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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 29 Nov 2012

Vol. 784 No. 4

Topical Issue Debate

Leader Programmes Funding

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this topic. It is necessary to raise the issue because the approval of projects under the Leader element of the rural development programme has been suspended at the Mayo North East Leader Partnership Company. This follows an ongoing investigation into the Mayo North East Leader Partnership Company.

Leader funding has played an important function in the economic and social development of rural Ireland in the lifetime of the funding. It supports hundreds of jobs, some 300 jobs in the case of the Mayo North East Leader Partnership Company. It sustains communities and it is needed now more than ever because of the difficult times. We hear a good deal about how rural communities are suffering and about services being withdrawn. Leader funding is crucial in this regard. The funding comes from Europe but the tap has been turned off and there has been a detrimental effect on various applications in the north and east Mayo areas. I am aware of a grant that has been approved for a youth cafe in Ballyhaunis, while applications relating to the Seosamh Mac Gabhann summer school in Kilmovee, the John Healy weekend in Charlestown and a community centre in Kilkelly have been delayed. This week I was contacted by Ballina Town Council, which expressed its concern at the suspension of funding. There is a mystery or cloud about it and it is important that clarity is provided. This is the reason I am raising the matter today. In addition, rumour and innuendo have been doing the rounds about why the investigation was requested, by whom and why it is taking so long. This is really why I need clarity today.

The big issue is funding. Projects worth almost €2 million are either in the pipeline or ready to be applied for in this region. Approved projects must be paid out while others must be applied for, approved and allocated before the end of 2013. The important thing is that funding is not lost to the region. Everyone understands that there must be strict rules and guidelines and that these must be transparent and above board. The whole affair has dragged on. I am keen to know when the investigation will be completed or, if it is complete, what was the outcome and when will funding be restored to the projects that have been approved.

Funding of €314 million is available under the Leader elements of the rural development programme for allocation to qualifying projects up to the end of 2013. There are 35 local action groups or Leader companies contracted on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to deliver the rural development programme throughout the country. These groups are the principal decision-makers in respect of the allocation of this funding. Such decisions are made in the context of the local development strategy of the individual groups and in line with the operating rules and EU guidelines.

Currently, Leader activities are co-financed by the European Union at a rate of 85% and, accordingly, come within the remit of a strict regulatory regime which requires that each project must be compliant before any funding is awarded by the Leader companies and that the conduct of these companies must be shown to be beyond reproach. Furthermore, the conduct and constitution of the companies must be in accordance with the corporate governance guidelines. These guidelines are designed to assist the companies, sectors and pillars that are involved in supporting and promoting social, enterprise and community development at local level. The provision of public funding to such companies imposes national and EU obligations on the Department to ensure that there is transparency in the receipt, administration and disbursement of such funds. It is essential that the companies are governed by appropriate standards which provide the companies, their directors and other stakeholders, such as the public, the Department and the EU, with a reasonable assurance with regard to the governance arrangements in place.

Mayo North East Leader Partnership Company is the local action group contracted by the Department to deliver both the rural development programme and the local community development programme to the north Mayo area. On foot of correspondence received in 2011 by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, regarding a possible governance issue at Mayo North East Leader Partnership Company, the Minister directed his Department to investigate the matter. This investigation is complex and pending its completion the authority for Mayo North East Leader Partnership Company to approve projects under the Leader elements of the rural development programme was suspended in early March 2012. This will remain the position for the time being. Regretfully, since the required processes relating to the investigation report are ongoing I cannot comment further on the matter at this stage.

I thank the Minister of State for the answer but the problem I have is that there is no timeline. The basic question that required an answer was whether the backlog would be cleared and whether new applications would be opened up soon in order that all the money that can be drawn down is made available. It is important that this issue is clarified for the sake of confidence in the Leader programme and for the sake of the new projects and the communities in the region. I understand Cabinet meetings are under way today and I thank the Minister for State for taking the debate, but I am keen to know when clarification will be published.

Have other investigations like this taken place elsewhere in the country? If so, have they taken as long as this? It is important that everything is absolutely above board but it is also important that allocated funding is made available and can be applied for. Communities are depending on this.

I noted earlier that innuendo has been flying around about who was responsible for whistleblowing and so on.

While the Minister of State may not be able to clarify the matter now, it is important it is clarified because some of the rumours I have heard are untrue. It is important that the truth is established and that the funding is made available as soon as possible. I ask the Minister of State to seek answers to my questions and to revert to me at a later stage if possible.

I thank Deputy O'Mahony for the manner in which he has raised this matter. The Deputy has raised some important issues, which I will bring to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Hogan, for direct reply to him.

It is important that the Minister ensures that the funding programmes are delivered in an efficient and effective manner and in compliance with EU and national requirements. When an issue is identified, a comprehensive process of investigation is required to determine whether the programme is being delivered in the appropriate manner. Obviously, investigations such as this cannot be rushed and must be thorough and complete. They must be seen to be fair and to get to the truth of the matter. I assure the Deputy that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government will act on the recommendation of the investigation as soon as possible and will support the local area and continue to provide resources through the rural development programme into the future. Programmes were suspended in March 2012. This remains the position for the time being. However, as the required processes relating to the investigation board are ongoing, I cannot give any further commitment or comment further at this time. I assure the Deputy that the Minister, Deputy Hogan, will be made aware of his comments.

Airport Development Projects

I understand the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, is otherwise disposed. However, I regret he is not here to take this matter. I am from Mayo, where Ireland West Airport Knock is located. I am gravely concerned for the future of this airport in light of the announcement earlier this year with regard to the separation of Shannon Airport from the Dublin Airport Authority and its amalgamation with Shannon Development, the purpose of which is to make Shannon Airport self-financing. We know that Shannon Airport operates at a significant operational loss year-on-year, to the tune of €8 million. Shannon Airport is key to the future development of the mid-west region. Knock airport, which serves the west and north-west regions, is equally significant, if not more so. Knock airport is a success story. The Minister should not be making decisions which have an anti-competitive effect on Knock airport and ultimately undermine its future viability. The airport operates on a shoestring budget. The three State airports should be benchmarked against Knock airport for efficiencies.

Knock airport was established in 1985 by Monsignor James Horan, whose mantle has been taken up by the trusteeship under which Knock operates and by the people of the area. Some 680,000 passengers will pass through Knock airport this year. Five major airlines serve 25 international routes from the airport. All of this is being done without the financial and regulatory focus the Government has on the State airports. Knock airport does not need to be undermined. The Minister is on the record as saying that it is a role model in terms of efficiencies, how to do business in aviation and how to be competitive and succeed. There is a great emotional attachment to Knock airport in the region, which, more than any other region in the country, has suffered mass emigration. For many years our diaspora were in the international sphere but we were not internationally accessible. However, that was before the construction of Knock airport.

The Minister has stated on many occasions that any development of Knock airport is a matter for the management of the airport because it is a privately owned entity. This is his reason for not having a plan for Knock airport. I do not accept that. Knock airport is run as a trusteeship. Its stated objective is the social and economic development of the region. Unlike any other airport in this country, Knock airport has been funded to the tune of €26 million by the people of the region and its diaspora. It is owned by the people and should be supported into the future. It is a red herring to suggest that this is the reason something cannot be done for Knock airport.

The concerns of the management of Knock airport need to be taken seriously and a plan for the future growth of the airport needs to be worked out. It must be given the same focus shown to Shannon. As a peripheral area competing in a global village for business and tourism, Mayo cannot afford to have its airport undermined going forward. I do not wish to play any part in putting the final nail in the coffin of Knock airport. This problem will not go away.

I am taking this topical issue on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar. Since his appointment, the Minister has set out to rationalise the system of State support for the privately owned regional airports. The Government now has a settled policy with regard to these airports. The Minister has also endeavoured to restructure the State-owned airports and, in particular, to map out the best future for Shannon Airport. All Irish airports should operate to a commercial mandate and the Minister has stressed in the past that regional airports, including Knock airport, must work towards achieving operational viability over the near term. This also applies to the three State Airports. This aim is particularly acute in the current difficult financial and economic situation in which the country finds itself.

Next week, the Minister for Finance will announce budget measures to achieve a further €3.5 billion in savings through expenditure cuts and revenue-raising initiatives. The State has recognised that the six privately owned airports needed financial assistance with their capital and operational costs and substantial amounts of taxpayers' money has been disbursed to them over the years to support their operations, but this could not go on indefinitely. To ensure best use of scarce Exchequer resources, it has already been necessary to cease all funding for the two airports in Galway and Sligo. Subject to funding availability, the other four airports, including Knock, will continue to be eligible for funding up to the end of 2014. In this regard, approval was secured from the European Commission in 2011 to extend the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport's capital expenditure grant scheme for three years to 2014. It is in this context that all airports must work towards sustainability over the coming years, without an ongoing need for Government subvention. Capital funding for these four airports is focused on safety and security projects aimed at ensuring they can comply with the latest national and international aviation safety and security standards. Current funding is split between subvention for PSO air services between Dublin and the two most remote regional airports, Donegal and Kerry, and operational subvention towards the cost of providing core airport services at these airports.

As the Deputy will be aware, following the Government decision last May to separate Shannon Airport from the Dublin Airport Authority group and merge it with a restructured Shannon Development to create a new entity, a steering group of senior officials from five key Departments was established to introduce proposals for the implementation of that decision. The steering group was assisted by two task forces, which submitted their reports for consideration by the steering group earlier this month.

On the basis of the work undertaken by the task force and the steering group, detailed proposals on the restructuring of the State airports and Shannon Development have been submitted to the Government by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. An announcement will be made about this shortly. The task force made a submission to the Department of Finance in the context of the forthcoming budget and it is understood that it suggested a range of potential nationally available incentives that could be considered in support of aviation development in this country. However, as the Deputy is aware, budgetary matters are an issue for the Minister for Finance. Aviation is a key component of all major forms of economic activity in Ireland, in our tourism as well as our business sectors. The measures being taken are based on increasing the overall number of passengers to and from Ireland through increased efficiencies and attracting new aviation business that can have a beneficial national impact. The Minister believes that these measures will form the basis for sound, sustainable airport businesses into the future that will support the growth of these sectors and help drive Ireland's economic recovery.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I find the rationale operating here amazing. We have an airport in Shannon that has been haemorrhaging money. I have no issue with helping out Shannon Airport but I do have an issue with the Government putting at risk an airport that is doing its best on a shoestring budget by intervening in another State airport. I have consistently asked questions about the anti-competitive effect of decisions made in respect of Shannon Airport but have received no answer. If I am asking these questions, the Minister of State can only imagine what the trustees and staff of Knock airport are wondering. I have asked whether there has been any liaison with the European authorities regarding competition law and whether the Government's intervention falls foul of this, but the silence has been deafening. No concrete information is forthcoming, despite the fact that a decision about one airport is having massive ramifications for another.

This situation requires a lot more joined-up thinking, because I cannot see any clear Government airport policy. Before proceeding with the preferred approach for the separation of the Dublin Airport Authority, would it not benefit the Government to clarify its airport objectives? The Government must clarify its desired level of airport competition for the country as a whole, as well as among the current DAA airports. Is it just going to ignore the West as a region? Is it acceptable that we all go to Shannon Airport and undermine Knock airport? I do not think that is acceptable. It is not fair to hide behind the fact that the DAA airports are State airports. Knock airport is a public airport, owned by the people of the area in trust; that is the way it was set up. A lack of consideration of Knock airport by the Government will not wash, because it has the potential to be a strategic aviation hub for us. Without it, the west will be at a significant disadvantage in terms of business and tourism. This matter must be addressed. The issues surrounding competition and the possible illegality of some of the moves the Government appears to be planning must be addressed. Some consolation must be given to Knock airport in this regard and some plan must be drawn up for the airport and for the people of the region.

I agree with Deputy Mulherin that we need a plan for Knock airport and the region, given the importance of the airport to the entire region in terms of tourism and business development. However, any such plan must be sustainable, viable and based on a thorough examination of what pertains in other parts of the country. As I said in my response, a task force has been established which will advise the Minister on the regional airports, whether privately or publicly owned. My understanding is that the task force will report directly to the Minister, who will in due course submit his proposals, if any, to the Government. The points raised by Deputy Mulherin on the importance of Knock airport, not just to County Mayo but to the wider region, are very real and I will make sure the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is fully appraised of the comments she has made.

Student Support Schemes Issues

I had hoped the Minister for Health or one of his Ministers of State would be here.

The Deputy is not the only one.

I have had replies from the Minister to several parliamentary questions on this issue and had hoped the Minister would be here, given that he knows the background to the matter. In any event, I wish to know the up-to-date position regarding the reason for non-payment to third year DIT biomedical science students of the monthly training allowance payable to them while on placement in public health service laboratories. I am raising this on behalf of current and former students of biomedical science at DIT Kevin Street, who used to be paid a monthly allowance for the period of their third year full-time placement, which involves training in public health service laboratories in hospitals. Payment of this allowance was stopped three years ago on the grounds of HSE cutbacks. However, although biomedical science is offered at three third level colleges - namely, DIT, NUI Galway and Cork University - and students of those courses had all previously received the allowance, it was stopped only for the DIT students. Students at the other two colleges still receive the allowance and have done so over the past three years.

It is also worth noting that the Department of Health and Children document on consolidated salary scales for new entrants, effective from 1 January 2011, states that the third year student medical scientist monthly training allowance is €813.58. I am aware that when the allowance was stopped, the issue was raised on behalf of the students by the Medical Laboratory Scientists' Association and, as I mentioned earlier, I have raised it in a number of parliamentary questions, starting in February of this year. I have since put other parliamentary questions to the Minister for Health on this matter, the last of which was in September. I have also written to the Minister on the issue a number of times. In response to my question in February, the Minister stated the following:

Student medical scientists who are in their third year of study and who are accepted for a clinical placement in a public health service laboratory are eligible to receive a monthly training allowance of €813.58. I am making inquiries about the particular issue raised by the Deputy and will correspond with her on the matter as soon as possible.

I have sent a number of follow-up letters to the Minister as well as tabling several parliamentary questions, and in his responses he has told me the matter is receiving attention. It is important that this matter is resolved.

It is also noteworthy that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, in its review of allowances, makes reference to the monthly training allowance paid to third year medical science students. I ask the Minister of State to update me on the investigations the Minister of Health said he was carrying out. What is the reason for this anomaly? Why is it that the DIT students do not receive the allowance but students in the other two colleges do?

On behalf of the Minister for Health, I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, in which she obviously has had a keen interest.

Student clinical placements in the health sector are a feature of training and education in a range of health disciplines. These placements build on the academic training received in colleges and universities and provide students with practical experience of a health service working environment. Clinical placements ensure that graduates are then in a better position to take up employment following graduation. Some placements involve the payment of a salary or allowance, while others do not.

Arrangements for a payment to student medical scientists undertaking clinical placement in hospitals were put in place in the 1980s. These arrangements applied to all hospitals where such placements occur. I understand that in recent years a number of hospitals in the Dublin area discontinued this payment to student medical scientists, primarily on cost grounds.

The Health Service Executive is currently examining this issue with a view to determining which hospitals are involved and the number of students affected. This process will be concluded shortly. It will then inform a decision with regard to future payment of this allowance in the hospitals concerned. Here is the old official line: it would not be appropriate for the Minister or for me to prejudge the outcome of this process. However, the Department of Health has assured me there will be no undue delays in dealing with the matter and that the HSE will be communicating with the hospitals concerned in the very near future.

Deputy Tuffy made a compelling case which cut through the verbiage that one regularly hears on these matters. The HSE needs to get its act together because clearly there is a disparity in the payments issued by the various colleges and hospitals. I am informed by another note that the Department has emphasised to the HSE the need to resolve this issue in light of the fact that the Deputy previously raised it in a parliamentary question as long ago as last year. The fact that it has taken this long to come up with a convincing argument on payments dating back to 1981 suggests a certain inadequacy in decision making, if that is not too bold a comment to make. I understand the Department has asked the HSE to clarify the issue and the latter is investigating which hospitals are involved and the number of students affected. When the HSE comes to a conclusion the Department and the Minister will be informed.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. The students work full-time when they are on placement in hospitals. As a result of the allowance for DIT students, many are required to take on part-time employment in addition to their full-time placements. Clearly, that undermines their ability to work to their full capacity in the hospitals concerned. The Department of Health has stated that the allowance is payable and, similarly, student environmental health officers receive a weekly payment while on placement. Other students such as student nurses are paid substantially more. If the Department sets an allowance, surely it is not for the hospitals themselves to decide whether to pay it. This is an unfair anomaly and it is important that it be addressed. The issue of back-pay also arises for students who did not receive the allowance and as a result incurred significant costs. They expected to be paid the allowance and their peers in NUIG and Cork were paid.

It is absurd that one group of students should receive an allowance of €903.98 per month while, just because the Dublin hospitals have disentangled themselves from it and decided not to provide support, another group of students does not. We either have one system or we do not. Deputy Tuffy has highlighted an important issue. In 2009, the Dublin hospitals that received students from DIT decided to discontinue the payment, but that is not applicable to other hospitals around the country. There is a clear disparity and this is why the Minister has asked for a thorough examination of the issue and a report from the HSE with credible answers and proposals for addressing it. I hope that as a consequence of Deputy Tuffy's raising the issue the students will get answers at the earliest opportunity. It is not good enough that she is still waiting for a concrete answer despite having raised the issue last year.

Vaccination Programme

I would have expressed disappointment that the Minister for Health is not present, but with everything taken into account I may have more confidence in the assurances provided by the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes. The final report of the national narcolepsy study steering committee was published on 19 April 2012. The report was commissioned following concerns about an increase in narcolepsy among those who were administered the swine flu vaccine Pandemrix. The report found that the risk of narcolepsy was 13 times higher among those given the swine flu vaccine than in unvaccinated individuals. At the time of the epidemic, approximately 900,000 people were vaccinated. The report states that symptoms developed between two weeks and 20 months after vaccination and there was increased risk of narcolepsy among young people aged between five and 19 years.

Inevitably, a campaign group was set up to represent families who believe their children have been affected. The group, which is called Sufferers of Unique Narcolepsy Disorder, SOUND, represents more than 30 children and their parents. SOUND has been seeking health and educational supports, as well as a compensation programme. I raise this matter on behalf of the group and I am aware that other Deputies have also raised it by means of parliamentary questions. Correspondence received by my colleague, Senator Thomas Byrne, from the parent of a sufferer describes the difficulties that arise. The correspondence states that the final report of the national narcolepsy study steering committee concluded that the higher incidence of narcolepsy among children and adolescents was associated with vaccination with Pandemrix. The Minister for Health subsequently gave a clear commitment to the members of SOUND that a paper would be presented to the Government prior to the previous summer recess to propose a package of supports for those affected. SOUND was later advised that the paper had been delayed but would be put to the Dáil in September 2012. It was then delayed until October. The most recent communication with SOUND is that a statement will be made by the Minister in the next four to six weeks, with no mention of the proposed paper or further consultation with SOUND. The parent was most disappointed at the lack of follow-up by the Minister and was concerned for the future of his teenage daughter.

Notwithstanding the children's referendum, children with narcolepsy due to a State-sponsored vaccination programme appear to have been forgotten. What does this say about the Government's commitment to children? The correspondent's daughter was vaccinated against the H1N1 virus in November 2009 and, following 18 months of fear, anxiety and misdiagnosis, was conclusively diagnosed with narcolepsy as a result of the vaccination.

This means that for this family the journey began three years ago. The chronic condition is not curable and is managed with lifetime medication, with only limited success. The daughter suffers constantly from narcolepsy and frequently also suffers cataplexy attacks - complete loss of muscle tone - and has recently begun to experience disturbing night terrors. Her quality of life and her ability to fulfil her potential in sport, education and normal social behaviour have all been dramatically diminished by this terrible consequence of the State-promoted vaccination programme. The quality of life of her siblings has also been adversely affected by her condition, as has normal family life. The parent believes that the Minister, his Department and the HSE are reneging on their collective duty and, in particular, on the Minister's personal commitment to this child and the other children, adolescents and young adults, to meet the needs of their particular circumstances.

I thank Deputy Ó Fearghaíl for raising this and for providing me with the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Health and Children, to outline to the House the importance of the issue raised.

The Minister's priority is to ensure that the children and adolescents affected are provided with services and supports to meet their health and medical needs. The Department is working closely with the Health Service Executive and the Department of Education and Skills to address the needs of those affected by narcolepsy following Pandemrix vaccination. The Department is engaged with the support group SOUND, which represents those affected. Meetings have been held by the Minister, Deputy Reilly, and his Department with representatives of SOUND.

The HSE provides a wide range of services and supports to those affected, including access to rapid diagnosis, clear treatment pathways, temporary medical cards and reimbursement of expenses incurred. Multidisciplinary assessments, which allow for appropriate individualised health and educational supports to be put in place, have commenced. The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, is also engaging with the HSE and with the individual schools and parents of children concerned to identify and provide educational supports for the children and adolescents affected.

The Department of Education and Skills has held a number of meetings with SOUND to outline the range of educational supports that may be provided for children with narcolepsy, subject to an assessment of their needs. These supports can include special arrangements at State exams, access to special needs assistant support, additional learning assistance in schools, information for schools regarding this condition and home tuition support for children who have missed a significant amount of time in school due to illness.

A meeting was held recently between SOUND and representatives from the Higher Education Authority national access office and the Department of Education and Skills higher education unit on the issue of assistance that may be made available for young adults with narcolepsy in third level education. Students with narcolepsy may access the disability access route to education, DARE, scheme, which offers enhanced access routes to third level education for pupils with disabilities. Support may also be provided to pupils in colleges through the disability officers at third level colleges. The association for higher education access and disability, AHEAD, group, which works to promote full access to and participation in further and higher education for students with disabilities and to enhance their employment prospects on graduation, will also provide assistance to SOUND on these matters.

The Department of Health is considering all possible supports that may need to be put in place for those affected. Any such supports require the Minister's approval and the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. I assure the House that this matter continues to be a priority for the Minister and the Department of Health.

I appreciate the bona fides of the Minister of State, and if nothing were to come from this discussion other than perhaps a commitment from him to promote this issue with Government, I would be happy.

The response from the Minister lists the supports that are generally available within the health and education systems to children or young people with disabilities. The people in question here are people who are suffering from disabilities as a result of a vaccination given to them by the State. The State has a responsibility to address that situation. The Minister gave the organisation to understand that he would do that. He has given three different timescales for the introduction of a proposal to address the specific needs of those affected, but he has not honoured those commitments.

Having been involved for a number of years with the 33 thalidomide survivors and having heard the commitments made by the Minister, as a Deputy, when he and I served on the health committee in the previous Dáil, I believe the parents of children affected by narcolepsy have little reason to be optimistic the Minister will address their problems if he proceeds along the same lines along which he has proceeded to date in dealing with the survivors of thalidomide. We would, however, have some confidence if we thought the Minister of State would raise, promote and make progress on this matter. We could take some little hope and optimism from this debate based on that.

I thank Deputy Ó Fearghaíl for raising this matter in such a constructive way. He recognises, as does the Government, the State's responsibility to the people who have been affected this way as a result of the vaccination to which he referred. He must also recognise that the response must be multi-departmental, because it involves young people and adolescents who must interact with a number of different services, including health and education services. As a consequence, the issue must be approached in a multi-departmental manner.

On behalf of the Minister for Health and Children, I can assure the Deputy that the Minister is preparing a memorandum for the Government on this issue. I understand the memorandum will set out all of the issues in terms of additional supports required for those affected by narcolepsy. I also understand the memorandum requires the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and that the Department of Health and Children is in contact with the relevant officials in the Department. As Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, I assure the Deputy that I will raise this matter not only with the Minister for Health and Children but also with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin. It seems that in order for a memorandum to come to the Government setting out additional supports for these people, it requires the approval of both of these Ministers, as these supports will require additional funding. I will raise the issue with both Ministers.