Topical Issue Debate

Air Services Provision

The new speaking-time clocks are being used today. The time indicated on the screen during the Topical Issue debate will be the time allowed to the proposer and the Minister for the initial statement and reply - that is, four minutes each - and the time for each supplementary question and reply, which is two minutes each. I ask Deputies to comply with the time limits as running over time reduces the time available for other Deputies.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for selecting this issue. I tabled it because a direct commercial air route between Ireland and Asia would open up further opportunities for the creation of jobs and investment in the country and, in particular, add to our tourism potential. Deputies may recall that when Ireland qualified for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, Aer Lingus offered charter flights to Tokyo and thousands of people went over to follow the national team. Unfortunately, a permanent route never took hold. In recent years we have seen great progress in Ireland's aviation industry. We have a state-of-the-art second terminal in Dublin airport from where one can fly to more destinations than ever before.

Our national carrier has flights to multiple destinations in the United States and North America. It has direct routes to large metropolitan areas and hubs such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Washington DC, Philadelphia and others and is adding San Francisco shortly. Seasonal routes have been in place to some Canadian cities, in particular, Toronto, for a number of years. Because of the number of carriers and options, people in Ireland have never had any problem reaching the United States and North America. We also have direct links to the Middle East. Emirates runs a daily service to Dubai and its sister airline, Etihad Airways, serves Abu Dhabi, both in the United Arab Emirates, yet we do not have a direct commercial air route between Ireland and the most populated continent on the planet. It has been identified time and again that such a route to an Asian city could be of significant potential to the economy.

Trade between Ireland and China is worth approximately €8 billion annually. Last year when the then Vice President, Xi Jinping, visited Ireland, it created major interest in China in the same way that US first lady Michelle Obama's visit to Ireland, including Glendalough, created major interest in America. On becoming president, he issued an invitation to the Ceann Comhairle to bring over a delegation, of which I was a member, earlier this year when we had an opportunity to meet him and other senior administrators in the Chinese Government. It is obvious that there is major potential in China alone, not to mention the other countries around it such as Indonesia and Thailand. Since the Dáil last sat in July, three Ministers have been on trade missions to China, increasing awareness in the Chinese business community of Ireland's potential as an investment location. We visited several Irish companies which have a big presence in China, the global headquarters of one of which remains in Cork and which could see major potential in further business development there. Our ambassador to China, Mr. Declan Kelleher, who has just finished an eight year term is a fluent Mandarin speaker and has done Trojan work in developing Chinese-Irish relationships.

We must continue to support the development of an innovation-friendly, pro-competition regulatory framework for aviation if Ireland is to be successful in our endeavours. We must continue to encourage new entrants to the Irish aviation sector. Dublin Airport has a state-of-the-art Terminal 2. As neither terminal is overstretched, it could accommodate more capacity.

Enhanced air access to key business and tourism markets around the world has always been a key element of Ireland's aviation policy. A direct service between Ireland and Asia, particularly to and from China, would be of huge benefit to our trade relations with key Asian economies and for inbound tourism. Our export trade to China alone is worth around €3.8 billion, with an import figure of €2.1 billion, and a direct air link would act as a stimulus to further growth in this area. Ireland has bilateral air transport agreements with a number of Asian countries, including China, India, Malaysia and Singapore. These agreements provide the legal framework for scheduled air services between Ireland and these countries. However, while these agreements have been in place for quite some time, there has been very little interest from the airlines in direct services.

Under our agreement with China, it is open to any Irish, EU or Chinese airline to operate services between the two countries. The establishment of such a service, however, has to be market driven; ultimately, therefore, it is a commercial decision for the airlines entitled to operate routes under the agreement. Most of our airports and Tourism Ireland have attractive incentives and co-operative marketing programmes available to encourage airlines to develop new services and help support new services and routes once they are up and running. The Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, recently signed a twinning agreement with Beijing Capital International Airport which will allow the two companies to co-operate to further commercial and tourism links between the two cities. The agreement is also designed to enable the two airports to engage in a joint marketing initiative to deliver direct airline services between Dublin and Beijing.

While we do not yet have direct air links to Asia, Ireland has extensive one-stop connectivity with most major cities in Asia through established European hubs such as Heathrow, Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt airports. Connectivity with Asia has been further enhanced in recent years with direct services from Dublin to Istanbul by Turkish Airlines, the commencement of Etihad services to Abu Dhabi in 2007 which run ten times a week and, more recently, daily Emirates services to Dubai, all offering one-stop connectivity to a large number of points in Asia through their respective hubs.

As mentioned, aviation is a key enabler of economic growth. It is important, therefore, that there is a clear policy framework in place to facilitate its continued development and optimise the contribution the sector can make to the economy. As a first step in the process to develop a new national aviation policy, my Department and the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, hosted a conference on 3 December 2012 in the National Convention Centre to hear the views of stakeholders and start the debate on the issue. Taking account of the issues raised at the conference, an issues paper was published on my Department's website in February 2013. The paper poses a number of questions and covers eight broad areas: airports; air services; regulation and governance; aircraft leasing and finance; aerospace, education and training; general aviation; and sustainability. A total of 74 submissions were received in response to the consultation from a wide range of interests. The number and quality of the submissions received are very encouraging and demonstrate the strong interest there is in shaping future aviation policy in Ireland. The submissions are being reviewed and the intention is that a draft national aviation policy statement will be issued before the end of the year which will provide a further opportunity for stakeholder input before the adoption of the new policy document in early 2014.

The importance of connectivity generally is highlighted in a number of the submissions and the importance of direct services to Asia is also raised. The Ireland China Association made a submission highlighting the benefits which could follow from services to China. My Department and I will continue to work closely with the airport authorities, airlines and tourism agencies to encourage the development of direct air links with Asia. The intention behind developing the new aviation policy is to provide a clear framework for the expansion of the sector and, in particular, improving our international connectivity. However, decisions on individual air routes will be made on a commercial basis by the airlines in question which must be confident they will be able to sell a sufficient number of seats at a sufficient price to cover their costs and make a profit.

I thank the Minister for taking this issue and his comprehensive answer. For any airline to consider a direct route, it would have to be based on a commercial principle. The fact that there are reasonable one-stop alternatives in place is something we would have to examine. Nonetheless, for many years we have tended to look to markets in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe in the first instance, as well as North America. Particularly in agri-food exports, we have competed with the Australasian countries which now have greater direct access to Asian destinations, particularly Hong Kong and Bangkok, if not China. There are other reasons they have historically become the destinations and hubs. We are still competing with them, but our market has moved and we need to follow it as best we can. It has been proved time and again that one needs as direct access as possible. Tourists will visit the first country they come to. The Emirates flights give people direct access from the Middle East to Ireland as opposed to another major European city, which is welcome.

However, there is further potential in China and elsewhere in Asia. We should work with the industry and carriers to see if they will take a risk, even for a 12 month pilot initiative, to see how we get on.

Deputy Doyle and I are in broad agreement on this matter. Direct services from Ireland to Asia, and China in particular, would be beneficial. One stop access is useful but not as good as direct services by any means. Routes would of course have to operate on a commercial basis because we are not going to use taxpayers' money to subsidise businessmen travelling to and from China. However, the Government and State companies can help. For example, Tourism Ireland offered marketing supports on the San Francisco route and other long haul services to promote the new routes. The Dublin Airport Authority, Shannon Airport and other airports can also offer incentives in this regard. The normal incentive offered by State airports for new long haul routes is to waive airport charges for five years. These elements are in place and the Government can also step in with bilateral air service agreements and freedom rights where necessary. It is something we are keen to see happen. Improved access to the Middle East has been delivered and the west coast of the USA will be accessible from next year. After that, year round flights to Moscow and direct access to China or another Asian country are the next tasks on the list.

Community Nursing Units

I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, for taking this Topical Issue. We are revisiting the question of nursing homes in County Laois. I want to deal directly with the nursing homes in Abbeyleix, Shaen and Mountmellick. More than two years ago a campaign was started to save Abbeyleix and Shaen hospitals. In the intervening period we have organised marches, petitions and meetings with Ministers in an effort to resolve the issues arising. On 9 December 2011 the HSE wrote to the relatives of patients stating that the HSE's decision to revoke its earlier decision to close the Abbeyleix unit was intended to enable a consultation process regarding the potential closure of the nursing homes. A long and protracted consultation process took place after that letter was issued and it was finally completed in August 2012. The Minister of State confirmed at that stage that all relevant documentation, information and submissions were presented to the designated officer in the HSE, who was to formulate recommendations for submission to the Department of Health. We were led to believe that once these recommendations had been submitted a decision would be made prior to Christmas. The Minister for Health was expected to make an announcement in advance of that date. Several other dates came and went on which announcements were expected regarding Abbeyleix and Shaen.

On 30 April the Minister of State noted in reply to a parliamentary question that the recommendations were being considered by the Minister and that it was anticipated an announcement would be made shortly in respect of both facilities. Nothing has happened in this regard. Government sources were letting it be known in the constituency that a decision would be made before the summer recess but that did not happen either.

According to HIQA, capacity for up to 34 beds is to be approved in Abbeyleix. The occupancy figure has fallen well below 20. The picture in Shaen is similar. I am concerned that the Department and the HSE is deliberately reducing the number of patients in each of these facilities in order to make them look uneconomical because the staff-patient ratio will result in a cost per patient that is high enough to justify their closure.

St. Joseph's ward in Mountmellick nursing home was closed during the term of the last Fianna Fáil-led Government. It is a modern facility which needs to be brought back into use for the growing number of elderly patients in the county. Patients and their families have been anxiously waiting. The hospital committees, which are very supportive, have also been waiting anxiously waiting. The staff are looking for answers. I cannot get an answer as a local representative even though I have been told repeatedly that the issue will be addressed. We should be getting certainty after waiting two years.

I thank Deputy Stanley for raising this issue. He is correct that significant concerns have been expressed on this issue over the past two years but I think he will acknowledge that the reversal of the original decision was a good thing. It is important that we take our time when we make our decisions. There are six public nursing units in counties Laois and Offaly, namely, Abbeyleix Community Nursing Unit, St. Brigid's Hospital, Shaen, Birr Community Nursing Unit, St. Vincent's Hospital, Mountmellick, Riada House, Tullamore, and Ofalia House, Edenderry. All six were registered with the Health Information and Quality Authority in 2012 for a period of three years. In recent times the future of facilities at Shaen and Abbeyleix has been under consideration by the Health Service Executive. Mountmellick has not been considered in this context.

In October and November 2011 the HSE announced the closure of St. Brigid's Hospital, Shaen, and Abbeyleix Community Nursing Unit. However, in recognition of strong views held by residents and others, the HSE agreed to review the position for both facilities and to embark on an entirely new consideration of relevant issues. This new process began with a comprehensive consultation exercise. Central HSE protocol sets out how consultations and subsequent decision making should operate in this context. This protocol sets out the following - who should be consulted, including residents, next of kin, interested parties, action groups, public representatives, unions and staff representation; and a named HSE official, known as the designated officer should be given responsibility for considering all of the available views, information and evidence, and for proposing a course of action based on these considerations. The factors that should be considered by the designated officer are also specified in the protocol. These include issues arising from the range of views expressed through the consultation process, the context and validity of the submissions received, an assessment by the relevant managers of the position, a medical review of the residents and relevant additional information. This protocol was applied in May 2012 with the launch of a public consultation process regarding a proposal to consolidate the number of nursing units in the Midlands and the potential closure of Abbeyleix and St. Brigid's Hospital.

Arising from the public consultation, all relevant information and submissions were presented to the designated officer on 16 August 2012. Almost 100 submissions were received and over 60 meetings took place with interested parties, 55 of which were with residents or next-of-kin. In line with the HSE protocol, the designated officer confirmed that the relevant procedures and processes had been fully adhered to in considering these cases. He also confirmed that he reviewed all submissions received along with the other relevant documentation described above. All of the available relevant information is currently being re-examined by the HSE with a view to finalising a recommendation to the Department and this process is expected to conclude shortly. An announcement will be made at the earliest opportunity once the Minister receives the HSE's definitive position.

I agree with the Deputy that people find themselves in a type of limbo but the position is much better now than was the case two years ago. An announcement is expected shortly.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. It is good to see her in full health again. I heard that she had a bit of a mishap.

The Minister of State has outlined the process in a very comprehensive way. The problem is that the designated officer has had these papers since 16 August 2012. Today is 18 September 2013 and more than 13 months have elapsed. I agree with the Minister of State that it is good it was stalled because it gave us a chance to make the case. I note that she has stated an announcement will be made shortly which I welcome, but I have heard it before, as have many others. Does the Government have a comprehensive plan for efficient public nursing home provision in the State? The Minister for Finance is in the House and will state he does not have money to throw around. However, if the number of patients is reduced and we have a high ratio of staff to patients, the cost will increase. There is no need for this to happen in Abbeyleix because it has facilities for 34 people. Does the Government have a plan for a good and efficient network of public nursing homes? Is the plan to continue what the previous Government did, which was to run down and reduce the number of public nursing home beds in the State such that we would be left with a tiny number where only the highest dependency patients, those the private nursing homes will not touch with a barge pole, would be taken? That is my concern. Will the Minister of State give an indication as to whether we must wait another two years, two months or two weeks? The HSE has had the papers for 13 months. How long does it take it to make a decision?

I agree that we cannot wait another two years for a decision, but I am not certain the decision will be made by the HSE. It will make a recommendation and ultimately the Minister will make the decision.

I understand that.

I hope it will be done very shortly, as people need to know exactly what the future holds for them. We have 129 public nursing units in the State. Very good research and work have been done in the past two years and we have discovered that we have sufficient beds for now, but I agree that there will come a point when we will not have enough because of our ageing population, which is a Europe-wide problem. We will eventually need additional public and private nursing home beds. We must ensure that when it comes to State-provided care which we must accept is more expensive because of a myriad of elements involved, older people are correctly placed. We know that in the past people were very inappropriately placed and we do not want this to happen again. As we age, we do not want this to happen to us. Work and research have been done and we are very conscious of our future needs.

What about the timeframe involved?

I cannot give an exact answer, but I will commit to making further inquiries as a result of this question and try to get an answer for the Deputy.

HIQA Reports

During the summer a report was published which outlined huge failings by a number of health care providers in hospitals throughout the country with regard to hygiene. Last week Dr. Tracey Cooper from HIQA appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. She stated hand hygiene good practice did not require monetary investment. It is not often we hear that improving outcomes for patients does not require money. What it does require is cultural change and leadership. Some of those best paid from the public purse are hospital consultants and they should be the leaders and drivers of change in culture in hospitals. However, basic issues such as hand hygiene standards are not adhered to.

During an unannounced visit to Waterford Regional Hospital in June, 45 hand hygiene opportunities were observed by the relevant person but only 20 were taken, of which only 19 were compliant. This is a serious breach of trust between the public and care providers. Over the weekend I had the misfortune of having to attend the local accident and emergency department with a family member. We received wonderful service and were tended to very efficiently by the staff. On our way in I observed there was no signage to tell members of the public to clean their hands. We had to seek hand gel. This is very basic. We have an issue with trying to change the culture in hospitals and this issue needs to be examined. It does not require monetary investment, but we know from evidence and best practice throughout the world that it is the single most effective way to ensure we prevent health care associated infections.

I have spoken to people who have tragically lost family members to health care associated infections. What recourse will there be with regard to hospitals in breach of such basic hand hygiene standards? HIQA's role is to monitor and work with hospitals to try to improve hand hygiene, but there are no consequences for public hospitals which continually fail to meet basic hygiene standards. It is our wish that we will never have to impose sanctions on hospitals for failing to meet hygiene standards, but it is imperative that we act to ensure hospitals are encouraged and supported to meet them. I am sure other public representatives have also come across people who are afraid to go to hospital because they fear they may become sicker, rather than getting better. The public has a huge role to play in adhering to hospital visiting policies. We also need leadership within the hospital system and must ensure those in positions of authority and leadership lead on very basic matters such as hygiene, particularly hand hygiene.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Health and thank the Deputy for raising it.

I just asked the Minister for Finance when the Crimean war occurred and he told me that it was around 1880. That was when Florence Nightingale decided washing one's hands and being clean were important to prevent infection. Perhaps we should call this the Florence Nightingale campaign and remind people that washing our hands is important. I wonder how many of those who work in hospitals would cook their dinner at home without washing their hands.

The prevention and control of health care associated infections, HCAIs, is one of the Minister's priorities in protecting patient safety. HCAIs represent a major cause of preventable patient harm and increased health care costs. Since late 2012, the Health and Information Quality Authority, HIQA, has been carrying out a monitoring programme against the national standards for the prevention and control of health care associated infections, 36 of which have been completed. The Minister and the Department welcome the publication of HIQA's reports and note the concerns raised in these and previous reports about hand hygiene practices, particularly among medical staff. With regard to hand hygiene, the findings of the authority suggest hand hygiene best practice needs to become more operationally embedded at all levels.

Improving patient safety is foremost in achieving a culture of patient safety, rather than the imposition of sanctions, which may be counterproductive. Achieving this culture of patient safety, in which best practice in hand hygiene is embedded, requires actions at all levels.

It is the responsibility of management and clinical leadership to make this a priority and ensure that the correct conditions to allow for the improvements in hand hygiene compliance are in place.

It must be emphasised that it is of vital importance that health care workers recognise their personal responsibility to protect patients by maintaining their own good hand hygiene. I am extremely disappointed to note that, despite the Health Service Executive's initiatives to develop an organisational culture of hand hygiene, a significant number of health care staff, including doctors, are still not adhering to the basic principles of hand washing. I very much support the HSE's ongoing work through its national programme of activity to raise awareness among staff, monitor compliance with national standards and take action to reduce HCAIs in hospitals. A key element of this programme is the HSE's continuing biannual hand hygiene audits, which occur both in the acute sector and in the long-stay area. Additionally, from July of this year it has become mandatory for all staff to receive hand hygiene training as part of staff induction, and an education programme that will take place every two years is being established.

The HSE audits have shown an encouraging improvement in hand hygiene compliance, with the most recent figure of 84.3% compliance overall at October 2012. This figure represents a significant increase from June-July 2012, when it was at 81.6%, and was just below the target of 85% for 2012. The Minister will be studying the statistics from the latest hand hygiene audits which took place earlier this year when they are published in the near future. I hope the compliance rate will have improved and will be closer to the HSE's target rate of 90% for 2013.

I am also reassured to note that MRSA rates are at their lowest level in seven years. The number of cases of MRSA has fallen by 59% between 2006 and 2012 - from 592 to 242 - and the downward trend is holding per statistical returns to date. However, there is no cause for complacency as there continues to be significant room for improvement, particularly among medical staff. With this in mind, the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Health has written to the chair of the Health and Social Care Regulatory Forum asking that the forum consider the matter and submit proposals as to how it might adopt a common approach to raise awareness of hand hygiene, in particular, and support and reinforce compliance with this very important patient safety issue.

Finally, the licensing of health facilities Bill, which will provide for a mandatory system of licensing for public and private health service providers, will further strengthen and reinforce the actions that are being taken to ensure a culture of patient safety. The proposals are designed to improve patient safety by ensuring that health care providers do not operate below core standards, which are applied in a consistent and systematic way. Standards and other requirements will be enforceable through inspection and imposition of sanctions as necessary. Again, it is incredible that people would have to be told all of this.

The Minister of State might be right about calling it the Florence Nightingale campaign. Now that we have secured the Rosie Hackett bridge, maybe we can ensure we will have clean hands, and that will be thanks to another woman.

It is incredible and a little disappointing that the HSE's target figure for compliance for last year was only 85% and for this year it is only 90%. Surely its target should be 100% for something as basic as hand hygiene. I welcome the indication that some of these standards will be enshrined in the licensing of health facilities Bill. The Minister of State might be able to give some indication as to when that Bill is likely to be published and taken on the floor of the House.

It is incredible that some of the most highly paid professional people in this country, who are paid from the public purse and who also get huge resources in terms of the education they receive, cannot do something as basic as washing their hands. As a mother, I taught my daughter from a very early age the importance of hand hygiene, yet we consistently have failure by some of the most educated people in this country to do something as basic as washing their hands.

As the Minister of State said, this endeavour goes back to the time of the Crimean War, when it was discovered that if people washed their hands, maternal death rates plummeted. This is something hospitals all over Europe struggle with in terms of controlling hospital infections. I think it incumbent on those in leadership positions in hospitals to embed a culture of change. When one is in a hospital facility, one often sees medical people coming out in their scrubs or uniforms to go for their coffee or lunch. That kind of practice needs to stop to ensure we have clean and safe hospitals for the public.

Sometimes the most difficult changes to make are cultural and attitude changes - they are not the most expensive but they are often the most difficult. A few years ago, we were all encouraged, as patients - which I am sure we all will be at some stage of our lives - to ask clinicians whether they had washed their hands. However, it is not quite that simple when a patient is solely reliant on that clinician for his or her care. There must be a cultural shift in terms of hand hygiene. As I said earlier, which one of us would start to prepare our food without washing our hands? When talking about an area where, by its very nature, there is a risk of infection, we have to be far more careful.

In regard to the legislation, we are trying to have the domestic legislation front-loaded in the next session because we feel it is important given all the work that had to be done in regard to the financial mess in which we found ourselves. We are trying to front-load the domestic legislation and I hope this Bill will be taken as well.

The Government is great at washing its hands.

Credit Unions

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Noonan. Newbridge Credit Union has been to the fore during the course of the summer and I expect the difficulties we have been having in Newbridge are difficulties that we may well experience in other parts of the country in the period ahead. I will say to the Minister first and foremost that he should see Newbridge as a template of what should not be allowed to happen if there are difficulties in other credit unions.

In April of last year a special manager was appointed. It has to be said there was a dearth of communication from that special manager until, in the middle of this summer, a local action group was formed, which raised the ante very considerably. The north Kildare Oireachtas Members have all worked closely together on this matter to try to find a resolution. However, we learned from the special manager and, in the last week, from the regulator in the Central Bank that they see only two solutions to the problems at Newbridge Credit Union, namely, liquidation of the union or its forced amalgamation with some other entity. I want to say to the Minister without equivocation that I am convinced the only answer to Newbridge's problem rests in a community-based solution and, therefore, that the solution should be in Newbridge itself and should not include the forced amalgamation of Newbridge Credit Union with any other credit union.

In the course of the last 20 months, the decent, honourable people who, as volunteers, have been directors of Newbridge Credit Union have been subjected to innuendo and rumour, which I am sure the Minister and anybody else in public office would not stand over. However, because of the veil of silence that has been drawn by the Central Bank and the courts over this matter, they have stood accused of mismanagement of the funds available to Newbridge Credit Union, which are substantial - €163 million in savings.

I am firmly convinced that the Minister is the only person who, at this point, can find a resolution to this problem. I welcome the fact that he is meeting the action group tomorrow. I call on him to intervene in this crisis to ensure we can find a community-based solution, so the decent people whose names have been damaged can be exonerated as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Michael Noonan, for coming to the House to deal with this serious matter for the members of both Newbridge and Naas credit unions. I am a member of the latter organisation and am coming at the issue from a Naas perspective. I hope the Minister will be able to allay the fears of the people of both towns. Will he ensure, for example, that there are sufficient funds, should the proposed merger take place, to cover the existing loan book of the Newbridge facility? There is a fear among members in Naas that the funds will not be adequate not only to cover already problematic loans but also loans that might become problematic in the future.

There is also a concern among members of Naas credit union that their voice will be diluted as a consequence of the proposed merger. I am seeking an assurance that they will continue to have a strong voice in the organisation they worked hard to develop over many years. As it stands, members receive dividends on an annual basis. Can the Minister confirm that members of the proposed merged entity will continue to be facilitated with an annual dividend?

I thank the Minister for taking this Topical Issue matter. Under the legislation, the role of the special manager at Newbridge credit union was envisaged as one that would be conducted in an expeditious fashion, for no longer than six months, and at the least possible cost to the State. After 21 months in the role, Mr. Luke Charleton's tenure can be said to have been a failure on all these fronts. The lack of clear and concise information during this time has caused huge confusion among members. People have a great many questions and it is incumbent on the Central Bank to answer them. For example, if the situation is as bad as the bank has indicated, how was it allowed to get to that point? What types of loans were given out and who were the recipients? Where is the money that has been lost? It must be somewhere. When did the Regulator and the Central Bank first become aware of the non-traditional lending to which they referred? Did they act straight away when they made the discovery and, if not, why did they not do so? If immediate action was not taken, there is a significant impact in terms of the credibility of those institutions putting forward solutions.

Any solutions that are considered must be in the best interests of the members of Newbridge credit union and the taxpayer. Why are the alternatives of merger and liquidation the only options being put on the table? If tens of millions of euro in taxpayers' money will be needed, as the Central Bank has suggested, why can it not be put directly into Newbridge credit union as part of a stand-alone resolution? Members do not understand why that cannot be done. Their loyalty to the facility has seen many of them retain their savings in shares without any dividend for the past three years, without any expectation of such in the short term and in the absence of any information as to what the outcome of the resolution process might be.

I do not expect the Minister to be in a position to answer all of these questions today. However, the Central Bank must provide the answers as soon as possible. It is the least people in Newbridge deserve.

I thank the three Deputies from Kildare for raising this issue. I am particularly grateful to Deputy Martin Heydon for keeping me informed throughout the holiday period of the strength of feeling locally. Several Deputies, including the three who spoke today, have in recent months raised issues of concern to the members of Newbridge credit union. My objective is to ensure members' savings are protected, notwithstanding the extent of the very real problems that exist at the union.

This will be the first instance in which the taxpayer is being called upon to advance sizeable sums of money to support a credit union in difficulty. While the figure cannot be disclosed at this time, it is substantial and runs into tens of millions of euro. This funding is required to cover the losses at Newbridge, ensure members' savings are protected and place the credit union on a stable financial footing. The money will come from a resolution fund to which the Government has contributed €250 million of taxpayers' money, recoupable over time from credit institutions via a levy. Combining Newbridge and Naas credit unions will ensure that services continue to be available in Newbridge. There is no question of members of the latter facility having to travel to Naas to access services. Furthermore, Newbridge members will hold full membership rights in the combined credit union.

There has been a suggestion that Newbridge had a clean bill of health until the appointment of the special manager. In fact, that appointment was made because of Central Bank concerns in regard to the high level of loan losses incurred by the credit union, which impacted on the level of its reserves. There were also concerns about some of the lending made, which went beyond the traditional type of lending normally provided by credit unions. Without the appointment of the special manager, the position of Newbridge credit union would have continued to weaken and deteriorate, which could have had serious consequences in terms of undermining its future viability.

Members raised the prospect of a stand-alone resolution for Newbridge. Under the resolution process it is not possible to recapitalise a credit union on a stand-alone basis. I have been advised by the Central Bank that of the options available under the Central Bank and Credit Institutions (Resolution) Act 2011, a combination with Naas represents the best way of delivering a sustainable credit union presence in Newbridge into the future. The extent of the problems at Newbridge means it is not sustainable for it to continue as a stand-alone entity. As a resolution case with financial difficulties and viability concerns, nor does it meet the statutory conditions for stabilisation support.

The Central Bank undertook a process under the Act involving the examination of possible combinations with other credit unions. As part of this process, Naas credit union submitted a proposal to the bank, setting out the basis upon which it would be prepared to combine with Newbridge. At the request of the Governor of the Central Bank, I have confirmed that I am prepared, in principle, to support the proposal. However, it remains subject, among other requirements, to due diligence, completion of relevant documentation, Naas credit union board approval, regulatory consideration and High Court approval. I expect these steps to be completed expeditiously and that the Naas-Newbridge combination will be finalised by the end of this year. To reiterate, the successful combination of the credit unions is considered the best way to ensure the continuity of services for members in Newbridge.

The issue of dividend payments to Naas members for the current year is a matter for the board of Naas credit union and, following the combination, will be a matter for the board of the merged entity in future years.

The strict confidentiality provisions of the legislation are necessary to allow space for negotiations to be undertaken and concluded. In this case, however, it has also resulted in an information deficit at local level. The Central Bank and the special manager have been working to address this in recent weeks and a number of communications have issued, with further details to be made available. The special manager has also provided members with a dedicated e-mail contact address for queries. It is important that the remaining steps of the process conclude as expeditiously as possible and I have asked my Department to work with the Central Bank to achieve this. While the need for a significant taxpayer injection in this case is deeply regrettable, it is necessary to ensure the protection of members' savings and the continued availability of credit union services in Newbridge.

I am shocked and disappointed by the Minister's response. It is vital that a local resolution to this matter be found. As these types of problems continue to afflict communities across the country, similar local solutions will be required in other locations. Combining Naas and Newbridge credit unions does not represent an adequate solution. The idea that one would address the problems in Newbridge by forcing its 38,000 members to join up with the 22,000 members in Naas is incredible. It is not the way we should go.

On the issue of non-traditional lending, if such practices were at play in Newbridge over a period of time, surely that should have been known to the auditors of the credit union and certainly to the special auditors, Grant Thornton, appointed to the union to report to the Central Bank on a three-monthly basis.

It is something that should have been known to the Central Bank long before now.

I welcome the response of the Minister. I am a member of Naas Credit Union and do not feel reassured by what the Minister said. As has been the problem all along, there is an information deficit concerning the special manager and the Central Bank. Fears about the scale of the loan book of Newbridge Credit Union, the size of the membership of Newbridge Credit Union in merging with Naas Credit Union and the lack of a voice the latter will have in the merged entity have not been allayed.

I thank the Minister for his response. At our meeting with the Central Bank last Friday I asked direct questions about when the Central Bank had concerns. I specifically asked about a meeting that was supposed to have happened in 2005 between the regulator, the registrar and the board of directors. A fair description is that we were stonewalled, with a lack of information from the Central Bank. I want an assurance that at the end of the process we will have a full and frank outlay of information about who knew what in order that we can ensure the mistakes that happened in Newbridge and the manner in which the matter has been handled do not happen again. If mistakes were made in Newbridge, they were not made by the 38,000 ordinary members or the businesses in the town that have suffered owing to the lack of dividends paid for the past three years.

There is always a difficulty in giving information on financial institutions under pressure. Everyone in the community in south Kildare knows that there was a significant movement of deposits out of Newbridge Credit Union during the summer and extra information would have fuelled it further. I want to reassure people that there is no risk to anyone's money in Newbridge Credit Union. The Central Bank, through the use of the special fund, will protect the savings of all depositors in Naas, not just depositors below the sum of €100,000. It gave these guarantees coming out of August and stopped the movement of deposits. While it is regrettable that Deputies were not given full information, the provision of full information for the public would have made matters worse in midsummer. There is a real difficulty in Naas and Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl will revise his opinion when he gets the full information and the confidentiality clause imposed by the High Court is removed. I will co-operate with Deputies and give them as much information as I can. I am delighted to be in a position to meet the local committee tomorrow in the Department and will be as frank as I can with information. I assure everyone that there is a real difficulty that has been taken in hand. It will cost the taxpayers an awful lot of money. It is the first big credit union to be in difficulty. We have all had reports on the credit union movement and, by and large, it is sound. There are over 400 individual credit unions, of which about 30 are in difficulty. The credit unions, the Central Bank and the regulator of credit unions are moving systematically to ensure one of the finest institutions we have is secured nationally and in all of its branches by one intervention or another.