Topical Issue Debate

Rural Transport Services Provision

As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross will be well aware of the very significant need to address the lack of public transport throughout the country in recent years. Significant work has been done in the major city of Dublin and a considerable number of reviews have examined the best possible public transport model. There has been investment in light rail and new buses and in developing new routes and corridors as the settlement patterns have changed. That is very good and it is the right way to proceed for many reasons but especially from a climate change perspective and the necessity to get cars off the road. That can be done and should be done and the Minister has made significant progress in planning in that regard. The transport sector generally has been way behind in terms of moving away from the burning of fossil fuels and the impact that has had on climate change and our inability to reach the targets that have been set out.

While I know the Government has been making certain plans in that area, it cannot just be focused on major areas of population. Many communities are dotted throughout rural areas, in particular in County Clare, that need additional commuter bus services. I think of areas in west Clare such as Kilrush and Kilkee, and right up along the western seaboard from Milltown Malbay up to Doolin. People travel from there to Ennis, Shannon and Limerick for school, college and work and there is a need to enhance the services. People travel to work from areas in east Clare such as Scariff, Tulla, Feakle and Killaloe to Ennis, Shannon and Limerick and to go to colleges in Limerick. They need an adequate, well-funded public transport service, one which will meet the needs of a developing and changing economy and changing settlement patterns.

It is incumbent on the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, as the wider transport service delivery in this country is changing, to provide adequate and appropriate investment in services in rural areas. There is much talk in this House about rural decline - the closure of Garda stations, small schools and post offices - and the necessity to try to put in place infrastructure to ensure that people will continue to live in rural areas. Line Ministers often say the population is not there and the service demand is not as great as it was so therefore it is inevitable that businesses will close. The underlying issue is that in many instances we have not succeeded in putting in the appropriate public transport services to make it possible for people who want to live in rural areas, who come from the areas, but who need to commute elsewhere for various reasons. Some young people are not in a position to drive and some elderly people do not want to drive. Other people travel for work.

We must take a holistic approach and put in place an appropriate transport service to meet the needs of all communities, not just those in the more densely populated areas. It should be possible to put in place the appropriate level of service by providing smaller buses and more frequent services targeting those who travel to college and work. That will reduce the volume of traffic on the roads and have a significant positive impact on the quality of life of people who seek to travel in that way and also have a consequent positive impact on climate change by taking more cars off the road. If we can group them together as part of a public transport service, that would prevent people making journeys that are not necessary.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and for the compliment, which might have been backhanded, about what is being done in Dublin. We are making significant progress in Dublin and the future is looking a lot brighter for public transport there. I do not interpret the Deputy's remarks as meaning that it is at the expense of rural areas but I understand what he is saying about people in rural areas and rural transport operators looking at Dublin with a certain amount of envy. The greater expenditure in Dublin is due to the population. I will bear in mind what the Deputy said about rural areas in County Clare. We are being proactive in addressing the issue.

The House will be aware, that as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for policy and overall funding in relation to public transport. I do not have responsibility for the day-to-day operations of public transport services. The National Transport Authority, NTA, has statutory responsibility for securing the provision of public transport passenger services nationally, including the provision of bus services in County Clare. In addition, the NTA also has responsibility, since 2012, for managing the rural transport programme, which includes bus services in rural parts of County Clare. Consequently, the development of bus services in specific areas is a matter for the NTA in conjunction with the relevant transport provider and the Local Link office.

In view of the Deputy's interest in this issue, however, my Department contacted the NTA about both existing bus services in rural parts of County Clare and new services which are being developed. The NTA has advised my Department that 13 routes operate through County Clare by Bus Éireann under a public service contract with the NTA. Some of these services are entirely within County Clare while others either originate or terminate outside County Clare. All of these services are entirely subvented by the State. An additional three services are operated on a commercial basis through County Clare by licensed operators, including Bus Éireann Expressway. The NTA has further advised that it is in the process of finalising detailed timetables for Bus Éireann services from west Clare to Ennis. The current services on routes 333 and 336 are proposed to be significantly enhanced and improved from the current level of service.

In rural areas, bus services are provided under the rural transport programme, which now operates under the Local Link brand. By way of background information for the House, the NTA contracts the services and the 17 Local Link offices, including Local Link Clare, manage the services in their respective areas on behalf of the NTA. The NTA, with its national remit to secure the provision of public passenger transport services, is best placed to ensure that the Local Link services are developed and integrated with other public transport services. Local Link Clare operates 24 routes in County Clare. The NTA is aware that there remains scope for Local Link services to complement the revised Bus Éireann services and to provide travel opportunities from locations currently not served or very poorly served. The NTA is also considering proposals from Local Link Clare for two new services to include Ballyvaughan to Ennis via Lisdoonvarna, and Ennis via Kildysart extension to include Kilmurry McMahon and Labasheeda. The NTA anticipates that a decision will be made on both of these services shortly.

Accessing social activities in the evening in rural areas presents particular difficulties which I sought to address in meetings with key stakeholders at the end of last year, arising from which the NTA issued a call for applications. Although Local Link Clare did not submit proposals under the original call by the NTA, I have been advised by the NTA that proposals were subsequently received from Local Link Clare.

The NTA is currently examining these applications with a view to having new evening services on three routes in County Clare.

I am committed to the further development of bus services in rural areas and that is why funding has been increased over the past number of years, which has enabled the introduction of new services, including regular five, six or seven day per week bus services as well as demand-responsive services. Key features of these new services have included greater integration with existing public transport services and better linkage of services between and within towns and villages.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive answer. My compliment to the Minister was not backhanded but rather genuine in terms of what is being done in this city. As one who stays here for three or four days per week, I thoroughly recognise the necessity of a comprehensive bus and light rail service in the city. It is clear from the Minister's response that he has also recognised the needs of rural communities. Although I accept, of course, there will always be funding issues, it is appropriate that, where possible, key areas are identified. The Minister has indicated that there is a focus on those areas, particularly in west Clare, and ensuring an enhancement of the service, which I welcome.

I also draw the Minister's attention to the needs of towns and villages such as Killaloe, Scarriff and Tulla which may be seen as satellites to larger urban areas that have colleges and much employment, such as Limerick and the employment zones in Shannon and Ennis. I hope that as a result of this engagement his officials will ensure that there will be a review of the services in place involving a consideration of potential demand and the lifestyle issues of those who live and work in and travel to education from those areas and that they will work towards putting in place an appropriate service that would meet the needs of such areas.

The focus in the House in terms of rural transport is often on meeting the needs of those who socialise at night. I understand the importance of that and such services may be provided - Rural Link and Local Link. However, there is a far greater number of people who would more widely use public transport if such services were available, which would take off the road many of the cars that have such an impact in terms of climate change. I encourage the Minister to continue with his efforts and put more resources towards rural areas as moneys become available. He will have support from this side of the House for any such measures.

I thank Deputy Dooley. I am committed to improving rural transport throughout the country. The steps taken so far have been small but universally welcomed. The fact that three Local Link services, including that in Clare, did not initially apply did not reflect any disdain or dismissal on their behalf of the night services we were offering but rather were due to timing problems. I welcome that Local Link Clare has now applied. As the Deputy is aware, three evening services are being introduced in east Clare. The first will serve Feakle, Scarriff and Tuamgraney; the second, Feakle, Tulla, O'Callaghansmills and Kilkishen; while the third is a festival service which will serve East Clare Golf Club and surrounding hostels. I will provide the Deputy with a direct response on those routes when I receive further information. We have committed to the provision of those services.

The requirements in rural Ireland are entirely different to those in urban areas. There is a social need for services in rural areas and although there may not be any prospect of the services in many areas being an economic or commercial success, I fully accept there is an obligation on the State to provide such transport for people who are isolated or do not have the frequency or variety of services that are available in Dublin. I hope the Deputy will accept my bona fides in that regard.

Mental Health Services Provision

Deputy Eugene Murphy will be sharing time with Deputy Mary Butler. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Yes, a minute of the opening statement and a minute of the reply.

The Minister of State is welcome to the House and I thank him for his attendance. However, I wish to put on public record that the Taoiseach failed to answer a question on this matter yesterday and instead again sent in the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, to bat, while the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has failed to come to the House to deal with this crucial issue.

Last Friday myself and fellow Oireachtas representatives of the Roscommon-Galway constituency met Mr. Tony Canavan of the HSE in Roscommon town. At that meeting, it was indicated to us that the Rosalie centre in Castlerea is soon to close, in spite of the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, previously indicating that no such decision would be made until clinical assessments had been reviewed. My Oireachtas colleague and Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, issued a statement in June which indicated that the HSE had confirmed that the Rosalie facility will continue to form part of the service delivery of healthcare in the Roscommon area and that any potential change of its use would take place in consultation with public representatives and relevant stakeholders in the area. Where is the consultation? Have the clinical assessments been reviewed? We have been repeatedly stonewalled by the HSE and the Minister, Deputy Harris, in regard to this unit in Castlerea.

I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, to pass on to the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Taoiseach the message that this issue is not going to go away. Major plans are currently being put in place for a public meeting in Casltlerea next Monday night which will probably attract 500 people who will send a clear message about the Rosalie unit. Neither the people of Castlerea nor I, as one of their public representatives, will let this issue rest.

County Roscommon has one of the highest percentages of older people in the country and one of the highest rates of Alzheimer’s disease per head of population. As such, the Rosalie unit should be a vital part of our mental health services in the county. Most of the residents of the Rosalie unit suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia and they are unsettled about their future. They have told me that they are upset and worried. It is totally unfair and unacceptable. This matter is not going away. Deputy Penrose knows Castlerea well but I wish to explain to Deputy Ferris and other Deputies who may not be familiar with the Rosalie unit that it is not a broken down centre but rather a fantastic unit which provides excellent care and has very good staff. Its residents are happy there but that happiness is being taken away.

I also was very disappointed to hear that the closure of the Rosalie unit in County Roscommon had been announced. The unit cares for psychiatric patients, including those with Alzheimer's disease and dementia. As the Minister of State is aware, a recent mapping exercise by the Department of Health and the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, ASI, examined the level of dementia care available to our citizens. The results made for very disappointing reading throughout the country. I accept that the Minister of State inherited these services and I acknowledge his work to date on dementia.

I submitted a parliamentary question to see how many people in Roscommon have dementia and why these beds would be taken from the system. The reply stated that 614 people in Roscommon with dementia live at home and there are 1,842 carers. The Rosalie centre has had no new admissions since September 2016, which indicates that a decision to wind it down was made two years ago.

I thank Deputies Eugene Murphy and Mary Butler for the opportunity to provide some clarity, background and context on this issue. I wish to highlight that this Topical Issue refers to the announced closure by the Government and the HSE of the Rosalie unit. I can state with complete authority on behalf of the Government that no closure of Roasalie has been announced by the Government or the HSE. The Rosalie unit, part of Áras Naomh Chaolain, is located in Castlerea, County Roscommon. As Deputy Murphy knows, I am very familiar with it. I have visited it and met each of the residents, their families and the management of the facility. I have met the relevant public representatives on numerous occasions on the issue.

Currently, there are 12 residents in the unit. I place on the record that the HSE has not announced the closure of the Rosalie unit and I hope that point will sink in. The unit has been closed to new admissions since 27 September 2016. The issues of continuing to best meet the needs of the residents in an appropriate and safe environment and the future use of the unit have been the subject of recent meetings by me with Oireachtas Members, local representatives and the HSE.

To ensure the best interests of the residents are accommodated the HSE recently completed a clinical assessment of each resident, including engagement with families. Following completion of the clinical assessment process, the HSE asked the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland to independently review the process and outcome. This should be completed within a short time. The HSE will then inform me of the outcome of the clinical assessment process regarding best care options for residents and furnish a report on the Rosalie unit.

No decision has been taken yet by the HSE on the future of the Rosalie unit. The HSE chief officer has confirmed in writing to me that it is the intention that it continue as a healthcare facility in the future. The nature of this, whether continued use in its present form or some other use, will be informed by the clinical assessment outcome. The HSE has confirmed that any changes to mental health services in the area will be in line with A Vision for Change.

I understand the chief officer of community healthcare organisation, CHO, 2, which covers the Roscommon area, recently met local representatives and spoke to the local media. He indicated the intention of the HSE to cease services at St. Joseph's mental health day centre in Ballaghaderreen. I further understand that decision has been taken in the context of implementing the recommendations of the report of the mental health services in Roscommon. The decision to close this centre and provide alternative day services to the current attendees was taken only after detailed consideration of the needs of all of the individuals involved.

I reiterate that no decision has yet been taken in respect of the Rosalie unit. I await receipt in due course from the HSE of the outcome of the clinical assessment process for the unit. That will help inform the best care options for the residents and its future use as a healthcare facility.

To make it abundantly clear to the Deputies opposite and to those who are watching this debate who have an interest in this facility, admissions to the unit ceased two years ago, in September 2016. There are 12 residents remaining. As Minister of State with responsibility for the areas of both mental health and older people, I have to ensure the residents' needs are best met. If a qualified clinician tells me that their needs are best met in an alternative setting because this is a psychiatric setting, the patients are older, the needs of many of them are geriatric and they may need to be in a social care nursing home type setting where they will be better served, I have to listen to that. I cannot railroad through a decision. However, my commitment, one on which I have been consistent, is that the unit will continue to play a vital role in the provision of services in the Roscommon area. There is no talk from the Government or the HSE of closure.

I reiterate that the Minister of State's work on this issue has been upfront and he has met us frequently. However, I am not reassured by what he has said. I sat at a meeting with an official who said a decision had been taken in the review to close the unit but, as the Minister of State correctly stated, the HSE has asked a psychiatrist or psychologist to examine the matter independently. The reality is that the unit is finished. The Minister of State stated patients' needs would be better met in a more suitable regime. I totally disagree with that. The residents have been well looked after, they trust the staff and are close to their families. This process is interfering with their happiness and making them unhappy. I have serious issues with the way these assessments are done, and I do not like what is happening.

When the Taoiseach was Minister for Health he gave a commitment that this unit would not be closed, and I have a letter to that effect. I ask the Minister of State to honour that commitment. If some changes have to be made at the centre, so be it, but I beg him not to allow the patients to be taken out of the unit. I ask him to use whatever power and influence he has to ensure that does not happen.

The HSE chief officer has confirmed in writing to the Minister of State that it is the intention that the unit continue as a healthcare facility in the future. The nub of the question is what kind of facility will remain. The reply to a parliamentary question I received on 24 May clearly stated:

Currently there are no long-term plans for the Rosalie Centre. The Centre has not had any new admissions since September 2016. It is not proposed to reopen the unit to new admissions.

The 18 members of staff working in the unit also have to be considered.

I thank the Deputies. Deputy Murphy stated he did not trust the clinical review. Unfortunately, it is not in my gift to override a clinician's decision. We have to accept the word of the medical authority who makes the decision on this matter. However, to assuage any fears people may have I requested the HSE to ask the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland to do an independent review of the decision in case anybody believes decisions have been taken behind closed doors. That is not the case. The best needs of the current residents are my foremost priority.

The future use of the unit is also a top priority for me. I have been consistent, as was the Taoiseach when he was Minister for Health and my predecessor, that this unit will continue to provide care for people in the area and play a vital role in that regard. However, if clinicians tell me that the current residents' care is better served elsewhere, we have to deal with that. They are two separate issues that are not tied together. If some of the current residents need to be moved to a better facility, we have to do that. The same would apply to my mum or dad, if either of them was diagnosed with dementia and I was told one or the other would have to leave the home they have both lived in for the past 50 years and go to a care facility to receive better care. Nobody wants to do that but I do not have the authority to override any clinician and tell him or her I know better. With respect, no politician has the authority to do that. We have to respect the clinical judgment appropriate to each individual resident of the unit.

My commitment to the future use of this unit is absolute. We are not in a space where we can afford to close beds when there is great demand for social care and acute beds. As the Deputies are aware, there is a strong demand for services to address later life issues. Given the level of demand for beds in the system, the closure of the beds in the Rosalie unit is not a conversation I am willing to entertain with anybody. However, I have to consider the best needs of the residents, which is a separate issue from the future use of the unit. I want to have that conversation with public representatives and involve them in the future use of this facility to which we are committed. We will ensure that the high regard in which it is held continues and it is put to the most appropriate use possible.

Emergency Departments Services

On Tuesday, between 12.30 p.m. and 2.30 p.m., nurses in the accident and emergency department in Tralee University Hospital found it necessary to protest against conditions patients in the department have been experiencing over a long period. The problems in the accident and emergency department in Tralee are overcrowding and a shortage of beds. Patients are admitted and are not transferred to appropriate hospital beds because beds are not available. That is the sad situation. I stood in protest with the nurses and there was a huge level of support and appreciation from the general public who passed in cars, buses, lorries and so forth. Almost every person gave a thumbs up or beeped the car horn to show support for the nurses. The staff are fantastic. They do a tremendous job in very difficult conditions. Every day, between 17 and 20 people wait on trolleys in the accident and emergency department in Tralee University Hospital. That is a serious indictment on the provision of a health service that is vital for patients.

I understand the hospital has a bed complement of approximately 350, with an additional 16 to 18 beds available to complement that. Some wards have been closed for a number of years and are lying idle. I understand also that the number of people lying on trolleys waiting for a bed in the hospital has increased by 67% since 2016.

The hospital has sought an extra 43 beds and the appropriate number of staff to provide the necessary service in the accident and emergency department in Kerry University Hospital.

So far, nothing has been forthcoming and that is the reason the nurses found it necessary to leave their posts and go outside the hospital to protest. It is a shameful state of affairs that they found it necessary to do so. They are highly appreciated by the people of Kerry, by patients and their families for the tremendous work they do. The Government must make the extra 43 beds available as well as the staff necessary to service them. It should be done immediately. It is not right that every day there are 17, 18, 19 or 20 people lying on trollies. Some of them are very elderly; I was there myself and there were 93 and 94 year olds in the height of the winter lying on trolleys, some of them for three or four days. I know of one person who passed away shortly after being moved to a bed. That is how they spent the last 72 hours of their life. It is not right.

I am not blaming the Minister of State personally but I do believe the Government has a responsibility to look after patients and provide the resources necessary to deliver a facility in this day and age. Is the Government prepared to make the extra 43 beds available? Is it prepared to create the staffing levels to service those beds and alleviate the terrible pressures and stressful conditions that nurses in the accident and emergency department of University Hospital Kerry work under? The nurses' commitment to patient care is tremendous. Is the Government going to match it?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am aware that nursing staff working in University Hospital Kerry emergency department engaged in a lunchtime protest on Monday. I understand that this was to highlight their concerns about overcrowding in the emergency department and its impact on patient care. I want to assure these staff that the Government is fully aware of the difficulties and challenges that are currently faced by all hospital staff, including nurses and midwives, in delivering care in the hospital setting. The emergency department of every hospital is at the front line when it comes to treating and caring for the public. There is a real focus within our health service on addressing overcrowding issues and ensuring continued recruitment and retention of staff.

University Hospital Kerry is experiencing a prolonged period of increased demand for its services. This is most evident in the older age group of over 75 years of age with a 10.7% increase in attendances year to date. Overall, attendances year to date are up 2.6%. However, the hospital is progressing a number of initiatives to support the patient pathway and improve the patient experience. Some of the examples include the implementation of a frailty intervention team, providing a second geriatrician post to provide specialist experience to care effectively for older people in the area, providing a consultant cardiologist and an additional bed capacity proposal. Recent staffing improvements at this location include the appointment of an assistant director of nursing for patient flow. Since 2017, two additional staff nurse posts have been put in place for night duty and two additional healthcare assistant posts for day duty. Seven staff nurse posts have also been upgraded to clinical nurse manager I grade. A further clinical nurse manager post is in the process of being sought by the hospital to assist patients being admitted. This is in line with the emergency department protocol. In addition to this, four new staff nurses recently joined.

Unfortunately, even with these appointments, there remains a nursing deficit of 1.3 whole-time equivalent posts due to maternity leave and sick leave. I understand that the hospital is currently recruiting for this shortfall in staff. In addition, the emergency department is also supported by 2.8 advanced nurse practitioners. I am confident that these measures will improve the situation in University Hospital Kerry.

At a national level, there is an agreement in place in respect of emergency departments, which was brokered through the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. Indeed, only last week HSE management and officials from my Department engaged in a conciliation session with the INMO on implementation of this agreement. The outcome of this conciliation was that the HSE reaffirmed its commitment to comply fully with all aspects of the agreement. Engagement with the INMO at hospital group level has been re-established. Management agreed to promote and communicate the job advertisements to fill the vacancies in emergency departments and provide updates to staff on progress.

As part of the emergency departments WRC agreement there is a plan in place to address overcrowding. This plan was developed by the emergency department task force and is being implemented. That is why I was disappointed to see this protest proceed, despite this very recent commitment to renew efforts to progress implementation. The focus must be on working together to implement the plan, rather than engaging in industrial action. I urge the parties at local level to attempt to put aside their differences and engage with the agreement that is in place.

It is evident from the Minister of State's reply that there does not appear to be any plan to put in place additional beds within the hospital. That is the crux of the problem. We have 17 to 20 sick patients on a daily basis lying on trolleys waiting for a bed to become available. Those beds should be available. It is not that the physical facilities do not exist within the hospital to provide them. Is there a political commitment to making them available?

The Minister of State said he is disappointed that industrial action was taken. I thought what they did was very mild. It was very principled and it was done in the interests of patients. The nurses came out in a peaceful protest to highlight the conditions they are working under. They wanted to highlight the 17 to 20 patients on trolleys and the fact that there are not enough beds available in the hospital and not enough front-line staff. The Government is not prepared to address those issues. It is stalling and dragging its heels and has been doing so for a long period. It is a very mild but a very principled position that the nurses have taken in the interests of patient safety.

The Minister of State says the task force is being implemented. Will it take another protest to implement whatever proposals the task force is going to make? Will it take another protest to get adequate beds in the hospital for patients in need? I hope the nurses' actions this week will accelerate whatever decisions the Government is going to take to provide patient care and safety to the people of our county.

I appreciate what Deputy Ferris is saying and the support he is showing to the situation there. I take no issue with that or indeed with what happened. It is just disappointing all round that we end up in a situation where it has to come to that and we cannot get agreement and get everybody playing their part. Everybody has a part to play in this.

If I may make an academic, broader point, every time I hear a debate on trolleys I am minded that we sometimes focus on the number of trolleys. I am not talking about Kerry at all in this instance, just general debate around trolleys. What is far more important is the length of time people wait on trolleys. Trolleys will always be a feature. If we had eight empty beds in a hospital waiting for eight people to arrive, there would be something wrong with the hospital that had those eight empty beds at any given time, especially with the challenges we are facing at the moment. We need to move our debate on a bit. That is just an academic point and not in respect of Kerry. It is the length of time people wait on trolleys that we really have to focus on. That is the bigger challenge.

There is a national plan to increase bed capacity ahead of the coming winter. A submission has been made by the South/South West Hospital Group on behalf of University Hospital Kerry for additional beds to be opened there for next winter. That is being progressed by the HSE and the Department at the moment and hopefully it will deliver some additional capacity in the hospital. I cannot put a number on those beds and do not want to do so until the process is complete. This is a national process and a number of hospitals are making submissions ahead of the winter.

Community Banking

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important issue, namely, the necessity of developing a model or system to provide a local banking system in Ireland. I am glad to see Deputy Joan Burton in the House because she has been a strong advocate in that regard and done a lot of work on the issue.

The report by the Department of Rural and Community Development on this matter was a severe disappointment, which is an understatement. It was a stomach churning event. It was a damp squib and a kick in the teeth for many, including Deputy Joan Burton, as it appears the conclusions were arrived at first and that evidence was then divined to underpin them. It represented the dead hand of bureaucrats at their best, particularly those in the Department of Finance, as I had correctly anticipated and predicted in a number of debates and parliamentary questions on the matter in the past six or seven months.

Be that as it may, I pay tribute to Irish Rural Link, Mr. Seamus Boland and the staff - Ms Sinead Dooley, Mr. Noel Kinahan and others based in Moate - who have done so much work in bringing the concept of community banking to the fore in the debate and seeking to turn the tide on the decline of banking services in rural communities, including SME lending and relationship banking.

I read with some wry amusement the comments made in the report. Some of those involved obviously never left their ivory towers in Dublin. They started to tell us how great things were on the ground down the country.

Public banking is poorly understood in an Irish context. A public bank is emphatically not a nationalised bank like AIB. In other EU member states public banks are often municipally owned and restricted to a specific geographical area in order to promote regional development. We need such development in the midlands, across counties Longford and Westmeath, as well as in counties Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal. These banks are not for profit and can provide a valuable impetus for regional development and be an alternative to the major shareholder-driven private banks. Of course, that is the essence of the problem. Given the disappearance from the Irish financial landscape of building societies, the old Trustee Savings Bank, the ICC and the ACC which offered agricultural credit facilities, there is a clear gap in the services available between the credit unions and the big banks. But for the credit unions - the poor person's bank - nobody would get a shilling. Everybody would be wiped off the pitch.

In the light of the misbehaviour exposed in Irish banks and the financial crash about which Deputy Joan Burton has spoken so often, many commentators have suggested the big banks' monopoly of retail banking needs to be challenged by a new service provider with a different ethos. Of course, the report ran away from the real issue and attempted to disguise the fact that the Department of Finance's sole aim was to insulate and protect the State's investment in the pillar banks from competition. That is what the report is about. While it is welcome that there will be a further independent assessment of public banking, with the credit unions and An Post, the Labour Party, including, I am sure, Deputy Joan Burton, will be seeking an assurance that it will be acted on by the Government and that the credit union movement will be given a clear road map for how it can develop and expand its services to the community.

I take the opportunity to point out that what is being asked of the Government is not a State investment of €170 million in a German bank. The Department rushed that out to The Sunday Business Post. I knew the answer that was going to come yesterday. It struck first and got its retaliation in first. It is about the Government developing a new culture in Irish financial services to get away from the greedy maximisation of profits by the big banks. That is what the Sparkassen group is most preoccupied with - developing a new culture in Irish banking - but, of course, our friends in the Department of Finance do not want to have anything to do with it. I know from the bankruptcy legislation how it behaves. I was there. It tried to strangle all ideas coming from outside the system. During the past few years it has come to confuse the national interest with the interests of the AIB-Bank of Ireland duopoly. We have seen the credit union movement which has less than 30% of its assets in loans blocked in expanding its services. The Central Bank has a tin ear when it comes to listening to the credit unions. We see this behaviour in how it approached Irish Rural Link's proposal. It is scandalous. Why not introduce the Sparkassen model and use it to complement An Post and the credit unions and give us a new method and vehicle for ensuring small businesses, farmers and others involved in agriculture can securing funding for their vital businesses in rural Ireland?

The Department of Finance and the Department of Rural and Community Development were tasked with fulfilling a programme for Government commitment to thoroughly investigate the German Sparkassen model for the development of local public banks that operate in well defined regions. Both Departments prepared a report on the findings of their investigation which involved an analysis of the Sparkassen model.

As the Deputy is aware, the report on local public banking in Ireland was published yesterday. It outlines the current banking environment in Ireland, particularly in respect of access to finance by SMEs and the mortgage market. It then summarises the Sparkassen model of local public banking as it operates in Germany. A considerable analysis was undertaken and there was careful consideration of a proposal for how the German Sparkassen model of local public banking might be implemented in Ireland. The proposal was put forward by Irish Rural Link and the Savings Banks Foundation for International Cooperation, the international development wing of the Sparkassen group. The report also contains a summary of the responses to a public consultation exercise that was carried out to seek the view of stakeholders and other interested parties on local public banking and its potential in Ireland.

Ultimately, the report has found that there is no compelling case for the State to establish a new local public banking system in Ireland in the proposed form. There are a number of reasons for this. The cost to the Exchequer of the proposed new model is estimated at a minimum of €170 million. Furthermore, the Government currently has shareholdings in AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB and its priority is reducing its shareholdings in a manner that will recover the taxpayers' investment over time. Local public banking, as proposed and considered in the report, would involve further State ownership in the banking sector.

The Government is committed to supporting greater competition in the banking sector. There is, of course, no impediment to interested parties separately pursuing the establishment of a system of local public banks in a manner that does not involve Exchequer funding. The Government would encourage any potential new market entrant to engage with the Central Bank of Ireland and the Department of Finance on the matter.

Additionally, there are a number of challenges related to the assumptions underlying the business model for a local public banking system that is proposed and considered in the report. They include assumptions regarding the proposed cost, interest rates and loan attrition rates. Similarly, the suggested locations in the proposed pilot scheme in the midlands would overlap with existing banks, credit unions and post offices.

The Government recognises there are a number of positive aspects underlying the concept of local public banking in general. They include increasing access to finance for SMEs and supporting local communities and economies. The Government is fully committed to supporting SMEs and regional and rural development. It has already put in place a number of policy measures to support these goals, including the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, the Supporting SMEs online tool, the microenterprise loan fund scheme, local enterprise offices, the Credit Review Office and the credit and counter guarantee schemes. The report also highlights the positive contribution of An Post and the credit unions to the Irish banking environment, particularly in rural and regional areas. We will continue to support the increasing role both organisations can play in the Irish retail financial landscape into the future.

It is easy for someone to get a loan when he or she does not want one. It is the people who want a loan who cannot get one. All of the organisations are lovely until someone goes to see them. They put a person through the wringer and he or she comes out with a refusal. What is the good in that? It was confirmed by the Central Bank that the State effectively had a sum of €20 billion. The figure of €170 million is not included because it is for a pilot project. The sum would be only a few million euro. It would not be risk capital. There were to be two pilot schemes, one in Mullingar and the other in north Dublin.

The Department of Finance let the mask slip when it stated in the report: "Furthermore, there is significant evidence to suggest that the Irish banking sector has become increasingly more stable from a capital and funding perspective, and that relative to Ireland's European peers, that there is additional capacity to meet demand for lending to Irish SMEs and households." This is blatant propaganda on behalf of AIB and Bank of Ireland. We all know what the banks are masters of, and it is not processing loan applications or ensuring SME loan applications even occur. I know what they did to people; they wiped them out over €5,000 and €10,000 overdrafts. They tried to sink the whole place yet the Minister of State is protecting them. What would the late General Seán Mac Eoin, a great Fine Gael man, the Blacksmith of Ballinalee, say to this? He would rise up in revolution and he would tell them where to go. The Minister of State should take inspiration from figureheads like that from Longford and Westmeath.

I am disgusted with this. The Department of Finance went too far in praising the banks and, as a result, it revealed its true agenda. In conclusion, the report states: "Nevertheless, the two Departments recognise that the concept of local public banks has its merits and both Irish Rural Link and SBFIC believe that it has the support of many key stakeholders, including private investors." What is the Government going to do to facilitate the credit unions and An Post in regard to developing public banking to serve rural Ireland, disadvantaged communities and small businesses? Fine Gael is still in hock to the banks. It should call them off. It made a mess of the whole thing. It did not sell off when it should have sold off, and now it is down billions and it is trying to protect their capital shareholding and everything else. The dogs in the street and the ordinary people know what is happening, and they do not accept this type of gibberish from the bureaucrats. The Minister of State should tell the bureaucrats what he thinks of them and shake them up.

The Government recognises there are a number of positive principles underlying the concept of local public banking in general. It is committed to commissioning independent external evaluation of other possible ways in which the public bank concept could be promoted in Ireland. This could be by means of an online platform, leveraging the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, the post office and-or the credit unions, or by other means. This could avoid any replication of existing Government support for bodies such as the post offices and the credit unions, which are already providing some financial and banking services in rural and regional areas. It is important to see how what is already in place can be most effectively used to support rural and regional economies and SMEs.

The Government will continue to engage with other interested parties and stakeholders, such as Ireland Rural Link, on this issue by way of a stakeholder forum. Details of this stakeholder forum will be announced shortly. There is a commitment to continue to work with An Post and the credit unions in regard to the development of the provision of financial and banking services provided by them to retail customers and SMEs, particularly in regional and rural areas. In addition, it is also important that SMEs are aware of the range of financial and non-financial supports available from the Government and its agencies. Enabling Irish SMEs to create employment and to contribute to economic growth remains an important Government priority, as well as supporting rural and regional economic growth and development.