Topical Issue Debate

Financial Services Regulation

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter. I am sure we can all agree on the crucial role credit unions play throughout the island and we are all anxious to protect that unique role in whatever way we can. Following the recent appointment of a special manager by the Central Bank to Newbridge Credit Union, a number of issues arise that need to be addressed.

It is to be welcomed that the members of that credit union and of others around the country reacted in a calm and measured way. We should take this opportunity to again reassure credit union members and depositors that their deposits are secure in every credit union under the deposit guarantee scheme up to the value of €100,000. It is important that we reiterate that at every opportunity.

However, it must be acknowledged that there are issues in credit unions that need to be dealt with and that is why the Commission on Credit Unions was established. Certain mistakes were made in terms of the management of credit unions, the investment policy and the extension of loans, some of which ended up in the property and development sector even though many of them were not intended for that sector at the time they were extended.

Credit unions around the country also acknowledge the need for appropriate regulation, although I believe that many of the lending restrictions that the Regulator has imposed on credit unions are excessively onerous and run contrary to the spirit of community-driven credit unions whereby local discretion is retained. The credit union manager and staff would know their customers personally and are best placed to make lending decisions rather than to work to diktat handed down by the Regulator.

We all will be aware of the contents of the interim report on credit unions, which was published in October last. It painted a fairly bleak picture of the number of credit unions that are seriously under capitalised - 27 of the total of 408 in the country. It showed that €1 billion of loans were in arrears of nine weeks or more at the end of June 2011. Almost one-in-five loans were in arrears to that extent, and that is a serious matter.

I participated in the Committee Stage debate on what became the Central Bank and Credit Institutions (Resolution) Act 2011 last year and I want to raise a number of questions in regard to that and the resolution fund. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, outlined to the Seanad in October that his estimate of the amount of money that would have to be put into credit unions was between €0.5 billion and €1 billion. I want to ask the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, whether the Government has revised that estimate based on all the information now available. Some €250 million has been made available in 2012 with provision for a further €250 million in 2013. Will that be sufficient to meet the capital needs of those credit unions that are in difficulty?

I also want to raise the issue of the level of fees being charged by the special manager at Newbridge. Given that this could be the first of a number of such special managers, there is considerable concern at the hourly rate of €432 which is being charged. Perhaps the Minister of State can clarify today who will bear that cost. Will the credit union itself pay for it or will it be paid for by the Central Bank? What are the Minister's plans in regard to invoking the special resolution fund, which is provided for under the Central Bank and Credit Institutions (Resolution) Act 2011 and when does he intend to sign regulations into law under section 15 which require financial institutions to make contributions to that fund?

I hope we will get clarity on some of these issues today because many credit unions around the country and their members want to be reassured on those points.

I thank Deputy Michael McGrath for raising this matter and also for addressing it in a measured and common sense way, which I believe will reassure the public and those who have savings in credit unions about the sturdiness of those credit unions as a crucial aspect of lending within society. While difficulty has emerged in respect of some credit unions and some poor lending policy by them, it is in probable marked contrast to the worse lending policy of many of the commercial banks in this country.

The Government recognises the important role of credit unions as a volunteer co-operative movement. As the Minister has highlighted continuously, there is a need for restructuring in the credit union sector. We have made it clear that the Government would provide resources to deal with the problems in credit unions if necessary and that the Government will ensure all necessary measures are taken to ensure a stable credit union sector.

I reassure all savers in credit unions that their savings are secure. The Government's deposit guarantee scheme insures savings in all financial institutions, including credit unions, up to €100,000 per saver per financial institution.

The Government believes that credit unions can continue to play an important role in the Irish financial sector and has established a Commission on Credit Unions to bring forward recommendations by the end of March on the future structure of the credit union sector. The Central Bank strategy on credit unions is designed to be ready to take pre-emptive remedial action to maintain member confidence and protect the financial stability of the sector should issues arise. Where a credit union has specific issues the Central Bank will work closely with it taking the necessary and appropriate regulatory actions. In all cases the Central Bank will engage fully with those credit unions to seek an agreed solution where possible. The priority is to protect members of credit unions and their savings, the financial stability of credit unions and the sector overall.

The Commission on Credit Unions' interim report identified 56 credit unions as under capitalised, 27 of which are considered seriously under capitalised. Of course, Central Bank intervention will not be necessary in all of these cases. In many instances a credit union will trade out of its difficulties and in some instances it will move to restructure or join forces with other credit unions.

The Credit Institutions Resolution Fund is now established under the Act. The purpose of the fund is to provide a source of funding for the resolution of financial instability in, or an imminent serious threat to the financial stability of, an authorised credit institution. This Act applies to credit unions as well as other credit institutions such as banks and building societies. The Government has already provided €250 million in funding to the Credit Institutions Resolution Fund to support resolution where necessary.

Resolution payments will only be made following as assessment on a case-by-case basis undertaken by the Central Bank under the Act. The Central Bank is responsible for managing and administering the resolution fund. All authorised credit institutions, including credit unions, will be required to contribute to this fund.

Provision for the resolution of credit unions, where necessary, is included in the EU-IMF programme of support. The Government has already provided €250 million in funding in 2011 to the Credit Institutions Resolution Fund to support resolution where necessary. We have also committed to making available further resources to deal with any resolution or restructuring of credit unions should it be required.

The Deputy also asks about consolidation and restructuring. This issue is currently under consideration by the Commission on Credit Unions and the Government. The Commission is expected to submit its recommendations at the end of March on how restructuring should best be applied in the Irish credit union sector. Legislation to support restructuring of credit unions will be included in a credit union Bill to be published later this year. The Bill will also provide for a strengthened regulatory framework for credit unions.

I would refer Deputies to the comments by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan on credit unions yesterday where he made it clear that if difficulties arise in a particular credit union the Central Bank stands ready to intervene and give all the assistance necessary to keep it going and to ensure that credit union savings and loans are secure.

Deputy Michael McGrath has two minutes for a supplementary statement.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. If I may, I will put some direct questions that I hope he will be able to answer.

Is there any update on the outline last October by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, of the likely cost to the State of recapitalising the credit unions in Ireland? The estimate at the time was between €0.5 billion and €1 billion. The Government has provided €500 million between this year and next. Given that the stress tests have been done and the capital adequacy of the credit unions has been assessed, surely the Minister can give a more precise estimate than one with a broad range of €0.5 billion.

Is there any indication of the scale of consolidation that we are likely to see? That is a cause of concern in communities across the country.

When will credit unions and other financial institutions be required to pay into this resolution fund and are there any concerns that the capacity to pay may not exist in many cases? Clarity on that issue would be welcome.

I raised the issue of the fees for the special manager, which are exorbitant. Presumably he will also be working with a team of people for whom separate charges will apply. This is a matter of concern given the likelihood that a number of special managers will be appointed to credit unions. Where will the burden of that cost ultimately fall?

I will take the Deputy's questions in reverse order. On the question of fees, the application to the High Court was made by the Central Bank, which appointed the special manager to look after the credit union and set his fees. I acknowledge the Deputy's concerns, however, and the Minister and I take the view that, even though this is the first special manager to be appointed, the fees appear excessive. Ultimately, it is for the Central Bank to work out a fair arrangement and pay a rate for the scale of work involved. This case involves a substantial credit union. These fees will have to be reviewed but that will have to be done in the first instance by the Central Bank and the special manager.

On the resolution fund, when the legislation passed through both Houses it became clear that not only credit unions but also other financial institutions would have to contribute. I understand that will happen in 2012. The initial €250 million was provided by the Government but the objective is to increase the fund in 2012. I will revert to the Deputy regarding when that will happen.

It would not be useful for me to comment on the scale of consolidation before we see the final report. It is inevitable that some form of consolidation will occur. At the least, back office staff from a number of credit unions could be merged centrally or regionally to allow for greater consolidation in certain areas.

On the estimate of €500 million to €1 billion which the Minister outlined in the Seanad, these are still the ballpark figures. We will be in a stronger position when the full report of the Credit Union Commission has been published late in March. This will be a busy year for the credit union sector from a legislative perspective because we have given a guarantee that legislation will be in place by the end of the year and we are working with the commission to ensure that happens. The comments and observations from Deputies will be very useful in that context.

Foreign Adoptions

I welcome the opportunity to raise the important issue of intercountry adoptions. I commend the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on the excellent job she has done since taking over her portfolio. She has rightly placed the welfare of our children at the heart of Government. With intercountry adoptions, she inherited the previous Government's decision in January 2010 to suspend indefinitely our bilateral adoption agreement with Vietnam, which left hundreds of families in limbo. Little if any effort was expended on rectifying this situation before she assumed office. I know from working with a number of families in County Clare and elsewhere that they are appreciative of her efforts and the speed with which she has acted.

As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade I take a great interest in intercountry adoptions. I am in regular contact with a number of families and I believe that the renewed diplomatic efforts undertaken by this Government have influenced the decision by the Vietnamese Government to ratify the Hague Convention, which will come into effect on 1 February.

In September I visited Vietnam in my role as Chairman of the committee and I met Vietnam's Justice Minister at the request of the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald. The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy O'Sullivan, has since met the Vietnamese Minister and the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, has just returned from a visit to Vietnam. I found the Justice Minister and the Vietnamese Government very supportive and anxious to renew our bilateral arrangements. I was not surprised when they lodged their documentation for ratification with the Hague Convention on 1 November.

I am aware that a number of technical issues remain to be addressed but significant progress has been made. I ask the Minister to update me on her visit to Vietnam and what she now expects in terms of a final agreement. A number of families are anxious to know when they might expect to be able to recommence their adoption proceedings.

Following my visit to Vietnam a number of families contacted me regarding the possibility of negotiating a bilateral intercountry adoption agreement with Ethiopia. When I raised the matter with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, in Addis Ababa he assured me that he would bring my concerns to the attention of his relevant Cabinet colleges. I understand the Minister has given authorisation to the chairman of the Adoption Authority, Geoffrey Shannon, to open discussions with officials in Ethiopia with a view to entering into a bilateral arrangement. I welcome this initiative and I would be grateful if she could update me on those discussions.

We read in Sunday's newspapers the disturbing news about illegal adoptions in Mexico. I realise the Minister may be constrained from speaking in detail on this matter due to possible proceedings. I understand three Mexican women have been arrested and seven babies have been taken into state care. It has been suggested that a number of Irish couples may be involved. Reports suggest that children were bought from cash strapped mothers and then handed over to foreign couples who were looking to adopt. It is an appalling situation. The Adoption Authority has warned parents against entering into private arrangements with agencies or individuals in Mexico and it has been working to formalise procedures between our countries. It is very important that we put in place formal bilateral arrangements which guarantee protection for the adopted child, who must come first. I ask the Minister to comment on this issue, if she is able to do so, and to indicate the progress made on formal arrangements between Mexico and Ireland.

I thank Deputy Breen for raising this matter, which is of great interest to many Members of this House. I commend him on the important work he has done as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade on behalf of my Department during his recent visit to Vietnam.

The Hague Convention on lntercountry Adoption will enter into force in Vietnam on 1 February 2012. This is a significant milestone in seeking to promote a secure basis for intercountry adoption between our two countries, which was effectively in suspension for the past two years.

I have just returned from a useful visit to Vietnam that focused on intercountry adoption. My recent visit to Hanoi provided an opportunity for direct, personal engagement with relevant Vietnamese officials. I have engaged at a political and diplomatic level and my trip coincided with a visit by a delegation from the Adoption Authority of Ireland led by Mr. Geoffrey Shannon. While I was in Hanoi I was briefed on the programme of work that the Vietnamese Government has undertaken to complete the ratification process and improve its systems of adoption. It introduced new adoption legislation and there is a greater motivation to ensure all adoptions are processed centrally. It also wants to improve its systems of child protection and adoption, particularly domestic adoptions.

I met the Vietnamese Justice Minister, Mr. Ha Hung Cuong, who specifically asked me to inform Irish families that Vietnam is ready to implement the Hague Convention and that it is the Vietnamese Government's desire to co-operate with Ireland in respect of intercountry adoption of children for whom suitable families cannot be found in Vietnam. I particularly raised the issue of the 19 families who were caught just at the time when adoptions stopped two years ago and the 200 families who have been assessed. There is major sensitivity towards these families and they will be prioritised.

There are a number of key steps which must be undertaken next. We need to have an administrative agreement with Vietnam; that is the way to ensure best practice. This was the subject of separate discussions by the Adoption Authority of Ireland, AAI, with the relevant body in Vietnam. The authority is continuing its work on the accreditation of agencies, which is essential. We need an agency or agencies that will assist adoptive couples in Vietnam, and I am assured that this will be done by 1 February, which will lead to a further opening of inter-country adoption between the two countries. I have also invited the Vietnamese Minister for justice to visit Ireland. I am hopeful that, pending the developments I have mentioned, we will see inter-country adoptions beginning again between Ireland and Vietnam in the coming weeks or months. However, it is a changed situation, as the focus will be on domestic adoption first.

With regard to Ethiopia, some adoptions are currently being effected under transitional arrangements. They go ahead. However, I must inform the House that Ethiopia is not a signatory to the Hague Convention and, therefore, following the lapse of the transitional arrangements that currently exist, if we intend to continue adoptions from Ethiopia, a bilateral agreement will be necessary. Under section 73 of the Adoption Act, if I give the authority to the AAI to begin discussions with a non-contracting state to the Hague Convention, that can happen. We would need, if we were to do that, to analyse the current situation in Ethiopia and consider the compatibility of the laws between the two countries and the plans Ethiopia has to sign the Hague Convention. I gave approval very recently to commence the process of examining the feasibility of a bilateral agreement with Ethiopia, and the AAI has confirmed that it has commenced this process. I am conscious of the many families that have adopted from Ethiopia already and that they would like to see adoptions beginning again, but I must emphasise that as Ethiopia is not a signatory to the Hague Convention, this would require the negotiation of a bilateral agreement covering the key issues of consent and the circumstances that might apply if there were to be further adoptions.

The Deputy also asked about the events in Mexico recently which have received extensive coverage. The chairman of the AAI has commented publicly on the recent events. I must point out that comprehensive and clear guidelines about adoptions in Mexico have been on the AAI website for the past 15 months. I asked the AAI to visit Mexico and it did so earlier last year. I commend the authority on the work it has been doing with a whole range of countries. It had, I believe, seven advisories on its website to inform couples of how they should proceed if Mexico was their country of choice for adoption. I reiterate that the Mexican authority has stated there is no provision for private adoptions in the context of inter-country adoption between Ireland and Mexico. On that basis, prospective adoptive parents are and have been advised by the AAI not to enter into any private arrangements with individuals or private agencies in order to effect an adoption in Mexico, which is a signatory to the Hague Convention. That is very clear. Anyone considering Mexico as a country of origin should consult the AAI website for the latest advisory. Those who have already adopted from that jurisdiction or who are in the process of doing so should also refer to the authority's advice, which was issued on 16 January, and there will be further advisories.

The unfortunate developments we have seen in recent weeks underline the vital role of the authority in overseeing the implementation of the Hague Convention and the standards that apply between countries - the standards that must apply if we are to have the protection of children at the centre of our priorities. We want to promote the very best interests of children in our adoption policy nationally and internationally, and that is what is behind the information that is given to people by the AAI. If we do that, it will lead to high-quality decision making with regard to inter-country adoption, and the right decisions being made for children and indeed for parents.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. I thought it was important to raise this issue on the record, because there are many concerned couples out there. As the Minister said, there are 19 couples that were almost on the point of adoption before the agreement was broken. I am delighted to hear the Minister say that any difficulties with the agencies will be sorted out before 1 February. That is important. As I said, I have been contacted by couples not only in my own constituency, but also outside my constituency. Much work has been done in this regard by the Minister in a very short period. Bilateral relations with Vietnam, not just in the area of adoptions, have also improved substantially as a result of the Minister's visit and those of the former Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and myself as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade. I look forward to more progress in this regard.

I know the Minister probably cannot give a timescale for the resumption of adoptions, but that is what every couple wants to know, particularly with regard to Vietnam. When does she think adoptions could proceed again? It is a difficult question as there are still some hurdles to jump, but I know she and her officials in the Department will be working closely with the Vietnamese officials to ensure that any concerns are resolved quickly and that the couples who want to adopt a Vietnamese child can do so as quickly as possible. I believe there are about 800 adopted Vietnamese children already in the country, and when they grow up they will want to know about their culture and heritage. I have visited some of the parents and seen how the children are cherished and loved. However, I also understand the point of view of the Vietnamese Government, which wants to deal with the area of domestic adoptions. I thank the Minister again for her reply.

Since taking office, I have been trying to bring clarity to the area of inter-country adoption. That applies to Vietnam, Russia and Ethiopia - whichever countries we are talking about. For adoptions to take place between two countries, ideally both countries will have signed the Hague Convention; if not, there should be a bilateral agreement. Many Irish parents have already adopted from a range of countries, some of which do not have a bilateral agreement with us. Often, they are anxious to adopt again from the same country. However, the absence of bilateral agreements does make for some difficulties. What I wanted to ensure was that there was no drift and that parents would remain informed. This is why I have, in recent weeks, asked the AAI to send representatives to Florida, Russia, Ethiopia and Vietnam to try to achieve clarity with regard to those countries. We can comment on other countries another time.

With regard to the timescale, two issues must be dealt with before the adoption process can reopen: Vietnam must sign the Hague Convention, which it will do on 1 February, and Ireland needs to have accredited agencies to work there with the couples. My understanding is that both of those issues will be dealt with by 1 February. The contents of the administrative agreement have been agreed. There are some technical difficulties outstanding, but we believe they can be resolved in a number of weeks. The chairman of the AAI is confident they can be resolved fairly quickly.

Inter-country adoption between Ireland and Vietnam will begin to open up again, but I emphasise that because of our new Adoption Act, the standards that apply in the Hague Convention and the new procedures in Vietnam for domestic adoption, it is a different situation. When a child is available for adoption, the Vietnamese authorities must first check whether there are people in Vietnam who wish to adopt him or her, and that will be a priority. Children with special needs will not be in that position, however. The authorities inform me that families will be asked whether they would like to adopt a child with special needs directly, without the need for a domestic adoption procedure. The work there will relate mainly to intercountry adoption.

It is a changed situation. We will put more information up on the websites of both the Adoption Authority and the Department so parents will be as fully informed as possible. That is the best information I can give the Deputy at this point.

Community Employment Schemes

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing this matter to be discussed in the Topical Issue Debate, particularly as community employment, CE, schemes in general were raised in the Topical Issue Debate yesterday and the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, was present to discuss them. However, I am raising specific CE schemes which have been ring-fenced because they are part of the national drugs strategy.

There are 1,000 places nationally on these special drug CE schemes, with 130 of them in Dublin's north inner city which is part of the constituency I represent. These CE schemes are part of the delivery of the national rehabilitation strategy in facilitating stabilisation and recovery from problem drug use of the participants in the schemes. Each scheme has a care plan for each participant. The care plan deals with their recovery from drug abuse or misuse and the rehabilitation pathway that is suitable and appropriate for the person. There is development education, with great emphasis on literacy and numeracy, which is vital for many of the people on the schemes. There is training with a view to employment or further education. Part of the programme also deals with safety and healthy living.

Some people self-refer, but there are also referrals from the HSE, the probation service, drug projects and from a variety of places. These programmes are vital. Some of them, such as SAOL in the north inner city, deal with extremely vulnerable women. At present, there is a question mark over CE schemes which is causing difficulties for participants, but it is particularly stressful for the drug rehabilitation schemes.

The Annie Kelly bursary in the north inner city drugs task force area is for people who are in recovery from drug addiction to continue into further education. Many of those who have applied for that bursary are now in third level education or have progressed from third level. They came from those CE schemes. The point is that the ring-fenced CE schemes work. With regard to the review that is taking place, I believe people such as the participants who availed of that bursary should have an input into the review. They will be able to give a first hand account of what the CE scheme has done for them. It is a completely different matter for people sitting in an office and tossing around figures.

The forms that have been sent out to CE schemes for the review have been also sent to the ring-fenced schemes. Cognisance is not being taken of the special nature of those schemes or of the special conditions attached to them, such as the lower ratio of participants. Will the Minister safeguard those CE schemes?

I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for raising this matter. I am aware of her active interest in this issue and I commend her on the work she is doing. We need more public representatives to get involved in addressing the many issues associated with drug misuse.

I wish to stress that I am particularly focused on ensuring there is an increased emphasis on moving people from drug treatment to a drug-free lifestyle, where this is achievable. I am on record for expressing, on a number of occasions, my belief and concern that too many people get stuck in methadone treatment without the existence of a clear pathway towards recovery. I am anxious to restore the principle of recovery in our treatment services for drug misusers. We should aim towards recovery and a drug-free lifestyle to the greatest extent possible. There has been insufficient focus on this ambitious goal in the past and we must redouble our efforts to present drug users with opportunities to achieve a life without drugs.

The National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016 and the earlier report of the working group on drugs rehabilitation emphasise the need for our response to be client-centred. We must endeavour to provide a "continuum of care" for problem drug users to enable them to address their health needs, as well as their general social, housing, educational and employment needs. As Deputy O'Sullivan knows, often the shortcomings have been in the education that has been available to the individual concerned. There are a number of indicators for what predisposes people to drug misuse, and educational disadvantage is a key one.

Drug-specific community employment schemes have made a significant contribution to the broad rehabilitation effort and I acknowledge the role played by FÁS in this regard over the years. This special programme is part of the integrated effort to facilitate and support participants in their ongoing recovery from problem drug use. The programme aims to enable those affected by substance misuse to address those problems through helping to provide more structure to their lives and giving them opportunities to improve their skills.

I assure the Deputy that drug-specific CE schemes continue to play a critical part in the drug rehabilitation effort. I intend to put a renewed emphasis on the area of rehabilitation. The nine-point special conditions for the delivery of the drugs rehabilitation CE places were revised a year ago to ensure consistent and appropriate referral, delivery and implementation in regard to the projects involved. One aim of this process is to ensure that there is a consistent and integrated approach nationally to the referral of people to these CE opportunities.

In the context of the recent budget, I wrote to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, emphasising the importance of drug-specific CE schemes in the effort to facilitate rehabilitation from drug use and pointing out that the designation of the 1,000 places involved is made in recognition of the fact that recovering drug users are not, initially in any case, facilitated by a direct labour market mechanism to the same extent as are those in mainstream CE. I subsequently met with the Minister, Deputy Burton, and she is fully aware of the importance of the role that CE schemes play in the provision of crucial social services in communities, and of the particular needs in regard to drug rehabilitation.

The Minister has asked that an initial review of all CE schemes be undertaken by the end of March. In the meantime, no CE schemes will close and any difficulties arising regarding the funding of individual schemes will be addressed. I will continue to work closely with the Minister, Deputy Burton, as will our respective officials, to ensure that the special place of the ring-fenced drug-specific CE places is protected and adequately funded into the future. I am confident such schemes will continue to be a very beneficial part of the drugs rehabilitation effort.

I am aware of the Minister of State's commitment in this area. I take heart from two of the Minister's statements, namely, the acknowledgement that these schemes have made a significant contribution to the broad rehabilitation effort, and that the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, will ensure the special place of these drug-specific CE places is protected and adequately funded. I agree with the Minister about those who have been stuck in methadone treatment and that there must be a way out. However, sometimes harm reduction is the only route for certain people.

Finally, certain CE schemes provide crèche facilities for the people who participate in the ring-fenced schemes. Therefore, while the schemes providing crèche facilities are not ring-fenced, people would not be able to take part in the special schemes unless there was provision for their children. I hope those schemes will be considered as well.

I take the Deputy's point about harm reduction but, overall, we must be more ambitious in terms of achieving a drug-free lifestyle as far as possible. I appreciate the Deputy's remarks. I am keen that the working group would meet again soon and that we would process this issue through that working group. Before this issue arose there was a question as to why we were not filling the full 1,000 quota. I am anxious to ensure that all those places are taken. I also accept the Deputy's point about child care. I understand that the Minister, Deputy Burton, is conscious of the important social service that is provided in many communities through the provision of child care services through community employment, and she is particularly keen to protect them.

Immigration Services

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise the difficulties I am experiencing, on behalf of my constituents, with the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS. The service is described on its website as a one-stop-shop but appears to be a shop that never opens. For several months now, those contacting the INIS by telephone have been met with the message "We are sorry but due to the pressure of work, we cannot talk to you" or words to that effect. As with other colleagues, I am frustrated by the lack of engagement from the office.

It is unfair for the State to establish channels of communication which deliberately lead a person nowhere. This is a throwback to the days when bureaucracy considered people pursuing their natural right to information fair game and deliberately set out to frustrate them. Thankfully, in the interests of democracy, we have come a long way in recent years to correct unfair bureaucratic practices. Freedom of information is important because it aims to make government open, transparent and accountable. The Freedom of Information Act is based on the premise that people have the right of access to public documents save for certain exemptions on the grounds of national security.

I am not making a far-reaching request which will create substantial costs, nor is the information I seek an international secret or rocket science. All I seek is fair play for those who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in lonely circumstances in a foreign country and turn to public representatives for help. It is incredible that Members of the national Parliament are unable to make contact with the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, an agency which has power over the destiny of constituents who seek basic information about the status of their applications for citizenship, asylum or refugee status. There is no place in modern Ireland for retaining a legacy of bureaucratic elitism in any part of the public service. I appeal to the Minister for Justice and Equality to immediately stop the unfair and obstructive practice in which the INIS office is engaged.

As an agency that interfaces directly with members of the public, the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service should convey an image of a friendly, helpful and caring nation. When one telephones bodies such as the ESB, Bord Gáis or local authorities one is sent around all sorts of places and must call all sorts of numbers. It is especially important that we are able to speak to a human voice when dealing with applications for citizenship, asylum and refugee status.

The right of all Members of this House to make representations on behalf of constituents is a core democratic principle and an important part of ensuring that individual rights and interests are properly accounted for in the administration of government. I assure the House that my Department makes every effort to facilitate Deputies to submit representations and queries on individual cases and to provide timely responses to all matters raised. The Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, is particularly aware of the need to respond to representations from Oireachtas Members and customers alike.

The Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service is responsible for the administration of the State's immigration system and deals with substantial volumes of cases each year. By way of illustration, in 2011 INIS dealt with approximately 164,000 new applications across the immigration spectrum such as applications for visas, residence, protection and citizenship. Understandably, given this volume of activity, a very large number of queries from Oireachtas Members on the status of individual applications is received by INIS. To meet this requirement a dedicated Oireachtas Members e-mail service has been established by INIS and it is my understanding that all Members are aware that it exists. Detailed up-to-date information on such cases can be accessed by Members using this service or by contacting me or my office directly. In addition, the parliamentary questions process is available for general and policy related matters and is also used by Deputies for queries on individual cases.

The e-mail facility operated by INIS is for the exclusive use of Oireachtas Members and was established to facilitate Members seeking information on individual cases, while also enabling large volumes of queries to be dealt with speedily, efficiently and at less cost than the parliamentary questions process. In 2011, almost 4,200 e-mail queries were processed through the Oireachtas e-mail service. The service has been well received and INIS is examining improvements to it. Any suggestions by Deputy Phelan in that regard would be welcome. She may wish to note that in the most recent Dáil session, I replied to 641 parliamentary questions on immigration related matters, which accounted for 45% of all questions answered by me in the period in question. The vast majority of questions concerned individual cases, including queries on the status of citizenship applications.

The Deputy has outlined difficulties experienced in contacting the citizenship section of INIS by telephone. Prior to it being raised here today, I was unaware of the issue to which she refers. I would have been happy if she had brought it to my attention. My door is always open and I encourage all Deputies who encounter issues in accessing any part of my Department to raise their concerns with me or my private office and I will ensure they are dealt with promptly. I am also open to arranging briefings by my officials. In that regard Deputies have been briefed in the past on the Oireachtas mail system. I recollect that in May last, Deputy Phelan was so briefed.

I am advised that the citizenship section operates a telephone helpline two days a week and, on average, deals with 6,000 calls each year. The full details of the various helplines operated by INIS are available on its website. Given the substantial volume of citizenship applications currently on hand, all available resources are being targeted at processing applications. Consequently, the scope to increase the capacity of the helpline service is limited. Nonetheless, I have asked my officials to examine the matter to establish if the telephone service can be enhanced without displacing resources from case processing. However, the telephone helpline is primarily for customers with the dedicated e-mail service being reserved for Oireachtas Members.

Regarding the processing of citizenship applications generally, the measures I introduced last year to deal with citizenship applications have resulted in a significant increase in the number of cases decided. More than 16,000 valid applications were decided last year, compared to 7,785 cases decided in 2010. By late spring-early summer of this year it is anticipated that all standard applications, that is, non-complex cases accounting for 70% of all applications, will be completed within six months. By way of comparison, when I was appointed Minister such cases where taking more than two years to complete.

On 24 June last year I presided over the first formal citizenship ceremony held in this State. Since that date a further 27 such ceremonies have taken place and citizenship ceremonies will continue to be scheduled, including a further group of ceremonies which will take place in the first week of February. Preparation for citizenship ceremonies requires substantial resources from the INIS citizenship section and I thank those working in the section for taking on an extra burden in the preparation for such ceremonies and the outstanding work they have done when present at such ceremonies.

Given the information I have outlined, I hope the Deputy will appreciate that every effort is made to respond to queries from Oireachtas Members. As I stated, I am always open to any suggestions Members may have, on the understanding that priority will continue to be given to processing cases as expeditiously as possible. My officials will explore the possibility of the telephone line being open for an additional period.

I thank the Minister for his extremely comprehensive response and welcome his statement that he will consider opening the telephone line for a longer period. My office has to my knowledge explored the e-mail facility available to Oireachtas Members. I will check with my office staff as to precisely what satisfaction they have had from the service. In most cases involving the INIS, however, Members need to speak to a person. It is highly frustrating for staff members who contact the service by telephone to be continuously informed that no one is available to speak to them. I will continue to monitor the position.

It is my understanding from colleagues that the e-mail service is working extremely well. Colleagues from all sides of the House who use the service - it is not exclusive to Government Deputies in any shape or form - get speedy responses to queries they raise. On occasions when an urgent issue has arisen in respect of immigration, residence, asylum or citizenship matters Deputies on all sides have the facility of making contact with my private secretary who always follows up matters and has responded to queries raised by Deputy Phelan. I am a little bit at a loss as to what particular difficulties arose for the Deputy's office. I emphasise to Deputies that they should avail of the specially dedicated e-mail service to facilitate Members who are following up issues of concern that arise in this area. To respond to queries, certain basic background information is required - for example, the names and addresses of the individuals concerned and the circumstances which give rise to concern. These matters are dealt with efficiently by use of the e-mail service and I hope Deputy Phelan would avail of the service should any difficulty arise.

Not a day passes without a Member of the House approaching me when I am in the Chamber with a problem which arises within the justice brief - frequently, issues relating to asylum, residency or citizenship. I seek to ensure that whenever something is raised with me, the response is provided. I think we have a good record in that regard.