Topical Issue Debate

Education and Training Provision

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the chance to raise this very important issue. It involves East Limerick Centre for Further Education and Training in Cappamore in County Limerick, an area I represent as a Deputy. The Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board recently informed the college that it is seeking to cease offering 83 post-leaving certificate, PLC, places for students for the next academic year. The people of Cappamore feel very strongly about this. I want to ensure the cessation does not take place. Cappamore had a secondary school up to 2013 and thereafter it evolved into a third level institution, a college of further education, East Limerick Centre for Further Education and Training. Eighty three places were allocated under a rural remit for Cappamore and east Limerick. That is the key element to this. The places were allocated to ensure students who have completed their leaving certificate and who are living in rural east Limerick and surrounding areas, such as Moroe, Caherconlish, Cappamore itself, Bilboa and Pallas Grean, could attend college in a rural setting. We now find it has been proposed that the 83 PLC places will be transferred to Mulgrave Street in the city. The Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board does fantastic work both in the city and county but it is extremely important to recognise the vital nature of the 83 places for students in a rural setting.

I met the CEO of Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board, Mr. George O'Callaghan, recently. He committed to carrying out a review of the decision, which I very much welcome. Furthermore, he stated the board is committed to the future of the college in Cappamore in terms of driving it forward.

I ask that the 83 places be retained. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, to confirm that the review is now under way. It should be an independent review, which is what the people of Cappamore and the surrounding areas want. We recently had a meeting with community leaders from Cappamore, led by Cappamore Development Association, and Mr. O'Callaghan to discuss this matter. Mr. O'Callaghan reiterated that a review of the places would be carried out and that they would be retained.

I want to see in the first instance a commitment to retain the 83 places and, second, a drive to create further courses on the campus of 3.5 acres. The college has a capacity of up to 210 students, which is well in excess of the 83 threatened PLC places. There are extra courses also. There is a blacksmith course, which is unique in Ireland and which operates under a City & Guilds programme, and there is a horticulture course. The key reason I am raising this issue in the Dáil this afternoon is the vital importance of the courses to Cappamore. Many of the students may not be able to travel to a city setting to avail of education. I would not like to see anybody unable to avail of PLCs and further education in the area in which he or she lives. That is the number-one criterion. It is a matter of rural rejuvenation. The college is in the heart of rural east Limerick and the 83 places need to be preserved. We need to enhance further what the college is providing. It has enormous capacity. There are 210 available places and the college is on a 3.5 acre site.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline the position on the allocation of PLC places in general and also in Cappamore.

By way of background, PLC places are allocated by SOLAS to the education and training boards, ETBs, and other schools as part of an annual service plan process. There are 32,688 approved PLC places nationwide. For each approved place, my Department provides a staffing allocation and non-pay capitation. The majority of these places are provided by ETBs in recognised ETB schools and stand-alone PLC colleges, but also in voluntary secondary and community and comprehensive schools, across the country.

SOLAS, the new further education and training authority, has been tasked with ensuring the provision of high-quality further education and training programmes that are responsive to the needs of all learners and the requirements of a changed and changing economy.

Last year SOLAS published its five-year strategy for the development of a unified further education and training sector. The strategy seeks to implement a new integrated FET planning model to ensure relevant learner-centred, flexible and employment-led provision with a clear focus on reducing duplication and overlap of provision. The process is to take account of Government priorities, for example, Pathways to Work, the Action Plan for Jobs and the Youth Guarantee.

SOLAS engages in an annual service plan process with ETBs which places a focus on the relevance and appropriateness of the provision proposed. It is expected that this will result in an improved level of provision that is responsive to the needs of learners and employers and ensure better value for money for our limited resources. Under the legislation providing for the establishment of ETBs, ETBs are independent autonomous entities with resources to deliver educational and training opportunities within their regions to the highest standard. Limerick and Clare ETB is a statutory body with responsibility for education and training provision in the Limerick and Clare area. The ETB has 1,418 approved PLC places and the allocation of these places to schools and colleges under its remit is a matter for the ETB.

A PLC programme with 83 PLC places operated in St Michael's College in Cappamore for a number of years. This school amalgamated with two other schools - St Fintan's Christian Brothers school and St Joseph's Mercy secondary school in Doon - in September 2013 and St Michael's College, Cappamore ceased to operate as a school. This resulted in the PLC places previously allocated by the ETB to St Michael's College being re-allocated to Limerick College of Further Education. The ETB continued to operate the PLC programme in the former school premises in Cappamore as an outreach of Limerick College of Further Education. The ETB recently reviewed the PLC provision in Cappamore and decided that because there was duplication of the courses on offer in both centres and it was proving difficult to operate with such small numbers, it would withdraw the PLC programme from Cappamore and provide it in Limerick College of Further Education. I understand that discussions continue on this locally. The ETB will continue to offer part-time courses in Cappamore and intends to develop a new suite of programmes for learners in this centre. I believe it intends to use the centre in Cappamore as an education and training centre for learners, offering programmes at levels 3 and 4 on the QQI framework, and that it is not just working closely with my Department and SOLAS but is also working closely with the Department of Social Protection to provide courses for unemployed people in the area.

I thank the Minister for State for taking this debate. I have also raised the matter with the Minister for Education and Skills. I have a number of points to make. The 83 PLC places were allocated within a rural remit, not an urban remit. I know that if these 83 PLC places are transferred to a city setting, many students will not be able to avail of PLC places and may not be able to go on to further education. That is something we cannot allow to happen. The role of an ETB should be inclusive, encompassing both urban and rural. ETBs do fantastic work in the city and county. I want to speak specifically about the college of further education in Cappamore. These places were allocated under a specific rural remit. Cappamore was established as, effectively, a rural element of Limerick College of Further Education in Mulgrave Street.

The Minister of State spoke about offering programmes at levels 3 and 4 on the QQI framework. The PLC courses across a range of areas that are currently on offer in Cappamore are levels 5 and 6. Many of these students have gone on to the University of Limerick and Limerick Institute of Technology. This is something we want here. There is no reason why level 3 and 4 courses cannot be offered on the same campus that offers level 5 and 6 courses. It is something that needs to be maintained. I want a commitment from the Minister of State and the Minister that they will contact the ETB in Limerick and get an update about how the review process is going and stress that the 83 PLC places are allocated under a rural remit. I want a commitment that future plans will involve retaining the PLC level 5 and 6 courses, introducing level 3 and 4 courses and enhancing those courses. There is a state-of-the-art college in Cappamore with 210 places available on a three and a half acre site. It would be seen as an integrated model with a rising tide lifting all boats. The Minister of State might confirm that these matters will be followed up.

I can raise these issues with SOLAS and the ETB. We met with them recently and they are doing great work in the area referred to. It is about striking the right balance. As it is an independent autonomous entity, we cannot direct it in any way but it knows it has certain responsibilities. It works very closely with SOLAS on an annual basis in respect of the service plan and our overall strategy, which involves making sure that as many people as possible can avail of these courses. We recognise that PLC courses are a very important avenue into working with community bodies or enterprise. Most people who do a PLC course move on to further education or a job, so it is very successful. With that in mind, part of the SOLAS strategy is to commit to evaluating all further education provision this year, mainly the PLC programme. It is being looked at in a national context and we are also looking at barriers. The Deputy raised the issue of rural versus the city and access and whether there will be additional hardship in trying to attend courses in the city. That will be looked at. I will raise it with the ETB and SOLAS.

It is a matter of striking the right balance.

We need to get the balance right. The Deputy will appreciate that the ETB is an independent entity, but I will raise his concerns with them.

Addiction Treatment Services

I wish I was not addressing this issue, but I am very happy it was chosen and that I have the opportunity to highlight two programmes working with those in alcohol recovery whose funding is being cut. Barrymore House will be temporarily closed for the month of June. It is the only residential treatment programme for problem drinkers and gamblers in the north eastern HSE region. Áit Linn has 74 active clients, which means that 74 families are being supported through the programme there. Referrals come from the individuals concerned, their families and communities, social workers, nurses, doctors, the GPs in the area and Beaumont Hospital and the Mater hospital.

These programmes offer 12 weeks of psycho-educational sessions which look at the health and psychological effects of alcohol misuse. They also look at the triggers for relapse during that period. The clients go into a treatment group for a minimum of 26 weeks. In the course of those 26 weeks, they help people to adjust to abstaining from alcohol and the pressures of being abstinent. They also offer couples therapy and family therapy. Social workers may be involved in cases if there are issues of institutional, domestic or sexual abuse. A further 26 weeks of aftercare are offered. During the aftercare period, a lot of work is done re-establishing the client within the family. They work on employment and education and also support people as challenges arise. Individual and group counselling is also offered.

All of this proves that the cycle of addiction can be broken and that those in recovery can heal and transform their lives. In my opinion, which I am sure is shared by the Minister for Health, we have reason to expand that kind of service and not to cut it. The centres also have a waiting list, but people on it will be supported through motivational interviewing and client-centred counselling; therefore, there is a link with people while they are waiting to go on the programme. There were 180 referrals in 2014. They run a weekly walk-in clinic in Beaumont Hospital in conjunction with liaison psychiatry there. It is a brief intervention clinic. Áit Linn is seeing a significant take up of places on its programmes from people who have presented at Beaumont Hospital and the Mater hospital with alcohol-related issues. They provide training on alcohol misuse to Dublin City Council's social work team to use with council tenants who have tenancy issues relating to alcohol misuse. They have held conferences and were involved in the Strengthening Families programme for parenting in 2014. They also provide support and training for organisations who work with the homeless like the Simon Community. They also constantly review and evaluate their programmes.

We know that there is an escalating tide of alcohol-related physical and mental harm. Here are two programmes that are trying to address that issue.

We know that the cost of alcohol misuse to the country is approximately €3.7 billion, while the HSE addiction service budget was reduced by €2.5 million for 2015. A decision was made at national level that each health directorate would receive what it spent in the previous year so funding was taken from addiction services and reverted back into primary care. Addiction services must be separate, although they are part of primary care in a certain way. We cannot afford to cut programmes for those who want to recover. The Minister knows that catching people at that optimum moment when they are motivated to try to overcome their addiction is crucial and both of the programmes to which I refer do exactly that. I await the Minister's response with interest.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. This Government is committed to tackling alcohol misuse in Ireland and the widespread harm it causes. Alcohol is causing significant damage across the country, affecting the workplace and children and imposing a substantial burden on all in Irish society.

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill which my Department is currently drafting is a part of a suite of measures agreed by the Government in 2013 on foot of the recommendations in the steering group report on a national substance misuse strategy 2012. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill incorporates a number of the recommendations in that report and addresses the underlying factor behind alcohol misuse, namely affordability, availability and attractiveness.

The Health Service Executive national service plan 2015 aims to progress the implementation of the national substance misuse strategy including the community mobilisation pilot on alcohol initiatives in five drug task force areas and the further development of a co-ordinated approach to prevention and education interventions in alcohol between all stakeholders including third level institutions. The HSE provides services to prevent and treat addiction to alcohol. People who present for alcohol addiction treatment are offered a range of interventions namely initial assessment, comprehensive assessment, the Minnesota Programme, brief interventions, individual counselling, self-help, peer support or a combination of these. The delivery of these services is based on the four tier model of treatment intervention and services are designed to respond to the individual's specific identified needs. This care model implies that clients should be offered the least intensive intervention appropriate to their need when they present for treatment initially. Interventions range from community and family based supports and primary care services through to specialist support services either in the community or residential settings.

Inter-agency co-operation between the HSE, drugs task forces and multiple other community, statutory and voluntary agencies form the basis of this delivery as the target is to provide services where possible in a community environment. Counselling and rehabilitation services provide care for those presenting with an addiction through one-to-one counselling and onward referral to other statutory and voluntary groups where appropriate. The HSE also provides funding to a number of voluntary service providers who treat drug and alcohol addictions.

I am informed by the HSE that Áit Linn is currently funded by the Ballymun Regeneration group. While it submitted proposals for funding to the HSE's addiction service, the HSE was not in a position to offer funding to the group this year due to competing priorities and available resources. I understand that Áit Linn has met with the HSE and as it is a local service, it has have been advised to contact the local addiction service and drugs task forces. Barrymore House is a residential detox service run by the HSE. The executive has advised that due to staffing issues the programme has been temporarily suspended. However, it is in the process of recruiting new counsellors and plans to re-establish the residential programme in August.

The remit of the drugs task forces was extended to include the problem of alcohol misuse last year in view of the central role they play in co-ordinating the response to substance misuse at local level. The dormant accounts action plan for 2014/15 includes provision of €l million for a specific substance misuse measure. Over €41,600 in funding will be available to every task force in the country for a range of activities aimed at raising awareness of alcohol-related harm and changing attitudes to alcohol in our society

I do not know where to start in response. First, the staff who work in accident and emergency departments see people presenting with alcohol-related issues. Sometimes these people are completely and utterly out of it and present with physical injuries or mental health issues. What is to happen to them at that point? In both Beaumont Hospital and the Mater Hospital, there is a system of referral on to these community-based programmes. If people are not referred onto such programmes, they will finish whatever treatment they are receiving in hospital - whether it is being on a drip for a few hours or having their injuries patched up - and be discharged. They will continue in their addiction unless an intervention is made at that point. At the moment, such an intervention is happening in Beaumont Hospital, which links patients in with the community-based programme in Ballymun and the community group in Ballymun is doing all of the things that the Minister has just spoken about.

I suggest he HSE could fund that group if the budget for its addiction services had not been cut by €2.5 million. The group is relying on donations and has a fund of €27,500. For that sum, it is employing fully accredited and fully qualified therapists to provide a service. Can the Minister tell me what will happen to the programme's 74 clients and their families who are availing of this service now? These people are in recovery and are doing well. If they continue in recovery, they will not cost the State any more money but if they do not continue with the recovery programme they are in, there is a real danger of them relapsing and we all know of the potential effect of this.

I previously chaired the north inner city drugs task force and am a member of that task force again. I understand the pressure on the drugs task forces as a result of alcohol being included in their remit now. What can they be expected to do with €41,600 each per year ? Even the sum of €1.1 million for a specific substance misuse measure is wholly inadequate. I am speaking here about a project that has been working well, getting people into recovery and supporting them in that recovery on what is by no means a massive amount of money. Again, I ask the Minister, what will happen to the people who are in recovery, to their families and their communities, because of a lack of funding?

I appreciate the Deputy's passion and interest in this issue. These are, of course, local services with which I am not familiar. It is not possible for me to get involved personally in the funding of individual local services. However, I am informed that Barrymore House is recruiting and intends to re-establish its residential programme in August, which is not too far away. It is difficult to recruit staff and sometimes that causes services to be suspended. Regarding Áit Linn, I am told that programme was previously funded by Ballymun Regeneration Limited. I suggest Áit Linn contact that organisation again and seeks funding from it or from the local drugs task force. The HSE obviously has its own addiction services.

Arts Funding

I want to raise the issue of a small amount of money that has a huge impact on Waterford every year. The Imagine arts festival is a special festival which is relatively small in scale but by no means lacking in programme events or community participation. The festival runs every October for ten days. It was founded in 2003 and has grown in scale and content since then. It is very much a community-based festival and represents everything that the arts should be about. It is focused on access to the arts and getting young people, in particular, involved. It has an interesting and varied programme of events including live music, dance, theatre, visual art and plenty of spoken word such as comedy, literature and story telling . There is a very strong children and youth programme and lots of the local schools are involved.

My party colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, and I visited the Waterford youth arts building last October and we were delighted to meet young people who were working hard on their pieces for the Waterford Imagine arts festival. A big feature of the festival last year was the parade of light, which was very symbolic. Lots of schools from across Waterford city were involved in making lanterns and taking part in the parade. Local school children making things and taking part in a parade is the essence of a community arts festival. Imagine involves people of all ages and brings the community together in celebration. The festival promotes established and emerging artists on the local, national and international scene. Ticket prices are kept low so that as many people as possible can take part.

Two weeks ago the future of the festival was thrown into doubt when it was revealed that the Imagine arts festival would not receive any money from the Arts Council in 2015, representing a cut of 100%. Imagine was in the small festivals category and received just €11,000 last year but was very glad to receive that money. This is not just about the €11,000, although that is very important; it is also about the fact that Arts Council funding lends legitimacy to the work of the festival and its 42 volunteers.

These include the festival board, the music committee, the John Dwyer trad weekend committee, the Imagine visual arts committee, the parade of light committee the film committee, the dance committee. There are many committees and considerable time is given up for free for the love of arts and for the love of including young people in the arts scene in Waterford.

All of these people give of their time and work hard throughout the year to make the festival a great success. It defies belief that last year this was one of the few festivals to get a small increase in funding from €10,000 to €11,000 and this year it has gone to zero. It makes no sense. It has been funded for the past 13 years. Last year AOIFE, the Association of Irish Festival Events, recognised this festival as the overall winner in best-marketed festival of the year. It must have been the best marketed around the country, but not to the Arts Council which could not recognise what a great offering it represented for Waterford.

It received an estimated €700,000 in value of PR from local and national media in 2014 and was very positive for the image of Waterford. The festival brochure was launched by Waterford man and editor of The Irish Times, Mr. Kevin O'Sullivan. The decision to the cut the funding means there is now no arts festival in Waterford. To put it in context, the Clonmel Junction Festival receives €90,000 in funding; the Kilkenny Arts Festival receives €400,000 in funding; while the Wexford International Opera Festival receives a whopping €1.5 million. What does Waterford receive? We did receive €11,000 but now it is gone, which is not good enough.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I am pleased to respond on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys.

The Arts Council is set up and operates under the Arts Act 2003. Section 24 of that Act states that:

the Council may, for the purposes of—

(a) stimulating public interest in the arts,

(b) promoting knowledge, appreciation or practice of the arts, or

(c) improving standards in the arts, or

(d) otherwise assisting in the development or advancement of the arts,

advance such amount of moneys as it determines to such persons or in respect of such activities as it considers appropriate out of moneys at its disposal upon such terms and conditions as it determines.

Section 24(2) of the Act states, "The Council shall be independent in the performance of its functions under this section". Although the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht funds the Arts Council providing a total of €58.7 million in 2015, the provisions of section 24(2) of the Arts Act mean that the Minister is precluded by law from having any input in the decisions on how that funding is distributed. The law also precludes her from reviewing or overturning any funding decision made by the Arts Council.

Every year, the Arts Council allocates funding to hundreds of arts organisations in an open and transparent way. The council's website gives details of each of its schemes and lists the allocations made in each scheme. The festivals and events scheme 2015 was open to organisations that promote festivals or events with a clear artistic purpose that will take place in the second half of the calendar year 2015. In making the awards the council recognises the distinctive role arts festivals play in sustaining a vibrant arts profile at a local level. Festivals provide opportunities for audiences and artists to experience new work and ways of making work. The council acknowledges the valuable contribution made by voluntary committees in developing these festivals. The council's website also gives the information that a peer panel made the decision on which events to fund and also publishes the names of the members of the panel on the website. This is done for all festival and event scheme awards.

The Arts Council operates an appeals and complaints procedure, and, like other agencies under the aegis of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, is subject to the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act 2012.

As it stands, no Arts Council funding is going into Waterford for festivals. I accept the Minister cannot interfere in the process. However, as the Department sets the policy in terms of inclusion of young people and of community arts in particular, can the Department find the €11,000 elsewhere? Otherwise we will have no festival in Waterford. The contracts have been signed and the acts have been booked. There was no contact or consultation with the committee, which has received funding for the past 13 years and actually received an increase in funding last year. To go from €11,000 to zero is unacceptable.

I accept that the Arts Council has a job to do and its role is separate from that of the Minister. This festival is about the 40 volunteers who come together on an annual basis to make the festival happen. It is about schools, musicians and dancers. It is about encouraging creativity and fostering a positive atmosphere, and vision of and for Waterford. Let us not lose that goodwill that is so important to Waterford. Let us support this festival and keep the arts alive. The local authority and businesses are very supportive of the festival. As it stands there will be no arts festival in Waterford this year because of this decision.

I plead with the Minister of State to go back to the Department and ensure the funding is found elsewhere because no reason has been given and there has been no consultation. The committee has been working away voluntarily and diligently for the past 12 months. Having got €11,000 last year, to be told now that the festival is getting no funding is not good enough. The Government sets the policy on community arts. I ask the Minister of State to bring that message back to the Minister. It is not good enough for Waterford to be left out in the cold when we see that our neighbours receive anything from €90,000 to €1.5 million every year.

I reiterate that the Minister is precluded from becoming involved even in terms of a review or reallocation. However, the Deputy has highlighted the issue and the Arts Council will be listening to this. As an independent entity, there is an opportunity for the Deputy to meet representatives of the Arts Council. I am sure that is something the Deputy has considered.

I appreciate the importance of festivals. In my backyard the Earagail Arts Festival operates under a similar structure. It provides not alone entertainment and a tourism focus, but it is also an opportunity to delve into our heritage and history, and allows cultural expression to be at the fore during the height of the summer.

I appreciate where the Deputy is coming from in raising the festival in Waterford, although I am not familiar with it. It is important, especially for the year ahead in 2016 that the momentum the festival has built up during the years is not lost this year. Based on the title, the Imagine Arts Festival, that festival will have a key role in the 1916 commemorations next year.

The Minister is precluded from becoming involved, but the Deputy's contribution has certainly highlighted the issue very strongly.

Departmental Offices

This is a very important issue in County Monaghan. For months I have been in communication with the Tánaiste and the Minister of State in her Department, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, on the issue. I have also contacted the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Simon Harris. I have contacted the Taoiseach and all members of the Cabinet at this stage to try to get a reversal of the Tánaiste's decision to remove these jobs from Ballybay. It is vital that these jobs remain in a small town such as Ballybay. It sends a very bad signal about the rejuvenation of rural Ireland when public sector jobs, the jobs that Government can influence, are taken from a small town without any need.

Five property owners were prepared to tender for this project to retain the jobs in Ballybay. Having spoken to them, I can say with certainty that there has been no proper engagement by officials of the OPW or the Department of Social Protection with these property owners with realistic specifications so that they can price the job and keep the jobs in the town. These people are very civic-minded and were prepared to spend their own money, not the Department's money, to ensure these jobs could remain in the centre of County Monaghan in Ballybay, but they were not afforded that opportunity.

Given the opportunity and proper specifications, they would be able to provide the necessary accommodation to enable the retention of these jobs. This issue has been ongoing since last autumn. It is essential, even at this late stage, that the Minister intervene to ensure these jobs are retained in Ballybay where the cost of renting is lower than in many surrounding towns and buildings can be adapted to meet the Department's needs. From a public service perspective, as Ballybay is located in the centre of County Monaghan, it is more appropriate that the offices be located there rather than in any of the surrounding areas. If the idea is to have an easily accessible public service office, the current location is ideal. Relocating the offices to another part of the county would not be ideal. I ask that, even at this late stage, the Minister revisit this decision.

We need to get to the truth of the matter. I note from previous replies that the Minister has said the OPW has looked at various options in Ballybay. I can say with certainty and have been told personally that some of the people who submitted tenders have not had any contact with the OPW about this issue. I am pleading with the Minister to intervene personally and ensure that whatever can be done will be done to retain the jobs in Ballybay. As I said, from a Government perspective, it sends a very bad signal to rural Ireland that the Government is seeking to take jobs from a town without considering all of the options before doing so.

I thank the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, for taking this Topical Issue. The announcement that the offices of the Department of Social Protection in Ballybay are to be relocated elsewhere in the county has been a devastating blow to the morale of the people of Ballybay and the economy of this mid-Monaghan town and its hinterland. As voices across Government and Opposition parties and representatives of the constituency, we are asking the Minister to re-explore the possible alternatives in Ballybay. My colleagues and I have outlined specific alternatives to the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys. I have also discussed the matter with the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works and continued to lobby on this matter, as we have done, individually and collectively, for a considerable period. We believe it is important that there be an understanding of the criteria being used by the Office of Public Works to evaluate alternative premises. Is the Minister in a position to offer us the detail of the specifications employed by the OPW in carrying out this evaluation? Will she indicate if she is in a position to invest in a building upgrade or development of some of the alternative sites that have been identified and on which we have lobbied for a considerable period? It is important that we look to smaller towns, particularly in rural Ireland, that are suffering greatly as a result of the economic downturn to ensure there is bias in favour of retaining, at the very least, what they have and have held for some considerable time, not only through the presence of the Department of Social Protection but formerly the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. This issue is very important and I join my colleagues, Deputies Seán Conlan and Brendan Smith, in urging the Minister to reconsider.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this very important issue. I appreciate the presence of the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, in the House to reply.

As the Minister will be aware from written correspondence with her last September and from parliamentary questions tabled in the House, with others, I have been highlighting the need for retention of the offices of the Department of Social Protection in Ballybay. The employment of more than 30 people in the Department's offices in the town is critical. The loss of this employment would be a devastating blow to a relatively small town in which there are limited employment opportunities.

Some months ago we met the Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, at which time we outlined to him and his officials the need for the retention of the Department's offices in Ballybay. A senior council official stated the county council and the local authority would do everything possible to facilitate the Department in ensuring its accommodation requirements were met in Ballybay. We have all seen the correspondence to the Office of Public Works and the Department from owners who are willing to upgrade buildings to meet the relevant specifications of the Department in the context of its office accommodation.

As stated by Deputy Seán Conlan, Ballybay is located in the centre of County Monaghan. This ensures easy access to services for the people of the county. As Oireachtas Members, we met on a number occasions councillors in the Clones-Ballybay municipal district and representatives of various development associations in the Ballybay area. We also met former town councillors in Ballybay. They all outlined strongly and passionately the need for the retention of the Department's offices and current complement of staff in Ballybay. I re-emphasise that a number of possible accommodation options are available in Ballybay, the owners of which premises are willing to upgrade them to meet the OPW's specifications and requirements laid down by the Department.

I join my colleagues in highlighting for the Minister the need for the retention of the Department's offices in Ballybay and the current complement of staff.

I acknowledge the concerns of the Deputies about the retention of the Department's offices in Ballybay.

Twenty nine staff occupying two adjoining buildings on Main Street, Ballybay, County Monaghan were redeployed from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the Department of Social Protection in July 2012. The staff are engaged in the processing of the public services card, PSC, which is intended to enable individuals to gain access to public services more efficiently and with the minimum of duplication of effort, while at the same time preserving their privacy to the maximum extent possible. The card has been designed to replace others within the public sector such as the free travel pass and the social services card of my Department and to make it easy for providers of public services to verify the identity of customers.

The PSC project is a key initiative under the public service reform plan, with the aim of expanding the use of the public services card to cover a greater range of services. PSC registration is being expanded to encompass all departmental scheme customers and, over time, the adult population of Ireland. PSC operations in Ballybay have been expanded to include eight additional temporary staff. The two current buildings are in separate ownership. Unfortunately, they are in poor condition and not considered appropriate for the existing business processes or to accommodate the recently expanded or future operational requirements.

A brief of requirements was sent to the OPW which has been working to identify alternative locations to which the functions could be relocated. The OPW has advised me that it has investigated all of the options in Ballybay and inspected a number of properties with a view to adapting a number of buildings to meet the requirements of the Department of Social Protection. The position is that a significant investment would be required to bring the proposed properties up to modern standards. In addition, other technical surveys and reports, planning permission, fire certification and physical works would take approximately one year to complete. Unfortunately, this timeframe is not commensurate with the Department's business requirements and it has been decided that the properties on offer in Ballybay cannot meet requirements, both in terms of cost and time. In that context, a decision has been made to move the current facilities some nine miles to Monaghan town.

The preferred location in Monaghan town is suitable for the services currently located in Ballybay. In addition, the location can also facilitate the Department's requirement to establish a public office for the purposes of issuing public service cards to County Monaghan residents.

Monaghan is the only county which does not have a customer facing public services card office. The Office of the Chief State Solicitor is progressing the legal documents for the lease and detailed designs for the fit-out of the preferred location in Monaghan town are progressing.

I am sorry I do not have a more amenable reply for the Deputies.

I am disappointed with the Minister's response because it is much the same as what we heard a number of months ago from the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys. The owners of the premises used by the Department of Social Protection are one of the five groups which have tendered for the contract, but they have not been approached by the OPW. They have also made it clear, as have other property owners, that they are prepared to upgrade their buildings at their own expense. If this process had started before Christmas, they could have had the work completed by now.

The Minister mentioned the public services card office. As a preliminary measure, the administrative jobs could have been retained in Ballybay. The county council was prepared to provide the town council offices in Monaghan town at little or no rent for the Department to carry out the public services card part of the remit. That would have facilitated a situation where the administrative jobs could have been retained in Ballybay and the public services card office could have been located in Monaghan town, at little cost to the State. However, instead of taking up this option, the Department has a taken a different option and documents are being prepared to lease a building from another individual.

There seems to be a lack of communication or a lack of information from the Department for the concerned community in Ballybay, the politicians of counties Cavan and Monaghan and the county council which has offered a premises in the county town. If the Department wished to have a public services card office located in the county town, the county council offered the now vacant town council offices to it, at little or no charge, but that option has not been taken up. My main concern is that the jobs be retained in the mid-Monaghan town of Ballybay because this is important for the local rural economy. It sends a bad signal to private investors if the Government will not invest in small rural towns. If it removes jobs from smaller towns, why should private investors invest in them?

I share the fear of my colleagues that we are tilting at windmills. The Minister's reply is of the same construct as the responses we have received for a period of months. I can only ask her whether there is any midway position that can be arrived at. Is there anything else she, in her position as Minister with responsibility for the Department of Social Protection, can do to demonstrate support and good will towards the sustenance of economic life in small town rural Ireland? The thrust seems to be towards the larger centres, with more and more centralisation. There is little evidence across a huge swathe of the country of cross-departmental interest in sustaining, let alone developing, economic activity in many locations similar to Ballybay. Is there any midway position the Minister could consider that would not see the operation in its entirety transfer? Is there any other role the Minister can see, from within her Department or in conjunction with colleagues, that might in some way help to ease the significant blow this represents and show some semblance of good will towards a community that is already struggling greatly to survive in these difficult times?

As other colleagues said, the Minister's reply is most disappointing. Ballybay will suffer because of poor employment opportunities in the town. That more than 30 people are employed there in the public service is of tremendous value to the town and the wider catchment area. The Minister's reply suggests the accommodation available would not meet the Department's requirements both in terms of cost and time. It is essential to highlight again our understanding from the meetings we attended that the owners of all of the properties that were in the frame for consideration were, understandably, prepared to upgrade their accommodation at their own expense. However, there does not seem to have been any meaningful engagement with these property owners. I do not know any of the property owners and have no interest in any particular applicant being successful. However, it has been brought to our attention that one of the properties available is a fine new enterprise centre that was developed through community activity and put in place through State funding and the initiative of local community and development groups. I understood from the last municipal district meeting we attended that this group did not receive the details of the necessary specifications or requirements to meet the accommodation needs of the Department. There does not seem to have been any meaningful contact by the Office of Public Works with individual property owners to ensure all potential properties will be examined. I emphasise again that the owners were willing to meet the requirements of the Department, both individual private property owners and the community group that runs the enterprise centre.

I am aware that some of my points have been made previously. The OPW is the exclusive procurer of office accommodation for the Civil Service and the sole authority in the allocation of space. This is laid out in a memo to the Government and was approved by the Cabinet in December 2012. Therefore, my Department would not make contact with landlords or potential property owners. For reasons that can be understood, this is the preserve of the OPW. While the Department sets out what is broadly required, the OPW is the exclusive procurer of property for the State.

Questions have been asked about efforts made by the OPW. I do not want to go into detail, but I am advised that generally it conducts a market search, checks to see what is available on the market and makes contact with local auctioneers to determine if there are available properties which might not be on offer in the open market.

Members have referred to the meeting held towards the end of last year with the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Humphreys, and a delegation from Monaghan County Council which included the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, and Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin to discuss the options in retaining a presence in the town. At the meeting it was agreed that my Department would ask the OPW to hold off from signing a lease for a premises in Monaghan town so as to allow the representatives and officials to suggest potential alternatives in Ballybay. These were reviewed by the OPW, but, unfortunately, they were not deemed to be viable in the light of time and cost considerations.

I am sorry that the response is not more positive. As the Deputies know, the Department has a number of operations and sub-offices in County Monaghan. We also have quite a number of people employed, in the context of community employment services, including supervisors, in Tús, Gateway and other schemes. We are committed to providing people in County Monaghan with good services within the remit of the Department. Unemployment in the county has fallen significantly in the past year.

It has fallen by almost 19%. I regret that the reply is not more positive, but if there is more information the Deputies believe has not been properly evaluated, the evaluator will have to be the Office of Public Works, not the Department. I would, however, be happy to bring it to its attention.