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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 6 Feb 2013

Vol. 791 No. 2

Topical Issue Debate

Local Authority Charges Review

I welcome the Minister of State. Second Stage of the Valuation (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill took place in the Seanad on 11 October last year, with the common opinion of the Members of the Upper House being that there is an urgent need to speed up valuations and revaluations as a matter of priority. There are a few initiatives that the Minister of State will doubtlessly outline as being within the Bill, with one being a pilot in a local authority in Galway to consider a self-assessment scheme. That should be welcomed. There is also a pilot scheme for considering different ways of facilitating an independent assessment system or an external service delivery scheme. That would be welcome and I hope the Minister of State can expand on the concept.

Having spoken to owners of businesses in my constituency, it seems there are a number of urgent issues, with survival being paramount in 2013. The Minister of State would be well aware in his constituency that the common narrative among business people is if they will survive in 2013. We must be conscious of that worry and look to deal with it. With the valuation system, business owners are indicating it could take two to three years to get a valuation officer out to revalue a property, and there is a desire to speed up the process. Some businesses may be paying very high rates and may have downscaled, with a decrease in revenue and profit margins. We must be careful in assisting businesses when many are still struggling. I spoke to a constituent at the weekend who is in business along with a couple of his sons. He observed that the businesses which are doing well are working flat out but on the other side of things, the businesses trying to survive are slowly losing that battle. We must use every available resource to make the process easier.

We must look to speed up resource deployment with this Bill. It has gone through Second Stage in the Seanad and the Minister might enlighten us today about the timeframe for getting through the legislative process. There should be a sense of urgency.

From speaking to open-minded people in business, there is a realisation that competition is good and business is dependent on other businesses doing well in an area. Some but not all business people have mentioned a rates holiday for 12 months that could apply to new businesses. The idea was raised in the recent past and we must use every possible incentive to attract people to setting up a business. Not every business will survive, and the rate of survival is probably falling, but we should use whatever tools are available to consider the idea of a rates holiday.

The Deputy will have two minutes to respond to the Minister of State's reply.

I thank Deputy McHugh for raising this matter, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister who is unavoidably absent. I ask Deputies to excuse any errors I may make in reading out replies as I am using a pair of borrowed reading glasses, having lost my own glasses this afternoon.

The programme of revaluing all commercial and industrial properties in the State for rateable valuation purposes is the responsibility of the Valuation Office, which is headed by the Commissioner of Valuation. The commissioner is independent in the exercise of his statutory functions, which are principally derived from the Valuation Act 2001.

The national revaluation programme was provided for in the 2001 Act and the expectation was that the complete revaluation of all commercial property in the State would take ten years to complete. This assumption has proven over time to be overly optimistic. To date, the revaluation programme has been completed in the South Dublin County Council area in 2007 and in Fingal and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown county councils in 2009 and 2010, respectively. The revaluation of Dublin City Council area began in May 2011 and will be completed with the publication of a new valuation list in December 2013, which will become effective for rating purposes from January 2014.

I assure the Deputy that the Government is aware of the importance of accelerating the national revaluation programme and this is a feature of its Action Plan for Jobs 2012 strategy. Such a comprehensive revaluation of property has not been undertaken since the middle of the 19th century.

The revaluation programme is required to take account of the differential movements in property values that have occurred over a prolonged period of time and therefore maintain uniformity in the valuation base. Such uniformity is essential to achieve the policy objective of ratepayers paying commercial rates on an equitable basis. This, in turn, supports a more competitive business environment and improved compliance.

With the express objective of accelerating the revaluation programme, the Government published the Valuation (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 on 3 August 2012 as part of its legislative programme. The Bill proposes a number of specific measures in this regard. It provides a statutory basis to enable the Valuation Office to establish pilot schemes for outsourcing some of the revaluation work and exploring the possibility of introducing an element of self-assessment by ratepayers to the valuation process.

Additional provisions in the Bill seek to streamline the current valuation process and each of these will help to speed up progress. The Bill proceeded through Second Stage in the Seanad in October 2012. Officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and Valuation Office are engaged with a wide range of stakeholders and other interested parties on potential amendments that may be introduced on Committee Stage.

The Valuation Office is continuing to extend the revaluation programme. The Commissioner of Valuation signed valuation orders for the three Waterford rating authority areas on 12 December 2011 and Limerick County Council and Limerick City Council on 29 March 2012. The Waterford and Limerick revaluations will be completed in 2013 and 2014, respectively. At that stage, approximately 33% of all rateable properties in the country, representing more than 50% of the national valuation base in monetary terms, will have been revalued. The commissioner has also indicated his intention, subject to a statutory consultation process which is now under way, to sign valuation orders for Galway City Council and Carlow and Kilkenny rating authority areas during 2013.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply, although I note it did not refer to his county, Louth, or my county, Donegal. I hope he will use his powers of persuasion and position to try to ensure greater haste in bringing counties not yet included in the revaluation programme up to speed. While I accept that 50% of the national valuation base has been revalued, businesses in my constituency are struggling and must be given hope that a valuation order will be signed for County Donegal as a matter of priority.

The current valuation system is shrouded in secrecy. Businesses in small towns do not share information and there are curious differences in the valuation methods employed. Greater transparency is, therefore, required. One way of facilitating more transparency is to encourage businesses in small towns to come together. Buncrana and Letterkenny in my constituency have successful chambers of commerce, whereas smaller towns such as Ramelton, Milford and Carndonagh do not have a chamber of commerce. We must encourage smaller towns to establish chambers of commerce which could then act as a lobby group on issues of importance such as the revaluation programme. I call on businesses in smaller towns to come together and share information. I am not naive and accept, therefore, that some businesses are worried that the revaluation process will result in an increase in their rates.

Businesses in smaller towns and their environs must engage in more effective lobbying. At a time when democracy is breaking down to some extent and the old party structures no longer work as effectively as in the past, we need more formal mechanisms and new conduits for allowing businesses to share and impart information.

Businesses in the Border region, including counties Louth and Donegal, face specific competition issues, yet none of the Border counties is listed for revaluation. I ask the Minister of State and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to ensure Border counties are considered for participation in the next phase of the revaluation programme.

I thank Deputy McHugh for his proposals, which I will bring to the attention of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. He is correct that we need a strategy for the Border counties as they face different threats from counties such as Cork and Kerry. For example, different tax rates apply across the Border and various other competitive issues arise in the region.

While valuations are important, it should be noted that local authorities strike the rate. With the introduction of household property taxes, local authorities will have an opportunity, from 2015 onwards, to vary their rates by 15% per annum. This will result in a much greater focus on valuations and local tax levels and create pressure to drive down rates and increase efficiencies in local government. These will be positive developments. I will bring the points the Deputy raises to the attention of the Minister.

Subsidiary Protection Applications

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this topic for discussion. This is the third time I have raised the immigration system during the Topical Issue debate and the third time the Minister for Justice and Equality has not been present to respond. His absence is particularly discomfiting given that he was in the Chamber only ten minutes ago. Is he due to return to the House?

No, he has just left.

I find that rather frustrating, to say the least. The issue I raise is the decision of Mr. Justice Hogan in the High Court on 23 January last and its implications for those who are navigating the immigration, asylum and refugee process in this State. The judgment affected the law on subsidiary protection.

As the Minister of State is aware, an applicant seeking leave to remain in the State who has failed the asylum process, in other words, he or she has had an application rejected by the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, is entitled to apply for subsidiary protection. To qualify for subsidiary protection the applicant must show substantial grounds for believing that he or she would face a real risk of suffering serious harm if returned to his or her country of origin. The High Court found, two weeks ago today, that the current model used in Ireland whereby we assess the asylum application first and subsidiary protection application thereafter, known as the bifurcated or split system, is not being operated properly. In the case before the High Court, Mr. Justice Hogan criticised a decision to reject an application for subsidiary protection on the grounds of adverse credibility findings in the asylum application stage. In other words, the grounds for failing the first hurdle were considered grounds for failing the second hurdle. The State, through the office of the Minister, was found to have failed to afford the applicant an effective hearing, contrary to the principles of due process.

Mr. Justice Hogan stated that an effective hearing for subsidiary protection must would involve the applicant being invited to comment on any adverse credibility findings made by the Refugee Appeals Tribunal and being given a fresh opportunity to revisit all matters bearing on the claim for subsidiary protection. It would also involve a completely fresh assessment of the applicant's credibility in circumstances where the mere fact was that the tribunal had ruled adversely to this.

Like me, the Minister of State operates constituency clinics and will be visited weekly by people seeking to discuss the immigration and asylum process. Many of them have been in the system for years. In one case of which I have been made aware, a family received notice in the past week that decisions regarding subsidiary protection have been withdrawn without reasons being given. Is this decision the reason for that withdrawal?

I wish to ask a number of questions. What are the consequences for those who have been refused subsidiary protection? The High Court has stated that the current procedure in certain circumstances is wrong and does not constitute a fair hearing. Many people in the State who have failed in their subsidiary applications may have been judged incorrectly. Are we going to audit those decisions to ensure they were reached correctly? What will happen to people who are currently in the process? Are we examining it to ensure that applications are being made to a proper system?

Mr. Justice Hogan acknowledged that his decision was likely to have significant, perhaps far-reaching consequences for the practical administration of the subsidiary protection scheme in terms of complications, delays and costs. Does the Department have the capacity to deal with these demands? Given the unseemly, unhealthy and despairing effects of the time spent in direct provision centres, of which there is much criticism, by those who have reached the subsidiary protection phase, does the Minister of State believe that the decision will further exacerbate this delay? When will the legislation for a new combined application process be tabled before the House? It has been drafted and is almost ready for publication.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, for taking this debate. I appreciate that he is not in the Department in question and may not be able to provide me with the full answers that I require.

I thank Deputy Nolan for raising this matter. I am not in the Department of Justice and Equality, but I am present in the House. I apologise for the Minister, Deputy Shatter, being unable to take this debate.

The judgment of Mr. Justice Hogan in the High Court, delivered on 23 January, deals with an applicant's right to be heard in the context of an application for subsidiary protection. Mr. Justice Hogan's judgment, delivered after a preliminary ruling by the European Court of Justice, has interpreted this concept to mean that there may be instances where an applicant may require a hearing, particularly where he or she wishes to challenge negative credibility findings made by the Refugee Applications Commissioner or the Refugee Appeals Tribunal that might be relied upon by the Department of Justice and Equality in arriving at a decision in the individual's case.

As Deputy Nolan stated, the court's judgment has significant practical implications for the current subsidiary protection process. The High Court has flagged the need for additional procedural steps to ensure that subsidiary protection applicants are guaranteed the right to an effective hearing. The details in this regard, which are set out in the court's decision, are under examination in the Department in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General to determine how the current administrative procedures might be adapted to bring them into line with the court's judgment. Given the number of subsidiary protection applications that are currently waiting to be processed, it is important that every effort is made to continue processing activity both from the State's perspective, owing to the substantial cost to the Exchequer of maintaining protection applicants, and the perspective of applicants themselves, many of whom have been waiting for some time for final answers to their requests for the State's protection or, failing that, for permission to remain. As a result, Mr. Justice Hogan's judgment is being studied in great detail by officials in the Department.

The current arrangements for dealing with subsidiary protection applications were always intended to be temporary pending the enactment of the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2010. Work on the Bill is ongoing at the Department pursuant to current Government policy, which is committed under the Programme for National Recovery, to "introduce comprehensive reforms of the immigration, residency and asylum systems, which will include a statutory appeals system and set out rights and obligations in a transparent way". The Bill provides, inter alia, for the introduction of a single application procedure for the investigation of all grounds for protection and any other ground presented by applicants. This change to the processing framework will remove the current multilayered and sequential processes associated with the existing system and address the issues arising from the High Court's decision.

The Minister outlined to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality that several hundred amendments to the 2010 Bill are anticipated, the majority of a technical nature. The Minister also expressed the considered view that, instead of engaging in a cumbersome process of tabling hundreds of amendments, it would be more efficient to publish a new and enhanced text. Such an approach can incorporate the many anticipated amendments while addressing key outstanding issues, several of which have been of concern to Members, including that of a streamlined, single application procedure. This proposition was broadly welcomed by the joint committee.

Work on the Bill continues on this basis, including in co-operation with the offices of the Parliamentary Counsel and the Attorney General while also taking account of relevant rulings by the courts. It remains the Minister's objective under this new approach, mindful of needing to deal with the competing legislative demands of our EU-IMF programme commitments, to be in a position to introduce a revised Bill for approval and publication by the Government later this year.

The Minister has some concerns about the extent to which applicants seek to avail of the judicial review process to stall or prolong their stays in the State. The construct of the current system provides ample opportunity in this regard, giving rise as it does to delays in finalising cases and to significant backlogs of cases. In parallel with the work on the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill, the Department is also developing proposals on judicial review with a view to addressing some of the difficulties in this area.

The Deputy may be aware of the large number of cases that often back up, sometimes on tenuous grounds, behind legal challenges. Only last week, the Court of Justice of the European Union delivered its ruling in a case referred to it by the High Court in April 2011. This referral gave rise to final decisions in approximately 900 asylum cases that were being delayed. The Court of Justice's ruling supports the position taken by the State in the cases concerned. While the court's ruling is welcome, the costs to the State arising from the inability to process the cases impacted by the referral are significant. This reinforces the need to be able to adapt, as far as possible, our processing arrangements so that processing activity can continue and costs of this type can be minimised.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, which was quite "Department of Justice-y" in many ways - I apologise for using that phrase - in that it referred to the need to progress, judicial reviews and so on. Rarely do I get a response from the Department that refers to the impact on the lives of people in the system or acknowledges that, as a result of the delay in introducing legislation, the judicial review proceedings and the changes in the procedures for subsidiary protection applications, families and people - real human beings - are left waiting in accommodation for years on end with nothing to do, are constantly worried and are in the dark about their futures. The answers lack any kind of human element.

I admit that we are under pressure from the EU-IMF programme and the ECB to introduce other legislation, but the delay in this Bill is perpetual. It has been ten years coming and has been pushed back constantly. People need it to be introduced if something is to be done about their situations.

The judicial review process costs a fortune, but the current situation is without credibility. No one believes that we have a proper, fair or transparent immigration system. Some of the country's legal minds believe that it is a sham. I will not apologise for delays caused by judicial reviews when our system does not stand up to scrutiny.

Today, there has been a great deal of discussion, particularly in the media, about the long-term effects of institutionalisation. People were kept in places for long periods, often against their will, and received very small subsistence payments, if any. The line is that it was a product of the time. In this country today, thousands of people spend five, six or seven years in direct provision on a pittance and live in small rooms with their children, sometimes with as many as four people to a room, yet we are turning a blind eye. The constant bureaucratic attitude to people's suffering is becoming tiresome. We need to do something about it.

I will be happy to bring the Deputy's opinions to the attention of the Minister. The Minister has asked me to advise the Deputy that he is unable to take this debate because he will be in the Seanad from 4.30 p.m. until 8.30 p.m. on Second Stage of a defence Bill. He will also take Private Members' business and the Adjournment debates in the Seanad.

Obviously, the Minister is concerned about this issue and I expect that he will contact the Deputy shortly regarding the points the latter has raised. I will be happy to ensure that the Minister's Department is also advised of the Deputy's comments.

Student Grant Scheme Reform

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, for coming to the Chamber, but similar to the previous speaker I am disheartened by the trend in recent times whereby the Cabinet Ministers directly responsible are not responding to the Topical Issue debate in the manner promised when the Dáil term started. The Government was elected on a platform of introducing great reform to the way the Oireachtas would operate and also on a promise that it would engage with the Dáil in a way that had not happened previously. Unfortunately, the turnout in recent times of senior Ministers to respond to Topical Issue debates directly relevant to them is indicative that on too many occasions they are treating this Chamber as an irritation to them proceeding with what they want to do, regardless of what is said in this Chamber.

I wish to raise the Government’s proposal to introduce a capital means test for making decisions on maintenance grants for students attending third level colleges and the likely impact it will have on farming families as well as the self-employed. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, announced his intention in that regard in the 2012 budget. In recent weeks there has been further media speculation as to exactly what he plans to put in place. At the beginning of 2012 he set up a review group to assess how such a system could be introduced and he promised that a report would issue by September. It is now February 2012 yet nothing firm has been announced on the issue except what we have read in the newspapers. The Minister’s approach to the issue displays a severe lack of knowledge and understanding of exactly what it means to be a farmer today or the challenges facing many in the self-employed and business community.

The year 2011 was very successful for farm income in comparison to previous years. The average farm income was €24,000. Much diversity is evident in farm income depending on the type of farming involved. For example, in dairying, which tends to be practised on larger farms, the average income in 2011 was €69,000. However, on beef farms the average income was €11,000 and it was €17,000 on sheep farms. That is taking into account all 100,000 farming households nationally.

The Minister’s proposal appears to be based on farm values of more than €750,000. If one takes an average acreage price of approximately €10,000, that would equate to a 75 acre farm. The Minister is talking about putting a notional value on the land which would then be added to the real income earned by a family in a given year. As a result, in many cases students from farming backgrounds would find themselves unable to access a student maintenance grant and unable to finance themselves through college.

If the Minister feels there is unfairness in the current student grant system he must examine how income is assessed and whether issues arise in that regard. People from the self-employed and farming communities would not have a problem with the system giving a fair reflection of incomes. Nobody could take issue with such an approach. However, it would be unacceptable for the Minister to place a notional value on assets which are a tool to derive an income. If the Minister proceeds with such a wrong-headed approach he will leave many families in a position where they cannot attend college. That will not be tolerated. The Minister must reverse from his current position. I am interested to hear what the Minister of State, Deputy O’Dowd, has to say on behalf of the Minister about his plans.

I am very sorry that I am not the Minister for Education and Skills, but if I were, I would be very happy to be present. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, is unavoidably absent this afternoon. I would not infer that his absence is not without good cause. I am happy to respond to the issue raised on behalf of the Minister.

The Deputy is referring to an announcement in budget 2012 that the means test for student grants will be broadened to take account of the value of certain capital assets as well as income. It is important to understand that the intention behind this approach is to ensure that, at a time of reduced resources, the Government targets valuable schemes, such as the student grant scheme, at those who need them most. The Deputy will know that a considerable body of reports over a number of years have strongly recommended the introduction of a capital test for student grants, particularly on the grounds of equity and fairness.

The Deputy will also be aware that the Minister for Education and Skills set up an interdepartmental working group to examine this issue and that he is due to bring proposals to Cabinet shortly. As the matter is due before Cabinet in the coming weeks, I am not in a position to provide specific details at this time, but any decision taken will be a collective Government decision. I can say emphatically, however, that broadening the means testing arrangements for student grants is not aimed at any particular section of the community - such as farmers - but rather at ensuring that all students are treated equally in the assessment of their or their family's means so that those in need of a grant can get one. I can, therefore, give the Deputy the assurance that he is seeking, namely, that farming families will not be unfairly targeted in any new arrangements. On the contrary, farmers, like all other citizens - be they unemployed, employed, self-employed or retired - whose income and assets fall below a certain level, will continue to be eligible for third level grants for their children.

Last year, the Government spent approximately €336 million supporting 76,600 students through the student grant scheme. That represents 38% of the total number of full-time students in higher education institutions and on post-leaving certificate programmes. That is a considerable amount of taxpayers' money, and no one would argue against the need to ensure that it is being spent carefully and targeted at those who need it most.

It is also interesting to note that the student grant system, where no account is taken of the capital value of savings or assets, is in contrast to other major schemes of income maintenance operated by the Department of Social Protection or supports provided by the HSE for example. The effect of this is that if a person has income below the current thresholds, which is €39,875 in 2013 to 2014 for a full grant and maintenance, but has considerable savings in the bank or a wide property portfolio, his or her child can still qualify for a grant.

The key issue in the response is that from next year the assessment on whether a person is entitled to a maintenance grant will be done on the basis of his or her income and assets. The next assertion is that the change will not affect the farming community in particular. Unfortunately, the reality is that it will. If assets and farm land are taken into account, farming households of modest incomes will find themselves unable to qualify for a student grant. The Government is putting such families in a position where they must decide whether to sell some of their land in order to fund their children through college because a student maintenance grant will not be available to them in spite of having a low income. The way we should approach the issue is simple; we must ensure there is a fair way of assessing everyone's income. The system should be based on one's real income, not on an asset which is being used to generate income.

The Minister of State needs to revisit this issue and work with the Minister, Deputy Quinn, to ensure there is an understanding of what happens on farms across the country on a daily basis and of the reality of the level of the average farm income, which applies to most farm incomes, and ensure that the farming community is treated as fairly as everyone else. If we take the approach the Minister, Deputy Quinn, is planning, the farming community will be unfairly targeted because they will be assessed not only on their income, but also on a notional value of their land which they use to derive an income. If the Minister wants to tax people's land, taxes are already in place in terms of inheritance tax and capital gains tax which come into play when land is sold. However, while land is being held by the farming household it is being used to derive an income and it is that income that should be used to decide whether a family has the means to send their child to college independently or whether their child will need a student grant to ensure he or she has the same access to third level education as anybody from any other income background.

I ask the Minister to State to talk to the Minister, Deputy Quinn, about this. I ask the Labour and the Fine Gael parties to rethink this approach because what they propose to do will unfairly target the farming community and many in the self-employed community and business community.

I assure the Deputy his comments will be brought to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Quinn. I repeat what the Minister said in his statement, namely, that there is absolutely no question of any particular group such as farmers being targeted in terms of this issue. Clearly, the objective of the Government is to make sure that those who need to get student grants get them. Some 76,600 students in this country got grants last year, which cost €336 million and represented 38% of the total number of full-time students. There is a very good system in place whereby people on low incomes qualify.

It remains the Minister's firm commitment that there should be no financial barrier to third level students who would not otherwise be able to afford to attend college or university. It is not therefore the object of means testing proposals to exclude any particular sector of society. The test will be applied fairly to all applications and in common with other State means tested schemes. The two principal factors that facilitate spending, income and accumulated wealth or capital, would be taken into account for all applicants regardless of their employment status. This means that farmers or any other category of person whose income and assets fall below a certain amount and cannot afford to send their children to third level would still continue to receive State support while those who can afford to pay would have to do so.

Hospital Services

I would like to ask the Minister of State the current status in terms of opening a renal dialysis unit at Wexford General Hospital. The physical infrastructure for housing the dialysis unit is up and ready. It seems some legal hold up is stopping patients from being able to have their renal dialysis carried out in Wexford General Hospital. At present, patients have to travel to Waterford which is over an hour's drive away. It is not a difficulty for patients to travel to Waterford but renal dialysis patients have to go for dialysis at least three times per week and it can take up to six hours to have dialysis carried out. It can be very stressful, especially for elderly patients, to have to arrange transport to travel to Waterford, have their dialysis carried out and then travel home.

The unit at Wexford General Hospital has been set up and very little is required to push it over the line in terms of its opening. I ask the Minister of State to make every effort to ensure patients can have renal dialysis carried out at Wexford General Hospital as soon as possible. It would be a more efficient use of the patient's time and would add to their quality of life. As the Minister of State will understand, any patient who is receiving dialysis already has a decreased quality of life and there is no need for us to add to that when it is unnecessary at this time.

I am delighted about what is happening at Wexford General Hospital. In the 15 years I have been a GP in County Wexford I would have had to travel to Wexford General Hospital at least once a week. My two young sons have been treated in the accident and emergency department there for injuries resulting from the activities young boys get up to and my little girl was born in the hospital. One point I would make about the accident and emergency department and the maternity unit is that they are very claustrophobic. If it was not for such goodwill and dedication to excellence by the staff of Wexford General Hospital, we would never have survived with the current set up in the maternity unit and in the accident and emergency department. Now a brand new maternity unit and accident and emergency department are under construction and it fills my heart with joy to see the construction work under way when I go to the hospital.

Even though the Minister, Deputy Howlin, is my colleague in government, he is my political rival in the constituency. He has always been a great friend to Wexford General Hospital and I am sure, like me, he is delighted to see the current construction work at Wexford General Hospital. In all the years we have discussed the future of Wexford General Hospital, he has been a great supporter and has an excellent understanding of what actually happens in our health services. These are positive developments in the health service but there is a possibility to add to the excellence of the services at Wexford General Hospital and I hope the Minister will be able to give me positive new about the provision of renal dialysis services at the hospital.

I thank the Deputy for bringing this matter before the House and assure him that his comments will be brought to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Reilly, who is unavoidably absent. The Minister fully acknowledges the challenges that these patients are currently facing and the need for the provision of a dedicated haemodialysis service in Wexford for these patients.

The Minister is aware that haemodialysis and home dialysis services in the south east are currently provided from the parent renal unit at Waterford Regional Hospital. There are currently three consultant renal physicians working at this unit and a wide range of services are provided there. The haemodialysis unit at Waterford Regional Hospital provides chronic haemodialysis therapies to just over 100 outpatients. There is also a stand-alone satellite haemodialysis unit in Kilkenny which provides chronic haemodialysis therapies to just under 50 outpatients. Waterford Regional Hospital also provides additional inpatient haemodialysis therapies to all end-stage renal disease patients in the south-east region who require dialysis when they are unwell and are admitted to hospital. Acute haemodialysis therapies are also provided here for patients with acute kidney injury. The peritoneal dialysis unit in Waterford Regional Hospital provides training, support and follow-up care to just under 20 patients who perform peritoneal dialysis in their own homes. It is important to note that almost 20,000 dialysis treatments were provided during 2012 and over 13,000 of these were provided at Waterford Regional Hospital.

The national renal office, together with the HSE and the parent renal unit in the south east, have considered how services should develop in the south east. The vision for further development of renal services in the south east includes the development of a further satellite haemodialysis unit in Wexford. This unit would be very beneficial to those patients living in the Wexford region. It would be responsible for delivering routine care to stable chronic haemodialysis patients closer to their homes in Wexford and the HSE has identified this development in Wexford as a service priority.

Unfortunately, the HSE's service target date of end 2012 for initiating this project could not be achieved due to a legal challenge which may affect the process. The HSE has obtained legal advice in relation to the initiation of a tender process for the satellite dialysis unit in Wexford and it concludes that this should not proceed until other legal matters are resolved. The HSE must await the outcome of the legal challenge prior to deciding on next steps. It intends to proceed with the tendering process for this satellite service as soon as possible after such matters have been resolved.

I would like to pass on the Minister, Deputy Reilly's thanks to the Deputy for raising this matter. The Minister would like to assure the Deputy of both his and the HSE's commitment to this project. It is unfortunate that it has been delayed by legal issues which are outside of the control of the Minister but he wants to reassure the Deputy that as soon as these matters have been resolved, the HSE intends to proceed with tendering for a unit in the Wexford environs as soon as possible thereafter.

I ask the Minister of State to convey to the HSE that it could be more imaginative in how it is dealing with this issue. It could provide haemodialysis until this legal issue is resolved. I am sure it could even put forward a short-term tendering contract to provide haemodialysis at Wexford General Hospital until this legal issue is resolved.

My suspicion is that the HSE is not so much lacking in imagination as lacking in concern for the patients involved and is hiding behind the legal issue. I ask the Minister to instruct the HSE to look at alternatives in the meantime, until the legal issue is resolved.

I will bring the Deputy's comments to the attention of the Minister for Health and the HSE.