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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 8 Jul 2004

Vol. 588 No. 7

Adjournment Debate.

Telecommunications Services.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me the opportunity to raise this important issue. The market town of Kilrush which has a population of 2,678 is a very important town in west Clare. It is officially dedicated a heritage town with significant tourism potential. It boasts a 12-berth marina, Scattery Island, the Vandeleur walled gardens, golf and woodland trails.

It is unfortunate that Kilrush has suffered from industrial decline over the years. The recent census figures for west Clare are very worrying, with 20 of the 28 electoral divisions in the Kilrush rural area experiencing no growth or a decline in population. The entire Kilrush area showed a population decline of over 3% in the last census and while welcoming the decentralisation programme bringing 50 Revenue jobs to Kilrush, it is necessary to have an adequate telecommunications structure in place to enable this and future developments to be sustained in west Clare.

There is a bleak future for the small rural communities, particularly for sons and daughters of small farmers who have decided to leave west Clare to live and work in Ennis, Kilrush, Galway, Limerick and other areas because they do not have local industry to employ them. Farming is now becoming part time and many of these people are leaving west Clare to move to larger towns.

As the only Clare Deputy residing in west Clare I was very disappointed last week to learn that Kilrush was not included in the first round of the broadband action plan of 2005-2007. This was supposed to be a radical plan to increase competition, raise awareness of ICTs and extend high-speed connectivity to over 350,000 people in 88 towns throughout the country. For the reasons I mentioned earlier, Kilrush should have been included in the first round because this type of technology is critical for Kilrush if it is to attract new industry.

There is a prime example of how crucial technology is to the area. Nowcasting Limited was based in Kilrush in 1997 and commenced services in 1999. The company had developed a computerised system for sending weather information to ships via satellite and radio. Among the company's customers are the Irish navy, the RNLI and passenger and car ferry companies.

The company employed nine full-time staff along with contract workers. Soon after its establishment, the company found that telecommunications service in Kilrush were not satisfactory. The issue was not bandwidth but redundancy and reliability. Kilrush was located on a spur on the telecommunications network, which means there was only one way for traffic to travel, with the same way out. When the radio link went down, there was no service. As a result of this poor telecommunications system, the company moved its telecommunications capacity in November 2001 from Kilrush to Citywest, where it has an excellent facility with back-up systems for both telecommunications and electricity.

That is just one example. I am sure there are many other companies which would have looked at Kilrush but went elsewhere when they saw the poor telecommunications structure. Every job created in west Clare is vital. The 50 jobs announced for Kilrush in the Government decentralisation programme are the equivalent of 4,000 or 5,000 jobs for Dublin. If these jobs are to operate efficiently when they come to Kilrush, the area needs broadband technology. It needs such technology to attract new IT industries.

The task force set up in Kilrush sent a submission to the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and made a good case for Kilrush to be included in the first round, for which I congratulate it. The town has plenty of green field sites for industry but the missing link is broadband. I know that €140 million has been committed to the action plan and the programme announced last week will cost €55 million. However, of the 41 towns included, not one is in County Clare, which is disappointing.

The people of west Clare are entitled to the service. The programme includes three towns in Kerry, four in Galway, seven in Cork and two in Tipperary and I congratulate the Ministers who have lobbied for their towns. However, I hope the Minister has good news and is in a position to announce broadband for Kilrush in the near future.

The provision of telecommunications services, including broadband, is a matter in the first instance for the private sector companies operating in a fully liberalised market, under the regulation of ComReg, the Commission for Communications Regulation. In its report on Ireland's broadband future, published in December 2003, the Information Society Commission concluded that the market has failed to respond to the demand for broadband connectivity, and there is a proven need for Government intervention to accelerate the provision of infrastructure and the driving of demand.

In December last, the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, announced his Department's broadband action plan, which will see broadband connectivity rolled out to over 90 towns with a population of 1,500 and over, using community broadband exchanges and strategic fibre. A spend of €35 million each year from now until 2007 has been committed to the broadband action plan.

I am pleased to advise the Deputy that Kilrush, County Clare has been included in the call for 2005. Broadband services are currently being marketed in the Kilrush area by seven companies using digital subscriber lines, fixed wireless links or satellite links. The Department's dedicated website,, gives full details of these companies’ offerings, including costs and contact numbers. In addition to this initiative, the group broadband scheme, launched in March last, allows smaller rural communities to pool their requirements and obtain broadband connectivity from a range of service providers, with funding assistance from Government. Some €25 million has been committed for this scheme.

The broadband for schools programme, which was also announced in March, will bring high-speed connectivity to all 4,100 primary, second level and special needs schools in the country by the start of the 2005 school year. The Department is working closely with the Department of Education and Science and the industry to deliver this €18 million programme, which is being 80% funded by the industry.

Internet penetration rates in Ireland are now growing faster than in any other European country. In the past 12 months the number of DSL customers has risen from 1,000 to over 45,000, with a further 60,000 customers using flat rate Internet access, and more than 1,000 users of high-speed corporate lines. These figures continue to rise dramatically, with upwards of 1,000 new customers being added each week. The recent free trial introductory offers announced by Eircom and Esat BT, and the entry of NTL into the broadband market, are a welcome indication of the rising level of interest in broadband as a result of lower prices and greater consumer choice.

The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources will continue to push the broadband agenda, with the aim of providing world-class broadband infrastructure in all areas of the country. The continuing aim of the Government is to place Ireland in the top 10% of OECD countries for broadband connectivity within three years. I hope the Deputy is pleased to hear that Kilrush is in line to have the service installed.

Capital Assistance Scheme.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of Slí Eile, the housing association based in Dromina, County Cork which has lodged an application with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for funding for a social housing project. I commend the organisation for the work they have put into the project and the excellent proposal submitted to the Department. The proposal is a concept developed by Slí Eile and consists of a step-down facility from mental hospitals back into the community. It is an innovative idea and the board of Slí Eile has worked closely with the health boards and families to develop the project.

The principle developed after the association considered the statistics regarding re-admission to mental hospitals. Three out of four admissions to mental institutions are re-admissions; over 55% of patients in such institutions are there for over a year and over 33% of those for over five years. This facility aims to provide a communal group setting. The association has a property in mind and has been dealing with Cork County Council and the Department to try to further the project. The application has been with the Department since October 2002 and the association has moved to and fro between the Department and council in regard to the issue. At one stage, the council and the Department had given the green light for the project to go ahead and had instructed solicitors to that effect.

As the Minster of State with direct responsibility, Deputy Noel Ahern, is in the House to answer on the matter, what difficulty has the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with the project? Is there any way to ensure the project can get off the ground? While I understand that the Department and county council work closely together on such applications, it is time to progress this project as the board of Slí Eile and the families supporting it are anxious that it should move ahead.

It is an excellent project, the brainchild of the Slí Eile board which comprises Ms Joan Hamilton and others who have direct family involvement in this area and have been working with family members and others in recent years. They have experienced the ongoing difficulties which must be faced in the context of mental health, including re-admissions. Their fear is that they are in for a lifetime of re-admissions. Will the Minister outline the position regarding Slí Eile? I hope he can move the project forward as soon as possible.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to outline the position regarding the application by Cork County Council under my Department's capital assistance scheme for funding for a project proposed by Slí Eile at the Old Rectory, Rathcormac, County Cork. I thank Deputy Moynihan for having raised the matter as I know of his special interest in this project. The capital assistance scheme, established in 1984, assists voluntary housing bodies to provide accommodation, generally one or two bedroom units, to meet special housing needs such as those of elderly persons, persons with disabilities, homeless persons, disadvantaged families and elderly returning emigrants eligible for accommodation under the scheme. The scheme is administered by housing authorities and it is a matter for each authority to examine and assess proposals brought by voluntary organisations and, if deemed eligible, to submit applications for funding to my Department.

The financial assistance for the accommodation provided under the voluntary housing capital assistance scheme covers up to 95% of the capital costs of providing the accommodation, subject to an overall unit cost limit of €88,900 for one to two person units of accommodation and €108,000 in the case of family type accommodation. In this case, an application for funding in respect of 31 units of accommodation by Slí Eile Housing Association at Rathcormac was received in my Department from Cork County Council in August 2003.

The local authority was requested to submit costings for the project and when received these were referred to my Department's housing inspectorate on 10 September for observations. The Department's inspectorate reported that the proposal was for a residential therapeutic centre for people who have experienced psychiatric problems. The property in question appears to date from 1782 and is a protected structure.

In October the Department was provided with a structural and fabric report which was prepared by the housing body's consultant engineer.

My Department responded to Cork County Council on 7 November setting out the issues of particular concern which have significant cost implications for the project and would need to be addressed. These included the following: the absence of any investigation of the foundations of the existing buildings; a specialist survey of timber conditions was not undertaken; the moisture content of walls, which range from high, medium to low depending on location from ground level; the serious fire safety implications due to change of use to a multi-occupancy dwelling.

In addition to the issues raised, it was requested to provide information as to how it was proposed to fund the operational side of the project on an ongoing basis and the source of such funding, for example the commitment, if any, the health board had given in this regard and the funding for the provision of accommodation for staff caring for the tenants. Under the terms of the capital assistance scheme funding can only be provided for one unit for a carer or caretaker. Accommodation for any extra carers is a matter for the health board. These are matters which should be addressed and resolved at local level before an application for funding is submitted to the Department.

My Department, therefore, asked Cork County Council some months ago to submit its assessment of the costings and feasibility of the proposal and copies of its technical reports. The council was also reminded of the importance of ascertaining a firm level of commitment from the health board towards the project and requested to seek the views of the health board on the proposed provision of only one unit of accommodation for a carer in a project of this scale and nature. A response is awaited from Cork County Council, on receipt of which the application will receive further and prompt consideration.

Waste Disposal.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue before the recess. Haulbowline Island is the centrepiece of Cork Harbour and is known not only as the headquarters of the Irish Naval Service but also as the former location of the State-owned Irish Steel, which was subsequently sold to Ispat International. The plant traded as Irish Ispat. It closed three years ago and has since been in liquidation.

Unfortunately, years of industrial activity on that part of the island have left thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste, heavy metals, chemically treated metals and, most worryingly, a considerable quantity of radioactive waste. Since Irish Ispat went into liquidation there has been a legal dispute regarding responsibility for cleaning up the site. Regardless of ultimate responsibility for the cost of the clean up, which the Secretary General of the Department has estimated to be in the region of €13 million, the first responsibility of Government and of State agencies charged with protecting the environment is to remove the environmental risk. The daily leaching of this material into Cork Harbour represents the greatest environmental danger in the area. As the area's public representative, I wish to see the waste removed at the earliest opportunity.

This debate is an opportunity to put on record a call to Government to take action to remove the thousands of tonnes of hazardous material which are not only causing an environmental risk in terms of contamination but also constitute a huge, intrusive eyesore in the middle of a harbour which we take pride in for its scenic and tourism value. I am hoping for a positive response from the Government. I accept there are legal impediments but it is more important to remove the risk and argue about legal responsibility and acceptance of costs later. It is a dangerous precedent to allow this amount of polluting material to remain on site and to allow continuing environmental contamination to occur. I hope the Minister can respond positively.

I am grateful to the Deputy for raising this issue, thereby giving me an opportunity to outline the progress being made at the former Irish Ispat site on Haulbowline Island. I will first outline the background to the State's current involvement at the site. After the liquidator of Irish Ispat Limited exercised a break clause in the lease, which would have seen him leaving the site on 22 May 2003, the State sought and obtained an injunction constraining him to remain there pending the removal of radioactive materials. When these materials were confirmed to be removed, the injunction was lifted by consent and the State took over custody of the site on 19 June 2003.

The Department immediately instigated measures to enhance safety and security at the site, including retaining two senior personnel for maintenance and inspection, retaining the incumbent security firm pending re-tendering of the contract, moving the security hut and installing barriers to ensure that unauthorised persons could not go on to the site, and seeking quantification of the pollutants which could be removed independent of larger-scale site investigation and remediation issues.

The immediate priority identified from this audit of pollutants was the removal of a large number of deteriorating drums of waste oils and greases which were stored outdoors and might have given rise to serious leakages if not dealt with. All of these were removed at the cost of the State and have been certified as suitably disposed of. Later priorities identified included the removal of PCB containing capacitors and large amounts of dust, mainly contained in bags of about two tonnes capacity. Companies have now been appointed to deal with both of these pollutants. Although these are hazardous materials, they are stored securely on the site in areas to which only authorised personnel have access. These items pose no immediate danger to people in the area or to the environment of Cork Harbour.

While the question of who is ultimately responsible for site remediation is to be resolved by the courts — through which the State is pursuing vigorous claims for the estimated clean up costs — the Minister has consistently taken a conservative and preventative attitude in dealing with the site. He has ensured that potentially contaminating material is removed from the site when this can be done outside the broader scope of a full remediation programme, and that cannot be commenced until a proper site investigation has been completed.

Cork County Council, which has agreed to act as the Minister's agent, is currently in the process of appointing consultants to advise on how to procure a suitable site investigation, to monitor such an investigation on the council's behalf and ultimately to provide appropriate peer review of reports emerging from the site investigation. The site investigation will include a contaminant-pathway-receptor risk analysis and, depending on proposed end uses for the site, will give a range of methodologies for dealing with contaminants so that they will pose no further risk to people and the broader environment.

My Department is not aware of any specific materials on site which pose an imminent danger to the Cork Harbour environment or of any materials which can readily be moved pending site investigation, which are not already being dealt with. We are also confident that departmental officials and Cork County Council are taking all reasonable steps to minimise potential hazards from the former Irish Ispat site to people and the environment and we are confident that this aim is being achieved. The Minister is also taking steps to ensure that in the longer term the site can be suitably remediated, so that rather than being an eyesore and a cause of understandable local worry, it will be a positive asset to the Cork Harbour area and the country.

Social Welfare Benefits.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise yesterday's announcement by the Government of further restrictions in eligibility for rent supplement and the fears and real concerns it has raised among those who are dependent on this form of housing support. A tightening of eligibility for rent supplement was one of the most severe of the savage 16 social welfare cuts announced by the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, last November. The restriction imposed at that time made it far more difficult to qualify for rent supplement and created particular problems for single parents. Such was the concern at the impact of the cut that 13 separate organisations from the voluntary and community sector came together to campaign against it.

Having made access to rent supplement more difficult and restrictive, it appears from the Government announcement yesterday that eligibility for it is to be withdrawn after 18 months and that local authorities will then be required to meet the housing assistance requirements of people assessed as having long-term housing need. According to the statement issued yesterday, "The local authority response will be accommodation-based and will not involve payment of rent allowances to tenants."

I agree fully with the statement made by Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, yesterday when she said that payment of rent supplements to tenants is an appropriate form of short-term income support, but over-dependence on such subsidies to meet long-term need does not provide the best outcome for tenants or yield good value for money for the State. However, the Minister and other Fianna Fáil spokespersons are attempting to present the €332 million as wasted on private landlords. This money will still go to private landlords, but it will be channelled directly from the local authority to the landlord. How, practically, will local authorities be enabled to make a response that is accommodation based? Will the necessary funding be provided to local authorities? Will they be enabled to build more local authority houses, or are they merely to become a broker between the tenant and the private landlord?

Everyone is well aware that it has been the view of the Department of Social and Family Affairs for many years that it should be freed of the obligation to pay rent supplement from its resources and that responsibility for meeting the housing needs of people, either through direct provision or financial support, should be met by the Department with overall responsibility for housing, namely, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. In principle I have no problem with that.

However, I have very great difficulty with the decision effectively to end eligibility for rent supplement after 18 months and to transfer responsibility for meeting the housing needs of these people without providing the finances necessary to allow for a radical expansion of existing housing programmes. I very much doubt whether there has been consultation with the local authorities on this issue and I would certainly be very interested in hearing their views as to their capacity to do what is now asked of them. Deputies may no longer be members of local authorities, but that does not mean that we do not understand the severe difficulties they face in meeting existing housing needs, largely as a result of the failure of the Government to give them the resources to do so.

House prices have trebled during the term of office of this Government. In 1997 the price of a new house was €97,000. Now it is in excess of €300,000. Nearly half of all new families cannot afford to buy a home. According to the report, Local Authorities Housing Strategies, 33% of new families nationally, 42% in urban areas and 50% in Dublin, cannot afford to buy. Against this background it is no wonder there has been such an increase in the numbers seeking public housing. The numbers on council housing lists have doubled, from 26,000 in 1996 to over 60,000 now, yet fewer than 5,000 local authority houses are being built each year.

Many of those on the housing lists are in receipt of rent supplement because without it they simply could not afford private rented accommodation and would be homeless. If rent supplement is to be terminated after 18 months, it is hard to see how this will not lead to an increase in homelessness.

The one major element that was missing from the Minister's statement yesterday was any commitment that additional money will be provided to allow the local authorities to discharge the new responsibilities they will now carry. The best they could say was, "Costs of accommodating rent supplement claimants and administrations will be supported by redirection of funds that would otherwise have been spent in rent allowances for households accommodated through the new arrangements." It should be noted that the term used is that the cost will be supported, not met. Even if the entire spend of €332 million on rent supplement were transferred to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, it would still not be sufficient to meet the needs of new applicants coming on to the housing lists, never mind clearing those already on it.

I call on the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan, not to proceed with this plan until there is a guarantee from Government of sufficient financial resources to local authorities to allow them to meet the existing demand for housing. I also ask the Minister to give an undertaking that nobody will have their rent supplement terminated after 18 months unless the local authority is able to provide them with a suitable offer of housing. The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Ahern, seemed to indicate this morning that the ending of rent supplement will have no implications for persons already in receipt of it, which seems to be at variance with what the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, said. We need to know the answer to this critical question and to other questions that arise from this announcement.

The announcement on rent supplement has major implications but the Deputy is entirely wrong to describe the changes as "further restrictions". The changes will bring about a significant improvement in the housing position of people who, up to now, have had to rely on rent supplement on a long-term basis.

That is why groups such as CORI and the National Youth Council of Ireland have welcomed this initiative. CORI has stated that the new arrangements provide substantial gain for some of Ireland's most vulnerable people. The National Youth Council has stated that young people on rent supplement for some time will now have greater security and better long-term housing options.

People with a long-term housing need require a long-term housing solution, not a weekly social welfare payment in lieu of housing. The new arrangements announced yesterday will involve local authorities progressively assuming responsibility, over a timeframe of three years, for accommodating rent supplement recipients of 18 months continuous duration.

Local authorities will meet long-term housing needs of rent supplement recipients through both social housing and private rented accommodation, involving a variety of arrangements. These could include specifically built premises, existing supplementary welfare allowance rented properties, as well as new developments under public private partnerships.

Funding will be provided to local authorities to support the cost of the new accommodation-based scheme through the redirection of resources from the rent supplement scheme.

Will the Minister transfer the €332 million?

Some of it will be transferred as needed. This funding is in addition to funding already being provided under the local authority housing programmes.

To allay concerns I can confirm that the funding arrangements for the new initiative will in no way reduce the level of funding being provided to the social housing capital programme or towards the rent supplementation scheme. The Government's commitment to the social housing programmes with a combined 2004 Exchequer and non-Exchequer provision of €1.884 billion will be in no way diminished.

It is not coping.

However, we hope to get better value for the totality of spending as between the local authority provision and the rent supplement scheme. I do not accept that this will lead to extra demand for public housing. Those whose needs will be met under the new arrangements are by definition already in need of housing. The new arrangements will provide additional options for meeting those needs in an appropriate and sustainable manner that will give a better outcome to the tenants concerned.

The new role for housing authorities in this area reflects views broadly expressed by community welfare staff, staff representatives and the social partners regarding the desirability of local authorities having direct involvement regarding long-term housing needs generally and aligning this element of the rent supplement sector more closely with overall housing policy.

The Government has decided that the new arrangements will be rolled-out through groupings of local authorities in three phases. Preparations will begin immediately for roll-out to an initial group of lead authorities in Dublin, Galway and Limerick cities, South Dublin, Donegal and Offaly-Westmeath county councils and Drogheda Town Council. A further group will be included early in 2005 and the balance in September 2005. Overall implementation, in terms of accommodating relevant rent supplement claimants assessed as having long-term need for housing assistance, is to be completed in all areas by September 2008.

This decision reflects the Government's objective under the national anti-poverty strategy to enable households experiencing poverty and disadvantage to have available to them housing or accommodation which is affordable, accessible, of good quality, suitable to their needs, culturally acceptable, located in a sustainable community and, as far as possible, in a secure tenure of their choice. The new residential tenancies legislation, which passed all stages in the Seanad today, will also help to underpin the new arrangements.

One of the more significant benefits of the new arrangements is that tenants who have their accommodation needs met by the local authority will be able to retain their accommodation if they progress into employment. I am satisfied that these new arrangements will benefit tenants, taxpayers, accommodation providers and the housing market generally. It is not linked in any way to anything that happened last December. Discussions on this issue have been going on between the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Social and Family Affairs for some years. The right moment and opportunity to come forward with this is now, when——

Does the cheque go directly from the local authority to the landlord?

Allow the Minister without interruption.

Yes, the local authority will make the arrangement with the landlord and source the property. At a time when there is extra supply in the market, we expect that the local authorities, the Government and the people will be able to get a better deal from many landlords, who are not filling vacancies as quickly as they were two or three years ago.

God love them, the poor creatures. I am really upset about that.

This is an opportune time, and we expect to create some money which will allow us to go on and provide extra social housing. However, fundamentally, while some may well be accommodated in the same accommodation, there is a range of options for them, and there is nothing whatsoever to worry about.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 29 September 2004.