the institutions and decommissioning. There has been huge progress made in all of these areas and this progress was highlighted by a number of important milestones during 2011. April 2011 saw the one year anniversary of the successful devolution of justice and policing to the Northern Ireland Assembly. On 5 May 2011 the Northern Ireland Assembly elections took place, the first time that a full Assembly term had been served out since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The orderly and non-contentious manner in which the elections were held underlined that politics and society in Northern Ireland has continued the transition towards normality. November 2011 marked the ten year anniversary of the establishment of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Proposed draft legislation by the British Government to deal with this specific issue as referred to in paragraph 20 of the Weston Park accord was formally withdrawn by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain MP, on 11 January 2006. The draft legislation, the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill , had been opposed by the majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly parties and the Secretary of State was compelled to withdraw the legislation when the only supporting party, Sinn Féin, could not accept certain aspects of the proposed legislation.

The Government remains committed to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

  67.  Deputy Dessie Ellis    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade    the work he is undertaking to encourage the release of a person (details supplied) under the terms of the Weston Park Agreement. [24355/12]

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Eamon Gilmore):  It is our understanding that the prisoner in question has initiated legal proceedings to secure an early release and judgment on this is pending. It would therefore not be appropriate for me to comment any further at this stage other than to confirm that officials from my Department continue to monitor developments very closely.

  68.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade    the extent if any to which he unilaterally or in consort with his EU and UN colleagues has managed to ensure that former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, now in prison, is receiving adequate medical treatment in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian criteria; the extent, if known, of visits she has had from medical practitioners and-or human rights observers since her imprisonment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24444/12]

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Eamon Gilmore):  The case of former Prime Minister of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko, is matter of deep concern to Ireland and to the European Union. The Deputy will be aware that Ms Tymoshenko was sentenced on 11 October 2011 to seven years in prison, and was the subject of a three-year ban on holding high public office and an order to repay €130m to the state-owned gas company having been convicted of exceeding her authority as Prime Minister when concluding a gas deal with Russia in 2009. Her verdict was upheld in December 2011.

Since Ms Tymoshenko was imprisoned, there have been troubling reports about the state of her health, as well as deeply serious allegations that she was subject to physical mistreatment when being transferred to a prison hospital last month. I understand that she is currently being [623]treated by an independent medical doctor from a German hospital. Ms Tymoshenko was visited by the then Ombudsman and Ukrainian Parliamentary Commissioner for Human Rights on 24 April. A visit by two rapporteurs on Ukraine from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is expected this week. I urge the Ukrainian authorities, as a minimum, to facilitate all such medical and human rights related visits.

The High Representative for Human Rights of the European Union, Catherine Ashton, has called on the Ukrainian authorities to ensure the full respect of the right of Ms Tymoshenko to adequate medical assistance in an appropriate institution and that the European Union Ambassador, accompanied by independent medical specialists be allowed to visit Ms Tymoshenko in prison. I fully support that call.

More broadly, the EU has drawn attention to its concerns about the number of instances of what appear to be politically motivated trials and convictions and this message was reiterated yesterday in the EU-Ukraine Cooperation Council in Ukraine. The EU has stressed that this issue, and the need to examine promptly and impartially any complaints of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as ensuring adequate medical attention for those in detention, including Ms Tymoshenko, will be central to any further progress in advancing relations between the EU and Ukraine. I have strongly supported this position. Ireland has long favoured closer ties between the EU and Ukraine, which are clearly to the benefit of both sides. However, recent events have, unfortunately, undermined the progress that we all wish to see.

In the meantime, the issue of the conditions of Ms Tymoshenko and the wider rule of law questions raised by her imprisonment and that of other political figures will remain high on the EU’s agenda. Indeed, along with my EU Foreign Minister colleagues, I engaged in a thorough discussion of this issue at the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels on Monday, 14 January.

  69.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade    the position regarding a passport application in respect of a person (details supplied) in Dublin 5. [24446/12]

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Eamon Gilmore):  A passport was issued to the person in question on 11 May 2012.

  70.  Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade    his views on correspondence (details supplied) regarding the situation in Sudan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24457/12]

  74.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade    if he will support full humanitarian access to the people of South Kordofan in Sudan. [24539/12]

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Eamon Gilmore):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 70 and 74 together.

The Government shares the grave concerns expressed by aid agencies regarding the humanitarian situation in the South Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains regions of Sudan. Prolonged fighting since the beginning of June 2011 between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM North) in Sudan’s South Kordofan State has claimed an untold number of lives and has severely affected over 300,000 people. According to the UN, the total number of refugees from South Kordofan and Blue Nile states seeking [624]refuge in neighbouring South Sudan now stands at over 129,000 people, putting pressure on an already limited humanitarian response capacity in the world’s youngest State.

Ireland, together with our EU partners, is responding to the situation and is supporting efforts to bring an end to the continuing conflict in the region. We are particularly concerned about the issue of humanitarian access for NGOs and international relief agencies to the areas affected by conflict. We have raised the issue of humanitarian access at EU level, as well as at other international fora.

I note that the correspondence referred to by the Deputy states that Trócaire welcomes the EU Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions on Sudan and South Sudan adopted at the meeting which I attended meeting on 23 April. These Conclusions were intended to send a clear message to the Governments of Sudan and South Sudan, and their proxy military forces, to bring an end to violence and to re-engage in the negotiation process. In these conclusions, EU Ministers called on the Government of Sudan and the SPLM North to engage in an inclusive political process to resolve the conflict in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile.

The EU has consistently and repeatedly emphasised the urgent need for humanitarian access to civilians in its interventions on the situation in Sudan and South Sudan. In January last, with Ireland’s encouragement, European Union Foreign Ministers urged the Government of Sudan to allow safe and unhindered access for international humanitarian workers to all civilians and reiterated its readiness to provide humanitarian assistance to all those in need. The EU also emphasised that the ongoing conflicts in Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur remain obstacles to moving forward with the full range of supports that the EU would like to provide to Sudan. The issue of humanitarian access and the need for Sudan to fulfil its obligations under international humanitarian law have also been emphasised in statements made on behalf of the EU by the High Representative, Catherine Ashton, on the conflict in South Kordofan, including most recently in her statement of 3 April. Ireland fully aligns itself with these statements.

Despite the serious challenges, humanitarian agencies are managing to gain limited access to some vulnerable communities in South Kordofan. Both the World Food Programme and the United Nations Children’s Fund have provided assistance to displaced people and affected host communities. Through Irish Aid in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Government has recently allocated €2 million for the UN-managed Common Humanitarian Funds for both the Republic of Sudan and South Sudan. These funds are being used to help UN agencies target the most critical humanitarian needs across both countries, including in areas beset by conflict and affected by displacement from Blue Nile and South Kordofan. A further €1.22 million has been made available to Irish NGOs for programmes in Sudan and South Sudan under the annual Humanitarian Programme Planning (HPP) funding scheme. We are actively examining the possibility of providing further support as access conditions improve and the needs on the ground become clearer.

The Government will continue to monitor closely the situation in South Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains, and along with our EU partners we will continue to press for unrestricted humanitarian access to affected civilians.

  71.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade    if he has met President-Elect Francois Hollande since his election; his plans regarding same; if he expects significant changes to the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24476/12]

[625]Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Eamon Gilmore):  I visited Paris on Sunday 6 May upon the election of President-elect Hollande in my capacity as leader of the Labour Party. I have also had a number of informal exchanges with members of his transition team. The Taoiseach spoke by telephone to President-elect Hollande on 9 May and congratulated him on his victory in the presidential elections in France. Their discussions focused on the referendum on 31 May on the Stability Treaty, and the reorientation of the European agenda towards a strong growth future. They will meet at the informal dinner of Heads of State and Government on 23 May which will focus on the growth agenda.

Officials from my own Department and from the Department of the Taoiseach have been in close contact with the team of President-elect Hollande. It is our clear understanding that the substance of the Stability Treaty is not to be reopened for negotiation. President-elect Hollande has consistently stressed the importance of developing a growth dimension to EU policy in addition to the provisions in the Stability Treaty. This is an approach I have long argued for, is urgently needed and is to be very much welcomed.

  72.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade    if he will provide an update on the situation in Syria in particular with reference to the operation and reports of the UN monitors; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24477/12]

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Eamon Gilmore):  I am gravely concerned at the current situation in Syria, against a backdrop of escalating violence and the continued difficulties in ensuring adherence to the 12 April ceasefire and promoting full compliance by all sides with the six-point peace plan of UN/Arab League Joint Special Envoy, Kofi Annan. The situation was one of the major items discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council on 14 May which I attended. The Council expressed its deep concern about the continuing violence, including recent deadly bomb attacks such as that which claimed an estimated 55 lives in Damascus on 10 May. The Council also recalled its full support for the Annan peace plan, welcomed the progress to date in deployment of members of the UN Supervision Mission to Syria (UNSMIS) and urged continued prompt deployment of the full mission totalling 300 observers. The Council also recalled the responsibility of the Syrian government for both the safety and security of UNSMIS personnel as well as for ensuring the full and fast deployment of the mission and its effective operation.

The Annan peace plan represents the only realistic option at present for ending the current wave of violence and promoting a peaceful political transition within Syria. Ireland and its EU partners emphasize the need for full and immediate compliance by the Syrian government with its obligations under the Annan Plan. In particular, there must be an end to all shelling and full withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons from population centres, a release of political detainees and an end to ongoing human rights violations. All sides must desist from violence of any kind and commit to full support for the Plan. The fullest and earliest deployment of UNSMIS is essential to international efforts to bring the violence to an end and to promote full implementation of the Plan. Ireland is proud to be contributing personnel to this Mission, the Government having decided on 24 April to contribute up to six military observers to serve with it. The Irish contingent of six was deployed to Syria on 11 May.

Currently, approximately one hundred of the Mission’s total strength of 300 military observers, as authorised in UN Security Council Resolution 2043, have been deployed in Syria along with a civilian component of 49 civilian staff. Observer teams have been established in cities such as Homs, Deraa, and Hama which have been the scenes of major conflict and shelling. The principal obstacles confronting UNSMIS in its deployment to date relate to the [626]provision of air assets, ensuring full safety of the observers in light of the highly volatile security situation as well as the unacceptable attempts by the Syrian government to influence the composition of the Mission by a selective approach to the granting of entry visas. I am particularly concerned at incidents such as the attack which took place on a Syrian Army convoy accompanying a UNSMIS observer team (including the Norwegian Force Commander) which was visiting Deraa on 9 May; this attack resulted in serious injuries to a number of Syrian soldiers. Incidents of this kind which involve the targeting of UN peace-keepers are completely unacceptable.

The UN is working towards full deployment of UNSMIS by the end of May. The recent increase in the level of violence underlines the severity of the challenges faced by the Mission. However, we are resolved, with our EU partners, to continue to offer the fullest support to UNSMIS and to Special Envoy Annan in their efforts to promote a peaceful settlement.

  73.  Deputy Patrick Nulty    asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade    his views on the situation regarding a person (details supplied) and the report published by the Pat Finucane Centre for Human Rights; if his attention has been drawn to the call that they be moved from Hydebank Women’s Prison, Belfast, to an outside facility to receive medical treatment; if he has raised this matter with the British Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24489/12]

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Eamon Gilmore):  My Department has received a copy of the report by the Pat Finucane Centre which raised concerns about the health of the person in question. For my part I have discussed the status of this individual with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I have directed officials from my Department to continue to monitor this case very closely.

Question No. 74 answered with Question No. 70.

  75.  Deputy Simon Harris    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will introduce measures to off-set the impact of rising costs of petrol and diesel in view of the adverse effect that it is having on small and medium enterprises here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24347/12]

  76.  Deputy Simon Harris    asked the Minister for Finance    the steps he will take to address the pressures being felt by persons and small businesses in view of rising petrol and diesel prices; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24348/12]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 75 and 76 together.

The excise rates (including the carbon charge) in Ireland on motor fuels are 58.8 cent per litre of petrol and 47.9 cent per litre of auto-diesel. However, our rates remain lower than many of our main trading partners and significantly lower than our nearest neighbour the UK. The rates for petrol and auto-diesel were increased with effect from 7 December 2011, arising from an increase in the carbon charge for those fuels from €15 to €20 per tonne of CO2 emitted. This represented an increase of less than 1.5 cent per litre in the case of petrol and just over 1.5 cent per litre in the case of diesel, when VAT is included. The rate of VAT that applies to those fuels increased from 21% to 23% with effect from 1 January 2012.

[627]The Exchequer yield from excise, as excise is set at a nominal amount, does not increase as the price of fuels increase. On the other hand, the yield from VAT per litre of fuel, as VAT is set as a percentage of the price, increases as the price of fuels increase. However, in this regard it should be borne in mind that to the extent that spending in the economy is re-allocated to petrol and other oil products, and away from other VAT liable spending, and to the extent that the overall level of economic activity is reduced by higher oil prices, there may be little or no net gain to the Exchequer. It should also be noted that businesses are of course entitled to reclaim VAT incurred on their business inputs, including VAT incurred on fuel. For example, VAT incurred on auto-diesel and marked gas oil (MGO or green diesel) used in the course of business is a deductible credit for business in the Irish VAT system. VAT on petrol cannot be deducted/reclaimed.

There are no plans for temporary taxation adjustments, as to do so, could lead to significant costs to the Exchequer. The issue of rising fuel prices was discussed by EU Finance Ministers at an ECOFIN meeting last year where they reconfirmed the approach taken in 2005 and again in 2008, when oil prices were very high, which endorsed a coordinated approach towards not making distortionary fiscal adjustments.

  77.  Deputy Joanna Tuffy    asked the Minister for Finance    if he has been given details of proposals by banks to introduce split mortgages for families experiencing difficulties making repayments on their mortgage; if he is satisfied that the proposals will be in keeping with his overall strategy to address the issue of mortgage arrears; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24378/12]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  The Central Bank is engaging with all regulated mortgage lenders on the mortgage arrears resolution strategies project. This is a key element of the overall approach to address the mortgage arrears problem. The objective of this engagement is to ensure that each lender has an effective strategy and plan for dealing with its mortgage customers who are, or who are likely to be, in difficulty. I am informed by the Central Bank that, in line with its on-going engagement and work, lenders are currently submitting to it the options they propose to make available to tackle this long term problem. Those options may include the products referred to in the report from the Interdepartmental Mortgages Arrears Group, such as split mortgages. The Central Bank has indicated to me that lenders are expected to start piloting these options over the summer with full roll out commencing towards the end of the year.

  78.  Deputy Gerry Adams    asked the Minister for Finance    if his recently announced intention to carry out a review of internal reorganisation, including the creation of an economics division to focus on economic planning and performance monitoring will entail the employment of new staff; if the intention is to fill these positions from outside of the Civil Service; if they will be subject to open competition; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24421/12]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  The revised Statement of Strategy for the Department sets out its mission: “to manage Government Finances and play a central role in the achievement of the Government’s economic and social goals having regard to the Programme for Government. In this way we will play a leadership role in the improvement of the standards of living of our citizens”. This Department is redirecting our own primary focus more towards the identification and implementation of measures which will contribute to enhanced [628]confidence, delivering sustainable growth in our economy and thereby repair the damage caused to the lives of citizens, the economy and the banking sector.

As also explained in the Statement of Strategy “As a result, during 2012 and 2013, we will actively engage in a threefold action plan.

This will firstly involve training our existing teams so that they can develop greater technical, management and leadership skills necessary to the challenge. Using the performance management evaluation system, we will review our staff and identify any skills which need enhancing so as to use the training resources most effectively.

We will challenge and acknowledge the efforts of our key performing staff by further developing their skills and add to the value they contribute to the Department.

In parallel, we will be adding to our teams to supplement our skills base where gaps are identified. This will also be necessary for succession planning for the work of future generations of our department.”

The addition of any new staff will occur through a combination of employment via open competition and the secondment of staff from other areas of the Civil/Public Service and private sector.

  79.  Deputy Simon Harris    asked the Minister for Finance    if his attention has been drawn to an anomaly whereby hard copy textbooks are VAT free, however the same publications in ebook form are subject to VAT at a rate of 23%; if he will address this matter in view of the growing number of schools that are favouring electronic textbooks; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24425/12]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  The VAT rating of goods and services is subject to the requirements of EU VAT law with which Irish VAT law must comply. In Ireland the zero rate applies to printed books, including atlases, children’s picture, drawing and colouring books and books of music. Under the EU VAT Directive, all digitised publications, regardless of their rate when printed (for example, a book liable at zero rate), are treated as the supply of a service liable at the standard 23% rate of VAT. E-books, online newspaper subscriptions and online information services purchased via download over the Internet are also considered the supply of services liable for VAT at the standard rate. There is no option under EU VAT law to apply the zero rate of VAT to e-books.

  80.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Finance    the discussions that he has had with the National Asset Management Agency regarding plans to launch their pilot scheme for negative equity protection; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24448/12]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  NAMA launched its 80:20 Deferred Payment Initiative on 8 May 2012. This initiative is being made available initially on a pilot basis in respect of 115 houses located in residential developments in counties Dublin, Meath and Cork. Further details on the Initiative including eligible properties are available on NAMA’s website, www.nama.ie. NAMA brought forward this scheme in response to my request that it examine measures open to it to help improve liquidity in the housing market in late 2011. Discussions with NAMA on their proposed scheme resulted in agreement that this initiative would go ahead subject to the following conditions:

[629]

It is limited to 750 houses in total;

Properties will be released in three tranches with an evaluation process after the release of the first tranche to determine the results of the scheme and the impact on the housing market;

Properties in the pilot phase will be remaining vacant units in partly occupied housing estates;

There would be limited numbers of houses released in each geographical area so as not to unduly impact on the local housing market; and

NAMA would adopt other measures in combination with the sales process such as appropriate leasing initiatives and targeted sales (in rural areas) as well as the development of social housing solutions.

I am advised by NAMA that any extension of the pilot initiative to additional residential units would include units located across the range of regions in which NAMA’s debtors control suitable units.

  81.  Deputy Brendan Griffin    asked the Minister for Finance    if an educational body (details supplied) in County Kerry qualifies for charitable donations under the Tax Consolidation Act 1997; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24464/12]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  Section 848A of the Taxes Consolidation Act (TCA) 1997 provides for tax relief on donations to eligible charities and other approved bodies. The administration of the donations scheme is the responsibility of the Revenue Commissioners. I am advised by Revenue that all primary schools providing education, based on a programme prescribed or approved by the Minister for Education and Skills, are approved bodies for the purposes of the donations scheme. This includes the educational body in respect of which the Deputy supplied details. The full details and conditions of the donations scheme are set out in leaflet CHY2 which can be accessed on the Revenue website at www.revenue.ie.

  82.  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív    asked the Minister for Finance    the total national debt as of 1 January 2012 defined as debt that will be assessable for debt/GDP if the fiscal compact is agreed and the amount of this that derives from investments in and other supports for banking institutions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24494/12]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  Ireland’s National Debt stood at €119.1 billion at end-December 2011. National Debt is the net debt incurred by the Exchequer after taking account of cash balances and other related assets. The debt correction requirement in the Inter-Governmental Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union relates to General Government Debt, not National Debt.

General Government Debt is the measure of the total debt of the State and is used for comparative purposes across the European Union. National Debt is the principal component of General Government Debt. General Government Debt also includes the debt of central and local government bodies as well as Promissory Notes issued to a number of financial institutions as a means of providing State support to these institutions. Unlike the National Debt, General Government Debt is reported on a gross basis and does not net off outstanding cash balances and other related assets.

[630]General Government Debt stood an estimated €169.3 billion at end-2011. Of this, some €42 billion arises as a result of the impact of State support for the banking sector.

State Support for Banking Sector
(Exchequer + Promissory Note)
2009
€bn
2010
€bn
2011
€bn
Total 4.0 31.55 6.5
— Recapitalisation of Anglo 4.0
— INBS/EBS Special Investment Shares 0.7
— Promissory Notes 30.85
— July 2011 Banking Recapitalisation 6.5*

*Net of Exchequer receipts from the sale of the part of the National Pensions Reserve Fund (NPRF) shareholding in Bank of Ireland and of transaction fees from the ILP recapitalisation.

In addition, a further €20.7 billion has been provided to the banking system from the NPRF. Funding provided from the NPRF does not directly affect the General Government Debt.

  83.  Deputy Sean Fleming    asked the Minister for Finance    when a disabled passenger scheme will be approved and finalised in respect of a person (details supplied) in County Laois; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24503/12]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that an application for relief under the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers Scheme was received in the Central Repayments Office, Monaghan on 4th January 2012 from the person (details supplied). A Letter of Authorisation, which permitted the claimant to purchase a vehicle under the terms of the scheme, issued on the same date. A Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) was received in the Central Repayments Office on 1st May 2012. An Exemption Notification issued to the person (details supplied) on 14th May 2012. This Exemption Notification authorises registration of the vehicle exempt from Vehicle Registration Tax.

  84.  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív    asked the Minister for Finance    the total net investment by the State in banks and financial institutions since 2008 and the amount this has added to the national debt; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24515/12]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  The table below shows the net investment after accounting for all fees paid in respect of the recaps, the Cash dividend income on Preference shares, and Cash received from sale of warrants:

€bn AIB/EBS BoI* IL&P IBRC (Anglo/INBS) Total
Government preference Shares (2009) — NPRF 3.47 3.47 6.94
Government preference Shares Return (Coupon/Warrants) -0.95 -0.95
Capital contributions (with Promissory Notes as consideration) /Special Investment Shares (2010) — Exchequer ** 0.88 30.70 31.58
Ordinary Share Capital (2009) — Exchequer 4.00 4.00
Ordinary Share Capital (2010) — NPRF 3.70 3.70
Total pre-PCAR 2011 (A) 8.04 2.52 0.00 34.70 45.27
PCAR 2011:
Capital from Exchequer*** 3.88 2.65 6.54
NPRF Capital 8.77 1.20 9.97
Total PCAR (B) 12.65 1.20 2.65 0.00 16.51
Total Cost of Recap for State (A) + (B) 20.70 3.72 2.65 34.70 61.77

*€1.7bn of BoI’s government preference shares were converted to equity in May/June 2010 (€1.8bn still left in existence). The government also received €479m from the warrants, €403m in dividend income and €64m in fees relating to BoI’s preference shares.

**The IBRC amount is made up of a total capital contribution for Anglo / INBS of €30.6bn and a special investment share of €0.1bn (INBS). The Anglo / INBS capital contribution impacted in full on the GGB in 2010. The consideration for the Anglo / INBS capital contribution was €30.6bn of promissory notes. These Promissory Notes are an amount due from the State to IBRC. Each year, on 31 March, €3.06bn is paid by the Exchequer to Anglo / INBS as part of the scheduled repayments of the promissory notes. The first such repayment was made on 31 March 2010.

***All costs are shown net of fees, the Exchequer cost of the 2011 BoI recap is shown net of share sale to private investors (Completed in October, 2011).

Not factored into the table above are fees received by the State to end March 2012, since the introduction of the Credit Institutions Financial Support Scheme (CIFS) in September 2008 and the Eligible Liabilities Guarantee Scheme (ELG) which supersedes CIFS, which amount in total to €3.11bn.

National Debt is the net debt incurred by the Exchequer. Ireland’s National Debt stood at €129.6 billion at end-April 2012. Of that amount, some €17.8 billion is the result of State support for the banking sector – see table below:

State Support for Banking Sector 2009
€bn
2010
€bn
2011
€bn
2012 (end-April)
€bn
Total 4.0 0.7 9.6 3.5
—Recapitalisation of Anglo 4.0
—INBS/EBS Special Investment Shares 0.7
—Promissory Notes 3.1 3.5†
—July 2011 Banking Recapitalisation 6.5*

†On 30th March 2012, the NTMA sold €3.461 billion nominal of the 5.4% Treasury Bond 2025 to IBRC. The bonds settled on 2nd April 2012. The total consideration for this transaction was €3.06 billion and was used to settle the Promissory Note liability due to IBRC on 31st March 2012.

*Net of Exchequer receipts from the sale of the part of the National Pensions Reserve Fund (NPRF) shareholding in Bank of Ireland and of transaction fees from the ILP recapitalisation.

While the €30.85 billion in Promissory Notes issued in 2010 were added in full to the stock of General Government Debt in 2010, they only add incrementally to the National Debt as the annual payments are made, as shown in the table.

[632]In addition, a further €20.7 billion has been provided to the banking system from the NPRF. Funding provided from the NPRF does not directly affect the National Debt.

  85.  Deputy Kevin Humphreys    asked the Minister for Finance    if his attention has been drawn to the fact that Permanent TSB continue to charge very high standard variable rates of more than 6% on investment retail mortgages, their reduction of 0.5% on the SVR applicable to home loans was not passed onto these borrowers and that this policy of retaining higher interest rates to off-set the losses on tracker mortgages is causing financial difficulties for these borrowers; if he will ask PTSB, which has received significant support from public funds and has access to low rate European Central Bank lending, to address this issue and ensure those borrowers who are paying their debts are not unduly burdened as their SVR has increased from 3.84% in April 2009 to 6.34% in January 2012, whilst the ECB rate declined from 1.5% to 1% in the same period meaning the margin for PTSB has increased from 2.34% to 5.34%; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24520/12]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  Notwithstanding the State’s significant shareholding in the bank, Permanent TSB (“PTSB”) operates at arm’s length from the State in relation to commercial issues. Ultimately the pricing of financial products, including standard variable mortgage interest rates, is a commercial decision for the management team and board of the bank, having due regard to their customers and the impact on profitability, particularly where the cost of funding to the bank, including deposit pricing, is under pressure. Credit institutions are not primarily or always funded from the ECB, but rather from a wide variety of sources. Neither the Central Bank nor the Department of Finance has a statutory function in relation to interest rate decisions made by individual lending institutions at any particular time. However, the Central Bank have informed me that, using their existing powers, they will engage with lenders which appear to have standard variable mortgage rates set disproportionate to their cost of funds.

  86.  Deputy John Deasy    asked the Minister for Finance    his plans to lower the rate of windfall gain tax; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24586/12]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  The windfall tax rate of 80% applies to the portion of the profit or gain on a disposal of land which is attributable to a “relevant planning decision”: that is, a rezoning, where both the rezoning and the disposal of land giving rise to the windfall happen after 30 October 2009; or a “material contravention” decision by a local authority, where both the decision and the disposal happen after 4 February 2010. The purpose of the windfall tax was to apply a higher rate of tax to the profits or gains from land disposals where those profits or gains are attributable to a decision by a planning authority rather than to any value attributable to the work of the landowner.

There is no record of profits of gains subject to the windfall tax having been declared on tax returns to date. This reflects the small number of “relevant planning decisions” since the windfall tax was introduced, as well as the fact that landowners may not make a gain on a disposal of development land in the current market. As with all areas of taxation, the windfall rate is constantly kept under review and any changes will be determined in the context of Budget and Finance Bill.

  87.  Deputy Martin Ferris    asked the Minister for Finance    if he will undertake to legislate in the area of debt collection in line with the Fine Gael Private Members ’ motion of 30 March 2009, which inter alia pointed out that unlike many other EU countries, Ireland has no system of regulation of debt collectors and called on the then Government to introduce legislation to regulate debt collection and to ensure that debt collectors are registered and vetted; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24590/12]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  I, as Minister for Finance, have no statutory function in relation to the issue raised by the Deputy. Debt collection services apply across a significantly wider range of activities than the recovery of money for financial products, for example for utilities, other consumer debts and also debts between businesses.

The Minister for Justice and Equality is responsible for legislation — the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997 — which applies to all debt collectors that operate across any or all sectors of the economy, including private individuals and debt collection agencies.

Under Section 11 of this Act, it is an offence to demand payment of a debt in a way designed to alarm, distress or humiliate. If someone is charged with this offence and it is tried as a summary offence the maximum penalty is €1,270 and/or 12 months imprisonment. If someone is charged with this offence and it is tried as an indictable offence, the maximum penalty is a fine and/or 14 years imprisonment.

The Deputy might wish to note that in the case of financial institutions which use debt collection firms, the Central Bank has imposed requirements that offer protection to consumers under its revised Consumer Protection Code (CPC). The Code obliges the regulated entities that it covers to ensure that any outsourced activity complies with the requirements of the Code. This means that outsourced activity should uphold principles in the Code such as the requirement for institutions:

not to exert undue pressure or undue influence on a customer;

to act honestly, fairly and professionally in the best interests of customers and to act with due skill, care and diligence in the best interest of its customers; and

to prohibit personal visits or oral communications except in specified circumstances.

Similarly, there are provisions in the Central Bank’s Consumer Protection Code for Licensed Moneylenders which provide protections to consumers in relation to the debt collection activities of licensed moneylenders, including where they outsource this function to a third party.

  88.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Finance    the position regarding taxation in respect of an American citizen (details supplied). [24601/12]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  The taxation of citizens of the United States of America is a matter for the Government of that country. I understand that the USA taxes its citizens regardless of where they live in the world and that this has been the case since 1913. Ireland imposes income tax on individuals resident in the State and on individuals who are not resident in the State but who have an Irish source of income. One of the principal purposes of the Double Taxation Convention between Ireland and the United States is to avoid income being doubly taxed. Consistent with US tax treaties generally, the Convention has limited application in relation to the taxation of US citizens — for example, a US citizen, treated as [634]Irish resident for the purposes of the Convention, who is in receipt of Irish-sourced interest income can be subject to US tax. However, the Convention requires the United States to give credit for Irish tax — such as DIRT on interest income — against any US tax payable on that income and does not limit the application of this requirement in the case of US citizens. The Convention requires that the relief is to be given in accordance with the provisions and subject to the limitations of the law of the United States.

  89.  Deputy Charlie McConalogue    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    the number of crèches run by vocational education colleges that will close this year; the full list of VECs which are affected by these closures; the areas within each VEC that are affected; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24587/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Ciarán Cannon):  14 Vocational Education Committees (VECs) own crèches. In 2011, County Limerick VEC closed its créche. County Carlow VEC plans to close its créche in May and City of Dublin VEC will close its 3 créches in Ballyfermot, Cabra and Whitehall in July. County Clare VEC will close its créche in Ennis later this year but plans to keep its Kilrush créche open.

My Department continues to engage with the Irish Vocational Education Association (IVEA, on behalf of VECs), individual VECs and relevant employee representative organisations in relation to these issues.

  90.  Deputy Charlie McConalogue    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    the number of child care places that will be lost as a result of the closure of a number of crèches in vocational education colleges around the country this year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24588/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  Childcare provision in creches owned by Vocational Education Committees (VECs) is mainly funded under the Childcare Education and Training Support (CETS) scheme The CETS is operated by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) alongside a range of childcare schemes, such as ECCE and the Community Childcare Subvention (CCS) which are open on an equitable and nationally consistent basis to community crèches, including VEC crèches and in many cases to private providers.

Where VECs take the decision to close a creche, the places that were provided in that creche under the CETS can be made available to other local childcare services so there will be no reduction in the number of places available as a result of the closure of these créches.

  91.  Deputy Charlie McConalogue    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    the steps he is taking to ensure that crèches in vocational education committees are not closed down; his views on the impact this will have on lone parents in disadvantaged areas returning to education. [24589/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Ciarán Cannon):  Childcare provision in creches owned by Vocational Education Committees (VECs) is mainly funded under the Childcare Education and Training Support (CETS) scheme, which is operated by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, under the Community Childcare Subvention Scheme (CCSS) framework. The CETS is targeted at participants in a range of further education and training programmes delivered by FÁS and VECs.

[635]14 VECs own crèches and some of those VECs had been indicating that under CETS their crèches may not be financially viable in the long term, mainly because their operating costs were higher than those of commercial or community crèches (the levels of subvention under the CETS are in line with best practice as established by DCYA). My Department provided transitional core funding to support these creches in 2010 and in 2011 but I am not in a position to sustain this additional support in the long term.

Where VECs take the decision to close a creche, the places that were provided in that creche under the CETS can be made available to other local childcare services so there will be no loss in places as a result of the closure of these créches and no impact on lone parents in disadvantaged areas returning to education.

  92.  Deputy Robert Troy    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    if he will reconsider the impending cuts to the staffing at a college (details supplied) which will lose 5.5 teachers this year and will have lost more than nine over two years if the 1.41 PLC increase is discounted; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24380/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  Teacher allocations are approved annually in accordance with established rules based on recognised pupil enrolment. My Department has published the staffing arrangements at post primary level for the coming school year, 2012/13. The relevant Post Primary circular is 0009/2012 which is available on my Department’s website. At post primary level schools will have autonomy on how best to prioritise its available resources to meet its requirements in relation to guidance and the provision of an appropriate range of subjects to its students. Decisions on how this is done will be taken at school level and I am confident that schools will act in the best interest of students when determining precisely how to use the teaching resources available to them.

A key priority for me is to continue to prioritise and target available funding at schools with the most concentrated levels of educational disadvantage. All 195 second-level school in DEIS, including the school referred to by the Deputy, have been given targeted support by a more favourable staffing schedule of 18.25:1. This is a 0.75 point reduction compared to the existing PTR of 19:1 that applies in non fee-paying second-level schools.

In accordance with existing arrangements, where a post primary school management authority is unable to meet its curricular commitments within its approved allocation, my Department considers applications for additional short term support, i.e., curricular concessions.

The allocation process also includes an appeals mechanism under which schools can appeal against the allocation due to them under the staffing schedule. The school referred to by the Deputy has appealed the curricular concessions and EAL (English as an additional Language) allocation. The school will be notified of the outcome of the appeal when the appeal process is completed.

The Appeal Board operate independently of the Department and its decision is final.

The final staffing position for all schools at post primary level will ultimately not be known until the Autumn. At that stage the allocation process will be fully completed and all appeals to the Staffing Appeal Board will have been considered.

  93.  Deputy Dara Calleary    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    if he will ensure that guidance counselling hours are maintained at the 2011/12 level in a secondary school (details supplied) in County Mayo; if he has plans to make allowances for secondary schools based in designated RAPID status towns; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24389/12]

[636]Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  All schools must continue to provide guidance to their pupils. However, from September 2012 guidance provision will be managed by schools from within their standard staffing allocation. As things currently stand 42% of second level schools do not presently have a full-time guidance counsellor. My Department has published Circular 0009/2012 to inform all post primary school management and staff of the staffing arrangements for post-primary schools for the 2012/13 school year, including in particular, the requirements to manage guidance from within the standard allocation. The circular is available on the Department website. Schools will have autonomy on how best to prioritise its available resources to meet its requirements in relation to guidance and the provision of an appropriate range of subjects to its students. Decisions on how this is done will be taken at school level and I am confident that schools will act in the best interest of students when determining precisely how to use the teaching resources available to them.

  94.  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    if a school (details supplied) will be included in the programme to replace prefabricated buildings in schools in view of the very poor buildings at this school; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24392/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  As the Deputy is aware I recently allocated €35 million to allow almost 200 schools with rented prefab accommodation an opportunity to replace their rented prefabs with permanent accommodation. The school referred to by the Deputy has no rented prefabs and therefore does not qualify for prefab replacement under this scheme.

  95.  Deputy Peter Mathews    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    his plans to increase the number of teaching positions in the primary school sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24420/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  This Government has protected education as much as it can. Far greater reductions in expenditure and in the number of public servants are being made in other sectors relative to those in schools. But there are limits to the level of expenditure on education and the number of teaching posts we can afford. The Budget 2012 measures in relation to the primary sector are set out in the documentation that was published by my Department last December. This envisages a net overall increase of about 250 posts at primary level between the current school year and the 2012/13 school year. This net increase in posts takes account of the impact of the budget measures and the additional posts allocated to individual schools that have increased enrolments.

The final overall staffing position for all schools at primary level will ultimately not be known until the Autumn. At that stage the allocation process will be fully completed and any appeals to the Staffing Appeal Board will have been considered.

  96.  Deputy Tom Hayes    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    when a redundancy payment will issue in respect of a person (details supplied) in County Tipperary; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24426/12]

[637]Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  A redundancy application from the person referred to by the Deputy was received by my Department on the 30th December 2011. Applications are processed in date order of receipt and every effort is being made to process these applications as quickly as possible. Applications received in October 2011 are currently being processed. It is expected that the application from the person referred to will be reached for processing in approximately eight weeks.

  97.  Deputy Willie O’Dea    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    if he has reached a decision in regard to the request for additional secondary school accommodation from a school (details supplied) in County Limerick for September 2012; if the school has been notified of the decision; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24429/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  My Department has no record of having received an application from the school referred to by the Deputy for the additional accommodation in question. It is open to the school authority to submit an application for this accommodation and the relevant application form can be downloaded from my Department’s website www.education.ie.

  98.  D’fhiafraigh Maureen O’Sullivan    den Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna    an bhfuil sé i gceist aige agus ag a Roinn plean struchtúrach a chur i bhfeidhm maidir le todhchaí scoileanna na Gaeltachta, mar chuid den Straitéis 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge, 2010-2030, ag féachaint d’Airteagail 8 agus 42 de Bhunreacht na hÉireann agus d’ailt 6, 9 agus 31 den Acht Oideachais 1998; agus an ndéanfaidh sé ráiteas ina thaobh. [24430/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  Tuigim cion tábhachtach na scoil-eanna Gaeltachta chun an Ghaeilge a chothú mar theanga an phobail. Áiríonn pleananna na Roinne seo agamsa soláthar chun tacú leis na scoileanna seo a ndualgais a chomhlíonadh faoi Ailt 6 agus 9 den Acht Oideachais i gcomhthéacs na Straitéise 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge agus bearta eile.

Tá oifigigh ó mo Roinnse ag comhoibriú go dlúth le hoifigigh sa Roinn Ealaíon, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta ar chur i bhfeidhm na Straitéise 20 Bliain. Tá bearta áirithe sa Straitéis ar bun cheana féin a thacóidh le scoileanna Gaeltachta, ina measc:

athmhachnamh ar na riachtanais i leith na Gaeilge d’iontráil ar chúrsaí oiliúna múinteoirí,

a chinntiú go n-ullmhaíonn ábhar na gcúrsaí oiliúna múinteoirí na múinteoirí mar is cuí chun an Ghaeilge a mhúineadh i suíomhanna trí mheán an Bhéarla agus trí mheán na Gaeilge,

leasú ar ábhar churaclam na bunscoile agus an timthrialla shóisearaigh don Ghaeilge,

athbhreithniú ar an siollabas don Ardteistiméireacht i bhfianaise thaithí na scoláirí i scrúdú na bliana 2012.

Tá mo Roinnse tiomanta freisin do thacú le scoileanna Gaeltachta trí oibriú Ailt 31 den Acht Oideachais. Ina leith seo, imríonn An Chomhairle Um Oideachas Gaeltachta agus Gaelscolaíochta mór-ról i dtacú le forbairt acmhainní do theagasc na Gaeilge agus do theagasc trí Ghaeilge. Tá thart ar €1.75m á thabhairt ag mo Roinne don Chomhairle Um Oideachas Gaeltachta [638]agus Gaelscolaíochta sa bhliain 2012 chun acmhainní dá leithéid a sholáthar. I measc na mbeart eile chun tacú le scoileanna Gaeltachta, cuirtear suas le deich faoin gcéad de na háiteanna oiliúna múinteoirí sna Coláistí Oiliúna ar leataobh d’iarrthóirí Gaeltachta d’fhonn a chinntiú go bhfuil soláthar ann de chainteoirí líofa Gaeilge chun teagasc i mbunscoileanna Gaeltachta. Leanfaidh mo Roinn den mhonatóireacht ar an dul chun cinn a dhéanfar i gcur i bhfeidhm na Straitéise 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge agus ar éifeachtúlacht na mbeart atá ar bun chun tacú le scoileanna Gaeltachta.

  99.  D’fhiafraigh Maureen O’Sullivan    den Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna     an bhfuil sé i gceist aige cinneadh na Roinne Oideachais agus Scileanna deireadh a chur le deontais d’ábhair oidí le freastal ar chúrsaí tumoideachais Ghaeilge sa Ghaeltacht mar chuid riachtanach dá gcúrsa a aisghairm, ós rud é go dtagann an cinneadh go hiomlán salach ar na moltaí atá déanta ag an Rialtas féin sa Straitéis 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge, 2010-2030, agus ag an gComhairle Mhúinteoireachta, an comhlacht reachtúil gairmiúil don mhúinteoireacht in Éirinn; agus an ndéanfaidh sé ráiteas ina thaobh. [24431/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  Mar chuid de bhreithniúcháin bhuiséadacha an Rialtais agus den Athbhreithniú Cuimsitheach ar Chaiteachas, cinneadh ar na deontais a d’íocadh an Roinn seo leis na Coláistí Gaeltachta, i leith an chostais ar ábhar múinteora as freastal ar chúrsaí Gaeltachta, a chur ar ceal. Ní ghlanfaidh an Roinn an costas a bheidh ar ábhar múinteora a bheidh ag tosú ar an gclár túsoideachas bunmhúinteoireachta sa bhliain acadúil 2012/13 as freastal ar na cúrsaí seo, de bharr go bhfuil tosaíocht tugtha d’acmhainní a chosaint i gcomhair seirbhísí túslíne, sa mhéid gur féidir é, sna blianta amach anseo. Níl sé ar intinn agam an cinneadh seo a aisghairm. Fágann an beart seo go bhfuil na cláir thúsoideachas bunmhúinteoireachta ar aon dul le cláir chéime eile níos mó ná mar a bhídís, le cláir ar nós clár céimeanna teanga, ina n-éilítear ar mhic léinn costais riachtanas speisialta breise a ghlanadh iad féin.

  100.  D’fhiafraigh Maureen O’Sullivan    den Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna     an aontaíonn sé gur chóir cloí leis na teisteanna a rinne an Chomhairle Mhúinteoireachta ag moladh go leanfadh ábhair mhúinteoirí sainchlár do theagasc teanga sa Ghaeltacht, agus go gcuirfí leis an am teagaisc agus freastail d’ábhair oidí ar chúrsaí tumoideachais Ghaeilge sa Ghaeltacht, mar chuid éigeantach dá gcéim oideachais chun a gcuid scileanna Gaeilge a fheabhsú; an dtacaíonn sé leis an moladh gur chóir d’ábhair oidí an tréimhse Ghaeltachta a dhéanamh ag tús na céime chun gur féidir leo rogha a dhéanamh leanúint leis an gcúrsa trí mheán na Gaeilge más mian leo; agus an ndéanfaidh sé ráiteas ina thaobh. [24432/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  De réir Ailt 38 d’Acht na Comhairle Múinteoireachta, 2001, is í an Chomhairle Mhúinteoireachta an comhlacht a bhfuil údarás reachtúil aici chun cláir oideachais agus oiliúint múinteoirí, a sholáthraíonn forais ardoideachais sa Stát, a athbhreithniú agus a chreidiúnú; chun na caighdeáin eolais, scileanna agus inniúlachta, a theastaíonn chun an mhúinteoireacht a chleachtadh, a athbhreithniú, agus chun comhairle a chur ormsa maidir leis na nithe seo. Tá an Chomhairle neamhspleách i gcomhlíonadh a cuid feidhmeanna. Ag forbairt polasaithe di, téann an Chomhairle i gcomhairle le raon forleathan páirtithe eile, mo Roinnse ina measc. Tá na paraiméadair d’fhorbairt chlár thúsoideachas múinteoireachta, an socrúchán Gaeltachta san áireamh, leagtha amach in “Polasaí faoi Chontanam Oideachais Mhúinteoirí” agus “Oideachas Tosaigh Múinteoirí: Critéir agus Treoirlínte do Sholáthraithe Cláir”, doiciméid de chuid na Comhairle. Tá meitheal oibre faoi choimirce na Comhairle ag breithniú dearadh agus forbairt shocrúchán fadaithe Gaeltachta faoi láthair. Níéilítear faomhadh ó mo Roinnse i gcomhair clár thúsoideachas múinteoireachta.

  101.  Deputy Gerry Adams    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    if he will provide an update on proposals to create a technological university in the State. [24438/12]

  102.  Deputy Gerry Adams    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    if he will provide an update on future plans for the Dublin Institute of Technology. [24439/12]

  103.  Deputy Gerry Adams    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    if his attention has been drawn to the proposals for closer alliances between Dublin City University and Dundalk Institute of Technology; his views on these proposals; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24440/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 101 to 103, inclusive, together.

On Monday 13th February, the HEA published a number of documents intended to provide a broad framework for future system development in Irish higher education, including a clear four stage process and criteria for designation as Technological University. All higher education institutions, including Dundalk IT and DCU, have now been invited to identify their key strengths and their future strategic fit within the system and submit a realistic plan to HEA on that basis.

Consortiums of institutes of technology proposing to merge and apply for designation as technological universities will need to submit a formal expression of interest within six months and will be advised within a further six months whether they can proceed to the second stage for designation. Decisions on designation as Technological Universities will be taken by an independent international expert panel at the final stages of application as set out clearly in the Process and criteria document available on www.hea.ie.

The landscape documentation also includes guidelines for the building of regional collaborative clusters of all our higher education institutions. These different aspects of the reform process will be key to the delivery of many of the most important objectives of the National Strategy including achieving a coherent, diverse higher quality education system that is more responsive to the needs of students, enterprise and the wider community.

  104.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    the steps he is taking to address the issue of cyber bullying; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24455/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  I recently announced details of a forum to explore ways to tackle the problem of bullying in schools. This Anti-Bullying Forum is due to take place on 17 May 2012 and will bring together a range of experts, support groups and representatives of the schools sector including parents and students.

There will be a range of speakers on the day of the Forum which will include contributions from my Department, the National Anti-Bullying Coalition (NABC), an acknowledged academic or other expert in the field of anti-bullying and contributors from the school sector from the various perspectives of school principal, parent and pupils. The Forum will also give other stakeholders an opportunity to give their views.

The objective of the Forum will be to explore with all the relevant stakeholders how best to tackle bullying in schools and to consider what changes or updating of existing practices and [640]procedures are required to achieve this having regard to what is feasible to implement in the current financial climate. The work of the Forum and any recommendations from it must be cognisant of the current very difficult and challenging budgetary environment that is resulting in all areas of the public sector, including schools, having to operate on a reduced level of resources for the foreseeable future.

Bullying is a problem I take very seriously and I hope that the Forum will provide an opportunity to set out a roadmap on how best to tackle all forms of bullying in our schools.

I have also established a working group on tackling bullying in schools, including homophobic bullying, cyber bullying and racist bullying. The outcomes and recommendations from the Forum will assist the working group in its deliberations. This working group includes representatives of the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and will draw upon the expertise of a range of organisations throughout their work.

  105.  Deputy Dominic Hannigan    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    the position regarding applications to advance the building works in schools (details supplied) in County Meath; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24465/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  I am pleased to advise the Deputy that the schools to which he refers are among those I announced in May to proceed to construction as part of my Department’s five year capital investment programme.

The accommodation briefs for both schools have been completed. The appropriate method for delivery of this project is being considered and a final decision will be communicated to the school authorities in the near future.

  106.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    the number of officials in agencies under his Department that are paid more than €125,000; more than €150,000 and more than €175,000 or more; the agencies in which they are employed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24471/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  The following table provides the information requested by the Deputy.

Agency Number paid more than €125,000 Number paid more than €150,000 Number paid more than > €175,000
FÁS 0 3 1
Higher Education Authority (HEA) 1 0 0
National Council for Special Education (NCSE) 1 0 0
National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI) 1* 0 0
Skillnets Ltd 1 0 0
State Examinations Commission (SEC) 1 0 0
Totals 5 3 1

*CEO designate of the soon to be established Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland (an amalgamation of FETAC, HETAC and NQAI. Also CEO of HETAC and FETAC.

  107.  Deputy Gerry Adams    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    further to Parliamentary Question No. 315 of 18 April 2012, if he has assessed the applications received; if a report has been prepared for consideration by the New Schools Establishment Group; when he expects to make a decision on this matter; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24482/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  The assessment of the applications received for patronage of the new 2nd level schools concerned is ongoing. It is expected that a report will be ready shortly for consideration by the New Schools Establishment Group, who will in turn make recommendations to me for consideration and final decision.

  108.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    the steps being taken by him to improve literacy in primary schools and secondary schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24507/12]

  109.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    the steps being taken by him to improve numeracy in primary schools and secondary schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24508/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 108 and 109 together. I published the National Strategy to Improve Literacy and Numeracy among Children and Young People 2011 to 2020 in July 2011. The Strategy contains 41 actions and almost 180 sub-actions across 6 key areas. A high level implementation Advisory Group has been established to monitor the implementation of the Strategy. There has been significant progress in implementing the early actions of the Strategy and work is ongoing on medium and longer term actions. Some of the key developments to date are set out below:

A team of literacy and numeracy advisors have been appointed to support teachers and schools in implementing the Strategy and a national programme of professional development for primary and second level teachers is underway.

Programmes in literacy (including Irish) and mathematics accounted for almost half of all attendance at summer courses in 2011. There will be further summer courses for teachers in this area in 2012.

Proposals on revised entry standards for initial teacher education have been incorporated into the Teaching Council’s Initial Teacher Education: Criteria and Guidelines for Programme Providers in relation to mathematics. The criteria also provide for an expansion of the primary Bachelor of Education from 3 to 4 years, and for an expansion of the Professional Diploma in Education to 2 years.

Units on literacy and numeracy are in place within the National Teacher Induction Programme for the 2011/12 school year.

Circular 56/2011 issued to all primary schools asking them to:

Increase the time spent on mathematics by 70 minutes per week,

Increase the time spent on literacy by one hour per week,

[642]

Introduce a third point of standardised testing in English reading and Mathematics, so that pupils are tested at the end of 2nd, 4th and 6th class. Irish medium schools are asked to also test students in Irish reading. Additional funding has been provided to schools to support this.

Report the results of the tests to parents as part of an overall standardised report on their children’s learning,

Report the results, in terms of the numbers scoring at particular percentile bands, to the Department and the school board of management,

Provide data on 6th class pupils’ progress to their second level school once enrolment has been accepted.

One of the aims of my Junior Cycle reform programme is to develop an integrated approach to promote the integrated development of literacy and numeracy skills across the curriculum.

  110.  Deputy Colm Keaveney    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    when a school (details supplied) in County Galway may expect to receive capital investment in view of the lack of facilities at the school. [24509/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  The Major Building Project referred to by the Deputy is at an advanced stage of architectural planning. The Design Team is currently working on a Stage 2b submission (Detailed Design and Preparation of Tender documentation) and Planning Permission has been obtained. In view of the need to ensure every child has access to a school place, the delivery of major school projects to meet the demographic demands nationally will be the main focus for capital investment in schools in the coming years. The five-year programme that was announced recently is focused on meeting those demographic needs. In that context, it was not possible to advance all applications for capital funding concurrently. School building projects currently in architectural planning, including this project, will continue to be advanced incrementally over time within the context of the funding available. In light of current competing demands on the Department’s capital budget, however, it is not possible to progress this project to tender and construction at this time.

  111.  Deputy Brendan Griffin    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    the position regarding the future pay position for primary teachers who have initiated their masters in primary education; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24521/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  As a result of Budget 2012, Circular 70/2011 provides that teachers who had been engaged in a public sector teaching post on or before 4 December 2011 are eligible to retain the qualification allowances they were entitled to be in receipt of on that date. Such teachers will not be paid any additional allowance where they acquire any further qualification on or after 5 December 2011. The position of teachers who, on 5 December 2011, were undertaking courses will be considered in the context of the public service-wide review of allowances being led by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Teachers appointed to teaching for the first time on or after 5 December 2011 but before 1 February 2012 are eligible for allowances on the basis of their qualifications at [643]entry to the profession up to a maximum of the allowance which had been applicable to an honours primary degree. Pending the outcome of the review of allowances, they are not payable to new beneficiaries from 1 February 2012. The only exceptions to this prohibition are principal and deputy principal allowances and, for a limited period of time, the assistant principal allowance. These decisions were taken due to the upward pressure on the cost of teacher allowances. These provisions are outlined in Circular 70/2011 and Circular 3/2012. These measures are concerned with the sustainability of the public service pay bill and in particular the need to find payroll savings in the education vote. Without immediate action, this upward pressure would have cancelled out the savings made elsewhere in the education system and would bring about even harsher adjustments to schools and services. I am not in a position to comment further until the outcome of the review is known.

  112.  Deputy Robert Troy    asked the Minister for Education and Skills    the position regarding an application by a college (details supplied) in County Westmeath to access funding for a new woodwork room; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24534/12]

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn):  My Department has no record of having received an application from the school referred to by the Deputy for the works in question. It is open to the school authority to submit an application for these works and the relevant application form can be downloaded from my Department’s website,www.education.ie.

  113.  Deputy Dominic Hannigan    asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform    his plans to bring amendments to the Construction Contract Bill on Committee Stage to make arrangements for suppliers to be able to retrieve construction materials that are incorporated into the structure of the building from site; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24376/12]

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (Deputy Brendan Howlin):  The Programme for Government contains a commitment to introduce new legislation to protect small building subcontractors that have been denied payments from bigger companies. In this regard, my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, is working with Senator Feargal Quinn to develop the Senator’s Private Members Construction Contracts Bill into a robust piece of legislation. The Bill is now at Second Stage in the Dáil. During the Second Stage reading of the Bill, the Minister of State signalled to the House his intention to bring proposals to the Government on Committee Stage amendments to deal with certain issues. In order to ensure the legislation applies to majority of Construction Contracts, the scope of the legislation will be broadened by reducing or removing the current monetary thresholds contained in the Bill. The issue of making adjudication awards binding for both the public and private sectors is a complex one. It is important to strike the right balance between giving this legislation the necessary enforcement provisions and ensuring the application of the legislation is equitable and the taxpayer is safeguarded. Proposals are being developed to broaden the scope of the legislation to include bespoke construction supply contracts. However, I understand this is likely to be difficult to define in a manner that is easy to interpret. When these and a number of other technical issues have been examined, the Minister of State will bring proposals to the Government in advance of Committee Stage. This is an important piece of legislation aimed at creating a more level playing field between contractor and subcontractor in the construction [644]sector. Therefore, is it essential that a number of complex issues are properly assessed to avoid imposing unnecessary regulatory or cost burdens on parties in dispute, the State or others.

  114.  Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation    if his attention has been drawn to the situation surrounding two companies based (details supplied) here accused of supplying blocking and filtering technology to Syriatel Mobile Telecom SA in Syria and to MTN Syria; if recent European Union trade restrictions on Syria prohibits the sale of technology that can be used for internal repression; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24428/12]

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Richard Bruton):  My Department is responsible for issuing licences, for exports outside the EU, of controlled goods and technology listed in the EU Dual Use Regulations. No licences have been issued in the past four years in respect of dual use controlled technology intended for export to Syria.

From contacts by my Department with the exporters concerned, I understand the exported software is designed to protect mobile users from spam, viruses, etc., and is not intended to prevent citizens exercising their fundamental democratic rights of free speech and assembly. My understanding is that the software was provided to telecom providers and not to any Government organisation or agency. I have received information from the companies concerned regarding the exports at issue, and an assessment of this information is taking place in my Department.

More generally, I would like to point out that prior to issuing any export licence for goods intended for a country where there is civil or military strife, I consult with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is an essential part of considering any application for an export licence and it involves a detailed consideration of any human rights implications connected with a possible export.

At EU level, in addition to measures agreed late last year and in early 2012, notably a ban on oil imports from Syria, the EU Foreign Affairs Council decided on the 27th February 2012 a further tightening of the sanctions regime against the Syrian authorities; these new measures included a partial freeze of the Syrian Central Bank assets in the EU, a ban on trade in gold, other precious metal and diamonds as well as further listing of individuals and entities supportive of the Assad regime. Restrictions on exports to Syria now cover the provision of equipment, technology or software which may be used for the monitoring or interception of internet or telephone communications. My Department works in close co-operation with the Revenue and Customs Service to ensure the effective application of the EU’s sanctions regime and especially restrictions in place against Syria.

Measures were further extended at the March, April and May Foreign Affairs Council meetings with the most prominent decisions relating to a ban on the sale of luxury goods, a ban on dual-use technologies and goods as well as additional listings of individuals and entities connected with the Assad regime.

  115.  Deputy Paschal Donohoe    asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation    if he will provide an update on the status of a green card application submitted by a person (details supplied) in Dublin 7; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24533/12]

[645]Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (Deputy Richard Bruton):  My Department processes applications in respect of the different types of employment permits and all applications are processed in line with the Employment Permits Act 2006. The Employment Permits Section informs me that it has no record of permits being applied for or issued in respect of the named individual.

  116.  Deputy Olivia Mitchell    asked the Minister for Social Protection    his plans to make it compulsory that fathers should be named on their children’s birth certificates; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24377/12]

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Joan Burton):  The Law Reform Commission, in its report Legal Aspects of Family Relationships, makes recommendations relating to the conduct of family relationships, including compulsory joint registration of the birth of a child where the parents are not married to each other.

It is my intention to seek the approval of the Government later this year for the drafting of heads of a bill to amend the Civil Registration Act 2004 to include the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission as they apply to civil registration matters.

  117.  Deputy Charlie McConalogue    asked the Minister for Social Protection    when funding will be announced for community employment schemes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24387/12]

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Joan Burton):  A financial review of Community Employment (CE) Schemes is underway and is nearing completion. This review of CE Schemes has proved to be a valuable exercise for both the schemes themselves and for my Department. Given the volume and breath of the data being returned, the financial review of CE schemes has taken longer than originally envisaged to complete. This has allowed more time for schemes to engage with local officials in the finalisation of their respective budgets and for my Department to bring forward improvements to the overall operation of Community Employment which will improve the budgetary situation for schemes.

However due to the current economic circumstances, this Department has had to find significant savings in the Budget for 2012. The reduction only applies to the grant for materials and training and represents a reduction of 7.5% of the overall expenditure on Community Employment in 2011. The allowance grants for Supervisors are unchanged, as are the working hours for staff employed under Community Employment. There will be no decrease in the number of Community Employment places allocated in 2012.

While no final allocations of materials and training grants have been made pending completion of the review, the existing commitment in relation to the financial support of schemes will continue to apply.

  118.  Deputy Andrew Doyle    asked the Minister for Social Protection    the position regarding mortgage interest supplement in respect of a person (details supplied) in County Wicklow. [24414/12]

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Joan Burton):  The Social Welfare Appeals Office has advised me that an appeal by the person concerned was registered in that office on 19th [646] October 2011. It is a statutory requirement of the appeals process that the relevant Community Welfare Services papers and comments by or on behalf of the Deciding Officer on the grounds of appeal be sought. These papers were received in the Social Welfare Appeals Office and the case will be referred to an Appeals Officer who will make a summary decision on the appeal based on the documentary evidence presented or, if required, hold an oral hearing.

The Social Welfare Appeals Office functions independently of the Minister for Social Protection and of the Department and is responsible for determining appeals against decisions on social welfare entitlements.

  119.  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív    asked the Minister for Social Protection    her plans to continue with the rural social scheme for the next year; the reason that a new clause was inserted in the rural social scheme contracts stating that termination may occur in circumstances which are not foreseen at the outset of the contract, such as a lack of State funding for the RSS and her decision to wind down the RSS; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24417/12]

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Joan Burton):  Following a review of the rural social scheme (RSS) in 2011 by the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Department undertook to re-examine a number of arrangements underpinning the operations of the RSS. This examination included a review of template for participant contracts which is provided by the Department to the 35 Implementing Bodies to ensure consistency of approach across the scheme. In keeping with good practice, the template attempted to identify, insofar as it was possible to determine, those matters which could be defined as unforeseeable events leading to possible termination of the contract which could not be anticipated at the time it was agreed. For this reason alone, the wording on the template contract was amended as set out in the Deputy’s question. While this revised template was welcomed as an improvement on the previously used templates, the Department was happy to provide additional clarification where concerns were raised with respect to one aspect of the text used.

  120.  Deputy Patrick Nulty    asked the Minister for Social Protection    the position regarding social welfare recipients who are currently receiving a double payment with respect to community employment schemes and who are on illness benefit or invalidity pension; if her attention has been drawn to concerns raised by persons who are in this situation and who are concerned about recent budgetary changes; the steps she will take to address their concerns; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24422/12]

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Joan Burton):  As per the Budget 2012, Community Employment (CE) participants in receipt of illness benefit or invalidity pension who commenced on CE before the 16th January 2012 and who have their CE contracts renewed after the 16th January 2012 will retain their original social welfare payment (in addition to their CE Single Adult Rate). The retention of their social welfare payment is dependent upon them being continuously employed on CE from that date and that they are granted a further Exemption from the Rules of Behaviour for continued receipt of their social welfare payment whilst working on the CE project. The granting of such Exemptions is an on-going requirement for the making of these payments.

This provision for dual payments is subject to the standard CE participation limits and a final cut-off date for double payments of December 2014. All CE participants will receive a [647]single payment only from that date. Persons commencing employment on CE on or after 16th January 2012, who have not participated on CE in the 12 months preceding their commencement, will only receive the one main payment from CE.

  121.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Social Protection    the amount of people who have successfully gained full-time employment as a result of interning on the JobBridge scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24449/12]

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Joan Burton):  The National Internship Scheme was launched on 1st July 2011. It provides internship opportunities of either 6 or 9 months for unemployed individuals on the Live Register, at all skills levels. The aim of JobBridge is to assist individuals in breaking the cycle where they are unable to get a job without experience. It provides them with an opportunity to gain valuable experience, relevant knowledge and skills within a working environment. The Scheme is open to organisations in the private, public and community or voluntary sectors.

The Scheme has made significant progress to-date. There are currently 4,722 interns undertaking internship placements. In addition, there are in excess of 1,800 internship posts currently advertised on the JobBridge website www.jobbridge.ie.

As at 14th May, 2,364 interns had completed their internship placements. Our records indicate that 890 (38%) of these 2,364 finishers have progressed directly into employment on immediate completion of their internship with either their JobBridge Host Organisation or another company. It is important to note that this data does not take account of an intern who may have secured employment in the subsequent weeks or months after completing their internship. A picture of the career paths of JobBridge interns will become clearer following the independent evaluation of the scheme which is being undertaken by Indecon International Economic Consultants.

  122.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Social Protection    the details on the recent announcement to expand the JobBridge scheme by 1,000 places; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24450/12]

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Joan Burton):  The National Internship Scheme was launched on 1 July 2011. It provides internship opportunities of either 6 or 9 months for unemployed individuals on the Live Register, at all skills levels. The aim of JobBridge is to assist individuals in breaking the cycle where they are unable to get a job without experience. It provides them with an opportunity to gain valuable experience, relevant knowledge and skills within a working environment. The Scheme is open to organisations in the private, public and community or voluntary sectors.

The Scheme has made significant progress to-date. 7,102 internship placements have commenced since the launch of the Scheme in July 2011. There are currently 4,722 interns undertaking internship placements. In addition, there are in excess of 1,800 internship posts currently advertised on the JobBridge website www.jobbridge.ie. Such has been the level of demand for the scheme, I am delighted to have announced proposals, on 9 May, to increase the number of places available in JobBridge and to widen the eligibility criteria. The number of available places has been increased to 6,000 with immediate effect. The eligibility criteria will also be extended to include those in receipt of One Parent Family Payment and Disability Allowance. These changes will take effect from 28 May 2012.

[648]JobBridge was one of the pillars of the Government’s first Jobs Initiative and it set out to help those seeking employment to gain valuable experience while enhancing their prospects of securing employment. It is one element of the Department of Social Protection’s wider activation programme and a good example of how we engage with Jobseekers.

Questions Nos. 123 and 124 withdrawn.

  125.  Deputy Joanna Tuffy    asked the Minister for Social Protection    the position regarding plans for a credit based system, under the home makers scheme which will grant credits to persons for time spent home making; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24498/12]

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Joan Burton):  The homemaker scheme makes qualification for the State pension (contributory) easier for those who take time out of the workforce for caring duties. The scheme was introduced in and took effect from 1994. The scheme allows up to 20 years spent caring for children under 12 years of age or incapacitated adults to be disregarded when a person’s social insurance record is being averaged for pension purposes.

To be eligible for the homemaker scheme, a person must:

Permanently live in the State;

Be aged under 66;

Have started insurable employment or self-employment on or after the age of 16 and before the age of 56;

Not work full-time, although a person can work and earn less than €38 gross per week;

Care for a child (under 12) or an incapacitated person on a full-time basis.

The homemaker disregard (or the homemaker credit) will not, of itself, qualify a person for a pension. The standard qualifying conditions, which require a person to enter insurance ten years before pension age, pay a minimum of 520 contributions at the correct rate and achieve a yearly average of at least 10 contributions on their record from the time they enter insurance until they reach pension age, must also be satisfied.

As the Deputy is no doubt aware, the challenges facing the Irish pension system are significant. There are currently six people of working age for every pensioner and this ratio is expected to decrease to approximately two to one by 2050. In addition, those aged over 65 will account for a greater proportion of the population while the proportion who are of working age is expected to decline. With increases in life expectancy, more people are living to pension age and living longer in retirement. The period for which an average pension will be paid will be greater than the period for which a pension is paid at present. This has obvious and significant implications in relation to the future costs of State pension provision.

For this reason, and in the context of the current fiscal crisis, there are no plans to extend the homemakers scheme. The introduction of a system of homemaker’s credits to replace the current disregard from 2012 and allow backdating to 1994 for the purpose of the averaging system is being considered.

People who do not qualify for the homemakers scheme as they had caring duties prior to the introduction of the scheme in 1994 may qualify for a reduced rate of State pension [649](contributory) as a yearly average of only 10 along with 10 years’ paid contributions over a working career is sufficient to qualify for a minimum pension. Alternatively, they may qualify, depending on their means, for a higher rate of State pension (non-contributory).

  126.  Deputy Jack Wall    asked the Minister for Social Protection    the reason a person (details supplied) in County Kildare has not received any information or confirmation of an application despite the fact that the application was made on 24 October 2011; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24501/12]

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Joan Burton):  The client was requested to provide further information on the 17th of October 2011 in relation to his rent supplement application. The Department only received the necessary information from the person concerned on the 30th of April 2012. The rent supplement claim has now been awarded in full.

  127.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources    the date on which he last met the chief executive officers of each of the agencies under the remit of his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24467/12]

Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Pat Rabbitte):  I wish to advise the Deputy that, since taking up office on the 9th March 2011, I have met with the Chairs and/or CEOs of all Agencies under the aegis of my Department. In addition, I have had meetings with the Commission for Energy Regulation, the Chair and Chief Executive of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and the Commission for Communications Regulation.

  128.  Deputy Brendan Smith    asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government    if he will clarify the controls, regulations and prohibitions, if any, on the provision of occasional car parking for reward on private land, that is close to sporting or other such events; if there are any regulations on same; if same can be outlined and if enforcing authority, if any, can be outlined. [24585/12]

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Jan O’Sullivan): Under the Planning and Development Act 2000, the making of a material change in the use of any land comprises development and therefore requires planning permission (unless it is specifically exempted under the Act or Regulations). It is a matter for the relevant planning authority to decide in the first instance whether a material change of use has taken or is taking place. A decision of the planning authority on the matter may be referred to An Bord Pleanála for review under section 5 of the Planning and Development Act 2000.

  129.  Deputy Joanna Tuffy    asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government    the number of households registered for an exemption on grounds of being in receipt of mortgage interest supplement; the way this compares to the numbers of households in receipt of this payment according to the records of her Department; if any attempt has been made to contact those who have not registered for the exemption in particular in case the persons concerned who do not realise they are entitled to a waiver and have either not regis[650]tered and not paid are unaware of the exemption or that they have paid because they are unaware of the exemption; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24362/12]

  130.  Deputy Joanna Tuffy    asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government    the number of households registered as being entitled to a waiver in respect of the household charge on grounds of being in an unfinished estate; the way this compares to the numbers of houses known by his Department to be in unfinished housing estates; the attempts that have been made to contact those households living in qualifying unfinished housing estates that have not registered to ensure that they do register for this waiver; the checks that have been made to ensure no household in a qualifying unfinished housing estate has inadvertently paid the charge; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24371/12]

Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Phil Hogan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 129 and 130 together.

The Local Government (Household Charge) Act 2011 and the Local Government (Household Charge) Regulations 2012 provide the legislative basis for the household charge. The Act places the household charge under the care and management of the local authorities, and application in particular circumstances is a matter for the relevant local authority. Interpretation of the legislation is a matter for legal advice in individual cases and ultimately a matter for the Courts. Under the legislation, an owner of a residential property on the liability date of 1 January 2012 is liable to pay the household charge by 31 March 2012, unless otherwise exempted or entitled to claim a waiver. In this regard, it is a matter for the owner of a residential property to assess his or her liability to the household charge on a self assessment basis. The household charge is being administered by the Local Government Management Agency (LGMA) on a shared service/agency basis on behalf of all county and city councils.

Significant measures have been taken to ensure that property owners are aware of the household charge and of the exemptions and waivers available. The LGMA and local authorities have carried out a national information campaign to advise people of the household charge and their responsibilities in relation to the household charge. A household charge information leaflet and final reminder was also issued to residential properties in the State.

I am confident that owners of residential properties have been made aware of their obligations under the Act. Of course, should an owner of a residential property subsequently indicate that he/she was entitled to a waiver from payment of the household charge, that person may make an application for a refund of a household charge by completing the refund form HC12B and returning it to the Household Charge Support Centre, PO Box 12168, Dublin 1. This form is available from the Household Charge Support Centre at the above address — LoCall 1890-357357 or 01-2224000. Alternatively the form may be downloaded from www.householdcharge.ie or obtained from local authorities.

The information requested, which has been compiled by the Local Government Management Agency, is set out in the following table:

Total No. of Waivers Registered No. Registered for Mortgage Interest Supplement Waiver No. Registered for Unfinished Housing Estate Waiver No. Registered for Both Waivers
16,360 4,403 11,653 304

[651]There are an estimated 50,000 entitled to claim waivers from payment of the household charge; some 18,000 in respect of entitlement to mortgage interest supplement and 32,000 in the context of unfinished housing estates.

  131.  Deputy Joanna Tuffy    asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government    the number of households that paid a penalty for late payment of the household charge to date; the amount of money in total that has been received in penalties to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24372/12]

Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Phil Hogan):  The household charge is being administered by the Local Government Management Agency (LGMA) on a shared service/agency basis on behalf of all county and city councils. The information requested, which has been complied by the LGMA, is set out in the following table.

Number of Late Payments Amount received in Late Payment Penalties
24,098 €267,039

  132.  Deputy Joanna Tuffy    asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government    the number of households that have paid and registered for the household charge to date; the number of households that have registered for waivers or exemptions to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24373/12]

Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Phil Hogan):  The Local Government (Household Charge) Act 2011 provides the legislative basis for the household charge. Under the Act, an owner of a residential property on the liability date of 1 January 2012 is liable to pay the household charge, unless otherwise exempted or entitled to claim a waiver. The household charge is on a self-assessment basis and it is a matter for an owner of a residential property on the liability date to determine if he/she has a liability and, if so, to declare that liability and pay the household charge.

The Local Government Management Agency (LGMA) is administering the household charge system on a shared service/agency basis for all county and city councils. I understand, from data provided by the LGMA, that as of noon on 14 May, a total of 845,442 property declarations have been processed by the household charge bureau. 829,082 registered for payment of the charge equating to some €83m. 16,360 residential property owners have registered for a waiver from payment of the charge.

In addition, 87,500 postal applications have been received in the household charge bureau, which have yet to be processed; these equate to a further €8.8m. A further 6,500 declarations have been received by local authorities equating to some €0.65.m. This gives a total number of 939,442 declarations made equating to some €93m.

  133.  Deputy Thomas Pringle    asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government    if he will provide a breakdown of the expenditure of regeneration funding on consultants, firms providing professional services and organisations providing community support in respect of a regeneration project in County Sligo, for the years 2008 and 2009; the names of the said consultants, firms or organisations; the sum that each received; the service that each provided; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24386/12]

[652]Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Jan O’Sullivan): Local authorities are responsible for the detailed administration and management of all the projects and measures associated with the social, economic and physical regeneration of estates. Regeneration masterplans adopt a multi-agency approach to social inclusion and economic regeneration with the objective of delivering significant non-housing public investment in services and facilities to address underlying disadvantage and deliver settled sustainable communities. The information requested with regard to projects and measures funded out of my Department’s allocation for the Sligo regeneration project is set out in the following table:

2008

Firm/Organisation Services provided Amount
Hamilton Young Architects Architectural Services €6,485.60
O’Connor Sutton Cronin Consulting Engineering Services €6,050.00
Nolan and Quinlan Architects Architectural Services €1,815.00
Land Survey Services Land Surveying €1,380.00
MWA Partnership Ltd Landscape Architecture Services €44,942.00
Headland Archaeology Archaeological Services €17,666.00
Murray and Associates Landscape Architecture Services €76,423.00
Archaeological Development Services Ltd Archaeological Services €3,011.00
Cranmore Community Platform Community Support €15,572.56
Sligo Sport and Recreation Partnership Community Sports €10,000.00

2009

Firm/Organisation Services provided Amount
Murphy and Sons Valuation Service €8,416.62
OHSS Safety Consultants Surveys and Reports €14,936.14
Cox Power and Associates Architectural Services €34,323.75
O’Connor Sutton and Cronin Engineering Services €31,833.00
Murray and Associates Landscape Architecture Services €34,020.00
Cranmore Community Platform Community Support €5,026.56
Sligo Sports and Recreation Partnership Community Sports €10,000.00

  134.  Deputy Gerald Nash    asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government    if he will provide, in tabular form, statistics of those who have paid the household charge by the number of housing units owned; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24391/12]

Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Phil Hogan):  The household charge is being administered by the Local Government Management Agency (LGMA) on a shared service/agency basis on behalf of all county and city councils. The information requested, which has been complied by the LGMA, is set out in the following table:

[653]No. of Household Charges Paid By No. of Residential Housing Units

No. of Properties 1 2 to 10 11 to 20 21 to 30 31 to 40 41 to 50 51 to 100 101 to 200 201 to 300 300 to 400
Household Charges Paid 548,228 88,255 1,265 279 123 62 103 29 4 3

  135.  Deputy Eric Byrne    asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government    further to Parliamentary Question No. 63 of 8 December 2011, the current status of discussions as outlined in his previous answer; the progress that has been made in relation to this matter; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24415/12]

Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Phil Hogan):  Ireland’s Waymarked Ways and the majority of other walking routes are “permissive access routes” that have been developed with the landowners’ agreement; they are not public rights of way. Some Government and semi-state organisations also encourage access to their lands for public enjoyment (e.g. Coillte). Even in these areas, access is permissive and the public do not have a right of access. Given the importance of continued improvement of the Wicklow Way, I requested that discussions be initiated with local landowners to see if agreed access can be secured in respect of the section of lands referred to in Question 63 of 8 December 2011. These discussions are ongoing, but as yet permission has not been secured from the private landowner to reroute the section of the Wicklow Way in question. It is intended that these efforts will continue, but ultimately progress in this area requires the goodwill and consent of the relevant landowner.

Some progress is being achieved in relation to identifying appropriate reroutes of some sections of the Wicklow Way off busy public roads. A section of approximately 1km in length has been identified in the area of Ballinastoe that can be moved off road, subject to the availability of funding. Options are currently being examined in that regard. There are also possibilities around rerouting some on road sections, totalling about 1.5 km, in the area of Tinahely on the southern section of the trail. The maintenance and improvement of long distance walking routes and National Waymarked Ways is an ongoing project, with the intention of having no more than 10% of such priority routes on road. Given the current limitations on resources it will take time to achieve such improvements.

  136.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government    the steps he is taking to address problems with flooding in Dublin as a result of poor weather; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24453/12]

Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Phil Hogan):  Flood risk management and mitigation, including development of a national flood forecasting and warning system, are the responsibility of the Office of Public Works. Questions relating to surface water drainage issues which may contribute to flooding are a matter for the local authorities in the Dublin area. The response to flooding incidents is delivered by the Principal Response Agencies (the relevant local authorities, An Garda Síochána and the HSE), and is led and co-ordinated by the relevant local authority. The Principal Response Agencies respond to flooding in accordance with the 2006 Framework for Emergency Management, each agency [654]operating under its Major Emergency Plan, and working with a range of other bodies and agencies which have roles to play.

The co-ordination and response management arrangements may be invoked to manage a flooding incident, whether a major emergency is declared or not. The Government-approved Framework requires local authorities to prepare severe weather plans and flood emergency plans, as sub-plans of their Major Emergency Plan. I understand that all local authorities have Severe Weather Plans in place and, where a local risk assessment process so indicates, have Flood Emergency Plans also. If a major emergency is declared because of flooding my Department is designated as Lead Government Department and co-ordinates the “whole of Government” response at national level, primarily in support of the local response effort.

The co-ordination arrangements in the Framework for Major Emergency Management were embedded across the Principal Response Agencies during a two-year Major Emergency Development Programme from 2006 to 2008. This was overseen by an inter-Departmental Major Emergency Management National Steering Group comprising representatives of my Department, and the Departments of Justice and Equality, Health, Defence and Transport. These arrangements were used to manage severe weather emergencies in the winters of 2009 and 2010. In accordance with the provisions of the Framework, reviews of these responses have been carried out, and further recommendations arising from the review process continue to be implemented through on-going inter-agency preparedness arrangements.

  137.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government    the main approach with which the housing list across Ireland will be addressed in 2012; the number of persons and families that may expect to be rehoused in social housing during 2012; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24478/12]

  138.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government    his views on the high numbers of applicants waiting for rehousing through social housing programmes across local authorities; the number by which he expects the lists to be reduced in 2012; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24479/12]

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Jan O’Sullivan):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 137 and 138 together.

The Government’s housing policy statement, published in June 2011, clearly identifies that the priority for Government will be to meet the most acute needs of households applying for social housing support. I am determined to ensure that the social housing programme is framed in a manner which optimises the delivery of social housing and the return for the resources invested. To achieve this it is essential that we tailor the use of available Exchequer supports to prevailing conditions and explore the full range of solutions to address housing needs. The social housing capital budget has been reduced from €1.535 billion in 2008 to just over €333.7m this year, and the financial parameters within which we will be operating for the coming years rule out a return to large capital funded construction programmes. Nevertheless, the Government is committed to responding more quickly and on a larger scale to social housing support needs through a variety of mechanisms, including through increased provision of social housing. In spite of the challenging circumstances within which local authorities are forced to operate, a tentative projection of 4,000 to 4,500 housing units is anticipated for 2012.

Delivery of social housing will be significantly facilitated through more flexible funding models such as the Rental Accommodation Scheme and leasing, but the Government is also com[655]mitted to developing other funding mechanisms that will increase the supply of permanent new social housing. Such mechanisms will include options to purchase, build to lease and the sourcing of loan finance by approved housing bodies for construction and acquisition. There is also obvious potential, across a range of housing programmes, for the Government’s objective of sourcing and providing suitable residential units for use as social housing to be aligned with the commercial objectives of the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA).

My Department does not hold information on the number of households on local authorities’ waiting lists at any given time. This number inevitably continuously fluctuates as households are allocated housing and new households apply for housing support. Detailed information on the latest statutory assessment of housing need carried out in March 2011, including a breakdown by housing authority, is available on my Department’s website –www.environ.ie or on the Housing Agency’s website at www.housing.ie.

  139.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government    when he will be in a position to announce the long-term property tax scheme; if he is reportedly considering including all land in that scheme; the approximate sums that might be realised from a general land property tax as is common across most of the EU towards the continuing gap in the primary general government deficit and for a fair resolution of the fiscal problem; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24480/12]

Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Phil Hogan):  An independently chaired Inter-Departmental expert Group has been established to consider the structures and modalities for an equitable valuation based property tax. The Group will complete its work and make recommendations to me shortly. Following consideration of the Group’s recommendations, I will bring proposals to Government on the full property tax as soon as possible. It will then be a matter for the Government to decide on the structure and modalities of the full property tax.

  140.  Deputy Simon Harris    asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government    the way in which motor tax payable on a specific model of car can vary considerably depending on the date of purchase; his plans to address this anomaly; and if he will make a statement on the matter [24484/12]

Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Phil Hogan):  The motor tax system currently has two systems of charging for private vehicles. For vehicles registered prior to 2008, taxation is on the basis of engine capacity. To incentivise reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases, for those registered from 2008 onwards, motor tax is based on the CO2 emissions level of the vehicle. The question of applying the new CO2 based motor tax system to all private vehicles was subject to detailed discussion during the debate on the Motor Vehicle (Duties and Licences) Act 2008. Retrospection would not be possible, as the CO2 data for the pre-July 2008 car fleet were not authenticated for business purposes. The cost of any retrospection could be substantial were it possible, depending on how it applied, and could have direct implications for the revenue base of local government.

On Budget Day, 06 December 2011, a review of the current system of Vehicle Registration Tax, which is also based on CO2 emissions, and motor tax was announced, with the objective of adjusting CO2 bands and rates in line with technological advances, while maintaining a positive environmental incentive to reduce transport emissions and protecting and improving [656]revenues for the State. The review, a joint undertaking by the Department of Finance and my Department, with input from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Revenue Commissioners, is now in progress, and any changes to the motor tax system will be considered in that context.

  141.  Deputy Brendan Smith    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    when the interdepartmental committee established in relation to State involvement with the Magdalene Laundries will report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24393/12]

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  I refer the Deputy to my reply to Parliamentary Question No. 516 on 14 February last. The Committee has indicated their intention to conclude their work by mid year.

Reply to Parliamentary Question No. 516 on Tuesday 14th February, 2012.

The Inter-Departmental Committee, under the independent chairmanship of Senator Martin McAleese, submitted an interim progress report last October which was considered by Cabinet and published on my Department’s website www.justice.ie. The Committee, which is receiving the full co-operation of Government Departments, the religious orders, and representative groups of women who were formerly resident in the Laundries, indicated their intention to conclude their work by mid 2012.

  142.  Deputy Jim Daly    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    his views in relation to the Intoxicating Liquor Act and in particular the onus on supermarket owners to structurally separate the off-licence area from the grocery area and the dedication of a staff member and cash point for the off-licence area; if he will consider alternative measures to achieve tightening of sale regulations with less cost to the employer in view of the current financial conditions in the retail sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24351/12]

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  On receipt of the third Compliance Report on the RRAI Code of Practice on the Display and Sale of Alcohol in Mixed Trading Premises, I launched a public consultation process inviting views on the Report and, more generally, on the voluntary approach to implementing structural separation of alcohol products in supermarkets, convenience stores and other mixed trading outlets.

Following an examination of the submissions received, the choice now lies between implementation of the statutory provisions in section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008 or implementation of a statutory code of practice under section 17 of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011. I expect to be in a position to seek Government approval for my proposals in relation to future arrangements for the display and sale of alcohol products in mixed trading outlets in the coming weeks.

  143.  Deputy Thomas Pringle    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    further to Parliamentary Questions Nos. 286 of 6 December 2011 and No. 511 of 21 February 2012, the number of gardaí in the Donegal division serving in Gaeltacht areas who are available and able to conduct business through Irish with members of the public; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24363/12]

[657]Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  I refer the Deputy to the letter which issued to him on 23 April 2012 in response to the earlier questions. That correspondence clarified that 48 members in the Donegal Division are in receipt of the Gaeltacht Allowance and are attached to the stations outlined in the below table:

Station
Na Brocacha Milford
An Craosloch Na Gleannta
Kilmacrennan An Fál Carrach
Anagaire Na Cealla Beaga
Ard An Rátha Kerrykeel
An Bun Beag An Charraig
Mín An Lábhain Carraig Airt
Mountcharles Dun Fionnachaid
An Clochan Liath

  144.  Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    the annual cost to the State for the supply of services to all asylum seeker centres, private and State owned. [24367/12]

  145.  Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    the number and location of each State owned accommodation centre; the person who operates them on behalf of the State; the cost to the Exchequer of each centre; the tendering process involved in appointing the operator of the asylum reception centres; and if any incentives were given to localised suppliers to bid for the contracts associated with running the centre or supplying the centres; and when the renewal date for such contracts fall due. [24368/12]

  146.  Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    the procurement policy for supplies to each of the asylum seeker accommodation centres; if a single supplier for services and goods is used for several or all of the reception centres; if that supplier is based in Ireland and tax compliant; if the contractors or operators of centres are subsidiaries or connected in business to companies or entities outside of the European Union. [24369/12]

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 144 to 146, inclusive, together.

These questions relate to the spending and procurement policy of the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), a functional unit of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) of my Department, which is responsible for the accommodation of persons while their applications for international protection are being processed. Currently, almost 5,200 persons are being accommodated throughout the State in 38 centres under contract to RIA.

At appendix A of this answer is a breakdown of the €69.459 million expended by RIA in 2011. The estimates provision for RIA in 2012 is €63.5 million.

Of the 38 centres in the State, 7 are State owned. That is to say, while the centres are managed by private contractors under contract to RIA, the land and buildings are owned by the State. At appendix B is a list of all current RIA centres broken down by contractor. This list also identifies those 7 State owned centres. The Deputy should be aware that RIA has recently completed an EU tender for the management of these State owned centres. While the [658]preferred bidders have been so advised, the relevant contracts will not be in place until early June and it would not be legally appropriate under the regulations to issue such information prior to the start of these contracts.

Details of the costs of each of the 38 centres will be forwarded directly to the Deputy shortly. In this respect it is important to note that, as explained in replies to previous Dáil Questions, it is not in the interest of the taxpayer that details of current individual contracts are known to the public or to other parties who are, or may be in the future, engaged in negotiations with RIA. Therefore, details of current contract rates are not provided. The policy is that the updating of the table of contracts will take place only at the end of January each year in respect of all financial information up to the end of December two years previously, e.g. at the end of January, 2012 the records are updated to end of December 2009. This policy has been upheld by the Office of the Information Commissioner.

All companies under contract to RIA are contractually obliged to have valid, current tax clearance certificates.

In relation to RIA’s tendering processes, I have explained in responses to previous Dáil Questions that RIA does not lease or rent premises from commercial contractors. Rather, it “contracts-in” a comprehensive range of services and facilities, which include accommodation, food provision, housekeeping etc., for a fixed sum over the period of the contract.

A distinction needs to be drawn in relation to procurement processes as between RIA’s State-owned accommodation centres and the commercially owned and operated centres. The tender process for the management of the State owned centres is carried out by way of public competition in accordance with EU Council Directive 2004/18/EC (co-ordinating procedures for the award of public works contracts, public supply contracts and public service contracts) as implemented into Irish law by Statutory Instrument 329 of 2006. In relation to the commercially owned and operated centres, RIA advertises in the national press for expressions of interest from persons interested in providing accommodation and other ancillary services for asylum seekers. RIA procurement also has regard to the provisions of the Department of Finance Circular 10/10 on the Facilitation of SME Participation in Public procurement, a copy of which is available on the Government’s e-tender website www.etenders.gov.ie.

The RIA procurement process was subject to scrutiny in the Value For Money (VFM) review in respect of spending by RIA on asylum seeker accommodation which was published in May, 2010. A copy of this review is in the Oireachtas Library and is also viewable on the RIA website: www.ria.gov.ie. The Review acknowledges the unique challenges in this particular area of procurement, e.g. the unpredictability of demand, the requirement to disperse asylum seekers around the country, local opposition to the opening of new centres, children settled in schools and so on. Among the recommendations of the VFM report was the introduction of a mix of “contracts for capacity” and “contracts for availability and occupancy” as well as a “more open” tendering system in respect of the commercially owned and operated centres in the RIA portfolio. Preparatory work will begin on devising a more open tendering process for the commercially owned centres when the current State owned tender competition is completed next month. This will be a difficult exercise as the tender process will have to take account of “non-money” issues such as access to social, educational and health services as well as adherence to long standing Government policy on dispersal of asylum seekers throughout the country so that no one region is disproportionately burdened in relation to service provision, as well as a recognition that other State agencies may have already committed resources in a particular region or area.

[659]In relation to the services to asylum seekers contracted by RIA, such as food, accommodation and ancillary services, these, by definition, have to be provided in Ireland. In relation to the question of whether contractors or operators of centres are subsidiaries or connected in business to companies or entities outside of the European Union, it will be seen from Appendix B that all have business addresses in Ireland. To RIA’s knowledge, only one of its contractors would fall into the category of being a “subsidiary or connected in business to companies or entities outside the European Union”— i.e., Aramark Ltd. I understand that this company is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Aramark Corporation which is headquartered in Philadelphia in the USA. Aramark Ireland Ltd. has had a presence in Ireland since 2005 when it invested in the Irish firm Campbell Catering Ltd. I am also advised that Aramark Ireland Ltd. currently has over 4,000 employees in Ireland.

Breakdown of Expenditure in RIA in 2011

Type Explanation Spend
Commercial* 37 Centres commercially owned €57.784m
State Owned 7 centres owned by the State €8.258m
Self Catering 2 non direct provision commercially owned centres €1.687m
Pre School Payments for wages, consumables etc. in 8 pre schools €0.128m
Additional costs (including Gas, Electricity, Oil, Phone, Water, Waste, Sewerage, OPW, etc.) Direct spending by RIA on additional costs in State owned centres €1.458m
Transport** Direct spending by RIA on transport of asylum seekers on dispersals around country. €0.068m
Miscellaneous Payments for nappies, legal costs etc. €0.076m
Total €69.459m

Notes:

*This figure also includes the amount paid for the 7 commercially owned centres closed during 2011.

**This represents direct spending by RIA on costs in relation to, transport to reception centres and, onwards on dispersal, to accommodation centres. Individual centres also provide transport (e.g. into local town or city) for resident asylum seekers but this cost is subsumed into the overall contract price.

Contractor Centres
1 Bridgestock Ltd Old Convent, Abbey Street, Ballyhaunis
Globe House, Chapel Hill, Sligo
Lisbrook House, Headford Road, Galway
Athlone Accommodation Centre, Lissywoolen, Athlone [State-owned]
2 East Coast Catering (Ireland) Ltd Balseskin, St. Margarets, Co. Dublin
Hatch Hall, 28A Lower Hatch St. Dublin 2
Carroll Village, Dundalk [SC]
3 Mosney Irish Holidays plc Mosney, Mosney
4 Barlow Properties / Alan Hyde and Ted Murphy / Stompool Investments Ltd / Baycaster Ltd / D and A Ltd / Oval Rock Ltd Ashbourne Hse, Glounthane
Glenvera, Wellington Road, Cork
Birchwood, Ballytruckle Road, Waterford
Mount Trenchard, Foynes, Co. Limerick
Clonakilty Lodge, Clonakilty, Co. Cork
5 The Old Rectory George Ltd / Fazyard Ltd The Towers, Clondalkin, Dublin 22
Georgian Court, Dublin 1
The Montague, Emo, Co. Laois
6 Millstreet Equestrian Services Ltd Millstreet, Millstreet, Co Cork
Bridgewater House, Carrick-on-Suir
Viking House, Waterford
7 Aramark Ltd Kinsale Rd, Cork City [State-owned]
Knockalisheen, Meelick, Co Clare [State-owned]
8 Onsite Facilities Management Ltd (OFM Ltd) Johnson Marina, Dingle Road, Tralee, Co Kerry [State-owned]
Atlas House, McCowan Lane, Tralee, Co Kerry [State-owned]
Atlas House, Deerpark Road, Killarney, Co Kerry [State-owned]
Park Lodge, Park Road, Killarney, Co kerry [State-owned]
9 Maplestar Ltd Eglinton, Salthill, Galway
10 Tattonward Ltd / Rafstone Enterprises Ltd / Chidlane Ltd The Horse and Carriage, 15 Aungier St., D2
St Patricks, Monaghan
11 Onsite Facilities Management Johnson Marina [State-owned]
Atlas Tralee [State-owned]
12 Shaun Hennelly Great Western House, Galway
13 Birch Rentals Ltd Hanratty’s, Glentworth Street, Limerick
14 Westbourne Holiday Hostel Ltd Westbourne, Dock Rd., Limerick
15 Cherryport Ltd Eyre Powell, Newbridge
16 Connemara + Islands Heritage Tourism Ltd Dun Gibbons, Clifden
17 Atlantic Blue Limited Atlantic House, Tramore
18 P. Monaghan + F. McDonnell Watergate House, Dublin 8 [SC]
19 Daniel Moore Ocean View, Tramore
20 Shane + Angie Timoney Cliffview, Donegal
21 J. Gough + M. Campbell Viking Lodge, Dublin 8
[38 Centres]

  147.  Deputy Kevin Humphreys    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    his views on whether it is appropriate for a convicted sex offender, on probation, to be housed in the same facility as minors; his views on same; if he shares information with the Health Service Executive on those who have been convicted of sexual offences and may be housed in public facilities where vulnerable minors live; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24397/12]

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  It is understood that the Deputy is referring to an individual who is residing in accommodation provided by the Health Service Executive (HSE). Arrangements in that respect are a matter for the HSE for which I have no responsibility as Minister.

However, more generally, I can advise that issues in relation to the management of sex offenders in the community were considered in detail in two documents published by my Department. Both documents — The Management of Sex Offenders (January, 2009) and Sum[661]mary of views received on the Management of Sex Offenders (October, 2010) — are available on the Department’s website at www.justice.ie.

On the question of sharing information, the Probation Service supervises convicted sex offenders as defined under the Sex Offenders Act, 2001. Sex offenders are not a homogenous group and it cannot be assumed that all sex offenders pose the same level of risk. The focus of the work with sex offenders is assessment of risk of re-offending, monitoring of compliance with relevant court supervision orders, engagement and motivation of offenders to effect positive change and collaboration between all relevant agencies in managing risk.

The Probation Service has also trained its staff in the application of evidential sex offender risk assessment instruments and established SORAM (sex offender risk assessment and management) with An Garda Síochána and latterly the HSE in order to enhance public safety and the prevention of further offending. Meeting nationally and locally, each SORAM Committee considers the Risk Matrix 2000 and Stable and Acute 2007 risk assessment instruments, and any other factors relevant to risk for each individual case identifying specific risk factors; agreeing risk management plans; agree/ensuring the appropriate sharing of information with other agencies in accordance with data protection legislation.

In accordance with its Child Protection Policy, the Probation Service informs the HSE of sex offender releases from prison. It is viewed as good practice to ensure that the relevant Child Care Manager is informed of all sex offenders living in his/her designated area.

  148.  Deputy Martin Ferris    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    the options open to a person who has been deported in the past but now has residency in Ireland to prevent them from being questioned at airports because of the deportation on their passport; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24412/12]

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  In general, a person who has been made subject to a Deportation Order would have to apply to have the Deportation Order revoked under Section 3(11) of the Immigration Act 1999 (as amended). It is only where such a person has succeeded in their application to have the Deportation Order against them revoked that they can subsequently be granted residency in the State.

If the Deputy, or the person to whom he refers, wishes to write directly to the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service of my Department setting out the specific details and circumstances involved, my officials will examine the matter and provide the appropriate advice.

  149.  Deputy Derek Nolan    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    if he will provide in tabular form statistics of drug seizures in Galway in 2010, 2011 and to date in 2012, by type of drug, amount seized and street value of seizure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24436/12]

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  I am informed by the Garda authorities that the data requested for the quantities, type and estimated values of drugs seized in An Garda Síochána’s Galway Division are outlined in the tables below.

Figures are provided by the Garda Síochána Analyst Service and are based on quarterly data produced by the Forensic Science Laboratory.

The Programme for Government affirms the Government’s steadfast commitment to tackling the problem of drug misuse through the National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016. An Garda Síoch[662]ána’s Policing Plan for this year also sets out key actions for tackling organised crime including drug trafficking. In this regard, An Garda Síochána remains fully committed to continuing to vigorously tackle the illegal supply of drugs at all levels.

*Drug Seizures — Garda Galway Division 2012 (Quarter 1)

Drug Type Quantity Estimated Street Value
Cannabis 3,100 grams €37,200
Cannabis Resin 2,593 grams €15,558
Cannabis Plants 57 plants €22,800
Heroin 2 grams €300
Cocaine Nil Nil
Ecstasy 3 tablets €30
BZP Nil Nil
Total Value €75,888

*Statistics provided for 2012 are operational, provisional and liable to change.

Drug Seizures — Garda Galway Division 2011

Drug Type Quantity Estimated Street Value
Cannabis 5,623 grams €67,476
Cannabis Resin 2,724 grams €16,344
Cannabis Plants 608 plants €243,200
Heroin 49 grams €7,350
Cocaine 5,361 grams €375,270
Ecstasy Nil Nil
BZP 3 grams and 1,100 tablets €5,650
Total Value €715,290

Drug Seizures — Garda Galway Division 2010

Drug Type Quantity Estimated Street Value
Cannabis 26,014 grams €312,168
Cannabis Resin 16,625 grams €99,750
Cannabis Plants 736 plants €294,400
Heroin 79 grams €11,850
Cocaine 172 grams €12,040
Ecstasy 7 grams and 7,702 tablets €38,860
BZP 521 grams and 315 tablets €27,625
Total Value €796,693

  150.  Deputy Derek Nolan    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    the resources that have been allocated to the Garda Drug Squad in Galway; if this number has decreased in [663]recent years; the measures being taken to address the drug problem in the city; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24437/12]

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  I am informed by the Garda authorities that the number of personnel specifically assigned to the Garda Drug Unit in Galway on 30 April 2009 and 30 April 2012 was 13 and 12 respectively. The total Divisional strength on each of those dates was 590 and 582 respectively.

The problem of drug misuse is tackled in a coordinated and integrated way under the National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016.

The Strategy seeks to address the harm caused to individuals and society through drug misuse by tackling the problem in a comprehensive and integrated way and by implementing what is known as a pillar based approach. This approach incorporates a wide range of measures targeted at drug supply reduction, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research.

There is ongoing cooperation between the Garda National Drugs Unit and local Garda Drugs Units to ensure that a coordinated and effective approach to drug law enforcement is in place. Both the Garda National Drugs Unit and the Divisional units are supported in their work by officers from other national units such as the Organised Crime Unit, the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation. An Garda Síochána also has strong and strategic partnerships in place at international level targeting drug trafficking.

  151.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    if he will report on Garda Operation Acer; the number of persons arrested and charged to date; the number of successful convictions secured to date; the amount of stolen property recovered to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24469/12]

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  I am informed by the Garda authorities that Operation Acer is one of the specific burglary related initiatives which are being implemented in each Garda Region in support of Operation Fiacla, which is a nationwide operation targeting mobile gangs involved in burglaries. Operation Acer has a focussed, targeted and integrated approach to tackling criminals involved in committing burglaries in the Dublin Metropolitan Region. The operation provides both a preventative and detection element and focuses on geographical areas and specific targets.

I am further informed that since the commencement of Operation Acer on 15 March 2012, up to 14 May, 398 persons have been arrested, 611 charges have been preferred and 19 summonses have been applied for. To date two persons have been convicted by the courts and sentenced to terms of imprisonment.

I am also informed that property worth €170,000, including large amounts of cash, electrical goods and high value jewellery items has been recovered since Operation Acer began. In addition, a number of vehicles, with an approximate value of €500,000, have been recovered following burglary incidents.

  152.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    if he will report on Garda Operation Marton; the number of persons arrested and charged to date; the number of successful convictions secured to date; if this operation is still active; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24470/12]

[664]Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  Operation Marton is a policing operation which was commenced in 2008 by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The Operation involved the targeting of suspected trafficking and/or smuggling of non-EEA nationals into this jurisdiction, through Northern Ireland. A significant level of cross-border cooperation between the law enforcement authorities in Northern Ireland and An Garda Síochána, through the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB), formed part of Operation Marton.

Investigations carried out in the course of Operation Marton resulted in the identification of a number of non-EEA nationals, who were suspected to have been smuggled into this State through Northern Ireland. Action taken by both thePSNI and An Garda Síochána led to the arrest in this jurisdiction of four individuals who entered this State illegally. Charges in respect of breaches of immigration related legislation were initiated in respect of these individuals. One was convicted in respect of a charge relating to failure to possess a valid visa and was made subject to section 1(1) of the Probation of Offenders Act; a deportation order was issued in respect of another of the individuals.

The law enforcement authorities in both jurisdictions concerned engaged in a series of coordinated actions on Thursday 5 June 2008. In the course of that day, An Garda Síochána conducted searches in six locations across the four counties of Dublin, Kildare, Meath and Louth. In Northern Ireland, the PSNI arrested two suspects, one of whom was subsequently charged in respect of six counts of facilitating the illegal entry of illegal immigrants into Ireland, through Northern Ireland. However, these charges were subsequently withdrawn by the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland.

During the course of one of the searches undertaken by An Garda Síochána, a twelve year old female was discovered. This minor was suspected to have been trafficked into this country for the purpose of domestic servitude. She was placed in the care of the Health Service Executive. A file was subsequently forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions who directed that one person be prosecuted for a suspected breach of the provisions of section 29(2) of the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud) Offences Act 2001. On 20 January 2011, at Dublin Circuit Appeal Court, a sentence of four months imprisonment, which was suspended, was imposed on the person who was charged with the offence. It was not possible to bring charges under the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act, which did not come into operation until afterwards.

In addition, a request for assistance was received by An Garda Síochána from the Northern Ireland law enforcement authorities, pursuant to the provisions of the European Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters, in the course of Operation Marton. An Garda Síochána subsequently provided information which had been requested, to PSNI, through the aforementioned mutual assistance process.

While involvement by An Garda Síochána in this particular operation has concluded, An Garda Síochána and the PSNI continue to liaise closely in dealing with all matters concerning human trafficking and related criminal activities.

  153.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    the number of convictions for knife related crime in Dublin city and county in 2010, 2011 and to date in 2012; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24504/12]

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  The Garda Síochána Act 2005 makes provision for the compilation and publication of crime statistics by the Central Statistics Office, as the national statistical agency, and the CSO has established a dedicated unit for this purpose.

[665]I have requested the CSO to provide statistics directly to the Deputy.

  154.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    the number of burglaries reported in Dublin city and county in 2010, 2011, and to date in 2012; if he will give a breakdown by Garda district; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24505/12]

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  The Garda Síochána Act 2005 makes provision for the compilation and publication of crime statistics by the Central Statistics Office, as the national statistical agency, and the CSO has established a dedicated unit for this purpose.

I have requested the CSO to provide statistics directly to the Deputy.

  155.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    the procedures to be followed in respect of an application for residency and naturalisation in the case of a person (details supplied) in Dublin 9; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24512/12]

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  I am advised that the person concerned was granted permission to remain in the State for a period of five years on the 13 February 2007 on the basis that he was the Spouse of an EU citizen who was residing in the State and in exercise of her EU Treaty Rights.

It then appears that on 4 April 2011 the person concerned advised the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) that he was divorced from his EU citizen spouse since 20 March 2009, and that he now wished to retain the permission to reside under the provisions of Regulation 10 of the European Communities (Free Movement of Persons) Regulations 2006 and 2008 which provides for the retention of the right of residence by family members of an EU citizen in the event of divorce or annulment of marriage. It also appears, however, that the EU citizen spouse may have left the State around September 2008 prior to the initiation of any divorce proceedings.

Further information was requested from the applicant, through his Solicitor, by letter of 13 April 2011 in order to process the application for retention of permission to reside in the State under the provisions of Regulation 10 of the Regulations. The applicant’s Solicitor indicated by letter of 15 November 2011 that it was not possible to provide the information requested. On 12 March 2012 a further letter issued through the applicant’s Solicitor requesting additional information to process the case and to date no response has been received. A decision on the retention of permission will issue shortly based on the information already on file.

I am also advised that an application by the person concerned was submitted on 13 January 2012 in respect of the Zambrano Judgement. The child was born in the State on 15 December 2011 to a different partner, who is also claiming residence in the State based on being the parent of an Irish born child. In advance of a final decision being made, the case of the person concerned will be examined to determine what, if any, impact the recent European Court of Justice Judgment in the Belgian Zambrano case may have on his case.

I am further informed by the Citizenship Division of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) that an application for a certificate of naturalisation was received from the person referred to by the Deputy in November, 2010.

The application is currently being processed with a view to establishing whether the applicant meets the statutory conditions for the granting of naturalisation, such as good character and lawful residence, and will be submitted to me for decision in due course.

[666]Queries in relation to the status of individual immigration cases may be made directly to INIS by e-mail using the Oireachtas Mail facility which has been specifically established for this purpose. This service enables up to date information on such cases to be obtained without the need to seek information by way of the Parliamentary Questions process. The Deputy may consider using the e-mail service except in cases where the response from INIS is, in the Deputy’s view, inadequate or too long awaited.

  156.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    the current or expected position in respect of an application for residency in the case of a person (details supplied) in County Meath; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24513/12]

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  Arising from the refusal of his asylum application, and in accordance with the provisions of Section 3 of the Immigration Act 1999 (as amended), the person concerned was notified, by letter dated 28 July 2011, that the Minister proposed to make a Deportation Order in respect of him. He was given the options, to be exercised within 15 working days, of leaving the State voluntarily, of consenting to the making of a Deportation Order or of making representations to the Minister setting out the reasons why a Deportation Order should not be made against him. In addition, he was notified of his entitlement to apply for Subsidiary Protection in accordance with the European Communities (Eligibility for Protection) Regulations 2006.

The person concerned submitted an application for Subsidiary Protection. When consideration of this application has been completed, the person concerned will be notified in writing of the outcome.

In the event that the application for Subsidiary Protection is refused, the position in the State of the person concerned will then be decided by reference to the provisions of Section 3 (6) of the Immigration Act 1999 (as amended) and Section 5 of the Refugee Act 1996 (as amended) on the prohibition of refoulement. All representations submitted will be considered before a final decision is made. Once a decision has been made, this decision and the consequences of the decision will be conveyed in writing to the person concerned.

Queries in relation to the status of individual immigration cases may be made directly to the INIS by e-mail using the Oireachtas Mail facility which has been specifically established for this purpose. This service enables up to date information on such cases to be obtained without the need to seek information by way of the Parliamentary Questions process. The Deputy may consider using the e-mail service except in cases where the response from the INIS is, in the Deputy’s view, inadequate or too long awaited.

  157.  Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality in relation to    the statutory instrument circulated regarding the inter-department committee on the Magdalene Laundries, his views on the way in which the statutory instrument empowers the committee to carry out its work; if the statutory instrument refers to privacy issues only and from those raised by records and or does it empower the committee to compel discovery of records; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24549/12]

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  I presume that the Deputy is referring to Statutory Instrument No. 486 of 2011 — Data Protection Act 1988 (Section 2B) Regulations 2011. This instrument deals only with data protection issues and in particular allows [667]sensitive personal data to be disclosed to and processed by the inter-departmental committee charged with establishing the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries.

  158.  Deputy David Stanton    asked the Minister for Justice and Equality    the position regarding the responsibility and liability of parents for the misbehaviour of their children, in particular with regard to damage to property and general nuisance; the legislative provisions governing same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23991/12]

Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Alan Shatter):  I presume the Deputy, in referring to “misbehaviour” of children, means behaviour of a criminal nature or anti-social behaviour. I wish to inform the Deputy that the Children Act 2001, as amended, provides for a number of measures in relation to parental responsibility in respect of children aged 12 to 17 who are found guilty of offences or who are involved in anti-social behaviour.

Section 111 of the Act provides that in any proceedings in which a child is found guilty of an offence, the court may make an order for the supervision of the child’s parents where it is satisfied that a wilful failure of the child’s parents to take care of or control the child contributed to the child’s criminal behaviour. Section 113 of the Act provides that where a court is satisfied of the guilt of a child and that the appropriate way of dealing with the case is to make a compensation order, it may order that the compensation be paid by the parent or guardian of the child instead of the child. Section 114 of the Act provides that a parent or guardian may be ordered by the court to enter into a recognisance to exercise proper and adequate control over their child. It should be noted, however, that the imposition of any particular sanction referred to above on the parents or guardians of a child found guilty of an offence is a matter for the judiciary.

In addition, Part 13 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 provides that when a Garda becomes aware of anti-social behaviour, the Garda may issue a behaviour warning to the child. Failure to obey the warning may result in a good behaviour contract being made involving the child, their parent(s) or guardian and the Gardaí. If a contract is broken or if it is not working, it can be renewed or, an application can be made to the Children Court for a Civil Behaviour Order. In addition to the Order, the court may also make a plan for the child to be supervised by their parents or guardian.

With regard to children under 12 years of age, Section 53 of the Children Act, as amended, sets out a series of clear steps which a member of An Garda Síochána should undertake when the Garda has reasonable grounds for believing that a child under the age of criminal responsibility has committed an offence. In the first instance the Garda should take the child to its parent or guardian or, if necessary, arrange for the child to be given into the custody of the HSE.

  159.  Deputy Clare Daly    asked the Minister for Defence    the amount of recruitment to the Defence Forces in 2011 and 2012; and the basis for the decision to take on extra personnel in view of the overall public sector recruitment embargo and closure of barracks. [24536/12]

Minister for Defence (Deputy Alan Shatter):  The Government has decided to accept my recommendation that the strength of the Permanent Defence Force will be maintained at 9,500. I believe that this is the optimum level required to fulfill all roles assigned by Government. The Military Authorities have advised that the strength of the Permanent Defence Force at 30 April, the latest date for which details are available, was 8,885 comprising 7,181 Army, 759 Air [668]Corps and 945 Naval Service. I am further advised by the Military Authorities that a total of 494 General Service Recruits were enlisted into the Permanent Defence Force in 2011. In addition, there was an intake of 32 Cadets from the 2011 Cadetship competition. A further 29 general service recruits were inducted into the Permanent Defence Force up to 30 January 2012.

As the Permanent Defence Force is currently below the agreed serving cadre there will be phased recruitment of General Service Recruits in 2012 within the resource envelope allocated to Defence so as to maintain the Government approved strength of the Permanent Defence Force.

A recruitment competition was launched on Monday 2 April 2012, the closing date for which was 22 April 2012. Along with General Service recruitment a limited number of Instrumentalists will be enlisted in 2012. A Cadetship Competition was also advertised last week.

  160.  Deputy Mary Lou McDonald    asked the Minister for Defence    if he will give permission to the family of a person (details supplied) to erect a plaque in Arbour Hill, Dublin, in his memory and to note that the family intend to pay all costs relating to the plaque. [24546/12]

Minister for Defence (Deputy Alan Shatter):  My Department has previously dealt with representations made on behalf of the family in question regarding a proposal that a plaque be erected in honour of their relative who was executed in 1798. The response that issued at the time indicated that despite extensive research undertaken by my Department in an effort to establish the exact location of the execution, this could not be determined conclusively. Whilst the Church at Arbour Hill is owned by my Department, other surrounding properties, including the adjoining cemetery, are not my Department’s property. As there is no certainty that the execution took place on what is now Department of Defence property, my Department is not in a position to approve the erection of such a plaque.

  161.  Deputy Thomas Pringle    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine    the number of appropriate assessments completed on Natura 2000 sites as part of the aquaculture licensing process; the number of AAs which are currently underway; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24366/12]

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Simon Coveney):  My Department, in conjunction with the Marine Institute and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is engaged in a comprehensive programme to gather the necessary baseline data appropriate to the conservation objectives of ‘Natura’ areas. This data collection programme is substantially complete. Analysis of the data, together with the setting of appropriate conservation objectives by the NPWS, will enable all new, renewal and review applications to be appropriately assessed for the purpose of ensuring compliance with the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. This work represents a significant financial, administrative and scientific investment by the State in resolving this issue. The Appropriate Assessment of aquaculture applications is being dealt with on a bay-by-bay basis. To date, the Appropriate Assessment process is complete in respect of three bays covering approximately 100 aquaculture sites.

  162.  Deputy Thomas Pringle    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine    the expected waiting time for an aquaculture licence following the completion of an appropriate [669]assessment on a Natura 2000 site as part of the aquaculture licensing process; if he considers this reasonable; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24364/12]

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Simon Coveney):  Following the completion of an Appropriate Assessment in respect of a Natura 2000 site, an aquaculture licence application is considered under the provisions of the 1997 Fisheries (Amendment) Act which include assessment of the application by statutory and non-statutory consultees and a period of general public consultation. It is not possible to predict with certainty what issues will arise from this process of consultation which may require further investigation. Accordingly, a precise timeline is not possible.

Addressing the issue of aquaculture licensing in Natura 2000 areas is a key priority for my Department and you can be assured that every effort is being made to expedite the determinations of aquaculture licence applications having regard to all the complexities involved.

  163.  Deputy Michael Lowry    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine    the number of applications nationally under the agri-environment options scheme for 2010 and 2011 that are still waiting payment; the number of these cases in County Tipperary; the reasons for the delay in same; the steps being taken to resolve this delay; if his attention has been drawn to the hardship being caused as a result of this delay; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24413/12]

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Simon Coveney):  A total of 8,773 valid applications were received under the Agri-environment Options Scheme (AEOS 1) in 2010. Of this total, 636 are still awaiting payment in respect of 2010, 40 of which are in Co. Tipperary. 3,447 applicants are awaiting payment in respect of 2011, of which 189 are in Co. Tipperary.

A total of 6,895 applications were received under the scheme in 2011 (AEOS 11). 279 applications were rejected as not meeting the terms and conditions of the scheme and the remaining 6,616 successful applicants have been informed of their acceptance into the scheme. A substantial number have also been informed of, and asked to respond to, queries arising from their application form. Of these, 297 are Co. Tipperary farmers. Under the EU Regulations governing the scheme and other area-based payment schemes, a comprehensive administrative check of all applications, including cross-checks with the Land Parcel Identification System, must be completed before any payment can issue. This process is well advanced for all AEOS II applications and I expect that payments will commence in June. Payments in respect of 2012 will commence later in the year.

Successive EU audits have made it absolutely clear that compliance with the Regulations must be strictly adhered to and that all administrative checks must be passed and eligibility conditions met before payment issues. As a result, my Department is obliged to ensure that individual payments will not issue until all aspects of a farmer’s application are in order, all outstanding documentation provided and all queries resolved. Outstanding payments under AEOS 1 arise because of outstanding queries on applications forms which are mostly associated with digitisation or inaccurate capital investment claim forms. The re-digitisation of land parcels is a particularly complex issue which can impact not only on the agri-environment application but also the Single Payment Scheme and/or Disadvantaged Areas Scheme payments to the farmers concerned. Insofar as 2011 payments are concerned, delays in payments arise mainly due to queries in relation to the capital investment claims submitted by farmers or failure by farmers to submit claims. Despite two letters and other reminders from my Department, many farmers have either failed to submit forms or have submitted inaccurate forms.

[670]I am conscious of the importance of these payments to farmer’s incomes and my Department is making every effort to assist farmers in regularising their applications and claims for payment. Additional resources have been assigned to dealing with queries and payments will continue to issue as quickly as possible as outstanding issues are resolved.

  164.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine    the assistance available to a person (details supplied) in County Galway in view of the changes to the agri-environment option scheme option. [24433/12]

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Simon Coveney):  The person named commenced REPS 3 in June 2006 and received payments for the five years of the contract period. The final Year 5 payment issued on 8th July 2011 for the amount of €9817.10 and a Supplementary payment of €200 issued in respect of Rare Breeds on 9th August 2011. The contract of the person named under REPS is now complete.

I am actively considering the possibility of re-opening the Agri-environmental Options Scheme to allow for the submission of applications either on an amended basis from the existing scheme and/or on a limited scale and, in particular, the possibility of re-opening for applications later in the year with a possible closing date for applications of end September and a commencement date for new participants of January 2013.

  165.  Deputy John Deasy    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine    if he will provide details of the levels of funding provided in the following fishing harbour centres, Castletownbere, Dunmore East, Howth, Killybegs, Rossaveel and Dingle in each of the past ten years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24463/12]

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Simon Coveney):  My Department administers the Fishery Harbour and Coastal Infrastructure Capital Development Programme on an annual basis. The following table shows the expenditure under the programme at each of the six Fishery Harbour Centres in the last 10 years. The figures for Dingle Harbour date from 14th May 2007 which is the date that Dingle harbour was designated as a Fishery Harbour Centre (An Daingean Fishery Harbour Centre).

Year Castletownbere Dingle Dunmore East Howth Killybegs Rossaveal
2011 €2,832,389 €695,093 €756,497 €479,978 €774,343 €2,224,805
2010 €4,515,186 €1,048,817 €281,781 €253,688 €558,024 €1,476,058
2009 €7,871,560 €410,937 €588,695 €176,863 €426,243 €4,087,224
2008 €7,635,735 €1,010,121 €580,634 €158,305 €410,287 €2,487,838
2007 €8,088,910 €307,000 €1,225,404 €169,828 €486,071 €2,086,738
2006 €10,985,109 €0 €573,438 €297,976 €2,367,570 €424,609
2005 €2,107,910 €0 €603,548 €213,130 €4,256,824 €5,693,869
2004 €1,943,585 €0 €908,690 €81,090 €8,613,686 €351,988
2003 €1,114,130 €0 €602,240 €106,198 €24,566,630 €285,817
2002 €1,241,846 €0 €582,372 €111,291 €15,397,288 €1,883,097
Total €48,336,360 €3,471,968 €6,703,299 €2,048,347 €57,856,966 €21,002,043

  166.  Deputy Paul J. Connaughton    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine    when the remaining 25% will be paid in relation to the agri-environment options scheme 2010 and 2011 in respect of a person (details supplied) in County Galway; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24499/12]

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Simon Coveney):  The person named was approved for participation in the Agri-Environment Options Scheme with effect from the 1st September 2010 and full payment totalling €1,116.57 issued in respect of 2010. Under the EU Regulations governing the Scheme and other area-based payment schemes, a comprehensive administrative check, including cross-checks with the Land Parcel Identification System, must be completed before any payment can issue. Similar checks are carried out in respect of payment for the 2011 scheme year. These checks have been completed and 75% payment totalling €2,512.27 has issued to the person named in respect of 2011. The application was selected for a Cross Compliance inspection which resulted in a penalty being imposed. The cross compliance penalty, in this case 3%, will be deducted from the balancing payment which will issue at the earliest opportunity to the person named.

  167.  Deputy Eoghan Murphy    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine    if he will review a case in relation to a horse riding permit in respect of a person (details supplied) in Dublin 6. [24502/12]

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Simon Coveney):  Coillte Teoranta was established as a private commercial company under the Forestry Act, 1988 and day-to-day operational matters, such as mentioned by the Deputy are the responsibility of the company.

  168.  Deputy Brendan Griffin    asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine    if he will consider introducing a pay as you use system for waste and water at fishery harbour centres as well as making a distinction between imported waste, which must be deep buried, and locally generated waste, which is cheaper to dispose of; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24540/12]

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Simon Coveney):  Charges for the use of facilities at each of the six Fishery Harbour Centres are currently levied by virtue of the Fishery Harbour Centres (Rates and Charges) Order 2003. Each Fishery Harbour Centre is regarded as the Local Competent Authority and is required to have a fee structure so that all ships calling to port are required to contribute significantly to the provision of port waste facilities in the port, whether any particular ship avails of facilities or not. The Rates and Charges order operative since 2003 has a structure in place for fresh water to be charged at €2.50 per m3. However, my Department has recently conducted a review of the 2003 Order and a draft new Rates and Charges Order, the first proposed changes to the fee schedule for almost a decade, has been prepared on foot of that review. The new draft Order was the subject of a public consultation process that closed on 20th April last, and I am pleased to note that my Department has received a total of 87 submissions in relation to the revised charges, from a wide range of stakeholders in the Fishery Harbour Centres. These submissions are being given careful consideration at present, and when the examination is complete I will, if neces[672]sary, make any appropriate amendments to the draft new Rates and Charges Order before it is finalised.

  169.  Deputy Kevin Humphreys    asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs    the number of convicted sex offenders currently being housed in the same facility as minors, such as those that cater for homeless or vulnerable boys and girls at or under the age of 18 years; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24398/12]

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald):  As this is a service matter, I have asked the Health Service Executive to respond directly to the Deputy with the most up-to-date information.

  170.  Deputy Kevin Humphreys    asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs    her views on the recent case highlighted in a news report (details supplied) in which a convicted sex offender was housed in the same facility as minors; if she will elaborate the Health Service Executive’s position on this; her further views on the guidelines for the housing of convicted sex offenders particularly those who are minors or on the cusp of adulthood; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24399/12]

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald):  The HSE has provided me with further information regarding the particular case highlighted by the Deputy and on this basis I am satisfied that an appropriate risk assessment was undertaken by the HSE in deciding on this child’s placement. The HSE has confirmed that as with all children in care and in particular those who have a history of sexually harmful behaviour, a full risk assessment is carried out and is subject to regular review. The assessed needs of the young person, including their safety and the safety of others are incorporated into the placement plan and care plan. Services such as psychology are consulted and the HSE works in partnership with the probation services as part of the process. Regular multi-disciplinary meetings take place involving all agencies to review the young person’s care. These reviews incorporate the evaluation of risk and planning for same. The HSE has assured me that the welfare and protection of all young people are paramount when considering appropriate placement for such young people. Finally, guidelines for the housing of convicted sex offenders are a matter for my colleague the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence.

  171.  Deputy Kevin Humphreys    asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs    the action she is planning to take in conjunction with the Adoption Authority of Ireland once the report on its recent visit to Ethiopia is published; if she will publish a road map of actions to bring some certainty on the issue of introducing a bilateral adoption treaty with Ethiopia; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24400/12]

  172.  Deputy Kevin Humphreys    asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs    when the report by the Adoption Authority of Ireland on its visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to examine the feasibility of a bilateral adoption treaty will be published; if she will ensure this issue is expedited as the trip occurred more than a month ago and there is significant uncertainty for families who are unable to adopt under the existing transitional arrangements; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24401/12]

[673]Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 171 and 172 together.

The Adoption Act, 2010, which provides the legislative framework for adoption in Ireland, is designed to provide a framework to ensure that all adoptions are effected in the best interests of the child and to the highest possible standard. The phrase ‘in the best interests of the child’ is absolutely key in this regard. It must not be forgotten that inter-country adoption is a service for those children who cannot be raised by their birth parents or cared for in their own country. The interests of the child must always be paramount throughout the adoption process. This is best achieved through the full implementation of the highest national and international standards governing adoption practice. This is the primary concern for the Adoption Authority of Ireland in conducting its business as it relates to inter-country adoption.

Adoptions from Ethiopia, effected under the transitional arrangements provided for in the Adoption Act 2010, are ongoing and are currently being examined, and recognised, by the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI). These transitional arrangements may lead to adoptions from Ethiopia taking place up to the end of October 2012. The Adoption Act 2010 also contains provision for a one year extension to declarations of eligibility and suitability to adopt which may lead to a one year extension to this date. Ethiopia is not a signatory of the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of inter-country Adoption. In these circumstances, adoptions from Ethiopia which are not covered by the transitional arrangements referred to above would require a bilateral agreement between Ireland and Ethiopia. The negotiation of bilateral agreements on inter-country adoption with states who have not ratified the Hague Convention is governed by Section 73 of the Adoption Act 2010 which states that “the Authority, with the prior consent of the Minister, may enter into discussions with any non-contracting state concerning the possibility of the Government entering into a bilateral agreement with that State.” Any bilateral arrangements which might be entered into would be required by law to meet the minimum standards set out in the Hague Convention.

A delegation from the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI) visited Ethiopia in April and held exploratory meetings with the Ethiopian authorities regarding the system of adoption which operates in that country. The delegation, in the course of its visit, held preliminary discussions with the Ethiopian authorities around the potential for a bilateral on inter-country adoption. The AAI is currently preparing a report for me on its assessment of the situation which will inform the next steps to be taken.

  173.  Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl    asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs    the steps she has taken since the signing of the Adoption Act of 2010 to sign a bilateral agreement with Russia; if she will make this a matter of urgency; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24481/12]

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald):  The Adoption Act, 2010, which provides the legislative framework for adoption in Ireland, is designed to provide a framework to ensure that all adoptions are effected in the best interests of the child and to the highest possible standard. The phrase ‘in the best interests of the child’ is absolutely key in this regard. It must not be forgotten that inter-country adoption is a service for those children who cannot be raised by their birth parents or cared for in their own country. The interests of the child must always be paramount throughout the adoption process. This is best achieved through the full implementation of the highest national and international standards governing adoption practice. This is the primary concern for the Adoption Authority of Ireland in conducting its business as it relates to inter-country adoption.

[674]Adoptions from Russia, effected under the transitional arrangements provided for in the Adoption Act 2010, are ongoing and are currently being examined, and recognised, by the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI). These transitional arrangements may lead to adoptions from Russia taking place up to the end of October 2012. The Adoption Act 2010 also contains provision for a one year extension to declarations of eligibility and suitability to adopt which may lead to a one year extension to this date. Russia is not a signatory of the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of inter-country Adoption. In these circumstances, adoptions from Russia which are not covered by the transitional arrangements referred to above would require a bilateral agreement between Ireland and Russia. The negotiation of bilateral agreements on inter-country adoption with states who have not ratified the Hague Convention is governed by Section 73 of the Adoption Act 2010 which states that “the Authority, with the prior consent of the Minister, may enter into discussions with any non-contracting state concerning the possibility of the Government entering into a bilateral agreement with that State.” Any bilateral arrangements which might be entered into would be required by law to meet the minimum standards set out in the Hague Convention.

A delegation comprised of representatives of the Adoption Authority and officials from my Department held exploratory meetings with the Russian authorities in December of last year. The delegation visited Russia in relation to preliminary discussions around the potential for a bilateral on inter-country adoption. This was a follow up to previous discussions which took place earlier in the year, on the initiative of the Russian authorities. I have received an initial assessment from the Adoption Authority which will inform the next steps to be taken in relation to this matter. My Department is in discussions with the Adoption Authority on this assessment and other issues which will influence any policy decisions to be taken in this regard. I am aware of the need to bring clarity to the situation in respect of Russia and I hope to be in a position to do so as soon as possible.

Question No. 174 answered with Question No. 24.

  175.  Deputy Billy Kelleher    asked the Minister for Health    if he will provide information regarding community mental health teams throughout the country including the catchment areas covered by each team; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24381/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  As this is a service matter the question has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  176.  Deputy Billy Kelleher    asked the Minister for Health    the position regarding the implementation of the recommendations on borderline personality disorder as outlined in Vision for Change; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24382/12]

  177.  Deputy Billy Kelleher    asked the Minister for Health    if he will legitimise borderline personality disorder by inserting the words “personality disorder” into the Mental Health Act 2001; if so, how soon will we see this introduction; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24383/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 176 and 177 together.

This Government is committed to implementing A Vision for Change and reforming our model of healthcare delivery so that more and better quality care is delivered in the community.

[675]The HSE provides a wide range of community and hospital based mental health services in Ireland. The General Adult Community Mental Health Teams deliver best practice, community based care and provide services for people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). In 2011, the National Office for Suicide Prevention (NOSP) funded a number of Community Mental Health Teams to provide evidence based Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) which has increasingly been shown to be effective for people with BPD.

A special allocation of €35m for mental health was announced in Budget 2012 in line with the Programme for Government commitments. Funding from this special allocation will be used primarily to strengthen Community Mental Health Teams in both Adult and Children’s mental health services which will further develop services for those with BPD. It is intended that the additional resources will be rolled out in conjunction with a scheme of appropriate clinical care programmes based on an early intervention and recovery approach. These programmes which are currently in development will include one specifically for complex mental health conditions such as eating disorders and BPD.

Last year, I appointed a Steering Group of senior officials from my Department, the HSE and the Mental Health Commission to commence the process of reviewing the Mental Health Act 2001. The Review included a public consultation process, a call for submissions and several meetings with key sectorial stakeholder organisations. The Group has now completed its Interim Report which is under consideration. The second and more substantive phase of this review is expected to commence in the near future.

  178.  Deputy Billy Kelleher    asked the Minister for Health with regard to sufferers of borderline personality disorder    who do not reside in a catchment area, the way patients can access services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24384/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  As this is a service matter the question has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  179.  Deputy Billy Kelleher    asked the Minister for Health    if funding is available for the treatment of borderline personality disorder; if she will provide a detailed regional breakdown of same; her plans to increase funding; if so if she will she outline same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24385/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  As this is a service matter the question has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  180.  Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív    asked the Minister for Health    when nursing and dietetic posts for the treatment of diabetes in Galway University Hospital will be filled as promised in January this year; the reason for the delay; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24390/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  181.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health    if the drug Pradaxa has been approved for use by the Health Service Executive for the treatment of patients; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that this drug is used in the six counties; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24394/12]

[676]Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  Pradaxa is available under the GMS Scheme, the Drug Payment Scheme and other community drugs schemes for the prevention of blood clots in adult patients who have undergone elective hip replacement surgery or elective knee replacement surgery.

The HSE is assessing the availability of resources to provide for the long term treatment with Pradaxa for the prevention of stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation. This is a complicated process with long term implications. The HSE wrote to all GMS doctors and community pharmacy contractors in November 2011 to clarify the position in relation to Pradaxa. The HSE will continue to update healthcare professionals in relation to the matter.

The HSE does not intend to disturb established therapeutic regimens for patients whose treatment with Pradaxa for the prevention of stroke was initiated prior to the clarification.

  182.  Deputy Pat Deering    asked the Minister for Health    the position regarding an application for a medical card in respect of a person (details supplied) in County Carlow; and if he will expedite the matter. [24395/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply to the Deputy.

  183.  Deputy Ciarán Lynch    asked the Minister for Health    if he will review the decision not to grant full general practitioner cards to a family (details supplied) in County Cork in view of the circumstances; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24396/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  Determination of eligibility for a medical card is the responsibility of the Health Service Executive and is based on a national assessment process for medical cards, details of which are available on the HSE’s website (www.hse.ie). If a person has been refused a medical card they can lodge an appeal within 21 days. Details of the appeals process are forward to the applicant with their refusal letter. As this refusal of a medical card renewal is a service matter I have referred it to the Health Service Executive for direct reply to the Deputy.

  184.  Deputy Ciarán Lynch    asked the Minister for Health    when a decision will be made regarding a medical card application by a person (details supplied) in County Cork; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24402/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply to the Deputy.

  185.  Deputy Kevin Humphreys    asked the Minister for Health    if he will allow those who have paid for medication while waiting for medical card approval to be allowed to claim a refund for the cost of the medication, due to the delay in issuing medical cards; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24418/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply to the Deputy.

  186.  Deputy Jack Wall    asked the Minister for Health    the reason the drug payment schemes for recipients in the Kildare area is being moved from Naas to Crumlin; if his attention has [677]been drawn to the fact that this is a major cause of concern for many of the persons involved; if he will review the change; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24419/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the HSE for attention and direct reply to the Deputy.

  187.  Deputy Dara Calleary    asked the Minister for Health    if he will review the decision to withdraw transport escorts for service users (details supplied). [24445/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  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 to the Deputy.

  188.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Health    if discussions have taken place regarding the proposal to relocate Beaumont Hospital to a site in Belcamp; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24452/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  I take it that the Deputy is referring to recent media reports concerning the development of a medical hub including Beaumont Hospital and the national paediatric hospital, at a site in Belcamp, County Dublin. As the Deputy will be aware, I established an independent Review Group to consider the implications of the decision of An Bord Pleanála, received on 23 February 2012, to reject the planning application for the proposed construction of a national paediatric hospital on the site of the Mater Misericordiae Hospital. The Review Group is considering all issues relevant to the location of the new paediatric hospital and I do not wish to make any further comment on the matter until the Group’s work is complete.

  189.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Health    the steps he is taking to tackle the increase in youth suicides; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24454/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  Dealing with the current high levels of suicide and deliberate self harm is a priority for this Government. Reach Out our National Strategy for Action on Suicide Prevention recognises the youth sector as a high risk group and sets out a number of specific actions. Consequently, the HSE’s National Office for Suicide Prevention (NOSP) has developed a range of initiatives aimed specifically at supporting young people who are suicidal and also supporting their peers in recognising and responding appropriately to signs of emotional distress and suicidal thoughts.

A wide range of awareness and training programmes are available in the area of mental health promotion and suicide prevention. These include safeTALK which trains participants to become more alert to the possibility of suicide in their community and other training programmes such as Reaching Out, ASIST, Taking Control, MindOut and STOP. A number of media awareness campaigns have been run in recent years including the “Let someone know” campaign which focused specifically on young people and delivered the message that it is important to reach out and seek the support of others. Other awareness programmes include the “The Please Talk” initiative, running in third level colleges since 2007, which encourages young people experiencing problems to talk to others and identifies the supports available to those in need.

[678]Jigsaw, an innovative community-based support service for young people, has been developed by Headstrong and is designed to promote systems of care that are accessible, youth-friendly, integrated, and engaging for young people. Through additional Innovation Funding, this service is now available or in development in 11 sites around the country. A special allocation of €35m for mental health was announced in Budget 2012 in line with the Programme for Government commitments. Funding from this special allocation will be used primarily to further strengthen Community Mental Health Teams in both Adult and Children’s mental health services. Some of the funding will also be used to advance activities in the area of suicide prevention and to initiate the provision of psychological and counselling services in primary care, specifically for people with mental health problems.

  190.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Health    the number of consultant oncologist attached to Beaumont Hospital, Dublin 9; the number of persons on the waiting list to see the consultant; the average waiting time; the steps being taken to tackle same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24472/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  191.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Health    the number of Health Service Executive paramedics, emergency medical technicians, advanced paramedics that retired in 2010, 2011 and to date in 2012; the number that were replaced in each of these years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24473/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for attention and direct reply to the Deputy.

  192.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Health    when a decision will be made on the site of the proposed new National Children’s Hospital; if detailed proposals have been made for the former Belcamp College lands in Dublin 17; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24474/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  I established an independent Review Group to consider the implications of the decision of An Bord Pleanála received on 23 February 2012 to reject the planning application for the proposed construction of a national paediatric hospital on the site of the Mater Misericordiae Hospital. The Review Group will, as part of its review, consider all issues relevant to the location of the new children’s hospital. I will await the completion of the Group’s work and do not wish to make any further comment on the matter at this time.

  193.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Health    if has received any proposal from the Health Service Executive or local general practitioners for a primary care health centre in the north fringe Clongriffin-The Coast, Dublin 13; the steps he will take to ensure that a primary care health centre is planned for and included in the new local area plan now [679]being completed by Dublin City Council for the north fringe; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24475/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The development of primary care is central to this Government’s objective to deliver a high quality, integrated and cost effective health system. The Programme for Government states that primary care will be an immediate priority area. The development of primary care centres, through a combination of public and private investment, will facilitate the delivery of multi-disciplinary primary care and represents a tangible re-focussing of the health service to deliver care in the most appropriate and lowest cost setting. The delivery of the primary care centre infrastructure must be informed by needs analysis, with priority given to areas of urban and rural deprivation. The HSE is currently engaged in prioritisation of primary care centres.

A draft capital plan for the period 2012-2016 has been submitted to my Department. My Department is reviewing the proposals and following up with the HSE where further details may be required. The proposed plan requires my approval with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Details of the plan will be published by the Executive following its approval.

  194.  Deputy Derek Nolan    asked the Minister for Health    the reason a centre (details supplied) has cancelled its general practitionrer services; the action being taken to rectify the system problems being experienced in the centre; the length of time that they will be without GP services; the contingency arrangements that have been put in place in the meantime; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24483/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply to the Deputy.

  195.  Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Health in view of    the gravity of the situation in relation to a person (details supplied) in Dublin 8 if he will intervene in this instance in order to determine whose remit the person now falls under; and where possible, determine the avenues available to find a solution to the persons case; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24486/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  As this is a service matter the question has been referred to the HSE for direct reply.

  196.  Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Health    if he will consider including Macular Degeneration in national health campaigns and public awareness campaigns directed both at the public and general practitioners in view of the fact that it is currently on the increase in Ireland and early detection is key to successful treatment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24487/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The clinical program for ophthalmology is looking at the best delivery of care for macular degeneration. The Programme has identified five main work streams, one of which is Macular Degeneration (AMD). A Working Group comprising statutory and voluntary stakeholders has been set up to look at best care pathways for ongoing delivery of service.

[680]The Irish College of Ophthalmologists, the Association of Optometrists and patient advocacy groups such as the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) and Fighting Blindness participate in an annual public awareness campaign on AMD along with other stakeholders. During the AMD awareness week a mobile unit travels around the country providing free testing for macular degeneration and this along with the media exposure can lead to early detection.

  197.  Deputy Regina Doherty    asked the Minister for Health    the reason it is taking up to nine weeks to process optical benefits when the average time in Kildare is one to two weeks and the action being taken to tackle this delay. [24488/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  Optical claims are processed by the Primary Care Reimbursement Service (PCRS) of the HSE. There are currently no delays in the processing of such claims. Claims must be approved by Local Health Offices before being submitted to PCRS for processing. If the Deputy would like to provide more information on the delay to which she refers I will make further enquiries with the HSE.

  198.  Deputy Eoghan Murphy    asked the Minister for Health    the support facilities that exist to assist a family with a child who suffers from pathological demand avoidance. [24490/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  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 to the Deputy.

Question No. 199 answered with Question No. 24.

  200.  Deputy Pat Deering    asked the Minister for Health    when a person (details supplied) in County Carlow will receive a decision on a medical card review; and if he will expedite the matter. [24506/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply to the Deputy.

  201.  Deputy Sean Fleming    asked the Minister for Health    the position regarding a transfer in respect of a person (details supplied) in County Laois; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24510/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the HSE for attention and direct reply to the Deputy.

  202.  Deputy Sean Fleming    asked the Minister for Health    his views on using more generic medicines as a way of reducing the overall cost of medicines to the taxpayer; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24511/12]

[681]Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  The Government recognises the potential savings, for the taxpayer, which could be made from the use of generic drugs instead of proprietary drugs.

The Programme for Government states that “reference pricing and greater use of generics will be introduced to reduce the State’s large drug bill and the cost to individuals of their medicines.” The draft Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Bill 2012 is on the list of Bills to be published in this session of Dail Eireann. This legislation will introduce a system of reference pricing and generic substitution for drugs prescribed under the GMS and community drug schemes. These reforms will promote price competition among suppliers and ensure that lower prices are paid for these medicines resulting in savings for taxpayers and patients.

  203.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health    if his Department or the Implementation Group on Universal Health Insurance have identified the phased steps, including timeframes, towards the introduction of universal health insurance by 2016; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24516/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The Government is committed to fundamental reform of the healthcare system that will deliver a single tier health system, supported by universal health insurance, where access is based on need, not income. Every citizen will have a choice of insurer and will have equal access to a comprehensive range of curative services.

There are a number of key stepping stones that will play a critical role in paving the way for the introduction of universal health insurance. Significant work has already been undertaken to progress these. They include:

the strengthening of the primary care sector to deliver universal primary care with the removal of cost as a barrier. The Government has established a Universal Primary Care Project Team to oversee the introduction of universal primary care. In addition, the Government has given its approval to the preparation of Heads of a Bill to progress the phased introduction of free GP care in line with the commitment in the Programme for Government. It is envisaged that the first phase in the Programme will provide for the extension of access to GP services without fees to persons with illnesses or disabilities to be prescribed by regulations under the new legislation.

reform of the acute hospital sector, including the establishment of the Special Delivery Unit (SDU) which has been tasked with unblocking access to acute services by improving the flow of patients through the system. An important part of the Programme for Government is the establishment of independent not-for-profit trusts. As a first step, non-statutory hospital groups will be set up which will have a single clinical governance model, one budget and one employment ceiling. The hospital groups will be established on the clear understanding that the groupings and their governance arrangements will be reviewed prior to 2015 to ensure an appropriate environment for the introduction of UHI.

the introduction of the more transparent and efficient “Money Follows the Patient” funding mechanism for acute hospitals. A number of initiatives are already underway including a patient level costing project and a pilot initiative in relation to prospective funding of certain elective orthopaedic procedures, at selected sites.

[682]In February, I established an Implementation Group on Universal Health Insurance. The Group will assist in developing detailed implementation plans for universal health insurance and driving implementation of various elements of the health reform programme. A project team comprised of senior Department of Health officials has also been established to support the work of the Implementation Group.

The initial work of the Group will focus on assisting in developing work plans and overseeing reform work in relation to each of the following key work streams:

Hospital Financing (e.g. Money-follows-the-patient, Hospital Care Purchase Agency).

Hospital Structures (e.g. Hospital Trusts).

Regulation of the Hospital Sector (e.g. Patient Safety Authority, Licensing).

Private Health Insurance Market (e.g. Risk Equalisation, Minimum Benefits).

Overarching UHI Design (e.g. detailed design of the UHI system, including the legislative framework and the package of services to be covered).

The reform programme is a complex and major undertaking that requires careful sequencing over a number of years. The Implementation Group will continue in existence throughout the health reform process and will oversee different elements of the reforms as they are being put in place. It is also intended that it will consult widely as part of the reform implementation process.

  204.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health in view of    the complex and long-term programme of health reform, the steps he will take to ensure that cost does not continue to act as a barrier to care, particularly for that significant proportion of the population covered by neither medical or general practitioner visit card nor private insurance; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24517/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The Government is committed to fundamental reform of the health care system with the objective of delivering a single tier health system, supported by universal health insurance, where access is based on need, not income. Every citizen will have a choice of insurer and will have equal access to a comprehensive range of curative services. A new Insurance Fund will subsidise or pay insurance premiums for those who qualify for a subsidy.

There are a number of key stepping stones that will play a critical role in paving the way for the introduction of universal health insurance and significant work has already been undertaken to progress these. They include (i) the strengthening of the primary care sector with removal of cost as a barrier to access and (ii) reform of the acute hospital sector, including the work of the Special Delivery Unit in relation to unblocking access to acute services, the establishment of hospital groups and the introduction of the more transparent and efficient “money follows the patient” funding mechanism for acute hospitals. Once the key building blocks have been put in place, the health system will be ready for universal health insurance.

The reform programme is a complex and major undertaking that requires careful planning and sequencing. Detailed consideration must be given to the optimal structures for delivery of different services and to the critical inter-relationships between services as well as best practice in health care reform. Ongoing work on proposed new governance and administrative arrange[683]ments for the HSE represents an important first step in the process of delivering the reform agenda contained in the Programme for Government. The next steps, which will include measures to facilitate clearer and better integrated delivery and funding arrangements, are under consideration at present.

  205.  Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Health    if in advance of the Independent Monitoring Group on A Vision for Change report due next month, he will address what action has been taken on foot of last year’s report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24518/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  In its Annual Report for 2010, the Independent Monitoring Group acknowledged that progress had been made in the implementation of A Vision for Change in 2010 particularly in relation to the development of new adult and child and adolescent mental health care in Dublin, Cork and Galway and the closure of outdated services. However, the Monitoring Group was disappointed that there had been little progress in the implementation of the specialist mental health services and, in particular, the creation of fully staffed community mental health teams to develop the model of service outlined in A Vision for Change.

Since taking office, this Government has prioritised the reform of our mental health services and is committed in particular to the delivery of more and better quality care in the community. It must be recognised that significant progress has been achieved in the mental health services including shorter episodes of in-patient care, fewer involuntary admissions and the involvement of service users in all aspects of mental health policy, service planning and delivery. There are now 61 Child and Adolescent and 124 Adult Community Mental Health Teams in operation.

Developments on the Capital Programme are continuing with new Acute Units, Community Mental Health Centres, Residential Facilities, Day Hospitals and Day Centres being developed around the country. This has facilitated the closure of most of our old institutional type psychiatric hospitals. In relation to Child and Adolescent mental health services, two 20-bed in-patient units have been developed in Cork and Galway. Work is continuing on the development of the second phase of the Child and Adolescent Unit at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Fairview and an 8 bedded interim facility at St. Loman’s, Palmerstown. The Linn Dara Child and Adolescent Mental Health Day Facility at Cherry Orchard, Dublin has also been completed and will open shortly.

A special allocation of €35m for mental health was announced in Budget 2012 in line with the Programme for Government commitments. Funding from this special allocation will be used primarily to further strengthen Community Mental Health Teams in both Adult and Children’s mental health services which will ensure, at a minimum, that at least one of each mental health professional discipline is represented on every team.

It is intended that the additional resources will be rolled out in conjunction with a scheme of appropriate clinical care programmes. Some of the funding will also be used to advance activities in the area of suicide prevention and to initiate the provision of psychological and counselling services in primary care, specifically for people with mental health problems. Over 400 additional staff will be recruited to support these initiatives.

  206.  Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan    asked the Minister for Health    when we may expect the establishment of a directorate for mental health and specifically will this post be given budgetary authority and responsibility for the implementation of A Vision for Change; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24519/12]

[684]Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  My colleague Minister Reilly intends to bring legislative proposals to Government to abolish the HSE Board structure under the Health Act 2004 and to provide for replacement governance structures and enhanced accountability arrangements. In tandem with the proposed new legal structures, new administrative structures will be put in place within the HSE which will reflect the need for a greater operational management focus on the delivery of key services and greater transparency about funding, service delivery and accountability. Consideration is currently being given to how best to give effect to the new administrative structures, including the selection and appointment of new directors at national level, including mental health.

  207.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Health    if there is any change in the plan for the 34 ensuite rooms for cystic fibrosis patients at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin. [24538/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  St Vincent’s University Hospital is the designated National Adult Referral Centre for patients with Cystic Fibrosis. The new development at St. Vincent’s Hospital is designed to provide a state of the art clinical building which will include up to date isolation facilities with accommodation for people with cystic fibrosis and others requiring such facilities.

This new building will provide 100 new inpatient beds in total, of which 20 will be a dedicated inpatient facility with en suite rooms for patients with CF. This reflects best practice in terms of infection control. It will also provide a dedicated CF Day Unit, containing offices, treatment rooms, together with 10 single day treatment rooms, each with en-suite sanitary facilities for treating patients with cystic fibrosis. If required the hospital will provide another four respiratory inpatient beds in suitable single en-suite rooms in designated respiratory areas.

The proposed construction completion date for the new unit is June 2012 and the hospital management in conjunction with relevant stakeholders is currently preparing plans for the transfer of patients to the new accommodation to take place as soon as possible.

  208.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin    asked the Minister for Health    the services covered under the to-be-extended general practitioner care for those on the long term illness scheme; the extent to which diagnostic and medication costs will be covered; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24548/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The Programme for Government commits to reforming the current public health system by introducing Universal Health Insurance with equal access to care for all. As part of this, the Government is committed to introducing Universal GP Care within its first term of office.

Primary legislation is required to give effect to this commitment. The Department of Health is currently drafting legislation to provide for the phased introduction of a universal GP service without fees in line with the commitment set out in the Programme for Government. Initially it is intended to extend GP cover without fees to persons with certain long-term illness. It is my intention to have the Bill published and enacted before the summer recess.

  209.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Health    if he will ensure that a nursing home (details supplied) receives the required upgrading of facilities to meet the maximum [685]capacity of 120 patients having particular regard to the obvious economic advantages particularly in the present climate of availing of such existing and available buildings and structures in preference to more expensive new buildings and in view of the high quality of services available at the home; if his attention has been drawn to the expensive scale and quality of the services available at the nursing home, the pivotal role it plays in the local community and the necessity to ensure the availability of such high quality accommodation for patients who might otherwise have to be accommodated at various general hospitals; his views that the restoration and utilisation of maximum bed capacity of 120 at this location represents competitive value for money and high quality of service while meeting the needs of his Department and those of the local community; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24591/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  210.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Health    if he is satisfied regarding the availability of an adequate supply of junior hospital doctors to meet the requirements at all levels within the health services on an annual basis over the next four years with particular reference to the need to avail of the maximum numbers of medical graduates; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24592/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The purpose of the process is to generate sufficient numbers of qualified applicants for the July 2012 intake and for future intakes of NCHDs. This is intended to provide a continual stream of prospective candidates to meet the demand in particularly challenging specialties such as Emergency Medicine and Psychiatry. The campaign includes external and internal press advertising, as well as advertising in medical journal websites worldwide.

I will be receiving regular updates from the HSE on this issue over the coming weeks. However, at present the HSE does not anticipate significant difficulties in relation to the filling of posts for the July 2012 rotation.

  211.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Health    the full extent of the school medical examinations currently available to children with particular reference to the early school years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24593/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The policy on school health examinations forms part of the Best Health for Children guidelines, produced in 1999 and revised in 2006. The Best Health for Children guidelines set out a clear timetable for child health checks and details what is required at each stage. Routine medical examinations for school age children are not provided as they have not been found to be an effective use of scarce resources. The hearing and vision of children is tested, usually in junior or senior infants. The service is public health nurse led. In many schools a questionnaire is given to families about a child’s health, but the practice and the content of the questionnaire vary from area to area.

The HSE has recently put in place new governance structures in relation to child health screening and surveillance. It also established a National Child Health Surveillance and Screening Office (CHS) to oversee all aspects of child health. Child health surveillance is part of a more general programme of child health promotion that relates to secondary prevention by early detection.

[686]I welcome those very positive developments. However, I am aware of disparities in the provision of child health examinations in different parts of the country, particularly in relation to developmental screening for infants between seven and nine months old. While I recognise staff and resource difficulties within the HSE, it is important that this issue is resolved. I have raised my concerns with the HSE and it has committed to establishing a process to set priorities within the overall child health programme and examine the issue of resource/staff distribution within the constraints of current economic and budgetary realities.

  212.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Health    the number of children screened for orthodontic treatment in each of the past four years to date in 2012; the number of actual referrals in the same period; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24594/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  The information sought is currently being collated by the Health Service Executive and will be forwarded to the Deputy as soon as it is available.

  213.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Health    the number of general hospital beds available at all public general hospitals throughout the country; the extent to which this has fluctuated in each of the past four years to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24595/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  I have set out the information requested by the Deputy for the years 2007-2010 (most recent available) in the table. The information was supplied by the Business Intelligence Unit (BIU) of the Health Service Executive. 2011 data is currently being validated and will not be available until later this year.

In-Patient Beds Day Beds/Places
Public Private Non designated Total Public Private Non designated Total
Totals 2007 9,034 2,249 840 12,123 1,245 222 78 1,545
Totals 2008 8,696 2,251 899 11,678 1,299 217 221 1,737
Totals 2009 8,427 2,203 908 11,538 1,319 225 228 1,772
Totals 2010 8,084 2,190 885 11,159 1,375 223 259 1,857

  214.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Health    if in the aftermath of reductions in staffing levels arising from early or natural retirement and or voluntary redundancy, he is satisfied that current or expected staffing levels can be supplemented through redeployment to ensure the highest quality and standards of patient care; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24596/12]

[687]Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  The cumulative impact of staff reductions from this year and previous years presents a significant challenge for the health system in delivering services. The priority is to reform how health services are delivered in order to ensure a more productive and cost effective health system. Health service employment numbers must be reduced to approximately 102,000 by the end of this year, in line with the Government’s commitment to reduce public expenditure. Therefore, replacement will only occur in critical areas.

The HSE is seeking to mitigate the impact of the retirements on frontline services by—

using the provisions of the Public Service Agreement to bring about greater flexibilities in work practices and rosters, redeployment and other changes to achieve more efficient delivery of services;

delivering greater productivity through the National Clinical Programmes to reduce the average length of stay, improve day of admission surgery rates, increase the number of patients treated as day cases, etc.; and

some limited and targeted recruitment in priority areas to help limit the impact of retirements on frontline services.

There has already been considerable redeployment in the health sector under the Public Service Agreement. This includes the flexibility of staff in continuing to deliver services during and after ‘grace-period’ retirements. The Health Sector Action Plan for 2012 under the Public Service Agreement includes provision for further use of redeployment in the health sector.

  215.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Health    the extent to which the relevant authorities within his Department or within the Health Service Executive have examined the need for the upgrading of health centres throughout the country in keeping with population demands; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24597/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall):  I understand the HSE has written directly to the Deputy and advised that a National Needs Assessment was carried out, and subsequently reviewed in 2011, on the provision of Primary Care services, the location of Primary Care Teams and the requirement for Primary Care Centres (PCCs). PCCs are now being procured by lease agreement and by traditional means, i.e. construction.

Where PCCs are due to be delivered shortly and existing Health Centres will no longer be required, the existing Centres will be maintained in the interim.

  216.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Health    the number and location of new buildings acquired by the Health Service Executive or his Department in the past 12 months; the purpose for which such buildings are likely to be used; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24598/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  My Department has not acquired any buildings in the last twelve months.

As management of the health property portfolio is a service issue, your question has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct response

  217.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Health    the total number and location of beds available for older persons with a high dependency in County Kildare; the extent to which the full bed complement is likely to be maintained and increased in the short and medium term; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24599/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch):  As this is a service matter it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  218.  Deputy Bernard J. Durkan    asked the Minister for Health    the number of hospital beds at all levels in the health services throughout County Kildare in each of the past three years to date; the extent to which any bed losses have taken place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24600/12]

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly):  As this is a service matter, it has been referred to the Health Service Executive for direct reply.

  219.  Deputy Michelle Mulherin    asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport    the value of Shannon Development Estates which will flow annually into Shannon Airport; the way that this funding will be used; if it will be used to market the airport arising out of the recent announcement of plans for an independent airport; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24357/12]

  220.  Deputy Michelle Mulherin    asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport    his plans for Shannon Airport independent of the Dublin Airport Authority; the fate of employees at Shannon and in particular their pension entitlements; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24359/12]

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Leo Varadkar):  I propose to take Questions Nos. 219 and 220 together.

As I have previously informed the Deputy, the Government has decided in principle to separate Shannon Airport from the Dublin Airport Authority and to merge it with a restructured Shannon Development to form a new entity in public ownership. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and I will now establish a Steering Group that will bring forward proposals for the implementation of the decision.

Issues concerning the future funding of Shannon Airport and the position of airport employees, including their pensions, are matters to be considered by the Steering Group in the first instance.

  221.  Deputy Michael McCarthy    asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport    his plans to reinstate the programme of skills courses with Fáilte Ireland for persons who want to enter the hotel, catering and tourism industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24361/12]

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Leo Varadkar):  Fáilte Ireland provides and funds a suite of training supports for businesses and individuals through supporting edu[689]cation programmes in the Institutes of Technology and direct supports to employees, managers and businesses in the tourism industry. In total an estimated 18,800 trainees, students, employees and employers will receive training and business support from Fáilte Ireland in 2012.

In particular, it has put in place an agreed strategy in relation to the provision of Hospitality and Tourism Programmes in the Institutes of Technology. This agreement ensures that a sustainable supply of “industry-ready” people are available to Irish Tourism businesses over the medium term. A critical aspect of that collaboration with the education sector is that Fáilte Ireland has sought and achieved the provision of improved training and career prospects for new entrants. New apprenticeship style models have been developed and put in place across the country together with an accelerated training programme for chefs and restaurant service.

Fáilte Ireland considers that this range of courses addresses adequately the training needs of the industry. It is worth noting that Fáilte Ireland has championed the ‘earn and learn’ approach as the most effective way forward whereby individuals are provided with access to accredited training on campus on a part-time basis while also learning on the job.

  222.  Deputy Dessie Ellis    asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport    if he will provide an update on the implementation of a new Dublin Bus 83a route; and if he will encourage the National Transport Authority to give approval to this route. [24365/12]

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Leo Varadkar):  The issue raised is an operational matter for Dublin Bus in conjunction with the National Transport Authority. I have referred the Deputy’s question to Dublin Bus for direct reply. Please advise my private office if you do not receive a reply within ten working days.

  223.  Deputy Niall Collins    asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport    when a vehicle change of ownership will be processed in respect of a person (details supplied) in County Limerick and a new ownership vehicle registration certificate issued. [24435/12]

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Leo Varadkar):  The person in question was the seller of the vehicle and an online change of ownership notice was received in my Department on 4 April 2012 and a Vehicle Registration Certificate (VRC) issued to the new owner on 11 April at the address supplied on the change of ownership documentation. The VRC was returned undelivered by an Post indicating that the owner was not known at the address provided.

I understand that the owner now resides at that address and the Registration Certificate has been re-issued.

  224.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport    the number of road accidents reported in Dublin city and county in 2010, 2011 and so far in 2012; if he will give a breakdown by Garda district; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24456/12]

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Leo Varadkar):  Under the Road Safety Authority Act 2006 (Conferral of Functions) Order 2006 (S.I. No. 477 of 2006), this is a matter for the Road Safety Authority.

[690]Detailed analysis of the statistics, including on a county basis, are carried out by the Road Safety Authority (RSA) and published in their annual “Road Collision Facts”. Noting this, I have referred the Deputy’s question to the Road Safety Authority for direct reply. Please advise my private office if you do not receive a reply within 10 working days.

  225.  Deputy Thomas P. Broughan    asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport    the number of new bus routes created by Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann for the years 2009, 2010, 2011 and to date in 2012; the location of each new route; if he has made an evaluation of operation of the Network Direct redesign of the Dublin Bus network; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24468/12]

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Leo Varadkar):  The operation and provision of bus services is a matter for Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann in conjunction with the National Transport Authority. The details of routes operated by Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann are a matter for the companies and I have referred the Deputy’s question to both for direct reply. Please advise my private office if you do not receive replies within ten working days.

The Deloitte Cost and Efficiency Review of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann, published in January 2009, identified some scope for greater efficiencies in Dublin Bus. Following the publication of that Report, Dublin Bus undertook an extensive review of their bus network and subsequently announced plans for the re-organisation of routes and timetables. The objective of the redesign was to provide current and future bus customers with a service that will be modern, accessible, integrated, easy to understand, punctual and frequent.

I understand that Dublin Bus has held over 30 public meetings and 250 meetings with key stakeholders as part of its consultation programme. All changes are advertised in advance through national and local media, and through social media, as well as house leaflet drops to areas serviced by the bus routes where changes occur. All proposed changes to services require the approval of the NTA who have a mandate to oversee the provision of a well functioning, attractive, integrated and safe public transport system for all users.

I am supportive of the efforts of Dublin Bus to achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness. Given the losses recorded by Dublin Bus in recent years and having regard to unavoidable constraints on the availability of Exchequer funds for PSO subvention, it is important that Dublin Bus deliver greater efficiency and effectiveness in order to safeguard the overall sustainability of public transport services in the future.

  226.  Deputy Peter Mathews    asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport    his plans regarding the National Car Test for cars of ten years and over (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24497/12]

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Leo Varadkar):  Under the Road Safety Authority Act 2006 (Conferral of Functions) Order 2006 (S.I. No. 477 of 2006), the Road Safety Authority (RSA) has responsibility for the delivery of the National Car Test.

In 2008, the RSA reviewed the car testing specification and, following this review, proposed that a number of new test items be introduced to the National Car Test (NCT). A public consultation process was conducted by the RSA on the proposals in 2009 and, having con[691]sidered the views received, the RSA recommended that the proposals, including annual testing of cars over ten years old, be introduced to the NCT.

With effect from 1 June 2011 cars older than 10 years must undergo annual roadworthiness testing. Road traffic collision statistics for 2009 show that 41.5% of fatal collisions and 46% of serious injuries arose from collisions that involved vehicles that were 10 years old or more. As at the end of 2011, 28% of all taxed private motor vehicles were 10 years old of older.

The NCT fee increased from €50 to €55 in January 2012. The fee, in the main, represents the per test payment made by the RSA to Applus, who carry out the testing service. I have previously indicated that there will be no further increase in NCT fees for the next three years.

I believe the annual testing of vehicles of ten years and older is a valuable safety measure. The NCT Regulations do not provide for any exemptions from roadworthiness testing and I have no proposals, at present, to introduce exemptions.

  227.  Deputy Finian McGrath    asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport    if he will maximise the support given to taxi drivers in the new reforms rather than making matters more difficult. [24537/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Alan Kelly):  The focus of the Taxi Regulation Review is to achieve a balanced set of reforms that allow consumers to have confidence in the taxi system while also ensuring that legitimate and competent operators and drivers can be rewarded fairly by operating under a regulatory framework that is adequately enforced.

The recommendations contained in the Taxi Regulation Review Report reflect the agreement of the Review Group following an extensive consultation process. In my view, the thrust of the reforms outlined in the Report will facilitate better sevices for consumers and will improve the operating environment for taxi drivers generally.

The National Transport Authority (NTA) has responsibility for the regulation of the taxi industry under the Taxi Regulation Act, 2003 and is also the lead agency with responsibility for implementation of the recommendations of the Taxi Regulation Review Report. The NTA is required to report progress on implementation of the Review Recommendations quarterly to the Taxi Advisory Committee which includes representation from the taxi sector.

  228.  Deputy Terence Flanagan    asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport    the discussions that have taken place regarding the Olympic torch and its visit here; if the route the torch will take has been agreed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24544/12]

Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Michael Ring):  Responsibility for all aspects of the visit of the Olympic Torch Relay to Ireland, including the relay route, rests with the Olympic Council of Ireland.

  229.  Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl    asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport    if he will consider the issues raised in correspondence (details supplied) regarding road improvements; the action he will take regarding the concerns raised; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24603/12]

[692]Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Leo Varadkar):  As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding in relation to the national roads programme. The planning, design and implementation of individual road projects is a matter for the National Roads Authority (NRA) under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

Noting the above position, I have referred the Deputy’s question to the NRA for direct reply. Please advise my private office if you don’t receive a reply within 10 working days.