Other Questions

Greenways Development

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

47. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development to outline his plans to co-fund the development of greenways with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1219/18]

The development of greenways is of vital importance. I imagine the Minister would agree that in developing greenways we need to buy the land and ensure the investment is secure. Does the Minister have any plans to work with the Minister of Transport, Tourism and Sport to co-fund the development of greenways? The question is especially relevant for CLÁR areas. We should expedite the agreed development of greenways where they are needed, especially along old railways. I believe there are some strategic routes where, if the Government bought the land, we could get people to agree to it. I am keen to hear the Minister's plans for greenways this year. Will the Minister take over all of this area from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and do the job right?

Policy responsibility for the development of greenways is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. However, the Department of Rural and Community Development also supports the development of greenways through the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme.

Both Departments are committed to working together to ensure that the impact of the support available for the development of greenways is maximised for citizens and visitors alike. In this context, this Department is in regular contact with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and is working to ensure closer alignment of greenway projects which may be funded by the respective Departments. 

There are already a number of good examples of the two Departments funding projects that are complementary to each other. For example, I recently awarded funding to extend the Great Western Greenway to Achill under the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme 2017. I also funded an extension of the Royal Canal Greenway in County Longford under the same scheme. These greenway extensions build on funding allocated by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to support the development of the main greenways.

The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is preparing a strategy for the future development of greenways and this strategy provides an opportunity to further strengthen the co-operation between this Department and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport on greenways and to maximise their economic potential.

Does the Minister believe that to protect the investment in developing a greenway, which normally has a hard surface and fences on each side, the land should be bought rather than use a permissive way whereby one landowner can hold up or stop everything?

The Minister mentioned the debate that took place here, which I did I admit keep going because I believed he was buying a pig in a poke and we were being asked to support his Department without the powers being transferred. I was very disappointed that he was given so little responsibility because I think he is relatively dynamic. Does he think that responsibility for greenways would sit better with his Department and has he made that case to the Taoiseach?

I will give an honest reply: I do. I believe it should be. The Deputy and I, and every rural Deputy, know that this Department deals daily with farmers and landowners. It is the Department that should be dealing with them. We asked the National Roads Authority, as it was then known, to deal with the greenway from Dublin to Galway and we saw what happened. It thought it was dealing with roads. That is not possible. When dealing with landowners and farmers, we have to show them respect and be able to talk to them. This Department is very good at that and 1,900 farmers are involved with, and getting payments from, the walks scheme. I looked to get responsibility for the greenways in this Department but responsibility still lies with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. With the new plan being put in place we must have a strategic plan to ensure that this Department, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Fáilte Ireland work together. The Deputy is quite correct that responsibility for all of this should lie with one Department, and it should be in this Department.

The Minister did not answer the other part of the question. I do, however, admire his frankness in answering the one he did answer. I concur with him. If it was in his Department, we would not face many of the challenges we do face.

My second question relates to whether the Minister believes that the rational policy for the greenways, where two fences are put in - unlike the walkway scheme which is over open land - and a blacktop surface, is to buy the land with agreement from the farmers and the landowners, rather than basing the whole investment on permissive access?

The Deputy and I know that having total control of the land makes that easier, whether it is owned by local authorities or the State. We saw that in respect of Coillte because when Government needs its land for greenways or walkways it is easier to get it. I would prefer that we could buy and control all the accesses in respect of walkways, greenways and blueways. Sometimes it is not possible and we have to put up with what we have got and that is permissive access. Perhaps as years go by and people see what an asset these greenways and walkways are to communities and counties - particularly in the context of the jobs and revenue to which they give rise all over rural Ireland - we might be in a position to deal with some of these landowners.

The Minister should put his money on the table. He is missing the point. He did not give them the opportunity to sell.

The Deputy and I know that the economy was not in a very good situation for the past ten years.

It has grown. There are more taxes.

Now that the country’s finances are improving, I would not mind considering that but I want to see more walkways, greenways and more people being active and more visitors enjoying our countryside. They are beginning to do that. The Deputy knows - he was part of the Government that started this - that the walkways and greenways have been a great success. It was the one thing that Government did well and it has been continued by those which succeeded it and which have made funding available. In every corner of the country to which I travel, people are looking for greenways, walkways and small walks in and around towns and villages.

Brexit Issues

Willie Penrose

Question:

48. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development his Department's plans in respect of Brexit; the number of staff his Department has assigned to Brexit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [54712/17]

We all realise the potential impact of Brexit on rural Ireland, rural industries, agrifood and the agricultural industry. If we did not already know that we were fully informed last night by an excellent programme on RTÉ by George Lee last night. We need to ensure that all possible outcomes are being investigated and explored. We need a beefed-up team of officials in the Department of Rural and Community Development specifically devoted to Brexit to ensure we are dealing with all possible ramifications and consequences.

My colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, has the primary responsibility for leading on Brexit negotiations. My Department is contributing to discussions and providing policy advice relevant to its remit, as and when required.

The comprehensive document Ireland and the negotiations on the UK's withdrawal from the European Union: The Government’s Approach,  published on 2 May 2017, outlined in detail the structures put in place by the Government to ensure a strategic and whole-of-Government response to Brexit that ensures a co-ordinated approach to the identification of key priority issues for the EU-UK negotiations, and the wider domestic response.

Since the publication of the comprehensive document, the Government has sought to further increase its strategic oversight of Brexit through the addition of a dedicated responsibility for Brexit matters as part of the role of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Cabinet committee structures have also been reformed and new Cabinet committees relating respectively to the economy, and EU affairs, including Brexit and the economic response to Brexit, have been established to provide an opportunity for cross-departmental input into the issues.

The Department for Rural and Community Development has been established to deliver on the Government's commitment to bring a greater degree of co-ordination and cohesion to all of the work of Government in so far as it impacts on rural Ireland and communities. The impact of Brexit on regional and rural businesses and on communities is relevant across a number of policy areas of the Department. In this context, considerations around the impact of Brexit are shared across different policy areas rather than being assigned to a single unit or to specific staff.

In addition, my role in the Cabinet committee on the economy gives me a specific forum to raise issues for rural Ireland relating to the economy, jobs, the labour market, competitiveness, productivity, trade, the action plan on rural development and the digital economy, including managing and mitigating the risks associated with Brexit and I do so in conjunction with the Minister, Deputy Ring.

We all acknowledge the successful conclusion of phase 1 of the Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU into which we had a significant input. We also acknowledge the significant hurdles that will arise during phase 2 whereby many of those fundamental commitments will have to be reduced to legally enforceable trade agreements. As Professor Alan Matthews said last night, we will have to square circles to achieve particular outcomes and that will be a challenge. The only way to achieve those outcomes is for the UK to stay in the Single Market and the customs union because it doing so will help deliver the type of Border and trade arrangements which Ireland needs and to which everybody is committed.

The news that Norway is going to seek significant changes to the European Economic Area, EEA, in the event of special UK access to parts of the Single Market is a reflection of the constraints that the UK will face in the not too distant future. It is important that we remain extremely vigilant in these contexts.

I agree. The possible threat posed by and impact of Brexit across all sectors are well known and have been well documented. One could argue that at this stage the Irish Government is better prepared for Brexit than the United Kingdom Government. Even in advance of the referendum result in 2016, work was being done within government. The Joint Committee on European Affairs, of which I am a former member, produced at the time an impact report on the possible implications of Brexit. I did not see all of George Lee's documentary on RTÉ last night, but I saw the tail end of it. It was certainly an important addition to the reflections on the possible impact of Brexit. I intend to look at it again on the RTÉ Player. We have done detailed work in preparation for Brexit and all possible scenarios, including the Action Plan for Jobs 2017 and the trade and investment strategy. There are a number of dedicated measures within budget 2018 which include the €300 million Brexit loan scheme for business, increased funding for the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, a €25 million Brexit response loan scheme for the agrifood sector, additional supports for capital investment in the food industry and Bord Bia marketing and promotion activities amounting to over €50 million in total.

The Minister of State is correct. I do not think the British realise the impact of the conditions. There will be significant resistance in the pro-Brexit press when it finds out that Britain will have to comply with EU trade policy right up to 2021 and will not be able to strike its own deals during the transition period, despite losing access to agreements with 50 countries once it leaves the European Union in March 2019. That is, of course, if the European Union decides to authorise access to the trade deals for the United Kingdom. It is likely that the transition agreement will allow the United Kingdom access to the EU trade deals, but no doubt it will come at a cost. Obviously, the longer the transition period, the better for us. I still subscribe to the view I stated in the House about 15 months ago that this and another Dáil will sit before we will see the end result of this process.

There has been a lot of progress, particularly at the last Council meeting before Christmas. The negotiations advanced to stage 2, yet reflected the very important position the Irish Government had taken on the Border issue. It was hugely important to the country and our role in trying to promote and support the retention of all of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, within the Single Market and the customs union, but we do not have the final say on these things. They are part of the negotiations which have moved on to the second phase. Clearly, there is a job of work to be done and it is a huge challenge. We have received support from our European colleagues on the important issue of the Border. It also has implications for how the European Union will proceed in respect of the Single Market and the customs union. We have a very important role to play in that regard. The Dáil will continue to advocate for the best possible outcome to the Brexit negotiations for the whole island.

Western Development Commission

Tony McLoughlin

Question:

49. Deputy Tony McLoughlin asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if he will report on the engagements he has had with the Western Development Commission; the role he envisages the commission playing in achieving more balanced regional development which is a key objective of his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1292/18]

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

55. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development his plans for the development of the Western Development Commission; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1217/18]

Will the Minister of State report on the engagement he has had to date with the Western Development Commission? Will he outline the role he envisages the commission playing in achieving more balanced regional development which is a key objective of his Department and make a statement on the matter.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 49 and 55 together.

The Western Development Commission, WDC, was established on a statutory basis in 1999 as part of a response to the severe population decline in the western region at the time. The remit of the commission is to promote the economic and social development of the western region, covering counties Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon, Galway and Clare. The commission has achieved a lot since its establishment and I believe has an important role to play in the Government’s emphasis on achieving more effective regional development through initiatives such as the regional action plan for jobs, the action plan for rural development and the forthcoming national planning framework.

The Minister, Deputy Michael Ring, appointed a new board to the Western Development Commission in August 2017 and has delegated responsibility for oversight of the commission to me. I met the new chair and the acting CEO in November 2017. There is also ongoing engagement between my Department and the commission at executive level to deepen its involvement in the regional development agenda and benefit from its members' experience. In that context, the commission has been involved in an increasing number of initiatives. For example, it is represented on the monitoring committee for the action plan for rural development and the implementing committees that oversee the delivery of the action plans for jobs for the west and north-west regions. It is also represented on the task force that I chair to progress the development of an Atlantic economic corridor area along the western seaboard. It has been a key contributor to the sub-groups of the task force and also within the former Department on the Brexit process.

The WDC continues to implement initiatives to support the development of SMEs and emerging sectors in the western region. I recently launched a new €2 million fund for the commission to encourage the film, television, animation and games industry in the west, namely, the western regional audiovisual producers, WRAP, fund. I look forward to continuing to work with the new board as it seeks to support the regional development agenda.

I thank the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Michael Ring, for their support for the constituency of Sligo-Leitrim and south Donegal since taking up their new positions and in the time before it also. The Minister of State will be aware that the new Ireland 2040 national planning framework is a key policy initiative whereby, as a Government party, we can start to attempt to address the long-standing effects of a regional imbalance. It is an area in which the Western Development Commission also has a key role to play. The most disappointing element of the recently released draft version of the plan is the lack of a specific categorisation of or plan for the Sligo urban area to be developed into a regional growth centre for the north west. Historically the region has been neglected by consecutive Governments since independence. Will the Minister of State advise me of his position on such a plan? Has he spoken to the Western Development Commission about it?

Sligo and its environs form a major urban centre in the north-west region of the Republic of Ireland. It serves as many as 400,000 people in counties Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Donegal, Mayo, Cavan and Fermanagh, as the Minister of State correctly outlined. Sligo is the real driver of economic growth and job creation in the region. It has the capacity and ambition required. I am delighted to announce that 100 new jobs have today been announced by AbbVie in Sligo, with an investment of €113 million. There was another development this morning when the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport announced the allocation of €16 million for the western distributor road. As we know, €100 million has been earmarked for the N4 project in the next few years, with €20 million for being allocated for the eastern Garavogue bridge. These are the benefits that I have been highlighting for many years. They are vitally important for us in Sligo and the constituency. As the Minister of State has been very supportive, perhaps he might like to make a comment.

I thank the Deputy for that good news.

Has the Minister of State met the executives or the board of the Western Development Commission? Did they set out for him what they believed they would need in terms of resources, both of personnel and finances, to enable the commission to reach its potential? In respect of the WDC investment fund to invest in business and community development initiatives, can the Minister of State tell me how much money it has available this year to be spread over the five counties of Connacht, as well as counties Donegal and Clare?

The Western Development Commission has made various submissions on the deficiencies in infrastructure in the west. In particular, it has prepared an analysis, for example, to show where the agriculture industry is going in the west. There has been a dramatic drop of 41% in the number employed in the region in the past 20 years. That is a startling finding. The commission has prepared other reports on the merits of providing infrastructure to link areas in the west, including through the western rail corridor.

Does the Minister of State support the Western Development Commission? I refer to the national planning framework, which should embed the Atlantic economic corridor and all that goes along with it, including the western rail corridor. There is a missing link between Claremorris and Athenry which should be considered. I would like to hear the thoughts of the Minister of State.

I thank the three Deputies for their questions. I congratulate Deputy McLoughlin on all the good news for the Sligo area. As he knows, I have been a strong advocate of the prioritisation and categorisation of Sligo as a driving force for the north west in draft plans which have been published. Clearly, it is lacking and it is important that Sligo is designated as a growth centre. Other areas grow organically, whether in the Dublin area or midlands, because of their location. Sligo needs an incentive, and I am a strong supporter of that. I have written to the Taoiseach to strongly advocate that.

In response to Deputy Ó Cuív, I have not met the full board but I have met the chairman and CEO. The Minister, Deputy Ring, attended the inaugural meeting of the board. I plan to meet the board in 2018. It has made its views on funding and staffing quite clear to me - it needs more current funding. That was the message I received from the chairman and acting CEO. In 2018, €1.516 million in current funding will be allocated, which will be supplemented from its own resources.

I accept the recent census figures on population decline in the west of Ireland. It is partly due to emigration. The Government should be about improving linkages, in particular in the west of Ireland. I refer to the Atlantic economic corridor, which Deputy Canney has supported and was pushed by the chambers of commerce across the region, which I chair. The WDC is part of that task force. I have advocated that the western rail corridor should continue, and appear in the national planning framework and capital plan. It should be extended from Athenry towards Tuam and Claremorris. That is important. I know Deputy Canney is a strong advocate of that and I am also supportive of it.

I asked the Minister of State about the western investment fund. How much money does it have to invest this year from its resources and those of the Government in businesses in the west? That was one of the key roles of the Western Development Commission.

The Minister of State has obviously made strong representations on behalf of the western rail corridor extension to Claremorris. Has he received any reply from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, the Taoiseach or Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, in respect of that? It appears that the Minister of State asked for a lot, but I wonder whether they are listening to him.

I have no firm commitment at this stage but, as I said, I have been in consultation with the Ministers to whom the Deputy referred and the Taoiseach. The former Minister of State, Deputy Canney, has also been in contact with the Taoiseach and Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, and will be again in the coming weeks. It is important there is support for this across the House. Deputy Ó Cuív has a role to play in terms of advocating on behalf of the capital plan. I know he has been a long-term supporter of the plan and had a role to play in his previous role as Minister.

I understand that to the end of 2014, €31.7 million of Exchequer funding was made available to the western investment fund. No Exchequer funding has been advanced since 2010 and the Western Development Commission currently uses the loan repayments on a revolving basis for new investments. I understand there is a sufficient return on capital investment to address future investment. I understand there are significant funds within the Western-----

How significant? Is it €2 million or €5 million?

I understand it is closer to €20 million.

Ministerial Responsibilities

Bernard Durkan

Question:

50. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development his plans for the development of services within his portfolio in the coming years, with particular reference to the need to develop and modernise services affecting rural Ireland and the Border regions; the extent to which he expects to be in a position to interact with and provide funding for voluntary community groups, while at the same time enhancing the quality of services available through both the public and the private sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1788/18]

This question seeks to encourage the Minister and Minister of State to outline their mission statement in respect of their respective portfolios and the extent to which they intend to interact with the community and take full advantage of the important role they have to play in the reorganisation and reinvigoration of rural Ireland.

The Taoiseach’s decision to establish the Department of Rural and Community Development underlines the Government’s commitment to ensuring that the economic recovery can be felt by every community and that we can create a sustainable future for rural Ireland. In respect of the various areas to which the Deputy's question referred, the Leader 2020 programme provides a €250 million contribution towards promoting the social and economic development of rural areas, including the improvement of local services. Funding is provided through local action groups based on local development strategies and in line with horizontal funding schemes developed at a national level.

I am also very pleased to be able to continue and to enhance some key initiatives, many of which are delivered by the voluntary and community sector, as well as some private providers, such as SICAP, the seniors alert scheme and the volunteering programme. In particular, I am pleased to bring to the Deputy's attention that, in working with Pobal on the seniors alert scheme, my Department has for the first time spent its full allocation under this programme in 2017. I allocated a further €400,000 for the scheme in response to the high demand. The revised scheme was a resounding success, with over 10,000 installations completed in 2017.

In regard to the volunteering programme, my Department has a long-standing working relationship with Volunteering Ireland, which works closely with my Department in the oversight and work of volunteer centres throughout the country.

On key issues affecting the Border region, in particular Brexit, while my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, has primary responsibility for leading on Brexit negotiations, my Department is contributing on an ongoing basis to discussions and is providing policy advice relevant to its remit, when required.

I thank the Minister for the comprehensive nature of the reply. Like my colleague, Deputy McLoughlin, I wish to inquire as to the extent to which the national planning strategy will come under the Minister's microscope. For example, Professor Caulfield has referred many times to the depopulation of rural Ireland and lack of footfall and, as a result, the lack of opportunity in terms of job creation and interest in rural Ireland. I refer to the quality and extent of services required to retain the population in rural Ireland and the degree to which local authorities are prepared to co-operate in terms of accommodating, by way of planning permission, the indigenous population of rural Ireland without which footfall can never improve.

As the Deputy knows, the key objective of the Action Plan for Rural Ireland, which we announced last year, was to create jobs in rural Ireland. As the Deputy knows, the CSO figures for the first quarter showed that over 70% of the approximately 135,000 jobs created in Ireland last year were created outside of Dublin.

The Deputy asked about other schemes. They include the town and village scheme, the rural recreation scheme and the Leader programme. He referred to community groups. I have provided funding for tidy towns and shows around the country to try to support groups working on behalf of their communities.

The Deputy asked about the national planning framework. I and my Cabinet colleagues will have overall Cabinet responsibility. I do not have responsibility for the area; two other Ministers have responsibility for it. I will be part of the Cabinet which will discuss the issue. Like the Minister of State, I have put proposals forward and I hope they will be looked at.

Road Projects Status

Catherine Connolly

Question:

51. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development when a decision is expected on the application received from Galway County Council in regard to funding for a project (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1791/18]

Tá soiléiriú á lorg agam maidir le hiarratas atá, de réir mar a thuigim, curtha chuig an Roinn Forbartha Tuaithe agus Pobail ag Comhairle Chontae na Gaillimhe maidir le hacmhainní cuí a fháil le caoi níos fearr a chur ar Bhóthar Dhoirefhearta. Ar a laghad, ba cheart go mbeadh an tAire in ann a rá liom an bhfuil an t-iarratas sin faighte ag an Roinn. Má tá, cén uair a dhéanfar cinneadh maidir leis an obair phráinneach seo?

An application for funding for the project referred to by the Deputy was submitted to my Department by Galway County Council under the local improvement scheme in September 2017.

The local improvement scheme supports improvement works on private, non-public roads to improve access for people who live or work along these roads. I understand the project in question relates to a public road; it is, therefore, not eligible for support under the scheme. Responsibility for the maintenance of public roads falls within the remit of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, and Galway County Council has been advised of the position.

A Programme for a Partnership Government and the action plan for rural development commit to investment in the local improvement scheme. Very little funding has been available for the scheme in recent years owing to constraints on public expenditure. However, I was very conscious of the underlying demand for the scheme in rural areas throughout the country. I, therefore, announced in September the provision of €10 million for a local improvement scheme. Based on demand and the capacity of local authorities to complete works before the end of 2017, I announced at the end of November an additional €7.4 million for local authorities for LIS roads. My Department's funding of local improvement schemes is made in the context of my remit to improve quality of life for people living in rural areas. Overall responsibility for roads policy remains with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.

I am at a loss to understand what is going on. B'fhéidir go mbeidh an tAire Stáit, an Teachta Seán Kyne - the Minister's colleague - in ann tuilleadh cabhrach a thabhairt. We have attended public meetings and I have followed all of the correspondence. I have a list of it in front of me. I understand we have already received the reply the Minister has given. I understand from more recent replies that the application is before the Department of Rural and Community Development. At this point what I want to hear is an acknowledgement that this cannot go on. This is a road i gcroílár na Gaeltachta. Tá droch-chaoi ar an mbóthar agus tá sé baolach. It is dangerous and in the heart of the Gaeltacht. I ask for the Minister's assistance in clarifying where the people of Carraroe can go with the application. They are going from Billy to Jack and back to Billy again, from the county council to the wrong Department and then another Department and all the time the condition of the road is worsening. Tá sé ag éirí i bhfad níos measa. Ag an bpointe seo, ar a laghad, I seek direction and a commitment to help the people living in the area to address their legitimate concerns.

I can sense the Deputy's frustration. I know that there have been public meetings held about the condition of the road. I also know that the Deputy met the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, during the summer. I introduced the local improvement scheme because of people like the Deputy, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne, and my colleagues present, but I do not have responsibility for roads. That is a matter for the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, to whom I will write on behalf of Deputy Catherine Connolly. The application was made to my Department, but it did not qualify under the scheme. To be fair to me and the Department - Deputies Éamon Ó Cuív and Tony McLouglin and the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne, know this - I found the money to make an allocation in respect of every application sent to me under the scheme by local authorities, but the application in question did not fit the criteria. I will refer the matter to the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, with whom I know Deputy Catherine Connolly has been in consultation. I talked to departmental officials recently about dealing with roads, but the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, is independent. There had not been a local improvement scheme for many years. To be fair to Deputy Catherine Connolly and people like her, they are frustrated. People are paying local property and other taxes and entitled to a road in good condition. I brought forward the local improvement scheme because I could justify its establishment. However, I am afraid the Deputy will have to talk to the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, who has overall responsibility for roads.

I will have no difficulty in doing so. We have the support of all elected representatives in the area. The difficulty is that there is constant confusion. The Minister has clarified repeatedly that the application does not come within the remit of the scheme, but, unfortunately, that is where the application went. I would have thought one Department communicated with another, as the Minister is now planning to do. Earlier there was a discussion between him and an Teachta Éamon Ó Cuív about the millions that had been refunded, yet here is a Gaeltacht community that is struggling to survive and, more importantly, be safe in using the road. At some stage there has to be communication between the two Departments. It is not happening in the absence of support from local Deputies. We have repeatedly attended public meetings and raised the matter. I take on board what the Minister has said that he will personally ensure a letter will go to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in order that someone will follow up on the matter, but at the end of the day it is a very small amount of money chun caoi a chur ar bhóthar atá mar phríomhbhóthar don cheantar agus do chosmhuintir na háite.

I can again sense the Deputy's frustration. I will personally do as she asks and write a letter to the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross. I will also contact Galway County Council. We did write to it to tell it that the road did not for qualify for funding under the local improvement scheme. To be fair, I introduced the scheme. I facilitated road access to community facilities to try to accommodate people such as those about whom the Deputy is talking. It is not easy for local councillors to obtain funding and they were not able to undertake big jobs such as the ones I undertook. That is why I set up the scheme and allocated €17.4 million for it last year. If the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport got together with mine, we might be able to provide for a bigger scheme. We must begin to look at the public roads such as the one to which the Deputy referred to see what can be done to support the people she has highlighted.

Charities Regulation

Mick Wallace

Question:

52. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if he is satisfied that the legislation governing the Charities Regulatory Authority is robust with regard to enforcement against certain bodies identifying as charities that may be in breach of the Charities Act 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1783/18]

I welcome the Minister on this, his first opportunity to answer questions. This question relates to the Charities Regulatory Authority which I understand is within the Minister's remit. Charities have come under some scrutiny in recent years, but much more transparency and accountability are required. Is the Minister satisfied that the regulator is capable of holding charities to account? I note that section 4 of the Charities Act 2009 which deals with enforcement was finally implemented in September 2016, two years after the Charities Regulatory Authority had been set up. Will the Minister outline the role he envisages the regulator playing and areas of concern he believes need to be addressed?

The Charities Regulator, the Charities Regulatory Authority, was established on 16 October 2014 pursuant to the Charities Act 2009. Responsibility for the oversight of the regulator transferred to my Department on its establishment in July 2017 and to me in the delegation of functions in September.

The general function of the regulator is to regulate charitable organisations operating in Ireland in order to increase public trust and confidence in their management and administration. Under the Charities Act 2009, the Charities Regulator is fully independent in the performance of its statutory functions. As of the end December 2017, there  were 9,061 charities registered with the authority.

Part 4 of the Charities Act 2009 was commenced in September 2016 and conferred investigative and enforcement powers on the Charities Regulator, complementing its regulatory powers under Part 3 of the Act. Using these powers, the regulator imposed intermediate sanctions on a charity for the first time in January 2017 and secured its first prosecution against a charity in February 2017. Also during 2017, it commenced statutory investigations into a number of charities. The inspector's report on the first of these investigations was published in July 2017, while the remaining investigations are ongoing.

My officials continue to liaise with the Charities Regulator to review the operation of the legislation to ensure it is operating effectively. In early 2017, on foot of public consultation, the regulator proposed amendments to the Charities Act 2009 in order to ensure consistency and fairness in the accounting and reporting obligations of charities. My Department will be working with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to progress these amendments.

If anybody, including the Deputy, has concerns that a charitable organisation is in breach of the Charities Act 2009, he or she should forward details of his or her concerns to the Charities Regulator. All concerns expressed to the regulator are actively reviewed.

We have a serious problem with some organisations that identify as charities when sometimes clearly they are something quite different. Let us take the example of Pobal. It has annual expenditure of more than €450 million. It is a private wing of the Government which was set up to provide administrative services and distribute payments for various Departments. It even states on its website that "Pobal's activities and priorities are shaped by the context and policies laid out in ... the programme for Government". It is registered as a charity and deemed to be a not-for-profit organisation. I do not understand the reason it has been registered as a charity or, for that matter, how it even qualified for charitable status. Perhaps the Minister of State might explain the reason to me. In 2014 an internal audit report in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs expressed concerns about payments made to Pobal to monitor compliance among child care providers. The auditors could not understand the annual fee received of €2.5 million. They also stated the work had been awarded to Pobal without a tendering process which might have been in breach of EU directives, but nothing happened in that regard, which is a little worrying. We need to take a proper and in-depth look at organisations that identify as charities to check to see if they meet the criteria laid down.

I thank the Deputy for his comments. Clearly, issues regarding public confidence have arisen in some charities in recent times, as the Deputy rightly stated, but charities do a lot of very important work on behalf of this country. It is only right and proper to ensure they are all acting above board in performing their duties. This is why the legislation was introduced.

The Charities Regulator is independent in the execution of its duties. It would be irresponsible for me to comment on any particular group under investigation or on findings that may arise in that it could prejudice the investigation. Personally, I have not heard of any issues regarding Pobal. If the Deputy has information he would like to share, we would be happy to examine it within the Department.

Before Christmas, I met the Charities Regulator, including the chairman of the board and the three new members appointed to the board. Clearly, they have a roadmap for what they want to do. There has been an increase in the number of groups registered as charities, indicating an increase in compliance. As I stated, 9,061 were registered at the end of 2017. A number of others were registered automatically because they had a valid charitable tax exemption from the Revenue Commissioners. In addition to those, a number of others were registered for the first time, including a number of schools.

I do not know how Pobal operates. I am wondering whether the Government knows either. Does it offer value for money? An internal document from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, dated August 2014, states, "In particular, Pobal has not produced evidence to show how it specifically has promoted social inclusion or countered disadvantage through the implementation of programmes."

On another issue concerning charities, I note the regulator issued guidelines last July regarding internal financial controls that it states will help to maximise value-for-money objectives on behalf of a charity. There is very little reference in the guidelines to salary scales, particularly at CEO level. I am not saying all charities' CEOs are overpaid but, if one examines certain charities, one notes their pay rates for CEOs can be extraordinary when compared with the overall output. The CEO of the Asthma Society of Ireland, for example, was paid €95,000 in 2016 but the organisation's expenditure for that year was only €885,000. Some 33% of its funding came from the Government, yet the CEO was paid more than 10% of all the expenditure. It seems a bit odd. I am not pointing the finger at any charity but just saying this is an area that needs much tighter regulation. We have some serious issues with some of the charities.

I concur that there has been public concern over the rates of pay for some CEOs in the charity sector. It has caused disquiet over recent years. The regulator regulates in respect of a number of areas. I will confirm its responsibility in regard to rates of pay for the Deputy. The charities have boards of governors and terms and conditions, and they publish their accounts. I know from conversations I have had with the Charities Regulator that it wants to ensure there is a single website and that one can find, in respect of any charity, its number of staff, its expenditure, whether its accounts are up to date and whether everything is correct in terms of corporate governance. It wants a one-stop-shop for all charities that would make the information available to everyone quite easily to ensure we have confidence in all charities across all sectors.

The Deputy mentioned Pobal. There are bodies in the health and education sectors that are registered as charities. Clearly, there are some smaller charities that we do not want to see overly burdened. We want to ensure they can continue to do their work and that people have confidence in them. The regulator is prioritising the larger charities in the initial phases.

Regional Development

James Browne

Question:

53. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the steps he will take to address County Wexford areas that were highlighted in Pobal's deprivation index; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1793/18]

What steps is the Minister taking to address the needs of areas of County Wexford that were highlighted in Pobal's deprivation index? Could he make a statement on the matter?

The deprivation index to which the Deputy is referring measures the relative affluence or disadvantage of areas within the State. It is used by my Department and other Departments and State agencies as an aid to direct funding to where it is most needed.

Within the 2016 index, County Wexford was classified as marginally below average, with a score of 4.8. This is the third lowest score of the 26 counties classified. As with all counties, small areas within the region ranged from very affluent to very disadvantaged. The small areas in County Wexford that are classified as very disadvantaged are, for the most part, located around larger urban areas, such as Wexford town, Enniscorthy and New Ross.

The social inclusion and community activation programme, or SICAP, is the key national intervention for the hardest-to-reach populations in disadvantaged areas. My Department has allocated a total budget of €1.7 million to County Wexford under SICAP for 2018. Given that the total budget for the State is just over €38 million, County Wexford's allocation reflects its relative disadvantage.

The SICAP programme is delivered by programme implementers, led locally by local community development committees, LCDCs, under the remit of local authorities, and overseen at national level by my Department.

The new SICAP for the period 2018 to 2022 was the subject of a public procurement process conducted by LCDCs. The programme has commenced in 47 of the 51 lot areas nationally. Wexford is one of four lot areas where no tender was awarded and a negotiated procedure is now under way between the LCDC and the programme implementer.

In areas where a negotiated procedure is taking place, my Department has extended the previous SICAP contract with the LCDC for a period of three months from 1 January 2018. The LCDCs are also extending their contracts with the existing programme implementers to ensure that service delivery in the relevant areas is not affected.

I put this question to the Minister to determine what exactly he has been doing to tackle the problems in deprived areas. In the constituency of Wexford, there are seven electoral divisions that are deemed to be disadvantaged or very disadvantaged. In Wexford, people, businesses and community groups are doing their level best to make their villages and towns vibrant, welcoming and prosperous but the Government needs to do more to tackle the problems in local areas.

The 2016 programme for Government contains a clear commitment to making the renewal of towns and villages a top priority for the new Minister. Towns and villages were hit hardest during the recession and consequently suffered the worst from outward migration, reduced employment prospects and an undermining of the communities and their integrity. The danger is that, without a concerted effort to tackle poverty and its causes, these areas will continue to be left behind. I would like to know specifically what the Minister is thinking of doing for the deprived and disadvantaged areas in Wexford.

I have outlined the position on the SICAP. As I stated, Wexford is getting the funding it is getting based on the deprivation index and the report we get from Pobal. I hope the SICAP will target the disadvantaged areas. As I said earlier to Deputy Ó Cuív, it is important that the funding be targeted at areas that really need it.

I acknowledge there is a difficulty regarding the programme in Wexford. As the Deputy knows, I have continued the contract from 1 January for the first three months. My Department and Pobal are negotiating. I hope the problem can be worked out. I want to see the programme up and running. In the first instance, it is a matter of putting the funding in place. The contract has been extended for three months so nobody will lose out. It is important that the areas that need the funding get it. That is why I have done what I have done.

I raised a similar issue with other Ministers. Perhaps the Minister will consider a cross-departmental approach. People in Wexford are deeply frustrated. The county has so much potential. It is only an hour down the road from Dublin. It has Rosslare Europort, which should be one of the most thriving ports in Europe. I know this is not the Minister's area of responsibility but he should recognise that the port is seriously under-utilised.

The south east still has no university, and there is no sign of it coming. We know from all the factors that this is a key indicator as to why, according to all the indicators, Wexford and other areas in the south east continually rank in the top three where deprivation is concerned.

We hear Irish Rail talking about downgrading or closing the railway line to Rosslare Europort.

We still do not have a targeted tourism product for Wexford similar to the Wild Atlantic Way. While Ireland's Ancient East is in place, it barely touches the east coast as it was designed to accommodate the midlands. Wexford has unmet potential. It needs targeted support from the Government and a cross-departmental approach to ensure that potential is unleashed.

I remind Members that Standing Orders allow for brief questions, not statements.

"The Boys of Wexford".

As I pointed out to the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, the 2014 internal document from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform pointed out Pobal had not produced evidence to show how it had specifically promoted social inclusion or countered disadvantage through the implementation of its programmes. It is not the Minister of State's fault. However, as Deputy Browne pointed out, Wexford has been left behind. While extra money was given in line with disadvantage, areas like Wexford will have to be targeted to be lifted out of poverty. Has the Minister any particular plans for Wexford?

I agree with the Deputies about Wexford. I had not been in Wexford for several years but spent two weeks on holiday there this summer. I felt people could have bought more into Ireland's Ancient East, like the Wild Atlantic Way. I was impressed by my holiday in Wexford. I did many of the tours in the area and spent a few nights in some of the local restaurants along the quays. Wexford is a vibrant town. Deprivation affects many large towns and cities. However, Wexford has great potential. It is one hour from Dublin. When I was there, I came up to the All-Ireland football semi-final in which Mayo played. I could not get over the standard of the road infrastructure between Wexford and Dublin.

The Minister should try the back roads.

There are many social problems in Wexford like everywhere else. Wexford, however, has great potential. I have no doubt it will reach its full potential in the years ahead.

Telecommunications Services Provision

Bernard Durkan

Question:

54. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if he will report on the progress of the mobile phone and broadband task force, particularly in the context of the recommendations or actions for which his Department is responsible; if the task force will produce an annual report for its first full year in operation; if a work plan for 2018 has been prepared and agreed with stakeholders; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1787/18]

This question relates to the mobile phone and broadband task force. How has it progressed? How many meetings has it had and what conclusions has it reached? Will it produce an annual report? To what degree have the stakeholders been fully acquainted with the urgent necessity to deal with the deficiency in broadband and mobile telephony service provision in rural areas?

The mobile phone and broadband task force was established in July 2016 to examine solutions to broadband and mobile phone coverage deficits across the country, as well as to identify tangible actions which could be taken to improve the quality of these services.

The task force published its report in December 2016. It made a series of recommendations, backed up by 40 agreed actions, to address a wide range of issues impacting on broadband and mobile phone services in areas such as planning, access to infrastructure, network improvement and consumer matters.

Along with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, I co-chair an implementation group which oversees the implementation of all actions in the task force report. Quarterly reports on progress made in implementing the actions are published on my Department's website.

Some of the key measures progressed by my Department include co-funding the employment of a broadband officer in each local authority to facilitate the roll-out of telecoms infrastructure; working closely with mobile operators and local authorities to identify specific mobile phone black spot areas and identify solutions to improve coverage in those areas.

A national stakeholder forum was convened on 6 October 2017 in Athlone, bringing together key stakeholders to highlight any barriers being experienced in the implementation of actions and to suggest new recommendations for the task force implementation group to accelerate the provision of improved services to consumers.

Officials from my Department and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment are finalising a report of the work of the implementation group in 2017. I anticipate it will be published shortly. A 2018 work programme for the implementation group has also been agreed and an outline of this programme will be included in the 2017 annual report.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. What precisely will be done to address the deficiencies in both the quality and speed of broadband and mobile telephony services? What will the stakeholders do to address the major deficiencies relating to these services, which are hugely important to the business, education and health sectors?

This was an important part of the discussions around the programme for Government. Several areas have been identified and are being worked on by the task force, including the removal of development contributions for telecommunications infrastructure. The latter will enable increased placement of that vital infrastructure. Exempted development regulations with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government will allow industry to accelerate the roll-out of 4G services while ensuring regulations remain valid and stay abreast of network development consumer demand. Online systems for planning applications will streamline the application process. Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, is working on ducting installation work to fill the gap in respect of the motorway network and to facilitate telecoms operators. TII will review the cost of access for telecoms operators to its ducts. A composite national coverage map is being prepared by ComReg to help consumers and businesses choose the network provider which best meets their needs where they work and live. ComReg will work on the level of signal which can be expected from different handsets in different areas. Much work has been done by local authority broadband officers to ascertain and provide a much greater degree of consistency and engagement with telecoms operators in assisting in clearing obstacles to the roll-out of infrastructure. This important work is being carried out by the task force.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. Will he give further details on the improvements to mobile phone coverage in the short term? In other jurisdictions across Europe, it has been possible to provide a satisfactory service which we do not seem to be able to provide in this country. There appears to be little we can do over time. Will the Minister of State give an indication as to the deadlines for improvements in broadband services?

A black spot pilot project has been undertaken by the Department in conjunction with the Department of Communications, Climate Change and Environment, mobile telephony operators and several local authorities. This is a significant step in identifying problem areas and any infrastructure which could potentially be used to improve mobile coverage. New technologies are being explored such as, for example, purpose-built lamp-posts, which could be used in many rural towns and villages. Several of these have been erected in various local authority areas. These could greatly improve signal strength. Over several years, signal strength in some areas has actually declined. This ongoing work is important in improving mobile phone coverage.

Much important work is being done by this task force, which I co-chair. It involves engagement with all stakeholders, including TII, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, ComReg, local authorities, the County and City Management Association and the telecoms and broadband sectors. The recommendations will be published and will be acted upon by the Government.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.