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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 6 Nov 2012

Vol. 781 No. 1

Topical Issue Debate

Household Charge Collection

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Perhaps he will tell me when I have reached my two minute limit. It will not come as news to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, that the household charge is necessary and nor will it come as news to him that the household charge is not universally popular. In respect of the latter, I do not suppose the household charge differs from any other form of taxation while, with regard to the former, the Minister will be aware the Government inherited a memorandum of economic and financial policies signed by the previous Government and voted on by every backbench supporter of the that Government, which included a commitment to introduce a new residential property tax. Furthermore, the memorandum of understanding on specific economic policy conditionality, dated 8 December 2010, contained a list of actions to be completed by the end of the third quarter of 2011. These included a commitment that the Government would ensure that effective measures were in place to cap the contribution of the local government sector to general Government borrowing at an acceptable level. In that context, the current Administration introduced a household charge of €100 to fund vital local services. Nevertheless, the manner in which this charge is being collected is making it even more unpopular than it already was and perhaps more unpopular than it needs to be.

At 70% compliance, County Clare has one of the higher compliance levels in the country. Consequently, 70% of the approximately 55,000 households in County Clare have paid, which means that approximately 16,500 households have not paid. It is highly disconcerting for those who have paid it to see equal services still being provided for those who have not paid it. However, it is even more disconcerting for those who have paid it to receive letters asking them to pay it or asking them to provide proof of having paid it to the very authority to which they brought the cheques.

I must ask the Deputy to conclude shortly.

Notwithstanding that only 16,500 households have not paid the charge, 33,000 letters issued last week at a cost to Clare County Council of €15,000, including letters to many who had paid and letters to people who are deceased and long deceased in many instances. People are rightly aggrieved at the manner in which the charge is being administered.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise the issue. Like my colleague who has clearly outlined the issue, I too share the concerns of the Deputy in respect of the very real resource issues that are being used up in this matter and the real difficulties in which some local authorities find themselves as a result of spending money they do not have. I am concerned at the figures provided to me as of Friday afternoon indicating that just under 1.1 million people have paid the household charge or have registered for the exemption but potentially tens of thousands of individuals will be issued with letters or have been issued with letters who have already paid. If I use the example of and the various local authority websites where one can go on-line and type in one's name and address and find oneself relatively simply, surely after 11 months of the charge being in place the Local Government Management Agency and the local authorities could collate the information a little better. It is disappointing, as my colleague mentioned, that after 11 months we are still dealing with ghost addresses, replicated addresses and such abnormalities within a system that has been generated since January, and letters issued to households who paid within the specified time. One gentleman stopped me on the street and then telephoned me to say that he paid on 3 January and showed me the printout of the receipt which showed the time of payment. That is disappointing. I urge the Minister, the Local Government Management Agency, the various local government agencies and the Department to come up with a more practical solution for the several hundred thousand individuals who owe the State the legitimate sum of €127 arising out of legislation passed in the House in a democratic fashion.

In addressing this matter we should begin with first principles.

Ireland is committed, under the EU-IMF programme, to the introduction of a property tax. We must put the funding of locally delivered services on a sound financial footing, improve accountability and better align the cost of providing services with the demand for such services, as Deputy McNamara has rightly pointed out. It was considered, in light of the complex issues involved, that a local property tax would take time to introduce and accordingly to meet the requirements of the EU-IMF programme, the Government decided to introduce a household charge in 2012 as an interim measure.

This was done via the Local Government (Household Charge) Act 2011. Under the Act, an owner of a residential property on the liability date of 1 January 2012 is liable to pay the household charge, unless otherwise exempted or entitled to claim a waiver. The household charge funds local services delivered by local government, services upon which many people depend. However, a sizable number of liable property owners are failing to discharge their legal obligations. Non-compliance by liable owners means reduced resources for local authorities to use to support communities and places a greater burden on those owners who do pay the charge, that is, their neighbours, colleagues and friends. A bureau is in place in the Local Government Management Agency to administer the charge on a shared service-agency basis for all local authorities. The legislation places collection of the charge under the care and management of local authorities. It is a matter for local authorities to use their local knowledge and judgment in issuing reminders to households, and local authorities have been working with the bureau to do so.

For my part I expect the local government system to pursue actively those liable owners who are simply refusing to pay. I fully support the local authorities in seeking to encourage compliance by liable property owners with the Oireachtas legislation.

There was no comprehensive database of residential properties and owners prior to the household charge being introduced. It is a sad reflection on the State that we could not say who owned property. The collection of the household charge via self-assessment declaration provides for the collation of such information in relation to residential property. This work is an essential element for the effective implementation of the local government tax in 2013 and it is in everybody's interest that this work continues.

Local authorities are continuing to identify undeclared properties through appropriate data sharing provisions outlined in the 2011 Act. Strenuous efforts have been made to match self-declared information with other datasets and in refining the resulting data. The letters being issued by local authorities are based on information provided by the Property Registration Authority. Such datasets are imperfect. As Deputy McNamara is aware from his legal background in some cases the information may not have been updated with the most relevant or recent details. In other cases address formats vary from dataset to dataset. As a consequence of names and addresses having been entered and recorded differently in computer systems, and of the same addresses appearing in different formats from dataset to dataset, members of the public have received letters from local authorities in error. I appreciate that the receipt of a letter in such circumstances is an irritation to those who have already paid. The Local Government Management Agency has had great difficulty in getting access in good information and has had to spend a considerable amount of time in dealing with other public bodies to get agreement and protocols in places to comply with the Data Protection Act to ensure people's rights and responsibilities and privileged information is not made available to, perhaps, competitors particularly in the public utilities.

Any person who has received a letter in error need only contact the Household Charge Bureau - I recognise it causes inconvenience to do so - and the issue will be dealt with. Similarly, liable owners who are experiencing other difficulties should contact their local authority or the bureau.

I do not disagree with anything the Minister has said but it is more than an irritation to receive those letters: for some it is a source of worry. My parents received such a letter and were very worried that they had a tax liability. I know several people who are upset because they received letters in respect of people who had died. There is a register of births, marriages and deaths in the country. I wonder whether that is one of the databases that has been cross-referenced. There is also the issue of letters being sent to many people in the same household when, of course, there is only one household charge to be paid, in instances where even that one has been paid.

The Minister mentioned my legal background. On that basis I would be interested to find out what was the legal basis for compelling finance officers in local authorities across the country. I do not expect the Minister has an answer to that question now but perhaps the legal basis for instructing local government officials to send out these letters could be outlined by way of a letter at a later date. Furthermore, I understand that councils were instructed by correspondence on 2 July that three letters were to issue and the dates on which they were to issue. The first letters have gone out and, as Deputy Farrell pointed out, have caused annoyance, worry and grief in many instances. Perhaps these errors could be amended and rectified in advance of the second and third batch of letters going out.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. I wish to make two points. The first is a remark made by the chief executive of the Local Government Management Agency last week that householders who do not notify the agency - this is on the assumption that they are receiving a letter in error - will receive a second letter and technically could face a penalty. Clearly, if an individual has paid his or her household charge he or she will not face a penalty but I am confused and concerned as to the use of the word "technically" in the statement which would suggest that a person would have a liability even if they have paid, just because the system is not as it should be. I agree with the Minister that in 2012 it is a damning indictment of recent governments that we do not have a full record of home ownership. The second is the number of households that will continue to receive letters incorrectly. The Local Government Management Agency estimates that 400,000 letters are to issue, with some 10% to receive that letter in error.

I thank those who have made the contribution. Some 67% of people have paid this new charge, the highest level of compliance ever. I want to put on record my appreciation of the fact that, despite the provocation by and protests of individuals, the people of Ireland want to be legally compliant.

There is no easy way to put heads together and cross-check data. The Property Registration Authority, PRA, the Land Registry, ESB, Bord Gáis and other utilities are available to the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA, albeit approximately four months later than expected, to help in discharging its responsibility to send out accurate information. By law, this charge is in the care of the local authorities. They should have screened the list better to ensure that, for example, entire estates did not receive letters if just one or two residents had not paid. Better administrative practices could have limited some of the irritation to which I referred and which was felt by Deputy McNamara's parents. The local authorities' management of the charge is important.

Deputy Farrell asked about people who were technically liable. If the LGMA is not told that someone has paid, how is it supposed to know whether it has sent out letters in error? This self-assessment scheme is voluntary and many people have shown goodwill and complied with the law. Unfortunately, we are indulging on their patience once again. It is an irritant, but we are trying to ensure a clean database that is fully operational in terms of data sets for the future local property tax. Notwithstanding the fact that it is an irritant to receive a bill when payment has already been made, it is necessary to ensure a proper and accurate database.

Fire Service Issues

As the Minister is probably aware, a panel was established by the Dublin Fire Brigade in 2007. Thousands of individuals were interviewed and went through standard recruitment procedures and tests. Some 190 people were placed on the panel. In total, the recruitment process cost €300,000. Of the 190 people placed, 83 were formally recruited into the system.

In February 2012, the panel was scrapped. In a letter to one of the recruits who had been on the panel, the fire service executive manager, Mr. Gerry Geraghty, stated that the panel had been scrapped due to the difficult economic circumstances. Mr. Geraghty stated, "The decision to terminate the Panel was not taken lightly and we understand the time and effort put in by applicants. Unfortunately Dublin Fire Brigade, like all public services, have been particularly affected by the economic downturn". As such, the panel was abandoned.

More recently, Dublin City Council management has agreed to fill 53 of the city's 80 outstanding vacancies within the terms of the Croke Park agreement. Undoubtedly, the gaps in the service need to be filled. However, it is astonishing that management has decided to embark on a new external recruitment procedure to fill 28 of the 53 vacancies. Given the fact that €300,000 of public money has already been spent to establish a panel of qualified, able and willing people interested in serving as firefighters, it is baffling that management would take it upon itself to open a new process. I have called on Dublin City Council's management to review this decision, to abandon any notion of another costly recruitment drive and to offer the 28 places to the 100 persons remaining on the old panel.

When the Minister rises, I suspect his reply will be to the effect that this is a matter for Dublin City Council and that he can do nothing about it. Given the amount of public money spent to date, I urge him to play a hands-on role. Capable and qualified recruits have been identified to undertake this important work. In these difficult economic circumstances, to cite Mr. Geraghty, there is no excuse or rationale for Dublin City Council being allowed to spend more taxpayers' money on another recruitment process.

As the Deputy knows, I do not expect anyone, be that person a Minister or not, to micromanage local authority services. I expect management to do that in every local authority area. The provision of fire services is a matter for Dublin City Council as a fire authority under the Fire Services Act 1981. The Deputy is asking me to interfere on the one hand and, on the other, to devolve power and responsibility so that local authorities can do their business properly.

Under section 159 of the Local Government Act 2001, each county and city manager is responsible for staffing and organisational arrangements. While overall staffing requests are sanctioned by the Department, the issue raised is a matter for Dublin City Council. It has been raised previously and I understand where Deputy McDonald is coming from, but the panel had been in place for four years and was only terminated at the end of last year. That is quite a long time to have a panel. Other people who want the chance to be employed by Dublin City Council as fire officers should expect to have the opportunity to apply for those posts.

Notwithstanding the moratorium that has been in place for some time, Dublin City Council has received sanction to fill 53 posts. However, my Department has not yet received a formal sanction request for the 28 posts to which the Deputy referred. All Dublin City Council requests to date have been sanctioned. Perhaps the Deputy might be able to inquire into this matter in her representations to Dublin City Council.

For operational purposes, there is a sharing of services between a number of fire authorities in Dublin. The Dublin Fire Brigade, staffed by 876 full-time firefighters, provides a fire and emergency response service to some 1.2 million people. While local authority staffing levels have been reducing across the country, the number of Dublin Fire Brigade personnel has been protected.

I suspected the Minister would say that.

The Deputy was right.

I am not asking him to micromanage anything - far from it. However, I note that the Minister has no problem with wading in as and when it suits him.

Such as when?

In this instance, the Minister does not need to micromanage or investigate anything. He knows the facts. Some €300,000 has already been spent on a recruitment process and a panel was established that, as the Minister rightly pointed out, was in place for many years. Will the Minister intervene and write to, telephone or make a friendly suggestion to the management concerned to the effect that it is not prudent and does not represent a good use of public money to set up an alternative recruitment process? It is that straightforward.

My information is that, of the 53 posts, 28 will be filled by an external recruitment process. I am interested to learn that the Department has not received a formal approach in this regard. The Minister should have a conversation or write a letter to the management concerned.

Bear in mind that those who went through the very rigorous procedure to get on the panel had a legitimate expectation that as and when vacancies arose they would be considered and placed. They have had that expectation dashed. In a two-fold way, the Minister said he cannot stand over, and that they should not stand over, further spending of public moneys and that at a minimum those already on the panel should be given the option to go forward for these positions. This is not about micro-management but about asking the Minister to be a common sense kind of Cabinet Minister.

I am sure there will be sufficient recognition of the fact that, notwithstanding the massive reduction in staffing in various local authority services, the staffing levels of the Dublin fire service is protected. In terms of the overall numbers deployed for fire services in Dublin, we are protecting the numbers so that should be considered in this.

That is not my question.

I am coming to the Deputy's question but she has not acknowledged the fact that we are in a bailout-----

We could have a very long debate on that issue and on the adequacy of cover.

We are in a recession and in a bailout programme and the Deputy should acknowledge the fact that fire services in Dublin and staffing are being protected. We work very closely with local authorities in regard to the overall numbers. People who were on the panel can apply for these posts, as can others. Four years is long enough to have a panel. I encourage the people who were on the panel originally to apply for these posts.

In the context of a moratorium on public service numbers, Dublin City Council is doing exceptionally well to get sanction for further numbers in respect of a very important service, namely, the fire service.

Crime Levels

I express my disappointment that the Minister for Justice and Equality is not here because this issue started off as an oral question which was incorrectly disallowed. I was, therefore, given priority for-----

I beg the indulgence of the Deputy to explain that the Minister for Justice and Equality was attending the funeral of Mr. David Black in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Minister. I express my apologies.

The Minister, Deputy Hogan, is taking this issue.

I appreciate that this topical issue has been chosen. Following several parliamentary questions and some media attention on the matter, statistics from the CSO show that there has been a significant drop in the number of convictions for white collar crime since 2003. Given everything that has happened over those years, I find it disturbing and have raised this as a topical issue because the people deserve an answer as to why this has happened and an assurance that people who engage in white collar crime are pursued and punished with the full force of the law.

The statistics provided by the CSO show that for a certain number of white collar crimes, specifically fraud, deception and false pretence offences, falsification of accounts, offences under the Companies Act, offences under the Investment Intermediaries Act, offences under the Stock Exchange Act, moneylaundering, embezzlement, fraud against the European Union and corruption involving public officeholders, the conviction rate has halved over the past decade.

I am sure the Minister will agree this is alarming. He may say there is a discrepancy in the way crimes are recorded and that there may be a time lag but I do not believe this argument stands up. Even after one takes this into account, it still does not explain why the conviction rate has fallen so much in seven years. For example, the average conviction rate for the three years to 2010 is less than half the conviction rate in 2004.

An article in The Sunday Business Post in early October put it in even blunter terms in that almost nine out of every ten white collar crimes committed in Ireland in recent years failed to result in a conviction. It went on to show, based on these figures, that white collar crime is growing in Ireland but convictions are falling. Again, I must stress that the average conviction rate for the three years to 2010 was less than half of what it was in 2004. This needs to be tackled urgently.

As the Minister knows, the people are seething that so much white collar crime goes unpunished while, at the same time, ordinary criminals go to prison for stealing from supermarkets and for burglaries. I put it to the Minister that it would be very good for the public and for our democracy for it to be shown that white collar crime is pursued and punished with the same rigor of the law as any other form of theft or crime. From these figures, it is clear that this is not happening.

We cannot have one law for the rich and another for the poor. I know the Minister for Justice and Equality agrees with this general contention of mine and I welcome the fact he recently ushered in new legislation to strengthen the hand of the Garda in tackling white collar crime. I also know that we, as legislators, cannot interfere with the Office the Director of Public Prosecutions or the operation of the courts but for the sake of justice and to re-establish faith in our judicial system, we must see greater levels of conviction for white collar crime.

When one thinks about it, if the conviction rate for other forms of crime was as low as it is for white collar crime, there would most likely be anarchy on the streets with criminals running entire areas at a whim. Is it any wonder that Ireland was described as the wild west of European finance during the bubble? Based on these figures, it should not surprise anyone. Let us put an end to this and ensure that those who commit white collar crime are in fear of the law, are pursued by the law and punished by the law just as every other criminal should be.

Again, I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality who was at a very important and sad event in Northern Ireland today.

I understand that.

On behalf of the Minister, I thank Deputy Dowds for raising this important matter and assure him the Minister attaches the highest priority to the investigation and detection of white collar crime and to ensuring that An Garda Síochána has available to it the necessary legislative and other supports to this end. I, too, share Deputy Dowds's genuine concern regarding this matter.

Within eight weeks of taking up office, the Minister moved urgently to draft additional legislation which was enacted on 2 August last year as the Criminal Justice Act 2011. This Act provides vital assistance to An Garda Síochána in the completion of current white collar crime investigations as well as providing assistance to it for investigations to be undertaken in the future.

Moreover, the Minister is being briefed on an ongoing basis by the Garda Commissioner on the progress of the major white collar crime investigations which are under way. The Minister has sought and received assurance at all times that the necessary resources and expertise are available to An Garda Síochána to effectively investigate these matters.

As Deputy Dowds will be aware, charges have been brought against a number of persons under the Companies Act 1963 arising from the investigations into Anglo Irish Bank. Further directions are awaited from the Director of Public Prosecutions in regard to the other strands of the investigation. A full Garda team remains assigned to the investigation to conduct necessary follow up and other inquiries. The Deputy will appreciate that the important thing now is that nothing be said which would in any way risk the possibility of prejudicing any current or future criminal proceedings.

The Minister is aware that the Deputy has previously raised the question of conviction rates in the context of white collar crime and believes that great care should be taken in comparing conviction rates between different years. The investigation, detection and prosecution of any offence may take a number of years. This is particularly so where the crime may be complex, as is often the case in fraud and white collar crime offences. Accordingly, the initial conviction rate for any given year will inevitably appear lower than the eventual rate.

In particular, the figures produced by the CSO should not be read as a final picture with respect to all investigations or prosecutions but rather a snapshot of proceedings at a particular point in time. The most recent published figures for detections and convictions in 2010 are a snapshot of the position as it stood in October 2011 and more detections and convictions will naturally have occurred since then.

The investigation and detection of fraud offences poses particular challenges for investigators when compared with crimes against the person and this is the general experience internationally. In the case of a once-off fraud committed against a consumer, the offence may only become apparent to the victim some time after the event and there may be very little information to help identify the culprits. In the case of online frauds, those responsible may be located overseas. In regard to more complex fraud and financial investigations, the sheer volume of material to be investigated means that it takes much longer to bring these offences to trial than with some other crime categories.

However, the Minister would note that according to the latest CSO figures, 51% of all fraud offences recorded in 2010 had been detected by October 2011 and in those cases where proceedings had commenced, there had already been convictions in 46% of instances. While our crime recording systems are not directly comparable, it is illustrative of the challenges faced to note that the detection rate for fraud offences in England and Wales for 2010-11 is given as 24%.

Notwithstanding these challenges, the Minister is determined that perpetrators be brought to justice. He has taken concrete steps to ensure that An Garda Síochána has the necessary supports to carry out such investigations and has made it clear that any additional legislative proposals the Garda Commissioner may have in this regard will be positively considered.

I accept that the Minister for Justice and Equality takes this subject seriously and, as was said in the reply, that he will ensure the relevant authorities have adequate resources to tackle white collar crime effectively. However, an issue came to my attention today. I have asked a number of people how many accountants, solicitors and barristers are working for the Garda fraud squad. People have offered various guesses but the answer is none. This is a matter of great concern. It is commonsense that if one wishes the Garda to be effective in tackling white collar crime, it must have the appropriate expertise. This must be addressed. I am glad to see the Minister, Deputy Hogan, taking notes as it is important that they are passed on to the Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter.

It is important that this expertise is made available to the fraud squad so it can effectively tackle white collar crime. If it does not have such expertise, it will be unable to bring these criminals to justice. I accept the Minister's statement that it is much more difficult to tackle this type of crime than other forms of crime. In an effort to be constructive and helpful, has the Minister given consideration to the suggestion put forward by Mr. Frank Daly, chairman of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal? He gave me the information about the lack of accountants, solicitors and barristers in the Garda fraud squad. He has suggested that, considering there are large numbers of unemployed or under-employed solicitors and barristers, they should be recruited to the fraud squad or the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement to deal with the increasing incidence and complexity of white collar crime. It is a good and constructive suggestion and it should be seriously considered. If the Minister could strengthen the hand of the Garda in tackling white collar crime, he would be doing a tremendous service to the Irish people and the Republic. I know that would be his general intention.

The Minister attaches high priority to the investigation of white collar crime and he has taken concrete steps in the short time since being appointed Minister to ensure the Garda Síochána has the legislative and other tools to deal with this effectively. I also indicated that the latest Central Statistics Office data do not reflect a decline in the effectiveness of Garda investigations. There is a time lag in respect of getting the statistics in line with what is happening. However, I accept what Deputy Dowds said about the professional expertise that is required to deal with white collar crime. I will bring the matter to the Minister's attention to see if it is possible for people with a legal or accountancy background, or whatever professional supports are required, to have their skills brought to bear to deal effectively with these crimes. It will bring fairness into the system, as people do not wish to differentiate between petty crime and the very serious white collar crime outlined by the Deputy.

Student Grant Scheme Payments

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue. The Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, scheme was launched this year. It was an innovative and welcome move to establish what is effectively a one-stop-shop for grant applications, where the application can be made quickly and on-line. However, there have been some teething difficulties with the start-up and implementation of that system for support and grant applications.

Some of the people who have called to my office to outline the issues that are affecting them have been waiting a long time for information and, indeed, payment of their grant. It is now November and, as most people who have attended university or any third level institution know, the costs mainly occur in September when one must pay a deposit for accommodation and pay for books, clothes, stationery and so forth to get started. This is particularly the case for first years because they are starting in a completely new realm of education. Some of the delays are causing real hardship in terms of paying for rent, fuel bills, books and so forth. It is putting huge pressure on student assistance funds, as I have seen at National University of Ireland, NUI, Galway and the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT.

The Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, is a graduate of the wonderful university NUI Galway and he will be aware that the university caters for a large part of the west, which is more disadvantaged than the east and therefore has a greater number of students dependent on grants to fund their university education. The same is true for GMIT. As a representative of a very student orientated city, I ask that the delays taking place, which are causing such hardship in Galway and across the country, be tackled by the Department and the Minister's office to ensure that everything is done to alleviate the problems and clear the backlog. Account should be taken of the hardship being suffered by students at a very traumatic time for many, when they have just left home for a new experience in a new educational environment. This money is badly needed. The people who receive grants are, by definition, from backgrounds of lower economic means so they need the money even more.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for ensuring this very important topic was put on the Dáil's agenda. At the outset, I will refer to what the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, said when he launched the new central grants authority, SUSI, on 12 June last. He told us the process is quick and easy, that students did not have to decide on their college course before applying and that they would be informed much more quickly on the outcome of their application. He pointed out that many students had been obliged to wait for lengthy periods for their grants in the past and faced undue hardship as a result of such delays. Now, he said, once the application was approved, students would receive monthly electronic fund transfers into their bank accounts during the academic year. He said it was an excellent example of public sector reform, and that these reforms would ensure better customer service for all students who rely on grants.

Where is the Minister today and where has he been for the last number of weeks, when this new grants authority he established failed to deliver? Students across the country have been left without grants and, in fact, are wondering whether they will receive them. We regularly see the Minister stepping up to the podium when there is a big announcement or launch to be made. However, where is he when we require follow through and delivery of his big announcements? Unfortunately, of the 66,000 students that applied there are 50,000 still waiting to hear whether they will even be awarded the grant, let alone be paid. Where has the Minister been during these months while this crisis has been growing? He is nowhere to be seen or heard. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, but it is unfortunate that the Minister is not here. I do not mind if he is abroad because he has not been seen for months to deal with this issue. It is past time that there was some action on it.

In his first comments on this issue yesterday, in correspondence to Deputies, the Minister informed us that he is establishing a contact line for Deputies to contact SUSI about grant applications. The first time we have heard from him, therefore, is when his backbenchers are getting on his back about what is happening here. His response is to set up a telephone line for them. What about the 50,000 students throughout the country who do not know whether they are going to get a grant and, given the way this has been handled, who will very likely still not receive it until after Christmas? I hope the Minister of State will have some news about how this problem will be resolved quickly. The Minister telling us he feels bad about it will not be much consolation for the 50,000 students who are currently trying to put themselves through college and who cannot even get an answer as to whether they will receive a grant.

I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, who is travelling to Brussels on Government business. I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter. A new, fully centralised student grant application system was launched on 11 June and is being operated by a central grant awarding authority, the Student Universal Support Ireland, which is known by the wonderful acronym SUSI and which has been established as a unit of the city of Dublin VEC. Until last year, students applied to 66 local authorities and VECs for grant assistance. This is the first time the centralised approach has been taken in the history of the State. Deputies are aware of the difficulties with which these bodies had been dealing with the major increase in numbers applying for student grants in recent years. The new facility automates and replaces the previous manual application arrangements with a centralised online system application for all new grant applications nationwide from this academic year onwards. The system has been designed in such a way as to guide students interactively through the application process. Under the old system, the majority of third level students were paid by cheque, a costly and inefficient way of making payments. Under SUSI, students will be paid monthly directly into their bank accounts. This leads to all SUSI grant applicants in an institution receiving payments in the same way, by electronic funds transfer.

SUSI has received in excess of 66,000 completed applications for student grants this year. Some 18,000 applications are complete, including 9,000 applications that have been refused and 9,000 applications that have been awarded or awarded pending submission of final course details by the student. In addition, SUSI is awaiting documentation from students for 21,000 applications. The remaining 27,000 applications are on hand for processing. SUSI is aiming to award and pay all successful applicants before the end of December, which represents a significant improvement on the previous system in many parts of the country. To date, some 6,528 new students have been awarded maintenance or fees only grants. A maintenance grant has been awarded to 2,190 students, and some 3,729 students are awaiting a maintenance payment. The payment of the student grant is contingent on the supply of bank account details by the student, together with confirmation of registration from the institution attended. Payments for new students commenced on 19 October, and SUSI will continue to run weekly payments during November to ensure students receive their first payments as soon as possible. It is inevitable that a late rush of applications will cause delays in a student grant processing system and the subsequent payment of student grants. My Department is continuing to monitor the situation in close consultation with SUSI, which is working with the Union of Students in Ireland to encourage students to submit outstanding documentation. SUSI is also constantly seeking to improve the information available online and from its helpdesk, e-mail and telephone services.

I welcome the statement by the Minister of State that SUSI intends to have all payments finished by December. It is a positive note and one in which people can have confidence. I ask that the Minister of State gives an assurance that the December deadline will be adhered to and monitored to ensure SUSI is on course. Some 27,000 applications still on hand amounts to 40% of all applications that have not yet been touched. From what I am hearing, it takes a long time for people to be asked for further information. I understand the system is new and has teething difficulties, but people are experiencing major difficulties and it is imperative we stick to the deadline of having every payment completed by Christmas.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, which he made in a calm manner. No amount of sweet talking will change the reality students are facing. The Minister of State outlined that 18,000 decisions have been made on the 66,000 applications, with 9,000 refused and 9,000 people informed that the grants they applied for will be paid. Not all of the 9,000 have been paid. I resent how the Minister of State is trying to put the blame on students. He told us that 21,000 of the remainder are awaiting documentation. I put it to the Minister of State that it is not the fault of the students. The system set up by the Minister of State and the Minister for Education and Skills is unable to deal with the job it has been given. In many cases, students were not informed until very recently of the additional documentation required. What is the Minister of State saying about the rest, apart from the 21,000 awaiting documentation? All that is happening is that the applications are being checked. The Minister of State expects 40% of them to be sent back to students because of incomplete documentation. That tells us it is not the students' fault but the fault of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, who is nowhere to be found as the problem is turning into a crisis.

Deputy Nolan and I are being told the applications may be processed by Christmas. How will the applications be processed by Christmas if the Minister of State is expecting 40% of those yet to be checked will be sent back? This is a mess and the feeble response from the Minister of State and the response of the senior Minister, going hiding, gives me little confidence the problem will be sorted out. The Minister of State should sit down with the senior Minister and get this under control as quickly as possible. Students are scraping by in college and their futures in college are in jeopardy because of the way the Government has handled this. I hope for a stronger response and a plan to get grants to students as quickly as possible.

SUSI is awaiting documentation on 21,000 applications. Some 15,000 students have not responded to requests for documentation and a further 6,000 have submitted incomplete documentation. I acknowledge the remaining 27,000 applications are on hand for processing-----

The Minister will send back 40%.

No amount of rhetorical flourish, rhetoric or nonsense from a Fianna Fáil Deputy will change the fact that SUSI has the administrative responsibility for the area.

Is it nonsense? It would suit the Minister of State better to sort out the problem.

There was broad political support for the idea of having one centralised system because of the lag times, which were even later within the 66 local authorities heretofore. In the first year of the roll-out of the new system, one always gets glitches-----

It was never as bad as it is now.

-----but the main point is that students eligible for grants will be paid. There is no question about it. The Department brought in the USI as a stakeholder in the process to act as a moderator on to engage with students through the process.

More staff should have been brought in to deal with it.

I take the points made by the Deputies that 27,000 applications are outstanding and should be expedited. An additional 20 staff members are processing the documentation received from students, and extra staff have also been assigned to SUSI head office to work on continually improving the processes and speeding up processing times. I ask for common sense to deal with this calmly and rationally, not to seek to score political points. The system will change and, unless the Deputy opposite is saying we should unravel the system and go back to the 66 local authorities, we should continue to improve the system. That is what we are doing.