Topical Issue Debate

Services for People with Disabilities

I very much welcome the opportunity to speak to this issue. Since being elected in February, this is probably the single most important issue that has come to my desk. I have a fist full of correspondence from families and residents in St. Mary of the Angels, all of whom are extremely concerned about the future of the facility and the people within it. I have spoken to numbers of patients and some residents and I preface my remarks by saying it is the needs of the residents that are most important here. Within that, their families are very well placed to articulate their needs.

Communication around here has been poor if not very poor. Much of the problem and the issues now coming to the fore are as a result of poor communication. Elected members, including Deputy Michael Healy-Rae and a number of other Deputies and councillors, met representatives of the HSE yesterday, and they accepted that communication was poor. There is a need for clarity and to reassure each and every resident and their families that they will not be moved from this facility without their consent. If the Minister of State can give that assurance to me today, we will go a long way towards taking the heat from this issue and dealing with it in a calm manner that will bring about the best possible results. I accept there is a policy and a move away from congregated settings. I accept it is good for certain people to go into the community. In St. Mary of the Angels we have what I would consider a jewel in the crown and we cannot allow a one size fits all policy to be the cause of closure for it.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and his excellent officials for allowing this debate to be revisited this evening as it is very important. I warmly thank the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, for his support to date on this very important issue. I want the Minister of State to understand exactly what has happened. I appreciate his personal views on what we will call depopulation of centres like this. Equally, in Kerry we must hear the Minister of State on this.

The Minister of State must understand and appreciate that there are certain cases where people are not suitable for integration in the way that others may be. That is a very important point. Yesterday at our very important meeting involving 18 politicians from Kerry and the management of St. Mary of the Angels, we discussed this point. It was clear that there are some people who it may suit and who may be able to be taken out of that setting and put somewhere else but not everybody is suited to that. I want to compliment the management and staff at St. Mary of the Angels for the loving care and kindness they have shown over generations to those who have been resident in the community. Remember, this was a family farm originally. The mother and father had one daughter who became a nun. They kindly gave the beautiful farm free of charge so that St. Mary of the Angels could be developed. Local people in County Kerry, relatives of the residents, fund raised and made the centre into what it is today. It is a centre of excellence.

I ask the Deputy to conclude.

I was cut short on my time. I lost a minute -----

The Deputy lost half a minute.

I just want to make the point that three or four years ago the centre stopped accepting new people. The worry I have now is that if a young couple in County Kerry have a child with special needs who needs assistance, there is no acceptance into St. Mary of the Angels for that child. Is it true to say that it is closing?

Let us get the answer from the Minister of State. The Deputy got his half a minute back.

Obviously, it is going to change. I appreciate the Minister of State's support and his genuine interest. I know that he has an interest in St. Mary of the Angels.

I thank Deputies John Brassil and Michael Healy-Rae, who have a particular interest in this issue. I have already spoken to Deputy Michael Healy-Rae about this and I recognise that both Deputies are prioritising people with disabilities in their constituency.

I will now go into some detail on the matter and answer the questions posed by the Deputies. In June 2011, a report entitled Time to Move on from Congregated Settings was published by the HSE. That report identified that in 2008 approximately 4,000 individuals with disabilities lived in congregated type settings. These are places where ten or more people reside in a single living unit or are campus based. The report found that notwithstanding the commitment and initiative of dedicated staff and management, there were a significant number of people still experiencing institutional living conditions where they lacked basic privacy and dignity and lived their lives apart from any community and family.

Currently, 2,725 people live in congregated settings and our objective is to reduce this figure by one third by 2021 and ultimately to eliminate all congregated settings. At a national level, work has been ongoing to support the implementation of this policy. I am pleased to note that a significant amount of progress has been made to date, including the establishment of a multi-stakeholder working group chaired by Inclusion Ireland. A toolkit for transitional plans has been developed to support service providers in the development of project transition plans for individuals moving to more socially inclusive settings. Project action plans for priority sites have been developed to guide and support these sites to develop their action plans for transitioning individuals from congregated settings. A communication framework has been developed and disseminated which includes a key messages document and a stakeholder mapping tool to support providers to engage all stakeholders in a targeted manner and ensure communications are timely and appropriate. However, from what I have heard today, that has not happened. All of these communication documents, action plan templates, toolkits and an information bulletin can be viewed on the HSE's website. I would encourage the Deputies to review these documents as they give a comprehensive overview of the level of preparation that goes into moving people out of congregated settings.

The St. John of God service in Kerry has been identified as one of the priority sites for decongregation. The HSE is committed to working with St. John of God Services to transition 17 residents who are in ward style accommodation from their current unsuitable accommodation on campus to more appropriate settings in the local community. The comprehensive transition plans I have described will ensure that there is extensive engagement with the people themselves, their families, carers and advocates, as well as the service provider, to ensure successful and sustainable transitions into the community.

In total, 78 people currently residing on the Beaufort campus will ultimately be supported over a number of years to move to more suitable accommodation in the community, depending on available funding and the ability to source suitable houses in the community. HSE representatives met public representatives from Kerry yesterday and were clear in stating that St. Mary of the Angels will close over time. I believe that was said at the meeting. I would particularly like to assure any concerned residents, family members and my colleagues in the House that the process of moving a person with disabilities out of a congregated setting is not something that happens overnight. The process of moving people to more suitable accommodation in the community will take place over a number of years and will be done in full consultation with all residents, advocates and their families.

Obviously the Minister of State's reply greatly concerns me. What he is saying is that St. Mary of the Angels will close and that the process for moving people into suitable accommodation will take place over a number of years and will be done in full consultation with residents, advocates and their families. What about the residents, advocates and their families who do not want to move? What about those people who are happy and have been so as long as they have been living there, in this idyllic setting and who have a wonderful life in a wonderful community? What about those people? They have been lobbying us. They are in existence; they are real people but we are now saying to them that their future is uncertain. That is not the right position to take. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work in these particular circumstances.

I ask the Minister of State to ensure that a detailed, individual future care plan for each of the 78 residents be drawn up, in consultation with the individuals and their families. Once that is done, I ask the Minister of State to revert to us and let us know exactly when and how the future of these people will be cared for. There is a future for St. Mary of the Angels, Beaufort. The Minister of State must believe me that there is a future for that centre.

The trouble with the Minister of State's response is that it makes no allowance whatsoever for the resident who is unable to relocate. I am pleading with the Minister of State on behalf of parents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters of the people who are resident in this wonderful location. One of the most upsetting things that the Minister of State has said is that he wants to take the residents out of that place, that home and integrate them into the community but the community they are already in is a community in itself. It is a wonderful, beautiful setting where an awful lot, if not the majority, of the residents are happy, safe and content and they want to be left there. There are people in St. Mary of the Angels today who would be unable to integrate into any other place and it would be unacceptable to their families to try to do so. They are safe, happy and content and are getting excellent care from excellent care providers.

I urge the Minister of State to think of my late father, who always said, "If it's not broken, don't try to fix it." St. Mary of the Angels is not broken. I urge the Minister of State not to try to fix it because it is not the proper thing to do.

The Minister of State has two minutes to respond.

I accept the concerns of my two colleagues. However, I have a plan to ensure that we deal with these particular issues. I have visited centres for people with disabilities where residents told me that they wanted to get out of congregated settings. I visited a lot of centres over the summer.

In the service to which the Deputies refer there are 17 residents in ward style accommodation which, in my view, is not suitable for any person.

Of course I totally accept the important point that not all people residing at St. Mary of the Angels in Beaufort will be suitable for transitioning to community living. I am giving a commitment today that the HSE and St. John of God Services will liaise with the residents, the family members, the advocates and the staff members to ensure these issues are addressed. The HSE wishes to assure all residents and families that any proposed changes at St. John of God adult services will be fully discussed and that no changes will proceed until this consultation process has been completed. I am saying we will listen to the concerns of the families.

Of course I accept that one size does not fit all. I am trying to change the services for younger and, in this case, older adults with intellectual disabilities to suit people with disabilities. We have managed to get nearly 2,000 people out of congregated settings. There has been a fantastic response. As I listen to the Deputies, I am aware that the transition might need to be managed in other ways for certain people because of their medical and physical needs or particular issues. I assure them that this is not going to happen tomorrow morning or against anybody's will. I will not force anybody into a situation he or she does not want to be in.

Hospital Accommodation Provision

I acknowledge the fantastic care that is provided at all the district hospitals in Cork South-West. The background to this debate is that in recent years, even as the good care I have mentioned has been acknowledged, one hospital or another has always been in danger of closing. It seems to be Clonakilty Community Hospital's turn this time. I am raising this matter in the House so that this issue can be put to bed. Will the Minister of State address concerns about beds being closed at the hospital? Clonakilty Community Hospital is a public unit with 137 beds spread over three blocks. I am advised that block 1 of the facility may be closed shortly and that the first floor of the block has already been converted into office space. I am further advised that just 129 of the 137 beds available are currently in service and that 113 of the beds that are in use are earmarked for long-term use. In other words, they are for patients availing of the fair deal scheme. The other 16 beds are used as community support or respite care beds. There are no obvious issues with access to fair deal beds at present. The problem arises when a patient who does not need to access an acute hospital facility is denied a bed in a community hospital simply because only long-term beds are available.

I suggest that the current funding model needs to be addressed. Community hospitals are not in a position to facilitate additional community support or respite beds because they are not getting funding for such services. They are being asked to carry the ultimate cost of providing these beds, but this is not feasible. This is essentially what is causing the so-called "bed-blocking" in our main hospitals. Patients are entitled to specified amounts of respite care over the course of a year. Patients or their families may pay for further respite care. Patients or their families are often delighted to avail of this facility, only to be told they cannot be accommodated due to bed shortages. As I have pointed out, bed shortages are not necessarily an issue in this case. The matter is further complicated by HIQA standards, which have led to reductions in bed and ward numbers to comply with spacing regulations. While Clonakilty Community Hospital can work with these bed reductions in the best interests of the comfort of its patients, the hospital authorities need to be reassured that further beds will not be lost and that a funding model will be put in place to enable the number of beds in the facility to be maximised.

I thank the Deputy for raising the important issue of Clonakilty Community Hospital. The HSE is responsible for the delivery of health and personal social services, including those at facilities like Clonakilty Community Hospital. The hospital, which was built in the 1840s, is situated on the outskirts of Clonakilty in west Cork. In addition to providing long-term care to older people, the hospital historically provided residential care to people whose primary needs arose from social difficulties. The hospital is registered with HIQA for 129 beds for the provision of continuing care, respite care, palliative care and community support to older people in west Cork. Services available to residents include physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy. Activities are arranged daily by a mixture of volunteers and paid therapists. Approximately 157 whole-time equivalent staff are based in the hospital. The HSE is in the process of recruiting an additional two health care assistants. This will be completed shortly.

I assure Deputy Murphy O'Mahony that there have been no bed closures and there are no plans to close beds at Clonakilty. That is good news for the Deputy. There has been reduced demand for continuing care beds, however, with up to 20 such beds remaining vacant over the past 12 months. This can be partly attributed to the opening of a number of new private nursing homes in the west Cork area. Over recent winters, a number of empty beds have been made available by social care to acute services to facilitate early discharges during times of peak demand. The beds provided by public nursing homes like Clonakilty Community Hospital are an essential part of our health care infrastructure. Without those beds, many older people would not have access to the care they need. While demand has reduced in recent times at Clonakilty, these beds will be very much needed over the coming years as the number of older people increases in line with demographic trends. Therefore, it is essential that they are put on a sustainable footing and that the fabric of the buildings from which they operate is modernised and improved.

The €385 million capital programme that was announced earlier this year is one of the most comprehensive programmes of investment in public nursing home facilities undertaken by the State. It provides for the replacement and refurbishment of 90 public nursing homes across the country over the next five years. Significant work was undertaken by the HSE to determine the most appropriate scheduling of projects over the five-year period from 2016 to 2021 within the phased provision of funding to achieve compliance and registration with HIQA. The good news for Deputy Murphy O'Mahony is that the plan includes refurbishment works at Clonakilty Community Hospital. It is anticipated that construction works will begin in 2019. They are scheduled to be completed by 2020. When these works are completed, they will ensure the hospital's long and proud tradition will continue well into the future.

I thank the Minister of State for giving me a lesson on the geography and history of Clonakilty Community Hospital. I am very aware of its beautiful location and, as I said earlier, the great work carried out by its staff. I welcome the Minister of State's commitment that there will be no bed closures at the hospital. However, I wholeheartedly disagree with his suggestion that there "has been reduced demand" for beds at the hospital. People have come to my clinic because their relatives have been told they are on a list that is quite long. Maybe I will talk to the Minister of State about that some other time.

I need proof of this reduced demand, to be honest. I can show the Minister of State evidence to the contrary. I welcome the news we have heard regarding construction works at Clonakilty Community Hospital. I hope I will still be here to make sure that happens.

I will follow up on what the Deputy has said about particular issues and any other issues in respect of which I can be helpful. I assure her I have been told it is absolutely the case that there will be no bed closures and that there are no plans to close any beds at Clonakilty Community Hospital. I recognise the fantastic work the hospital has done in providing services to the local area. I will mention some of the details. The hospital is registered as having 129 beds for the provision of palliative care and community support to older people in west Cork. Its budget is €7.9 million and its current number of beds is 129. It has 118 residential beds, including 14 dementia-specific beds, and 11 respite and convalescent beds. The hospital's staffing level is 157, which is broken down as follows: 66 nursing staff; 71 health care assistants; 13.95 housekeeping and catering staff; three clerical support staff; and two medical officers.

Recruitment is currently in process for two additional health care assistants. This will be completed shortly.

I assure the Deputy that we are aware of the need to ensure that projects such as the Clonakilty district hospital are supported. We will do our best. I will revert to the Deputy on the issues she raised earlier.

Brexit Issues

Who is taking this matter?

The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Doyle.

Go raibh maith agat. I do not exaggerate when I say that the Irish mushroom industry is in peril. Of the 60 growers in operation at the time of the Brexit referendum in Britain and Northern Ireland, at least six have since ceased production. With 80% of Irish mushrooms destined for the British market, the decline in the value of sterling vis-à-vis the euro of almost 20% since the referendum is having a devastating effect on producers and processors in Ireland, not least in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, where there is a significant concentration of producers and one of the industry's leading players, Monaghan Mushrooms.

With some 3,500 people employed by growers throughout the country - representing a critical mass of employees across rural Ireland - the prospect of the closure of further mushroom producers' businesses because of the impossible situation in which they find themselves, not least as a result of fixed forward contracts set in sterling and the ever-hungry eyes of producers in eastern Europe eager to carve out an even greater share of the British market, would spell economic calamity for these producers and their employees, families, communities and local economies, and for Ireland's export earnings.

The export value of Ireland's mushroom sector is of the order of €180 million per annum. This is a major issue and we are facing a very serious crisis. In the absence of key measures in the 2017 budget, I ask the Minister of State and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, to spell out what they and the Government are willing to do to help the mushroom industry to survive this crisis. Having no increase in diesel excise duty - welcome though it was - will not cut it. What rescue measures is the Minister proposing? It is now that such measures are needed. Dilly-dallying will lead to further collapses and job losses and an ever greater cost on the Exchequer than any measure or measures might impose.

I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, to outline the consideration that has been given to possible schemes within EU state-aid rules. Some clever footwork is required. What is the potential of reintroducing the previous employment subsidy scheme? What is the position of this country, as an EU member state, sharing a border with a jurisdiction that is exiting the EU? Will our gallant allies in Europe step up to the plate to assist our vulnerable agrifood sector in surviving the turmoil that the British exiteers have inflicted on our economy, employment levels and opportunities? Will the Minister assure the Irish mushroom industry, which is the most vulnerable sector of the Irish food export business, that - in its hour of need - he and this Government will not be found wanting?

I thank Deputy Ó Caoláin for raising this very important issue. It is particularly relevant to the area from which he comes. Let me reassure him that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, and I are acutely aware of the challenges the mushroom sector is experiencing in the aftermath of the UK referendum decision to exit the European Union and in light of recent significant currency fluctuations. I am focused on working closely with the industry - I can provide details on that later - to address these difficulties in the months and year ahead.

We are monitoring the situation regarding sterling volatility closely and have set up a dedicated unit to consider the impact of Brexit within the Department. In addition, Bord Bia is working closely with the sector on market intelligence, UK consumer research and quality assurance. It recently held a currency and negotiation workshop specifically targeted at the sector, which I understand was very well received by the mushroom industry. In the coming weeks, the Minister, Deputy Creed, and the CEO of Bord Bia will be meeting executives from all the UK multiple retailers to further highlight the difficulties producers are facing. The Minister has also arranged a meeting with his UK counterpart to discuss the impact the UK decision is already having on the agriculture and food sector in Ireland.

I am also keenly aware of the ongoing impact that the devaluation of sterling is having directly on the profit margins of mushroom producers and growers. The mushroom sector, like many other exporting sectors is particularly at risk because of the high dependency on the UK market. This week we arranged for the payment of just under €1.57 million to one of the mushroom producer organisations under the EU producer organisation scheme.

Bord Bia, in response to the difficulties being experienced by exporters, recently launched its marketing intensification programme. This programme aims to provide targeted marketing supports to companies with high dependency on UK markets. Grant supports will be prioritised to assist companies in strengthening their position in that market and in their efforts at market diversification. The marketing intensification programme is aimed at Irish food and drink producers that operate with a turnover of between €1 million and €30 million and that export at least 20% of their turnover to the UK. The total fund is €500,000, however, eligibility does not confer an automatic entitlement to aid. The selection process is competitive with between 20 and 30 companies expected to be supported. Eligible activities are those undertaken between the date of receipt of the application by Bord Bia and 30 April 2017. The closing date for receipt of applications for the marketing intensification programme is Friday, 28 October 2016.

As part of budget 2017, we have also secured an additional €700,000 in funding for capital investment in the commercial horticulture sector. This will increase the budget for this scheme to €5 million in 2017. In addition, the horticulture sector will have access to the €150 million low interest cashflow support loan fund announced in the Budget Statement last Tuesday, providing access to highly flexible loans for up to six years for amounts up to €150,000 at an interest rate of 2.95%, with an option of interest-only payments for three years. Through Bord Bia, we are also investing in a market development programme that will assist companies dealing with currency and trading difficulties.

Let me draw the Deputy's attention to the ongoing support being provided to the industry through national and EU schemes operated by my Department. Under the National Development Plan 2007 to 2013, the Department implemented the scheme of investment aid for development of the commercial horticulture sector. During this period, the Department paid just over €4 million in grants to mushroom growers, which supported €10.1 million in investment. To ensure ongoing support for the sector, the Department extended, under EU sanction, the scheme of investment aid for the development of the commercial horticulture sector to run until the end of December 2019. In 2014 and 2015, a total of €1.635 million grant aid was paid to mushroom growers. The further grant aid paid supported €4.1 million in investment by these growers. Under the 2016 scheme of investment aid for the development of the commercial horticulture sector, the Department issued approvals in the amount of €1.33 million to growers in the mushroom sector, supporting €3.3 million in investment. I will provide a commitment to ensure that payments under this scheme are paid as early as possible, so as to try to alleviate any financial pressure that growers are facing.

The EU producer organisation scheme is a vital support for mushroom growers with 65% of Irish growers in a producer organisation at present. This scheme provides an important mechanism for growers to achieve greater bargaining power in the marketplace by becoming part of a larger supply base, which is very important in the current environment.

Between 2005 and 2016, a total of €41.3 million was paid to the mushroom producer organisations as part of that EU producer organisation, PO, scheme.

The Minister of State indicated that the Department has set up a dedicated unit to consider the impact of Brexit. That is important but the situation we are talking about is not post the moving of Article 50 by the British Prime Minister, the reality of the crisis facing the mushroom industry is immediate. The producers cannot wait until after March 2017. We can already measure the deleterious impact on the mushroom sector, as I have shown in the facts I shared with the Minister of State earlier.

The Minister of State also indicated that the Minister has arranged a meeting with his British counterpart to discuss the impact of the British decision on the agriculture and food sector. When will that meeting take place? We need to see a demonstration of the realisation of urgency.

While I have noted the measures in budget 2017, it is important to realise that the moneys paid in grants to mushroom growers over the period of the National Development Plan 2007 to 2013 were aids to investments undertaken by the growers. They made significant investments and are heavily indebted as a consequence. The grant supports were all very fine and good at the time but we are living in very different circumstances. This is a grave situation and it is imperative that we do not just offer some of the historical facts about supports presented. We need to hear about real and substantive measures that will help to secure the 35,000 jobs involved in the sector, many of which are concentrated in critical areas throughout the country and not least in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. This is very important and I ask the Minister of State to recognise and take on board the points I have raised. I appeal to him with all the strength I can command on behalf of those so affected to ensure that there are real measures to meet this crisis, to save this industry and to ensure that there is a future for people in traditional employment areas in rural Ireland.

The Minister is in London today and was scheduled to meet his counterpart but she cancelled. I think another meeting is scheduled for two weeks' time. I fully appreciate the gravity of this issue. I met the chief executive officer, CEO, of Monaghan Mushrooms, probably the primary producer in the country, last week. We worked through some suggestions and no one knows the industry better than the man in question.

Yes, indeed. The Deputy is correct in saying that the PO scheme is for investment but the structure of the PO is such that the money involved might be accessed, along with some other measures that are incentives for lean producing with Enterprise Ireland. Officials from the Department are meeting representatives from Enterprise Ireland to see what might be available from its pot of incentives. We are talking about the impact of Brexit now on much of the agrifood sector, not post the triggering of Article 50. We are concentrating profoundly on the mushroom sector and some other sectors all of whose exports are into the sterling market which is probably 80% of what is produced. We appreciate that. We are trying to work out a resolution.

The low-interest finance has generated some interest as working capital with flexibility. This will only plug the dike for a little while. There is a choice to be made by customers in the UK - do they want this fresh product from Ireland for which there is no question about standards, quality and reliability or do they want to push it over the brink? Prices are fixed generally in January but, unfortunately, do not kick in until the end of March or early April. We can do nothing about that without their goodwill. That is the importance of going not just to the Minister but over the next few months to the CEOs of all the producers to reiterate how precarious the situation is. We are doing everything we can, I assure the Deputy. It is not something that is particularly strong in my own area but I can appreciate its value in bordering counties and in the Deputy's area.

Flood Prevention Measures

I am sure that everyone in the House is very familiar with the damage to businesses, homes and farmland caused along the Shannon last winter. We need to ensure that this never happens again. In my county, Offaly, we witnessed serious flooding in areas such as Banagher, Shannonbridge and Shannon Harbour. In the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, report Banagher is listed as not being a significant flood risk and Shannon Harbour is considered a low risk. I saw the flooding in those areas and the damage done. Will the Minister of State ensure that the inaccuracies in the CFRAM report are corrected as soon as possible? We do not want false information going out and that report is not correct.

People all across the midlands are absolutely terrified of the prospect of further floods this year. They want to know what action has been taken to alleviate the risk to their homes, property and land. Many people were particularly concerned at revelations contained in a report published in April to the effect that there are serious issues surrounding the national programme for flood risk assessment. The report in question highlighted the fact that the steering group did not meet for a four-year period.

In January of this year, the European Investment Bank, EIB, announced a €200 million loan scheme that is being made available through the Office of Public Works. I welcome this scheme and the fact that 29 flood defence projects have been approved. However, with ten of the 29 projects approved for Cork, five for Dublin and a large proportion of the rest for other urban areas, there is very real concern that there has been a failure to direct funding towards neglected rural areas, such as Shannon Harbour, Shannonbridge and Banagher. Areas surrounding the River Shannon have been completely ignored in the allocation of EIB loan funds.

In May, Matt McCarthy, Sinn Féin Member of the European Parliament, MEP, met Jonathan Taylor, vice president of the EIB. Mr. Taylor clearly indicated that the EIB is open for business and willing to offer loans to additional Irish projects. It seems that the Government is dragging its feet on this issue once again. We have already witnessed a significant delay in the preparation of the Shannon flood risk management plan. Many fear that actions and decisions on foot of this plan are not realistically expected before the winter months.

Sinn Féin has been constructive on this issue. We have met with householders, farmers and business owners and members of the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, all along the Shannon and heard at first hand how it affected so many people's lives. We heard of their concerns and fears. We have put forward a Bill that would establish an agency with overall responsibility for the assessment of flood risk and flood defences along the River Shannon, for co-ordinating the work of key stakeholders in the region and for the preparation of a strategic plan for management of the river. Can the Minister advise of the measures that are in place to protect homes, businesses and farmlands along the River Shannon from flooding this winter?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I want to start by reassuring communities living along the River Shannon that the Government is doing everything it can to prevent flooding along the Shannon this winter.

The core strategy for addressing the significant flood risks along the River Shannon is the Office of Public Works, OPW, catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme. Of the 300 areas for further assessment, AFAs, nationwide, there are 66 along the Shannon river basin district that have been assessed within the Shannon CFRAM study.

Draft flood risk management plans have been made available for public consultation, and the consultation period for the Shannon CFRAM study, which included a series of local public consultation events, closed on 23 September. The flood risk management plans will now be finalised, taking on board the comments received, and will include a prioritised list of feasible measures, both structural and non-structural, to address flood risk in an environmentally sustainable and cost-effective manner.

Building on past investment, the Government has demonstrated its support of flood relief by extending its commitment to provide €430 million to flood risk management between 2016 and 2021. The annual allocation for flood defence works will more than double, from €45 million to €100 million per annum. The OPW estimates that up to €1.2 billion in benefit has been derived from that investment to date in terms of 12,000 properties protected and flood damages and losses avoided. That is a major achievement, and it is the Government’s intention to continue to build on this major achievement and to prioritise investment in flood defence schemes.

Athlone experienced severe flooding last winter, and the situation could have been much worse but for the enormous efforts made by the local authority emergency response team assisted by volunteers from the local community. I am determined that residents and business owners in Athlone will not have to go through that experience again. It has been decided, therefore, to advance flood relief works for the town. The OPW and Westmeath County Council are working together on the development of a flood relief scheme for the town, and the OPW has agreed to fund the development and implementation of a viable scheme for Athlone based on the options identified in CFRAM. The works are estimated to cost approximately €6 million and are planned to commence in 2017. When completed, they will give protection to approximately 250 homes. Other major schemes along the Shannon are already under design and construction, including at Foynes and King's Island in Limerick and at Ennis Lower and Ennis South.

The OPW can provide funding to local authorities under the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme to undertake minor works to address localised flooding and coastal protection problems within their administrative areas. So far this year, 38 additional projects at a cost of €1.7 million along the Shannon have been approved by my office. These will provide important localised flood protection and mitigation.

Last winter, the Government took decisive action to support the existing plans in place to address flooding on the Shannon and established the Shannon flood risk State agency co-ordination working group to enhance ongoing co-operation across all the State agencies involved with the River Shannon, including ESB, Waterways Ireland, Bord na Móna, Inland Fisheries Ireland, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the OPW and the relevant local authorities. Its extensive work programme, published on the OPW website, highlights the current proactive and co-ordinated approach by all State agencies to flood risk management in the Shannon catchment. The working group is building on the existing work and commitment of all the State agencies involved in flood risk. The group is also focused on ensuring the best possible level of co-ordination between all statutory bodies involved in flood management on the Shannon, and is solutions focused and designed to deliver the highest level of efficiencies to add value to the CFRAM programme.

The group held three open days on its work programme to discuss the role and work of the group with the public, and met the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, to discuss and explore the approach being adopted to address its issues of concern. No later than this morning, the group met and discussed the benefits of possible measures to managing flood risk for the winter of 2016-2017.

I am pleased to announce that a decision has been taken by the group to trial the lowering of the lake levels in Lough Allen to help mitigate potential flood risk for this winter. From the analysis completed, this may have a positive impact on the extent of certain flood events that might occur during the winter. This is to be achieved through protocols being agreed between the OPW, the ESB and Waterways Ireland, with input from the relevant local authorities. The modelling and analysis completed shows that this action can only be done in specified conditions to avoid causing or exacerbating flooding downstream, and this trial will need to be carefully monitored. While the impact of this initiative might be small, it demonstrates the continued commitment of the agencies to work in a co-ordinated way to explore all measures that may benefit the communities along the River Shannon.

I have just one more paragraph to read. The group has today also agreed to evaluate the benefits from any short and medium-term programme of localised dredging and any future piloting to remove some pinch points along the Shannon. The group will discuss this at its next meeting which will be held in November.

I chair an interdepartmental flood policy co-ordination group, and I will shortly bring a report to Government from that group. The group is developing a range of policy initiatives to underpin the overall investment by the OPW in managing national flood risk.

It is also considering a number of other prevention and mitigation measures for providing flood relief which may include schemes for individual property protection and voluntary home and farmyard relocation.

Thank you very much, Minister.

Local authorities are designated as the lead agency for responding to severe weather events, including flooding. The emergency response plans, which were effective during the flood events last winter, will be reviewed to ensure a rapid and effective response.

I assure the House that the Government will continue to ensure measures to deal effectively with flooding through the development of the proactive CFRAM programme and plans and the continued significant investment in flood defence capital schemes will receive the highest priority from the Government. I thank the Acting Chairman for his patience.

I hope time will be added on to allow me give a response. I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response but I find it unsatisfactory. There can be no excuse for the delay in the drafting of a flood risk management plan for the Shannon region. I do not understand how the steering group on this issue failed to meet for a four-year period. The Government's response on this matter has been completely inadequate, and many people would agree with me on that. There are many frustrated people affected, and we need to work on this and move it along as quickly as possible.

Will the Minister of State advise me if the Government will consider the proposal put forward in the Bill published by Sinn Féin with respect to the establishment of a co-ordinated agency to deal with management of the River Shannon? There needs to be one agency involved because the current position is a mess and is not workable. As the Minister of State knows, the River Shannon touches 18 counties, and an effective co-ordinated response to flooding issues is almost impossible without an over-arching statutory agency. Will the Minister of State assure me if weirs along the River Shannon, particularly those at Ardnacrusha in Limerick and Meelick in County Galway, could be lowered or opened? He mentioned a weir in his response, but I would like to see those weirs lowered or opened as well.

I met representatives of the IFA as recently as last week with Matt Carthy MEP and they stressed that in addition to flood defences, we need a maintenance plan. We need to look at certain points along the River Shannon. In County Offaly, I urge the Minister of State to look at Banagher, Shannon Harbour and Shannonbridge. The IFA representatives stressed those points as well.

Will the Minister of State consider opening the weirs? It would increase the capacity of the River Shannon to hold more flood water should we be hit with a catastrophe similar to the one that occurred last year.

Will the Minister of State indicate whether the Government will seek additional supports from the European Union to bolster flood defences for rural areas and to ensure a maintenance programme is put into action as soon as possible?

I have asked my officials to make contact with Offaly County Council to review the case of Banagher. Dredging on the Shannon came up this morning at our group meeting and all parties are now going to look at it, both from the point of view of what we can do in the short term and what we can do in the long term. Waterways Ireland is reviewing some of the pinch points so that we can find out more information. Some costs are being bandied around and I want to get a true picture of them. We may have to take one or two of them out in a pilot scheme to see what that would cost.

We will not solve the problems with flooding from the Shannon in one winter. The Deputy referred to the number of county councils along the catchment but a single agency will not do anything this winter. I assure the Deputy, though, and people who live along the Shannon, that I will do everything I can. The Taoiseach attended the meeting we held this morning and that is a reflection of how important the issue is to us.

In terms of investment, we have €430 million to spend over the period 2015 to 2021, and this year we will spend approximately €50 million. In two years' time that figure will have been cranked up to €100 million. There is money but we also need to overcome the challenges to getting work done throughout the country. People might ask what is happening but, by the end of this year, 12 major flood relief schemes will be under construction. Last year, there were four so we are cranking it up and I assure Deputies that I will keep the pressure on.

I gave the Minister considerable latitude on account of its importance for the areas concerned.