Topical Issue Debate

Social Welfare Benefits

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Burton, to the Chamber. This is an important issue in her constituency. Every Deputy in the House is affected by it. I know the Minister has a difficult job. Her Department has borne the brunt of the need to deal with many of the effects of the recession. There has been a major increase in the number of people applying for assistance. The Minister has to work within the current budgetary constraints . Her Department is having to deal with the integration of community welfare officers and staff from FÁS. The specific issue I am raising is the average time one has to wait for a claim for carer's allowance to be processed. It was 17 weeks, or over four months, in September 2011. One has to wait longer in the event of an appeal. These delays are causing a real difficulty on the ground for the most vulnerable people. Carers deliver an invaluable service to the community. The level of care and assistance they provide would cost the State much more if our hospitals and community services had to step into the breach. Carers provide their services to a range of people, including older people, those with severe disabilities, people who unfortunately have terminal illnesses and children with special needs. In September 2011, almost 10,000 applicants for carer's allowance were waiting for decisions to be made. I can understand that delays are being caused by the volume of applications. I ask the Minister to do everything she can to hasten the process of ensuring those who qualify for carer's allowance receive payments as quickly as possible.

I thank Deputy Kevin Humphreys for raising this important issue. Approximately 52,000 people are currently in receipt of carer's allowance. Approximately 22,000 of them receive the half-rate carer's allowance in addition to another primary social welfare payment. The rates of payment for carer's allowance were maintained in budget 2012. In addition, no changes were made to the means test for carer's allowance. The current income disregards for eligibility for the allowance - the amounts recipients can earn that are not counted for the means test - are €332 per week for a single person and €655 per week for a couple. The increased payment for those caring for more than one person was also retained. Carers continue to get an annual respite care grant of €1,700 in respect of each person for whom they care. In the third quarter of 2011, the average time taken to award a carer's allowance application was 17 weeks. Figures for the last quarter of 2011 are not yet available as a consequence of the introduction of a new claims processing system in the carer's allowance area. New claims are being processed on the new system but older claims are still being processed on the old system. Figures for processing times in January on the new system will be available shortly.

To meet the challenge of increased volumes of new claims for its schemes, the Department has embarked on a major programme of process redesign and modernisation, including the deployment of new computer systems. This new processing system is being introduced for the carer's allowance scheme. The first tranche of new carer's allowance claims began to be processed under the new system in August 2011. It is anticipated that the new system will introduce significant processing efficiencies and provide a quicker and more responsive service to the customer. Accordingly, the project is being given high priority. As it involves a significant level of time and commitment from the relevant staff in the Department, it has had a short-term negative impact on claim processing times. This is expected to continue until the completion of the modernisation project in June of this year, when all existing carer's allowance claims will be transferred to the new processing system.

Some 7,698 applications are registered as awaiting a decision at present. This marks a reduction from the figure of 8,540 at the beginning of September 2011. I acknowledge that the time taken to process carer's allowance claims at present is not satisfactory. I am satisfied that the Department is taking appropriate steps to resolve the situation. In addition to dealing with the approximately 330 new carer's allowance applications that are received each week, overtime working is being applied to help to reduce the backlogs that have built up. A significant number of months are expected to elapse before the backlog is reduced to an acceptable level. While the new systems and processes will facilitate a significant improvement in overall processing times, it should be noted that individual claims may continue to take some time to process. Delays can also arise if those applying for the allowance are not in a position to supply all the necessary information in support of their claims.

In the meantime, if a person's means are insufficient to meet his or her needs while awaiting a decision on a claim, he or she can apply for a means-tested supplementary welfare allowance payment. As a result of the large increase in the volume of applications, the Department correctly decided to move to a new system that will process claims more efficiently and quickly. This effect will be most noticeable in cases of claims that are completely in order. However, the transition to the new system means it is more complicated. We hope to have this process finished by the end of June.

I thank the Minister for her response. I am pleased that she will prioritise this matter. Carer's allowance is important to many of the families that make these applications. In December, almost 7,000 people were awaiting decisions on applications for disability allowance. I recognise that the Minister has prioritised this matter, but there is quite a way to go. These delays are having a real impact on families on the ground. I would also like to highlight the delays in processing claims for disability allowance. Some 7,000 people are waiting for decisions to be made. I accept what the Minister has said about prioritising this issue. The backlog needs to be dealt with quickly and efficiently. I am delighted to hear that the required changes and reforms in the process are well under way. I ask the Minister to keep a watchful eye on this and to press forward with the reforms in these areas as quickly and smoothly as possible, for the benefit of applicants.

I agree with what the Deputy is saying. I hope the final outcome will represent a significant improvement. In many cases, the status and eligibility of the claim, and the way it is presented, mean it is highly likely that carer's allowance will be awarded. If we can move to a system whereby the claim is complete when the application is first made, it will be possible for much clearer and faster decisions to be made. Claims that are complete and therefore highly likely to be awarded, in the particular family or individual circumstances that arise with regard to caring, should be facilitated. As in many areas of social protection, in this area there has been a substantial increase in the volume of applications and in the complexity of some of them. The staff of the Department of Social Protection have a good record of responding to changes in the volume and type of applications. I am confident that by the end of June, when we have completed our transition to the new system, there will be a significant improvement in this regard. I appreciate what the Deputy has said about the importance of the carer's allowance. For that reason, I did my best to maintain carer's allowance payments, along with payments to pensioners, in the recent budget.

Drug Treatment Programme

I wish to share two minutes of my time with Deputy Michael Conaghan. I do so because the issue I raise is not party political in nature. All public representatives in the Dublin South-Central constituency, especially those who represent the Ballyfermot area, share the same view on it.

The Aisling Clinic is one of the oldest drug treatment clinics in Dublin and the second largest such clinic in the city. Some 120 people avail of its services daily and 150 people attend on a weekly basis. While the service provided is second to none, it is somewhat chaotic because the building in which it is located has never been fit for purpose. For this reason, no one will demand that the clinic be kept open forever. However, we demand that a service be provided in the catchment area of Ballyfermot, which has one of the largest heroin problems in the country. An alternative site in the area has not been offered.

At a meeting last week, public representatives and some of the service users were informed that two centres in the Cherry Orchard Hospital complex would be more than suitable to be exchanged for the Aisling Clinic. Such an exchange would allow a vital service to be maintained in the community and adjacent to a new mental health centre located on the hospital site. Further, a new primary care health centre is due to be transferred to the site. It would be logical, therefore, to retain all services on one site. We must also ensure those who use the clinic's drug treatment services remain free from harm. Many of them are concerned that trouble may occur if the service is transferred to Clondalkin or the south inner city where some of them have clashed with people using the local services. It is also possible that some users may disengage from drug treatment. I appeal to the Minister of State to review the proposal to close the Aisling Clinic in March and consider using alternative sites on the Cherry Orchard Hospital complex. I ask that some of my time be given to Deputy Conaghan.

Unfortunately, that is not possible. I must act strictly in accordance with Standing Orders, under which Deputies must submit a request before 10 a.m. As Deputies Ó Snodaigh and Joan Collins are the only two Deputies who raised this topical issue, I am not in a position to do anything.

May I explain the position? I submitted a matter for discussion yesterday.

It was not submitted today.

I was not aware that was necessary. I understood one submitted the request and waited until it was reached by the Ceann Comhairle.

I am sorry but I cannot help the Deputy. To do so would create a precedent.

I was not aware of the rule.

I understand the Deputy's position.

Deputies Ó Snodaigh, Conaghan and I attended a meeting in Ballyfermot last Thursday night arranged by service providers and clients of the Aisling Clinic. Those present were confused, angry, concerned, anxious and stressed by the decision to close the centre by the end of March. It appears a follow up plan has not been put in place for after the closure. Some service users will be asked to avail of the services of their general practitioners, while others will be sent to St. Stephen's Hospital, another centre in Clondalkin and a new health clinic which is being built. Many of those present expressed the view that using the new clinic would put client confidentiality at risk. The Aisling Clinic provides counselling for clients and their families and a wounds clinic and mental health services are available on campus. Confidentiality is at the top of the agenda of those who use the centre.

The Aisling Clinic has been in operation for 21 years which means the average age of clients is probably the highest of any such centre in Dublin. Some users started attending the centre when they were 17, 18 or 19 years of age and are now in their late 30s or early 40s. This group is very attached to the centre and reliant on its medication and counselling services. I was shocked to learn of how the clients of the clinic have been treated as a result of the decision to close the centre. The meeting heard that units 4 and 5 of Cherry Orchard Hospital could be used to maintain the service provided by the Aisling Clinic.

On behalf of Deputies Conaghan and Ó Snodaigh, the users of the Aisling Clinic and people of Ballyfermot, I appeal to the Minister of State to have the decision reversed. People are concerned that the closure of the clinic could result in many people in the area becoming highly dysfunctional, especially as 83% of the users of the service live in Ballyfermot. I await the Minister of State's response.

I thank Deputies Ó Snodaigh and Joan Collins for raising this issue, which is a matter of concern to all local Deputies.

The Aisling Clinic is located in the grounds of the Cherry Orchard Hospital in Ballyfermot. The centre provides a range of integrated addiction services for those affected by substance misuse, in particular, polydrug use. The services available at the clinic include general practitioner, nursing and counselling services; pharmacy; methadone maintenance; needle exchange; and community welfare officer services. The opening hours of the clinic are from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. between Monday and Friday and from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. at weekends. At present, 190 people affected by problem drug use attend the Aisling Clinic day programme and 67 attend the evening programme. The services currently operate from a small four bedroom house on the grounds of the hospital. This accommodation is considered inadequate and inappropriate for this number of patients. It is planned to demolish the premises in 2013 to facilitate the construction of premises to accommodate new inpatient child psychiatry services on the site of Cherry Orchard Hospital.

The Ballyfermot primary care centre is nearing completion and the Health Service Executive addiction service has been requested to have a presence on the site by 31 March this year. The area available in the centre is not sufficient for the large number of patients attending the Aisling Clinic. In view of this, a HSE led working group has been established to examine the options available for the delivery of the addiction services elsewhere. The objective of the group is to achieve a seamless transition to the appropriate site. Its membership is comprised of clinic personnel, namely, the pharmacist, nurse, general practitioner, administrator, senior general assistant and rehabilitation worker. The group, which meets twice monthly, is to report back to the area operations manager with recommendations on the available options by the end of April.

I am aware that clients of the Aisling Clinic may be concerned about the implications for their treatment arising from the plans to transfer the service to alternative accommodation. I have been assured by the HSE that the transition to the new arrangements will not result in a disruption of services. The HSE service plan for 2012 envisages that the health of the population will be managed, as far as possible, within a primary care setting. Those with additional or complex needs will have plans of care developed with the local primary care team, which will co-ordinate all care required with specialist services in the community. Notwithstanding developments at the Cherry Orchard Hospital site, we should seek to integrate drug services in primary care. This will be a challenge. However, if a local GP treats a person's ingrowing toenail, there is no reason he or she should not deal with other aspects of a person's care. If a person who requires ongoing care for arthritis also has a problem with addiction, there is no reason he or she should not attend his or her local GP and receive services for both problems, ideally through a primary care team.

The plan contains a specific target on the development of protocols signposting referral pathways between specialist addiction services and primary care services. The location of the addiction service is not the key issue. The central issue is to ensure that clients with alcohol or substance misuse disorders will have access to appropriate interventions and treatment and rehabilitation services. A client centred approach is key to providing a continuum of care to problem drug users to enable them to address their health needs, as well as their general social, housing, educational and employment needs. This integrated approach is also recognised in the report of the national substance misuse strategy steering group which recommends the establishment of a clinical directorate to develop the clinical and organisational governance framework that will underpin treatment and rehabilitation services.

The logic of the Minister of State's response is that the services provided by the Aisling Clinic should be retained on-site in the Cherry Orchard Hospital or, at least, in the Ballyfermot area. She noted that services should be linked to a primary care centre and referred to a continuum of care to address general social, housing, educational and employment needs. If one is in Ballyfermot, one is in the Dublin City Council area and there is a council office down the road. The local employment service is in Ballyfermot, not Clondalkin.

There is a logic here, which is why we are appealing to the Minister to intervene and ensure that the Aisling Clinic does not close in March or April, but remains open until such time as a suitable site is found for the cohort of recovering drug addicts and alcoholics who attend this clinic. There is quite a number. There is not sufficient capacity among the local doctors or pharmacies to take on these clients. They have already taken on a quota. There are 120 people from Ballyfermot attending this clinic daily and 150 who attend it weekly. That is the scale of the service offered by the centre and the challenge for the Minister and the HSE is to locate these services in Ballyfermot.

I have taken on board the points made by the Minister. A group has been set up comprising existing clinic personnel. I note there is no service user in that group to discuss how it impacts on service users or any change in the seamless transition.

I make the same appeal as Deputy Ó Snodaigh. A number of people use the service in Ballyfermot and the local area office is located there. There is a cohesiveness in Ballyfermot in terms of the service it gives in the community. I appeal to the Minister to keep the centre open until everything is addressed, including the concerns of the service users. It was pointed out to me that most general practitioners, GPs, will not see drugs clients after 9 a.m. That is a change from having a service in place to give the person 100% support, with all the facilities on the campus. To be put into a situation under a GP is a retrograde step for the people concerned. I ask the Minister to keep the centre open until another site is found for it. Units 4 and 5 would appear to be ideal.

I accept the points made by the Deputies. This issue just came to my attention this afternoon. I have been in the Chamber since 2.30 p.m. today so I did not have a chance to research the matter. I am told there is no plan to move all of the services to Clondalkin and Dr. Steeven's Hospital, so that is not being proposed. I do not have any information with me regarding the possibility of using Units 4 and 5 in Cherry Orchard Hospital but I will pursue that on behalf of the local Deputies and see if there is any possibility of them being brought into use.

I do not know why 31 March is the deadline. The group that has been set up has until the end of April to report, so there should be no question of services being suspended in the interim. We must ensure services are protected and that the needs of clients are catered for properly. I will examine this matter and revert back to the Deputies concerned.

I apologise to Deputy Conaghan that I could not allow him to raise his matter, but I am sure he will understand. It was a misunderstanding on his part.

It was my understanding that one could leave the notice in for the week and it would be reached.

No, it must be submitted each day. Sometimes people are not available the next day so the Member must submit it each day.

Health Promotion

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue for the Topical Issues debate. I was listening to questions to the Minister for Health earlier and this issue was raised. It was also raised in the House last night.

My interest springs from my background as a primary teacher. The problem of childhood obesity, which will progress to adult obesity in the future, is for this generation what tuberculosis, TB, was for my grandparents' generation. It is probably the biggest public health issue facing this country in the long term. It is important that we tackle it for a number of reasons. My suggestion to the Minister is to examine the concept of putting a personality in place to lead a campaign on the issue. Consider our experience of putting a personality such as Gay Byrne in the Road Safety Authority and the work he has done in raising public awareness and bringing the public with him, in a non-political and non-confrontrational manner. People across the spectrum respect him.

Obesity is an issue of great importance from a public health point of view and given that a quarter of all three year olds at present are either overweight or obese, it is not a matter we can afford to put on the back burner. In 1990, one in ten Irish men was either overweight or obese. The figure is now one in four. This problem is being tracked and it is progressing. Even the OECD has put Ireland centre stage in tracking obesity in a suite of countries. Ireland is on an upward trend while countries such as the United States and New Zealand are on a downward trend. They are making huge strides in their efforts to deal with this. The personality entrusted with much of the work on this by the United States is the First Lady. She has taken the initiative, through her position in the White House, to do something as simple as encouraging people to eat healthily, especially people with the socioeconomic backgrounds that might not necessarily give them the skill base to deal with this issue.

Diabetes is currently costing the State approximately €4 billion per year, and Type 2 diabetes is a killer disease. For this generation, it must be tackled in the same way as smoking was tackled previously. In the case of cancer, we have the National Cancer Registry. I complimented Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan last night on the Private Members' motion she tabled with her colleagues in the Technical Group regarding stroke. The problem of obesity will not go away. While RTE is to be complimented on the topical issue it has brought to the airwaves this month and last month in the programme "Operation Transformation", we need that on a 12 month basis.

We also need a personality who will hold to account the Department of Health, the HSE and the other Government Departments. This is not just a matter for the Department of Health, and responsibility for it does not just rest with the Minister. It is also a matter for the Departments of Education and Skills; Transport, Tourism and Sport; Social Protection; Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; and Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. All have a role in this in terms of changing the lifestyle in the country.

Earlier, the Minister answered a question on this matter from my colleague, Deputy Buttimer. This is not about levying taxes or imposing a sugar tax, although that might very well be part of it. There is corporate responsibility here as well on the part of the games industry. Children and young adults get a new game for Christmas - I will not mention the names of the games - and spend their time in front of the television. It encourages them to be addictive. They think that by playing a game they will get active in some way. Instead, they are sitting in front of a television morning, noon and night. There has been a cultural shift in this country in terms of activity and what we expect from our young people.

A national advocate or tzar would have the moral authority to go to the Department of Education and Skills and demand that it consider giving youngsters the option of taking physical education as an examination subject in the junior certificate. There is also the option of taking it as an examination subject in the leaving certificate and getting points for it. At present, many children are facing huge psychological problems due to their weight. This is a huge problem in social media as well. They do not appear to have an outlet whereby they can focus their attention on dealing with this in a manner in which it will make a real difference to their lives.

I thank Deputy O'Donovan for raising this issue. The global epidemic of obesity is a major public health problem throughout Europe, and 61% of Irish adults are now overweight or obese. The high levels of obesity in all age groups of the Irish population are increasing. It is not just a problem for adults but we now have the dreadful situation where one in four children is overweight or obese. That will pose huge challenges for the health service in coming years.

During 2011 the Minister for Health established a special action group on obesity, chaired by the Department of Health and comprising representatives of other Government Departments, the HSE, the FSAI and Safefood/. Its remit is to examine and progress, in a cross-sectoral approach, a number of issues to address the complex and multi-factoral problem of obesity. No single initiative will reverse the trend, but a combination of measures should make a difference.

The special action group is concentrating on a specific range of measures, including healthy eating guidelines for the Irish population; restricting the marketing of food and drink high in fat, sugar or salt to children; nutritional labelling; calorie posting on restaurant menus; the promotion of physical activity and the detection and treatment of obesity. As part of the work plan of this group, earlier this month the Minister launched a national consultation to seek opinions on the best way to put calorie information on menus in Ireland. The consultation will close on 29 February 2012 and the results, when analysed, will inform the next steps in the process. An important initiative under way in the Department is entitled Your Health is Your Wealth: A Policy Framework for a Healthier Ireland 2012-2020. It is anticipated that the review will identify a number of key lifestyle policy issues, such as smoking, alcohol and obesity, where further action is required. It is important to build a consensus across sectors and to engage stakeholders such as non-governmental organisations and the sporting bodies. All the initiatives being considered by the special action group on obesity will form part of the development of the public health policy framework, to enhance the health and well-being of all the population. Diabetes is an issue of great concern and is related to the problem of the large number of people who are overweight and obese. The trend of diabetes is set to continue for the foreseeable future. In Ireland the current prevalence of diabetes in adults, Type 1 and Type 2 combined, is estimated at 5% or just over 162,000 people. This is expected to rise to 5.6% or almost 200,000 by 2015. The majority of people with diabetes have Type 2. A significant proportion of the cost of diabetes care is attributable to the management and treatment of complications.

There are proposals to roll out the diabetes chronic disease management programme, which is an important development. To manage that situation, which poses such a threat to people's well-being, health and the health service, it is critical that people take steps to change their lifestyles. Some 80% of chronic disease can be avoided through changes in lifestyle. The Minister and I are engaged in this issue and we intend to harness all the resources available to us to get to the point where it is a matter of course that people play an active part in ensuring they lead balanced, healthy and active lives so that they contribute to maintaining their good health and well-being. I thank Deputy O'Donovan for raising this issue.

We want to bring a younger generation with us, who will look up to an individual who they can trust in terms of making lifestyle changes. The Minister of State is correct that this is all about lifestyle, what we are ingesting and how little this nation is moving. In order to make a change, politicians are not necessarily the best placed people to encourage others. We could empower a national czar who could hold the Government to account and give it a checklist. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste said that, by 2016, they want Ireland to be the best small country in the world in which to do business, to grow old and to raise a family. By 2016, we also should be the best country at tackling these lifestyle diseases because we are storing up a huge problem with the diabetes issue, not to mention asthma, cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Voluntary organisations are inclined to encourage people towards a healthier lifestyle and when they are printing literature or taking our advertisements they should be exempt from VAT. There is no point in someone taking out a half-page advertisement in a national newspaper to encourage people to eat properly when the Government is the recipient of the VAT. The voluntary organisation is doing the State a favour. Someone trusted by the people should have oversight and the political speech should be taken out of it so that everyone is brought under one umbrella to tackle the largest public health issue facing this generation.

The development of the new public health policy, which will be finalised in the middle of this year, will concentrate on the issue of lifestyle and the implications for a person's health and well-being. There will be an emphasis on getting across that message to young people in particular. This is not a matter just for the Department of Health; all other Departments need to play their parts, particularly in respect of education, where we have a captive audience in schools. That is where we must concentrate on getting the message out to young people.

I take the point with regard to having a personality leading this campaign to give the issue a profile although I do not know if there is a possibility of having a czar. The personality idea is a good one and I will take it up with the Minister for Health.

Road Network

On my behalf, and on behalf of the people of Bantry, I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing this matter to be discussed and I thank the Minister of State for attending to respond. I want to know the status of the plans to build the Bantry bypass and the intended timetable for the project. Bantry overlooks Bantry Bay in the heart of west Cork and is a large market town, acting as a hub in the south west, providing commercial, retail and tourism and leisure facilities for locals and visitors. As one of the larger towns in west Cork, it has a population of 4,000 people and serves a catchment area of 12,000 people. It is a busy community with plenty activity all year round. Bantry is in the heart of the area and serves an area that is as large as some counties. It serves the local community very well and provides the lifeblood for the local population and business. Like any heart, with years of abuse with traffic congestion, it badly needs a bypass. The heart can then rebuild and regenerate.

Tourism is an important part of the Department's brief and Bantry is a key hub for tourists visiting the region. Unfortunately, the commercial, tourism, agriculture and commuting traffic is pitched into a single town where the topography is difficult. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, is aware that Bantry will host the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, the Masters of Tradition Irish Music Festival, the West Cork Literary Festival, the Bay Run half marathon with 1,000 participants, the Irish National Windsurfing Championships, the Fastnet Rally and the Bantry show. These are annual events and it lends to difficulties for Bantry in terms of traffic congestion.

The Bantry regional general hospital is on or near the proposed route and I do not have to spell out the difficulties that may occur with emergencies. I referred to the N71 and the nature of the traffic on this single carriageway route from Cork, through the southern part of the constituency to Bantry and on to Kerry. It must deal with agricultural, tourism and commuting traffic, which leads to congestion throughout the route. There are also significant fisheries loads at peak times of the weekend, which adds to congestion. It is the fourth largest harbour in terms of tonnage and the case always has been made and agreed that there is a requirement for a bypass in Bantry.

To this end, Cork County Council has played a significant role in acquiring land. The process is practically complete and the remainder of the lands needed have been agreed already with the council. The project is shovel ready. The proposal is even more critical because a new secondary school was constructed in Bantry. It is due to open later this year and is an amalgamation of three schools in the region. One can imagine the congestion when the pupils of three schools from separate areas are now focused in one area. This lead to congestion and danger for pedestrians and young teenagers attending school. Unlike the constituency of the Minister of State, Cork South-West does not have a single inch of dual carriageway or motorway. There is a single carriageway throughout the constituency, which leads to a lot of difficulties especially around Bantry.

My constituency is in the heart of Ireland and to get anywhere one has to go through it, hence the motorway.

I am taking this debate on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Varadkar, and I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to address this issue in the House. The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority, in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Work on those roads is funded from local authorities own resources, supplemented by State road grants paid by my Department. The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is also a matter for local authorities.

My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, announced the 2012 regional and local road grant allocations on 30 January 2012. This year, a total of €379 million is being provided under the regional and local roads investment programme. From that allocation, Cork County Council has been provided with an allocation of €45.3 million.

The level of grants allocated to individual local authorities is determined having regard to a number of factors. These factors include the total funds available in a particular year, eligibility criteria for the different road grant schemes, road pavement conditions, length of road network, the need to prioritise projects and competing demands from other local authorities. In determining the annual grant allocation, the overall objective remains to supplement the resources provided by each local authority in a fair and appropriate manner.

In November 2011, Cork County Council wrote to my Department seeking funding for the Bantry relief road as a strategic regional and local road scheme. This stream of grants was introduced in 2006 to cater for schemes that make a significant contribution towards the aims of the national spatial strategy. The council informed my Department that this project could be broken into two phases, phase 1 had received Part 8 planning approval and that the compulsory purchase order for this phase had been published and confirmed.

My Department replied to the council on 23 November 2011 requesting it to complete the appropriate application form in order for the project to be given full consideration. To date this application form has not been returned by the council. It should be noted that the funding available for projects under the strategic regional and local roads programme in 2012 is just €20 million, down from €87 million in 2008. This will of necessity restrict the funding for new projects with priority being given to projects already committed to.

As I stated, primary responsibility for the improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads rests with local authorities. State grants are intended to supplement realistic contributions by local authorities from their own resources and it is open to Cork County Council to progress the project through its own resources should it wish to do so. The 2012 regional and local road grants have now been fully allocated and there are no further funds available from which an allocation for this project could be made.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. The council received an application form from the Department. It is quite an onerous form, as he may be aware. Part of the application process was the requirement to carry out a significant cost benefit analysis. My information is that Atkins has completed that analysis and that was the reason there was a delay. The application form is almost complete and will be ready to go to the Department for further consideration. I appeal to the Minister of State to consider what I said about the emerging situation in Bantry vis-à-vis the new amalgamated school.

I take the point about 2012 allocations and funding. We have made significant progress with regard to the troika and sale of State assets. There is potential to invest in projects that provide a good cost benefit analysis, are beneficial to local economies and are shovel ready. The Bantry relief project ticks all those boxes. If it cannot be done before the sale of State assets or in 2012, I ask when the application is submitted from the county council, which is very proactive in promoting the project, that the Department give it a favourable mention.

It has been going on for as long as I can remember. I have been on the council since 1999 and it was an issue well before then. It is getting worse and needs to be addressed. The total cost is in the region of €15 million, which is not a large amount compared to that spent in counties like Tipperary and elsewhere. We are not trying to be greedy. We just need this project to get off the ground.

As I said, if money had not been spent in my constituency people would not be able to travel around the country. As the Deputy knows, Bantry is a town I know exceptionally well. As a former MEP I visited it quite a bit and I accept the comments of the Deputy on the typography. I know the structure of the lands. I had regular knowledge of the mussel festival and many other events take place each year.

I accept the comments of the Deputy on the hospital. I visited it on a number of occasions and I am aware of where it is located. I accept his comments on schools. I visited a number of schools there and know many of the people working there, some of whom have recently retired. I accept what he said about the requirements. Many other competing towns say the same thing.

To be frank, the application will detail a lot and based on it, and the cost benefit analysis, judgments will be made on the status of the project in regard to future projects. From that data we will glean whether the project can be pushed forward. There are many other competing projects. We will have to wait for the application to be submitted. The amount of funding available for new road projects over the coming years is very limited. Having said that, we will analyse the data we receive.