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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 26 Oct 2017

Vol. 960 No. 9

Topical Issue Debate

Vaccination Programme

Just as the country recently prepared for Storm Ophelia through public announcements and putting safeguarding arrangements in place, we need to prepare for what could turn out to be one of the most challenging winters facing the health services in decades. All the indications are that Ireland is at high risk of a health crisis this winter due to a combination of a flu epidemic and concerns over the spread of the super bug, CPE. I, therefore, call on the Minister for Health to establish a single task force to deal with the possibility of a deadly combination of the two. It also means that community care will be more important than ever this winter in order that the most vulnerable, in particular, will not have to attend hospitals and, preferably, will not need to stay in hospitals.

The national public health emergency team needs to be convened to deal with this risk. We also need advice for families and people at home, institutions such as nursing homes and day care centres and all health care facilities. Efforts need to be stepped up to ensure the message is getting through in the public information campaign on the anti-flu vaccine, in particular to health care workers and to those working with elderly people to ensure that as far as is possible they get the vaccine. I have had the vaccine and while it does not give complete protection against the viral strain that appears to be coming from Australia, it will give significant protection. It is vital that we have clear thinking about keeping all our health services open and functioning. The Minister needs to keep under review hygiene and cleaning arrangements in hospitals, and for hospital staff, in order that every effort is made to minimise the risk of infection. It is important that we put a plan in place for vulnerable people, whether they are older or younger.

Forewarned is forearmed and we are trying to impress on the Minister of State the importance of ensuring all the mechanisms of the State are available to deal with this potential public health policy challenge, which could have a major impact on our health services and on the health of vulnerable people. Professor Sir Malcolm Grant of the NHS recently said that they were preparing for a catastrophic flu strain arriving in the UK that could have huge implications for the delivery of health care. If that is the case, we have to do the same. The national public health emergency team met in response to the CPE super bug and the same response is required to prepare for the eventuality of a flu virus reaching Ireland, which a vaccine will not necessarily prevent. We have to ask ourselves what we can do. We should consider opening additional intensive care beds. Isolation rooms will be critically important and community geriatricians and nurse specialists should be deployed in the community in order that elderly and vulnerable people who are primarily in the community care setting or nursing homes will not have to transferred into the acute hospital system through our emergency departments. They are overcrowded and we can predict that there will be huge overcrowding problems during the Christmas period and especially in the first few weeks of January when there will be massive cancellations of elective surgery and major surgery for cancer patients and others who have been waiting an extraordinary time for scheduled surgery. That will happen again because the Government does not seem to be capable of preparing for eventualities that will almost certainly happen. The combination of the flu virus and the super bug could overwhelm our health services.

On behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, I thank Deputies Burton and Kelleher for giving me the opportunity to update the House on this issue. The Minister sends his apologies for not being able to be here.

As Deputies are aware influenza can be a serious illness for people in at-risk groups and can lead to hospitalisation and death. At-risk people include those aged 65 years and older, those with chronic illness requiring regular medical follow-up, those with lower immunity due to disease or treatment, pregnant women and residents of nursing homes and other long-stay facilities.

The priority for this winter is to increase take-up of the influenza vaccine in at-risk groups and in health care workers to reduce and control the incidence of flu and outbreaks in the community and health care settings. As Deputies will recall, the HSE launched its immunisation and Under the Weather campaigns for the 2017-2018 season earlier this month. By reducing the incidence of influenza, we reduce the need for people to seek treatments and, consequently, reduce the demands on health services. The HSE has put in place significant measures to ensure it is prepared for influenza this winter. A national steering group is in place to co-ordinate the response. Each hospital group and community health organisation has submitted a flu plan based on the evidence of last year’s successes and areas for action over the oncoming season. Each long-term care facility and private nursing home has received a detailed communication on how to prepare for and deal with flu. Additionally, each hospital group and associated community health organisation were requested to produce a winter plan which includes a specific section on flu. These plans were reviewed at a national meeting earlier this week. The HSE must be commended on the preparations it has made for this winter. Those preparations will significantly reduce the impact of influenza on the health services.

I take this opportunity to address concerns relating to the effectiveness of the vaccine and the impact of influenza in other parts of the world. The strain currently circulating in Australia is similar to the one which dominated in Ireland last winter and the vaccine for use in Ireland contains this strain of the virus and should afford protection. The latest surveillance reports relating to Australia indicate that the peak week of national influenza activity was comparable or higher than in recent years. However, clinical severity was low to moderate and the proportion of hospitalised patients admitted directly to intensive care units has been on the lower range reported in recent years. These latest reports also indicated that the vaccine was a good match for the circulating flu strains.

In Ireland, flu activity, as measured by influenza-like illness rates, is currently low, similar to other European countries. While it is too early to comment definitively on the efficacy of the seasonal flu vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States have indicated that it is 50% to 60% effective in preventing hospitalisation in older people and 80% effective in preventing death in the elderly. Also of note is that no particular concerns were expressed in relation to either the current flu season or vaccine effectiveness at the EU joint meeting of chief medical officers and chief veterinary officers on influenza preparedness earlier this week.

Finally, I remind Deputies that vaccination remains, as Deputy Burton said, the most effective means of preventing infection by seasonal influenza viruses. We ask people to engage with the HSE's campaign of recent weeks.

Critically, there is no reason anyone in a nursing home or who attends community care day centres, on a daily or weekly basis, should not be facilitated with the vaccine. By and large, the people attending those centres are older. Second, we have the more recent reports of the carbapenemase-producing enterobacteriaceae, CPE, bug. The HSE has acknowledged that it is extremely difficult to treat and already it has caused a significant number of deaths. A combination of this bug in hospitals and vulnerable people, both older and younger, going into hospitals as inpatients means a much higher risk in terms of mortality in that those who are ill with flu can get pneumonia and are highly exposed to the risk of developing the CPE bug. The HSE message is not being communicated sufficiently to people, including the HSE's own staff, where there seems to be a reluctance to get the vaccine. I urge the Government to act and minimise the damage and harm to people.

The Minister of State said it, namely, that at-risk people include those aged 65 years and over, those with chronic illness requiring regular medical follow-ups, those with lower immunity due to disease or treatment, pregnant women and residents of nursing homes and other long-stay facilities. The key component in all of our health services is front-line staff. The HSE said that there has not been a great level of take-up. One has to ask why the HSE is not being more informative to its own employees, who are at risk of infection and infecting. I urge the Minister of State to ensure that the immunisation programme for all these high-risk categories is rolled out in a robust way and that the HSE will engage with staff, through advocacy groups, unions and worker representatives, to ensure that there is a big take-up. It is a critically important component in ensuring that there is herd immunisation in the context of the flu vaccine.

I will ask the Minister for Health to contact Deputy Burton about the superbug because I do not have the data on the threats associated with it.

Deputy Burton is correct about the communications plan. A stronger campaign is required. The campaign was launched on 2 October, with an initial focus on health care workers. The radio adverts, which will run for three weeks, commenced on 9 October and there will be a further two weeks of the radio adverts when the flu goes over the threshold. Those aged 65 and over and pregnant women are the primary audience for the radio campaign, which will also reach medically at-risk groups and health care workers as they make up a more generic radio audience as well. The trend is that increasing numbers of health care workers are availing of the vaccine, with the figure increasing from 22% last year to nearly 32%, although the figure is probably still not high enough. Fourteen hospitals have exceeded the 40% national take-up target, compared to seven in 2015-2016. Therefore, there has been an improvement although I understand what Deputies Burton and Kelleher are saying. It is still not enough and we need to do all we can to encourage our own workers, who are working with vulnerable people, to try to increase the level of take-up.

Let me repeat that the vaccine is available free of charge from GPs for all people in the at-risk groups and from pharmacies for everyone in at-risk groups aged 18 years and over. An administrative charge may apply to people who do not hold medical cards or GP-visit cards. Again, I stress the need for people to engage and to get the vaccine.

Emergency Departments

I am seeking certainty in respect of Midlands Regional Hospital Portlaoise. A plan was to be released in September 2015 regarding the future of the hospital but we have not yet seen that plan. However, there is a plan contained in what is described as the final draft of the Dublin Midlands Hospital Group strategy for 2018 to 2013, which was given to me at the weekend. Last night a public meeting on the matter was held and up to 400 people attended. According to the letter sent with it, this plan was a final draft which was to be signed off on yesterday at a meeting of health managers at 2 p.m. in Dublin.

We now know what is in it but, unfortunately, what is in it is the end of emergency department services in Portlaoise. There will be no more emergency treatment in Portlaoise and trauma cases are to bypass Naas. The implications are serious. It is one of the busiest emergency departments outside of Dublin, having dealt with almost 40,000 people last year. The figure is further increasing this year, with more than 20,000 people in the first six months of the year using the unit. Where are these people to go if there is no emergency department between Tallaght and Limerick? Critically ill patients will be stuck in rush hour traffic on the N7. The other morning it took me three hours and five minutes to get from my house to the Dáil. The N7 is chock-a-block and not for one hour at rush hour. Rush hour now lasts for three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening. It starts at 3 p.m. and sometimes is not finished until 7 p.m. How does Susan O'Reilly think the 40,000 patients will be moved about? Is it by helicopter? Will there be fleets of helicopters?

The meeting last night was attended by the public, hospital staff and consultants, and general practitioners. They are the experts and they are absolutely adamant that this will not work. There is no capacity in the system. This will lead to the collapse of paediatrics and maternity services in Portlaoise, which is a huge concern. Let me be clear that Dr. Fleming, a cardiologist in the hospital, said the problem is one of capacity and resources. It is not a specialist problem. This is the key point, and I want the Minister of State to take it on board. Susan O'Reilly was put in there to do a job, but the Minister of State and I are her paymaster as are the public on the street and the citizens of County Laois and surrounding counties that depend on the hospital. The Minister of State needs to get a grip on this issue. Do not outsource this responsibility to her. If she signed off on this yesterday, get it and put it in the shredder.

On Tuesday, I raised the issue with the Government.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, who was standing in for the Taoiseach, informed me the Government had no intention of closing the emergency department in the Midlands Regional Hospital Portlaoise. Intentions can change, however. The emergency department must not be closed and services must not be downgraded or reduced. The proposals are unacceptable and unworkable. We need a firm and clear commitment that the hospital will not be downgraded and its emergency department will not be closed. We want a plan to upgrade the hospital.

I have neighbours who work in the emergency department of Portlaoise hospital and I am in touch with other staff at the hospital. I have also been in and out of the hospital with people over the years. Staff are doing their level best and should get medals for the work they do. Hospital managers all over the country, including in Portlaoise hospital, will tell the Minister that it is not possible to recruit and retain specialist staff without certainty. We need certainty but more than two years have been spent messing around with these plans, which arose from a review announced by the previous Government in 2011. Roscommon hospital was a casualty of that review and County Laois will not be another casualty. These plans will not wash. No one from a Government party will be elected in the county for a decade if they proceed.

The Deputy's time has concluded.

The Minister has a legal responsibility and the political power to stop this proposal. He must put his foot down.

I thank Deputy Stanley for raising this matter and apologise on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, who could not be here tonight. I assure the Deputy that, as the Minister stated previously, the most important issue with regard to consideration of services at the Midlands Regional Hospital Portlaoise is that patient safety and outcomes must come first. The Minister is committed to securing and further developing the role of the Midlands Regional Hospital Portlaoise as a constituent hospital within the Dublin Midlands Hospital Group.

As the Deputy is aware, there have been a number of reports on the Midlands Regional Hospital Portlaoise in recent years. These reports have pointed to the need for reconfiguration of some services to ensure patients are treated in the most appropriate setting by specialist staff who can safely meet their needs. Since 2014, the focus has been on supporting the hospital to develop and enhance management capability, implementing changes required to address clinical service deficiencies and incorporating the hospital into the governance structures of the Dublin Midlands Hospital Group.

Significant work has been undertaken to strengthen and stabilise current arrangements for services at the hospital to ensure that services currently provided that are not sustainable are discontinued and those that are sustainable are safety assured and adequately resourced. The Health Service Executive has confirmed that hospital funding has increased by 28% relative to the 2012 budget and staffing levels have risen by 29% from the 2014 base. Funding of €300,000 has also been provided in 2017 to facilitate the opening of the new medical assessment unit. In addition, governance and management arrangements in Portlaoise hospital have been strengthened, additional clinical staff have been appointed and staff training, hospital culture and communications have improved.

The Dublin Midlands Hospital Group has been working for some time on a draft plan for a new model of clinical service delivery at Portlaoise hospital which takes account of the need to develop services at the hospital in the context of developing the model of service provision for the entire hospital group. The draft plan has been submitted to the Department of Health and is being reviewed in detail. I emphasise again that patient and public requirements are paramount and have underpinned the Department’s consideration of the draft plan.

Any changes to services at Portlaoise hospital would have to take account of existing patient flows and demands in other hospitals as well as the need to develop particular services at the hospital in the context of the overall service configuration in the Dublin Midlands Hospital Group. As the Deputy is aware, there is increased pressure on the emergency department, patient flows and other services.

I assure the House again that once there is an agreed position on the draft plan, it is intended that there will be further engagement with all interested parties to ensure the needs of patients, staff and the local and wider community are addressed.

The problem with the Minister of State's reply is that HSE management has jumped the Minister on this issue. It met at 2 p.m. yesterday to sign off on the final draft. The cover letter, of which I have a copy, uses the term "final draft" to describe this plan. The Minister of State read out a response from civil servants and the HSE but I am not interested in it. The medical staff in the hospital and general practitioners providing a service in County Laois, south County Kildare and County Offaly are the experts on this issue and they have stated this plan will not work. The Minister must intervene at this point and stop the HSE from proceeding with it. The plan is the same as the document on the Minister's desk and it must be stopped.

The Minister of State stated that "services currently provided that are not sustainable" will be "discontinued". They cannot be discontinued because there is nowhere to send 40,000 people. What about the golden hour? It took me three hours and five minutes to travel from home to Dublin. Lives will be lost as a result of this plan.

Some years ago, a problem occurred in the maternity unit at Portlaoise hospital. Staff at the hospital worked with management locally to resolve the problem. They also networked with the Coombe Hospital and the Portlaoise hospital now provides fantastic maternity services. Doctors have proposed a plan similar to the process adopted in the case of the maternity unit. The approach taken some years ago must be replicated for emergency services at the hospital. This will require staff and resources to be provided. Once they are provided, the service will improve. The current service is good but it does not have sufficient capacity.

The Government and HSE will not get away with this plan, not because I say so but because people in the catchment area of Portlaoise hospital will not allow them to do so. We will not be another Roscommon. The Minister must take responsibility, shred the plan and work with local management to ensure the hospital has the staff it needs. The most important issue, however, is to have a plan for Portlaoise hospital because staff, ranging from the people sweeping floors to top managers at the hospital, are crying out for one. We need a plan and certainty.

I reiterate that the Minister was unable to be here tonight and I am not in a position to respond to the Deputy in detail.

The Minister of State should communicate with the Minister.

I will do so and I will also ask him to contact the Deputy to bring him up to speed on the matter. I make clear, however, that it is a draft plan on the Minister's desk.

Was it signed off yesterday?

It will be considered on the basis that it is a draft plan and a decision will be made after such consideration has been given.

I emphasise the clear statement made by the Minister that patient and public requirements are paramount and have underpinned the Department's consideration of the draft plan. The Department and Minister will do what is right for patients. The Minister has been very clear on this matter. I will ask him to communicate with the Deputy in the near future.

When the plan is being considered it will be from the perspective of ensuring the Dublin Midlands Regional Hospital Group, of which the Midlands Regional Hospital, Portlaoise, is part, provides the best services possible. The group is trying to develop the best services for Portlaoise hospital and the patients who use it. The Minister will update the House when the draft plan has been further considered by the Department.

Industrial Disputes

I raise the critical issue of commuter services, particularly to my constituency of Kildare North, although the problem is clearly pertinent to the whole country. According to census figures and from what I have seen living in and commuting from north Kildare for the past 15 years, the area has the largest percentage of its population commuting to work in Dublin of any area. Numerous problems have been caused by what I understand to be industrial relations difficulties at Irish Rail and Bus Éireann, with the possibility of further difficulties arising in related companies in the transport sector. Buses have failed to turn up at Kilcock, Clane and Prosperous. The routes involved are the 115 route, which services Kilcock, Enfield and Mullingar, and the 120 route, which services Clane, Prosperous and Edenderry. The 126 route to Naas is also starting to be impacted, with people being left at the side of the road unable to get to work.

We are well aware of six planned service interruptions - six planned strike days - coming up over the next six weeks, many of which are at very critical times. Not only are these service interruptions becoming the norm, planned improvements that had been long sought and campaigned for and that were finally being arranged, such as the ten-minute DART, which, believe it or not, improves the Kildare timetable, and additional services through the Phoenix Park tunnel into the city centre are being affected. The Phoenix Park tunnel is a wonderful initiative but its popularity greatly exceeds the supply. It had been agreed with Irish Rail and the National Transport Authority, NTA, that extra services would be put on that route. People are struggling to fit into the carriages or to board in the morning. Extra services, carriages, rolling stock and times were to be added to that route. All of this is on hold with no end date because of what I understand to be industrial unrest across the unions. I am not sure if it is official. It may be in the case of Irish Rail but it may not be so with Dublin Bus, but things like timetable disruptions are not part of any official dispute as far as I am aware, yet management seems unable to roll out these improvements while these issues persist.

I have been asking this question for some time in the House, including yesterday on the Order of Business, so I wonder whether the Minister has gone out on strike himself in solidarity with the unions because I have not seen him being active about it. I imagine he will tell me that he is not going to get involved, so maybe that is a gesture of solidarity with the unions. Maybe the Minister is going on a go-slow himself. Will he clarify that for us?

It is astonishing that we again face a national transport strike during the Minister's tenure. We went through this previously with Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann. Eventually, a settlement was reached. The very hard-working staff with their five trade unions - Unite, SIPTU, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, the Technical Engineering and Electrical Union, TEEU, and the National Bus and Rail Union, NBRU, took a very mature and responsible line at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. They seemed to be inching towards a settlement of around 2.5%, which is a little bit over the general public service rise which has already been agreed. Suddenly, there was a debacle and it was stopped. Many people think this was stopped on the Minister's orders because he was not prepared to give the normal pay rise in the public sector to workers in this area.

During the years of the two austerity Governments before this Government, public service obligation, PSO, funding was slashed. Back in 2007, the company received a PSO of almost €190 million down through 2008 when it received €181 million, 2009 when it received €170 million, 2010 when it received €155 million, 2011 when it received €148 million, 2012 when it received €166 million, 2013 when it received €127 million, 2014 when it received €117 million and 2015 when it received €117 million. PSO funding has been slashed while at the same time successful rail companies across Europe, like Deutsche Bahn, receive very significant subsidies from their governments that very often are up to two thirds of their turnover. We need a good public transport system.

One of the worst features of this is that the document that Iarnród Éireann apparently presented at the Labour Court set out that four important lines, namely, Limerick to Ballybrophy, Limerick Junction to Waterford, Ennis to Athenry and Gorey to Rosslare, would be closed. What on earth could be the logic or rationale for this given that we only funded the Ennis to Athenry line in recent times and the Gorey to Rosslare line is vital in the context of Brexit? The Minister needs to sort this out.

I thank the Deputies for raising this question which is, obviously, important to the travelling public in the coming weeks, whatever the outcome. I wish to comment on what Deputy Broughan said. The idea that I somehow intervened in any industrial discussions in any form recently is completely untrue. I want to put that on the record. For Deputy Broughan to say that I somehow stopped it, which is what he said, is absolute nonsense. I had no involvement whatsoever in those talks. I would like to make that absolutely clear. When the Deputy says those things, I am sure they are said with good intent and no doubt he has heard them from people who may well have been involved in some way or interested in those talks, but I can tell the Deputy categorically that this was not the case.

I share both Deputies' disappointment that the WRC-led discussions between unions and Iarnród Éireann ended without agreement. I have responsibility for policy and overall funding in relation to public transport. I am not, however, involved in the day-to-day operations of public transport. Industrial relations and pay are a matter for the company and its employees, not for me. Pay disputes must be solved by engagement between an employer and its staff. The State can assist through the normal industrial relations machinery available in these circumstances, and the Labour Court and WRC are the appropriate fora for these discussions. That is where a resolution was achieved in the disputes we already witnessed in the past year. I have made it clear time and again, and I will repeat it to make it absolutely clear, that I will not intervene in areas where it is not appropriate for a Minister to intervene. I will not dictate to management and unions an agreement that only they can craft because it relates to issues that only they have an insight into. The WRC and the Labour Court are ready and able to assist both parties in coming to that agreement. I am disappointed that despite the intensive efforts by the parties facilitated by the WRC and previously the Labour Court, it looks like Irish Rail commuters will face disruption in the coming weeks.

Regarding funding of our public transport services, I recognise that subvention levels were reduced during the recession. Most areas of public expenditure were. However, the PSO subvention increased last year and again this year and will increase yet further next year. Over the three years, the PSO subvention will have increased by 35% in total. In 2018, €285 million of Exchequer, or taxpayer, funds will be allocated to support the delivery of these socially necessary but financially unviable services throughout the country. As is normal, the precise allocations to the individual transport companies will be decided by the NTA in exercise of its statutory mandate and in accordance with the various contract arrangements it has in place with PSO service providers.

I will address the issues raised by Deputy Lawless. The Deputy is quite right that a number of services were impacted during the early stages of the changes to rosters. Bus Éireann has advised that it is continuing to implement measures to improve service levels further and that recently there have only been a very small number of cancellations. So far this week, the company has confirmed that there have been no cancellations due to driver unavailability. Regular updates were issued by the company with regard to delays and cancellations, and additional measures were introduced by the company to regularise operations and minimise impacts. It is understood that agreement was reached at the WRC on Tuesday last, 24 October 2017, to ensure all aspects of the Labour Court recommendation, including new rosters, will be rolled out by 12 November.

Unfortunately, the fact that the Minister cannot or will not get involved is cold comfort to the commuters literally left waiting in the rain at the side of the road. In respect of the figures the Minister mentioned relating to Bus Éireann, I met its chief executive this week and also discussed this with him. He was available to have the conversation, for which I credit him. Out of some 300-odd services, only seven were affected. Unfortunately, those seven services involved the same bus every day for a week, so the people who were trying to get to work at 7 a.m. and who were at the side of the road in Kilcock, Clane or Prosperous had the same experience every day.

In addition to service disruptions, we are effectively going backwards. The rail network had progressed to an extent where it was becoming competitive and attractive as a mode of transport in terms of price, comfort and convenience. Improvements such as the Phoenix Park tunnel, which are welcome and needed, are now being hindered by the fact one cannot use the services because the rolling stock is inadequate. New timetable improvements to introduce off-peak services and additional carriages are being curtailed. I do not think this is part of the official industrial action. It is probably a knock-on effect of poor relations in the management structures and the unions. It is not part of the official action but has been allowed to continue unchecked for several months. Surely, the Minister could direct on that point alone. There are issues such as the ten-minute DART and additional Phoenix Park services, which do not fall within the parameters of the current dispute, yet are being hindered for the same reason.

The Minister has a huge responsibility to the travelling public, the company and workforce to ensure rolling strikes on 1 November, 7 November, 14 November, 23 November and 8 December do not go ahead. He needs to take action to ensure it is stopped. The public wants it settled quickly. The Minister has said he has no influence on the CEO's veto, which happened when unions and management were very close to a settlement. The Minister and Government have set the parameters on public sector pay. There are five trade unions which acted in good faith. They are willing to discuss productivity. The Minister mentioned the Labour Court report. They want the national railway company to be dynamic and successful. It has a huge future role in the context of climate change and increased population. That is against a background where this and the previous Government cut well over €100 million from the public service obligation, PSO, and now the Government is threatening to cut another four lines of our very basic rail network. We should be talking about expanding our rail network, building a Luas system in Cork and Galway and so on, not this kind of very negative, penny-pinching talk that the Minister has always engaged in with regard to public services.

I do not think Deputy Broughan was listening to what I said but never mind. If he wishes to turn deaf ears to what I say that is absolutely fine; I cannot do anything about it. I have not cut the PSO subvention. I have quoted it to the Deputy already. Perhaps he was not listening to what I said.

The people with whom the Minister is in government cut it.

I have not cut the PSO.

They cut it by over €100 million.

Somebody else may have cut it. The Deputy should not tell me that I cut it.

The Minister is serving with them.

I never cut the PSO.

They are beside the Minister in Cabinet.

PSO subvention, as I explained to the Deputy at the beginning, has gone up and will go up this year. It is not just an ambition; it is a fact. As long as I am Minister, it will continue to go up. I understand the Deputy's point of view perfectly and sympathise with much of what he says but he should not quote things to me that are factually incorrect.

I have not threatened anything in the rail network. I have not threatened to cut four lines, five lines or six lines.

It is in a report.

I have not threatened and Deputy Broughan should not say it. There may be a report but I did not write the report. The position on rail is quite simple. We believe in rail. We subsidise it very heavily because we believe in it. The rail review has come up with certain suggestions and an overview of certain alternatives. They will be decided in due course after the national planning framework has been discussed and decided on. We believe in rail. It does not mean we always believe in promoting non-economic rail lines but no decisions of any sort have been taken. I have made it absolutely clear since I came in that scare stories about massive cuts in the rail network are just not true. They are the sort of scare stories that are run from the Opposition benches because it is convenient. I have repeatedly said to colleagues of the Deputy that there is no privatisation agenda on rail on this side of the House. It is the opposite; we are continuing to increase the subvention to run an efficient well-run railway.

Before the clock runs down, can we deal with the substantive issue?

I will give the Minister another 30 seconds to address the issue raised in the Topical Issue matter.

I will address the specific issues raised by Deputy Lawless. I will refer the issues back to my Department and give the Deputy a reply afterwards because I do not know the answers. When the Deputy asks a question about a specific line, it is an operational matter. It is fair enough for me to refer it back to the Department and get the Deputy an answer. It is an operational matter. It is not up to me to micro-manage Iarnród Éireann or any part of public transport but I will ask them specifically to answer any queries the Deputy has.

Scéim na mBóithre Áise

Tá Bóthar Dhoire Fhearta ag síneadh idir Ceantar na nOileán agus ceantar an Cheathrú Rua.

Just a second. Excuse me a second while I put on my headphones.

Go raibh maith agat. Tá Bóthar Dhoire Fhearta ag síneadh idir an bóthar ó Bhéal an Daingin siar go Ceantar na nOileán agus go Casla agus an Cheathrú Rua. Tá daonra ollmhór sa gceantar sin. Tá thart ar 3,000 duine siar uaidh. Tá go leor daoine ina gcónaí ar an mbóthar féin agus ar bhóithríní a gcuireann isteach air. Is bóthar fíor-thábhachtach é sa cheantar sin. Tá thart ar 5,000 duine ag conaí i gceantar an Cheathrú Rua féin, ainneoin nach bhfuil an sráidbhaile an-mhór. Is ceantar scaipthe tuaithe é, le dlús mór tithíochta tógtha ar an seanbhealach Gaelach. Lonnaithe ar an gCeathrú Rua, mar shampla, tá bunsheirbhísí do phobail iardheisceart Chonamara ar nós an briogáid dóiteáin, an t-otharcharr, dochtúirí, meánscoil don cheantar uilig, bunscoil, coláiste tríú leibhéal - rud nach bhfuil ann taobh amuigh de na bailte móra in aon áit eile sa tír, agus, ar ndóigh, na coláistí Gaeilge, maraon le tionscadail eile.

Tá trácht nach beag ar Bhóthar Dhoire Fhearta. Suas go 2008, bhí caoi á cur ar an mbóthar de réir a chéile. Bhíothas chun é a leathnú agus bhí cosáin coisithe á gcur isteach ar thaobh an bhóthair. Stopadh an obair ansin agus níor tharla tada ó shin. Tá an pobal áitiúil ag déanamh agóide le tamall fada anuas go gcuirfí feabhas agus caoi ar an mbóthar agus go leathnófaí é le go mbeadh cosáin coisithe ann don iliomad duine a bhíonn ag súil ar an mbóthar sin mar gheall ar an mhéid sholáthar oideachais atá sa gceantar.

Tá thart ar 160 slat, nó 150 m, den bhóthar atá ag titim isteach agus atá éirithe thar a bheith contúirteach. Ní féidir leis sin fanacht ar chistíocht ó chistí eile. Teastaíonn cistíocht phráinneach le caoi a chur ar an mbóthar seo. Tá mé ag iarraidh ar an Aire déanamh cinnte go gcuirfear airgead ar fáil le caoi a chur ar an bpíosa seo den bhóthar go práinneach sular dtarlódh timpiste. Bíonn go leor busanna scoile ag teacht ar an mbóthar agus tá an contúirt ann go dtitfidh an bóthar isteach ar leataobh sa gclais, mar is éard atá ag tarlú. Tá an contúirt ann go dtitfidh an bóthar isteach sa gclais. Má tharlaíonn sé sin agus bus ag dul thairis, d'fhéadfadh timpiste mhór tarlú. Gan dul rófhada leis an scéal, tá an pobal ag iarraidh airgid - airgead beag sa chomhthéacs náisiúnta - le caoi phráinneach a chur ar an mbóthar agus le déanamh cinnte go bhfuil an bóthar sábháilte. Is é sin an méid atá uathu - bóthar sábháilte le taisteal air chuile lá. Is bóthar réigiúnach é seo, ní bóthar áitiúil é. Is eocharbhóthar é sa cheantar atá i gceist.

I thank the Deputy for his very eloquent advocacy for this village regarding the issue of the road which he says is in such bad repair. I take his point about the area and its large population of 5,000 people, about the fact that the repairs were stopped up to 2008 and that it is obviously an important road in an area that contains an Irish college, a fire service and schools. He said that the community has been protesting for the past five years - certainly for a long time. I am aware that there have been meetings on the matter in recent weeks, which has probably sparked the Deputy's renewed interest in it.

I understand that the road in question connects Carraroe to the Connemara islands. As the Deputy knows, the maintenance and improvement of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from the local authority’s own resources, supplemented by State road grants. The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is a matter for the local authority. As regards grants provided by my Department, allocations are made at local authority level and the distribution of grants to municipal districts is a matter for each council. It is also open to each local authority to prioritise the allocation of its own resources to address road issues in particular areas.

Before the financial crisis, to which the Deputy referred, local authorities could apply on a regular basis for specific grants for schemes costing less than €5 million and for strategic improvement grants for schemes costing more than €5 million with a view to strengthening, widening or realigning regional and local roads. However, the extent of the cutbacks in grant funding during the crisis meant that these grant schemes had to be curtailed from 2013 because expenditure on maintenance and renewal was falling well short of what was required to adequately maintain the regional and local road network.

The capital plan for the period 2016 to 2021 provides for the gradual build-up in funding for the road network, but it will take many years to reach the level required for the adequate maintenance and renewal of the network. For this reason there continues to be very limited scope for funding projects under the specific grant programme. Any projects proposed by local authorities for consideration under this grant programme are assessed by my Department on a case-by-case basis, with particular consideration given to higher-cost bridge rehabilitation works, significant safety schemes and improvement works that promote employment.

All projects proposed by local authorities for consideration must comply with the requirements of the public spending code and the Department’s capital appraisal framework. It is important for local authorities to prioritise projects within their overall area of responsibility with these requirements in mind. It is, therefore, for Galway County Council, as part of its budget and road programme planning process, to assess the condition of the road and what works might be needed taking into account its overall priorities.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an éisteacht chomh cúramach sin leis an mhéid a bhí le rá agam. Ar an gcéad dul síos tá sé ceart go leor a rá gur ceart don chomhairle contae airgead a chur ar fáil as a chuid foinsí féin. Tá fíor-áthas orm go bhfuil an tAire Tithíochta, Pleanála, Pobail agus Rialtais Áitiúil tagtha isteach. Deirim an fhírinne nuair a deirim go ndeir Comhairle Chontae na Gaillimhe go bhfuil siad bánaithe, nach bhfuil pingin acu agus go ndearnadh éagóir orthu in 2014. Admhaím nach raibh an tAire sa Rialtas ag an am sin, ach bhí páirtí an Aire Tithíochta, Pleanála, Pobail agus Rialtais Áitiúil ann. Mar sin, is beag is fiú dúinn mar ionadaithe poiblí bheith ag féachaint sa treo sin.

An dara rud ná is éigeandáil é seo, is rud é a tharla gan choinne le mí anuas. Cuireadh airgead ar fáil ón Rialtas i gcóir éigeandálaí eile ar fud na tíre, mar shampla i dTír Chonaill. Céard atá chomh dona sin faoi Chonamara nach féidir cás eisceachtúil éigeandála a dhéanamh mar a rinneadh i dTír Chonaill?

Dúirt an tAire go bhfuil spéis as an nua agam san bhóthar seo. Is mé féin mar Aire a chuir an t-airgead ar fáil a chur caoi ar an mbóthar suas go 2008-09. Ní raibh mé mar Aire Gnóthaí Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta ina dhiaidh sin – bhí mé i Roinn eile. D’fhág mé cuid den obair libhse; ní fhéadfaimis gach rud a dhéanamh.

An bhfuil airgead ar fáil anois le haghaidh scéimeanna suntasacha sábháilteachta, agus an obair a dhéanamh go práinneach áit a dtarlaíonn éigeandáil ó thaobh cúrsaí aimsire agus mar sin de, mar a tharla i dTír Chonaill? Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as ucht deimhniú ó thaobh airgead na mbliana seo chugainn, mar tá sé ar bharr an liosta ag Comhairle Chontae na Gaillimhe go gcuirfear airgead ar fáil don bhóthar seo.

I would like to respond as specifically as I can. It is a bit difficult to judge, just on the basis of the Deputy's word, how big an emergency this is. While I do not doubt him for a second, I cannot compare it with Donegal without having first-hand experience of that to which he is referring. However, I know it has been a problem for a long period and may have been exacerbated in recent times.

I apologise to the Deputy if he took the inference about this being a new interest in the wrong way. I know he has been interested in the matter for a long time. It is simply that it is the first time since I got this portfolio that I have come across his interest in it. It is new to me, even if it is not, obviously, new to him.

Bhí mé ag caint le-----

I come to the point about the grants system. The local authority is the road authority. If it is an immediate safety issue, it should be addressed first with the council. Primarily, it is a matter for the council. This year, we gave Galway County Council €19.5 million in grants. Of that, €11.1 million was for restoration. In addition, €4.8 million was for discretionary spending on its part. If the local council, as the first port of call, does not regard that amount of money - nearly €15 million - as being suitable for allocation to what the Deputy regards as an emergency, he should be knocking much harder on its door.