Adjournment Debate

Social Welfare Benefits

Since February 2011 the provision of new rent allowance and mortgage assistance claims for my constituents in Dublin North are being directed to a PO box address in Santry. It has resulted in the removal of yet another localised service from some of the most vulnerable in society. Previously new rent supplement applications were handled by community welfare officers, CWOs. Applicants could meet a CWO in person, discuss their situation and in response, the applicant would get instant advice and help. I find it incredible that this service has been removed from community welfare officers. CWOs provided face-to-face contact for people who need the allowance. They could give advice and counsel but most importantly decisions were made in a short time, usually within one week. With the new system, there are delays of up to five or six weeks whereby people are left in an anxious limbo, waiting on a decision.

As public representatives we all deal with emergency cases where people are in need of a quick decision on their rent supplement. That may be as a result of domestic violence, abuse or health problems. Until February 2011, such emergency cases could be dealt with directly through community welfare officers who could provide advice in a timely manner. Now people are directed to the PO box address and a system which is totally faceless. Although the new system offers a telephone number for queries, the delays for getting calls answered are very long. Many people I have spoken to do not even get an answer when they call the number. In fact, to confirm what I had been told on the ground, a member of my staff made a test call to the number this week to verify the delay and was left listening to a ringing telephone for 35 minutes before he gave up. I suggest that the Minister of State, Deputy John Perry, try the number for himself. It is 1800 303413.

The service is not worthy of the Department of Social Protection and it is certainly not good enough for the people of Dublin North. It seems that we have swapped a functioning service for a bad service, with absolutely no explanation on why the change was made. I have been informed by a number of CWOs that the changes were not driven by a lack of capacity to deliver the service locally. I understand there are proposals for existing rent and mortgage claims to be transferred to the new centralised facility in the near future. Before any further claims are transferred to the new facility, I call for a full and detailed explanation on why new applications have been taken away from CWOs. Is it part of an overall strategy and, if so, what is the strategy? Does the Department recognise that the current process is failing people in need of rent supplement?

I know the Minister is committed to reform of the social welfare system in this country. The changes were not introduced under her watch. However, reform is not about removing a functioning system and replacing it with one that is less effective. We must remember that those seeking rent allowance or mortgage assistance are looking for help for that most basic of requirements, namely, shelter. The provision of a roof over one's head is something that some may take for granted but there are people who face such insecurity on a daily basis. That is why we must ensure that the social welfare service meets a number of requirements, not least in the area of efficiency.

The new service is not efficient. Waiting times are excessive. Customer service is virtually non-existent and the delays are having a negative impact on people in need of financial support for housing. I have asked that the decision be reversed with immediate effect. I hope the Minister of State can respond positively to the request, but at a minimum I ask him to address the problems I have described. The response provided to me tonight will be based on a report from the Minister's officials. It will, of necessity, have been prepared in advance and if experience tells me anything, it might suggest that all is well. However, I assure the Minister of State that all is not well.

I accept that we must reform the public service but part of the reform must include a challenge to treat recipients of the service as real people — customers and not mere statistics. The reformed public service to which I look forward must be about efficiency but it must also be about customer service and the need for continual improvement in that regard. The problem I have raised tonight is about none of those and improves nothing. I look forward to the Minister of State's response and in particular to anything he might say specifically on the points I have made tonight.

I thank Deputy Ryan for raising this important issue. I listened actively to his points and I will address some of them if I can. I am replying to this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, who conveys her apologies to Deputy Ryan for being unable to attend and reply in person.

The supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which includes rent supplement, is currently administered on behalf of the Department by the community welfare services division of the Health Service Executive. Late last year agreement was reached between the Health Service Executive, HSE, and unions representing the community welfare officers that the staff of the community welfare service, CWS, would transfer to the Department of Social Protection with effect from 1 January 2011 on a secondment basis initially. The period of secondment is to last for nine months until the end of September 2011. During this period the staff will remain employees of the HSE but are subject to the general direction and control of the Minister for Social Protection. From 1 October 2011 it is intended that the staff of the CWS will be transferred fully to the Department as civil servants and will be accountable to the Minister in the same way as other civil servants.

Historically, rent supplements have been administered locally by community welfare officers directly to the customer. I note Deputy Ryan's point about customer satisfaction, which is paramount. Based on what Deputy Ryan said, the service is appalling. I hope the people dealing with the issue are listening to his contribution and will take on board what he stated. However, as a result of a large increase in claims being made in recent years and the restriction on staff recruitment in the service, it was decided that priority must be given to the demand on the local service for claims where an immediate decision is needed, such as basic payments and exceptional needs payments. It was considered that rent supplement claims could be delivered more efficiently through centralised units. As Deputy Ryan indicated, that is not the case. It is important that the Minister is made aware of the situation. I will speak to her on the matter. The points raised by Deputy Ryan must be taken on board and addressed.

A unit to provide the service was set up on the north side of Dublin in December 2010 to take claims from Balbriggan, Swords and other areas of north Dublin where a large increase in demand for rent supplement had been experienced. As the Deputy is aware, it is a matter for all Departments and public sector organisations to continue to manage services with diminishing resources taking advantage of business re-engineering possibilities as provided for in the Public Service Agreement 2010-14. The Department has been advised that there are arrangements in place for customers to contact the centralised processing unit in question. A free telephone line — although I listened to the Deputy's comments about the 30-minute waiting time — for the central rents unit is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 2.15 p.m. to 5 p.m. However, due to the volume and complexity of calls received, some callers may experience a delay before their calls are answered. Customers can also contact the central rents unit by post at PO Box 11905, Dublin 9, or by e-mail at communitywelfareservice@hse.ie. I have no doubt the Deputy knows all of this. Documents may also be received by fax.

The Department has been further advised that a number of staff in the CWS were employed in a temporary capacity by the HSE in 2010 for a period of six months, including some of the staff of the rent unit in question. These contracts were subsequently extended to June 2011 and are to be gradually withdrawn before the transfer of the CWS to the Department of Health from October. This has placed the unit under increased pressure and resulted in some delays in the processing of claims.

A number of transition managers have been appointed from within the CWS to work with the Department of Social Protection to oversee the transfer of the service to the Department of Health and manage the day-to-day administration of the service. The relevant transition managers are currently in the process of examining the service implications arising from the loss of these temporary staff, particularly from the rent units. They are also examining the model being used to deliver the service to ensure that the most efficient process will be used to improve service delivery, which I certainly hope will happen. Further initiatives are also proposed which will result in improvements in the delays currently being experienced. The matter is being given priority.

The timescale for determining applications for rent supplement is dependent, among other things, on the availability of the required information, such as details of applicants' incomes, bank statements and information from landlords. In addition, some aspects of the applications are inevitably time-consuming and delays can occur where further investigations or third-party evidence is required. Delays can also arise if applicants are slow to respond to requests for additional information.

The provision of a prompt service is a major objective and this will continue after the transfer of functions takes place. However, this must be achieved in a manner that is consistent with the demands of natural justice and the need to ensure that every case is fully investigated. While certain cases may take more time to process than others, overall the Department is satisfied that the CWS makes every effort to decide rent supplement claims in an efficient, effective and timely manner and that improvements will occur as a result of the current initiatives. There are no plans to reverse the decision to centralise the administration of rent supplement claims for Balbriggan, Swords and other areas of North Dublin.

I will convey the points raised by the Deputy to the Minister for Social Protection and I have no doubt she will consider them. I hope the improvements I have outlined will address some of these concerns. This may not be the reply the Deputy was seeking, but the Minister will take note of the Deputy's contribution and I hope she will consider some of the actions that may be required to improve the service.

Local Authority Housing

The new prescribed income limits for local authority housing are completely and absolutely inadequate and are placing families in difficult situations in which they can be approved neither for local authority housing nor for local authority mortgages or, indeed, mortgages from other lending agencies. If I gave an example of what I am talking about, it might clarify the matter. I hope the Minister will take this into consideration and significantly increase the prescribed income limits.

The example to which I refer is a family of four consisting of a husband, wife and two children. The husband is working full-time for about €11 per hour, which is the equivalent of a take-home pay of €438 per week or €22,776 per annum. The family, which is obviously on a low income, is also in receipt of family income supplement of €99 per week. The wife is a full-time housewife who does not work outside the home. The family holds a medical card and is currently paying €150 per week to a landlord for private rented accommodation. They receive no rent supplement because the husband works full-time. Their take-home income, including the family income supplement, is €537 per week, but after paying €150 per week in rent, their net income is €387 per week, which is similar to the minimum wage. This must cover the ongoing day-to-day expenses of a husband, wife and two children.

That family is €500 over the income limit for local authority housing. In addition, they cannot be approved for a mortgage because the husband is not earning enough. The family would be better off with no wage earner; taking into account the €150 per week rent, they would be better off in receipt of jobseeker's allowance or benefit. They are in limbo, unable to be approved for a house or obtain a mortgage. They are stuck in a situation in which they are on a very low income but must still pay €150 per week with no rent supplement.

This is unsustainable and is causing significant difficulties for large numbers of housing applicants. I hope the Minister will consider this and increase the prescribed income limits significantly to ensure families with wage-earners on low income can be approved for local authority housing.

The cases of applicants who were approved for housing prior to 1 April, the date on which the new regulations were introduced, are now being reviewed. I hope the Minister will agree that those who were approved for local authority houses before 1 April should retain their approval and be housed in the normal way. I ask the Minister to consider increasing the income limits significantly.

I thank Deputy Healy for raising this important issue. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, who conveys his apologies to Deputy Healy as he is unable to attend due to official Government business abroad.

I start by emphasising that the prescribed income limits referred to by the Deputy are solely for the purpose of determining eligibility for social housing support and have no bearing on access to mortgages from local authorities or financial institutions.

Prior to the enactment of the Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011, most, though not all, local authorities operated some sort of income eligibility criteria for access to social housing support. The manner in which these were enforced varied from place to place. I listened to Deputy Healy's points about the difficulties these income limits cause. There were also significant differences in how income limits were defined. Some related to gross income; some made an allowance for rent being paid. Some included all income, including child benefit and so on, while others disregarded a range of different sources of income. The result of this was considerable inconsistency in the way in which social housing was allocated, which meant that applicants for support who were on similar incomes could be treated very differently because of where they happened to live. This was neither equitable nor efficient. On 1 April 2011, parts of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 dealing with social housing support were commenced and a new standard procedure for assessing applicants for social housing was introduced in every housing authority. This includes a requirement that applicants only need to apply to one housing authority to be placed on up to three waiting lists, provides for the use of a standard application form and sets maximum net income limits based on the cost of housing in the area in question. The ultimate aim of the new system is to create a fairer, more consistent and transparent approach to eligibility for social housing support.

The new maximum income limit is clearer and fairer, being a fixed figure depending on the size of the household. The income for eligibility purposes is gross household income less income tax, PRSI and the universal social charge. Child benefit and several temporary incomes are also disregarded.

The income limits are set out in three bands and each housing authority is assigned to one of these bands. Assignment is based on an assessment of the income needed to meet a household's basic needs in the area of choice having regard to local rental costs. Accordingly, the three bands take account of the variation in the cost of private rented accommodation across the country. The principle behind determining what is reasonably affordable for any household is the relationship of household income to the cost of providing suitable accommodation in the private sector, particularly rented accommodation. These levels had been set by reference to what is generally accepted as affordable in terms of a proportion of net income.

When the Minister of State, Deputy Willie Penrose, came into office, he decided the income limits should be increased across the board by €5,000. This was not done primarily for reasons of affordability but to create a wider catchment group from which social housing tenants are drawn, in order to promote sustainable communities. The figure for net income of up to €35,000 for a single person household, corresponds to a gross income of almost €50,000, and is considered sufficient to secure accommodation within the private rental market or even, in some cases, to meet the costs of a mortgage. Higher gross income thresholds apply to multiperson households.

Given the cost to the State of providing social housing, it is considered prudent and fair to direct resources to those most in need of social housing support and who are unable to provide for their accommodation needs from their resources. The current income eligibility requirements achieve this.

Hospital Services

The Health Service Executive, HSE, told the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, in February in a progress report what it was doing to curtail risks at several smaller hospitals. The HSE's plans were outlined in a HIQA report in April on the quality and safety of services at Mallow General Hospital. The HSE also identified ten other hospitals where significant risks had arisen with matters raised in the HIQA report. One of the hospitals cited in the report is St. Columcille's Hospital, Loughlinstown, County Dublin.

In a response to a recent parliamentary question on this particular HIQA report on the 30 June 2011, the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly stated:

The recommendations in these HIQA reports need to be implemented in order to ensure the standards of care delivered in smaller hospitals are as high as possible and that the type of care provided is appropriate to the clinical setting and to the needs of patients. ? The Government is strongly committed to developing the role of smaller hospitals in Ireland so they play a key part in the services provided to local communities. Patients should need to travel to the larger hospitals only for more complex services. HIQA's reports on Ennis and Mallow are entirely in keeping with this approach.

The HIQA report stated plans are in place to cease acceptance of emergency services at St. Columcille's, Loughlinstown and that there are plans to convert the 24-hour emergency services to a daytime minor injury unit operating as a satellite. While a date has yet to be decided for when this is to happen, it is certain to happen this year.

Following the removal of emergency services from Roscommon on Monday, there are increasing concerns that the recommendations in HIQA's report on Loughlinstown will be implemented sooner rather than later. The people of Roscommon were given only a week's notice that their emergency services were to be removed. There is no guarantee that the same will not happen at Loughlinstown.

Last week, the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, denied he had made any personal commitment to the people of Roscommon during the general election. However, evidence has emerged that he made clear commitments to retain services.

Unfortunately, it was not only Fine Gael who made an array of false promises about small hospitals. An Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore, also promised to retain services at Roscommon hospital along with other small hospitals. Before the election campaign, Labour made a series of promises to protect small hospitals. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade said the Labour Party believes in the importance of the local hospital and keeping hospital services close to where people are. While Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, former spokesperson on Health and now Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said before the election "at present, services are being taken away from smaller hospitals and patients are being forced into centralised services that have not been given the resources to look after them. This cannot and will not continue".

The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade recently said he would campaign to keep a 24-hour emergency department open at St Columcille's which is in his constituency of Dún Laoghaire. In theIrish Independent on 16 June, he was quoted as saying, “he would continue to campaign to keep them going” and “it is important that accident and emergency services are continued in St. Columcille’s Hospital and that is something I will be talking to the HSE about”.

How can the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade be trusted on Loughlinstown hospital after what happened at Roscommon hospital this week? The Minister for Health must clarify the extent of his discussions on this matter with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, if he agrees with him and if any agreement has been reached to retain 24-hour emergency services at Loughlinstown.

It is clear the Government made promises on Roscommon hospital which it could not keep. This is now damaging trust in the Government and also raising fresh concerns that Loughlinstown hospital is next in line.

In light of the Minister's stated intention to implement the recommendations of the HIQA report and the removal of services at Roscommon, the Minister for Health must immediately clarify if there will be a reduction in services at St. Columcille's Hospital, when exactly this will happen and what additional resources will be put in place at St. Vincent's University Hospital, Dublin. He must also explain if he agrees with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, on retaining services at the hospital.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly.

There has been considerable debate around the issue of the role of smaller hospitals, much of which has been ill-informed. There have been many claims around lack of resources both financial and human. The real issue at stake is the need to ensure acute hospital services at national, regional and local level are provided in a safe and efficient manner. It is widely recognised that safer outcomes can only be achieved through the delivery of health services in the appropriate setting.

For certain medical specialties, particularly where complex care is required, many smaller hospitals do not have the throughput of patients which would enable doctors to maintain their skill levels. This applies no matter what resources are put in place.

The HSE, with the advice of HIQA, is taking steps to address the issues of safety. The steps being taken aim to ensure the appropriate treatment will be provided in the appropriate setting. This does not mean the closure of smaller hospitals. The Government is committed to ensuring as many services as possible can be provided safely in smaller, local hospitals. In fact this is likely to increase the volume of services delivered while ensuring their appropriateness and effectiveness. Patients should only have to travel to the larger hospitals for more complex services.

St. Columcille's Hospital, Loughlinstown, is part of a joint acute hospital service operated alongside St. Vincent's University Hospital and St. Michael's Hospital. These hospitals provide a range of services associated with acute hospital provision across three sites in a collaborative arrangement. As part of this provision, the configuration of services is constantly reviewed. From time to time, it is reorganised to improve access and quality of service and minimise risk to patients. While the range of services provided by the three sites will continue, the location of service provision will be configured in line with how best to deliver the service and maintain patient safety.

In recent years, St. Columcille's has implemented a trauma bypass protocol which allows patients suffering major trauma to be brought directly to the most appropriate site deemed necessary to treat their condition. These measures, combined with strong regional links to larger hospitals, are designed to ensure safety and are crucial to delivering the most effective outcomes for patients everywhere. The HSE is working to progress these initiatives in a collaborative framework in consultation with all stakeholders.

The Minister has made it clear that patient safety must be the overriding priority. He wants patients to be treated at the lowest level of complexity which is safe, timely, efficient and as near to home as possible. These are the factors which will inform our future decisions on the provision of acute hospital services. The Minister has assured the public that even in the difficult economic situation in which we find ourselves and which is the legacy left to us by the previous Government, no hospitals will close. St. Columcille's, Loughlinstown, has a very important role to play in the provision of acute services and this will continue into the future.

Port Development

I acknowledge the presence of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, in the Chamber. This is a matter in which I have a personal interest, especially as it relates to my constituency. Foynes Port is one of six terminals which make up the Shannon-Foynes Port Company. Foynes is by far one of the deepest ports in Ireland and has the capacity to play a leading role in the future infrastructural development in this country. I am seeking that joined-up thinking be displayed in respect of this matter. I ask that the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Minister would take the lead in this regard. Foynes Port is located on the western seaboard and has massive potential that is not being realised at present. It could provide a counter-balance to Dublin Port and could service the entire western seaboard.

Foynes is unique in some ways in that it is serviced by a rail link. However, that link is currently closed, which is a pity. I do not believe it would take much to reopen the link. It would not take much to do so with speed restrictions attached. The latter would allow for the conveyance of bulk cargo in and out of the port. Foynes is also served by a national secondary route, namely, the N69, which links Limerick to Tralee via Listowel. Unfortunately, during the good days of the Celtic tiger era — and like many other routes — the N69 did not attract significant Government expenditure. As a result, a huge number of heavy goods vehicles access Foynes Port via the N69. These vehicles are obliged to trundle through several towns and villages along the way. Some of them use the main regional route from Cork to Foynes via places such as Dromcollogher and Newcastle West.

I am asking the Minister to consider the overall potential of Foynes Port in the context of its capability to serve as a transit point for bulk cargo and containers and also as a place where cruise liners can berth. Everyone is aware of the fantastic tourism potential of the western seaboard. In that regard, Foynes is the only port in the west which possess the potential to berth larger cruise liners. In recent years increasing numbers of cruise liners have berthed at Foynes. However, the potential that exists in the context of marketing the Shannon-Foynes Port Company, whether in the context of Limerick docks, Foynes or further down the estuary towards the mouth of the Shannon, has not registered to the degree to which it should have on the radar of the Department.

I welcome the comments the Minister made at last week's meeting of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht when I raised this matter with him. I particularly welcome those comments in light of the current review of ports policy. I accept that emphasis will be placed on ports such as Dublin and Cork. However, there is a necklace of small ports along the western seaboard and questions have arisen in respect of their future viability. I would like all the stakeholders — Limerick, Kerry and Clare county councils, the National Roads Authority, CIE, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the local community — to be involved in drawing up a development plan that will include a properly integrated approach. There is no point in developing a massive terminal on the west coast if it is not accessible. At present, Foynes is accessible by rail but, for some reason, Iarnród Éireann is not considering this from a strategic point of view.

I am seeking to establish a starting point in respect of this matter. As already stated, Foynes Port has massive potential. I do not believe that potential is being properly realised at present. There is a willingness on the part of the Shannon-Foynes Port Company to drive the development of the port forward. The Foynes Flying Boat Museum and other stakeholders are extremely interested in progressing this matter. The new Minister has swept through his Department like a breath of fresh air. In that context, I would like Foynes to be used as a case study for the future.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. Shannon-Foynes is the second port I have visited since becoming Minister. While there, I had the opportunity to speak to the CEO, the chairman and the management at the port, who impressed upon me the issues to which the Deputy refers. My Department and I support and are committed to the port. We see it as being one of our successful ports in the future. We look forward to a time when it will be in a position to pay a dividend to the State.

As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding in respect of national roads. The construction, improvement and maintenance of both national primary and national secondary roads is a matter for the National Roads Authority, NRA — in conjunction with the local authorities concerned — under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007. Working within its capital budget, the assessment and prioritisation of individual projects is also a matter in the first instance for the NRA in accordance with section 19 of the Roads Act.

As the House will be aware, the national recovery plan published by the previous Government in November 2010 envisaged significantly reduced road investment for the duration of the plan. As a result, the scope for proceeding with any significant road projects, including the improvement of the N69 road from Foynes, is now very limited.

This Government's capital investment review, which is under way across all sectors, will form the basis for a new national development plan for the period 2012 to 2016 and will examine the costs and benefits of capital projects against a range of economic, social and environmental criteria. Key considerations in the transport sector will be the need to protect the investment made to date in our road, rail and public transport networks and to continue with remedial safety measures. Once the funding framework for capital expenditure is determined, it will be a matter for the NRA to prioritise projects within its funding envelope. If I adhere to the previous Government's spending plans, no new road projects will commence from 2012 onwards. I understand the NRA has been in contact with the Shannon-Foynes Port Company outlining its current position and indicating it will continue to carry out necessary pavement renewals and low-cost safety measures on the N69 route.

On rail access to the port, I should point out that decisions relating to the reopening of rail lines, including the Limerick to Foynes rail line, are a matter for Iarnród Éireann in the first instance. The company has advised me that it continues to engage with the Shannon-Foynes Port Company and potential customers to establish whether a viable commercial case exists to reopen the line. Iarnród Éireann is keen to ensure the zinc from the Pallas Green mine can be moved by rail to whichever port from which it is ultimately exported. Initial projections suggest it would cost approximately €9 million to reopen the rail link to Foynes. Any decision in that regard would have to be taken in the context of competing demands for funding in the region and in other regions.

As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, my responsibility is for policy and overall funding in respect of public transport. Decisions on transport projects will be taken in the context of the capital review to which I referred earlier. As is my position in respect of the roads element of my remit and in light of the difficult financial situation that exists, the first priority will be to ensure funding to protect and maintain existing investments and to maintain high safety standards. This, of necessity, will restrict the funding for new projects. Only those projects offering the highest return and contribution to overall economic and transport objectives, and which are affordable, have any chance of being prioritised.

Iarnród Éireann has made a submission to the Department in respect of its priorities for funding under the transport capital programme. Final decisions in this regard will be made in the context of the new national development plan.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.40 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 13 July 2011.