Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

General Practitioner Services

I first wish to express my concern at reports that the out-of-hours GP services in the Fermoy and Mitchelstown area will cease shortly. We are being told that a stricture is being put on that service on the basis that if a GP is over the age of 60 or is pregnant, the service may no longer be sustainable. This is very worrying news and if taxpayers' money is being used to fund the SouthDoc service, the matter must be addressed in a way that ensures absolute transparency about the decision-making process. We do not want to see a loss of out-of-hours services in the north Cork area.

Second, the issue of section 39 organisations, which includes SouthDoc, worries us greatly. A strike will be held on Tuesday, 15 December and we express solidarity with the workers in that regard. We want to ensure those workers are paid and get their due rewards but we also want to ensure that we do not lose services in this area.

I also stand in solidarity with the section 39 organisations. We cannot afford to lose SouthDoc services in Fermoy and Mitchelstown. We have discussed the lack of rural transport many times in this House. If we lose these services, people will have to go to Mallow, Cork city or all the way to Midleton and we do not have very much public transport.

It is impossible for those without public transport or private cars.

I also wish to raise how the HSE and the board have worked on the AGM. My correspondents said a text message about the AGM was received on 17 September. They had been advised by email on 10 September that it was taking place. No messages were received about motions and no ballot papers were received on the vote on the motions. There has been no explanation whatever to those working in SouthDoc on what has happened. As the previous Deputy noted, the conditions coming from the HSE are that anyone over 60 years or pregnant may not participate in these services. This is public money. It is a vital service being provided by the people who work in the system and want to provide the service but they seem to be stonewalled, blanked and excluded on certain issues. We cannot allow this to happen.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. The Government is aware of the workforce issues facing general practice in Ireland and that Covid-19 has made accessing GP and GP out-of-hours services more difficult. I acknowledge the continued dedication of GPs towards their patients during this unprecedented time.

I can assure the Deputies that efforts continue to develop and maintain GP capacity throughout the country and that progress is being made. As Deputies noted, GP out-of-hours services for Cork and Kerry are provided by SouthDoc, a private organisation with more than 20 health centres located across the two counties. In March, the board of directors of SouthDoc informed the HSE of their decision to implement plans to deal with the serious challenges being posed by the progression of Covid-19. The measures, which became operational on 14 March 2020, were put in place to protect the patients and staff in the out-of-hours setting.

In accordance with public health guidance, patient in-person contact with GPs surgeries and out-of-hours services has been curtailed as much as possible to help prevent the spread of the virus. Medical advice is provided over the phone where appropriate, and only patients who are clinically assessed as requiring a face-to-face consultation with a doctor are referred for an appointment.

Further to this, the board of directors of SouthDoc made the decision to close a number of health centres. In recognition of the impact of Covid-19 on general practice and to ensure that GPs continue to provide essential services, a package of measures to support general practice was introduced from mid-March. Likewise, a grant payment for GP out-of-hours service providers was also introduced from March, to support the continued provision of out-of-hours services.

The HSE has informed me that in the period following the closure of certain service locations, the board of directors and medical directors of SouthDoc have regularly reviewed their contingency service plans, and the closed health centres have been reopened on a phased basis. All centres in Cork city and county, with the exception of Blackpool for north Cork city, have now reopened. The centre in Fermoy was reopened on 10 June.

The HSE is in continued discussions with SouthDoc on how its service will be delivered in the weeks and months ahead and has requested that the reopening of the Blackpool centre be prioritised. SouthDoc has assured the HSE that every possible effort has been made and will continue to be made to avoid or minimise any impact on patients, and has informed the HSE that plans are being prepared for the reinstatement of services at the Blackpool centre, the only centre that remains closed.

There are no plans at present to change the provision of SouthDoc out-of-hours services in Fermoy and Mitchelstown. Any changes to the current service provision in any treatment centre would be subject to discussion with and approval by the HSE Cork-Kerry community healthcare chief officer.

I welcome the response insofar as the Minister of State has stated on the Dáil record that, "There are no plans at present to change the provision of SouthDoc out-of-hours services in Fermoy and Mitchelstown." I welcome the fact that any service provision changes would have to be subject to discussion. It seems the Minister of State's response acknowledges that this is a private organisation.

The key point is that there must be transparency about any decision-making procedures where they relate to the diminution of services for a massive geographical area from the Blackwater valley, the Kerry border over to the Waterford border, covering the towns of Mitchelstown and Fermoy and any points in between. GPs have told me this is a proposal to cut off a centre by stealth by imposing guidelines about GPs who may be pregnant or over 60 years. Doing that automatically removes one-third of the capacity of the centre in Fermoy. That is unconscionable and something we must push back against. I welcome the Minister of State's response, but we are holding the Government's feet to the fire on this because it is important that we do not lose the services. I take the Minister of State to be a decent and honourable person and take her at her word, but we will continue to monitor this situation and to support section 39 employees because we want to ensure that we do not lose our GP out-of-hours services, notwithstanding the reduction in capacity.

I also welcome the Minister of State's response. It referred to out-of-hours services and concluded by saying, "Any changes to the current service provision in any treatment centre would be subject to discussion with and approval by the HSE Cork-Kerry community healthcare chief officer." That is what I was trying to say - that the communication between the HSE and GPs in SouthDoc does not seem to be there. One person wrote to me to say that if, for example, the other out-of-hours services providers and the HSE adopted such ludicrous measures, the whole system would collapse, but luckily for the people and patients of County Cork, it is only SouthDoc that seems to be doing so.

I welcome the Minister of State telling us that the system will remain open, but the left hand is not seeing what the right hand is doing. The HSE is saying it is implementing things and will cut one-third of the services. It gives the case for why it is not viable. It has a hugely detrimental effect on the whole north Cork area which will spill out to Midleton or to Cork University Hospital or to Mallow. It is not feasible. I will give the Minister of State the information I have and appeal to her to ask the HSE precisely what has happened, where is the breakdown with the board members, and what happened with the board meeting. Why were the GPs not consulted? It is worst for the patients in the area who need the service. They are in fear of what might happen and all they want is clarity that the service will be protected well into the future. We all know that rural areas are losing GPs all the time. It must be sorted out once and for all.

I thank both Deputies again for raising this really important issue. I know how important this service is in any community, and out-of-hours is especially important. The Government remains committed to ensuring that patients throughout the country continue to have access to GP services. Both Deputies asked why certain GPs were being excluded from the SouthDoc rota. The HSE is aware of that, including the exclusion of more elderly GPs. I think Deputy Buckley also mentioned a pregnant GP. It is understood that this in an attempt to maintain the health of staff more at-risk from Covid-19-----

I ask for a bit of latitude. I know of no Irish College of General Practitioners guidelines on the exclusion of GPs from delivering front-line healthcare on the basis of being over the age of 60 years or pregnant. I would caution the Minister of State not to use that line with us, please. I would also caution against the use of the word elderly in characterising certain GPs.

As Minister of State with responsibility for older people, I would never offend any of our older people. If the Deputy gives me a chance to finish, he might not find it necessary to interrupt me.

It is understood that this is an attempt to maintain the health of staff who are more at risk of Covid-19. However, as a private organisation, the rostering of GPs is entirely an operational matter for SouthDoc. Neither I nor the HSE has any role in this regard. I reiterate that the HSE has advised that there are no plans to change the provision of SouthDoc out-of-hours services in Fermoy and Mitchelstown.

Hospital Procedures

Scoliosis patients have a certain window in which they can be treated before treatment becomes too physically, mentally and emotionally distressing. Scoliosis is a painful and disabling condition that impacts the child and the family. Sophie Redmond is 11 years old and has scoliosis. She also has issues with her knee ligaments. I was lucky enough to meet Sophie yesterday, along with her little brother, Tyler, her father, Eric, and her mother, Sam. Sophie is like a little unicorn, bringing smiles and colour wherever she goes. Recovery from any operation to straighten the spine will require walking. However, because of Sophie's knee ligament issue she will need to have a knee operation first, which will take time to recover from. It is vital that Sophie's knees are operated on so that she will be ready for the time-sensitive scoliosis operation.

Sophie cannot cross the street unattended because of the fear that her knees might buckle, causing her to fall in the middle of the road. As a result of health system failures her spine is pressing into her lungs and pelvis. She has difficulty breathing as a result. Sophie is an 11 year old in a rapid growth phase. How bad will the Government let Sophie get? Will she be permanently physically and mentally damaged? No one can say that Sophie's condition is not impacting negatively on her mental health. Children with scoliosis cannot thrive while they are in discomfort and pain. This is a time when they are young and developing and should be thriving. An 11 year old should be physically active and enjoying the outdoors. Sophie does not want to do physical exercise because of her condition and she increasingly lacks confidence. Her confidence is taking a beating and she is constantly afraid of hurting herself.

Sophie is living in fear. She and her family are prisoners of the public health system which has failed her. The surgeries Sophie requires must be carried out in a children's hospital, as she needs specialised paediatric equipment and admittance to a children's intensive care unit, ICU. Sophie will be left crippled. If this happens, it will be on the heads of this Government and this Minister. Covid-19 cannot be used as an excuse. The Minister for Health clearly stated that he was ashamed of the waiting list for scoliosis patients. In 2018, the then Minister for Health said that no child would be on a scoliosis waiting list for more than four months.

Is the Minister of State ashamed that children like Sophie and other scoliosis patients have to wait so long for their surgery? Sophie is not a unique case. There are so many children like her waiting on scoliosis surgery. Care cannot wait and scoliosis waiting lists are unacceptable. Will the Minister of State clearly say what she will do to ensure that scoliosis sufferers like Sophie have the treatment they urgently need?

I would like to thank Deputy Andrews for raising this issue and for giving me the opportunity to provide the House with an update on scoliosis services for children on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly.

I sincerely regret that children can experience a long waiting time for treatment for scoliosis and I am conscious of the burden this places on them and their families. This Government's priority is to improve waiting times for all patients accessing hospital treatment across all specialties, including orthopaedics. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Children's Health Ireland, CHI, had to take measures to defer most scheduled care activity between March and May of this year. This decision was in line with the advice issued by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, in accordance with the advice of the World Health Organization. Since June, CHI has continued to re-establish services, following HSE clinical guidelines and protocols to ensure services are provided in a safe, clinically aligned and prioritised way. CHI has advised my Department that spinal surgery continues to be identified as a service priority.

I note that infection prevention and control requirements such as social distancing of 2 m have a material impact on the physical space available for the delivery of all hospital services, including scoliosis procedures. This has had a significant impact on both available capacity and operational activity levels. Despite these challenges, by the end of October CHI had carried out 255 scoliosis procedures, 123 of which were spinal fusions and 132 of which were other spinal procedures. While this is 20% behind activity levels for the same period last year, CHI is committed to improving activity levels and is examining innovative methods to improve access to all specialties, including orthopaedics. For example, CHI is working with the Cappagh National Orthopaedic Hospital to transfer additional patients who meet the clinical criteria for treatment at Cappagh. CHI is also working with the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, to source additional theatre space to facilitate both scoliosis and wider orthopaedic demands.

In relation to the individual case referred to by the Deputy, section 6 of the Health Service Executive (Governance) Act 2013 bars the Minister for Health from directing the HSE to provide a treatment or a personal service to any individual or to confer eligibility on any individual. Officials in my Department remain in regular contact with CHI regarding scoliosis services. CHI has advised that all patients with a diagnosis of scoliosis require a pre-operative work-up prior to spinal surgery, including multiple diagnostic investigations and review by a multidisciplinary team. The plan of care implemented for each patient is tailored to best meet the patient's clinical requirements.

I am aware that parliamentary questions and public representations have been made to the Minister and the Department in respect of the specific patient referred to by the Deputy. CHI has advised my Department that the hospital is in ongoing contact with the family of the patient in relation to their surgery.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. Unfortunately I did not hear any notes of hope for scoliosis patients or for Sophie. She is representative of so many children with scoliosis and the frustration that they and their families feel. The State is robbing them of their childhood because of inefficiencies in the health system. That is not something we as a Parliament should be standing over.

Like many other children, Sophie suffers from 22q11.2 deletion syndrome. This is a disorder caused when a small part of chromosome 22 is missing. This deletion results in the poor development of several body systems. The effects on every child are different. This can cause mental health issues for one child and chest or heart issues for another. Many children can have this syndrome without even knowing they have it. This adds to the problem. Many children with scoliosis also suffer from 22q11.2 deletion syndrome. It complicates their condition and adds to the urgency of treating them.

It is not just spinal surgery they need; very often they require a whole suite of surgeries, operations and treatments. Like I said at the start, I just feel that the Minister and the Department are not putting in the required resources to ensure that children with scoliosis and children such as Sophie get the treatment they need so urgently.

I am acutely aware of the distress and inconvenience caused to patients and their families when urgent care is delayed and I thank the Deputy for raising the case of Sophie and the fact that she is waiting for her scoliosis operation. Improving waiting times for hospital appointments and procedures remains a key commitment of the Government. The long-term strategy to develop sustainable scoliosis services remains a priority for the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and his Department. His officials continue to work closely with Children's Health Ireland and the wider HSE to improve access to treatment for children with scoliosis.

It is acknowledged, however, that the challenges faced by the health system in 2020 are unlike anything we have ever faced before. I am very aware of the impact that Covid-19 has had on our health service and the delivery of scoliosis services. Children's Health Ireland's commitment to prioritise spinal surgery and to find new ways to deliver care exemplifies the work undertaken by the HSE to provide care in a challenging Covid-19 environment.

Officials from my Department continue to engage on an ongoing basis with representatives of CHI and HSE officials to monitor scoliosis services, waiting lists and activity levels. I welcome the work undertaken to date by Children's Health Ireland to improve access to spinal surgery.

I reiterate that the Minister is aware of the parliamentary questions he has been asked and the public representations that have been made to him and his Department in respect of the specific patient referred to by the Deputy. Children's Health Ireland has advised the Department that the hospital is in ongoing contact with the family of the patient regarding the surgery. I hope for Sophie's sake that it happens very soon.

Road Projects

I should not be here today. I am looking for an update on a project, namely the Coonagh-Knockalisheen distributor road, which would effectively take out the cul-de-sac that Moyross currently is. In 2007 the then Government and the Cabinet committee on social inclusion, as part of a regeneration project, produced a report which became known as the Fitzgerald report. One of its key recommendations was to consider improving accessibility into Moyross. The report specifically identified that the Coonagh-Knockalisheen distributor road should be progressed as a matter of urgency. The people of Moyross are still waiting 13 years later. As of this moment Limerick City and County Council has gone through the tender process and is about to award a contract, but the document is on the Minister's desk for approval. I have discussed this with the Minister at length over recent weeks. I feel we have committed to the project as a Government under the national development plan and the Fitzgerald report.

The project stands on its own merits on a number of levels. It is a €58 million project. To date, €17 million of taxpayers' money has been spent on the project - wisely, in my view, but nevertheless a third of the money has been spent. The breakdown is €9.47 million on advance work contracts, €1.4 million on other works and archaeology, €3.7 million on land and property and €2.7 million on planning and design. If one looks from Coonagh Cross over towards Moyross and at the back of Caherdavin, one will see the works. The physical works have already started on the road. Furthermore, €5 million has already been allocated to the project this year which they have not been able to use. This is about improving access. A road from Coonagh to Knockalisheen would stand on its own merits and take Moyross away from being a cul-de-sac for social, economic and accessibility reasons.

Furthermore, there is a rail network running alongside Moyross which would provide the added advantage of opening that up to provide a railway station. All the lands around it have been procured, so a proper park-and-ride facility could be provided. It would also ensure that the bus network could be made more efficient. At present a bus goes into Moyross, into Pineview Gardens, which is a cul-de-sac, meaning it has to turn back. A separate bus goes into Ballynanty. That should be a streamlined service from Coonagh to Knockalisheen, down the Knockalisheen Road and out by Hassett's Cross. Furthermore, cycling and walking facilities could be provided all along the link, which would aid healthy living.

Everyone in Limerick is in favour of this project: Limerick Chamber, the council, civic leaders and, most particularly, the people of Moyross, on the north side of the city. I would like to hear an update on the project. We need to get it fully delivered. It is a stand-alone project. This is about ensuring we fulfil the commitment given to the people of Moyross under the regeneration programme to ensure that Moyross is no longer a cul-de-sac. The road would provide many other socio-economic and accessibility-related advantages to the area. I hope the news today will be that the Minister will now sign off on the proposal to allow the contractors to conclude this stand-alone project, which is both a socio-economic and an accessibility project for the people of Moyross. I met the Moyross Residents Forum with my fellow Oireachtas Members on Monday night. They cannot understand what the delay is here. They have been waiting for this project since 2007. We need to see it delivered now.

I join Deputy O'Donnell in committing absolutely to giving the very best transport system possible to the people of Moyross and, more widely, the people of Limerick.

The improvement and maintenance of local and regional roads is the statutory responsibility of the relevant local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. State grants, where applicable, are intended to supplement the funding allocated to the maintenance and improvement of roads by local authorities from their own resources.

The national development plan does provide for the gradual build up in funding for the road network but funding is not yet at the level needed for the adequate maintenance and renewal of regional and local roads. For this reason the primary focus for capital investment continues to be the maintenance and renewal of the network with some limited investment in road improvement schemes. In this context 12 regional and local road improvement schemes were identified for development, subject to necessary approvals, in the NDP, and the construction of the Coonagh-Knockalisheen distributor road is one of those schemes.

I am aware that the origins of this scheme lie, as the Deputy said, in the Limerick regeneration programme. The distributor road was one of a range of measures proposed in a report prepared in 2007 by John Fitzgerald to address social exclusion and deprivation in the Moyross area. The lack of accessibility, including the lack of pedestrian and cycling access, in the Moyross area was seen as a barrier to economic development and as contributing to social exclusion. The masterplan developed subsequently by the Limerick Regeneration Board in 2008 set out detailed action plans for the regeneration of disadvantaged areas in Limerick, including Moyross, with improved transport and access seen as important tools in improving socio-economic conditions. The aim was to attract mixed-use development to the area to promote local employment and services and provide public transport services together with high quality infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists.

While my Department agreed to support the project some ten years ago, the funding cutbacks associated with the post-2008 recession delayed implementation of the scheme. This meant that while significant advance works were carried in the period 2017 to 2019, the main scheme is only now getting to construction decision stage. Under the public spending code, capital projects are subject to review and approval at a number of stages. As required under the project appraisal procedures, Limerick City and County Council has submitted a recommendation on the award of a contract for the construction of the scheme.

I am considering the project carefully at present and plan to visit Limerick shortly, probably early in the new year, to walk the route and engage directly with stakeholders. I will then make a decision on the council's contract award recommendation.

The other point the Deputy mentioned is a vital one in terms of improving the transport system for the people of Moyross and the wider Limerick area. As the Deputy stated, a rail line does go through the area, namely, the Limerick-Ennis-Galway rail line. The reason for my review and the consideration of this project in the wider context is that I believe it may be possible for us to put forward a truly radical proposal for the whole of Limerick city, including the construction of a public transport system on existing rail lines in Limerick which connect the city in a range of ways, with the introduction of a number of stations which would completely transform and lift the city into the future. We are in the middle of a consultation on the Limerick metropolitan area transport strategy and I believe it is absolutely appropriate for me, as Minister, to consider such radical proposals in favour of new public transport systems on existing rail lines which could, and to my mind should, include the provision of a new rail station and a regular commuter service for the people of Moyross. In that context, it is good transport planning and policy and housing and development policy to consider what implications such a radical change to the whole transport infrastructure in Limerick, and particularly the area of Moyross, would have in terms of what we do in all transport projects in the area.

I thank the Minister for his reply but I must take issue with it. He referred to delay of the project. There is €5 million allocated to the project for this year. There is no issue with funding here. This is an issue of sign-off from the Minister to allow this road project to go ahead. He stated it is now getting to construction decision stage. If he walks the route, he will see construction has already taken place from Coonagh Cross to the back of the shopping centre and that major capital works have already taken place to raise the level of the road in the area so that the road can go ahead.

Irish Rail already has an application in to the National Transport Authority and the Department of Transport to provide a rail station in Moyross. I fully agree with the Minister about rolling out rail services, but this road project and the provision of a rail link are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are complementary. If this road is not put in, it will be impossible to have a proper functioning rail service in terms of being able to access it.

Is the Minister suddenly going to allow Moyross to continue to be a cul-de-sac? One cannot drive into Moyross from the top end. For me, this project stands on its own merits. It is in the national development plan. It was committed to under the Fitzgerald report and by successive Governments. The Minister has been a member of some of those Governments. This project is about honouring our commitment and promise to the people of Moyross and the north side of the city. My view is that it is very simple. This project stands on its own. It has nothing to do with a proper rail network, which I fully accept is needed. In fact, this project will ensure that we can advance a proper rail network in the city and have a proper functioning train situation in Moyross, along with a park and ride system, to serve the people of Moyross but, equally, they should be able to access the top end of Moyross rather than it being a cul-de-sac. It is probably the biggest and longest cul-de-sac in Ireland and that is unacceptable. I hope the Minister commits today to look at the issue and agree to sign off on it and allow the project to proceed. It is not about funding; it is about approval from the Minister. I look forward to working with him overall on rail projects in Limerick city but he should not confuse the matter. These projects are not mutually exclusive. The Coonagh to Knockalisheen road project needs to get the go-ahead now.

I absolutely commit to working with the Deputy. Moyross cannot and will not be a cul-de-sac. We have to give its residents a world-class quality transport system that lifts the area and the whole of Limerick into the future. The Deputy stated that Irish Rail has submitted an application for a rail station in Moyross but in reality there was no such plan included in the first draft of the Limerick metropolitan area strategy for this suburban rail system for Limerick. I believe it has real merit. It is not just in the interests of the people of Moyross. Much of the advantage of this for Limerick is that there is existing rail system infrastructure, with numerous lines into the city which are under-utilised and which could transform the way the city works.

What I am trying to do as Minister for Transport, with the Government, is to see whether we can promote this new vision for how the whole of Limerick works. In particular, I believe it would have significant benefits for the people of Moyross as well as the people of Shannon. In the review of supports for Shannon Airport we committed to provide a suburban rail service from Shannon, through Moyross and into the centre of Limerick and then look to do something similar on the Foynes, Ballybrophy and Limerick Junction lines. I believe that when that works together as a whole it would completely change and improve the transport network for Limerick. It would serve the people of Moyross best if we were able to get agreement on that. I believe we may be able to do so in the very near future and I seek the Deputy's support in that regard. That means we have to get it right in Moyross. One has to consider what exactly that would imply in terms of how we then address the opening up of Moyross and the ending of its current cul-de-sac nature. It is good transport planning to get this right as an integrated whole.

As the Deputy stated, one project does not take from the other. However, one has to consider them together and that is what I am committing to do, along with the people in the community, the local councils and civic actors. Let us not miss this opportunity to set a future for transport in Limerick which is sustainable, social, economically beneficial and lifts the city. It would help to prevent development being vested in Dublin. Rather, development would start to be spread out in line with the national planning framework, particularly and most especially with the installation of the very best infrastructure in those areas that have been most left behind. I believe that would best serve the people of Moyross and that regeneration project which, as the Deputy stated, has been in train for 15 or 17 years. We need to get it absolutely right by putting the best transport infrastructure in place and that is what I hope to do.

What about the-----

Sorry, Deputy, we are moving on to the next matter.

This is about opening up. The projects are not mutually exclusive. Time is being lost on this project. I hope the Minister will consider it for funding straight away.

I am sure the Deputy will meet the Minister at a later stage to discuss the matter further. I know how important it is. I thank the Deputy and the Minister.

Credit Unions

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, for taking this Topical Issue. I received a reply from him in the past hour. This week, my office has been inundated with phone calls regarding credit unions and the regulations governing them. Several credit unions across the country need to hold annual general meetings in order to pay out dividends and interest rebates to their members. The members of those credit unions have included the payments in their Christmas budgets. They know that credit unions charge a fractionally higher interest rate but that at the end of the year there will be a rebate. That rebate is very important to the members.

Clonmel Credit Union in my constituency of Tipperary is one such institution. It has a large membership and is a very strong credit union. Councillors Siobhán Ambrose and Micheál Anglim brought this issue to my attention this week. Clonmel Credit Union has performed exceptionally well even in this difficult year. It is in a position to pay out some €1.8 million in dividends and tax rebates to its members. That is a sizeable sum of money, particularly at the time of year when families and individuals need it most. It has been an exceptionally challenging year. Members were relying on this money to pay bills, buy grocery shopping for Christmas and cover the other additional costs of Christmas. The credit union traditionally pays out the money in the first week of December. As a result of certain regulations and rules preventing credit unions from holding virtual AGMs, this much-needed payout is being prevented.

The credit union needs to approve these dividends and interest rebates at the AGM or they cannot go ahead. I am aware that other organisations, including a farming organisation with 20,000 members, are holding their AGMs on Zoom. It is hard to understand why there are not regulations in place to enable credit unions to hold a virtual AGM.

I wrote to the Minister of State about this issue yesterday and, in fairness, I have received a reply from him. I ask that he and his Department intervene to ensure, as quickly as possible, that regulations are amended to allow virtual AGMs for credit unions to go ahead. We knew that the level 5 Covid restrictions would cause issues in this regard. I see from his reply that the Minister of State is working on the issue. Is there any way, in the three weeks before Christmas, to give an amnesty to credit unions to allow them to hold their AGMs? The amending legislation has gone through the Seanad and there is a very short timeframe to get it passed in this House. Getting this money in January or February will not have the same beneficial effect for credit union members. Traditionally, they knew this cheque would be coming through the letter boxes after the first weekend in December and they could use it to cater for Santa Claus or whatever else. Members knew the money was coming. I have had numerous telephone calls from people expressing huge disappointment that it will not be coming this year.

This issue will affect members of other credit unions. In the case of Thurles credit union, for example, its AGM is also delayed. It does not have the same steadfast tradition as Clonmel in this regard but it would normally pay a dividend to members. Clonmel has a tradition down through the years, as I said, where it always pays a very significant dividend to members. It has a huge membership and the addition of €1.8 million into a provincial town in this particular year is not be dismissed lightly. I know the Minister is working on the legislation but is there any possibility of allowing virtual AGMs to go ahead before Christmas to enable credit union members to avail of dividends and rebates?

I thank Deputy Cahill for raising this issue relating to Clonmel credit union. He has been in contact with me about it on a couple of occasions in recent days. Normally, in the run-up to Christmas, as the Deputy outlined, the credit union would have paid out an interest rebate or dividend, having had its AGM and having received authorisation to make those payments.

The Government recognises the important role credit unions play in Irish society as volunteer co-operative financial institutions. In the current environment, credit unions are appropriately focusing on the health and well-being of their volunteers and staff and continuing to serve the needs of their members. Credit unions are important at both a local and national level, given their community presence across the country.

It is important to note that virtual AGMs are not prohibited by Central Bank regulations. Rather, they are not allowed under the Credit Union Act 1997, which sets out that there should be an AGM which members can physically attend. That is the issue we are having to deal with now. It is for this reason that the Government brought forward the Finance (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020 to allow, among other matters, for the holding of virtual AGMs by credit unions.  The Government approved the drafting of the Bill based on the general scheme on 6 October and, once the drafting phase was complete, the Bill was published on 18 November. It passed all Stages in the Seanad last week and I thank Senators for their co-operation in that regard. It will be introduced to the Dáil next week, subject to the schedule of the House.  The Bill is priority legislation for the Government to get enacted before Christmas and we look forward to the co-operation of Deputies to ensure that happens.  I am confident that it will happen. Once enacted, the legislation will take immediate effect and credit unions will be able to hold virtual AGMs from that point.  The legislation also provides for an interim period which extends the deadline for credit unions completing end-September 2020 AGMs until 30 April 2021.

The principal reason the AGMs are not happening is that the Covid restrictions mean it is not possible to have an indoors gathering for a large AGM such as that of a credit union might be. It is an issue that has arisen solely because of Covid. Given that we do not know when the restrictions will end or the format of those restrictions as we head into the new year, we decided to bring the legislation forward to allow credit unions, if they so wish, to have virtual AGMs from January. It will take time for the boards of directors to set a date for an AGM and put the arrangements in place for a virtual meeting. It is envisaged that the meetings will not require participants to use a laptop. People can take part by telephoning in, for example, or by way of other technology and, depending on Covid restrictions, a blended meeting may be possible. Some people may be able to physically attend while others will participate by telephone or other electronic means. It is a function of the AGM, when it happens, to approve the payment of a dividend or rebate of interest.

Covid has been the particular problem in terms of the delays that have arisen up to now. I hope the directors of the credit unions know that we expect the legislation to be enacted well before Christmas. As such, they should commence arrangements to set a date for their virtual AGM as early as they can manage in the new year. I encourage Clonmel credit union and others to start moving on their initial preparations. Once the legislation is passed, they will be able to set a date promptly for their AGM.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. We all accept that we are in an unprecedented year, but it is a pity that we have got to this impasse. Unfortunately, from what the Minister of State is saying, the credit union members and their families will be the losers and the money they had planned and budgeted for will not be available to them.

Is there any possibility that a statutory instrument could be used to allow the AGMs to go ahead virtually? I accept that the Minister of State has got the legislation through the Seanad in very good time and he will get it through the Dáil as quickly as he can. However, that will not allow the AGMs to take place before Christmas. Can he introduce a statutory instrument, as he is progressing the legislation, to allow the AGMs to proceed? It is deeply disappointing for people in Clonmel not to receive these payments. I am making the case strongly for Clonmel but, as I said, credit unions in other towns will be experiencing the same difficulty. Is there any way to get around this impasse? I fully accept the Minister of State's bona fides in this matter and I acknowledge his efforts in progressing the legislation. In terms of legislative parameters, he has worked extremely quickly. However, the fact remains that, as things stand, this money will not be in circulation before Christmas. A statutory instrument might allow the AGMs to take place and the dividends and rebates to be put in people's pockets and in circulation to cover Christmas expenses.

I thank the Deputy for his remarks. As I outlined in my response, the prohibition on a virtual AGM is set out in the Credit Union Act 1997. It is not possible to change primary legislation by way of a statutory instrument. Much as I might like to be able to say otherwise, it is important to be clear and not to build up any false hopes that this could be an option. Statutory instruments are secondary legislation and one could only be brought into effect if the Act in question made specific provision for that.

The Deputy mentioned that other voluntary organisations are holding virtual AGMs in the coming days. I am a member of the GAA and I am aware that local GAA clubs are doing the same. The difference in this case is that credit unions are covered by legislation and cannot make their own local arrangements. Other voluntary organisations that are not so governed by legislation have the flexibility to make their own rules at local level without restraint of legislative provision.

Due to the vast sums that people invest in, and borrow from, credit unions, it is necessary in a democracy to have legislation in place to protect depositors, the credit unions and the communities they serve. They cannot be set aside by a Minister signing a statutory instrument.

I urge the credit unions involved to engage immediately with the Central Bank to get approval, if it is required, for the payment of a small dividend or a refund of interest, so they can have arrangements in place as urgently as possible. However, in practice, that will be early in the new year. I hope their members will understand. Their hands are tied because of the Covid situation and they cannot hold the AGMs at this point. We will do everything that we can as early as possible, but it will take another couple of weeks.