Topical Issue Debate

Social Insurance

I did not anticipate we would be discussing this issue here on 21 February because the impression was given that it was off the agenda. It was an initial proposal by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Burton, which was to have been debated in government and withdrawn, presumably at the insistence of the Minister, Deputy Bruton, actively encouraged by some of his backbenchers, but apparently it seems to be back on the agenda. This has perturbed business spokesmen and spokeswomen all over the country.

What is being proposed will impose horrendous extra costs on businesses that are already struggling, particularly small businesses. Sick pay is paid out of the social insurance fund. The employers of this country for the last year for which we have figures, 2010, contributed more than €5 billion to the social insurance fund and now they are being asked to pay on the double.

We have heard various statements that the Government is obsessed with employment, everything it does is geared towards creating employment and every policy initiative is to be employment-orientated. If that is the case, can the Minister tell me why the Government has not done anything to date about issues such as commercial rates, which are a guaranteed job destroyer? There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support that. Why has the Government done nothing about upward only rents despite its pre-election promises? If there is a constitutional issue, it can be easily sorted out by adding an extra question for the next referendum. Why is the Government allowing insurance costs, energy costs and utility costs to rise? Why did the Government decide to make the cost of making people redundant, which affects firms downsizing to preserve their business, two and half time what it costs in the United Kingdom and very uncompetitivevis-à-vis the rest of Europe? If the Government is so obsessed with employment, why has this proposal come back on the agenda, and what is its current status? That is the reason I raised this issue today - I want clear answers. I am not alone in my anxiety about the matter. To quote a number of the Minister’s party backbenchers at random, Deputy Charles Flanagan described this move as “anti-business and anti-jobs”, while Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor, as late as this morning on Newstalk FM, stated that more debate was needed and that businesses feel this will be an expense too far. I agree with those Deputies. It is an expense too far. The Minister will realise, having produced a 170-page document on job creation, that much remains to be done to remove the barriers to job creation, but that is what we should be doing. We should be removing the barriers to job creation, not putting more in place in the shape of further costs for small and struggling businesses.

Further consultation on this issue was signalled in the budget speech of the Minister for Finance. As the Deputy knows, illness benefit comes from the social insurance fund, which is funded by PRSI contributions from employers and employees and by the Government and administered by the Department of Social Protection. Exchequer spending on illness benefit more than doubled in the ten years from 2001 to 2011, from €330 million to €876 million, while the number claiming went up by 40%. Policy responsibility for the administration of illness benefit falls within the remit of the Minister for Social Protection, who held the first initial consultative forum meeting on her proposals yesterday to consider the feasibility and potential impacts of introducing a statutory sick pay scheme in Ireland. This is very much a first step towards considering a range of issues that need to be examined in detail before any proposals can be suggested or progressed to possible implementation.

The Minister clearly indicated that this is the beginning of a consultative process and that nothing has been decided yet. Forfás attended the Minister's initial consultative forum yesterday and commented that any proposal that would increase costs for business would be of concern, and that further work was required to assess the potential costs of this proposal for enterprise, how these costs might be borne across enterprise sectors, what implications these costs might have for employment, and what other actions could be taken to achieve the required goals.

I have also seen the initial reactions of business representative bodies to the proposals and I understand their concerns about the cost a statutory sick pay scheme could impose on businesses. For this reason, the issue of increased costs needs to be more fully researched and considered.

The OECD has raised concerns that the duration of illness benefit in Ireland is currently two years, although the average in the OECD is a year or less. It also noted that many people with frequent sickness absences tend to drift from sickness into the disability benefit system, which is bad for the individuals and families concerned. A related worrying trend that was commented on at the forum yesterday is that more and more young people are going from the sickness benefit system to the disability system. We need to ensure our young people can find suitable employment in the economy, with any disability needs facilitated, and that they are productive members of our society.

The Deputy also raised many other issues, including the redundancy scheme. These are really the subject of another debate, but I must point out that the State picking up 60% of the redundancy costs of employers is not something that is common in other countries. There is no such facility in most countries, and Ireland is unusual in having to shoulder the cost of redundancy in that way. Clearly, the Government's aim is not to fund redundancy, which involves the loss of employment, but to seek to support schemes that create and sustain employment. As the Deputy acknowledges, the priority of the Government is to support the creation and protection of employment, which is a major challenge to our community.

On the final point made by the Minister, what I am saying is that there are different redundancy schemes in different countries. If a firm in Ireland wants to downsize and must make a certain number of people redundant in order to survive, it will cost the firm two and a half times per person more than it would in the United Kingdom, which is our nearest neighbour and competitor. That is an anti-jobs measure in anyone's language.

The Minister said there was consultation about a range of issues. The issue of making employers carry more of the burden for sick pay is firmly back on the agenda. Employers and business people from one end of the country to the other - a wide and representative section of business - have been contacting us to express their concerns. This is creating uncertainty at a time when we need certainty. It raises the spectre of higher costs in business when we need to be reducing costs.

Where does the Minister stand on the issue himself? Surely, as Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, he is opposed in principle to the idea of loading extra costs onto job creators. The Minister referred to various studies, consultations and so on. He will be aware that Forfás has already done a report, last November, on the exact effect of such a proposal on jobs and competitiveness. Can the Minister tell us what that report says, or will he undertake to publish it so we can see for ourselves?

I would certainly be concerned about any measure that would increase costs for employers. That is a view I hold personally. Equally, however, I recognise that the management of very high illness claims within our welfare system is something that needs to be addressed. Many of those problems are most acute in the public service, not in the private sector. Figures suggest that absenteeism in the public service is double that in the private sector.

There is no doubt that the issue of people drifting into long-term disability or invalidity benefit is also a source of worry. There are issues such as how we manage sickness and how we can ensure people take up opportunities, even if they are receiving sick payments, rather than drifting into long-term reliance on social welfare. A consultative process is under way. The contribution that was made by Forfás signalled our concerns about employment. Job creation is extremely important and scarce at the moment, and we need to do everything we can to nurture it. I recognise also that there are issues with regard to the management of budgets, and we need to examine the actions that can be taken across the system to manage this better.

What about last November's Forfás report? Will the Minister publish that?

Any report that has an input into an ongoing discussion at Government level is not normally published, so I do not intend to-----

Discussions have two sides.

Interactions between an agency and a Minister engaged in a consultative process are not necessarily published. I do not believe this documentation, which has an input into the consultative process, should be published at this stage. However, I will answer questions for the Deputy at any point.

Higher Education Grants

I am delighted to raise this issue of importance in my constituency and, I am sure, across the country. It has been raised time and again by a number of my constituents who are affected by it.

Our student grant scheme, which was set out in the Student Support Act 2011 and SI 305/2011 and amended in previous years, has a flaw that has become particularly visible during the present economic problems and employment challenges. This is the stipulation that an applicant must always be progressing to a higher level on the National Qualifications Framework - from level 6, diploma or certificate, to level 7, ordinary degree, to level 8, honours degree, and so forth. These restrictive stipulations are developed in sections 14 to 16 of the statutory instrument. In ordinary circumstances it is entirely understandable that the State would direct its educational assistance resources to encourage deeper and more comprehensive learning. However, we are experiencing a very turbulent time for employment and jobs. Sectors and industries which appeared buoyant four or five years ago are now devoid of employment opportunities. This has very serious ramifications for persons who have put all the investment and effort into obtaining a degree at level 7 or 8 in these areas.

The sensible option is to find another sector with better employment prospects and enrol in a training or educational course. This invariably means undertaking a course at a lower level on the national qualifications framework, such as a diploma or certificate. I have been contacted by many people in Galway who have tried to take this route only to find to their dismay that they are ineligible for a grant or assistance because they have a previous qualification. They are caught in a trap. They are unable to improve their chances of obtaining employment and therefore must remain dependent on the social welfare system.

I acknowledge, and warmly welcome, several initiatives from the Government which have already commenced, chiefly the Springboard initiative and the recently announced ICT conversion courses as part of the new ICT action plan. However, Springboard is not without its problems. There must be greater flexibility in terms of courses offered, the location of courses and the practicality of the courses. For example, a three year course is not much use to somebody who has already spent several years in college or university. They are unemployed now and need targeted, specific, skills-based, short-term education now, not in September or in September 2013.

FÁS is in the process of changing to become SOLAS and this is an ideal opportunity for greater co-operation and innovation between the old FÁS organisation, the universities and the institutes of technology to provide relevant, intensive short-term courses to fill the employment gaps we currently have. In Galway, for example, there are dozens of IT related vacancies which managers are struggling to fill. We, unfortunately, have an unacceptable rate of unemployment but few jobseekers with the required skills, yet when a jobseeker who has a qualification in a different sector attempts to re-skill, he or she cannot because of the progression stipulation in the student grant legislation.

I appeal to the Minister to think more creatively and innovatively on this matter. I accept the financial difficulties facing the education budget and acknowledge that the Minister's task is the most challenging to face a Minister with responsibility for education in recent decades. However, there are some steps we could take. We could, for example, make an allowance for persons attempting to change career direction and re-skill in a designated industry with employment opportunities - a one-off opportunity to re-skill and receive assistance to access a course which will enable entry to a new industry. This would be on top of the Springboard initiative and could encompass a wider range of areas, including IT and second level teaching. We could also examine key areas within sectors, such as software programming, coding and application building and, in conjunction with FÁS, universities such as National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG, and institutes of technology such as Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, offer short, skills-based courses in these areas.

Ultimately, we must change the student grant scheme from its current rigid set-up to having a more flexible, fluid, common-sense approach that is better able to address the challenges of today's job market and meet the needs of jobseekers throughout the country, especially in the Galway area which is of particular concern to me.

I am replying on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, Minister for Education and Skills. I thank the Deputy for raising this issue.

Springboard is a specific initiative to provide free part-time higher education places targeted at unemployed people who have lost their jobs as a result of the recession and who would benefit from upskilling or re-skilling to get back into sustainable employment. Places on Springboard courses are open to unemployed people who have a previous history of employment and there is no requirement that a person be progressing on the national framework of qualifications.

Since Springboard was first launched in May 2011, more than 4,300 unemployed people have been supported to undertake higher education programmes in areas of employment growth such as ICT, pharma-chem and the green economy. An analysis of the outputs to date shows that the programme has been very successful in reaching its target cohorts. A total of 77% of participants are aged between 25 and 49 years, 60% had been out of work for more than one year and 20%, the largest single group, were previously employed in the construction sector. Earlier this month the initial Springboard programme was expanded to provide an additional 500 places on 15 courses that had exceptionally high demand when they first ran in 2011. In addition, a further €10 million has been made available for the roll-out of a second programme of Springboard places in 2012. Details of the courses being funded and the number of places being supported will be available in May following a competitive tender process.

In response to specific skills shortages in the ICT sector, earlier this year my Department published a joint Government-industry ICT action plan aimed at building the supply of high level ICT graduates, a matter raised by Deputy Kyne in his contribution. One measure included in the plan is provision of more than 750 free places on 17 new graduate skills conversion programmes throughout the country. The programmes allow those with the appropriate qualifications to convert their skills during an intensive course of study in a higher education institute and a corresponding work placement in a collaborative company. Further details are available onbluebrick.ie.

Progression requirements are in place in respect of eligibility for student grants for general full-time higher education programmes. Students who are entering approved courses for the first time are eligible for student grants where they satisfy the relevant conditions as to residence, means, nationality and previous academic attainment. To satisfy the terms and conditions relating to progression, a student must be moving from year to year within a course having successfully completed the previous year or be transferring from one course to another where the award for the subsequent course is of a higher level than the previous course. The objective of this policy is to help as many students as possible to obtain one qualification at each level of study.

Given the high level of demand on the student grant budget from first-time students and students who are progressing with their studies to a higher level, there are no plans to change these general arrangements. However, the provision of free targeted places under the Springboard initiative addresses the concern raised by the Deputy regarding re-skilling opportunities for unemployed persons.

I thank the Minister for his response and I appreciate the positive initiatives that have been put in place by the Government, such as Springboard and the ICT action plan. However, I am disappointed that there are no plans to change the progression requirements to facilitate people who have already achieved qualifications. I ask the Minister to consider this in future budgets. It is very important.

I have been contacted about this by a number of people. They are, for example, people who have a qualification but are now in teacher training college. They are in danger of dropping out because of this rule. I have also been contacted by managerial people who are undertaking a course in university and would like to be able to transfer to Springboard but they are, unfortunately, precluded from doing so. Perhaps the Minister might consider these situations in future budgets. People are caught in a trap. Due to the economic situation they are unable to secure employment in their chosen career but there are other opportunities through undertaking other courses. This issue must be examined.

I will take on board the suggestions made by the Deputy. I believe our Department is not particularly dogmatic on any aspect of policy development. The Springboard programme is proof of that. It is an innovative programme that seeks to support those who are unemployed and need to re-skill and to offer them another career choice in another career direction. The programme was developed as a specific response to enable unemployed people to access higher skills levels. It is free and the places available in it are free. There is no cost for the participants. The participants are also entitled to keep their existing social welfare supports while they are accessing the Springboard course.

An evaluation of the Springboard process and the outputs to date has been completed by the Higher Education Authority. It shows the programme has been very successful in reaching its target groups. It also identifies a number of improvements for the next phase of Springboard and these are being fed into the roll-out of Springboard 2012. The Deputy correctly mentioned the significant skills shortages in the ICT sector. We are now providing ICT conversion programmes, providing a further flexible learning opportunity to those who are qualified in one area and who would require little intervention to allow them to work in the ICT sector. We are targeting a number of places for that cohort over the next 12 months.

Leader Programmes

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this topic as it is very important. I ask the Minister to consider re-opening funding for the agrifood and horticulture sectors under Leader funding. This comes under Axis 1 of Leader funding, which currently only supplies funding for bakery products. It is important that we look again at this issue. The provision of Leader funding is about supporting rural businesses and communities and it seems ridiculous that in a country that promotes itself on the quality of its agricultural products does not support local food businesses. I hope the Minister of State can address the issue of how Ireland's operational programme for rural development can allow funding to be made available to small, micro and medium food businesses under the Leader programme.

The general consensus among Leader groups is that there is a huge demand for seed funding to produce food products, that there are great markets for them at home and that they have huge export potential. The Government's emphasis on exploiting our reputation as a producer of high quality food products could be converted into enormous incentives to create jobs but lack of sector funding is holding up the process. Farming is doing well and, in fairness to farmers, they are the first to reinvest their profits locally and look at the quality of their produce and adding value to them. This will be particularly important in view of the abolition of quotas in 2015. Helping the sector would result in the creation of jobs and be of real benefit to the economy and the balance of payments.

It is essential that Leader groups have quality funding to encourage small-scale agrifood businesses. Hugely successful brands such as Clonakilty Blackpudding products and small cheese companies have developed during the years with Leader programme encouragement and funding. It was under the previous Administration that the funding ceased and I know the Government will take a different view. In my own area of Cork north west a number of really good small businesses produce high quality food produce, but they need help in expanding their offerings and looking at new markets. IRD Ballyhoura manages Leader funding. It told me this morning that huge numbers of people came to it for funding, but it cannot help these applicants, one of whom is McCarthy's Butchers which supplies products to Harrods of London and Selfridges, yet it cannot get money for a local unit to expand its produce. If the business was based in Cork city, Cork City Council would provide a food unit. This is a big issue. O'Leary's Butchers in Millstreet has won many awards for its venison sausages, but it cannot get support either. There are real job opportunities available. We must, therefore, look at this issue. In Kanturk Ardrahan Farmhouse Cheese which is hand produced from the milk of the farm's cows has won many awards, placing it in the top three at the world cheese championships in four events in recent years. Charleville cheese and Newmarket cheese are also well known products, the production of which could be expanded.

Food production is important and world demand for food produce is steadily growing. The potential of this sector was highlighted over the weekend by the visit of the Chinese Vice President. There is huge potential for Ireland to win supply contracts into China in future years. With 450,000 people unemployed, we need to increase the level of job creation. Some 70% of new jobs will be provided by new businesses. This is where we need to look and there are real possibilities in the food production sector.

The horticulture and food sectors are closely connected. In my own town of Millstreet I tried to establish a community project to grow lettuces in polytunnels. Land was donated, but we were unable to get funding from the local Leader company. A local jobs opportunity with a good market was lost as a result. I am sure the same story could be told in every town in the country. I understand the Leader companies have money available, but do not have projects into which to put the money. I, therefore, ask the Minister of State to look at this matter in a favourable manner.

The rural development programme 2007-13 is divided into four axes. Axis 1 deals with the competitiveness of the agriculture sector; Axis 2 aims to improve the countryside and the environment, while the objectives of Axis 3 are to support the diversification of the rural economy and improve quality of life in rural areas. Axis 4, or the Leader axis, provides support for the use of a bottom-up approach to development which ensures local people are involved in decision making, thereby facilitating sustainable development in a more inclusive way. In Ireland the Leader approach is used to implement Axis 3 measures.

A significant number of projects funded under the previous Leader+ programme 2000-06 and the diversification and business creation measures of the current rural development programme, RDP, involve support for enterprise initiatives that add value to agrifood products. Basic agricultural products are listed in Annex 1 to the EC treaty and commonly called Annex 1 products. Under the main Rural Development Regulation 1698/2005 support-grant aid for adding value to Annex 1 products is facilitated under Axis 1 of the programme. At the start of 2011 Ireland was notified by the European Commission that support-grant aid for adding value to agrifood products was not eligible under Axis 3 but rather under Axis 1 as detailed in the regulation. As a result of this, grant aid under Axis 3 of the RDP for this activity is suspended.

A significant part of enterprise activity in rural areas focuses on food and food-related businesses. The continued provision of support for these businesses is critical as we look to ways to generate employment in rural Ireland. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is aware of the seriousness of this issue and has been working with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on an ongoing basis since the issue was identified in order to reach a solution.

It should be noted that although there are many agrifood products that Axis 3 of the RDP has been unable to support since the issue was notified in early 2011, the Leader programme can and does continue to offer substantial support to certain food processing enterprises in rural areas. Examples of activities which are being funded and will continue to be funded include the production of chocolate, ice cream and bakery products. Support is also provided for farm shops and farmers markets.

I am not in a position to make an announcement on additional funds for the projects referred to at this time, but I reassure the Deputy of the ongoing efforts to achieve a solution which I hope will be found in the near future.

I am glad to hear this matter is being looked at and hope we will receive a more favourable answer in the near future. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of this enterprise in rural communities and the opportunities we are missing out on by not having this funding. I thank the Minister of State for his time.

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and I are fully aware of the value of the agrifood business and acknowledge the valuable contribution Leader funding is making. Considerable amounts of money are spent on RDP programmes. This year there was an increased allocation of €34 million for the Leader programme, bringing the total allocation in 2012 to €96 million. The RDP provides direct and indirect support for enterprise development through diversification into non-agricultural activity, with a programme allocation of €16.6 million. There is an allocation of €45.4 million for the encouragement of tourism activity measures. These measures are aimed directly at providing support for the creation of on-farm employment opportunities in non-agricultural activities and services and the provision of support for rural tourism initiatives. Working in conjunction with these direct support measures are indirect support measures which include substantial financial resources of more than €29 million for training and information services. The Leader programme can and does continue to offer substantial support to some food processing enterprises in rural areas. The Minister hopes to be in a position to make further funding available in the near future. I hope some of the products that are so popular in Harrods can be sent to the north east, as we would he happy to try them. It sounds as if they are of a very high quality.

I thank the Minister of State.

Dublin Regeneration Project

Last week Dublin City Council decided to close a construction project site at the old St. Michael's Estate in Inchicore. That decision was unwarranted and will have serious repercussions for the entire community. We must be mindful of health and safety issues, but I understand the health and safety issues in question may have been of a minor nature. The council has cited health and safety issues, but I understand from the regeneration board that they are of a minor nature.

The health and safety authorities visited the site and issued what is referred to as a first advice notice. This is not generally considered a reason to close a construction site. My understanding is that it is intended to put people on notice that adjustments have to be made. There are widespread fears that this closure will mean the end of the work for a very long time and that the issue will go before the courts because the contractor feels it was treated unfairly. That will drag on and on.

There is a better way. The local community believes that mediation could resolve this. It has to be resolved in the best interests of the community which has waited 15 years for a regeneration project. This is simply heaping disappointment upon disappointment. It is a very serious issue that must be addressed. I believe it can be resolved but it is vital that we keep it out of the courts. There are very reputable mediation agencies which could look at these issues and bring this contractor back on site to complete this phase of a long-awaited regeneration project.

On 17 February, the St. Michael's Estate regeneration contract with BAM Contractors was stopped by Dublin City Council. BAM was awarded the contract in late 2010 to construct the first phase of the regeneration of St. Michael's Estate. It is difficult to understand the decision by Dublin City Council to put in place a moratorium due to serious concerns over health and safety. What were the reasons? Was it due to construction, work practices or financial issues? Seventy five units were to be built in the estate, along with a child care facility and an estate office. There have been 15 years of regeneration, promises and constant fighting by residents, but now we have 11 acres of wasteland and two acres of a ghost estate.

Mediation is urgently needed between Dublin City Council, the city manager, the councillors and BAM. If necessary, the Department should intervene to sort this out. Residents have been left in the lurch, with more and more delays occurring. The worst thing that could happen to someone is to be forced to move home or to wait for a new home to be ready. How many people have put their possessions in storage and stayed in temporary accommodation while waiting for their homes to be built? There may only have been 75 units in the first phase, but we are talking about hundreds of men, women and children left in the lurch, hoping that this would be built in the near future. We need to give these people certainty that something is going to happen and that we are not going to be delayed. I urge the Minister of State to intervene if necessary.

I thank Deputies Conaghan and Ellis for raising this matter. It affords me the opportunity once again to confirm the Government's commitment to the regeneration of the most disadvantaged areas of our cities and towns. Despite the challenging financial climate, we want to see real and meaningful progress made on regeneration. Capital investment in regeneration will be prioritised by the Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan.

Regeneration is not all about maps, plans, structures or budgets. It is about people and communities working to make these into places where they want to live and work happily and securely. We recognise that the regeneration process has not always been easy. This is particularly true of the St. Michael's Estate project. Up to 2008, Dublin City Council progressed the regeneration project under the public private partnership arrangements. There is no need to explain the background or the reasons the PPP outcome for St. Michael's Estate and other locations failed to materialise. With the encouragement of the Department, Dublin City Council established a multidisciplinary special housing taskforce with the objective of developing and implementing alternative options. The taskforce's initial strategy for the phased development of three estates, including St. Michael's Estate, was adopted by the city council in December 2008.

In 2010, the Department approved funding of €5.8 million for the social housing element of the first phase of the regeneration project, which included 75 new housing units. I understand the contractor started on site in November 2010, with a projected timeframe of 104 weeks for the completion of the project. The building works contract entered into in this case is between the employer, Dublin City Council, and the selected contractor, BAM Contractors Limited.

New forms of construction contracts for public works were introduced by the Department of Finance in 2007. These contracts apply to all housing projects, including the St. Michael's Estate contract, and contain specific conditions relating to contract performance, dispute resolution procedures and contract terminations. The contractor is responsible for carrying out the works in accordance with the terms of the contract and the works constructed must be safe and without risk to health. The employer's representative may, in accordance with the terms of the contract, issue instructions to the contractor on any matter connected to the works and the contractor shall comply with any such instruction. I understand the city council issued instructions to the contractor regarding pressing on-site health and safety concerns.

The Department has been advised by Dublin City Council that a notice to terminate the contract was served on the contractor on 15 February for alleged non-compliance with instructions issued. This decision was taken by the city council following the completion of a comprehensive risk assessment, undertaken in response to health and safety concerns at the site. The city council has further advised that, following the serving of the notice to terminate the contract, the contractor asked for a stay of ten days before a final determination of the contract is made. I understand the city council acceded to this request and that legal and technical representatives form both sides are currently involved in negotiations around the issues involved.

The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is not a party to the contract and given that discussions are ongoing between the relevant parties, we will await the outcome of these discussions and hope that we can progress this project to completion as quickly as possible.

The Deputies have two minutes between them to make a further statement, but I will be generous and allow three minutes between them.

What the Minister of State said holds out some hope for the resolution of these issues. If they cannot be resolved in that brief time, I hope the Minister of State can use his good offices to bring forward a mediation process. Everybody believes that a consensus can be reached to get this project underway.

The 15 acre site is at the heart of Inchicore village. There is a hole at the heart of the village since the old flats were demolished. Disappointment has been heaped upon disappointment, and dismay at why this work has stopped has been heaped on top of that. We must do everything possible to get this project underway and put hope in the place of dismay. I appeal to the Minister of State to meet members of the regeneration board. The board is chaired by a very eminent former senior executive of Guinness, who is a wise and well known individual. That request from the regeneration board is echoing the hope of the entire community that after 20 years of waiting, the end may at last be in sight. There is a great deal at stake and I am glad I got the opportunity to raise the issue with the Minister of State.

It is important that a message goes out that things can be solved. I heard the Minister of State's point that there are some signs that negotiations are taking place. In the event that those negotiations fail, I hope the Minister of State and his Department officials will be available to help in any way.

This has been a huge issue for many years in St. Michael's Estate. This is a prime site in a prime location. These families want to be relocated in the area they live, among their own families and friends and facilities that they have had over the years, such as schools, hospitals and health centres. The cost in human terms is huge, so I hope the Minister of State will intervene if there is a problem.

I share the Deputies' concern that the construction of the 75 social houses and associated works on a new crèche and estate office in St. Michael's Estate is progressed to completion as quickly as possible. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan, will announce details of the capital allocations under the social housing investment programme for 2012 very shortly.

I can assure the House that substantial capital funding will be made available to Dublin City Council in order that regeneration projects at St. Michael's Estate and other areas, such as Dolphin House, St. Teresa's Gardens and O'Devaney Gardens, can be progressed as quickly as possible.

I appreciate that contractual disputes have the potential to delay the delivery of much-needed regeneration projects. I am conscious that in the case of St. Michael's Estate, there are onerous responsibilities on both the city council and the contractor to execute the contract in accordance with the terms of the contract. Given that the Department is not a party to the contract, the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, cannot involve herself or interfere in any way with the dispute resolution procedures which are prescribed in the contract and which are proceeding. I share with the Minister of State and the Deputies here today the concern of all that a solution is found and that work can be progressed as quickly as possible.