Topical Issue Debate

Local Authority Housing Provision

I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important topic. Historically, one of the prime responsibilities of a local authority was to house people who, through no fault of their own, could not afford to rent houses and apartments in the private sector and get their feet on the property ladder. Owing to the economic slowdown, the local authorities cannot afford to pursue traditional methods of servicing their obligations. In the past they used their land stocks, built houses appropriate to their needs and were then in a position to allocate them to those on their housing lists.

I realise the needs of each local authority differ but, recently, because of the lack of capital funding, they have all become reliant on the private sector to provide the housing they need. The situation has changed drastically since I was a member of Kilkenny County Council. The rental accommodation scheme, RAS, has helped enormously in providing social housing for local authorities and housing agencies. Given the current economic situation, this is likely to continue for some time.

The property tax has been brought in by the Government to try to make local authorities more self-sufficient and less reliant on funding from central government in order that they can look after local issues with local money and, in some ways, replace the old rates system. Today, local authorities, housing agencies and approved voluntary bodies do not have the funds to deliver the level of service they once did and, as a result, they are in danger of failing in their obligations, which may leave them open to legal challenges. We are once again experiencing a mismatch of housing need and housing stock. These bodies cannot access the capital they need and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government does not have the funds required under the traditional capital assistance scheme or the loan and subsidy grant scheme. In addition, the leasing initiative combined with the capital advance leasing facility, CALF, scheme, are not providing the finance for all the voluntary bodies.

The result is that all the agencies and the local authorities are reliant on the private sector to provide the housing units that are needed. The proposed transfer of the RAS to local government will only increase this reliance on the private sector. It is also worth noting that what used to constitute a family home years ago has changed significantly. Many families live in flats and apartments and there are many single parent families. There is no one size fits all scenario anymore and this provides a greater challenge.

Property charges will have to be paid by everyone, including those who engage with the county councils to make housing available.

This brings me to the nub of the problem. We must incentivise landlords, who prefer to rent in the private sector. The introduction of the property tax is bringing this issue into sharp focus. Landlords prefer to rent to private tenants so that they can increase rents and offset them against their incomes. When this is not possible, landlords simply rent in the private sector and will not engage with local authorities. I am trying to be proactive and deal with this issue before it becomes a crisis.

This week, my office took a huge number of calls from people who cannot get housing. Some are not earning enough to rent in the private sector but are earning too much to qualify for rent allowance. This situation is getting worse and is causing great stress to people. We must start acting now.

I thank Deputy Phelan for raising this matter and for her proactive approach to it. As she, rightly, points out, the pressure on housing budgets means that we must do more with less. Capital budgets for housing have been decreasing over the past five years.

The Government's housing policy statement, published in June 2011, reaffirms our focus on meeting the most acute needs of households applying for social housing support from within the resources available. Our social housing programme is framed in a manner that optimises the delivery of social housing and the return for the resources invested. We are tailoring the use of available Exchequer supports to prevailing conditions and exploring the full range of solutions to address housing needs. Delivery is being significantly facilitated through more flexible funding models such as the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and leasing, but we are also developing other funding mechanisms that will increase the supply of permanent new social housing.

Deputy Phelan has correctly highlighted the challenges faced by local authorities in accessing appropriate properties with which to address social housing need in their areas. Traditional models of large-scale local authority social housing construction are, unfortunately, not feasible in the current economic circumstances, which is why the housing policy statement recognises that the approved housing body sector must play a key role in addressing social housing need.

The Government is committed to exploring and developing such funding mechanisms as will increase the supply of new social housing. Such mechanisms will include options to purchase, build to lease, and the sourcing of loan finance by approved housing bodies for construction and acquisition. The Deputy referred to the CALF scheme, for example, on which we are working with the voluntary approved housing body sector.

In this regard, I am conscious that the move from capital funded programmes of construction and acquisition by approved housing bodies to more revenue funded options presents challenges. I am therefore developing an enabling regulatory framework for the sector that will provide support and assurance both to the sector itself and to its external partners as it takes on the expanded role envisaged for it by Government and will underline its status as a viable and attractive investment opportunity for financial institutions.

My Department is actively working with the sector on the development of a voluntary code which I expect most bodies will endorse. This code, which I hope to launch in the coming months, will serve as a learning opportunity for the sector and for my Department as we develop a longer-term statutory framework that will best support the enhanced role of approved housing bodies. I am satisfied that the widened range of schemes to facilitate social housing delivery and the innovative approach being adopted will enable us to maximize the delivery of social housing within the very burdensome current financial constraints.

The importance of a housing sector built on the pillars of choice, fairness and equity across tenures, is central to the approach being taken by the Government to the housing sector. Providing local authorities and approved housing bodies with a suite of options that can be tailored to meet different categories of housing need is central to the Government's policy approach. I recognise that much of the Government strategy involves the voluntary housing sector but much of it depends on the co-operation of private landlords. The issue the Deputy raised is one I am conscious of. We want to do whatever we can to ensure that we have the co-operation of private landlords through the leasing programme and RAS. Although not directly under my Department, rent supplement is also a major area where housing is provided by the private sector. I am working with the Minister for Social Protection to transfer responsibility for that to my Department and to local authorities.

I thank the Minister of State for her response and for being proactive on this issue. I am pleased she is so aware of the difficulties that exist. We must incentivise private landlords to remain engaged with local authorities so that a crisis does not develop.

Many young people who are setting out in life, who may have just got their first job and are trying to establish a family home often find they cannot afford to rent accommodation. They may be a little over the income limit for rent allowance and in danger of becoming homeless. This situation seems crazy when there are so many vacant houses. Will those houses be delivered to local authorities? I hate to think we will continue into the future unable to match our housing stock to our housing needs. Housing policy must be based on housing need.

I thank the Minister of State. I am pleased with her answer and I am delighted to hear she will proceed with this.

There is always a balance to be struck between incentivising private landlords and being prudent with public money. We must get that balance right.

Deputy Phelan referred to vacant houses. We are working with NAMA to acquire properties that can be used for social housing through that agency. We are making some progress on that now. There were some delays but NAMA has now set up what is called a special purpose vehicle to speed the transfer of properties. That will not solve the entire problem but it will contribute to the solution.

We must continue to use the mechanisms available to us. I hope the time is not too far away when capital budgets can be built up again and we can return to the more traditional method of allocating funding to local authorities to provide directly for the housing needs of citizens. At present, we must prioritise the most needy. They are people with disabilities and people who are elderly or homeless. Those are the public housing priorities at present. We must use these various methods.

Deputy Phelan is describing a real problem which she has experienced in her constituency and which other Deputies have experienced in theirs.

Remedial Works in Housing Estates

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me time to discuss the important issue of the ongoing position at Gleann Riada Estate in County Longford. I ask the Minister of State with responsibility for housing to provide a detailed update on the remedial works being carried out at Gleann Riada, for which funding was allocated by her Department last November, and the progress on the practical alleviation of the problems being experienced by the residents. Indeed, these have been well documented.

The allocation of €200,000 for the remedial works at Gleann Riada last November was welcome. However, the estate was built on a flood plane, the sewerage network is inadequate and substandard, and poison gas has been escaping into family homes, which is extremely serious. Unless the Minister of State can give me facts to set my concerns at rest, the allocation of €200,000 and the €90,000 provided last August will not be enough and further funding will be needed, notwithstanding the additional funding from the developer's bond.

It could, however, be a case of throwing good money after bad. It is self-evident that if residents have moved into an estate they did not realise was built on a flood plain, they will be the victims of ongoing and perhaps unsolvable problems. Explosions in a residential estate would certainly shake the confidence of home owners and Gleann Riada experienced this horror twice last year, in March and October.

The ongoing problems in the estate are well documented and compounded by the lack of public transport and deficiencies in the estate's roads. What we now see is the result of greed fostered by section 23 tax exemptions that were availed of by the estate's developer. Unfortunately, while he gained, the residents certainly have not. With the suspicion that the explosions were caused by leaking sewer gases from a substandard sewerage network, the residents must feel the anxiety that comes form living in the vicinity of an active volcano. Connected to this are the high illness rates among residents, which are well documented by local GPs and which are well above the norm for other estates. Longford County Council has admitted there have been health hazards and that the levels of hydrogen sulfide in three houses exceeded the WHO recommended levels for indoor air for 24 hour exposure.

Most citizens are currently living through an economic nightmare. The residents of the Gleann Riada estate, like others, have their financial and personal problems, but we can only imagine the stress of living in a housing nightmare on top of other worries. I am seeking assurances from the Minister of State that the residents of Gleann Riada will not be fobbed off with patch-up works that will not solve their problems in the long term. They must have a finished estate where they can have full confidence or they must be moved to a more viable location and safer housing.

I must question the planning process that saw permission granted for this estate from hell on a flood plain. Problems will manifest themselves in the future if not in the short term. It is sometimes hard to believe we actually have a planning process that is considered competent. I hope the Minister of State will provide facts and figures and details of the works carried out at Gleann Riada that will ensure the housing and the environment are totally safe for the residents. My personal feeling is that Gleann Riada will never totally overcome the deficiencies that have beset it.

I thank Deputy Bannon for raising this matter. Two explosions occurred in the Gleann Riada development in March and October of last year, the first in a privately owned dwelling, the second involving an external boiler. Subsequent to the first explosion, Longford County Council established an expert steering group and appointed a firm of consulting engineers to investigate the causes of the explosion.

The specific findings of the engineer's report were made available to residents of the terrace in Gleann Riada, as well as general advice to other residents in the estate. Longford County Council appointed Tobin Consultants to investigate the causes of the explosion. The findings of this report were given to the occupants of the six properties involved. Longford County Council has also established a steering group to address the range of issues faced by the occupants of the Gleann Riada development and is liaising with the other State authorities involved, including, inter alia, the Health and Safety Authority. The residents of Gleann Riada have initiated legal action but not yet served proceedings against Longford County Council.

The Department initially approved funding totalling €91,753.40 for Gleann Riada in August 2012 to cover the cost of addressing immediate public safety concerns. In November I approved further funding of €200,000 under the public safety initiative, taking account of a potential risk of further public realm or PSI-type difficulties with this development that such an assessment and plan may identify and the wider pressures on the finances of Longford County Council.

Unfortunately, the issues faced by the residents of the Gleann Riada development are a severe example of the legacy problems we inherited on a national basis in relation to unfinished housing developments. I am leading the Government's efforts to tackle this issue. I chair the national co-ordination committee on unfinished housing developments to oversee implementation of the report of the advisory group on unfinished housing developments, together with the Government's response to the recommendations. The committee comprises representatives from the banking sector, the local authorities, NAMA, and the construction sector, as well as my Department. I consider that harnessing these various areas of expertise in a collaborative approach will result in the most effective resolution of the issues facing us.

The Deputy asked about what had been done. Assisted by the public safety initiative funding allocated by the Department, the development has had a comprehensive underground CCTV survey carried out. This identified the need for repair work on the foul and storm networks. Longford County Council will install or improve vents, manholes and gullies to ensure the major issues caused by the explosions are alleviated. Issues regarding public lighting will also be addressed, while such necessary works as are required will be carried out on the internal road network, and a range of other works is scheduled that will address the concerns of the residents of Gleann Riada.

The Deputy is very concerned about this and it is a serious development. I briefly met some of the residents a couple of months ago and outlined some of the work that has been done in co-operation with Longford County Council, and I have no doubt the Deputy is in regular contact with the council as well.

I thank the Minister of State for her time and the assurances she has given. Whether they are enough to satisfy the residents of Gleann Riada is another matter. I will monitor progress and will not hesitate to raise this matter repeatedly until there is a satisfactory outcome to the issue for the residents of the estate. Progress towards a solution of the difficulties is being monitored by an active and vigilant residents' committee and I welcome the fact the Minister of State met them. That committee enjoys my full support in the search for a resolution. While I am aware the Government has inherited the fall-out of greed and corruption, it is essential the backs of those being currently targeted are strong enough to carry the burden. The residents of Gleann Riada are victims of a system that was rotten to the core in the past. They must be protected and their right to suitable housing respected. Their health must be assured and the estate made safe for human occupation. That is what I want to see and I will raise this issue repeatedly until it is resolved.

We made the initial allocation because we realised the seriousness of the situation and we made further money available as well. I appreciate Deputy Bannon's concern and hope I have been able to alleviate some of those concerns today.

Suicide Prevention

I thank the Minister of State for taking this debate. We are raising this issue on foot of the launch of the report, Young Men and Suicide Project, which reveals the suicide rate for young men in Ireland is among the highest in the EU, and a report in The Irish Times on 3 January that the mental health of young people is at risk because of cuts.

As the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, will be aware, this is my fourth time to raise the issue of mental health on a Topical Issues debate in the past eight months. In July 2012, there was a joint motion of all the co-convenors of the Oireachtas mental health group which highlighted the need for the €35 million, which was ring-fenced, to be spent. At that time, the Minister of State stated that she had signed off in recent weeks on the number of posts and where those posts were needed. A further Topical Issues debate raised the issue of the vacant post of director of the National Office for Suicide Prevention for a period of 12 months. At the end of November or in early December last, I again raised the issue of the unspent €35 million in 2012 and asked for a detailed outline of when that funding would be spent, when the personnel that were promised would be put in positions and when the jobs would be taken up. I do not doubt the Minister of State's personal commitment, but there seems to be a delay and a lack of urgency in dealing with this much needed issue.

The report outlines how funding which was meant to be ring-fenced for mental health was siphoned off to shore up the overrun in the HSE budget. This is an extremely important issue. It needs a co-ordinated approach. There is no joined-up thinking. The Government abolished the career guidance posts, a decision which the head of mental health services in the HSE stated caused grave vulnerability among this section of society where we have the highest rate of suicide.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving us time on this serious matter and I thank the Minister of State for attending in spite of her impediment and wish her well in her recovery.

I will not try to score political points. No one should on this. This is a huge tragedy and it brings devastation to our shores. I refer to what I call a near epidemic of suicide.

We never tire of listening to the Road Safety Authority which was set up with a view to reducing deaths on the roads. I always maintain, as do many doctors and others, that many single car accidents compiled in the considerable numbers of road deaths were sadly suicides but it could never be proven. It will take a massive effort, something similar to that of the authority. The devastation of a road accident is something that someone can live with. Any loss of life is horrible, but one can accept an accident. With suicide, as the Taoiseach stated this morning in his reply on Leaders' Questions, any of us who have arrived at the house have heard the family voice the unspeakable questions of whether they should have noticed something, asked a particular question or done something.

The figures for 2011 are frightening. Those for 2012 will be much higher. There is not a community unaffected. In my area, I met a principal school teacher on the street on Friday last and discussed an issue with him. It is truly shocking in the case of young children. It is a near epidemic.

We will have to take action outside of the HSE. The HSE must be involved but - I hate to say this to the Minister of State who is in the HSE - it is not capable of dealing with many issues, as we can see with the junior doctors. This area is too sensitive. It is too serious. While I am not in favour of setting up quangos, we need a body set up that will deal with this across all strata of human life in this country, from the psychiatrists to the ordinary plain people and, of course, the families of victims of suicide, and dealing with cyberbullying right back to bullying. I read a story from County Cork about An Post and bullying in the workplace. As an employer, one is not cognisant. One sets up in business and employs others, but one is not trained in the main to deal with issues of bullying.

It is a massive issue, from school and right throughout life. I appeal to the Minister of State to set up a task force on foot of this report to deal with the matter because it has gone beyond talking about and it is causing devastation in the land.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for picking the topic.

No doubt this is a complex issue. It is not black and white. I welcome the report. There is some positive stuff in it. We do not have a great deal of time, but I will pick on a couple of matters.

The early intervention in childhood, the report states, has been shown to be particularly effective. I would definitely be a strong advocate of that. There is also encouraging evidence on the use of sport in promoting positive mental health, in particular among young men. That is something that needs a little more attention.

On sport, I am forever talking about Wexford Youths. I coach players between the ages of 15 and 20 and the Minister of State would be amazed at how much a coach can help a child. He is asked to speak after the game about how he thought he played and how he thought the unit played, and he is forced to talk about himself. There is a problem in Ireland among young boys. I see these boys aged 15 and 16 years coming in to me and if one had to use one word to describe them it would have to be "insecure". They are not good at expressing themselves whereas, obviously, the girls are. There are five times more boys than girls committing suicide.

I note the Italians are far more expressive. Our suicide rates are five times those of the Italians and it is because the Italians are much better at expressing themselves. We need to be pro-active in the area of dealing directly with the fact that our boys are not good at expressing themselves at an early age.

The only other point I make is that it would be disingenuous of us to pretend that the recession does not have an impact. It is a factor. The cutbacks have had a big impact because many more are in a poor place.

On the issue of guidance counsellors, I am aware from a school in Gorey where there are over 1,500 children - there are 260 in sixth year alone - that the counsellors are struggling to make weekly appointments with students. The majority of their work is taken up by emergency cases as well as career advice for the sixth years, and they are not really getting to the children early enough. Their hours this year were cut, from 88 last year to 55. This is not a good idea. The Minister needs to think again about the cuts to career guidance.

I appreciate being allowed to stay seated while I reply.

In response to Deputy Wallace, who has clearly read the report, in my view it is a little too late in secondary school to start on the issue of emotional well-being. As he has heard me say previously and as I will say again, in this issue language is vitally important. We are beginning on a new phase in our approach to those who feel that there is no hope out there and that they have an option of taking their lives by suicide. We need to start a new phase. The world has moved on, where people are at has moved on and we must move with that. On the last remark of Deputy Wallace, I believe that it is too late at second level to get students, in particular, young men, to express themselves.

I thank the Deputies for raising the issue. It is an issue that, I suppose, we should never tire of raising. Then again, talking about it and, as Deputy Troy stated, personal commitment, only goes so far. We really must have results, outcomes and a more concrete plan.

The increasing number of deaths by suicide over the past number of years is disturbing. Suicide is a tragedy that we are constantly working to prevent, and on which we are also working to give more support to the families affected. Dealing with the current high levels of suicide and deliberate self-harm is a priority for the Government.

We cannot dismiss the economic downturn. We know it is having an effect. The figures alone tell us that. The Government is also working on this.

Earlier today, I attended the launch of the all-island report on behalf of the Men's Health Forum in Ireland, Young Men and Suicide Project, which finds that suicide is a major cause of death among males on the island of Ireland. During that launch, which was one of the most positive events I attended in recent years on suicide and self-harm, I noted that the amount of people who are giving of their time, both on a voluntary and a professional basis, to get involved in this issue is quite staggering.

Another key finding is that there is no quick-fix solution to tackling the extensive and complex causes and risk factors that underpin the statistics on suicide in young men.

Reach Out, our national strategy for action on suicide prevention, recognises the youth sector as a high-risk group and sets out a number of specific actions. Consequently, the HSE's National Office for Suicide Prevention, NOSP, has developed a range of initiatives aimed specifically at supporting young people who are suicidal and also supporting their peers in recognising and responding appropriately to signs of emotional distress and suicidal thoughts. Initiatives progressed include the availability of a wide range of awareness and training programmes in the area of mental health promotion and suicide prevention, the development of a number of media campaigns, and the so-called please talk initiative, running in third level colleges, which encourages young people experiencing problems to talk to others and identifies the supports available to those in need.

Jigsaw, an innovative community-based support service for young people, is now available or in development in 11 sites throughout the country. The annual budget for suicide prevention has increased this year to more than €13 million. Some €8.1 million is administered by the NOSP and is used to fund voluntary and statutory agencies delivering services in the area of prevention, intervention, postvention and research. The remaining €5 million is available regionally to fund resource officers for suicide prevention, self-harm liaison nurses in hospital emergency departments and local suicide prevention initiatives. A special programme of measures to further advance suicide prevention in 2013 is being developed.

I have no plans at present to set up a task force, as Deputy Mattie McGrath suggested, to examine the area of suicide prevention and mental health. These functions are being carried out by the HSE and the NOSP whose role includes overseeing the implementation of Reach Out and co-ordinating suicide prevention initiatives throughout the country. The NOSP is advised and guided by an implementation group comprising individuals with considerable knowledge and expertise in the areas of suicide prevention, mental health promotion and bereavement support. I am happy that the advisory group brings an independent voice to the table. In addition, the NOSP publishes an annual report - it is currently working on it - outlining its activities and work each year, so it is fully accountable to this House. I believe that a commitment to evidence-based programmes and partnerships with a common purpose is what is required to address the issue of suicide, and this role is being carried out at present by the National Office for Suicide Prevention. The report launched today will add to that knowledge.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. She is right that early intervention is critical in all aspects of life, whether we are discussing education or mental health. The report rightly stated there is no quick fix. We need to think about having a national body. Let us consider the impact the Road Safety Authority has had in saving lives on the road. We need to consider it in a wider sense than at an individual or community basis. Mr. Rogan, the director of mental health services, says that when we have the resources we get good outcomes, but if we deny resources we get late interventions. The Minister of State has already cited the importance of early interventions.

I wish to ask the Minister of State two direct questions. The 2012 budget allocated €35 million for community mental health. Was that money spent in 2012? Have the staff, who were due to be employed in 2012, got their contracts and are they in the positions for which they were intended? Can we have a cast-iron guarantee that the €35 million, which is supposed to be ring-fenced for mental health, will not be syphoned off by any other area in the HSE and that it will be directed to where it should be directed? When we have the resources, we get good outcomes.

I am very disappointed by the reply. I believe passionately, as do many others, that the HSE is now a dysfunctional outfit that is just not up to the job in many areas, but in this area above all. I support Deputy Troy in asking where last year's money was spent. The Minister of State indicated that €8.1 million was to be used on administration and all the other areas there.

I am quoting from her reply.

Administered by-----

I am making the point that it was the same with road deaths. We prevaricated and we were all part of it, but then we dealt with it. It took huge energy and courage, but it has been dealt with. A number of such deaths, as we know, were also suicides and we have the results. We need new thinking and new specialties. I believe we need to remove the involvement of the HSE and take it out of its hands. It is not capable of dealing with such a serious and desperate situation. It is suffering from inertia with too many squabbles between sections, as we have seen. This needs to be tackled honestly by all of us here and dealt with because, as I have said, it is an epidemic.

I do not disagree with the Minister of State that early intervention is definitely the best approach. As a comparison, one day I had a chat with Mr. Antonio Conte, the manager of Juventus. I asked him why there was such a big difference between the technical ability of the Italians and players in Ireland and England. He said it was down to what the Italians do with the players between the ages of six and 12. I would argue that does not stop us working with the players in footballing terms as teenagers. From speaking with the principal, I know that the school in Gorey is under severe pressure for guidance and help in this area. In the past week alone a number of students have presented with suicidal ideation. They are really worried and without taking away from the early intervention principle, which is clearly the best, I believe schools need more help right now.

So that Deputy Wallace has no misunderstanding, I am not suggesting for one minute that if there is early intervention at primary level, it should discontinue at secondary level. I see it as a continuum because we have it at third level and we are introducing it at second level also. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, is launching an extensive anti-bullying campaign and we intend to extend that. I do not disagree with anything the Deputy has said. I am just saying I believe we should start considerably earlier.

I point out to Deputy Mattie McGrath that we have the national office and it is not run on a day-to-day basis by the HSE. We have very good people in it. I agree with him that we need to take this to the next level and I have already had discussions with the new director of the national office. We have now gone past the time when people did not speak about these things because they were ashamed. Now that it is out in public we need very much to have an, as it were, in your face campaign specific to areas and age groups. I do not disagree with anything the Deputy said and we now need to take a step forward. It is a different time and a different campaign. We may be dealing with people with different expectations.

There was a difficulty last year. While I do not have it off the top of my head, I will get the information for Deputy Troy. I do not have a problem with distributing information on these issues. We all want the same outcome. A substantial number of the 414 posts that were to be recruited last year have been recruited and either have contracts or have already accepted. I have been guaranteed in written form that the €70 million - the €35 million from last year and the €35 million for this year - will be spent in community mental health teams. I have sought that guarantee and have been given it. I reassure the Deputy on that.

Appointments to State Boards

I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for selecting this matter. Coming on the heels of the latest food safety issue, we find that the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, has failed to appoint members to the board of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and that the board cannot meet because it does not have a quorum. As yet the Minister has offered no satisfactory explanation for his failure to appoint members to the board of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. This is part of a pattern with positions on boards under the remit of the Minister for Health being left vacant. The new, more open method of appointment has not been availed of and, worse still, has actually been undermined by the Minister.

On 20 November I asked the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, the number and list of health agencies and boards that were awaiting ministerial appointments, how long they had been waiting and the number that did not have a quorum.

It was stated in the Minister's reply that there were 64 vacancies on nine boards within the remit of his Department, including six vacancies at that time on the board of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. The Minister advised me in November that the Food Safety Authority board had a quorum. We now know that this is no longer the case and that since November there have been only three members on that ten member board, which the CEO of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Professor Alan Reilly, has stated is far from satisfactory.

In the case of the Food Safety Authority, 25 people applied under the new procedures for a position on its board. The Minister continues to hold off on appointments despite our being reliably told the overwhelming number of those applicants are suitably qualified and eminent to take on any position of responsibility required by the board. What is going on in respect, in particular, of the Food Safety Authority board and the other boards under the Minister's remit?

I, too, thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important issue for discussion. The problem of appointments to boards has been a perennial one owing to a lack of planning within Departments. Given the introduction of better procedures, the process of filling vacancies, from the date on which they are announced or occur to the date on which they are filled, takes longer. Departments are required to commence planning six months prior to a vacancy occurring so as to ensure all positions on boards are filled. I acknowledge that in the past many Ministers failed to fill vacancies on boards in time. My experience when a Minister was that if one did not start the process on time it did not finish on time. That said, there is no excuse for a board to be without a quorum. I do not recall there ever being a board without a quorum during my time as Minister. There is no governance in an organisation without a board and a board cannot meet without a quorum.

I hope that the Minister of State can clarify today when the seven members will be appointed. I admire Deputy Ó Caoláin's homework on this issue. I suggest that the Minister fill all vacancies now and that a policy be adopted within his Department of foreseeable vacancies being filled on the date they occur. If he does so, he will avoid the temptation to fill all vacancies when a sudden election arises, as has happened under various previous Governments. If vacancies are filled as they arise, this issue does not arise.

We need to hear from the Minister of State when these vacancies will be filled and a proper explanation for why they have not been filled to date. If the reason they have not been filled is because they were thought about too late then the Minister of State should tell us so. She should also say what remedial action will be taken in that regard. It is important also that the Minister of State states if the lack of a board on the FSAI had any effect or caused any difficulty for it in dealing with the recent meat scandal, which was bad enough, without now finding that the authority which identified the problem does not have a governing board in place.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. While I have a fairly substantial reply before me, I do not think it shines any light on the question raised.

I always try, when responding to questions or topical issues, to be as helpful as possible.

It does not serve us not to do so. I recall a time when there were substantial vacancies on boards and, as correctly stated by Deputy Ó Cuív, the unsightly and unseemly scramble to fill vacancies at the time of an election. The Deputies will be aware, from the copy of the reply which they have received, that the lack of appointments to vacancies on the board of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland did not have any impact on the rigorous testing carried out by the authority, for which it is to be congratulated. Ireland is the only country that carries out such testing.

As stated in the reply, the Minister does not believe FSAI board vacancies hampered its work during the incident. While the board performs important functions in relation to corporate governance, it is a non-executive board and is not involved in the day-to-day running of the organisation. The Minister has been assured by the chief executive officer of the FSAI that this is the case, although he has kept all board members fully informed of all developments during the incident in regard to food products.

On the board vacancies, the Minister instructed the Department to conduct an open competition for the filling of FSAI board vacancies through the public appointments service. This was done in March 2012 given the importance of ensuring a good balance of technical expertise and independence on the board. The Minister has since given full consideration to the filling of these vacancies and expects them to be filled shortly.

As acknowledged by the Minister of State, the reply contains no explanation for the failure to fill the vacancies. The question I must ask - one could be forgiven for thinking the worst - is why the Minister has not filled these vacancies, which amounted to 64 last December? Is it the case that the Minister is planning to abolish these boards? That is not an unreasonable question to ask in the context of such failure to act. If that is the case, surely then the Minister should, as requested earlier by Deputy Ó Cuív in his contribution, tell us so.

I ask the Minister of State to note that in terms of the new methodology of access the Minister, in failing to act, is making a nonsense of the system. Will the Minister of State agree that the Minister's inactivity and failure to act in filling vacancies on the board, despite the declared public interest in terms of the applications made, makes a mockery of the process? I would argue that the more open procedures need to be strengthened and that the Minister should be required to appoint a set proportion of people who apply in this way provided they are suitably qualified. This would be an improvement on the current inactive system.

I fully accept that the Minister of State would like to give us the full information. I am disappointed that the Minister is not, as was agreed when the new format for Topical Issues was agreed, here to answer for himself. I do not attach any blame to the Minister of State for the response given, which is of the type with which I, when Minister, was often presented and would return seeking further information. It is not satisfactory that we are not being given answers to our questions.

The Minister of State told us that an open competition was held by the Public Appointments Service in March 2012. I do not go along with the popular view that only those selected by the Public Appointments Service should be appointed because boards often require the expertise of technical people. I believe that if the Minister, on reviewing the list of selected appointees, identifies a deficit of people with the skills required he should make his own appointments and then answer for those decisions. The best people for the job might not always apply for it. Many boards, such as the pensions board and so on, require technical expertise.

One will find from a review of my record when a Minister that I did not make any last minute appointments to boards. I took a decision not to do that. It is important that a commitment is given that vacancies will be filled on the day they occur, unless such vacancy is unforeseen and-or casual.

The reply states that traces of horse DNA were also detected in batches of raw ingredients, including some imported from other member states. It is very cleverly written. If the Minister of State does not know the answer to the following question, I ask her to get it for me. Can we take it there is no truth to a story in the newspapers at the weekend that some of these raw materials might have originated within the country? Clarity is needed on this issue. Wherever the horse DNA came from, did any of it originate in Ireland? Is it possible that any did? Was all of it definitely imported from a supplier from abroad?

I am always reluctant to speculate on speculation, and this is probably what was in the newspapers at the weekend. When we receive the report we will know absolutely from where the contamination came. There was no threat to human health, and this is the first and central point we need to make. I congratulate the Food Safety Authority on carrying out tests which I believe no other country does. As the Deputies know, the Minister is in Brussels. We hold the Presidency of the European Union and all Ministers had to be in Brussels this week, as did I. I assume he would have been here had he been available.

To reply to Deputy Ó Caoláin, taking time to fill a board is sometimes very necessary and this is acknowledged. If one does not have the required expertise on the list in front of one, it would be a greater mockery to put in someone who did not have the expertise. I believe when it comes to food safety most women are experts and one does not need an arm's length of qualifications. We must get this type of mix when it comes to food safety and food production. The Minister is probably one of the hardest working and busiest Ministers in the Government, and we all know the Department of Health is one of the busiest in government. I will convey the expressed opinions of the Deputies to him. We need to be sensible about certain issues, including getting a proper mix on the board and getting the board as quickly as possible.