Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Charitable and Voluntary Organisations

I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. This story is not finished but the catchcry of "Are we there yet?" is one that is very well known to Irish people. Bóthar would be perceived as one of the more earthy charities. It is one to which I have contributed myself over the years because there was always a tangible output, or at least that was the perception. Instead of just sending money, there was a tangible result from the contributions the public made, namely, the charitable contribution of live animals and other agricultural produce and materials to developing countries. The premise on which the charity was founded, and on which it succeeded and caught the public's imagination, is that Irish people could finance the sending of a cow, a sheep or a goat and that it would make a manifest difference and impact on the lives of local communities in developing countries.

We have been here before with charities like Console. We thought that was the end of it, that corruption within the charitable sector was over and would never again be tolerated, that it would be much easier to root out and that charities would be subject to much more intensive interrogation, oversight and regulation. However, we find ourselves back at the same point again, not due to the corporate outlook or objectives of an organisation but because of the greed of a few. The Government must give some response to try to reassure the public. As we know, it is often those with the least who give most and over the years people have donated small, or sometimes significant, amounts to such charities. They did so with the best will in the world, as part of an ethos in this country that goes back to our connection to suffering and hardship and our empathy for those who have to endure the same kind of suffering and hardship. It is a crushing blow to people to discover that when they made that gesture and gave to people in countries less developed and less well off than our own, the organisation mediating those funds had within it corrupt and greedy people who would go to great lengths to corrupt the funds, and to cover their tracks in the process.

The issue itself has been well publicised in the newspapers, including the secreting away of significant funds by members of Bóthar and the payment of bonuses to staff. I would like to know what contributions the State made to this charity, whether through the Minister of State's Department or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, over the years. I look forward to his statement on the matter.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter. The Charities Regulator, under the aegis of my Department, is the State organisation responsible for registering and regulating all of Ireland's charities, with a mandate to promote good governance practices. It is important to note that the regulator is fully independent in the performance of its statutory functions, including investigations into the activities and conduct of charities. All registered charities in Ireland and their trustees are subject to the provisions of the Charities Act 2009. This Act sets out comprehensive legal obligations surrounding the definition of charities and their operations and reporting requirements. Concerns relating to charities may be raised with the regulator and I am assured by it that all such concerns are addressed. Members of the public can also search the Register of Charities to obtain information on registered charities.

Where breaches of charity legislation are identified, the charity is contacted with a view to addressing such breaches. In serious cases, the regulator may appoint investigators to carry out a statutory investigation, as happened in the case of Bóthar.

The Charities Regulator has been engaging with Bóthar since early 2020 on foot of concerns which were raised about the charity. In October 2020, the regulator determined that a statutory investigation into the charity was warranted and appointed inspectors to commence this investigation. It is important to note that the commencement of such an investigation is not a finding of wrongdoing. As the Deputy may be aware, however, a criminal investigation is now under way into activities at Bóthar.

At the request of An Garda Síochána, the Charity Regulator's statutory investigation into the affairs of Bóthar has been temporarily paused until such time as the criminal investigation is complete, at which time the regulator's investigation will resume.

It would not be appropriate for me, the regulator or my Department to comment further on what is an ongoing criminal investigation. I remind the Deputy that the programme for Government includes a commitment to update legislative provisions with the Charities Regulator to ensure it has the necessary powers to increase trust and confidence in the management and administration of charities.

There is ongoing liaison between officials in my Department and the Charities Regulator to review the operation of the legislation to ensure that it is operating effectively, and to consider amendments to the Charities Act 2009. This work is at an advanced stage and it is intended to bring proposals to Government in the very near future to progress the legislation.

The Minister of State's response was fairly general. I understand the circumstances in which it perhaps might be general. Can he comment on whether this particular charity is engaging in fundraising activities at the moment? That is the first point. Has it been engaging in fundraising activities since the launch of the investigation?

The Minister of State said the Charities Regulator had been engaging with Bóthar since early 2020 on foot of concerns raised about the charity. Can he explain what engagement means? What is the difference between engagement and investigation by the Charities Regulator? What powers does the Charities Regulator have with regard to this engagement?

Does that charity continue to fundraise? Is the Minister of State aware of any State grants or State funding that have gone to Bóthar? I am making an assumption that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine would be involved but I could be wrong. I am just making the connection because livestock are involved but I refer to any Department. Has any funding continued since the Charities Regulator began to engage with Bóthar in 2020? Has the Minister of State's Department provided any funding to that charity since engagement with the Charities Regulator began in 2020?

Can the Minister of State give us a little bit more granular detail? There is an awful lot more in the press and in the public domain than was contained in his statement this morning. The statement was quite disappointing given the extensive coverage in the print media over the last three or four months, and particularly in the last few weeks because of particular circumstances. There is significantly more detail in the national media than what was presented in the Minister of State's statement today, which was disappointing. That is not a comment on him but on the information he has been given despite what is available to the public through the media. Responsible broadsheet print media have covered this extensively.

My statement is defined by the fact that there is a criminal investigation. I am obviously limited in terms of the detail I can give. Under the provisions of the Charities Act 2009, however, the Charities Regulator works closely with other regulatory bodies and organisations to uphold the integrity of charitable organisations and trusts.

In late 2018, the Charities Regulator introduced the charities governance code, which sets out the minimum standards that charity trustees should ensure are met within their charity to effectively manage and control their operations. This includes core standards pertaining to the responsible management of a charity's resources and principles of accountability and transparency.

From 2020, the charities governance code became mandatory for charities and as of 2021, charities will be expected to report directly to the Charities Regulator on their compliance with the code. This is an important step forward in strengthening governance in the sector.

In addition, work is ongoing in my Department on amendments to the 2009 Act. As I mentioned earlier, this is at an advanced stage. It is vital that these developments take place with the input and co-operation of the charities sector. My Department and the regulator continue to work together in this regard to improve public trust in the sector.

I can confirm that the Department of Rural and Community Development has not funded Bóthar in the past. I will also say that in this instance, the system worked. A report was made and the Charities Regulator started to investigate. Informal investigations were then launched, which has brought us to this stage. Much of what is essentially white-collar crime can be difficult to detect and as with much other crime, we are dependent on the public to assist the gardaí in detecting instances like this. In this case, however, the system worked and the regulator did its job, notwithstanding the accounts we are hearing in the media at the moment.

Waste Management

I have raised this issue many times. I basically seek the Government to put in place a waiver for families with disabilities or where there are long-term illnesses, for example, where incontinence pads or pull-ups are required in the case of children or young adults, so that the cost of refuse is defrayed or reduced. This would be by virtue of the introduction of a national waiver, which would be sanctioned by Government and would provide a measure of financial alleviation for many hard-pressed families, in particular, working families with children with disabilities.

I raised this issue, about which I feel very strongly, on a number of occasions with three Ministers. What is of little cost to the Exchequer could have a massive impact on the annual expenses of families who rely on incontinence pads or where there are significant medical issues, particularly families with children who have a requirement, either in childhood or young adulthood and onwards, for pull-ups or other such mechanisms or measures that are necessary in dealing with their particular conditions or illnesses.

Ministers, including the Minister, Deputy Ryan, have told me that there is, in essence, a price monitoring group. He said:

In an effort to see how best to support persons with long-term incontinence with respect to the disposal of medical incontinence wear

[...]

... [His] Department ... [had] been examining this issue in detail for some time and has engaged with relevant stakeholders, including representative organisations and the HSE.

I merely wish to know whether the Government is giving active consideration to this. In anticipation of the Minister of State's response, I would say please do not come back to me with the general data protection regulation, GDPR, response or the sensitive medical data response. The Minister of State has responsibility for that area. It has been thrown up as a red herring in respect of not dealing with this issue.

One cannot expect a family to dispose of this type of matter through recycling or through the compost bin. That is self-evident. It must be done through residual waste.

In parts of the country with a weight-based system, bills are high as €400. I have seen examples of €400, €500 and €600 per annum. It is a significant cost. For what would be a small, barely measurable dent in Exchequer funding, this could have a massive impact for families, and it can be done. People yield up sensitive medical information to the Department of Social Protection when applying for an invalidity pension, a disability allowance or an illness benefit. A similar scheme could be devised for these families where sensitive medical data could be yielded up in a safe, responsible and secure way.

It would have a massive impact on thousands of families throughout the State who are bearing a massive financial burden.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I am answering this matter because the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, recently delegated authority over waste policy and the circular economy to me.

I appreciate that the Deputy has had a long series of engagements on this issue and that it is not yet resolved.

The waste management market in Ireland is serviced by private companies, on a side-by-side competition basis. Prices in the market are matters between those companies and their customers subject to compliance with all applicable legislation, including contract and consumer legislation.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, published A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy in September of last year. The plan includes more than 200 measures and will shift the focus away from waste disposal and looks instead to how we can preserve resources by creating a circular economy.

In June 2017, the Government decided to phase out flat-fee or flat-rate charges for residual kerbside household waste collection to deliver on national policy and to ensure that Ireland meets current and future waste targets as well as to ease the pressure being placed on our capacity to manage residual municipal waste. The Government decision also envisaged "the provision of a financial support to persons with lifelong/long-term medical incontinence to help meet the cost of disposal of medical incontinence wear".

Since mid-2017, a range of charging options have operated, which encourage householders to reduce and separate their waste. This provides flexibility to waste collectors to develop various service-price offerings that suit different household circumstances. Mandatory per kilogramme pay-by-weight charging was not introduced. A price monitoring group, PMG, was established in mid-2017 to monitor the ongoing cost of residential waste collection to homeowners across Ireland as the flat-rate structure was being phased out. While fluctuations in prices and service offerings have been observed, the overall trend has been relative price stability. Results from the PMG are available on my Department's website.

Since the 2017 decision to phase out flat-rate fees, the Department has examined a number of proposals to deliver the proposed support for incontinence waste, including through detailed engagement with the HSE, Department of Social Protection, National Waste Collection Permit Office, Office of the Data Protection Commissioner and relevant non-governmental organisations in an effort to find a workable scheme for the delivery of such a support. Unfortunately these efforts have not been successful to date, including due to the absence of a list of persons who are in receipt of free medical incontinence wear from the HSE. However, general data protection regulation, GDPR, issues arising, including consent and principle of data minimisation, and procurement issues and administrative costs if a private third party were to deliver the support on behalf of my Department, were also contributing factors.

My officials are continuing to review these efforts to establish what further actions, if any, can be taken pending the availability of the list of recipients of free medical incontinence wear from the HSE.

It should be noted that there has never been a national waiver scheme for household waste collection. During the period in which local authorities were directly involved in the collection of household waste, a minority of individual local authorities offered different levels of discount to selected households, based on different qualification criteria. As local authorities exited the waste collection market, some required the private operators that took on the local authorities' customers to provide a level of discount for existing waiver customers only, and even then, for only a limited time.

With the exception of one or two municipal districts, local authorities no longer collect waste. Waste collection is now serviced by a diverse range of private operators, where the fees charged are a matter between service provider and customer and the range of services and fees offered vary amongst providers and across the country. In that regard, it is apparent that a national waiver scheme could not be imposed in the context of an open market for waste collection.

The Minister of State said there was a Government decision envisaging "the provision of a financial support to persons with lifelong/long-term medical incontinence to help meet the cost of disposal of medical incontinence wear". What he has told us is that they have no intention of doing this. Minister after Minister has been talking around and telling me the same thing for nearly four years.

We either look after vulnerable people in this society or we do not. On the suggestion to families that this is a market solution and that they should go to their local provider, I can tell the Minister of State that I have a family with two children - their parents are John and Neasa - a five-year-old and a 15-year-old, both on pull-ups. Their cost is €400 per year. A working family with a mortgage trying to do their best, they know that they will have to deal with this as a long-term issue for their children. They went to their local provider but the market will not sort them out because their local provider, which is a significant collector of waste in the north Cork area and provides an excellent service, has said that this is a matter for Government. There is a Government decision on this.

I was hopeful, dare I say it, that a Green Minister with responsibility for this would come to me with an answer that would at least see some progression of the issue. I ask the Minister of State not to throw the market issue or the price monitoring group at us and to bring in all of the providers and get it done if at all possible. So many families throughout the country would be so grateful that some Government finally would have dealt significantly with this issue. For a small cost to the Exchequer, it would be so meaningful for so many families.

The Deputy is correct that there is a Government decision from 2017. I am restating that. It is a problem that needs to be solved.

My Department has been examining this issue in detail for some time and has engaged with relevant stakeholders, including representative organisations and the HSE, in an effort to see how best to support persons with long-term incontinence with respect to the disposal of medical incontinence wear. However, there are complex issues at play in this area which are understandable given the sensitive nature of the medical data in question.

The delays in establishing a suitable scheme are primarily due to the absence of a list of persons who are in list of persons who are in receipt of free medical incontinence wear from the HSE. However, GDPR issues arising such as consent and principle of data minimisation, and procurement issues and administrative costs are also contributing factors. One can see that there is a concern if we are asking the HSE to provide a list of people with long-term incontinence problems to waste providers. It is not an insurmountable problem but there is a genuine issue there.

My officials are continuing to review these efforts to establish what further actions can be taken. These efforts will continue, focusing particularly on pricing trends. Since mid-2017, a range of charging options have operated, which encourage householders to reduce and separate their waste. This provides flexibility to waste collectors to develop different offerings that suit different households. Mandatory pay-by-weight charging was not introduced. A PMG was established in mid-2017 to monitor the ongoing cost of residential waste collection to homeowners across Ireland as the flat-rate structure was being phased out. While fluctuations in prices and service have been observed, the overall trend has been relative stability.

In September, I launched a new national waste policy for the period 2020 to 2025, A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy. This plan contains a range of measures to empower households to enhance consumer protection requirements. It also envisages an enhanced monitoring of the market to ensure that no changes occur in relative price stability.

School Meals Programme

There is a grave injustice being done to the 149 pupils who attend Knockmore Junior School in Killinarden and a similar injustice being done to 91 other schools and the children who go there. These are schools that applied for the hot school meal programme because they need it and they lost out on the basis of a lottery. It is completely unfair.

There is plenty of academic evidence, not that we really need it, to show the importance of good nutrition and the difference that it makes in the education children get, how attentive they are in class and how healthy they are.

These 149 students, as it stands, will lose out when many of their brothers and sisters who are slightly older and going to other primary schools in the area would be able to access it. Faith told Kitty Holland from The Irish Times:

I have a big sister and she will be getting hot lunches. It's just not fair.

It is also not fair on the parents in those situations. I am seeking a commitment from the Minister of State today that Knockmore Junior School will be given access to hot school lunches.

I would also make the broader point that this is not just about Knockmore Junior School but about the 91 other unsuccessful schools, all of the DEIS schools and potentially, all of the schools in the country. Why on earth should some children not get what they need because of a lottery? We are not talking about a lot of money in the greater scheme of things. It costs €370 per child who accesses this scheme. Does the Minister of State agree that the scheme should be rolled out initially to all DEIS schools and then expanded out from there?

I have a question about Mary Queen of Angels Schools 1 and 2 in Ballyfermot which share the same campus. Both applied for the hot meals scheme. One school was successful but the other was not. The fear of the boards of management and the principals is that there will be a preference among parents to enrol their children in the school that provides the hot meals and the other school will be left behind.

I concur with the points made by Deputy Murphy about the inequality of the system and the unfairness of running hot meals on a lottery rather than on where they are needed. That must be questioned in the wider scheme of things in terms of the need for this programme. The Minister for Social Protection, in her response to my parliamentary questions, acknowledges that this is a good thing. As has been said, proper nutrition, particularly for younger children, is hugely important. There is a problem with obesity in children throughout the country but particularly in areas of low income and disadvantage. Rolling out a proper hot meals school programme is not radical but is really just catching up with where the rest of Europe has been for many decades. Hot meals are given out in schools in Britain and there is no question of a lottery. In fact, there is not a question of it not happening and the same is true in France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Finland, Lithuania, Slovakia and Cyprus, to name but a few. This has been normal practice in Europe where if one works in a large factory, one expects to have a decent canteen and when one goes to school, one also expects to have a decent canteen providing hot meals. Telling us that providing cold meals is good enough is unacceptable. I was getting sandwiches and milk in school when I was a kid and that is a long time ago. We need to move on and provide hot meals to all children.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. The school meals programme provides funding towards the provision of food to some 1,506 schools and organisations benefitting 230,000 children. The objective of the programme is to provide regular, nutritious food to children to enable them to take full advantage of the education provided to them. The programme is an important component of policies to encourage school attendance and extra educational achievement.

The Government has provided €65 million for the school meals programme this year. As part of budget 2019, funding was provided for a pilot scheme from September 2019 providing hot school meals in primary schools at a cost of €1 million for 2019 and €2.5 million in 2020. The pilot involves 37 schools benefitting 6,744 students for the 2019-20 academic year and was aimed primarily at schools with no on-site cooking facilities. The extension of the hot school meals programme was a priority for the Minister and myself and as part of budget 2021 we announced that an additional €5.5 million would be provided to extend the provision of hot school meals to an additional 35,000 primary school children who were, at the time, in receipt of the cold lunch option. That represents a sixfold increase in the number of pupils receiving hot school meals.

The Department issued invitations for expressions of interest to 705 primary schools in November 2020 and a total of 281 expressions of interest were received in respect of 52,000 children. The 35,000 places were allocated to each local authority area, based on the number of children applied for by local authority area as a percentage of the total number. A minimum of one school for each local authority area was selected. As a result of this process, 189 of the 281 schools that submitted an expression of interest were selected.

The Minister and I are absolutely committed to continuing to grow the hot school meals element and building further on the significant extension announced as part of the recent budget. I have spoken to the Minister and know she is actively working to find a solution so that it is possible to include those schools that were unsuccessful in a hot school meals programme this year. The Minister and I are absolutely committed to the school meals programme.

It is important to mention that over the course of the pandemic, the Minister has continued to support schools and children with the continued availability of school meals. In addition to the provision of meals during the school term, the Minister also extended the funding so that meals could be provided during the summer period last year, as well as during Christmas, Easter and other periods of school closure. I assure Deputies that everything is being done to ensure that we can support as many schools as possible.

Again, I thank Deputies for raising this important matter. I have a particular interest in this issue as I oversee the roadmap for social inclusion. We recently decided to establish a working group on food poverty. That working group will be meeting soon and hot school meals will certainly be on its agenda. On the question of the lottery, demand outstripped the budget allocation for the programme. Unfortunately, the best way that we could find for allocating limited resources was a lottery system which I accept is inadequate. We need to meet the demand that exists for the programme.

To start with the point about the lottery system, it is good that the Minister of State recognises that it is inadequate. Frankly, it is sick that in 2021 pupils are relying on a lottery to determine whether they get a hot meal in school. Either the programme is necessary, which the evidence suggests is clearly the case, or it is not but it is not acceptable in this day and age that students would be relying on winning a lottery.

A lot of the Minister of State's answer is the same as the answer that has been given for the last couple of months. The new element is the fact that the Minister is working to see if it will be possible to include the schools that were unsuccessful in the hot school meals programme this year. I hope that is translated into a solution for Knockmore Junior School and the other schools that missed out. If it is not, I have no doubt that the principal, pupils and the parents, who have done a great job of speaking out and campaigning, will continue their campaign until the hot school meal programme is provided.

I accept the Minister of State's bona fides in terms of this being an important issue about which he feels passionate. The more improvements we can make to the programme, the better. The anomalies must be addressed, however, particularly the situation where one campus is shared by two schools in Ballyfermot, Mary Queen of Angels, and one school gets the hot meals while the other does not. That creates tensions, divisions and problems, particularly as some members of the same family are getting fed in school while others are not.

In reply to my parliamentary question, the Minister says that the objective of the programme is to provide regular, nutritious food to children who are unable, due to the lack of good quality food, to take full advantage of the education provided to them. I would argue that the provision of nutritious, regular and good quality food to children should not just apply to those who are unable to be fed at home. It should be standard practice to provide for everybody and if that was the case, then the question of a lottery and of inequality in the delivery of such provision would not arise. As I said earlier, we would just be catching up with the rest of Europe.

I appreciate the disappointment and frustration for the 92 schools that submitted an expression of interest in accessing the hot school meals programme and were not selected, including the schools referred to by Deputies Murphy and Smith. The level of demand for the programme is a clear sign of the need for its expansion and that is something to which the Minister and I are committed. Since the start of the pandemic we have worked with our colleagues in the Government to ensure that funding continued to be provided for the school meals programme, including when schools were closed over the holiday periods. We remain committed to extending the provision of hot school meals and building on what has been achieved to date. As I already said, the Minister is actively exploring options for the possible inclusion of unsuccessful schools in the hot school meals programme.

Specifically on the Mary Queen of the Angels schools, the two schools have separate roll numbers so the Department identified them as separate entities. This partially explains why one was chosen and the other was not.

I go back to the fact that the programme was piloted in 2019 and it worked well. It was difficult to read the demand because of Covid but it was clear the demand was there. It was increased fivefold and we are committed to expanding the programme so we do not have these situations where there are schools that clearly want it and need it but cannot access it. We want to rectify that.

Vacant Properties

There are approximately 92,712 vacant homes throughout the State. This does not include homes on the derelict sites register. This is a shocking statistic and it is clearly a very serious problem. The Government has committed to tackling vacant homes, as did its predecessor. Yet, there are only three full-time vacant homes officers across the entire State. This is nothing short of scandalous. How can the Minister of State stand over this?

When I asked how a part-time vacant homes officer is meant to tackle this issue in somewhere like Cork city where there are 8,880 vacant homes, he told me that staffing is an issue for the local authority. That is all very well and good except that these officers are there under a Government initiative. The councils did not establish the role of vacant homes officers. They did not establish the buy and renew or repair and lease schemes. They did not welcome vulture funds into this State with open arms like the Government and its best friends in Fine Gael did. It is, therefore, not a council issue; it is a Government issue.

The Government has missed by 70% the targets set under the vacant homes scheme. A promise was made that 5,600 homes would be returned. However, not even 1,700 were returned. The Minister of State came into this role full of bluster and guff that he was going to achieve things, but he has not delivered. These vacant homes are still lying idle. These vacant homes should be filled with young families and people instead of lying idle right across the State. The Minister of State is nearly a year into the job and he is jumping from blunder to blunder, having torn apart the hopes and dreams of young families across the State.

With almost 9,000 vacant homes in Cork city, we could nearly clear the social housing waiting lists by getting young families and their children into these homes. Instead, we must tell these young families that their children will be teenagers before the family can have a home of their own. How is this acceptable?

Currently, these vacant houses are magnets for anti-social behaviour, dumping, vermin and gangs. They are an eyesore and can cause problems in their communities. Instead of dreaming about owning their own homes and fixing them up, what can people in the constituency I represent dream about under this Government? An affordable home costing €400,000. The Minister has promised houses priced between €160,000 and €250,000. He said that people should not pay more than 35% of their income on their mortgage. Somehow, somewhere along the line the Minister and the Minister of State seemed to realise where their priorities lay. These priorities did not lie with the ordinary people of Cork North Central who are locked out of the housing market.

I put the simple question to the Minister of State: does he want to solve the housing crisis? Yes or no? I do not believe that he does. If the Government wanted to solve the crisis, it would fund local authorities to have full-time vacant homes officers in place to deliver the 92,000 homes that are there, so families and people can get the homes they need.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the position of vacant homes officers in our local authorities.

The national vacant housing reuse strategy was published by my Department in 2018 and since then my Department has provided funding to each local authority of €50,000 per annum. This funding is to support the work of a vacant homes office, including a vacant homes officer, for each local authority.

It is important to say that the allocation of staff within a local authority is an executive matter for the chief executive of that local authority. Each of the 31 local authorities has a vacant homes office, but currently only three local authorities have one person working in a full-time capacity as a vacant homes officer. In the remaining 28 local authorities the officer appointed as a vacant homes officer carries out additional duties in their planning and housing divisions. In some authorities, more than one part-time officer carries out the duties of the vacant homes officer.

In some local authorities, with restrictions that were imposed due to Covid 19, vacant homes officers were not in a position to carry out all of the duties that would normally be assigned to them. For example, travel around a local authority area to carry out inspections of vacant properties has not always been possible. As a result, some of the vacant homes officers were assigned alternative duties within the councils that they were able to carry out while the restrictions were in place.

The activities of vacant homes officers are comprehensive with their main focus being bringing vacant properties back into use throughout the country. The vacant homes officers provide assistance to property owners on how to best utilise available supports such as the repair and lease, buy and renew and long-term leasing schemes. The role and range of duties of the vacant homes office and officers within each local authority includes, but is not limited to, tasks that support the implementation of local authority vacant homes action plans; undertaking initial vacancy assessment exercises and drilling into available CSO and GeoDirectory data; carrying out or co-ordinating visual inspections and assessments of residential properties in their administrative area; identification of and contacting the registered owners of the properties deemed to be vacant from inspection; serving as a contact point for dissemination of advice, assistance and information on residential vacancy to members of the public, including landlords; and the collation and timely provision of vacant homes data to my Department.

Each of the 31 local authorities has prepared a vacant homes action plan for its administrative area. The vacant homes action plan identifies the scale of vacant homes in their jurisdiction and sets ambitious but realistic targets of the number of vacant homes that can ultimately be brought back into use. To support this work, my Department has facilitated a number of seminars to allow the network of vacant homes officers meet with relevant departmental officials, ensuring that information on reactivating vacant homes into liveable housing stock is made available to both the Department and to all vacant homes officers in the 31 local authorities

Is there a copy of the Minister of State's speech available?

Yes. It is en route.

Perhaps somebody might get back regarding a copy.

My apologies. It is on the way.

There are 31 local authorities, with three full-time vacant homes officers and the rest work part time. The Minister of State is telling us that many of these part-time officers have multiple roles. They can be the derelict sites officers, they can organise housing maintenance or they may be involved in allocations and planning. They are overseeing adaption grants and tenant purchase schemes. They can also be involved in processing Rebuilding Ireland home loans. The Minister of State said staffing is a council issue and the funding is in place. I have no doubt that somewhere like Cork City Council, with almost 9,000 vacant homes, would jump at the chance of a full-time vacant homes officer. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have stripped local authorities of their power and funding over the decades. Councils are no longer able to provide the services expected of them because the individuals working in them are expected to do multiple jobs. It is unbelievable that we are here today, listening to a Minister of State describing how a vacant homes officer is quadruple jobbing. We have 92,000 vacant homes. I asked him a straightforward and simple question. Does he want to solve the housing crisis? Organising seminars and failing to provide funding is not good enough.

I ask the Minister of State a straightforward question. Does he believe that the part-time vacant homes officers in the 28 local authorities will get the 92,000 vacant homes returned? I do not think they will. In fact, I know they will not. It is not acceptable that a Minister of State would come to the House and talk about vacant homes and providing funding when the staff are part time. It just does not make sense.

Not for the first time, we are hearing incredibly contradictory contributions from a Sinn Féin Deputy. In the first instance, he criticises the Government allegedly taking powers away from local authorities, and in the second, he says we should instruct local authorities and take over their staffing matters-----

Providing funding is what I said.

They have the funding. As I said, every local authority has €50,000 in place to support the vacant homes officer. It is a matter for the local authority to adjudicate on how staff are assigned. The Deputy seems to be suggesting otherwise, that we should try to take more powers away from local authorities, while at the same time absolutely contradicting that.

The Department's role-----

Does the Minister of State believe that one vacant homes officer in Cork could return 92,000 houses to use? It is not possible.

I cannot help but hear the contradictions the Deputy is expressing. He might allow me the forum to complete my contribution, as I allowed him to complete his without interruption, but he obviously does not have the manners to do that.

The Department's role is to drive and co-ordinate actions in central government to support local authorities in their actions to tackle vacancy in local areas. There has been great success in bringing back vacant properties into productive use throughout the country. For example, since the introduction of the repair and lease scheme, 234 homes have been brought back into use and tenanted. The buy and renew scheme has also facilitated local authorities to purchase 670 vacant properties for social housing purposes.

Finally, since its introduction in 2017 and up to the end of 2020, the revolving acquisitions fund, managed by the Housing Agency, has facilitated the purchase of 878 properties, which have been made available to approved housing bodies and local authorities and accommodate households who need social housing support.

The Department is committed to tackling vacancy and will continue to do this work with local authorities over the coming weeks and months.