Topical Issue Debate

Homeless Persons Supports

This Topical Issue debate was supposed to take place last Thursday. In the past month, I have been continually in touch with the homeless services checking whether the night café proposed in the Focus talks on 9 December had been implemented. Up to today, the café has been open until 10.30 p.m. and today I heard that, from tomorrow, it will open 24 hours including over the weekend. Although more than 200 dormitory beds have been put in place, which has helped many people to access emergency accommodation in the miserably cold weather we have had over the past week and over Christmas, there are still 55 to 70 rough sleepers on the streets of Dublin alone. I do not have the figures for the rest of the country. The source of these figures is the Simon Community and the Inner City Helping the Homeless voluntary group established by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Christy Burke. Even if nine dormitories had been available on the night of the tragic death of the Lithuanian man in Temple Bar, 55 to 70 people cannot access them.

I welcome the fact that the café will be open tomorrow night. It will cater for non-nationals because of their many issues regarding language, entitlements and mental health. It will also cater for those who do not want to go into dormitories. What is the Minister of State's opinion on how we can bring in more single-room accommodation for the 55 to 70 people who will not touch the dormitories? While they may use the night café, and I hope they do, to get off the streets, the services must be put in place where there is single-room accommodation where people can feel safe and that they will not be robbed, away from the chaos of the drug and alcohol use which causes many problems in the community. Dr. Austin O'Carroll claims that smaller rooms would draw more people in to emergency accommodation in the city. Will the Government give a regular update to the Dáil on the homeless oversight group the Minister established? Although it is probably discussed in the environment committee, it is important that other Deputies who are trying to keep a finger on the pulse of what is happening on our streets be regularly informed about what is happening.

I thank Deputy Joan Collins for providing me with the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Kelly, to update the House on actions being taken to address homelessness, including the night café in Dublin. At yesterday's meeting of the Cabinet committee on social policy and public service reform, the committee considered the progress on implementing the action plan to address homelessness.

The Minister, Deputy Kelly, spoke about this plan and its development in this House on 10 and 16 December last. A copy of this action plan and yesterday's progress report is available on my Department's website.

The action plan, which committed to more than €20 million in expenditure, includes the immediate provision of additional emergency beds for people sleeping rough in Dublin, the provision of a night café to provide a contact point for homeless people who do not wish to be placed in emergency accommodation and the provision of transport with support services to bring people who are sleeping rough to emergency accommodation. A total of 271 new homeless beds were put in place in the Dublin region before Christmas in order that accommodation would be available for all those sleeping rough and that no one would need to sleep rough unless he or she chose to so do. The number and availability of emergency beds is being monitored closely with Dublin City Council and further beds will be provided should the need arise.

Not all homeless individuals wish to stay in the emergency accommodation that now is available for them. The establishment of a night café was considered to be an essential contact point for those who do not wish to be placed in emergency accommodation in order that they can be provided with food, a rest area and showering facilities. This service will provide the food, rest area and showers as needed. At full capacity, this facility will accommodate 50 people and will operate throughout the night seven days a week. As the Deputy has stated, the night café service has already opened, having started its initial operation on 15 December, with services available up to 10.30 p.m. Arrangements are being made at present to have it fully operational through the night. A recruitment process has now concluded and it is expected that the staff will be in place to ensure the night café service can operate efficiently and effectively, as outlined by the Deputy. The night café will link in with the new transport and support services, which have been operational since early December 2014 for those sleeping rough, as an integral part of the Housing First service. This initiative transports homeless persons to emergency accommodation and provides them with the necessary health and care supports in conjunction with other State providers. When a homeless person does not wish to be placed in such accommodation, the Housing First intake street team will refer the person to the night café in order that he or she will not feel obliged to sleep rough on the streets. I assure the Deputy and Members that addressing homelessness will remain a priority for the Government. It can and will continue to engage on and regularly discuss this important issue.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. The written reply provided to Members states: "Arrangements are currently being made to have it fully operational through the night by the end of this month." I happen to have been in contact with the Merchants Quay Project today and its staff told me it would be open tomorrow night all night, which is a huge step forward. A total of 44 days have elapsed since 9 December, when it was proposed to establish the night café, and perhaps an opportunity was lost to move faster in this regard. Perhaps the recruitment process was slower than expected, because the staff must be well trained. Obviously, they must also be given a decent wage to work such night shifts.

The key point in this regard is that there are still 55 to 70 homeless people sleeping rough on the streets. Even were the night café to take in 50 - perhaps there is an over-capacity of nine to ten beds per night in the additional beds that were provided - this is the area on which Members and the homeless services must focus, namely, the question of how to work with those 70 people and possibly get them either into long-term accommodation or into an area in which they feel safe. I again ask the Minister of State whether the issue of setting up single-room accommodation has been raised in respect of some of these people. I refer to those who will not go into the dormitories and may not go to the night café either, although I hope they do and that the transport bus will bring people to the night café. However, this will be important. I am aware from talking to homeless people that they will not touch the dormitories because of their sometimes chaotic nature and because of the conflicts in respect of drug use, drink and so on, which can create quite a violent situation. I note that Dr. O'Carroll and Peter McVerry have stated that consideration must be given, even in the short term, to setting up short-term private rooms into which people can go.

I can confirm to the Deputy that it was important to engage in the recruitment process and that qualified and competent people were found to run the service to give the essential supports required for the homeless people. However, I am glad to state that, as the Deputy has outlined, this process now has been completed and the night café will be open 24 hours a day, which is important for these people. As for the beds that were provided before Christmas, I acknowledge the input of NGOs and the various stakeholders that work in this area. Additional emergency beds have been provided and, to be fair, this issue has received the highest priority across the Government, involving all Departments, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister, Deputy Kelly, and myself. In conjunction with the NGOs the Government has provided those additional beds, and if more beds are required the Government certainly will address that as well and has committed to so doing. I also wish to note that homelessness is not just a Government issue, although it is most acute in the Dublin region. One must be conscious that other cities, such as Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway, also have homelessness issues, and arrangements are in place to provide additional emergency accommodation in order that no one is obliged to sleep rough in those cities either.

It is acknowledged that the provision of emergency accommodation is not a viable long-term solution to homelessness, and I acknowledge this point on the floor of the Chamber. This is why the efforts of the Government and of everyone must be focused on ensuring that long-term sustainable accommodation with appropriate supports is provided for those in emergency accommodation, as articulated in the Government's homelessness policy statement. The Government acknowledges that a person who is homeless also has many complex social and health needs, and it is not as simple as merely providing a bed. Social supports and the health supports also must be provided in parallel with that.

Essentially, the long-term solution to homelessness is to increase the supply of homes. Last December, the Minister, Deputy Kelly, launched the Government's social housing strategy. This six-year strategy sets out to provide 35,000 new social housing units at a cost of €3.8 billion, which is a strong commitment by the Government to address long-term solutions to this extremely difficult issue for society.

Airport Landing Slots

The next item, on the need to retain the Aer Lingus Heathrow slots to ensure balanced development, has been raised by Deputies McNamara, Dooley, Carey and O'Donnell, who have two minutes each.

I will try to be brief, as I have just two minutes rather than the usual four. The last four years have been difficult for all regions of the country, including the mid-west and the county I have the honour to represent, namely, County Clare. Nevertheless, there have been significant achievements, particularly given the point from which the Government started. Unemployment remains a lot higher in County Clare then I would wish it to be, as more than 8,000 people remain on the live register, but this is a decrease from the figure of almost 12,000 when the Government took power. Only yesterday there was a significant jobs announcement in Shannon, whereby 40 jobs are to be created immediately, with the intention of increasing this to 100. AMAX, the company that announced the jobs, stated that one reason it chose Shannon was its accessibility - that it was linked to other important airports. The Minister of State, Deputy Nash, who was present for the announcement, also made that point. While Shannon is linked to North America, it also has links to Heathrow and from Heathrow to many routes across Europe. The Heathrow connections are of crucial importance in this regard, because Shannon Airport is not connected to any other European hubs, unlike Dublin, which is connected to the great majority of hubs. I acknowledge that this debate could easily be portrayed as parochialism or being about one's own backyard, but it is about a lot more than that. It is not simply about Shannon; it also is about Cork and about regional development, because both Cork and Shannon rely on connectivity to Heathrow in a way Dublin does not. Second, there is a greater risk to the slots from Cork and Shannon to Heathrow than there is to the slots from Dublin, purely because the volume of business. The route between Dublin and Heathrow is one of the busiest in Europe and consequently, even on a purely commercial basis, one would expect this connectivity to be maintained even though it is not even strategically important to Dublin, while it is of vital importance to Shannon. My fear is that, should Aer Lingus be taken over, with the Government retaining a minority shareholding, a new company could decide on a purely commercial basis that instead of flying three times a day from Heathrow to Shannon, it could use those slots for much bigger aeroplanes and could fly to more lucrative markets.

That would be a huge strategic loss for the mid-west and the county of Clare, which I represent.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute with my colleagues to the debate on this issue of major importance not only to the region I represent but to the wider country. I will try to explain this under two headings. From the point of view of the capacity for the slots to be reallocated to other destinations in the event of Aer Lingus being sold, Shannon and Cork Airports depend hugely on connectivity into Heathrow for access not only to that part of London but to the wider world. In terms of the businesses located in the region, there is a real demand for the retention of those slots. The sale of Aer Lingus to IAG or any other organisation places a question mark over the future viability of many of the jobs in that region. While in recent months there have been some positive developments in the area I represent, any question mark over the continued connectivity between Shannon and London-Heathrow will impact on the State agency's ability to attract further foreign investment and on the companies already there, because as they argue within their own organisations for future investment it will hamper and hinder their efforts.

There is a wider issue involved. We are an island nation. The State, in retaining a strategic interest in Aer Lingus, did so to protect access to Heathrow through this slot allocation. To the best of my knowledge there is no way this could continue if the State were to sell its shareholding in Aer Lingus. Also, the sale of Aer Lingus could potentially have an impact on the north Dublin region. The purpose, generally, of any take-over is to reduce the cost base. As such, an amalgamation of the activities of Aer Lingus and IAG will result in cost reductions. Jobs will go and I do not think they will go in London. I believe the smaller airline will lose out. There are approximately 1,000 people in payroll and back office systems in Dublin whose jobs are in jeopardy if the State sells its interest in Aer Lingus.

I am asking that the Minister give a clear commitment that the Government will not sell its stake in Aer Lingus in a manner that could impact so drastically on Shannon and Cork and, also, North County Dublin.

I welcome the opportunity this evening to raise this matter along with my colleagues. It is widely anticipated that IAG will make a third offer for Aer Lingus later this week. Aer Lingus holds 23 landing slots at Heathrow, providing connectivity to our State through Shannon, Cork and Dublin Airports.

I am asking this evening that access to these vital slots be the Minister's key consideration in developing a Government approach to the potential sale of the State's shareholding in Aer Lingus. These slots provide access to central London and, more important, connectivity to the wider world through the global hub of Heathrow. Therefore, they are of strategic importance to our State and must be maintained and secured in any potential sale of Aer Lingus.

I was delighted to attend yesterday at the announcement of the creation of 100 new jobs in Shannon by AMAX, a US ICT company. One of the major attractions of AMAX to the mid-west region was ease of access from America to Europe and the remainder of the world through Shannon Airport. It is clear that any change in our access through Heathrow slots will cause serious damage to our attractiveness and will have serious implications for foreign direct investment, regional economic development, business tourism and tourism generally. Shannon Airport experienced 17% growth in 2014. Since being granted its independence by this Government and following changes to its managerial structure, it has gone from strength to strength. Shannon is the driver of economic activity in the mid-west region and it has a direct positive impact on the whole of the western seaboard. Therefore, it is vital that the Government ensure retention of the landing slots into Heathrow.

I ask the Minister to ensure that any deal reached in relation to the sale of Aer Lingus be accompanied by legal guarantees, ensuring that the slots at Heathrow are maintained for use by Shannon, Cork and Dublin Airports in the interests of the economic and social future of our State.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, for being present in the House for this matter. As we speak, discussions are ongoing between IAG and the Aer Lingus board in regard to a possible third bid. In that context, it is vital the Heathrow slots, particularly in terms of regional development at Shannon and Cork, are protected. The stakes are extremely high for Limerick and the mid-west, where connectivity is vital. We have an enormous amount of foreign direct investment companies along the mid-west and western seaboard. Shannon Airport is the only airport along the western seaboard with Heathrow slots.

In terms of the critical importance of the Heathrow slots, in 2007 Aer Lingus had its Shannon slots relocated to Belfast. This heralded a period of downturn for Shannon. Since the restoration of those slots to Shannon the airport has recovered. Following the independence of Shannon, provided for by this Government, it has been a success. It is important that success is not jeopardised.

In regard to NewERA, which is part of the National Treasury Management Agency, and is designated with providing advice to Government on its shareholding in Aer Lingus, what direction has the Minister and Government given to NewERA in terms of its assessment of any proposal, particularly in the context of protecting the strategic interests of the Heathrow slots for Ireland Inc.? We are an island nation. We must have connectivity. The key focus in Article 10 of the Articles of Association is protection of the Heathrow slots. As a representative for Limerick and the region concerned I believe it is vital that the Heathrow slots be preserved. They are vital for the future of the region and, I would contend, the future of Ireland Inc..

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I am keenly aware of the importance of this matter not only to the constituencies they represent but also to the wider economy.

I must preface my statement this evening by saying that following the announcements of recent approaches to Aer Lingus by IAG, the Irish Takeover Panel has deemed that Aer Lingus is now in an offer period. The Takeover Panel Rules in regard to communications apply to all parties during such an offer period and all parties, including the Government as shareholder, must apply the highest standards of care to any statements made on the matter. Specifically, shareholders must take care in any of their communications to avoid revealing any information that could potentially impact, either positively or negatively, on the Aer Lingus share price. Currently, no formal offer has been made to Aer Lingus shareholders. That said, I wish to make clear that should such an offer be made, we will take great care and exercise great caution in examining the pros and cons to Ireland of such an offer. We will bear in mind the same issues we considered when faced with previous takeover bids. We will consider the impact any change in ownership of Aer Lingus would have on the connectivity of Ireland, which connectivity is vital to our economy and our society. We will consider the impact it would have on competition for passengers to and from Irish airports and we will consider the impact on the bases from which Aer Lingus currently operates, namely, our State and regional airports. We will also, of course, consider the value put on the State's shareholding in Aer Lingus by any offer.

Airport slots are a right granted to an airline which allows it to schedule a landing and departure during a specific time. Airport slots are not owned as such by the airlines and certainly are not owned by governments or states. However, at congested airports such as Heathrow, a secondary market has developed that has allowed airlines trade slots with each other to meet their changing business needs. A specific mechanism was built into the company's memorandum and articles of association whereby any proposal for the disposal of slots over which the airline had rights at the time of listing on the Stock Exchange may be subject to a requirement for a resolution approved by shareholders voting at an extraordinary general meeting, EGM. Where a resolution by shareholders is called for, the voting threshold to prevent a disposal of slots proposed by the company is such that the percentage vote against disposal at the EGM must be greater than the percentage of the company's shares held by the Minister for Finance plus 5%, or 25% if greater.

The ability of the State's shareholding to block a disposal of slots is not guaranteed under this mechanism, as the support of at least another 5% of shareholders is required. This mechanism also relates only to a proposed disposal of slots. Aer Lingus does not require any shareholder approval to change the routes for which it uses the slots.

Connectivity remains critically important for Ireland as an island nation. Heathrow remains a very important hub for connectivity purposes. As it becomes more congested, however, other hub options are becoming available including other European hubs. In addition, the number of destinations that can be reached directly from many of Ireland's airports has also increased over the years.

The State retains a significant but, nonetheless, a minority shareholding in Aer Lingus with just over 25% of the shares. The Government does not control the company nor does it appoint the chairman or a majority of the board members. In 2012, the Government included this shareholding among the assets to be sold under the State asset disposal programme but agreed the stake would only be sold when market conditions were favourable and if acceptable terms and an acceptable price could be secured. In late 2012, following a third hostile takeover bid for Aer Lingus by Ryanair, the Government indicated it would not be prepared to sell the shareholding in circumstances which could significantly impact on competition and connectivity in the Irish market. Such considerations would also be foremost in the Government’s mind if a further offer is made for the company.

I appreciate the difficulty the Minister is in by virtue of the Irish Takeover Panel having deemed Aer Lingus to be in an offer period. I wrote to the Minister immediately following the publication of the news of the first takeover bid on 19 December 2014. I do not know if that was considered an offer period then, so perhaps a more detailed reply may have been possible. In any event, I did not receive one but I welcome the fact the Minister has come to the Chamber this evening to discuss the matter and appreciate the importance he has attached to connectivity and the Heathrow slots.

When I wrote to the Minister in December, I requested an assurance that any sale by the Government would be contingent on maintaining Heathrow slots for Shannon flights and that this would be legally binding in the event of a sale. That really is the crux of the matter and what I hope for from the Government. It is not enough that it offers to retain the Heathrow slots. There needs to be some legally binding mechanism to ensure they cannot be sold on if the company is sold and they can be used for another destination.

I thank the Minister for his clear outline of the situation as to how slots are owned and traded, as well as acquired as a grandfather right. Will he clear up the myth, if he can, and explain clearly that there is no mechanism by which the slots can be retained by the airports in the event of an outright sale of the company? It is my understanding there is no legal mechanism whatsoever that can be made to any attachment to the usage of slots if the company is sold, whatever protection the State has by virtue of its 25% shareholding. The articles of association prescribe that the Government must have an additional 5% support in such an event, support I believe in the current climate will be available from the shareholdings of other groupings including the pilots. Notwithstanding that, will the Minister confirm there is no capacity to retain any control over the slots if the entity is sold?

I appreciate this is an offer period but I also welcome the fact that the Minister has given top priority to connectivity. Will he clarify if a proviso or legal guarantees will be put into any deal for the potential sale of Aer Lingus to ensure we hold on to the Heathrow slots because of the negative impact their sale could have on Shannon and Cork Airports in particular?

I thank the Minister for his response. He referred to preserving connectivity and the Heathrow slots. The 25.1% stake was retained in Aer Lingus by the State for that very purpose. He also stated, “Following a third hostile takeover bid for Aer Lingus by Ryanair, the Government indicated it would not be prepared to sell the shareholding in circumstances which could significantly impact on competition and connectivity in the Irish market.” At the time, it was reported that Ryanair would divest its Heathrow slots to British Airways, BA, which is involved in IAG, International Airlines Group. The State must use its 25.1% stake to ensure connectivity is retained for the region. It is not just about the sale proceeds. It is about Ireland Inc. We are an island nation that needs connectivity. Thousands of jobs along the western seaboard and Limerick are reliant on foreign direct investment and connectivity to Heathrow airport. Will the Minister give a commitment that the 25.1% stake will be used to ensure the Heathrow slots are retained for Shannon and Cork Airports?

I acknowledge the importance of what the Deputies have raised. I understand the reasons they are making these points and the need to do so. Again, I must emphasise that because Aer Lingus is deemed to be in an offer period, I must take great care with what I say.

No formal offer has been made for Aer Lingus. I have been very clear on the point made by all Deputies regarding the importance of connectivity in all of its different dimensions to all different parts of the country. This is an issue that stretches well beyond tourism and regional economic development. The point raised by Members is a national one for Ireland Inc. Our travelling public and our economy have benefited greatly from the good competition and connectivity provided in the market for air services in and out of Ireland. I am in the process of finalising a new national aviation policy which I will publish shortly. As I emphasised earlier, maintaining competition and connectivity will be key elements of that policy document. If an offer for Aer Lingus is made by IAG or any other party, these policy matters will be very carefully considered before any decision is made on the future of the State's shareholding in Aer Lingus.

Sport and Recreational Development

Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil as an deis a labhairt ar an ábhar seo sa Teach anocht. I thank the Minister coming in to take the matter. It moves seamlessly on from the previous discussion about airports moving into this area of tourism.

My overall objective and a dream I would like to realise, which I share with many of my constituents and many people across west Cork, is to be able to get off the aeroplane in Cork Airport and walk or cycle down into west Cork, and continue the journey through west Cork either on foot or by bike. While it sounds a bit romantic and a bit of a dream, there is a lot of work done to date on realising that dream. There is an incredible community spirit locally in west Cork and we have a long history of tourism. It is a discussion I have had on numerous occasions with the present Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and with his predecessor Deputy Varadkar, as well as the Minister of State, Deputy Ring. I have tried to realise that dream of developing walkways, what are known as greenways - blueways, of course, are the same thing through water - across west Cork in conjunction with the local people and Cork County Council and its officials. I had a meeting recently with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, with a view to ensuring that funding is made available to Deputy Donohoe's department for this specific issue.

I held a public meeting in west Cork last Monday night week in the Emmet Hotel in Clonakilty. I did not do much advertising for it, it was just carried in the local newspaper a couple of weeks ahead of the date. The crowd was massive, but what was far more impressive was the enthusiasm of the people. It was infectious. The amount of work people had done was striking, like the west Cork cycling group, which has already designated a 200 km cycle around west Cork for which they are developing an app that can be downloaded to phones. Sean Collins of that club spoke in great detail about developing the app and making it available. Very little money would be needed to signpost that route. They also have a smaller route of about 26 km ready to go.

The Acting Chairman would be no stranger to west Cork himself, of course, and would be familiar with the very natural and existing beauty. I know the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has holidayed there on many occasions and has come back to me with glowing reports. That is no surprise to me. We have a natural infrastructure there, but we also had an infrastructure at one time that was taken from us. Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about that now. That is the railway line, of course, which also comes under the Minister's Department. The railway line was closed long before Deputy Donohoe's time, when the good people of west Cork were denied their railway. The line is still there, however, and Cork County Council has done a feasibility study and identified a 26 km walk all the way down it to Courtmacsherry. We hope to develop that as a greenway so people can walk, cycle, run or whatever takes their fancy on that route.

We also want to develop numerous other walkways and trails and it would remiss of me not to acknowledge the serious amount of work done by many groups in west Cork already. Drimoleague would be one, where David Ross and his people have developed a number of trails and walkways. There is beautiful scenery and the area is made for that kind of exercise.

In addition to talking about tourism and bringing tourists into west Cork to avail of these facilities, there is huge demand from the domestic market, from the local residents who want to get out and exercise. I noted driving into Dublin today that a massive number of people were out walking and running even though the weather was not that conducive to it. People are very conscious of their health and they want to get out, get active and get exercise. It is a great way to spend time with our children. The roads have gotten so much busier now, so people want to do this exercise off-road.

I am very passionate about this, and I believe money is starting to come into the Exchequer. We have to reinvest back into our futures. This ticks so many boxes on so many different levels - physical health and well-being, mental health and well-being, as well as the tourism boxes. There is a huge appetite from the local population for it as evidenced at the meeting.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I am not at all surprised to hear of the interest within the Clonakilty community and within Deputy Daly's constituency, because the roll-out of these greenways across the country has been hugely successful. I can see the demand for the roll-out of this kind of infrastructure really beginning to steadily build. Because of that there is a need for us to evaluate how we are going to do that, what money will be available and how they can be delivered in the best way. I am going to allude to some of the thinking on those areas in response to the Deputy's contribution.

As the Deputy is aware and has already acknowledged, last year my Department awarded €6.3 million under the National Cycle Network funding programme 2014-2016 to three local authorities for the delivery of greenways following a competitive process. A further 11 cycle-greenway proposals have been submitted by local authorities to share in the €200 million Government stimulus package for infrastructural development. Of that, €10 million was earmarked for the delivery of greenways. Seed funding was also provided to a number of local authorities in 2013 to progress planning and research for greenways. This funding amounted to €420,000.

At the moment, my Department has no plans to put in place a dedicated funding stream to provide funding to community groups to develop and deliver proposals such as those outlined by the Deputy as funding is fully allocated at the moment until 2016. As it stands I feel that the Leader programme serves this purpose although I am aware there are many demands being made on limited resources. I would recommend that local authorities and community groups continue working within their own resources where possible to progress plans for suitable projects so that when funding does become available they are in a position to apply for that funding. We might come back to that in a moment. It should be noted that the funding under the stimulus package last year was made to projects that were already on file with my Department following on from the awards under the National Cycle Network funding programme.

Offering our visitors an innovative tourism product has been key to growth in visitor numbers in recent years. The Government's commitment to sustainable transport and encouraging the development of world-class cycling and walking trails is an added incentive to visit Ireland. We must remain aware of the need to build greenways that appeal to local users, particularly where these greenways can help provide an alternative route to schools and work for children and families. The Deputy referred to that in his own contribution when he said that he noticed, when travelling to the Dáil, how many people were out and about on their bikes and on the footpaths despite the inclement weather, coming into their workplaces or going to school.

I understand that the National Trails Office in conjunction with stakeholders is working on a revised strategy for Irish trails that will be submitted to Government for approval later this year. This strategy, along with the Department of the Environment and Local Government's national countryside recreational strategy, which is also under review, will guide the Government's thinking on expanding the number of greenways, blueways and outdoor trails in the coming years.

It is important that, in preparing business cases and plans for greenways, communities and local authorities always keep in mind the end users. There is no point in seeking to put significant time, effort and money into projects that will not be used. The Field of Dreams approach - where "if you build it they will come" - will not necessarily work for greenways. People need to have access to them and the start and finish points must be carefully thought through.

I will refer back to some comments the Deputy made in my concluding comments.

I thank the Minister for his response. In essence we are all on the one hymn sheet here. We all know it is a great idea and the merits of it. I will not labour those points. Having spoken with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, I am confident that new funding will be available and new stimulus funding will be announced this year, and I think Deputy Donohoe's Department will be in a better place. I am confident, anyway; I hope I am not revealing any trade secrets there, but the Minister, Deputy Howlin, was certainly encouraging in his comments on that matter.

I hope the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport will be particularly proactive in this regard because it ticks two relevant boxes, that is, sustainable transport as well as the tourism element. Of course the domestic element is tied in with that as well.

I am delighted with the success of the greenway in Mayo. It looks to be a great success. The project got significant funding. However, in west Cork we do not have a Taoiseach or Minister of State with responsibility for tourism. I am keen to see our share of the spoils. Are we to get our share of the spoils? I hope the Minister will support me in ensuring that the good work done at grassroots level by community activists is brought to fruition. This work was evident at the meeting. Dozens of people contacted me by e-mail and so on afterwards. It is also evident on the part of Cork County Council, which has done considerable work on feasibility studies and identifying routes.

The old railway line in west Cork is an ideal route to be developed. However, we need funding from central government. I hope the Minister will take every opportunity to support us in this regard and to be cognisant of it from the start of the year. I hope we will be back in the House again with more positive news and announcements on this front during the year.

I assure the Deputy that I fully recognise the importance of the development of greenways and blueways throughout our island for the two reasons to which he referred. I wish to emphasise the sustainable transport aspect. In my visits to various points throughout the country I have been struck by the importance which local authorities attach to having their own sustainable transport strategies. In county after county I have met local representatives, directors of services or local authority chief executives. All point to the role of sustainable transport strategies in improving the lives of people in the areas they represent as well as helping its economic development.

I am very much aware of how greenways have already contributed to economic development and in particular the development of our tourism offering for domestic as well as international tourists. I have met experts in this area and they have made two points to me. First, the need for us to have more projects, in particular greenways of a certain calibre, throughout the country. Second, we need greenways of a particular length. This is because certain tourists are willing to travel to our country and spend money but they want to be able to use a greenway that will take many days of cycling to complete. This would allow them to spend time traversing the country and many different counties as opposed to a single or particular county. This is one of the reasons I am very supportive of the work that is under way - we have funding against it - for the Dublin to Galway greenway.

I hear clearly where Deputy Daly is coming from. He is looking for more of these facilities to be made available throughout the country, particularly in his county. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to confirm to Deputy Daly that the money is available now. However, we must continue planning in order that if and when funding becomes available in future we have projects that are ready to go. I assure Deputy Daly that I will be raising the need for this kind of planning and funding in these areas within Government.

One-Parent Family Payment Payments

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for allowing me to raise what I regard as a grave injustice being perpetrated against the most vulnerable group in society, namely, lone parents. We live in a country where one in six of our population are living below the internationally accepted poverty line. In addition, a recent European survey indicated that a lone parent is 230% more likely than the average person to be living in poverty. A total of 40% of lone parents fall into the category of being at risk of poverty.

Following a change introduced by the Government, from next July any lone parent who has a child past the age of seven years will no longer be categorised as a lone parent. Such a person will be moved to the family income supplement or jobseeker's allowance, as the case may be. This is going to have huge financial consequences for a large number of lone parents throughout the country.

The irony is that the Minister for Social Protection has repeatedly told us that these changes were designed to incentivise lone parents back into the workplace. The supreme irony is that for a lone parent who is not working and simply staying at home and getting the lone parents allowance, in financial terms this change will make no difference whatsoever. Such people will be in the same position financially before as after or after as before. However, the change will specifically hit working lone parents.

My interpretation of the term "incentive" is that we make it worthwhile for someone to do something and give that person a reward for doing something. One example is the family income supplement scheme, under which we give people an incentive to take up a low-paid job because it widens the gap between what they could earn and what they would have received on social welfare. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection reduced the jobseeker's allowance for people under the age of 21 years from €200 per week. She said that they would have an incentive to go on a training programme because they would get €160 per week. This must be the first time in the history of the English language that someone is regarded as being incentivised to work when they are made less well-off as a result. It seems to fly in the face of every other facet of Government policy.

One example is that of a lone parent who is also looking after an elderly relative. This person has both child care and caring responsibilities and would lose, on average, €86 per week. This is because the recipient will only get the carer's allowance in place of what he gets at present, which is the lone-parent allowance plus the half-carer's allowance. Given the change in the means test and the drop in the income disregard, lone parents who work for less than 19 hours per week and earn the miserly sum of €150 per week will lose a further €24. This amounts to a cumulative loss of €53 per week as a result of the changes made by the Minister. Perhaps the Minister of State or myself could afford to take a loss of €53 per week but for a lone parent dependent on the lone-parent's allowance and working for a €150 per week on a part-time basis it is a substantial hit.

Those who are working more than 19 hours per week and entitled to the family income supplement will lose the lone-parent allowance. Either they will get an increase in the family income supplement or they will go on family income supplement for the first time. By definition, the family income supplement will only be 60% of what these people had been getting by way of the lone-parent allowance. On average, these people will lose approximately €70 per week.

The Minister stated on 18 April 2012 that the drop in the age limit to seven years would not be introduced until such time as we had a Scandinavian-type child care system in the country. I have the exact quote before me which I can read into the record if time permits.

Sorry, Deputy, your time is up

My question to the Minister of State is simple. Since we do not have a Scandinavian child care system in the country and the Minister said we would not have this change until we had such a system, will the Minister now agree to reverse the change?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and affording me the opportunity to provide the Dáil with a response. Since its introduction in 1997, the one-parent family payment scheme, which provides an important income support to lone parents, has been passive in nature. This has engendered long-term social welfare dependency and associated poverty among many lone-parent families. This has given rise to significant higher rates of consistent poverty for lone parents in comparison to the population in general. The best route out of poverty and to social inclusion is through paid employment. I believe that supporting lone parents to participate in education and training once their children have reached an appropriate age will assist them into employment and financial independence.

In order to achieve these aims, reforms were introduced to the one-parent family payment scheme in budget 2012 to reduce the age of the youngest child to seven years for receipt of one-parent family payments. These reforms are aimed at providing the necessary support to lone parents to help them escape joblessness and poverty, to assist them to access the Department's range of education, training and employment programmes and to attain financial independence and social well-being for themselves and their families.

The final stage of this reform will take place on 2 July, when the age threshold will be reduced to seven years for all existing and new recipients. Exemptions are in place for recipients who have been recently bereaved or who are in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance for one of their children. The provisions can extend payments to certain one-parent families beyond the maximum age limit threshold for these customers. It is expected that approximately 30,000 customers will be affected by this reform in July and they will be fully supported by the Department in the transition to another income support payment.

It is expected that approximately 30,000 customers will be affected by this reform in July and they will be fully supported by the Department in transitioning to another income support payment. The majority of customers are expected to move to a jobseeker's allowance payment, including the jobseeker's allowance transitional arrangement. In recognition of the caring responsibilities of lone parents, the jobseeker's allowance transitional arrangement was introduced in 2013. This arrangement caters for lone parents who transition from the one-parent family payment scheme to jobseeker's allowance and who have a youngest child under 14 years of age. The arrangement exempts these customers from certain jobseeker's allowance conditions, including the requirement to be available for and genuinely seeking full-time work. The jobseeker's allowance transitional arrangement thereby allows these customers to balance their caring responsibilities and significantly reduces their requirement for child care.

As part of budget 2015, the Tánaiste announced the back-to-work family dividend. The dividend is available to customers who transition from the one-parent family payment to family income supplement as their primary payment. The dividend allows these customers to receive a payment of €29.80 per child per week in their first year of employment and half that amount in the second year of employment.

The Deputy will be aware that the Department also introduced a number of child care initiatives jointly with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. These include the after-school child care scheme and the community employment child care programme, both of which provide support for lone parents. The key policy objective of this reform is to improve the outcomes for lone parents and their families. This will be achieved by providing lone parents with improved access to the Department's Intreo services, including the opportunity to develop a personal development plan with an Intreo case officer. On foot of these reforms, lone parents will have enhanced access to education, training and employment supports, including the back-to-work family dividend, which will assist them in improving their prospects of securing employment and financial independence.

There are no plans to review or revise the ongoing implementation of the one-parent family payment reforms.

The response from the Department states the 30,000 people who will be affected by this change next July will be "fully supported" by the Department in making the transition. They will not be fully supported. They are going to suffer an horrendous income loss, with no compensation from the Department or anyone else. In 2012 the Minister for Social Protection, while discussing an amendment to prevent this change, said:

I entirely agree that seven is too young for anyone to seriously contemplate any of these things without there being a system of safe, affordable and accessible child care in place, similar to what is found in the Scandinavian countries whose systems of social protection we aspire to. That is why I am undertaking tonight that I will only proceed with the measure to reduce the upper age limit to seven years in the event that I get a credible and bankable commitment on the delivery of such a system of child care by the time of this year's budget. If this is not forthcoming, the measure will not proceed.

That could not be more clear. The Minister of State did not give that commitment, but the Minister did. While I have every respect for the Minister of State, in fairness, the Minister should be here to explain why she is so flagrantly breaching her own commitment. Is the Minister of State aware that in 2012 there were 100,000 or so lone parents in the country, 60,000 of whom were working? After the changes introduced by the Minister in the past two and a half years, there are now 36,000 lone parents working - some 24,000 have dropped out of the workforce. Has any account been taken of the actual net saving to the Exchequer? I know that a gross saving to the Exchequer can be demonstrated through the simple mathematical device of taking out the cost of the payments and adjusting accordingly, but I suggest the net saving to the Exchequer is very little. There may be a net loss for the Exchequer because there are 24,000 fewer people working and contributing; they are now drawing the full lone parent's allowance instead of a partial allowance which many of them received previously.

The Deputy has asked numerous questions which I am not going to be able to answer in the time allowed. In that context, I suggest he submit his queries to the Department by way of parliamentary questions and I will ensure they answered in full.

On the issue of using the Scandinavian model, the provision of child care services and future plans in this regard are matters for my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The Scandinavian child care model, while very comprehensive, is also very expensive. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs estimates the cost of universal child care provision would reach approximately €1 billion per annum. In the current fiscal environment that level of funding is not available. However, an interdepartmental group comprising the Departments of the Taoiseach, Education and Skills, Social Protection, Public Expenditure and Reform, Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and Finance and led by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is examining the issue of child care. It is intended that it will finalise its work in the spring.

The experience in my constituency which is probably similar to that in the Deputy's is that the lone-parent payment has been a poverty trap. The reforms introduced have assisted lone parents back into the employment market by providing them with access to training and education, ultimately leading to employment and financial independence.

I apologise for not answering all of the Deputy's queries. I urge him to submit parliamentary questions and I will endeavour to ensure they are answered fully.