Topical Issue Debate

Student Grant Scheme Design

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this issue. I acknowledge the presence of the Minister. I have spoken with her before on the issue and she is familiar with some of my views on it from my work in the education committee. While I believe that forum might be better placed to further address some of the issues I have, I would like to get ministerial approval and support in the House. Ultimately, I would like to see a comprehensive review of the third level structure that pertains to the awarding of grants.

I want to express my full confidence in SUSI. After its establishment, SUSI proved a huge source of disappointment to the Opposition and the media because it got its act together and did a tremendous job in awarding grants. Its work is universally acknowledged, in particular the extraordinary task of bringing all the separate awarding authorities under one body. I do not have an issue with SUSI and the way it does its work, given it does that work within the parameters set for it.

The issue is that the awarding system is very cut and dried. If people are €20 under the threshold, they are eligible to get a grant, maintenance and fees for their child who is going to college, but if they are €20 over the threshold, they are refused the full grant and any other help whatsoever. It is very difficult for people to stomach the fact a €20 difference in wages can mean so much. I understand there are gradients in terms of the amount awarded under the adjacent rate which is related to the distance a person lives from the college. However, if somebody is marginally over the cut-off point, which is approximately €42,000 for a typical family of three or four, there should be some flexibility in the system so that a person is entitled to get, say, 60%, 70%, 80% or 90% of a grant. In this day and age, surely the IT systems in place could manage the awarding of grants in a manner that is more proportionate to people's income and not so reliant on the very black and white cut-off thresholds we have all boxed ourselves into.

While that is being done, in tandem, I would like to see more flexibility being built into the system of appeals. My experience of current appeals is that discretion is not being allowed and officials are only concerned with whether the rules of the scheme are being adhered to. This is my bigger issue. While we need to change the structures that SUSI operates, in the meantime the appeals system should be examined

For example, a parent who works in the health sector recently attended my clinic in Clonakilty in west Cork. As part of the Haddington Road agreement in the past two years, she got a one-off payment of €600 or €700, which has meant she is ineligible for the SUSI grant. Her child has to travel a very long distance from west Cork every week while she is working. She explained to me that she is now in a vicious circle because she is trying to do overtime every minute she can get in order to make ends meet and to get her child through college and pay for his fees, accommodation and food, given she has to pay for everything. That is very difficult for her but, next year, she will be in a worse scenario as she will be further over the limit because of the overtime she has worked, so she will be punished even further and will have even less of a remote chance.

In essence, I have two requests. First, I ask for this to be raised in the education committee as I believe it might be a forum where, with the guidance and assistance of the Minister, and her presence and that of her officials, we could look comprehensively at the awards structure that is in place at present with a view to, on a gradual basis, giving 70%, 80% and 90% awards to those who are marginally over the thresholds. Second, and more important and urgently, I ask that real discretion be applied to the appeals mechanism that exists at present.

I know the Deputy has a particular interest in this area and thank him for raising the matter. As he is aware, under the terms of the student grant scheme, grant assistance is awarded to students who meet the prescribed conditions of funding, including those relating to nationality, residency, previous academic attainment and means. The assessment of means under the Department's student grant scheme is based on gross income from all sources. Therefore, all income is assessed from the same starting point, eliminating any distortion which might arise from different spending decisions.

Unfortunately, it is not currently proposed to depart from the existing arrangements for the determination of the eligibility for a student grant and allow for discretion to be applied to education grant application decisions that fall marginally outside the income guidelines. The means test arrangements of the student grant scheme are applied nationally. In the case of both employed and self-employed applicants, gross income is assessed with certain specified social welfare and health service payments excluded. The income limits for grant eligibility are increased relative to the number of students in a family applying for a grant. In recognition of the additional cost to families where more than one person is attending college, an increment for each additional relevant person can be applied to the income thresholds at the rates outlined in the student grant scheme. The maximum increment that can be applied per relevant person is €4,980.

The eligibility of an applicant, or the level of the grant awarded, may be re-assessed by the grant-awarding authority in the event of a change of circumstances in the academic year. The applicant should, in the first instance, contact the relevant awarding body and notify it of the change in circumstances. As the Deputy said, there is also an appeals system.

I understand Deputy Daly is looking for a forum in which we can address these issues. I would certainly be happy to go to the education committee to address the whole area.

I remember the Minister's predecessor once saying that we, as legislators, come into this House not to accept things as they are but to change them. That is our job, as legislators. While officials will always say this is the scheme that is there at the moment, and it is too difficult or cumbersome to change it, or there is too much work involved, I do not accept that. I did not come here to roll along; I came here to make changes for the better and to improve circumstances for people.

I urge the Minister to lead from the front on the political side. While the departmental officials might be keen to tell us in their script that they have no plans to change this at the moment, it is our job in politics to listen to the people, get their experience and come back in here to lead change. I welcome the Minister's commitment to attend the committee with her officials so we can debate this in more detail and deal with it in a more comprehensive way.

There are a number of other issues. There is the whole difficulty with PAYE workers, who find the grants system extremely frustrating because it is so black and white and given the P60 states the bottom-line figures. On the other hand, and we have to call a spade a spade, people who are self-employed have some wriggle room in terms of using previous years to help their eligibility for a grant. That is a real difficulty for PAYE workers which we must acknowledge. We also have to move away from the black and white finality of the baseline and the approach that if people are €1 over, they are not eligible. I do not think that is fair or equitable, and it is not something the Government should stand over.

The Minister referred to the issue of a change in circumstances. The reality is that if people have a change in circumstances, they have to prove this change of circumstances will affect them for the duration of their time in college. That is a difficult threshold to cross because, while the person can prove it for one year, perhaps given the financial collapse and everything that has gone wrong, the awarding authority can say that things will pick up next year or the year after.

Without going into all of the details, the system is outdated and needs to be re-evaluated and reviewed. I would appreciate a commitment from the Minister to do this. I would certainly be willing to play my part in a review of the current system at an Oireachtas committee.

The eligibility criteria, including the income thresholds, are reviewed annually, in conjunction with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We are willing to look at the thresholds and consider what change is required. The Deputy's specific proposal relates to flexibility at the margins. Many of our systems have cut-off points which apply across various Departments and we can always come up with cases that are just outside or inside these limits. I do not propose to change the position, but it is reviewed regularly. I would certainly be willing to attend the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection which would be a good forum in which to discuss these issues.

Property Tax Exemptions

I thank the Minister of State for attending and the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue.

By definition, tenants are not the owners of a property. They may have rights in a property, but these are limited and only for the period of their tenancy and with the agreement of their landlord. They are far less powerful in this regard than those who own their homes, ignoring the fact that many Irish people only own their unaffordable mortgage and are struggling to hold on to their homes by any means they can.

The property tax was and remains the wrong tax at the wrong time. In its normal application it fails to recognise the ability of a homeowner to pay and ignores such issues as negative equity and distressed mortgages, issues which are still rife in the Ireland of 2015. The property boom and crash forced more people than ever before into renting. Now nearly one quarter of all Irish people live in rented accommodation. The private market has always been unwilling to provide housing as needed and is only willing to do so when a clear and easy profit is possible. The State, therefore, has a central role in ensuring sufficient, affordable, comfortable and secure housing is available. Unfortunately, it has ignored this role for decades. As a result, the problem of housing need on the bottom rung has grown worse and those living in social housing are ghettoised in excluded communities in which unemployment, poverty and educational disadvantage are commonplace. These tenants have suffered most at the hands of two austerity Governments. They have seen all manner of cuts to social protections, vital supports and services, while their children have been left in overcrowded classrooms, with fewer SNAs and other staff to deal with the myriad of educational problems poverty brings. These tenants now face the possibility, as is already the case in Limerick, of having to pay the property tax. The tax the Labour Party claimed was a wealth tax is now a tax on social housing which will be paid for by the very one who have least to give.

Last month Limerick City and County Council decided to add a charge of approximately €87 to the rents of its tenants in order to recoup the cost of the local property tax it must pay on its social housing stock. This practice, although common in the private market, strictly, is illegal. It is wrong of the council to do this, but it must pay its bill, which is the real problem. The taxing of social housing by the Government, through the local property tax, is the real problem. This is a decision made by the Government which cannot hide behind the council which is trying balance its books - its legacy after years of austerity - and now facing a tax on its housing stock. Given the Government's recent pronouncements on housing provision, a tax on social housing seems to be counter-productive.

I am doubtful about the Government's housing strategy claims, but if it delivers such numbers of houses, how will councils and voluntary bodies afford to pay the property tax bill? I call on the Minister to do two things. First, he must end the practice of charging property tax on social housing and, second, if he is unwilling to do so, he should issue a diktat to councils that under no circumstances should they pass on property tax to their tenants. Shared ownership is another area in which it is unfair for councils to pass on the property tax which will impact on tenants in a myriad areas.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue which I am taking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly.

The Government decided to make local authorities liable for the local property tax in order that local authority tenants would be treated in the same way as tenants in the private sector in which landlords may pass on the cost of the tax to tenants in the form of increased rents, if they so wish. Thus, the Finance (Local Property Tax) Act 2012 provides that local authorities are liable to pay LPT in respect of dwellings that they own, other than dwellings that accommodate persons with special housing needs. Under the Act, chargeable local authority residential properties are deemed to be in the lowest valuation band until 2016, at least, and the annual LPT liability is €100 per local authority dwelling.

Housing authorities are responsible, under section 58 of the Housing Act 1966, for determining the rents of their dwellings, subject to relating rent levels to household income and requiring low income households to pay a lower proportion of income in rent. Within these parameters, it is a matter for housing authorities to ensure their rental income reflects, as far as practicable, the cost of managing and maintaining their housing stock. Section 58 of the 1966 Act does not empower councils to levy a specific charge on tenants in respect of LPT. However, under the enactment, they may set rents at levels that will generate funds to pay for expenses relating to their tenanted accommodation, including their LPT liability. It is entirely a matter for housing authorities to decide if they wish to do this and the Minister has no function in the matter. It would not be appropriate, therefore, for me to comment on the manner in which individual councils, including Limerick City and County Council, exercise their statutory rent functions.

Section 31 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009, as amended, provides for the introduction of a national differential rents framework that will result in a significant harmonisation of local authority rent levels nationally, while retaining some discretion for individual authorities in setting rents in their areas. Under this legislation which contains similar provisions to section 58 of the 1966 Act in regard to charges, local authority rents will continue to relate to household income and composition and contributing to the cost of managing and maintaining the tenanted housing stock.

It is important to realise that the local property tax has only been frozen until 2016 and that after that date, we will see a huge jump in the charge across the country. This will affect everyone but, in particular, the least well-off in society, local authority tenants. It is not good enough to say it is at the discretion of local authorities as to whether the charge should be imposed. The Government should issue a diktat to local authorities that the imposition of this tax is unacceptable. We need to protect those who find themselves in this position. The cost of housing has risen considerably and we are now heading towards another property bubble. This issue is ongoing and the tax people will pay after 2016 will be huge. People are struggling and have seen a series of taxes imposed on them, including the household charge, water charges and others. Many tenants are on social welfare payments, while many are lone parents. Many of those who are working are in low paid jobs. These are not the rich people who can afford to handle a huge increase or an extra charge. Tenants did not anticipate paying this charge because the house belongs to the local authority. It looks as if, however, that tenants will end up paying it.

In some cases, councillors voted to reduce the property tax by 15%. This happened in Dublin and other areas. Sinn Féin councillors instigated this move in Dublin City Council and other areas, but they were opposed by Labour Party councillors at the time. This was remarkable considering that they were supposed to represent the people.

It was a disgraceful decision by Sinn Féin.

The Deputy knows the truth. Labour Party councillors voted against the proposed 15% reduction.

While I acknowledge some local authorities reduced the local property tax, it does not come without a cost. As the Deputy knows, reducing it reduces the budget available for delivering front-line services such as services for the homeless that we wish to prioritise. It is a matter for local authorities to prioritise what they feel the local property tax should be spent on. I will say no more on that: it is a matter for local authorities.

However, as I have already stated, I am precluded from commenting on the proposals of any individual housing authority on the rents they charge for their tenanted accommodation. The reality is that local authorities have to pay their local property tax liability for their residential properties and housing stock. It is a matter for each local authority to decide in the context of financing its overall operations how it will meet this local property tax liability and whether it should recoup some or all of the cost of the local property tax from its tenants. Striking the appropriate balance in this matter is a key function of local authority management and I do not propose to second-guess individual local authorities on the decisions they make in this regard.

Local Authority Housing Provision

I raise this issue again, having raised it first on 26 November 2014. I refer to the scandal of a very substantial housing development consisting of 99 units which has been lying idle since July 2014, in the middle of a housing crisis.

I raised it out of frustration in November and again in December and January, but nothing has happened to date other than a decision taken during a meeting in this House before Christmas, involving the Minister, the archbishop and the board of the Catholic Housing Aid Society, that the original tenants who had been put out in 2006 would be restored by Christmas. This indeed has happened, but that involves approximately 20 people. The other - close to 80 - units of accommodation remain idle and have remained idle since July 2014. It is a scandal given that people are desperately looking for accommodation, homeless people are on the streets and other people are in emergency accommodation. The local authority has given to the Catholic Housing Aid Society the names of people who have been waiting for months to be processed to enter their new accommodation.

This is all because of a petty wrangle between the board of the agency and Dublin City Council. The council quite rightly insists that they pay the differential rate for the accommodation. There is always a small top-up for voluntary housing and that would also be paid. However, what this board is seeking is quite extravagant and it would be quite improper to give in to the board's wishes in this respect. It would be quite improper particularly given that the Government has invested on behalf of the people €17 million on the construction of this accommodation.

From that point of view, it is extremely important that we protect our investment and get the people, who have been nominated to occupy those units, into those units in this very cold winter without delay. I cannot understand why there should be objections. I cannot understand why we cannot sort out the wrangle over the rent while at the same time people are moved in. I cannot understand why the Minister should not insist on having members appointed to the board so we can protect our investment.

Voluntary housing gets the lion's share - almost all the investment is contributed in capital assistance - and then has no say whatsoever in the running. Indeed it does not have the final say in the selection either.

It is important that we look afresh at developments of this nature. In this case, we need to act immediately. The Minister needs to state categorically that February will not go by without all people who have been nominated - almost 80 elderly people - for housing in Fr. Scully House being accommodated there.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Minister, Deputy Kelly, and I share his concerns that this modern, purpose-built facility has not yet been fully tenanted. My officials are continuing to liaise closely with Dublin City Council to resolve the matter urgently as the current situation is not acceptable

As the Deputy is aware, this facility was funded under my Department's capital assistance scheme, which provides funding to approved housing bodies for the provision of accommodation for persons with specific categories of housing need, such as homeless and older persons, people with disabilities, returning emigrants and victims of domestic violence. In this case the Catholic Housing Aid Society is the approved housing body involved with the Fr. Scully House project.

Almost €17 million has been recouped by my Department in respect of Fr. Scully House since the commencement of the development in 2012. When Dublin City Council advised my Department during last summer of difficulties in its negotiations with the Catholic Housing Aid Society in agreeing the rent on these units, my officials immediately stressed the importance of resolving this issue as a matter of urgency so vulnerable people who need these units can move into these new homes as soon as possible. A number of high level meetings on the matter were convened, including one chaired by the Minister, Deputy Kelly, in order to resolve the matter urgently.

I understand that the rent levels being proposed by the Catholic Housing Aid Society in respect of these units are more in line with market rents than social housing rents. As a result, Dublin City Council has advised that it will be unable to nominate their tenants for these units.

Some progress was made in the matter just before Christmas which resulted in 23 former tenants returning to Fr. Scully House at their original rent levels, without the requirement for a deposit. It was also agreed that the housing agency would examine the costs incurred by Catholic Housing Aid Society and make recommendations in respect of the proposed rent levels.

I understand that following the housing agency's independent review of the rent levels, there is a difference of approximately €180 per month between the amount being requested by the Catholic Housing Aid Society and the amount acceptable to Dublin City Council. My Department is continuing to engage constructively with the council and the Catholic Housing Aid Society to review the costs incurred on this scheme and assess their impact on the proposed rent levels. A further meeting on the matter was held between the council and the Catholic Housing Aid Society last week and a follow-up meeting has been scheduled for tomorrow.

While I acknowledge that some progress has been made on this matter, it is unacceptable that 76 new state-of-the-art units remain vacant. This situation cannot be allowed to continue. My Department is continuing to liaise with Dublin City Council concerning its negotiations with the society to ensure a successful outcome to this issue as soon as possible. This will ensure that not only is the State's investment in this facility protected, but more importantly ensure that these units become homes for the vulnerable, elderly people they are intended to accommodate.

I thank the Minister of State for his detailed reply. Clearly the matter is not yet resolved. A difference of €180 per month is extraordinary. That equates to approximately €45 per week which is roughly the amount of rent that is paid by a tenant in the differential rent scheme. So that is almost double what is expected from a tenant.

We cannot continue with this charade any longer. The row with Dublin City Council has been going on since July 2014 and Dublin City Council did not start the row. The council has insisted that all its tenants should be treated equally and the differential rent should be the basis under which tenants pay the rent where it nominates people to both voluntary and social housing.

I wish to correct the statement the Minister of State made about nominations.

Dublin City Council has already nominated people for the units months ago but they have not been processed or written to. Since Christmas, the people have been left high and dry and they do not know what is happening. The 76 to 80 people are bewildered because no contact has been made with them. It is a totally unacceptable situation and the Minister of State must bang together some heads. The way to do so is to provide a deadline and say that, whatever happens, the situation must be resolved by the end of February this year. The State provided the money to build these units and the State is entitled to see its citizens accommodated in those units. I exhort the Minister of State, who has been trying hard, as has the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, to impose a deadline. We cannot let the situation continue any longer. In the background, a large number of people - all elderly people - are homeless and awaiting accommodation when the winter is still upon us.

I accept the Deputy's point that Dublin City Council has nominated many tenants. The waiting list needs to be facilitated and these modern purpose-built units are ready for letting. The current impasse cannot continue and the Minister, Deputy Kelly, and I will be keeping a sharp focus on the ongoing meetings, one of which takes place tomorrow. At the meeting, I will urge that progress be made. If both parties fail to reach agreement at that stage, the Department and the Minister will have to look at the legal options available to us to bring the dispute to a conclusion. That would be a reluctant step. Vacant units need to be brought into beneficial use for the benefit of tenants who need them. It is not a decision we take lightly but we may be left with little choice other than to take action if progress is not made very soon. It is our priority that the State investment in this facility is protected and it is also our priority to show that the units become homes for the people who most need them. I urge the Catholic Housing Aid Society and Dublin City Council to focus on this, get their heads together and find a resolution in the interests of the vulnerable people who need them as soon as possible. The Minister and I, and our officials, will be keeping a close watching brief on these meetings and we need to see progress. I cannot send a stronger signal than that. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter.

State Airports

I thank the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, for taking this debate. There is growing concern in the wider Cork area about the future of our airport, which has seen a 5% reduction in passenger numbers in 2014. It is likely to see a similar reduction in 2015 because of the full year effect of some of the services lost during 2014. This is happening against the backdrop of the other main airports in the country, including Shannon and Dublin airports, growing substantially.

It goes without saying that Cork Airport has great strengths, including modern facilities, a new terminal, a large population base and a strong track record of customer service but it is struggling badly. The new arrangement at Shannon Airport have resulted in Cork having a competitive disadvantage. The new arrangements at Shannon have distorted the market and the fact that Cork Airport is competing with a newly independent Shannon Airport, which is also debt-free and has the benefit of a stream of income from Shannon commercial enterprises. I am not sure anyone thought through the consequences for Cork Airport of the new arrangements and the restructuring at Shannon Airport.

This is a need, not an issue of Cork Airport versus Shannon Airport. We wish Shannon Airport well and the best of luck to it. Shannon Airport seems to have got a very good deal from the Government and we wish it well in its future. From the perspective of Cork, it has had direct consequences. Ryanair has transferred a number of services directly from Cork Airport to Shannon Airport. More fundamentally, the capacity of Cork Airport to compete is seriously impaired. Cork Airport is not in a position to offer free charges for a period of five or six years, as Shannon is reported to have done for Ryanair. Cork Airport is not grant-aided by the State and it has no State subsidy or public service obligation. There is no direct air link to the capital or to the US. A major initiative is required to ensure the future of Cork Airport is strong and sustainable. We have lost vital routes, such as Nice and Lisbon and we have seen a reduction of service to Munich. The Brussels route was also withdrawn for a time and I mentioned the transfer of a number of Ryanair's Polish routes from Cork to Shannon.

Cork Airport remains under the control of the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, which needs to be examined when considering the future of the airport. Such is the concern locally that a Facebook page, Save Cork Airport, was established in November and already has 23,000 likes. Cork Airport has debts of €200 million, which sit within the consolidated financial accounts of the DAA. I am not suggesting that an independent, debt-free Cork Airport could offer the kind of deals being offered in Shannon. Cork Airport must pay its staff, the fire service, airport police, security staff, cleaning and maintenance staff and so forth. We need a sustainable model and in my supplementary question I will refer to the Heathrow slots. I do not expect the Minister to go into detail on it but I have a number of suggestions on how our position could be improved. The starting point is to acknowledge a problem at Cork Airport. It is not a problem with local management, which is doing its best working within tight restrictions but, undoubtedly, the new reality of the arrangement at Shannon Airport has had a direct negative impact on Cork Airport. It is a reality we must face up to or the decline of Cork Airport will continue, which is something none of us wants to see.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. The DAA is the body charged with statutory responsibility to manage, operate and develop Dublin and Cork airports. It operates under a clear commercial mandate, is entirely funded from its own resources and receives no Government funding supports. As such, any plans to address the reduction of services at Cork Airport and improve the airport's competitiveness with other airports is a matter for the DAA and Cork Airport management. It is not a matter in which I have a direct role. Also, any decision by an airline on the routes it will serve, or cut, is a matter for that airline. Airlines' decisions will be based on their commercial judgments, taking account of the demand for services.

That said, I am very conscious of the importance of Cork Airport for business and tourism in the Cork region. Since coming into office, I have met the chair and chief executive of the DAA. I visited Cork Airport and met the managing director and some local public representatives to discuss the challenges and opportunities for growth that exist for the airport. I also had the opportunity to meet Cork Chamber of Commerce, and Cork Airport and its future was a prominent topic at the meeting.

As a result, I am well aware of, and concerned about, the continuing decline in passenger numbers at Cork. It was because of this decline that the Cork Airport development council was established under an initiative of my predecessor, with the intention of bringing together key local stakeholders to foster a common understanding of issues of concern, identify potential opportunities for growth and to address the operating performance of the airport.

The council is chaired by the chairman of the DAA and comprises senior representatives from the tourism and business sectors in the Cork region, who are actively engaged in achieving the goals set for the council. Furthermore, following the restructuring of the State airports under the State Airports (Shannon Group) Act 2014, Cork Airport was given a new management structure aimed at putting the airport on a sound footing to manage and develop its business on a competitive, commercially driven basis. In addition, two of the members of the DAA board represent Cork, thereby ensuring that issues pertaining to Cork Airport are considered at the highest level.

The new structure is bedding down and I understand that the airport, the DAA and the CADC are focusing their efforts on identifying new route markets and developing new services. There are opportunities, particularly in the tourism sector, to grow incoming passenger numbers in the Cork region. I am aware that the DAA has developed attractive incentive programmes to encourage the introduction of new routes and services. I also understand from Tourism Ireland that there are opportunities under its co-operative marketing initiative to encourage the introduction of new services and to increase capacity on existing routes. Ultimately, however, creating new services and growing inbound tourism depends on the availability of competitive access and ensuring that potential visitors have a reason to visit. Cork Airport, the DAA and the CADC, along with the regional stakeholders, should be pursuing every opportunity to highlight the tourism product that is available in the catchment area of the airport. I am aware that the objective of the DAA is to halt the decline in passenger numbers in the short term and to return Cork Airport to growth in the future. I am confident that the DAA and Cork Airport management, working with the stakeholders in the region, can achieve this objective.

Any suggestion that the Cork-Heathrow slots could be lost would be devastating for Cork Airport and the region it serves. I recognise that the Minister cannot comment in detail on this issue but the suggestion that IAG is giving a commitment that the Heathrow slots will be used for Irish routes for the next five years in no way addresses the concerns that have been expressed in this regard. In five years' time, Cork could be first to lose those slots.

The national aviation policy makes only limited reference to Cork Airport, in contrast its suggestions for Shannon Airport, which include an international aviation services centre, an aero-industry hub and a centre of excellence for business aviation. This is something that needs to be investigated further. A regional air connectivity marketing fund along the lines of similar projects developed in the UK could be immensely beneficial to Cork. In 2011, the previous Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport commissioned a report from the consultancy firm, Booz and Company, which recommended that Cork remain part of DAA, with getting greater local autonomy on commercial decision making. That recommendation should be revisited. The 19 Deputies from Cork, of whom I am one, should work together more closely to address the issues arising for Cork Airport. I will be suggesting to my colleagues that we establish a friends of Cork Airport Oireachtas group to lobby the Minister and other key stakeholders to ensure the airport's future remains on the agenda and that it is put on a sustainable footing. As its current decline is likely to continue unless something changes, I urge the Minister to look positively at some of my suggestions. By putting the airport on a sustainable footing once again, I hope it will be able to position itself for growth in the coming years.

The Deputy acknowledged the constraints I am under in regard to discussing the Heathrow slots for Cork Airport. I am however aware of the strong regional dimensions of national connectivity, as Deputy Dooley outlined very clearly in previous discussions. Access to our country is a vital component in the evaluation of any potential offer. All our airports make an essential contribution in this regard. There is more at stake than a share price, important though that may be.

In regard to marketing support and further changes to the management structure for Cork Airport, in 2014 alone Tourism Ireland invested €385,000 in co-operative campaigns featuring Cork Airport as a gateway to Ireland. A large proportion of that money focused exclusively on Cork Airport. I recognise that the Cork region has much to offer from a tourism point of view, not to mention the important foreign direct investment and local enterprise located in the region. Cork Airport is strategically located close to the Wild Atlantic Way and is already taking advantage of that. Previous marketing campaigns have made a considerable contribution to supporting demand at the airport.

In regard to further autonomy at the airport, the changes that have recently been made to the management structure are bedding down. These changes including giving the airport representation on the board of the DAA. I am sure these representatives will play an important role in responding to changes. In regard to the role Cork Airport can play in national aviation policy, I am giving careful consideration to this policy in light of recent developments. I intend to investigate what framework we can put in place to ensure all of our airports have a secure future. Obviously, a number of factors are at play which I am not in a position to influence but it is important to me that Cork Airport has a secure and prosperous future. With the people and structures currently in place, I believe it is well positioned to respond to the challenges it faces.