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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 5 Nov 2014

Vol. 856 No. 2

Topical Issue Debate

Hospital Waiting Lists

I thank the Acting Chairman for giving me the opportunity to raise this important issue and the Minister for coming into the House to take it. I have been writing to him and his predecessor for some time about it. I have been representing the views of parents who are constituents of mine in west Cork. I refer to Jessica O'Flynn who is 12 years old and Aoife Murray who is 17. These young girls are waiting operations on their spines. One of them has been waiting since January 2013, while the other, Jessica, has been waiting since October 2013.

I understand from Mr. Pat Kiely in Crumlin that under the current resource system, it will take up to two years to clear the current waiting list. Obviously, this cannot be allowed to continue. It is opportune, since the new service plan for the coming year is being drawn up by the HSE and we have just had the budget announced, to plead with the Minister to speak to the HSE to ensure the necessary resources are allocated to ensure the waiting list of spinal deformity cases is dealt with as a priority. It would be much appreciated.

The delay in treatment is leading to complications. I am not a medic, although I know the Minister is, but I understand from Mr. Kiely that in one of the cases mentioned the patient is starting to develop respiratory difficulties and that if we delay too long, the case may become a good deal more complicated. He went on to say he was optimistic that a single stage operation would correct the girl's deformity and that, once she had recovered from the surgery, her life would be quite different, as would her overall level of support and function.

These are real people, which is the reason I have named them. Real lives are being affected. It is more than a management issue, it is an issue for society. We must not neglect these children. As they are growing, the curvature of their spines must be dealt with. Therefore, I plead with the Minister to act. I look forward to his response.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for facilitating this debate with the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar.

I wish to take up a point made by Deputy Jim Daly about there being an optimistic note. He referred to the comment made by Mr. Kiely on the life-changing consequences of the surgery involved. I was at an under-16s football match last weekend when one of the star performers was a young man who three years ago was in exactly the same position as the two girls referred to. This life-changing surgery has enabled him to be a full and active participant in sport, etc.

I imagine Deputy Jim Daly will agree that this is not a plea to have these two individual patients plucked from the list and ask the Minister to look after our constituents. I understand there are approximately 120 on the waiting list. It is not the longest in the world, but it is a critical one. It is painful for parents to have to watch their children stoop because of scoliosis and wonder whether they will undergo surgery in time or whether there will be long-term consequences for the health and well-being of their children as a result of the delay.

The time is opportune because the HSE is preparing service plans for 2015. Deputy Jim Daly has alluded to the fact that Mr. Kiely has written to his colleagues in Cork and said he is prepared to travel to Cork if he can access theatre space and recuperation facilities, in particular, intensive care unit beds. That is one of the critical issues involved.

The waiting list is probably the consequence of the lack of investment for too long in paediatric medicine in the children's hospital. Obviously, we are making progress in this regard, but we need an interim solution. The 120 children involved, including the two young girls referred to by Deputy Jim Daly, Jessica O'Flynn and Aoife Murray, represent the manifestation of the problem in our constituencies. We are familiar with both cases, but I know of others in my constituency. I appeal, therefore, to the Minister. The surgery involved could substantially improve the lives of these young children for the better. They can participate fully in sport and all other activities following successful completion of the surgery. I, therefore, call on the Minister and the HSE in the context of its service plan for 2015 to try to ensure we will have a more efficient system for performing this critical surgery.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter and will take the opportunity to outline the Government's position. As a constituent of mine is on the same waiting list, I have some understanding of the matter as a local Deputy, as well as in my role as Minister.

Scoliosis in children and young people is predominantly managed at Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin. The hospital has an agreed capacity to carry out 58 full spinal cases per year as part of its annual service level agreement with the Health Service Executive. A total of 68 full spinal surgeries were carried out in 2013, ten more than the number for which funded had been provided. In total, 147 procedures were carried out in 2013. It included children who required repeat procedures and rod lengthening, as well as full spinal surgery.

Surgery is provided in two full day theatre sessions per week and there are ten specialist orthopaedic beds in Crumlin. There are two orthopaedic consultants, each with a half-time commitment to provide paediatric spinal surgery, providing this service in Crumlin. They have been jointly appointed between Crumlin and the paediatric adolescent adult spinal services at Tallaght. Approximately 5% of cases, predominantly those with neuromuscular disorders, will require high dependency unit or paediatric intensive care unit access after the operation. The average length of stay for a patient having spinal surgery is normally seven to ten days.

There has been an increase in the number of outpatient referrals for spinal review and a consequent increase in surgical demands. Hence, waiting times for outpatients and those awaiting scoliosis surgery are challenging. The latest available figures indicate that 1,389 patients are on the waiting list for spinal review, while 190 have been waiting for an outpatient appointment for more than one year. There are target waiting times for surgery, but there are 108 children waiting longer than 20 weeks for this service.

The HSE has prioritised a business case for additional capacity for this service. The Department of Health and the HSE are fully conscious of service needs. The resource requirements to address waiting times and service needs are being considered in the context of the 2015 service planning process which is under way. In parallel, the children's hospital group which comprises the hospitals in Crumlin, Temple Street and the paediatric service at Tallaght is working to identify a comprehensive plan for the utilisation of all orthopaedic resources in the two relevant hospitals, Tallaght and Crumlin. This would address needs in the areas of trauma, bone cancer and other orthopaedic requirements, as well as spinal services. The Department and I will work with the HSE to ensure service needs and waiting times in this area will be addressed having regard to the overall level of resources available to the HSE.

I thank the Minister for his response. Deputy Michael Creed and I have made the case. It is heartbreaking to have parents come to a constituency office in these circumstances. Clearly, they will do anything for their children, as any of us would do for ours. They are completely helpless. Talking to them about resources and such issues is irrelevant. We are talking about real people.

Their child has a deformity of the spine, which is curving and getting progressively worse. It is heartbreaking to listen to the parents, who feel so helpless. They are pleading with us as their representatives in this House. Those children do not have a voice here and we are their representatives. I hope we have brought forward the human side to this.

I endorse what Deputy Creed said. It is not a case of seeking to take one or two names from the list. There are 120 children involved, all of whom are cherished equally by the State. That waiting list should be attended to as a matter of priority and the necessary resources should be made available in the preparation of the HSE service plan, which is under way at present.

I thank the Minister for his response. It raises an important issue in the context of having sufficient manpower to deal with the issue. Given the outpatient surgical waiting lists and so forth, is the issue whether an adequate number of consultants are appointed in this area? Is that something that must be addressed in conjunction with the issue of access to theatre and post-theatre recovery and intensive care beds? Perhaps this could usefully be pursued by the Minister with the HSE in the context of its service plan for 2015.

The common denominator in respect of the cases mentioned is Mr. Kiely in Crumlin hospital. He has indicated a willingness to regionalise his service delivery. In other words, he has communicated with HSE South and his colleagues in Cork that he is prepared to deliver this service in Cork. Obviously, we are more familiar with demand in Cork for the service, but would this help? If there is a logjam in access to theatre facilities in Crumlin, could regionalisation of the service be a way of dealing with it? Mr. Kiely is prepared to travel, so it does not mean we must duplicate manpower. There are two issues here: regionalisation of the service and the adequacy of consultant manpower to deliver the service.

The timing of this debate is quite opportune. It is entirely a coincidence, but I am having a meeting with the chief executive officer of Crumlin hospital in the next couple of hours about orthopaedic surgery, because it is acknowledged to be a problem.

At present, 12 children have been waiting longer than a year for scoliosis surgery, which is really unacceptable. However, when we consider projected demand, we can see that it will be necessary to increase the number of cases carried out per year from approximately 58 to 120. It is easy enough to deal with 12 cases, perhaps, but there will be more going onto the list after them, so we must almost double capacity for scoliosis surgery in Crumlin. I do not know enough about how the surgery or after-care work to be able to state whether it could be regionalised. The risk of doing something in two centres rather than one is that there might not be specialised staff in both centres all the time. Perhaps it is or is not doable, but this is something I am aware of and about which I am concerned. We certainly cannot allow a situation to develop whereby children's scoliosis is getting progressively worse, to the extent that they are starting to develop respiratory and neurological problems. I understand that is happening.

Needless to say, I am personally concerned about this and I hope it can be addressed in the context of the service plan for next year.

Health Services Staff Training

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the Minister about the audiology course in Athlone Institute of Technology, AIT. I wish to highlight the urgent need to ensure the BSc honours degree programme in audiology at AIT continues its student intake once the current cohort of students complete their programme in the summer of 2016.

Students from the Republic of Ireland traditionally had to go to the UK to gain an educational qualification in audiology by pursuing a BSc degree in audiology, which is the current entry level for an audiologist working in the UK. On foot of this, and worrying reports on the serious scarcity of community audiologists and long waiting lists, one of the programmes proposed during the AIT school of science strategy meeting in 2009 was a level 8 four-year BSc honours degree course in audiology. It was the first of its type in Ireland. At this juncture, AIT, which has the authority to develop, design and validate its own programmes, began a phased development of the BSc honours degree in audiology. The AIT audiology course was subsequently included in the Central Applications Office, CAO, listing for entry in September 2012. The college received public funding of €100,000 to support the programme.

However, it appears that the HSE changed its thinking and proposed that the entry-level qualification for an audiologist working in the HSE be a two-year MSc programme, as opposed to an undergraduate course. In the meantime, a cohort of 21 students had commenced their first year in the new course in audiology in the AIT. However, at the end of their first year the programme was facing cancellation because the Higher Education Authority, HEA, said it would not provide funding for work placements. Apparently, they did not meet the new MSc entry level requirement. At the start of August last year the class of audiology students was left in academic limbo after the course was cancelled due to placement and funding issues. Thankfully, a settlement was reached some weeks later in the High Court between AIT, the HSE and the HEA, allowing the cohort of students to continue their four-year course. Unfortunately, once the current cohort of students graduate in summer 2016, the programme will not continue until the situation is resolved to the satisfaction of AIT, the HSE and the HEA. Athlone Institute of Technology has suspended its student intake for the course.

The Minister will be aware that the earlier a child is tested, the better the chance of diagnosing a hearing problem and putting in place a programme to ensure the child gets the best opportunity to develop communications skills. In the last few years a senior HSE official said the service was facing significant demand and pointed to research carried out in the UK which showed that between the ages of 71 and 80 years as many as 82% of people have some degree of hearing impairment. Given our aging population, the service will be expected to meet a greatly increased demand from that age group.

As the window of opportunity to resolve this issue is getting narrower and there is obviously a clear demand for audiologists in this country, I ask the Minister to give the matter due consideration. We must ensure that the excellent audiology course at Athlone Institute of Technology continues to take in students, which will help in meeting the growing public demand for audiology services.

I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to address the issue of audiology education. The HSE's national audiology review group recommended in 2011 that a domestic programme for audiology be established as a matter of priority. The audiology clinical care programme was tasked with reviewing the workforce numbers and making a recommendation for a BSc versus a MSc programme. The audiology clinical care programme concluded that in view of the relatively small size of the current and proposed workforce, some of whom would in any case be at assistant audiologist level, the long-term sustainability of a primary degree programme was doubtful. Undergraduate programmes with cohorts of less than 15 are financially challenging and sometimes unviable. Due to the limited number of clinical placements and employment opportunities, a larger cohort of students would not be sustainable or necessary.

The alternative is for initial training to be through a two-year accelerated MSc degree, as happens in other countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The audiology clinical care programme, with guidance from the Higher Education Authority, concluded that the most effective route for initial training would be an accelerated two-year master's degree programme for students with suitable primary degrees, motivation and disposition. The advantages of a master's over a primary degree for initial training include lower cost, smaller numbers better matched to placement capacity and employment prospects, a better-quality workforce with greater likelihood of future leadership, and research and development linkage.

The HSE, in partnership with the Higher Education Authority, undertook a formal process of inviting expressions of interest from higher education institutes in Ireland. University College Cork was selected in 2013, and it will commence the master's programme in 2015. Unfortunately, Athlone Institute of Technology commenced its primary degree programme in 2012 without approval from either the HEA or the HSE.

It faced sanction from the HEA in early 2014 as a result of this action. Nevertheless, the Health Service Executive agreed to provide placements for the current cohort of Athlone Institute of Technology students once the course was accredited by an external expert. Since accreditation of the Athlone Institute of Technology course in mid-2014, the clinical lead, the senior clinician in audiology in Ireland, has worked continuously with AIT to arrange placements for the students who will commence their studies in early 2015.

In summary, the required domestic framing programme for audiologists in Ireland is at master's degree level. University College Cork was formally selected by the HSE and the HEA to provide this framing and the course will commence in 2015. It will supply a sufficient number of highly qualified graduates per year to maintain the audiology workforce. For this reason, an additional training programme at a lower primary degree level is unnecessary.

I thank the Minister, although I do not agree with all the points he made. Athlone Institute of Technology has received significant professional support from the audiology community, North and South, in taking the initiative in 2010 to offer a degree programme. It should be noted that Athlone Institute of Technology filled a gap that needed to be filled by offering the only full-time BSc audiology course in the country.

As the Minister is aware, from a demand point of view, there is a long waiting list for audiology services for both adults and children. I spoke recently to an extremely upset mother whose two and a half year old child had waited 21 months for an audiology appointment before being told that the service could not be provided because no audiologists were available.

At the end of October 2014, an expert independent evaluation report found that the Athlone Institute of Technology programme was on a par with the standards of similar courses in the United Kingdom and other international programmes. The report identified 22 reasons the AIT degree course met the required standards and concluded that its graduates in audiology would be more than able to fulfil any role available in this area. The previous Minister for Health was very impressed with the audiology department in AIT when he visited. I hope the current Minister will keep this matter under review.

While I appreciate the Deputy's concerns and interest in this matter, the relevant decision is not one for me to make. Working with the Health Service Executive, the national clinical lead, the most senior clinician for audiology in the State, decided that a master's degree was preferable to a bachelor's degree, and University College Cork, rather than Athlone Institute of Technology, offered such a degree. While I understand that AIT would prefer to have been selected ahead of Cork, the decision was to opt for the higher level master's degree in Cork. If the national clinical lead for audiology takes the view that a bachelor's programme in Athlone is not necessary and the HEA, which comes within the ambit of the Minister for Education and Skills, is not willing to fund the programme in Athlone, my hands are tied.

Tourism Project Funding

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter at an important time for development at Malin Head. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, will be up to speed on proposals to develop Malin Head as a tourist destination. Significant investment has been made recently to develop pathways and improve access to the area. The potential of Malin Head as one of the key tourism destinations in Ireland remains very much untapped. The 100,000 visitors to the area each year are drawn by Malin Head's natural beauty and intrinsic and undeniable advantages. Despite this, the area has been left behind in terms of securing the investment required to allow it to develop further and offer the types of facilities that tourists expect.

I commend Bord Fáilte on its Wild Atlantic Way initiative, which offers immense potential for County Donegal and the entire west coast. I also commend the Minister of State and the Government on backing the initiative. Of the 15 key signature discovery points along the Wild Atlantic Way, which stretches from Kinsale Head to Malin Head, three are located in County Donegal. These are Fanad Head and its lighthouse, the Slieve League cliffs and Malin Head. Given that the first two are in receipt of investment funding, I am sure the Minister of State will agree that the key priority now is to ensure investment is also made in Malin Head. Investment proposals have been made by Donegal County Council, working locally with Bord Fáilte. My purpose in raising this issue is to emphasise the importance of allocating funds to the phase two proposal. If such funding is provided, I expect that considerable progress will be made in attracting visitors to County Donegal and delivering economic benefits to local people.

I commend the work of many other organisations which have contributed towards the investment project. Malin Head Community Association has done significant work in trying to bring forward the project, as has the Malin Head working group under the Inishowen Development Partnership. I am working with Councillor Martin McDermott from Malin Head to advance the project. I hope the Minister of State will provide a timeline for the second phase of investment in the area and give a commitment that the Government will work with Bord Fáilte on a third phase that will deliver an iconic project in Malin Head, which will become one of the leading attractions nationwide for tourists.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and for his comments. He is correct that the Wild Atlantic Way is one of the greatest developments that has ever taken place in this country. Its benefits have been visible this year in the thousands of visitors to every corner of the Wild Atlantic Way.

As the Deputy is aware, the Wild Atlantic Way is Ireland's first long-distance touring route. It stretches along the Atlantic coast from County Donegal to west Cork. Budget 2014 provided €8 million in capital investment for the development of the route. This funding was directed towards route signage and developing discovery points and other infrastructure on the route.

While the route is still being fully developed, the Wild Atlantic Way is already a central part of our overseas promotion. Having visited the World Travel Market in London earlier this week, I assure the Deputy that it was the talk of the overseas tourism trade. That said, given how long it takes to get on the international travel map, I expect it will be next year before the route starts receiving recognition among potential tourists.

Following my visit to London, I am satisfied that the Wild Atlantic Way project will bring more overseas visitors to County Donegal, specifically Inishowen. To help make this happen, Fáilte Ireland is working with tourism operators and local communities to help them get the most out of the Wild Atlantic Way. Earlier this year, it held a series of community briefings along the route which outlined the benefits of the project and Fáilte Ireland's long-term development plans. The briefings were very well attended by local tourism operators, stakeholders and community representatives.

This year, Fáilte Ireland and Donegal County Council have completed the Wild Atlantic Way signage programme in the Inishowen area. Fáilte Ireland is also working with the council on a programme of remedial works for Wild Atlantic Way discovery points, of which there are 36 in County Donegal, including ten in Inishowen. This work will involve placing markers and information panels and upgrading the appearance of each point. I am also aware that a number of overseas tourism journalists have been brought to Inishowen in recent months, most notably the astronaut Chris Hadfield, whose visit created worldwide coverage for Inishowen.

Malin Head is a designated signature point on the Wild Atlantic Way and a key stop on the route. As the Deputy is aware, it is renowned for its rugged coast and attractive beaches and is steeped in history and folklore. The area has something for all tastes, including walking, fishing, swimming and photography. It is also close to Inishowen's splendid golf courses.

In regard to capital funding, my Department provides funding to Fáilte Ireland for investment in tourism projects such as the Wild Atlantic Way. However, it is not involved in developing or managing these projects. As the allocation of grant funding is a matter for the board of Fáilte Ireland, I have no role in deciding funding allocations for projects such as Malin Head. I am aware, however, that Fáilte Ireland is working closely with Donegal County Council on the development of Malin Head as part of the Wild Atlantic Way. The council applied to Fáilte Ireland this year for funding for a public service centre and development of the car park area at Malin. The Fáilte Ireland authority is expected to make a decision on this application shortly.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. While I know he does not make the decision directly, the funding comes from his Department and I am sure he will emphasise, following this debate, the importance of Malin Head which Bord Fáilte recognises. It is crucial because Malin Head does not have the basic facilities which tourists expect. I have no doubt that when they are put in place we will see a continuation of the increase in tourist numbers we have experienced to date.

Timing is important because in order to have in place for next year's tourist season the phase 2 proposals which will see public service areas and new toilet facilities delivered to Malin Head the decision on funding needs to be made in the next number of weeks. I have commended Donegal County Council and Bord Fáilte for the work they have done until now. I emphasise the importance of following that through and seeing the funding delivered in order that the developments are ready for the coming year.

The Minister of State outlined the benefits of the Wild Atlantic Way nationally. It is even more important for Donegal because it has not traditionally been able to draw the number of tourists the west or south coasts would see. Many tourists visiting Donegal come from the Giant's Causeway coast and the North. Malin Head, the Slieve League Cliffs and Fanad Head form one fifth of the signature points on the Wild Atlantic Way. The Minister of State said 38 of the 150 key dedicated points on the Wild Atlantic Way are in Donegal. That shows the significant slice the county has of the Wild Atlantic Way.

With investment it has the potential to be the single biggest initiative in terms of attracting tourists to the county from the North and the Republic. I ask the Minister of State to ensure he continues in his engagement with Bord Fáilte to emphasise the importance of continued investment. I hope we will soon see investment to develop the facilities in Malin Head.

I am delighted the Deputy is positive today because this is a positive initiative. He is quite correct. Malin and Inishowen connect to the Giant's Causeway route in Northern Ireland which is an all-Ireland tourism project. It means people visiting Ireland can travel North or South, which is very important. I want to see all the signature points on the Wild Atlantic Way developed. Erris in my county of Mayo never saw as many tourists as it did this year, and Achill and Westport were the same. That was because of the Wild Atlantic Way. I know when something is working.

Every corner of the country which has a well wants to be part of the Wild Atlantic Way because they know it works. We have to do something for the east and south coasts, but they will not have what is in the Wild Atlantic Way, namely, natural beauty, rugged land-----

Do not forget Tipperary.

When it gets a bit of sea we will see what we can do for it.

There will be plenty of water from the Minister.

When this man is finished with the development he has for tourism in Tipperary it will be number one on the map. We need to make sure we get funding from Government to ensure we can develop the 2,500 km route. There are some exciting plans for Donegal, Mayo, Kerry, Cork and all other places on the Wild Atlantic Way. The work will take a few years.

Yesterday I attended the World Travel Market in London. A significant number of people wanted to talk about the Wild Atlantic Way. Large numbers of tourists will come from France, Germany and Europe next year. They love it and cannot get enough of it. It is a great development for the country and we need to continue developing it. Every Deputy on the route has a role to play. We must make sure that local communities know what is happening on the wild Atlantic way because cottage industries will build up around it. There are many hidden gems in the country. Even those living on the Wild Atlantic Way did not realise the beauty of certain parts of their county because they had not visited them for years.

It is exciting and good, and something we need to develop to its full potential. It is good for the country and tourism, and will bring the numbers of tourists here that we badly want. There was a 9% increase in tourism numbers in the first nine months of the year. I never thought the day would come, but when I visited London this week people were discussing the fact that there was not enough capacity in Dublin. We did not think three and a half years ago that we would need more hotels in Dublin and the rest of the country.

Community Development Projects

I tabled this matter last Thursday week when it came to my notice. SICAP contacted me when it saw figures from Pobal. It was a major surprise and shock to people because they heard the Minister, Deputy Howlin, say there would be no cuts in this area in the next budget. I want to get clarification from the Minister that €2 million is to be taken out of this area. I hope that is not the case and that the figure is not higher. The areas affected are at the tip of their collar. Deputy Ó Snodaigh can outline the impact the cut will have on Ballyfermot Canal Community Partnership. If the cut goes ahead the equine centre serving Ballyfermot and Cherry Orchard could loose nearly €80,000 from its funding and will have to close. Is this happening? Will the Minister reverse the cuts?

There are deadlines on 13 December, as far as I am aware. On 19 December the tendering process will close for groups or partnerships working with equine centres. This will have an impact on the situation. There is a 25% cap on what can be spent on administration. The organisations concerned feel this is a major handicap, in particular in the first, second or third year of operation, and want to review that with the Minister. They say it is a deterrent to them being able to engage in the tender process, in particular in public areas. Private organisations such as British companies can do it much more easily because they are bigger and their administration costs are much lower. Is Friday, 7 November the cut-off point before which the Minister has the opportunity to reverse the cuts? People are very concerned.

On 16 October 2014 the Minister reiterated his and the Government's commitment to the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP. He lauded the scheme in terms of its ability to create opportunities, provide supports and ease the transition into meaningful employment for the harder to reach in the most disadvantaged areas in society. He announced that €46 million would be invested in 2015 to increase access to formal and informal education activities and resources and to increase people's work readiness and employment prospects. I am sure he recalls those words.

Contrary to the fair expectation that, therefore, schemes and projects in the most disadvantaged areas would be protected, we find that in the north inner city of Dublin there has been a cut of 38% in funding. In real terms that is a drop of over €500,000 for projects such as the Lourdes Youth and Community Services in Sean McDermott St., An Síol in the north-west inner city, Nascadh Community Development Project in East Wall, the Cabra Community Development Project and many more.

These cuts mean the viability of these projects is under threat.

The headline unemployment figure across the state does not really give an insight into the level of unemployment in many of these disadvantaged areas. In some areas it is as high as 70%. The Minister knows that projects, communities and individuals are dealing with a history of neglect and under-investment. These projects make a real and substantial contribution to the life of the community and the prospects of people in it. I want an explanation from the Minister as to how it is possible that a 38% cut in funding can be made to these projects in the north inner city. I appeal to him to correct this cut and reverse it if that is the decision that has been reached.

Like the other Deputies, I cannot see the logic behind an announcement by the Government that austerity is over and there will be no more cuts, while the equivalent of a cut of €2 million is being made in this vital sector. Deputy McDonald outlined the effects of this in the north inner city and I know from a meeting I attended in Ballyfermot that a potential effect of the cut is the closure of one of the key projects in that area, the equine centre, while another project, the Ballyfermot partnership, will be severely hampered if not undermined. A similar effect will be seen in the Canal Communities Partnership and the Rathmines Partnership.

All of these partnerships work in areas which are deemed RAPID areas or have RAPID areas within them. These are areas of severe disadvantage which have higher than the national average unemployment. Poverty levels in these areas are sky-high and alternatives are not available to these projects to breach the funding gap now facing them. Therefore, the equine centre will lose a manager and other staff. While the Minister has set out the logic of tendering and the potential privatisation of community services, that is an ideological debate that we can have some other time.

One of the Minister's criteria for projects is that no more than 25% of the allocation should be spent on administration. However, this does not take account of the historical way in which these groups were funded. Different streams of funding were used. The criteria do not allow these projects the opportunity to phase in the changes, because if they submit a tender application by 19 December which includes anything more than 25% funding for administration, it will be ruled out straight away. They do not have an alternative source of funding so they will lose a manager. If a partnership loses a manager, that undermines the cohesion of that partnership and its ability to leverage other funding, as most partnership managers are involved in that. Will the Minister explain the logic behind this and whether there is any potential to move some of the targets and deadlines set so as to allow these groups to make alternative arrangements if possible?

I thank the three Deputies for raising this issue.

My Department's local and community development programme, LCDP, is the largest social inclusion intervention of its kind in the State. The current programme officially ended at the end of 2013, having operated for four years with funding of €281 million over that period. It is being implemented on a transitional basis for 2014 with a budget of €47 million, pending the roll-out of the new social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, in April 2015. Therefore, this is a gap or interim year.

In accordance with the public spending code, legal advice and good practice internationally, and in order to ensure the optimum delivery of the services to clients, the programme is subject to a public procurement process, which is currently under way. Stage one, expression of interest, has been completed. Stage two, invitation to tender, got under way on 20 October and will involve the successful applicants from stage one being invited to apply to one or more local community development committees in local authority areas to deliver the programme. Contracts for SICAP will be determined following the outcome of this extensive procurement process.

The SICAP is one of my key priorities on the community side of the Department, and its overall indicative budget for 2015 has been maintained close to 2014 levels. The Deputies should be aware that the indicative SICAP lot budgets are based on a nine-month period from April to December 2015, as opposed to a 12-month period. This may be reflected in some calculations. The 2014 budget for LCDPs was based on a 12-month period. Therefore, we are not comparing apples with apples in some cases.

The programme’s target groups are children and families from disadvantaged areas; lone parents; members of new communities, including refugees and asylum seekers; people living in disadvantaged communities; people with disabilities; the Roma community; the unemployed, including those not on the live register; Travellers; and young unemployed people from disadvantaged areas.

In allocating resources in the prevailing stringent budgetary situation, I was particularly conscious of the need to support funding levels for the LCDP and SICAP to ensure that resources were allocated in the fairest way possible and to make the maximum contribution to job creation and economic recovery. We may debate the fairest way possible, but we thought this was the fairest way. The Department’s intention is, over time, to use our knowledge of population levels and disadvantage to ensure that available resources are targeted at areas of greatest need. The ultimate ambition is to ensure they go where they are needed most. As a tool to assist with this, a resource allocation model, RAM, has been developed. In order to achieve the objective of moving towards allocating resources according to this model, the Department has in recent years worked to ensure that those areas with the greatest needs based on the RAM are protected, where possible, from cuts and moved towards achieving a fairer share of resources because, under different models, in the past we have had arguments on the allocation of resources. In deciding on funding allocations for SICAP, the principles of the RAM model were used. Overall, the SICAP allocations were lower in some instances than those for LCDP, commensurate with the overall funding available and the demographics of each lot. In instances where the application of the RAM would have resulted in a significant reduction in the funding allocation to a particular lot, my Department modified the results to ensure that the severity of the reduction was minimised.

The RAM, underpinned by the Pobal-HAASE deprivation index, which is used in regard to allocations, allows funds to be allocated in a manner which means that a disadvantaged person in any area of the country will have equality of resources available to their area to support their needs. This is the ultimate objective and it is what we are trying to achieve.

The Minister has certainly not explained the position clearly. He says the funding for this year is for the nine months from April to December. What will happen for the three months from January to March? What funding has been allocated for that transition period? We spoke to people on the Ballyfermot and inner city projects today. They say they were never contacted or involved in discussion on this and do not know where the figures were plucked from. They are not based on any figures they handed over to the Department and they do not believe the allocations are based on factual information. They say they need the Minister to reverse the €2 million cut to the SICAP allocation. Otherwise, the equine centre in Ballyfermot will have no manager and will close.

The partnership managers who leverage funds and try to support transparency and accountability on projects will not retain their positions either if the Minister does not review the situation quickly. The administration cap of 25% of overall spend must also be reworked and a longer lead-in time must be provided to secure the level of reduction required.

There are other points about the innovative community development project. I ask the Minister to meet those involved in the projects in Dublin very soon to tease out the problems.

The Minister read out all of the target groups involved, including children, lone parents, new communities, the unemployed, including the long-term unemployed, and every category he recited is box-ticked for the inner city of Dublin. I am very puzzled by this resource allocation model and how it functions because I cannot for the life of me figure out how such a model could be used to come to the conclusion that a 38% cut is viable, appropriate or merited in the case of the inner city. By the way, the 38% figure takes account of the nine month as opposed to the 12 month allocation and the figure still comes out as 38%. Does the Minister stand over this figure? I take him at his word when he talks about social inclusion and targeting the most disadvantaged. I can tell him that in the inner city of Dublin he will find communities and populations that are, unquestionably, among the most disadvantaged by comparison with anywhere else across the State. We must also bear in mind that, in the absence of a local development company, because the partnership was dismantled and has never been replaced, 15 inner city groups have come together as the Dublin Inner City Community Alliance. If the Minister was to meet them, rather than take my word for it, he would hear at first hand about the devastation this cut is going to cause. Will he meet them? Does he stand over this resource allocation model? He needs to go back and look at it, as there is no way - not a chance - this could merit a 38% cut in the inner city. I ask him to at least agree to meet this group.

The Minister made the point that it was for nine months. In the document I have before me we have annualised the figures and the figures I quoted to the Minister still show a 23% reduction in the case of Ballyfermot. This is the smallest of the allocations, but it is the equivalent of a cut of €163,191. In the case of the canal community and Rathmines partnership, it is the equivalent of a cut of €198,967. These figures are easily obtained and, while figures can often cloud the issue, I can give others for the equine centre or any of the groups dependent on the partnerships.

These cuts come on top of others. For example, in the equine centre which potentially could lose its manager there have been six redundancies since 2008. It cannot sustain that level of cuts and will collapse. It is a centre that caters for over 500 children a week and has moved young people from deprivation to employment, which is its purpose. It offers FETAC level 3 and 4 courses and is considering offering level 5 course for some of the children who in many cases do not have alternatives. That is the consequence of the cuts. I, therefore, urge the Minister to look again at this issue in the few short weeks available. He should seek to change the timeframe and the criteria used. In particular, he should look at the 25% figure for administration costs in the context of historical funding, not forever more but in recognition of the fact that there are different funding models and that these groups cannot change overnight, as they are expected to do. The announcement was made on 20 October, yet they are expected to submit a tender document by 19 December.

I know that the Deputies are raising this issue in the right spirit, which I appreciate. On Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh's last comment, the issue has been well flagged for a good period. On the point about the period of three months, to answer the question directly, the previous funding model applied for three months, which is the reason for having a period of nine months.

With regard to the resource allocation model, RAM, which uses the HAASE deprivation model index, I will make it available to the Deputies as that is the easiest way for them to scrutinise it, like anybody else. That is the fairest and most appropriate thing to do.

The key point is that, under this model, there will be change. The targeting is apolitical and not something that involves political allocations or anything like it. The allocations are assessed. It is an attempt to target the most deprived areas and ensure we have a balance between areas where other resources are available in order that we can intercept appropriately. It is done as fairly as possible, based on high quality, scientific data and is equitable. It deals with population and deprivation indexes across a range of analyses and data. It is important to acknowledge that, if funding was not going to other areas, the Deputies opposite would be asking why it was not going to them. It is the case in one scenario as it is in another. We have to be as fair as possible. We have to ensure the funding goes to the appropriate areas where other resources are available which can be intercepted to get them to where the real problems are.

If the group involved sees fit to write to me, I will ensure it receives a fair hearing as a group

Will the Minister meet it?

I will ensure it receives a fair hearing as a group. That is a direct statement.