Topical Issue Debate

Rural Development Programme Funding

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter, which is particularly topical as community and rural groups nationally await with interest announcements on the approval of funding for projects they have submitted through their local development partnerships, which are very important for jobs and stimulus in rural areas. Rural development groups have contributed enormously to rural development and job creation since the 1990s, as the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, is well aware. Thousands of communities of all sizes have benefited in many ways. There have been local heritage, cultural and tourism projects, while small rural businesses have created employment at the heart of communities. Voluntary and community groups have benefited from the provision of community halls, playgrounds, scouting facilities and support for festivals which stimulate local economies every year by attracting business and visitors to rural areas. We must not forget training and development, a process of capacity-building for citizens residing in rural communities.

In my county, more than 100 projects of substantial size have been approved through the Waterford Leader partnership in the last seven years. It is important to acknowledge the voluntary efforts of rural community groups and the time they devote to improving their local areas. Last year alone, funding was granted to the Ardmore Pattern Festival, the Lismore Music Festival, the Kilmacthomas river walk, the Portlaw footbridge, the Lismore Immrama Festival of Travel Writing, the Waterford Festival of Food and the Cheekpoint and Faithlegg playground, among many others. It is important to continue to support rural development groups in every possible way.

There has been a substantial increase in the number of proposals submitted to the Department this year. I understand the Minister has requested an evaluation of the entire programme, which is reasonable given the limited resources available. It is important that groups can access funding through their partnerships as soon as possible. They contribute very valuably to job creation and economic stimulus in areas that would never be reached without the existence of the rural development programme and the partnerships. I ask the Minister to tell the House if the evaluation has been completed. We are coming to the end of April and projects await approval to get up and running and so that money can be spent proactively within communities. I am interested to hear the Minister's response as I am hopeful he can approve the projects to release the stimulus funding into rural areas as soon as possible.

I thank the Acting Chairman, Deputy Ann Phelan. It is appropriate that she is in the Chair for this matter. Many Members from all parties have asked about this issue recently. I thank Deputy Coffey for using the time available to discuss topical issues to give me the opportunity to clarify matters.

The Leader elements of the Rural Development Programme 2007-13, which my Department delivers, are designed to address many of the challenges facing rural communities, including the need to increase economic activity and stimulate job creation. Expenditure under the programme has been progressing steadily and, to date, my Department has paid out over €176 million, of which €123 million was in direct project payments. This support has the capacity not only to facilitate access to sustainable employment opportunities in rural areas but also to help support sustainable rural communities and maintain healthy rural economies for business creation and development into the future.

I am pleased to announce that, following a thorough examination of project activity in local development companies, I will release a further €90 million in funding for the Leader elements of the rural development programme. As a first step, I am authorising the issuing of contracts for approximately €42 million worth of projects. I have given local development companies two weeks to notify my Department whether all of the relevant projects have the necessary approvals in place to proceed. Based on companies' responses and the remaining allocation under the programme, my Department will then notify each company of its revised allocation.

My Department had to pause project approvals in February 2013 as the value of the programme had decreased arising from the increase in the European Commission's co-funding rate from 55% to 85%. The Department had to determine the level of project commitments across all local development companies in order to rebalance the programme in as equitable a way as possible. Local development companies have continued to issue payments on all existing contractual commitments and, to date in 2013, my Department has paid out more than €14 million under the programme.

As to Deputy Coffey's question on the future of local development companies, I am keen that their expertise and experience will be harnessed as part of new structures I outlined in Putting People First: Action Programme for Effective Local Government. We need the best possible collaboration between the various programmes and entities that deliver public funding into our communities. Projects and front-line services must be put before administrative structures. The significant reform we are undertaking in our local government system will place local government in a stronger position to co-ordinate and oversee the community-focused funding delivered on an area basis. It is in keeping with the way in which we are enhancing local government's role in locally focused enterprise support. Local development companies and other local bodies will continue to play important roles in delivering services to communities and citizens in the context of the enhanced alignment between local government and local development.

The alignment of the community sector with local government will not affect funding for local community development companies, Tús and the rural social scheme, as that funding comes from the Exchequer. Rural development programme funding will come into the frame as it comes under the Common Agricultural Policy budget. Rural development funding will be finalised later this year with reference to available moneys determined by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and me in the context of the CAP budget. This arises on foot of the completion of the multi-annual financial framework by the European Commission and Heads of State in February. I want to deliver more projects as quickly as possible while ensuring good value for money in their administration between now and the end of the programme.

I thank the Minister for his very positive response. I welcome that he has kick-started the release of funding into communities. It does not go unnoticed that a further €19 million in funding for the Leader elements of the rural development programme will be approved along with contracts for approximately €42 million worth of projects. The funding will undoubtedly kick-start many projects nationally. In 2013 alone, Waterford will see the building of a scout centre in Dungarvan, the Tallow Futures project, the Stradbally playground park and machinery for small and medium-sized enterprises to help create employment.

I welcome the Minister's assurances on the continuing involvement of Leader groups under the proposed local government reforms. It is by combining the best attributes of the experience of Leader groups with the reach, expertise and accountability of local authorities and their elected members that we can deliver what is best for rural communities. Leader groups have met the Minister and many Deputies to discuss concerns about what the future holds. They sought the Minister's assurance on their involvement and his plans for local government reform and the continued flourishing of rural development projects in rural communities. It is what we are about. I welcome the positive news.

The Acting Chairman, Deputy Ann Phelan, will agree that Deputy Coffey needs all the money that is to be spent in Carlow-Kilkenny and elsewhere, so carried away did he get with all the projects he had in Waterford. I clarify for Deputy Coffey that we have €90 million available to spend, of which €42 million will be released immediately for projects that have been in the system for some time.

I am anxious that we will know in the next two weeks whether the projects are ready to go. If not, we will reallocate money to other locations in the same constituencies or counties for the purpose of delivering the programme. I do not want a situation, as happened in the past three years, where there is an underspend in the Leader groups around the country. I had to carry over money in the past three years in order to ensure we maintained the moneys in the total programme. Instead of concentrating on alignment between community and local government, local action groups should get their act together and spend the money within the year allocated, get the project submitted and get it approved. The project should be properly evaluated and I call on the local action groups to get on with the work they are contracted to do between now and the end of the programme period. I am glad to provide clarity on these issues. We have an opportunity to develop job opportunities and rural development opportunities in each of the local action group areas.

Credit Availability

A taxi driver in my constituency is a friend of my family. He contacted me a number of weeks ago. He had an issue with his car and needed finance to get his car repaired so he could continue going to work and earn a living. Given the industry he works in, his income has declined dramatically over the past number of years, as is the case for an enormous number of people. His mortgage is in arrears. He goes to the credit union for finance. He went to his credit union in Galway and was told that, on the basis that his mortgage was in arrears for a period in excess of 12 months, he was not entitled to access credit and the credit union could not lend to him. He was told this was on the basis of a circular from the Central Bank issued to credit unions on 22 February 2013. The paragraph in the circular to credit unions on prudent lending states, "An important factor in determining creditworthiness in the current environment is whether a member is already in difficulty in repaying existing debt and in particular mortgage debt." The Central Bank expects "a credit union must be fully satisfied as to a member's creditworthiness and ability to service all debts before advancing any new credit or top up facilities". The paragraph suggest that if one is in trouble with debts and unable to manage them, which is the case with this man who is unable to meet his mortgage, they are not to be lent any money. He was refused a loan by the credit union in order to get money for his taxi and get back out on the road to earn a living. As a result of the phone call from my constituent and family friend, I made contact with a number of credit unions in Galway, St. Columba's Credit Union and Naomh Pádraig Credit Union, to get their views on how this is having an impact on customers. While it is not hitting them at the moment, it is working its way through and the credit unions are coming across examples where they are unable to lend to people in trouble because of their interpretation of the guidelines.

Another case arose in my discussion with St. Columba's Credit Union involving people who wanted to borrow money to buy a headstone for their son. They were in a similar situation, with an interest only mortgage for longer than 12 months, and the credit union believed it was prohibited from lending any more money to this type of person. The situation has undermined the spirit of what the credit union movement is about. The credit union is about this kind of case, where someone needs credit on a flexible basis and where the person is known to the credit union as someone in the community with a relationship with the credit union for years. Now, we are pushing people away from the friendly, accessible, fair system, with its community focus. We are running the risk of pushing people from the credit union to moneylenders and loan sharks when they are in desperate need. My friend was able to get finance from his family but if he had not been able to, he would not have had the money to put his taxi back on the road. This is not something I am making up; it really happened and is a problem. I ask the Minister of State to clarify with the Central Bank whether this is the case. The wording before me is what is in the circular. If it is being interpreted this way, it is wrong and the Central Bank needs to change it.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue and clarifying it. The Central Bank of Ireland issued a circular to all credit unions on 22 February 2013 regarding prudential lending. The circular emphasises the need for credit unions to assess adequately the creditworthiness of applications for credit and in particular the need to collect sufficient information about borrowers' mortgage circumstances. The Central Bank informed me that the circular does not contain new requirements for credit unions. It highlights the changed operating environment for credit unions arising from the introduction of the new personal insolvency regime and reminds credit unions to take it into account when assessing the credit worthiness of members applying for loans.

An important factor in determining creditworthiness in the current environment is whether a member is already in difficulty repaying existing debt and, in particular, mortgage debt. The circular refers credit unions to their existing obligations under the European Communities regulations of 2010, which were transposed into Irish law on 11 June 2010. Specifically, the attention of credit unions is drawn to their obligation to assess the creditworthiness of customers. The circular states: "Before concluding an agreement with a customer, a creditor shall assess the consumer's creditworthiness on the basis of sufficient information, where appropriate obtained from the consumer and, where necessary, on the basis of a consultation of the relevant database." The circular also refers to other conditions that were part of the European framework. The Central Bank expects credit unions to carry out appropriate credit assessment in all cases. The circular does not prohibit credit unions from providing short-term finance to its members, taking account of the credit unions' financial capacity to do so and the members' ability to repay. The Central Bank circular does not impose restrictions on credit unions from lending any funds to people in distress with mortgage arrears. Its focus is on the need to assess creditworthiness properly and to make provisions to cover potential losses within the credit union as a whole.

It must be remembered that within her independent regulatory discretion, the Registrar of Credit Unions acts to support the prudential soundness of individual credit unions, to maintain sector stability and to protect the savings of credit union members. In February, the Central Bank invited banking and credit union representatives to a number of meetings to discuss the creation of a workable burden sharing agreement between secured and unsecured lenders. Discussions between banking and credit union representatives are ongoing. In conclusion, the Government has brought forward a number of reforms to improve the regulatory system in Ireland. The protection of consumers remains a core focus of the Government's attention and we will continue to work on resolving issues that arise. The Department and the Central Bank are aware of the issues raised by the sector.

What was in the circular is not new to the existing regulatory environment and framework. It is probably a matter of interpretation, as Deputy Nolan pointed out, and an overzealous interpretation by local credit unions, which are understandably concerned by this because of the new regulatory situation. Nonetheless, they want to ensure that any assessment of creditworthiness across the customer base is done in a prudential way. This issue arose from the most recent report on credit unions. I welcome the opportunity to put this information on record. If there are significant issues of interpretation, it may be useful for the Registrar of Credit Unions or the Central Bank to issue further directives.

I thank the Minister of State for the succinctness of his reply. I spent a number of years working in finance. The circular suggests it is the credit union's obligation to assess the creditworthiness of someone before lending money. A person in mortgage arrears for more than 12 months is de facto not a creditworthy person. The Central Bank expects a credit union to be fully satisfied as to the creditworthiness and ability to service all debts before advancing any new credit.

By virtue of being in mortgage arrears, one is not capable of servicing all one's debts. If the circular was written in such a fashion as to give a false interpretation to the credit unions as outlined, clarification needs to be issued by the Central Bank of Ireland to the credit unions so they have it in writing. The Minister of State is right that credit unions are coming under new scrutiny, which they have not come under before, and new regulatory frameworks, which is intimidating to them as it is different, and they are trying to abide by them.

I agree with the Minister of State that this statement was not ambiguous but was straightforward. However, if it is capable of such misinterpretation, it needs to be clarified urgently. Will the Minister of State use his office to ensure that clarity is given to the credit unions so that the instance I outlined, which happened in Galway on two occasions, does not happen again?

This is a useful exchange. There is a recognition in government, as there is on all sides of this House, of the importance of the credit union sector in terms of lending for the short and medium terms. It is an absolutely crucial part of the financial environment for the country. The credit union sector has come through a difficult time, as have other financial institutions, but we need to see a proper assessment and lending policy throughout the sector. However, people must also be aware of prudential risk, which arose in some cases concerning the credit union sector.

The point Deputy Nolan made was useful. We will certainly transmit his views to the Central Bank of Ireland and if further clarification is sought on this matter from the credit union sector, it would be useful. The opportunity the Deputy has afforded me to put this matter on the record, and in terms of raising it in this public way and seeking potential clarification from the Central Bank of Ireland, is useful.

Pension Provisions

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this very important issue arising from the report on pensions the Government commissioned from the OECD. The OECD report reveals a very serious situation - a looming time bomb. As somebody said, the time bomb has been ticking for some time but the ticking is getting ever louder. I raise this issue to ascertain the Government's position on the matter, in so far as one can.

Currently, there are 5.3 people under pension age for one person over the age of 65. By the middle of the century, it is estimated that figure will decrease to two people under the age of 65 for every one person over the age of 65. The Minister will be aware that the reported highlighted that almost 50% of people between the ages of 20 and 60 have made no provision whatsoever for their pensions. The report recommended that the Government should make a definitive choice on the future structure of private pensions even if economic circumstances currently do not enable that to be put in place. The report gives a choice between a means tested pension or a basic pension for everybody. Has the Minister any views on that?

I recall when the then Government received the last report on pensions in 2010, it recommended a system of auto-enrolment where employers would pay a certain amount, the Government and taxpayers would put up a certain amount and the pensioner would contribute a certain amount. I think the proposal at the time was that everybody would be automatically put into the scheme but they would have the right to opt out.

This report takes a different view - perhaps it is right in principle - that the only way to make this sustainable is by compulsion, although I presume one starts at a very low level. It is a bit ironic that on the very day the OECD report was published, a report was published by an organisation called Amárach which stated that one in four people would be pushed into arrears with their bills if their income dropped by €50 per month. We are also aware of the much-quoted findings of the Irish League of Credit Unions that 1.8 million people have a disposable income of less than €50 per month. In those circumstances, it is utterly unrealistic to talk about compulsion at this point in time.

The report referred to the defined benefit pension schemes situation. The Minister will be aware that anything between 80% and 90% of defined benefit pension schemes are currently technically insolvent. I know it is the Government's intention in the pensions legislation, because it is has been said a number of times in this House, to change the priority in the event of the wind-up of a defined benefit scheme to make it more equitable than it is currently where the existing pensioners take everything to which they are entitled while the remainder goes to people who, in many cases, may have been contributing for decades.

There is a looming situation in Waterford Glass and the new provision the Government intends to make will not be made in time to save people who are currently paying pensions in Waterford Glass. I would like to hear the Minister's comments on that and on the recommendation in the report that defined contribution schemes should be better designed. Will the Minister facilitate a debate on the report?

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. The sustainability of our pension system is of particular concern because, as a country, we have the bonus of many more people living much longer. However, we also have many more children being born. As the Deputy pointed out, there are five people of working age to every one person of retirement age but by the middle of this century, that will have shifted to a likely figure of two people working to one person of retirement age, so it is a challenge.

In that context in April 2012, on behalf of the Government, I asked the OECD, to conduct a focused review of Ireland's pension policy, while taking economic conditions into consideration, and to provide recommendations for long-term reform. The review was published the other day and it looks at the totality of pension provision in the State in the private, occupational and public sectors. The report was informed by extensive consultation undertaken by the OECD. I point out, however, that was not costed and simply sets out the landscape of possibilities, the current situation in Ireland and how we compare with other countries.

As the Deputy will be aware, Fianna Fáil, when in government, commissioned numerous reports on pensions and at one stage it indicated that the old age pension would rise to €300 per week and that it would set out a plan for an auto-enrolment system.

The review also shows us what other OECD countries do with comparable systems. The shared objective of everybody in this House, from all parties and none, is to provide for a sustainable pensions system. As I believe the former Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, said, a pensions system is expensive to provide for. The objective is to provide for an adequate and sustainable basic standard of living through direct State supports and to encourage people, through generous tax reliefs, to make supplementary pension provision in order that they may have an adequate income replacement rate when they retire from work. While the State pension is expected to provide sufficient retirement income for the lowest paid workers, many people retiring from work will have a significant income gap if they do not make supplementary private pension provision.

The old age pension is commended in the report as a very significant support because pensioners have the lowest rate of risk of poverty of people receiving income from the Department of Social Protection. That is to be celebrated. However, only 51% of people in employment between the ages of 20 and 69 years have pension coverage. I am particularly concerned that women and low paid workers are in that group and do not make sufficient pension provision.

The relatively low rate of pension coverage is a key concern of the Government. That is why the programme for Government includes a commitment to reforming the pensions system to achieve universal coverage progressively, with a particular focus on lower paid and female workers. It is for this reason the introduction of an auto-enrolment system is being considered.

The report does not make absolute choices. It ranks potential choices in order of preference. The authors have suggested a mandatory system. The second suggestion is an auto-enrolment system, which the Deputy stated Fianna Fáil had proposed in its last pensions document in early 2010. In moving to any system we must be conscious of the economic circumstances of citizens. As a country, we must plan for pensions, even if it might be difficult for people to put aside additional funds for pensions out of already stretched incomes. The OECD and I are very conscious of this. However, to paraphrase Mr. Rahm Emanuel, sometimes a time of crisis is the time to plan for the future, even if one cannot do what one wants immediately.

The policy recommendations involve a number of Departments. Let me summarise the main findings. The economic situation of pensioners in Ireland is comparatively good, both with respect to other age groups in the population and by international comparison. Ireland is facing challenges regarding the financial sustainability of the pensions system as the population ages. Private pension coverage, both in occupational and personal pensions, is uneven and needs to be increased urgently. Pension charges are expensive for small occupational and personal pension schemes. The State pension system lacks transparency. The State pension scheme could be modernised to encourage working longer, in line with the prevailing international trend. The new scheme for the public service is being phased in only very slowly and unlikely to affect a majority of public sector workers for a long time. These are the key findings. None of the options set out has been costed.

With regard to the Deputy's specific query on defined benefit schemes, he will be aware that Fianna Fáil suspended the funding standard in 2008 after the bank guarantee on the assumption that the difficulties with pension schemes, as with the difficulties with the banking system, would be very short-lived. It was believed we would be out of the difficulty in a couple of months. Many defined benefit schemes are experiencing difficulties. I have been engaged in very intensive work with all of the stakeholders involved in the schemes. They are very important and we are examining a range of proposals. The Deputy has issued some thoughts on the matter. He is suggesting the guaranteed amount for existing pensioners could be €6,000, or €12,000 to equate with the State pension. There are difficult decisions to be made.

Reference was made to various surveys of living costs. The irony is that in Ireland there is an extraordinary amount of savings. Some people have considerable savings because they are concerned about the future, while others find it extremely difficult to make ends meet.

The report makes certain recommendations about public sector pensions. It is stated a single scheme should be devised for both public servants and those who would otherwise have private pensions. Does the Minister agree with this?

The report states the incentives for people to save are not properly aligned with the notion of maximising the retirement benefit for low and middle income earners. Does the Government have proposals to advance in this regard?

Does the Minister share the reservations of the OECD group on encouraging pension fund managers to invest in major domestic infrastructural projects?

The most important incentives or the tax breaks for people who invest in private pensions reached their height under Fianna Fáil. We know of quite a number of individuals who were able to build up pension pots of €20 million to €30 million as a consequence of the extraordinary pension-related tax incentives Fianna Fáil provided for very-----

The Minister has been in office for two years. What are her proposals?

I am just talking about what we have inherited. My view on tax incentives is set out in the programme for Government. I had this discussion over a long period with Fianna Fáil's former leader Mr. Brian Cowen when he was Minister for Finance. Finally, after several years of debate with me, he commissioned a study that indicated there were extraordinary pension pots of €20 million to €30 million arising from the Fianna Fáil tax schemes.

The programme for Government implies the State should not tax-subsidise pension provision where pensions in excess of €60,000 per year are provided for. Most pensioners listening to us will know that a pension of €60,000 per year is a very handsome one for most. The tax relief, therefore, should be targeted at lower and middle income earners. The Deputy will be aware that in the budget proposals for this year the Minister for Finance has agreed to bring forward legislation, commencing next year, to address the structuring of reliefs.

The Deputy referred to alignment. The issue is very simple. Only 51% of people have made private pension provision. Those who are not covered include women, lower paid workers and those who change jobs frequently. The latter leave behind any pension entitlement they accumulate in a given job. The proposal made in the report, with which I broadly concur, is that pension relief should be targeted at the people in question. I hope the Deputy will be able to agree with this.

Accident and Emergency Services Provision

In the past week or so a local newspaper in County Wicklow reported on what can only be described as a secret meeting involving the Tánaiste and senior administrators and medical personnel from St. Vincent's and Loughlinstown hospitals. It was also attended by Deputies from County Wicklow and the Labour Party Senator Aideen Hayden.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the Government's intention to downgrade the 24-hour accident and emergency service at Loughlinstown hospital to that of a minor injury unit and to transfer the accident and emergency service to St. Vincent's hospital.

I find it strange that the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, rather than the Minister or either Minister of State at the Department of Health is taking this matter. I find strange also that no Deputy from Dún Laoghaire was invited to a meeting to discuss an issue which has been very controversial for quite a few years. Despite that I have raised this matter during the Topical Issue debate on several occasions and have tabled numerous questions about it the Department, or whoever organised the meeting, did not have the courtesy to invite representatives from the Dún Laoghaire area, where the hospital is located. It is extraordinary that this should have happened. This smacks of political manipulation of the worst kind and shows disrespect not only to the elected representatives from the Dún Laoghaire area, but, more important, to the people of Dún Laoghaire, Loughlinstown, Shankill, Ballybrack and other areas surrounding the hospital.

I understand that at the meeting people were informed of the Minister's intention to bring a proposal to Cabinet to reconfigure accident and emergency services in south Dublin by downgrading the 24-hour accident and emergency service at Loughlinstown hospital. I would like to know why Deputies from Dún Laoghaire were not invited to the meeting. Had this anything to do with the fact that I and others have campaigned against the downgrading of these services? Also, where are the details of this reconfiguration? I understand that people were also told at the meeting that this reconfiguration would result in a better, safer and more efficient service. Given the large numbers of people regularly left lying for hours and often days on trolleys at the accident and emergency unit at St. Vincent's hospital it is hard to understand how it will cope with the overflow of the approximately 21,000 people per year who attend the accident and emergency unit at Loughlinstown hospital.

Can the Minister of State confirm that the hospitals' budget for the reconfigured services will remain the same? I understand they are to decrease by 3%. As such, not only will the accident and emergency service be downgraded but the budget to deal with the same volume of cases will be smaller. How does all of this tally with the long stated commitment of the Tánaiste, who is from Dún Laoghaire and, mysteriously, was invited to the meeting when other representatives of the area were not, to upgrade Loughlinstown hospital to a regional hospital and with the Government's commitment to care in the community and so on? This reconfiguration will result in a displacement of services so that they will be at an ever greater distance from people in the Wicklow and Dún Laoghaire areas.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which I am responding to on behalf of the Minister for Health.

Small hospitals, such as St. Columcille's hospital, Loughlinstown need to be supported within a hospital group. This is necessary for the safe management of patients who present with varying levels of complexity, for education and training, continuous professional development and the sustainable recruitment of high quality clinical staff. The framework for smaller hospitals, to be published in the near future, and the hospital groups report, define the role of small hospitals. The framework outlines the need for small and large hospitals to operate together and the wide range of services that can be provided within smaller hospitals. It also sets out to address the services that should transfer from large to small hospitals and vice versa within a group. This allows services to be delivered in the most appropriate hospital and as close to the patient's home as possible.

In developing the framework for the development of small hospitals, the Government is clear on the important role that can be played by small hospitals in terms of the provision of more rather than fewer services for more patients. With this in mind, the framework will set out what services can and should be delivered safely by these hospitals in the interest of better outcomes for patients. Local hospitals may deliver services such as ambulatory care, including chronic disease management and day surgery, diagnostics and rehabilitation services and have minor injuries and medical assessment units. Local injuries units treat patients with minor injuries such as suspected broken bones, sprains and strains, facial injuries, minor scalds and burns. Patients can self-refer or can be referred by their general practitioner. Medical assessment units receive general practitioner referrals and provide access to diagnostic services. Patients will be admitted, if necessary. Those requiring interventions not available in the local hospital will be transferred to the larger hospital under appropriate protocols.

The organisation of hospital services nationally, regionally and locally will be informed by the HSE clinical programmes, including the HSE report of the national acute medicine programme, which recognises the essential role of large and small hospitals in the delivery of acute care services. Loughlinstown hospital provides joint acute hospital services with St. Vincent's and St. Michael's, Dún Laoghaire. Together, they provide a range of services for the catchment of Dublin south-east and Wicklow across three sites in a collaborative arrangement. In this context HSE Dublin-mid-Leinster is reorganising services provided at St. Columcille's in South County Dublin. This reorganisation is in the interests of patient safety and better service provision. It is planned to proceed with reorganisation on publication of the small hospitals framework, with a lead-in time of six to eight weeks. There has been ongoing communication with staff and local public representatives and a detailed communication plan has been developed for use at implementation stage.

On the Deputy's question of why he was not invited to the meeting, I imagine it would be up to the management team and clinical staff of the hospital to invite representatives to a meeting. All of the invitations which I have received to attend meetings at Sligo General Hospital were from management at the hospital.

The Minister of State's response is not satisfactory. Virtually every month for the past year and a half I have asked what is happening in regard to the reconfiguration of services in this area and about the possible downgrading of accident and emergency services at Loughlinstown hospital. I have been told time and again by the Minister, Deputy Reilly, that the report is imminent but it has not yet materialised. Lo and behold a secret meeting takes place at which everybody but those who have expressed opposition to the plan are told what is proposed. Even now, I do not know what is planned. The response provided by the Minister does not give details in regard to what will happen.

I understand that people at the meeting were told that the 24-hour accident and emergency service at Loughlinstown hospital will be downgraded to a minor injuries surgery which will operate from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., which is a substantial downgrading. How can the Minister claim, as suggested in the response, that this reconfiguration will, as a result of their being more experience people in particular areas, improve services when budgets are falling and St. Vincent's hospital accident and emergency service is already, judging by the number of people regularly on trolleys for hours and days there, unable to cope? How is St. Vincent's to cope with the overflow from Loughlinstown hospital once downgraded, which overflow is also likely to result in a deterioration of the service available to people living in the areas surrounding St. Vincent's hospital? Reference was made to proximity to the home in terms of the provision of services.

The hospital was situated in Loughlinstown precisely to provide services for people in areas as far as south Wicklow, as well as in Cherrywood, Shankill and so on. The people living in these areas will now have to travel much further to access these services. This decision flies in the face of the commitment to provide services for people closer to home.

The message in this respect could not be more clear. The hospital provides acute hospital services jointly with St. Vincent's University Hospital and St. Michael's Hospital in Dún Laoghaire. This reorganisation does not represent a downgrading of the hospital in Loughlinstown but a reconfiguration of services. The Deputy does not appear to have heard clearly the message contained in the reply. This reorganisation of services is in the interests of patient safety and providing a better service. It is planned to proceed with the reorganisation of services on publication of the report.

The Deputy may be a little peeved that he was not at the meeting, but the fact is that the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, is doing an outstanding job in the reconfiguration of hospitals. I am familiar with this issue from the perspective of the status of the regional hospital in Sligo which covers a vast region. There are three hospitals and under the plan, there will be a reconfiguration of services and a defining of the services to be delivered in each hospital. This is a very intelligent plan, about which I would not be as pessimistic as the Deputy. When he has read the publication, he will note the opportunity the reconfiguration of services presents.