Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Science Foundation Ireland Grants

I thank the Minister of State with responsibility for this issue for coming before the House today. I want to raise the issue of the defunding of the INFANT research centre, a perinatal healthcare centre in University College Cork. It is a research centre funded by Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, led by female investigators and the only one of its kind in the State. The centre deals specifically with ensuring better health outcomes for pregnant women and their children and babies, both in utero and after birth. A decision has been made by Science Foundation Ireland to defund the centre. I will not use any other words to describe the decision. No matter what way it is parsed, it was a decision to defund this vital research centre.

The INFANT centre subscribed to an external process whereby its activities were reviewed by an international panel of experts, chaired by none other than Professor Gordon Smith, head of the obstetrics and gynaecology department at Cambridge University. In its deliberations while examining the work and output of INFANT, the panel clearly stated that the centre should continue to be funded by SFI. Under a subsequent decision, which is now in the public domain, SFI instigated its own process. Notwithstanding the rigorous process the research centre has undergone as part of the external review, Science Foundation Ireland decided, based on a second opaque and secretive process, that the INFANT centre should be defunded.

I raise this issue because there are serious question marks over the SFI process. It has not been transparent and neither I nor the taxpayers of this country have sufficient insight into the process by which this decision was made. When millions of euro of taxpayers' money are at stake, we need to hear from the Minister of State the reasons the second process was designed, who was in charge of it and whether the director general of SFI oversaw the second oversight panel. It rankles me that two eminently qualified members of the board of governors of INFANT, Dr. Ruth Barrington and Professor Douglas Kell, resigned recently. According to a statement from Dr. Ruth Barrington, a former chief executive of the Health Research Board, the SFI process was "neither objective nor fair".

I hope that the Minister of State and his officials will have clear oversight of the process. I hope he will give us some hope that he will pour light on the approach taken by Science Foundation Ireland and its director general on this issue.

I thank Deputy Sherlock for raising this issue. I am aware that he is a former Minister of State with responsibility for research and innovation and that he has an interest in this area. I visited the very fine centre to which he refers.

SFI research centre funding for the INFANT centre will cease in May. I welcome the indication from University College Cork that the INFANT centre will continue with research work, having built up a diverse range of national and international funding agencies, industrial partners and philanthropic donors.

As for the background to this case, since 2013 SFI has been building a network of research centres that deliver excellent scientific research, with economic and societal impact in areas of strategic importance to Ireland.

Gabh mo leithscéal, is there a copy of the Minister of State's speech?

Does the Deputy want me to wait?

Areas of speciality include pharma, big data, medical research, nano materials, telecommunications, smart manufacturing and, in the case of INFANT, clinical and health research and innovation in pregnancy, birth and early childhood. SFI's commitment of €429 million to these research centres is complemented by an industry commitment of €230 million. The research centres are an embodiment of SFI’s transformational effect on the national research system. They represent major funding awards, linking scientists and engineers in partnerships across 19 research bodies, including all seven universities, and 328 companies throughout Ireland.

SFI currently supports 17 such research centres. They are approved for funding following a rigorous international peer review process. Once established, each centre is subject to a rigorous on-site review involving international experts every two years. Furthermore, all research centres understood at all times there was not to be any automatic guarantee of additional funding for a new six-year term at the end of their award term. As part of their four-year strategy review, centres were invited to submit a proposal for a second six-year term of research funding. The quality and overall competitiveness of these new funding proposals, from a scientific and impact perspective, were evaluated by the same international experts assessing the centre’s progress to date. In addition, an international oversight panel was involved, whose role was to provide quality assurance to the review process.

In the case of INFANT, the independent international oversight panel recommended that it should not receive immediate refunding. That was the assessment. The independent international oversight panel instead recommended that INFANT proceed to a separate competition to be reviewed against other potential centre applicants in 2020. SFI has followed this recommendation which means SFI’s funding, for the time being, will end in May 2019. The decision, therefore, is the product of a rigorous procedure of evaluation undertaken by a panel of international experts. Through this process, SFI can be assured of an impartial and independent procedure, based on established best international practice. As SFI has run such an international review process in line with best practice, I, as Minister, cannot intervene in the process.

I will revert to the Deputy on two other issues he raised.

The key line in the Minister's response is: "In the case of INFANT, the independent international oversight panel recommended that it should not receive immediate refunding." I know the Minister of State does not wish to deliberately misinform the House. I know notes were prepared for the Minister and I have been in that position. Let us be clear that there are two processes here. One is the international peer review which is the external process. That was chaired by Professor Gordon Smith, one of the most pre-eminent professors of obstetrics and gynaecology in the world, and he enthusiastically recommended refunding without further review.

The Minister of State refers to an international oversight panel. That is SFI's international oversight panel, a second and separate process which is secretive and anonymous and with which none of the researchers or principal investigators involved in INFANT had any dealings. There is something opaque and lacking in transparency in this process. It is for the Minister of State to examine that process on behalf of the taxpayer because I fear that it was deliberately gamed to take out a research centre which is one of the smallest of the seven to hand. The centre was led by women researchers and dealt with women and children. The SFI tried to take out the lowest hanging fruits and thought it was on the path of least resistance. There is an issue of transparency here. Dr. Ruth Barrington and Professor Douglas Kell stood down because they questioned that SFI process.

I implore the Minister to look at this. I am being genuine in the interventions I am making. It is extremely disappointing that UCC did not appeal the decision or back its own female researchers. Why is that? There are serious questions in this regard.

I will deal with two issues I wanted to address in my first response. Is there transparency in the decision on INFANT funding? SFI has provided detailed written feedback from the international review process to the INFANT centre and UCC, as a lead partner. In addition, SFI met the centre and UCC leadership to provide feedback in July and this information pertaining to the review of the new research proposal is confidential to INFANT. I am not privy to it given the strategic importance of research and the high level of industry collaboration involved.

The Deputy asked why one review panel recommended refunding for INFANT and another did not. That is not the case. The review consisted of a detailed written review by the international experts on the progress of the individual SFI research centres and the proposals for future research outlined in the applications. I am told the international reviewers conducted an on-site review and subsequently wrote a report with a recommendation and scores. The final review process then consisted of an international oversight panel, whose job was to provide quality assurance for the review process and to review the normalising scores of the different international panel reviews of the various research centres. This is important as an on-site panel reviewing the research centres comprised different reviewers. The oversight panel was then charged with ensuring conformity and consistency across all reports and making the final funding recommendations to the SFI executive board.

I was disappointed when I was informed of this matter. I have visited the centre and it is an excellent facility. It is interesting that UCC has not made a comment on this. Is there transparency in the decision on the INFANT funding? To my knowledge, there is. If one review panel recommended funding and the other did not, that is as the case may be.

Garda Overtime

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Táim sásta go bhfuil an tAire sinsearach, the senior Minister, is here to deal with this issue.

The Garda Commissioner announced a ban on Garda overtime two weeks ago. That caused considerable concern among gardaí, the Garda Representative Association, GRA, and the public. Something like this occurred in December last year as well but for a much shorter period and funding was found. This year, we are facing a ban that will last for the full final three months of the year. I am concerned that the scale of the pullback in policing this will cause will have potentially serious ramifications for crime and community safety.

The lack of front-line gardaí means overtime has become a fact of life. Sergeants and superintendents say that overtime is essential just to keep a station and a district functioning on a basic level.

Stations cannot function properly without it. For all the Minister's talk, most Garda stations only run at a standstill, even with additional probationary gardaí. Practically every Garda subdistrict and division has fewer gardaí than in 2010 and 2011. To give the Minister a flavour of that in Cork, Garda strength in Blackrock Garda station is down from 31 to 22, Ballincollig from 23 to 19, Watercourse Road from 50 to 45 and Togher is down from 61 to 59. Across the division, Garda strength has declined from by 22 from 700 to 678. However, the position is much worse because senior gardaí have been centralised in specialist units. Who will take the place of upwards of 22 gardaí in the division? It is the current gardaí who do more to fill the gaps through approved overtime. In the absence of this overtime, operations and ordinary patrols will not proceed. Overtime is needed to try to fill the gaps and keep an adequate number of gardaí rostered and patrols and checkpoints on the streets.

A ban on overtime is a blunt instrument. This is essentially an outright ban, which means we are heading for a long winter with gardaí being pulled and stretched in every direction. The Christmas period often sees an increase in crime, specifically burglary and public order issues, as well as greater demand for managing major events and increased road traffic patrols and checkpoints. Gardaí will be expected to do all this with only the most basic resources.

The Minister will echo Commissioner Harris's statement that overtime will still be available for specific policing and security operations, but only with the approval of the relevant assistant commissioner following discussion with the deputy commissioner in charge of policing and security. All additional overtime sought by any station will have to go to the desk of two of the most senior gardaí in the country. Officers have been advised that it should only be incurred if approved in exceptional circumstances. Either the two senior gardaí in question will spend the rest of the year going through reasonable overtime applications or, far more likely, many sergeants and superintendents will assume they are not meant to ask. In the meantime, much work that the gardaí would do and want to do will not happen.

Last week, I paid tribute to the Garda on the significant successes it achieved recently in tackling the scourge of serious and organised crime. Some of that involved major operations and investigations and was intelligence-led. A significant roll-out of checkpoints and surveillance also played an important role. Will such measures be sanctioned? Will we see patrols on the streets where we need them? A lack of overtime will seriously hamper the ability of the Garda to continue with these operations. The Minister said he meets gardaí regularly. He needs to meet the Garda Representative Association, GRA, on this issue, and with Commissioner Harris to see how this can be resolved because I am concerned that this will not work over three months.

I listened carefully to the Deputy. I want to clarify that the Garda Commissioner is responsible for the allocation of the very substantial budget that An Garda Síochána receives. I do not politically interfere in policing matters nor direct the Commissioner where to deploy resources. The allocation of Garda resources is a matter for the Commissioner, in light of his identified operational demands and arrangements for Garda overtime. It is not a matter for which I, as Minister, have responsibility. This is in accordance with the Garda Síochána Act 2005 under which the Garda Commissioner is the Accounting Officer for the Garda Vote and is responsible for the effective and efficient use of the resources at his disposal. Under the Act, the Commissioner is responsible for directing and controlling An Garda Síochána and for carrying on and managing generally the administration and business of An Garda Síochána.

I again confirm the Government’s firm commitment to supporting An Garda Síochána and ensuring that the organisation is appropriately resourced. The resources available to An Garda Síochána have reached unprecedented levels, with provision this year of more than €1.6 billion, including the allocation of €98.5 million for overtime. As I stated, the allocation of these resources is a matter for the Commissioner, in light of his identified operational demands. I am informed by the Garda authorities that expenditure on overtime to the end of September 2018 amounted to €95.1 million. I am further informed that, in order to limit the projected overspend for this year, the Commissioner has directed a number of measures to effectively manage Garda resources and limit the need for additional public funding. I am informed that these measures include cancellation of overtime for administrative purposes to ensure that front-line policing services have the required resources for the remainder of the year. I understand that some other measures have also been put in place in relation to overtime. For example, Garda management has been directed to ensure that Garda duties such as attendance of Garda members at courts and in the management of prison escorts are undertaken on regular tours as opposed to on overtime. A range of other measures to reduce expenditure across a number of other subheads, including travel and subsistence, was also introduced to limit the need for additional funding.

Management of Garda resources by the Commissioner in this way does not equate to a ban on overtime, as mentioned by the Deputy. I am informed that the cancellation of overtime for administrative purposes is precisely to ensure that front-line policing services continue with sufficient resources. I have been informed by the Garda authorities that all essential policing operations, such as Operation Thor, will continue as before.

I remind the House that Garda overtime cannot be considered in isolation. We are making tangible progress on achieving the Government’s vision of an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 personnel by 2021, including 15,000 Garda members, 2,000 reservists and 4,000 civilians. Since the opening of the Garda College in Templemore in September 2014, almost 2,200 recruits have attested as members of An Garda Síochána and have been assigned to mainstream duties across the country, including Cork.

The unprecedented investment now being made in Garda ICT infrastructure, with €342 million between 2016 and 2021, will enable An Garda Síochána to deliver on reform, work more efficiently and deploy the latest cutting edge technologies in delivering professional policing and security services for the community, as conceded by Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

The key issues are that management of the Garda budget, including overtime, and management and control of An Garda Síochána are matters which, by law, fall to the Garda Commissioner.

I am disappointed by the response and fairly sure that people listening in will also be disappointed. At the end of the day, the Minister is the paymaster. There are budgetary issues for An Garda Síochána, some of which may relate to its management of resources. There has to be a better way to approach this than the blunt instrument that has been put before us. The Minister may argue that this is not a ban but when one asks districts and divisions to clear the test set for them, that is as good as an overall ban. The Minister is the paymaster and the person with the greatest political accountability for An Garda Síochána and its role in tackling and preventing crime and in community safety. If this becomes a difficulty over the course of this winter, I would not be surprised if the Minister started to sing a different tune. He should head this off at the pass and seek a meeting with the GRA. There is nothing to prevent him from doing that under any statute. He meets the association regularly. He should meet it about this specific issue, hear what its representatives have to say and let them outline the implications that this will have.

John O'Keeffe of the Garda Representative Association stated:

This is an extraordinary development. As overtime is only ever incurred where necessary and must be approved in advance. Where the requirement continues to exist, it is clear evidence of a resourcing issue. Overtime is essential if our members are to provide an effective policing service to the general public in Dublin and across the country.

He also noted that the Oireachtas needed to be especially conscious of the "signal this directive sends to the criminal fraternity". The GRA is expressing very serious concerns, which are warranted. Whatever way one cuts it, fewer hours means less policing and less Garda visibility on the streets. The Minister will be answerable for that. There is time to resolve this matter. There are three months of the year left. The measure is probably beginning to cut. The Minister should head this off at the pass, meet the GRA and try to explore alternatives.

I am concerned to ensure that any potential misunderstanding of this issue is firmly avoided. Management of Garda overtime is not a matter for which I have responsibility as Minister.

Budgetary provision for An Garda Síochána is more than €1.6 billion, including an allocation of almost €100 million for overtime. The allocation of Garda resources is a matter for the Commissioner in the light of his identified operational demands. I am informed by the Garda authorities in response to the projected overspend for this year that the Commissioner has directed a number of measures to manage the resources of An Garda Síochána effectively. I want to ensure that the measures are such that front-line policing services that have required resources for the remainder of the year are intact. I have been informed that all essential policing operations such as Operation Thor will continue as before.

I do not accept that there is a ban on overtime. I do not consider the actions of the Garda Commissioner as a ban on overtime. Overtime cannot be taken in isolation from the other resources available to An Garda Síochána. There has been significant capital investment in Garda ICT and in the Garda fleet. We are making real progress in increasing the numbers to achieve the targets for the next three years. Under the governance and oversight arrangements in place between my Department and An Garda Síochána, there is regular structural engagement between An Garda Síochána and all relevant parties relating to resources, including overtime, as appropriate. It is for the Garda management to manage effectively and efficiently the significant resources being made available to them in accordance with operational need. The Commissioner has my full support and that of the Government.

HIQA Reports

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath. I acknowledge his commitment to improving services, especially in the area of disability and care.

Serious issues arise in terms of safeguarding all people who are in care in nursing homes, disability centres and children's services. While I acknowledge the vast majority of staff who work in the homes and institutions are dedicated, committed, caring and compassionate, there are serious problems with the quality of care in many centres. Safeguarding legislation is urgently needed. I call on the Minister of State and Members on all sides of the House to act collectively so that we have effective action and a determined Taoiseach to lead a new Cabinet subcommittee to advance the best possible legislation to protect citizens. That must become an immediate priority for the Government. We measure society in terms of how we care for and protect those who are most vulnerable, weak and at risk.

It is almost a year ago since I started to find out exactly what was going on in HIQA, what information it got and what it did with it. Under freedom of information HIQA very kindly decided to charge me the sum of €11,000 to get to the bottom of the situation. Thankfully, when I appealed to the Information Commissioner he quashed HIQA's decision. I will now outline some of the facts that I found.

I will deal with disability centres first, of which we have more than 1,000. There are more than 8,800 residents in the centres and there were 8,177 notifications of concern about care and welfare. Some 4,600 of them were about suspected or confirmed abuse, which is more than 52%. A total of 1,364 related to cases of serious injuries by the residents that required immediate medical or hospital treatment. There were 2,726 allegations of physical abuse, more than 1,000 of psychological abuse and more than 209 of sexual abuse. Some 14% of disability centres were referred to the HIQA regulation risk committee, and 20% of service providers were required to attend meetings to discuss their level of non-compliance with HIQA regulations. A total of 9% of registered centres have additional non-standard conditions applied to their current registration.

A total of 51 centres were issued with a notice of proposal to cancel or refuse their registration, and to date only 18 have registered. There are very serious problems in the centres. In spite of all the thousands of notifications HIQA received, both unsolicited and mandated information, there has been no investigation by HIQA or anyone else into the allegations. There is no memorandum of understanding between the Garda and HIQA. There were discussions on one but it did not happen and that is unacceptable. I have been in touch with the Ombudsman who is ready, willing and able to take up all of those cases if they are sent to him, but that has not happened to date.

We need the Minister of State's support and we need reform. The Government must be committed to that. I know the Minister of State is personally committed to the introduction of safeguarding legislation to ensure each allegation is investigated and that we protect the most vulnerable. During my supplementary questions I will deal with the response of the Minister of State and nursing homes.

I thank Deputy O'Dowd for raising this issue and for the opportunity to respond to the House. The safety and protection of vulnerable people in the care of the State is paramount. The Government's primary concern, and my concern, is that their needs are being prioritised and addressed. More than 23,000 older people and 8,500 people with a disability are in receipt of residential care in Ireland from more than 1,600 service providers. HIQA is the statutory independent regulator for residential services in the disability and older persons sectors. HIQA has published standards against which it registers residential services for older people and those with a disability. The standards establish the requirements for people living in residential care to ensure high-quality, safe and effective services which promote person-centred care, uphold the rights of people, respect privacy and dignity, and protect people living in residential care from abuse and neglect. Service providers must ensure that all reasonable measures are taken to protect residents from all forms of abuse. They must have policies and procedures in place for the prevention and detection of abuse and the response to it. Many people do not know that. Furthermore, operators must notify HIQA of any allegation of abuse or serious adverse incident that occurs in a residential centre. HIQA welcomes information about designated centres for dependent persons, reviews all information about services received, and calculates it against the regulations and standards. If there is a serious risk to the health and welfare of persons accessing the service, HIQA may decide to take appropriate action.

A report by HIQA on the use of information gathered and received in the regulation of services was received by my Department this week and we are examining this very useful document. The report outlines how unsolicited information and mandated monitoring notifications are received and reviewed by an inspector of social services who assesses the related risk and decides on a regulatory response. Every piece of information received, whether unsolicited or mandated, is reviewed in such a manner. I know that some concerns were raised recently in the media about the manner in which unsolicited information received by HIQA was dealt with. HIQA reports that in 2017, a total of 820 pieces of unsolicited information were received in connection with older persons' services. In the case of 342 of those pieces of information, further information or a provider-led investigation of the issue identified was requested following initial review and risk rating of the information. Review of the unsolicited information triggered 17 targeted inspections. HIQA concluded that none of the issues raised by the unsolicited information required referral to other organisations. HIQA reports that in the case of disability services, from 2,911 pieces of unsolicited information, further investigation or provider-led investigation was requested in 140 cases, ten targeted inspections were triggered and none of the issues raised by the unsolicited information required referral to other organisations.

Where referrals are required, they take place. In the case of children’s services, 13 of the 108 pieces of unsolicited information received were signposted to Tusla’s complaints process, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children and the health and social care professionals regulator, CORU. I note that HIQA is very open and transparent regarding the information it gathers in its regulation of services and publishes an annual report.

I again ask the Minister of State to commit to bringing forward legislation to protect all vulnerable people. These concerns have not been dealt with. There was no investigation of individual cases and none of the people affected was consulted. One in every six persons living in a nursing home - a total of 30,000 persons - was the subject of a care and welfare mandatory notification or unsolicited information given to HIQA, while in the past year one in every 12 suffered serious injuries requiring immediate medical or hospital treatment. That is entirely unacceptable. Some 4% or more than 1,338 of those residents suffered a fracture or fractures, while 3% or 899 cases involved confirmed or alleged abuse, including 366 cases of physical abuse, 138 of psychological abuse and 68 of sexual abuse. Some 9% of all nursing homes were referred to the HIQA regulatory risk committee, while 18% had additional non-standard conditions applied to their registration and almost 20% had to attend meetings to discuss regulatory non-compliance.

The report did not just land on the desk of the Minister of State. Rather, it was prompted by my freedom of information request and the decision of the Information Commissioner to take action on the attitude displayed HIQA towards transparency, as referred to by the Minister of State, and accountability. I have met representatives of HIQA, the Information Commissioner and senior gardaí on the issue. I ask the Minister of State to commit, as I believe he can and will, to bringing forward safeguarding legislation to protect all such vulnerable people because these cases involve serious issues which are not being dealt with. It is unacceptable that the human rights of some of the most vulnerable in society are compromised, yet none of the thousands of complaints received by HIQA was considered.

I thank Deputy O'Dowd for casting light on this very important issue which the Government takes very seriously. It is very important that any allegations are comprehensively dealt with. The safety and protection of vulnerable people in the care of the State is paramount and my primary concern is that their needs are prioritised and addressed. The progressive development of quality care within these services is clearly demonstrated in the inspection reports regularly published by HIQA. My Department received the HIQA report earlier this week on the use of information gathered and received in the regulation of services. I have noted the steps taken relating to the handling of these issues, including decisions made in terms of referrals to other organisations.

On the safeguarding of vulnerable people at risk, of course, I support the main point put forward by Deputy O'Dowd, namely, that the HSE has a national safeguarding policy and procedure to protect vulnerable people at risk of abuse. That policy was published in 2014 and is now under review by the HSE. It is anticipated that the review will be completed by the end of 2018.

On legislation, the Government approved the development of the health sector adult safeguarding policy and work is under way to develop a clear, consistent and carefully considered and implemented policy platform including legislation as may be required. I agree with the points raised by Deputy O'Dowd. The Government is committed to bringing forward legislation on this issue.

National Planning Framework

Four Members have tabled the next Topical Issue. They each have one minute to make an initial statement. If they exceed it, they will be depriving a colleague of time.

We were informed by email that we would have one minute and a half each for an initial statement, followed by 30 seconds for a supplementary question.

The Deputies have one minute each for an initial statement followed by 30 seconds for a supplementary question.

Let us begin. The clock is ticking.

Deputy Casey is nearly out of time.

As the Minister of State, Deputy English, is aware, I raised this issue in the House and at committee as soon as the draft national planning framework was published. I expressed my concerns, of which he is well aware, at that stage. Those concerns were confirmed when the national planning implementation roadmap was published at the start of the summer.

I will refer to Wicklow specifically in the few seconds I have remaining. The county development plan adopted only a year ago and approved by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government provided for population growth there of 42,500 up to 2031. However, the proposed national planning framework implementation roadmap now provides for population growth in Wicklow of 22,750 in that period, a decrease of almost 50%. That has serious implications. Some €120 million has been invested in critical infrastructure in Wicklow town but planning permission for housing in the town will not be granted until 2026 and even then only permission for 20 houses will be granted. Arklow has not had a waste water treatment plant for 30 years but is now getting one. However, under the plan only 24 houses may be built there per year.

Sixty seconds is insufficient time to explain the potential crisis and problem which will affect not only my county of Kildare but also County Wicklow and the Minister of State's home county, Meath. The draft plan indicates that 53% of all growth in County Kildare will be in the northern metropolitan part of north Kildare but I wish to address Newbridge and south Kildare. Newbridge is the economic and trading centre of the county but it needs a mechanism to allow it to grow and develop sustainably as a town. We want an opportunity for the people of the six towns, 32 villages and 18 settlements of south Kildare to live, obtain employment, have access to services such as schools and have communities. However, this plan will stymie growth. Under the plan, only slightly more than 8,000 residential units may be built in south Kildare up to 2032. That number has already been exceeded in planning for Newbridge and County Kildare. The plan is ridiculous. It will push up the price of housing, ensure that we will not have affordable housing at a time of great crisis and prevent development of the infrastructure needed in south Kildare.

The introduction of the national planning framework makes no sense in the middle of a housing crisis when we are seeking to have residentially zoned land developed in an attempt to address the housing issue which is under discussion in this House every day of the week. It does not stack up. I have spoken to private individuals and representatives of the local authority about this issue. In my constituency of Kildare North, land currently zoned for housing would be dezoned under the national planning framework. Building in various areas would be stopped. Significant funding is being invested through the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, and other funding streams to deliver ring roads, bridges, waste water treatment plants and so on. Under the national planning framework, that infrastructure would be built but the houses it will service which were planned for development and growth of certain areas under the guidelines and plans that were in place would not. I ask the Minister of State to take on board the argument my colleagues and I are making, namely, that equalisation of population may make sense at some point in the future, but it does not make any sense now. It must be done on a phased basis over a five or ten year plan or more but certainly not overnight. We ask him to consider this issue because it is having a serious negative impact on local authorities and north Kildare, which I represent.

It need hardly be restated the housing crisis is in full swing - one can almost hear the drums outside the House on Kildare Street. Every inch of available land is being considered for development. Funds such as LIHAF have been put in place and every kind of assistance and support is available to ensure such land can be developed to provide housing units. However, while we are in the centre of this crisis, under this plan land is being dezoned and further growth in the commuter belt is actively being curtailed.

The population of Naas, the county town of Kildare and a tier 1 growth town under every plan for the past 20 years, is projected to grow to 50,000. Local authorities, State agencies and public representatives of all hues have been working towards that goal. Infrastructure has been put in place. Some €110 million is being spent on the N7 bypass and Sallins train station has been massively upgraded. Several new schools are being built in the area.

The Osberstown wastewater treatment plant is being upgraded. I refer to the Naas ring road and the Sallins bypass. The Millennium Park employment centre is being built, with the Kelly Group and other multinational companies locating in the area. Everything that is needed for growth of a county town with a population of 50,000 is in place, including the infrastructure, services and other supports. It has been planned and ready to go for the past 20 years and just as we are on the cusp of that coming good, we are now being told to pull down the curtain, turn away and build no more. That is insanity at any time, but particularly in the middle of a housing crisis. I hope the Minister of State will consider that.

I thank the four Deputies for raising these matters and welcome the opportunity to discuss the implementation of the national planning framework, NPF, on which we are now focused. The national plan was published earlier this year. It sets out the long-term strategy for the future development of Ireland as a whole, and the NPF implementation roadmap was published subsequently to address a number of practical implementation measures.

To prepare the NPF, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, was commissioned to prepare population projections, based on demographic and econometric factors, for the years ahead to 2040. The ESRI conclusions are in line with the latest mid-range Central Statistics Office, CSO, population projections, also published this year. I am conscious that each local authority has other ways of predicting population projections as well, so there is time, during discussion on these regional plans, to agree on the population figures and how we can try to monitor them as best we can.

At a high-level national policy context, the NPF is to be followed by more detailed regional strategies that are being prepared by the three regional assemblies. In turn, local authority development plans are being prepared by the 31 local authorities. The aim is that the county plans would align with the regional plans, which align with the national plans also. There is a fair amount of scope within those plans to allow for proper planned development, which is what we are trying to achieve.

Notwithstanding the finalisation of the national planning framework, there were many calls from local authorities for individual county population projection data, which became necessary to address inaccurate, locally driven estimates derived from NPF regional figures and which were leading to commentary, which was well wide of the mark, about population allocations and caps. As was stressed in the House during the debate on the planning Bill, it is not about caps. That is not what we are trying to achieve. It is about proper development and reaching targets in a sustainable way in terms of building houses, jobs and all the other services. The caps have become the issue but we need to tease that out more to ensure we can get agreement on reaching level 2 because we want to have proper planning for what we are trying to achieve.

To provide clarity, my Department published the NPF implementation framework, including projections for individual counties, based on the ESRI work and the NPF. That was accompanied by a detailed circular, which outlined how the projections would be applied, taking account of transitional factors, and which was to enable the regional strategies to plan for the period to 2031 and for local authorities to plan to 2026.

The focus on population figures alone, however, risks missing the point about the purpose of planning and having a national planning strategy. The Deputies will be well aware, as will other Members in the House, of recent and historic trends which saw very high levels of housing developments in areas on the margins of Dublin, which did not always match the growth in local employment opportunities and the provision of essential amenities and services for fast-growing communities. That is something we discussed at the very early stage of the national planning framework. In counties like Wicklow and Kildare and my county of Meath that undertook a lot of housing, we have to make sure, under the national planning framework, that we join up the dots, that those houses are serviced properly, that they are provided with all the amenities they need, and that they have the jobs matched up as well. Without doubt, more houses will have to be built, but we also have to plan for everything else those counties did not get, and they did not get the proper funding to go with that. They got all the development and all the housing but they did not get the resources to match everything else up. The essential part of the regional plans will be how we join up those dots. Our areas of Wicklow, Meath and Kildare are singled out in the national planning framework for special attention in terms of how we can achieve that.

It is right that we are having this conversation but we should not get sidetracked on the population caps. They are not necessarily meant to be caps. They are predictions of where we are trying to go. While I understand the debate has become focused on that, we need to determine how we can get this teased out to get agreement on plans that give us what we need for our counties. Focusing on the populations is missing the point.

We need to move away from the old and failed models of just zone and build, which, while rewarding landowners and developers with high financial returns from speculative housing development, did not tackle the longer-term issues facing existing communities, often from previous suburban expansion, such as congested roads, pressure on schools, limited amenities and a general sense of housing being provided ahead of jobs and services, not the other way around. We need the balance. How do we get the building of housing at the right pace whereby we can match up the infrastructure? I am very conscious that some of these counties have invested in infrastructure that was probably needed ten years ago but is in place now. We have to make sure that is used as well. It is about having that conversation to decide how we can achieve that in a planned and co-ordinated way and not focus just on caps. It is about how we can get good planning, allowing for the population increases that will happen, but also trying to ensure there are population increases in the future in the other counties that did not see such increases.

I thank the Minister of State for his answer. I was well aware what it would contain. Population, deaths, births, marriages and net immigration are the cohort in terms of how we calculate this. In Wicklow, however, the population grew where the infrastructure was located. That is the only place Wicklow allowed the population grow. The Minister of State is getting skewed figures for Wicklow. The Taoiseach stated less than four hours ago that there is a housing crisis. We have the infrastructure in Wicklow town and the Minister of State is saying that, with this roadmap, we cannot build a house until 2026. That does not make sense. What is the process for adopting the draft regional spatial and economic strategy? If it is not agreed at assembly level, what happens? I understand the implementation roadmap is not a statutory document. As he agreed to do in the House before we rose for the summer recess, will the Minister of State bring the regional plans before the House for debate by all the relevant Deputies?

I will be brief. I have another question for the Minister of State. What does he really think about this issue? I am not sure that what he said to us in his reply is what he really thinks about it. He will bear in mind that we did not get a copy of his reply, which are sometimes difficult to follow, but I have a major concern about his comment that our towns will not get the infrastructure they need if they are not in the metropolitan area of Dublin or in areas around Dublin, even though they are in County Kildare. Such infrastructure would include the second bridge in Newbridge. We might not even get the final delivery of the outer relief road for Athy because the Minister of State is saying that housing will follow the infrastructure. I agree that we need infrastructure, but we need that development for our towns as well.

The reality is that the caps will stop the building because if the Minister of State applies the figures being produced in the national planning framework to the local authorities' local area plans, that will cause a problem and it will stop building. Those figures are being reached now. In my constituency of Kildare North, the land that is zoned, with the commencement notices in, will reach the figures predicted in the national planning framework. We are delighted to have this conversation with the Minister of State in a meaningful way to bring about a practical solution because this does not make any sense. The infrastructure is in place. Whether it is wastewater, roads or bridges, it is happening, and it will be delivered, but if this was to be implemented properly in the national planning framework, we would have houses that do not match the infrastructure in place.

I am glad that both Ministers with responsibility for housing are in the Chamber. The chair of the Housing Agency, Dr. Conor Skehan, in terms of the national development plan, referred to the foolishness of these types of initiatives and of the overall plan. Let us be clear on what we are doing. In the middle of a housing crisis we are taking established areas in our commuter belt that are supplied with infrastructure and services, with serviced and zoned lands that are ready to go, and we are saying we should put a curtain over them and fold them up for 20 years. That is insanity. In the case of Naas, the 2031 caps have been met, with the sites under construction in 2018. The 2031 figures will be reached, possibly later this year. For the next 11 or 12 years, there will be no more housing in that commuter belt. That is insanity.

I will give a quick reply, if that is in order.

I think the Deputies took the Minister of State's time but I will allow him the two minutes to reply.

I will be brief. I apologise about the script. I have copies here.

Just say you will change it all. That will be fine.

It is my fault. I had copies with me but I forgot to arrange for them to be handed out.

In fairness to Deputy Casey, he asked at the end of the debate on the planning Bill if we would have a discussion on this matter. I am sure that can be facilitated either in the House or in committee because in our Department we like to do that and talk through what we are trying to achieve with these regional plans. I know the Deputy genuinely wants to ensure there is proper planning, and there is scope in the case of Wicklow, which is projected to have population growth of 15,000 by 2026, plus another 8,000 on top of that. The question is how we make sure that happens and go forward with the plan in a co-ordinated way thereafter. That is a fair increase in population. Likewise, the figure for Kildare is in excess of 31,000. That is a lot of people to accommodate, and I am not convinced this will happen as quickly as people believe it will. The regional plans are a means of talking that through and working that out.

To be clear to Deputy O'Loughlin, I have always said that we need proper planning. That is what the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, wants, and it is what I want. That is the purpose of the planning framework in terms of our planners. I have been consistent on that throughout my 20-year political career. We did not see good planning in Kildare, Meath, Wicklow and many other counties, and we are trying to achieve that. The obsession should not be with the targets. It should be with having proper planning and building more houses while at the same time providing the infrastructure, the necessary community services, jobs and so on.

In the past, we had the houses but did not have the jobs to match them. That is why we got clogged up. It is not that we are trying to cap any particular area, but we must consider how to achieve that ambition in a proper, planned and co-ordinated way. That is what we are trying to achieve through the regional and county plans.

I accept that the debate has become focused on targets and caps. We need to move away from that and have a good discussion on good planning. We are happy to do that because there is agreement to be reached here. We also want to bring the councils on board with the regional plans. It is good planning and we are all part of that. We are discussing it in the House endlessly. We are going to have a two-hour debate now about housing failures. They are to do with poor planning and investment in the past but we are trying to get it right for the future. That is what we are trying to achieve through this as well.