Adjournment Debate.

Tax Code.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter. Just 12 months ago, the Minister for Finance, in his Budget Statement, announced the mid-Shannon tax incentive scheme to support tourism in the area. The announcement was welcomed. Over previous years I and many other public representatives from the mid-Shannon area had asked the previous Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, to extend the pilot scheme for the upper Shannon region to the mid-Shannon region. The pilot scheme was a major benefit for the upper Shannon and we hope the proposed new scheme will benefit tourism interests in the mid-Shannon area, particularly around Lough Derg.

Despite the fact that the scheme was announced 12 months ago and was included in the Finance Act 2007, nothing tangible has been done to indicate that it can get going. Many people are waiting to invest in the development of the tourism industry in the area. Over the years it was neglected for development by what was then known as Bord Fáilte. All the resources went to the west, south and south west. There was little provision for the development of the tourism industry in the midland area, which borders the Minister for Finance's constituency.

The scheme can be commenced by ministerial order so there should be no delay as further legislation is not necessary. However, it cannot be commenced until the relevant guidelines have been drawn up and agreed. We have been told for the last six months that the guidelines are in the final stages of preparation. The scheme must be approved by the European Commission but we do not know if it has been sent to Europe for approval. Will the Minister of State indicate if it has? Will the Minister of State also let the people who are interested in the scheme know if the certification board has been established? Who will be on the board? What interest groups will be represented on it?

Areas in the vicinity of Lough Derg and the mid-Shannon region are covered by the scheme. The broadest possible range of projects should be included in it. Marinas and other water-based facilities are to benefit from it as well as land-based projects such as horse riding and other tourist attractions. These have not been developed to a great extent in the mid-Shannon area. There are many other major projects possible in the area. There are, for example, no interpretative centres in the entire Shannon basin but there is a proposal with State agencies involving Portumna Forest Park. It was due to be developed with the help of Coillte and Tourism Ireland but there is a lack of funding. I hope that project will get immediate approval.

Portumna Castle should also be completed. For three years not a penny has been spent on the completion of Portumna Castle, aside from on obvious maintenance. It is a major attraction in Portumna. The Office of Public Works spent €237,000 on it in the three years 2000-03 but nothing since then, despite the availability of resources. I hope that project will be included in the scheme.

Will the Minister of State indicate whether a board has been established, if the scheme has been sent to the European Commission for approval and if the guidelines and application forms are available? We were told last year that it was a three-year scheme. We do not know if the three years date from its inclusion in the Finance Act or if the clock has yet to start ticking. I hope the Minister of State will clearly outline the position in his reply.

The Deputy has the gist of the situation and I do not think it has developed any further. I have a rather lengthy reply but I will summarise parts of it.

The Deputy knows the background to the scheme. It is a tax incentive scheme aimed at encouraging the development of tourism infrastructure in the mid-Shannon area. Legislative provision for the scheme was made in this year's Finance Act. In the lead-up to budget 2006 a submission proposing a scheme such as this was received from Shannon Development. This was followed by various other reports and, based on the contents of these reports, the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism considered that Ireland's inner core appeared to be relatively underdeveloped in terms of tourism but did have sound tourism potential.

The designated areas involved in the scheme are in a corridor of about 12 kilometres on either side of the river stretching from roughly the bottom of Lough Derg to Lough Ree. The scheme is limited to a period of three years, within which qualifying capital expenditure may be incurred. Projects wishing to avail of relief must get approval in advance and must also obtain formal certification after completion. As the Deputy mentioned, the approval and certification will be given by a special board established for the purposes of the scheme and will be carried out in accordance with guidelines to be issued by the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism. The nature of the tourism infrastructure buildings and structures which may qualify under the scheme will be also set out in these guidelines.

Generally, it is proposed that the scheme should concentrate on non-accommodation tourist infrastructure and facilities of a capital nature such as marinas and mooring or docking facilities, leisure centres, sports facilities such as equestrian centres, adventure sport facilities or sailing schools, sports facilities such as golf clubs — but not golf courses, as no capital allowance applies to land — eco-tourism facilities, education and cultural tourism facilities including interpretative centres, health farms and spas, or heritage houses and gardens. Certain buildings, such as those that facilitate gaming or gambling, are specifically excluded from the scheme, as are licensed premises, but not restaurants. Tourism facilities that already qualify for capital allowances, such as hotels, guesthouses and holiday hostels, are also excluded. Accommodation facilities provided as part of a qualifying tourism project may qualify for relief, but expenditure on such accommodation facilities cannot be more than 50% of the overall expenditure on the project or cannot be more than the expenditure on non-accommodation facilities in the project.

Relief will be available over seven years for construction and refurbishment expenditure incurred in the qualifying period at the rate of 15% per annum in years one to six and 10% in year seven. In the case of refurbishment, the qualifying expenditure must exceed 20% of the market value of the property before work commences. In order to comply with the relevant State aid rules, only 80% of the construction and refurbishment expenditure will qualify for relief in areas which are not in the BMW region.

As the Deputy said, the scheme will be commenced by Ministerial order. However, certain steps must be taken before the order can be signed. The relevant guidelines must be drawn up and agreed, the scheme must be approved by the European Commission and the certification board must be established. The development of guidelines has been the subject of ongoing consultations between the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism and the Department of Finance. These guidelines and accompanying application forms are now at an advanced stage and will be completed shortly. I am hopeful that EU Commission approval will follow on foot of notification of the scheme with the completed guidelines.

I appreciate the Deputy's point about Portumna Castle, which is not part of the scheme, and the money that was spent over a three-year period. I could make inquiries within the Department about this. The Deputy would wish this building to qualify for the scheme. Negotiations are continuing, although they have been slower than expected. It is expected that things will be wrapped up fairly soon.

Health Service Staff.

This Adjournment matter is relevant in light of the recent debate on confidence in the Minister for Health and Children. It concerns a former postman who has lived and worked all his life in Sherriff Street and who is now in considerable ill-health. The only relief he had was a couple of sessions every week with a physiotherapist. However, due to the recruitment embargo on the health services these sessions have been taken away. The man, as I said, has multiple and serious ailments such as Parkinson's disease, hypertension, back pain, ulcerated legs, depression, vertigo and an inoperable hernia. He is on 20 tablets a day. He is in pain most of the time and can scarcely walk. He relied heavily on the physiotherapy sessions he received in the Mater Hospital. Some weeks ago he received notice from the patient services department of the hospital to the effect that the service was being discontinued indefinitely. I took up the case on his behalf and spoke to the patient services department. The reply I received was asfollows:

I refer to our telephone conversation on 20th November regarding the above named patient and his enquiry as to why his Physiotherapy sessions have been put on hold.

I have contacted the Physiotherapy Manager who has advised that unfortunately due to the HSE recruitment embargo on staff we have had to redeploy physiotherapist staff assigned to the provision of out patient services to cover for the care of the older person in patient service.

We regret that this has resulted in patients such as [X] being unable to receive out patient rehabilitation at this time.

All patients impacted by this decision have been personally contacted by the therapist responsible for their care and the situation with regard to the recruitment embargo and need to redeploy this therapist explained to them.

I trust this is in order.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of people who are suffering because of the recruitment embargo. Essentially, the HSE has failed to manage its budget and, running out of money towards the end of the year, placed an embargo on recruitment to various front-line services. The Minister for Health and Children is responsible for ensuring that her policy on the HSE is implemented. She should have some sort of monitoring mechanism in place to ensure that patients do not have to suffer towards the end of the year before the following year's budget is put in place. Large-scale recruitment of management and middle-management has created a bloated bureaucracy in the HSE, and now front-line staff can no longer be recruited in the areas in which they are required.

In conclusion, this is a case in which the patient has clearly not been put first. I would like to see the Minister address this. Obviously, the Minister also needs to address a number of other cases, but in this case the person is in dire need of the services which he has been refused indefinitely.

I will take this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney. I begin by thanking the Deputy for raising this issue and for giving me the opportunity to outline the current position on recruitment in the public health service.

I stress that the HSE must manage within the resources made available to it by Government and voted by this House. Managing the budget in the health sector means managing staff and making the best use of the available resources. Staff costs make up almost 70% of the HSE's overall budget. In a service of this scale, with an employee cohort of this size, it cannot be the case that every vacancy which arises must be filled immediately.

To live within its budget, the HSE must carefully manage the recruitment and deployment of staff. The board of the HSE is committed to ensuring that staff costs are controlled and managed to best effect, that an appropriate balance is achieved between clinical and non-clinical posts, that there is a better skill mix within the clinical areas and that staffing levels provide cost-effective, safe and high-quality care to patients.

The current recruitment pause is a temporary measure initiated as part of the HSE's financial break-even plan and it continues to be monitored by the HSE. In any instance where a critical or essential vacancy arises, it may be filled through redeployment of existing staff by the relevant line manager or re-assignment of responsibilities based on assessment of priority need.

Notwithstanding this, it has been recognised that during the period of this temporary recruitment pause, there are some circumstances where appointment of staff may be necessary in frontline services. Accordingly, the HSE has put a process in place to evaluate, monitor and approve requests for derogation from the general recruitment pause. A small group has been established, including a representative of the HSE's national employment monitoring unit, the National Hospitals Office, PCCC and other directorates, and this group meets regularly to consider such applications. Of the applications received to date, derogations to the value of 520.8 whole-time equivalents have been approved, where posts have been identified as critical to service delivery.

There are close to 130,000 people employed in the delivery of our public health and personal social services, the vast majority of whom provide direct service to patients and clients. The current pause in recruitment must be viewed in this context. As I have previously stated, it is a temporary measure put in place by the HSE to live within its budget.

Since the establishment of the HSE, the number of medical and dental personnel has increased by 1,087 whole-time equivalents, which equates to 15.5%. The number of nursing personnel has increased by 4,652, or 13.6%, to 38,965. The number of health and social care professionals has increased by 2,932, or 22.9%, to 15,762. I draw Deputy Costello's particular attention to the number of physiotherapists, which has increased by 301, or 26.5%, since the establishment of the HSE. In addition, the number of training places for physiotherapists has increased by 81, from 64 in 1997 to 145 in 2007. This represents an increase of over 126% in the past ten years. The House will agree that these changes clearly demonstrate the commitment of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, the Government and the Health Service Executive to ensuring focus on patient care and the recruitment of frontline personnel.

In her reply the Minister of State stated a small group has been established to consider such applications where there are special circumstances. Nobody is aware that there is an appeals mechanism.

There is no provision for supplementaries, as Deputy Costello will be aware.

Nobody is informed that there is an appeals mechanism.

That would be a useful parliamentary question.

Would the Minister of State transmit that to the HSE?

Hospital Staff.

I hope that we will be able to get some answers in the debate about the uncertainty surrounding media reports of a review of a pathologist's work at Cork University Hospital. Media reports refer to a locum pathologist who was in place in the Cork University Hospital from July to August of this year, a term of approximately six weeks. Since then a number of cases have been sent to a laboratory in London for review. We are not sure how many cases are involved. There was mention in a newspaper yesterday of 1,000 cases. There are also reports that 15 patients out of 166 have been recalled and sent for further examination.

Yesterday, Deputy Kenny raised this matter with the Taoiseach on Leaders' Questions and the Taoiseach confirmed that there was a review going on in Cork University Hospital related to a pathologist. He did not give details of exactly how many cases were involved. When asked when the Minister was made aware of it, the Taoiseach stated she was informed on 23 November, despite the fact that the review is ongoing since September. That was five days ago, the day after the information came out in the Joint Committee on Health and Children. Was it a case of this having to come out too and of informing the Minister now, or would she have been informed at all were it not for the publicity last Thursday?

There are serious questions and much information which is not coming out and which people have not got. That is leading to much concern about the pathology services in Cork University Hospital. I have read reports that this pathologist was previously employed in Galway and left there due to uncertainty and difficulty surrounding the work that was being carried out in the pathology department. Did this person come directly from Galway to Cork or was there a gap in between? If there were concerns about the work that was being carried on, how come they were not relayed to Cork University Hospital? If this person was working in Galway, are there concerns about the work that was being done there by this pathologist?

There are many questions that I want answered. I do not have the information to make a five-minute speech, but I am glad that the Minister of State is here and I hope we will get some resolution to the uncertainty surrounding this situation.

I thank Deputy Clune for raising this matter.

The current position on the review of pathology services in Cork University Hospital is as follows. Since September last, hospital management at CUH has been carrying out a review of pathology services at the hospital as a result of concerns about the work of a single pathologist who worked in that hospital on a locum basis for a short period in recent months. Hospital management commissioned an accredited UK laboratory to undertake an independent review of the temporary pathologist's work.

The Minister for Health and Children and her Department were informed of this review on 23 November. The Minister understands that in the course of this review so far, several patients have already been recalled for review and appropriate care by their doctor. The Minister understands that any further patients who need review will be contacted and offered appropriate care as soon as they are identified. The HSE has informed departmental officials that it will conclude this review shortly.

The pathologist concerned resigned from his position at the request of hospital management at CUH, when information relating to his work became known. The HSE has informed the Minister that this pathologist no longer works in any of its hospitals. Steps have been taken to ensure that the regulatory authorities in the jurisdiction where it is believed this person resides have been informed so that they can take appropriate action.

The immediate priorities in any review of clinical services are to establish whether the care of any patient has been compromised and, if so, to inform those patients and ensure they receive, as a matter of priority, any necessary clinical assessment and other services and supports. The Department is working closely with the HSE to ensure that these protocols are applied in the case of the Cork review. The HSE has also indicated that it will publish the results of the review in Cork when it is completed.

The events of recent weeks underscore the absolute need for the HSE National Cancer Control Programme to be implemented as soon as possible. Professor Tom Keane took up his position as director of the cancer control programme last week. The HSE is putting arrangements in place to enable Professor Keane to take control of all new cancer developments from 1 January 2008 and, progressively, all existing cancer services and related funding and staffing.

The delivery of cancer services on a programmatic basis will serve to ensure equity of access to services and equality of patient outcome irrespective of geography. The recent decisions of the HSE in four managed cancer control networks and eight cancer centres will be implemented on a managed and phased basis. The designated centres for the HSE southern region are Cork University Hospital and Waterford Regional Hospital.

The Government is committed to continuing to make the full range of cancer services available and accessible to cancer patients throughout Ireland in accordance with best international standards, including in the southern region.

Schools Building Projects.

I sincerely thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important matter concerning the delay in — the long-fingering of — or the placing of additional obstacles or burdens before a number of school projects in County Westmeath which have already commenced.

In the case of Clonmellon national school in north Westmeath, on the October bank holiday weekend last a digger was ready to come on site. The locals, board of management, parents, students and residents of the general Clonmellon area were beside themselves with excitement. The next minute they got word that the project was put on hold. I raised this issue in respect of a number of schools by way of parliamentary questions, the replies to which stated that tender reports were under examination and that a report was being awaited regarding Gainstown.

The handbrake has been put down on a number of projects in which all necessary steps were taken. What has occurred in respect of Ballynacarriga national school, my old school, is disgraceful. It is in a CLÁR area, is part of the DEIS programme and has 96 pupils, but no accommodation has been provided. Four additional rooms to implement the various policies are required. The parents council, the board of management and the teachers are disappointed and hurt. It is similar in Louighahar, an area with an expanding population that needs a new school. The parents, teachers and principal worked hard, but were let down by the Government. People are asking where the money has gone or, to use an agricultural term, where is the beef.

In 1998, on the advice of the Department's inspector, Clonmellon national school applied for two new classrooms to replace substandard rooms in a 1936 building. In 1999, it was given permission for the new classrooms and the conversion of the 1936 building into a remedial room, library and computer room and a design team was appointed. In 2000 following the Department's advice, the brief was changed due to increasing enrolments to build three extra classrooms, a general purpose room and ancillary rooms. In February 2001, plans were approved by the Department and, in November 2001, the school was advised to proceed to seek planning permission, as it was to be fast-tracked. Permission for an extension was granted in May 2002.

In May 2004, the school received word from the Department to the effect that the latter wanted changes made to the plans before applying for planning permission. When the Department was told the school already had planning permission, the former claimed that the latter had not been given permission to do so. In 2006 following a meeting with the Department's chief architect and a revision of the cost plan for the extension, the Department decided it was more economically viable to demolish the school and to build a new generic repeat design building. The school was assured it would be fast-tracked, as it should be given that eight years had passed.

In 2007, the plans had been finalised, planning permission had been granted and the project had gone to tender when the blow came, namely, the Department informed the school that it must wait until budget day to see if there will be funds to continue. If insufficient funds are available, the Minister will make the final selection as to which projects will proceed.

The situation is the same in Gainstown, an area on the fringes of Mullingar with a large population base and an excellent school. In November 2007, the initial application for a building was made and all 15 stages of background work were completed as required. Expenses had been paid, the project was under budget and a letter had been received from the Department's architect stating it was allowing the project to proceed to construction without any further approval. Why is capital spending being taken from Gainstown when the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, stated on 19 November that capital spending is to be increased in this year's budget?

The school received a letter dated 7 November which stated that, if the school wanted to invite tenders for the project, it must seek written approval from the Department to commence the process and that, if the school had already initiated the tender project, which was the case, the school must obtain the Department's written approval to award a contract. It is a delaying process.

The letter of 7 November was addressed to the chairman and not Fr. Kilmartin, the chairman of the board of management. What is occurring? The project is under budget and has been on time with each phase. To stop the Gainstown building project now is not sound financial practice. Gainstown's submission is a model submission and has been from the outset. The school made contact and was told that all schools got the letter, it was a countrywide issue, everything, including expenditure, is to be monitored and re-examined and the school is up the line. Why is the school up the line? It is eight years down the road. A snail could get to Dublin from Mullingar in that time.

In recent days, another handbrake has been placed on the development of Athlone community college. In November 2006, the CEO and others were informed that the second phase of schools with applications submitted for major development work, a total of 18, were invited to enter into the architectural design process. The college, which was one of the schools selected, was invited to an information meeting with others. The college went and was thrilled to be informed by the Department that there would be no delays, but there has been a lack of progress. The Westmeath VEC is unhappy with the lack of progress in this project and the manner in which the timescale given by the Department has not been adhered to. Last week, it met officials and was assured it would be given approval to appoint a project supervisor for the design phase before moving on to a full design team. Unfortunately, the project has stalled.

There are similar concerns in Kinnegad, where a new school was promised in school accommodation reports. The Department will not confirm which bodies will be involved therein, whether it will be the VEC, the college etc. Mullingar's new school is off the radar for the time being. What signal is the Department's radar reading? This is a critical matter for a number of County Westmeath's schools. I ask that the handbrake be released and funding be allowed to flow to the Clonmellon, Louighahar, Gainstown and Ballynacarriga national schools and Athlone community college. I want the green light to be given to schools in Kinnegad and Mullingar because their burgeoning populations must be accommodated.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity of outlining to the House the Department of Education and Science's position regarding the provision of school accommodation at Clonmellon, Louighahar and Gainstown national schools in County Westmeath. The proposed projects involve the construction of new schools at Clonmellon and Louighahar and the provision of an extension at Gainstown. Planning permission and a fire certificate have been obtained and the tender reports for all three projects are being examined by the Department's building unit.

Under the national development plan, €4.5 billion has been assigned to the capital requirements of the primary and post-primary sectors. More than €540 million will be spent this year on school buildings. The level of construction alone in the primary and post-primary sectors in 2007 is such that it will deliver more than 700 classrooms to provide permanent accommodation for approximately 17,500 pupils.

The progression of all largescale building projects from initial design stage through to construction phase is considered on an ongoing basis in the context of the Department's multiannual school building and modernisation programme in which the main focus is to deliver school places within rapidly developing areas. The progression of the schools referred to by the Deputy, as is the case with all largescale projects, will be considered in this context.

I assure the Deputy that the Minister for Education and Science is committed to providing suitable high quality accommodation for Clonmellon, Louighahar and Gainstown national schools at the earliest possible date.

I am disappointed by that bureaucratic answer. I might as well be honest.

The budget will be next week. We hope to provide more enlightenment as to where funding will be supplied.

There will be holy war if the schools referred to are not included.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 29 November 2007.