Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle agus leis an Aire. I want to bring to the attention of the Minister and the House the concerns of many taxi drivers who have over the past 12 months, like many sectors of society, dealt with the fall-out of the pandemic. I acknowledge that throughout that process at different times, the Government has sought to intervene and to alleviate the hardship that many taxi drivers are experiencing. There is no doubt that the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, is the single biggest contribution in ensuring that taxi drivers in their own personal finances have been able to stay afloat. What we have not done but which we have done in other industries, is support them in their business costs.

I should acknowledge that following a meeting with the Taoiseach, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, announced a package of over €6.5 million aimed at the taxi industry. That focused mainly on statutory costs amounting to about €290 per driver and dealt with regulatory issues such as licences and so on. What it did not deal with was the other non-statutory costs which drivers have, with insurance being the primary one. The restart grant which I am aware has benefited many businesses, is unfortunately still only available if one comes off one's pandemic unemployment payment. Many drivers are reluctant to do that because they are not certain about the level of business. The Delta variant has knocked that confidence even further as has the pushing out of the resumption of indoor dining.

The Government has made progress on the statutory costs but on non-statutory costs such as insurance and other such issues, we still have not come to the table. Much of this is because we are we are relying on the Department of Social Protection to administer a support scheme for taxi drivers. The principal concern to drivers is the issue of the age of the vehicle. I am fully committed to the decarbonisation of the fleet, not just of the taxi fleet but of the entire vehicle fleet in Ireland and I understand that there are significant grants for electric vehicles. At this time, the idea of making a once-in-a-decade investment in one's business in order to renew one's vehicle because it is at the end of its life is very difficult to justify. While there have been extensions in the previous year, my principal question to the Minister is will he extend the age limit on vehicle life for the nine-year rule to the end of 2022?

My second follow-up question is the very strongly given commitment by the Minister to ensure that those on the PUP could continue to have that entitlement and work up to a limit of €960 until February of next year.

I understand that the Department of Social Protection is interpreting that differently and that those people on the €203 payment will have to return to work in September at a cut-off point. I will expand on that in my later contribution. The Minister might concentrate on the vehicle life in his initial response.

I thank Deputy McAuliffe for raising this matter and for giving me this opportunity to set out how the Government has allocated over €24 million to targeted measures to support this sector since the start of the pandemic. The Government is acutely aware of the very difficult situation facing the taxi and small public service vehicle, SPSV, industry as a result of the impact of the pandemic. I recognise that low passenger demand has meant that many SPSV operators have been simply unable to work and have relied on the PUP. I understand that many operators have had to temporarily suspend their licences in order to reduce major costs such as insurance and dispatch operator fees. In response to this, the Government has sought to ensure that a range of sector-specific and more general supports are available to SPSV operators to provide tangible assistance in the face of these impacts.

As for targeted, sector-specific supports, over €24 million has been allocated to the sector since the start of the pandemic. Part of this includes the package of measures I recently announced, worth €6.5 million, which will mean that SPSV standard vehicle licence renewal fees, usually €150, will be waived in 2022 at an estimated cost of €3 million. These fees were also waived in 2021 at a further estimated cost of €2.6 million. The National Transport Authority is being provided with €3.5 million in funding to enable the establishment of a scheme to refund NCT fees, which cost €55, and motor tax for SPSV operators, which costs €95, for a 12-month period. The commencement date of this scheme has yet to be determined. Further details of the schemes, including how to apply, should be available during the third quarter of this year from the National Transport Authority.

A significant proportion of the allocated €24 million relates to support for the transition of the taxi fleet towards zero-emission or low-emission vehicles, an objective to which I am wholeheartedly committed. The replacement of a vehicle is the largest single cost faced by any SPSV operator, and the funding available through this eSPSV grant scheme directly supports the purchase of electric vehicles. The overall funding for the scheme was increased from €1 million to €15 million for 2021. Furthermore, a scrappage component for older vehicles was introduced, doubling the amount payable under the scheme to €20,000. Additional amounts are available for those switching to vehicles which are both electric and wheelchair-accessible. Interest in the scheme has been very strong, with over 700 applications received since it opened in February. Some 65 new vehicles have already been licensed under the scheme at a cost of €1.2 million.

These sector-specific measures augment and enhance the range of Covid-19 support measures with broad eligibility criteria that the Government has put in place. Taxi operators can avail and have availed of these critical supports, which include the PUP, liquidity and investment measures and tax relief measures. There is also the enterprise support grant, worth up to €1,000 towards business reopening costs such as personal protective equipment, vehicle costs and cleaning supplies.

The Government is committed to supporting drivers to return to work as society starts reopening. That is why self-employed individuals, including taxi drivers, can earn up to €960 in a given eight-week period, net of expenses, while keeping their PUP entitlement. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, would have to answer any further specific questions about this measure's operation into next year. My understanding, however, is that it will be extended along the lines announced when we announced the measures for taxi drivers.

The NTA has also extended age limits for taxis and hackneys three times since the start of the pandemic. The most recent extension, made last month, ensures that no vehicle will be forced to exit the fleet due to age limits alone in 2021. Furthermore, and to answer Deputy McAuliffe's question, I have asked officials in my Department to engage with the NTA to make sure we will bring about an extension of that measure until the end of 2022, which I hope will help add to the other measures and provide some support to those taxi drivers who have been in real difficulty throughout this period.

The news that the Government will extend that until the end of 2022 is very welcome. I know there are many who would wish it would go further, but at this time the Minister's commitment in the House to that will be very welcome news to those people who are facing that cliff edge. I understand this may have to go through public consultation with the NTA and, obviously, I would encourage us to accelerate that process as much as possible. I thank the Minister for the engagement he has had with me and with the representative bodies. While the NTA is the regulatory body and the Taxi Advisory Committee represents both taxi passengers and the taxi industry, the representative bodies are agents of change for us to deliver projects such as the decarbonisation of the fleet. We do that by building up credibility with them, engaging with them and ensuring they know there is a body on their side to protect them as a key part of the public transport network.

I accept what the Minister says about the Minister for Social Protection answering my questions. I have raised this directly with her and I will follow that up. I welcome that he says there will be change in this area, but at present it is proposed that those drivers who were on the €350 PUP rate will continue to work on a taxi rank and receive their PUP until February next year, while those taxi drivers on €203 will not. We will therefore have two different taxi drivers on the same rank, one receiving the PUP and the other not receiving it. That is an anomaly. I think the Minister recognises it is an anomaly. I imagine the Taoiseach recognises it is an anomaly. We should iron it out and again get back to the industry, communicate what we want to do and build up a relationship with them, both at the NTA and at Government level. I promise the Minister that these are ordinary, decent taxi drivers who want to deliver this public service, and they want Government support for it.

I agree with the Deputy. Our taxi drivers provide a really important service right across the country in various circumstances. In my city, Dublin, they are part of our public transport system. They are an essential service for many people who perhaps cannot drive. They often provide a more economic way to travel. The problem we have had in the past year is that the business has disappeared. Tourism business and airport business have not been there. Social, nightlife and corporate business - everything has gone. It is starting to come back now, and with that we will start to see fares come back. That is the key to helping drivers get back on their feet.

As for the measures we have introduced, perhaps individual taxi drivers would say they deal with only a part of the cost, but we have looked at every single way possible to reduce some of those costs. I must give credit to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. Mechanisms were devised whereby that income disregard was possible because it encouraged people to keep on the road, even where volumes were very low and it did not make economic sense to try to make it work. How far the Minister can stretch the PUP system in having different rules for different sectors is something on which she, rightly, has to make the call. We are in the closing phases now, it is to be hoped, of managing this pandemic. Yes, it is important we keep some of the social supports in place into early next year. However, I expect, as we get fully vaccinated, that we will see the key thing we want, which is business back. In those circumstances, when people start to look at maybe getting a new car, I think they will then turn to this incredibly popular scheme. It will fundamentally change the whole taxi business and make it much cheaper to run a taxi because the lower fuel costs and the lower maintenance costs are the key. That, I hope, will kick in with the grants we are giving to help out the taxi industry.

Covid-19 Pandemic

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to the House. As we are all aware, more than 2,000 people have died in our nursing homes due to Covid over the past 12 months or so, 1,000 of them, sadly, in the third wave. What is special about Dealgan House is that 23 residents died from Covid there in April 2020 and it is the only nursing home in the country, notwithstanding all the deaths elsewhere, that was taken over by the HSE. A serious, significant administrative decision was made to go in there and take it over, and the families want to know why that happened. On 5 April they expressed serious concerns about the nursing home. On 11 April, Paul Reid, the head of the HSE, was made personally aware of the unfolding tragedy. It took until 17 April for substantial supports to be in place in the nursing home.

The families want to know what happened in the meantime. They are entitled to know that, they are entitled to closure. The families met have met, with due courtesy, with the Minister and Minister of State, Deputies Donnelly and Butler. They met the head of the RSCI Hospital Group, Ian Carter. We have put in dozens of parliamentary questions. They have put in dozens of freedom of information requests. The families who suffered most are still waiting on the truth. The only way they will get that truth, I believe, is through a commission of inquiry. There is a precedent for that, namely Leas Cross. It was the only nursing home taken over by the HSE. The Minister can make the order and the Dáil will approve it. There can be voluntary co-operation of witnesses, power of search, and compellabillity of witnesses is needed under fair procedures. I know two witnesses who want to give evidence to such an inquiry who were shocked and appalled by what they found in the home when they went in there. They are ready, willing and able to come before such an inquiry. I ask the Minister of State to address that significant failure of management in that nursing home in her reply. The only way that truth will out is by such an inquiry, transparent, open and accountable.

The Minister of State and the Minister met these families. The Minister said that a mechanism was needed for these families to be able to get to the truth. I reiterate what Deputy O'Dowd has said. We need to lay out what these families have done through their freedom of information requests, the parliamentary questions we have tabled and through a great deal of interaction, negotiation and questioning of all the bodies from the HSE, CHO 8 and the RCSI Hospital Group. A huge amount of information is in the public domain. Ultimately, a tragedy occurred in Dealgan House nursing home with 23 deaths. It was a nursing home that the RSCI Hospital Group took under operational control because that was regarded as necessary. There is a disputed narrative. A mechanism is the only way we will get to the bottom of what happened and to learn what we need to learn to ensure this never happens again. Unfortunately there have been a number of these cases. The families need that mechanism. I am not particularly worried about the means. Deputy O'Dowd spoke of a commission of investigation but whatever means are necessary need to be used. There needs to be engagement with the families on the type of investigation and it must be one that will provide all the answers. We cannot have this situation continue on and on. The families have been very good. They accepted there were issues in December and January and following the ransomware attack but this needs to happen as soon as possible.

I thank Deputies O'Dowd and Ó Murchú for raising this, and it is not the first time they have done so with me both on the floor of the Dáil and in person. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented challenge across our health services and none more so than in our nursing homes. I think it is fair to say that the health and safety of residents in nursing homes has been paramount in all our minds over the past 16 months especially. The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, the Department, the HSE and the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, placed a focus on supporting older people in nursing homes throughout the pandemic.

Every person who is supported in older persons services is entitled to expect and receive supports of the highest standard. Quality care and patient safety is a priority and our continued focus is and will always be to deliver safe, high quality services. The safety and protection of older people is a priority for the Government.

Nursing home providers are ultimately responsible for the safe care of their residents. Since 2009, HIQA is the statutory independent regulator in place for the nursing home sector, whether a HSE-managed or a private nursing home. The authority, established under the Health Act 2007, has significant and wide-ranging powers up to and including withdrawing the registration of a nursing home facility, which means that it can no longer operate as a service provider. This responslbility is underpinned by a comprehensive quality framework comprising registration regulations, care and welfare regulations and national quality standards. HIQA, in discharging its duties, determines through examination of all information available to it, including site inspections, whether a nursing homes meets the regulations in order to achieve and maintain its registration status. Should a nursing home be deemed to be non-compliant with the regulations and the national quality standards, it may either fail to achieve or lose its registration status. In addition, the chief inspector has wide discretion in deciding whether to impose conditions of registration on nursing homes.

During the response to Covid-19, nursing homes continue to be regulated by HIQA which, under the Health Act 2007, has the legal authority to examine the operation of any facility under its remit. HIQA undertook inspections of this nursing home both in May and September 2020. The reports of these inspections were published in late 2020. The May report notes that HIQA was satisfied to re-register the centre with several improvement-focused conditions including some on individual assessment and care planning. In its role as regulator, HIQA will continue to inspect individual nursing homes. For the purposes of providing additional supports, and as a once-off measure, the Department requested that the patient advocacy service extend its service to Dealgan House Nursing Home in order to support families during this time. This service continues to support residents with complaints relating to issues experienced during March to August 2020 and to support families of residents who sadly died during that period.

It must be recognised that the pandemic has not concluded and at this time a priority focus of Government remains on the ongoing management of the Covid-19 response to ensure that the positive gains now being experienced are preserved and that those most vulnerable to the virus continue to be safeguarded in light of the residual risk.

I am very aware that listening to families can bring great learning to many situations. While we are still dealing with a degree of risk in nursing homes due to Covid-19, we are continuing to look at options which may be available to the State in listening to the voices of those who have lost a loved one. I would like to conclude by expressing my condolences to those who have lost a loved one during this period.

I am very disappointed by the Minister of State's response. I am offended by her comment that the pandemic has not concluded. It has concluded for these families; their family members are dead. The home was taken over by the HSE. There are serious questions about the management of the home. The Minister of State knows that as does the HSE and the hospital group. This week, Dr. Sarah Donnelley wrote in The Irish Times: "Now is the time for a comprehensive public inquiry involving a root-and-branch review and reform of our nursing home sector, based on human rights principles." There was a critical failure of management in this nursing home. I have absolutely no doubt about it and lots of other people know that too. We cannot hide behind this speech. I have to say I am deeply unhappy and I cannot accept what the Minister of State is putting before us this evening. It is a whitewash. It is unacceptable. It is insulting, most of all to those families who have fought tooth and nail. They have had no closure and will not get it until there is a fair inquiry into the failure of management, into the weak policy of legislation and the weak regulation. We do not have confidence in HIQA. We know what it did. I can give chapter and verse on that. It does not investigate individual complaints. The Minister of State and I both know that; everyone knows that. This will continue until we have the inquiry and I will continue to raise it here and insist that we do our job as a Government. I support the Minister of State and this Government. She has to do her job and I will insist that she do it. It must be done for truth and confidence in the system as we go forward.

A public inquiry is the only thing that will give an answer to these families who deserve it. I think everyone accepts that. We need that timeline and then to look at mechanisms. The onus is on the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to go back to those families and give them that mechanism. We cannot continue as we are. If there are logistical reasons it cannot happen now, and I cannot see that it cannot, we need to give the families a timeline. That is fair. There are questions to be answered by the nursing home but also by the HSE, by HIQA and the RCSI Hospital Group. HIQA has put it on the record many times that it would accept its own weaknesses as a regulatory body and that it needs greater legislative powers.

We have had a number of reports on nursing homes and elder care, and they have all pointed out the weaknesses. It is not just that we have an insufficient amount of home care and that people are sometimes forced into nursing homes, we must examine the entire issue. In simple terms, we need a timeline and a mechanism and we must deal with the families.

The pandemic has been hugely difficult for all residents of nursing homes, their relatives and staff. Suffering a bereavement is even harder when all the normal rituals have been disrupted. I acknowledge that Covid-19 has had a very challenging and sad impact on the lives of people living in nursing homes, their families and friends.

The Covid-19 nursing home expert panel established last year provided a comprehensive report and package of recommendations on both the ongoing response to Covid-19 and the longer term strategic reform of older persons' care. Many of the short and medium term recommendations of the Covid-19 nursing home expert panel report have already been implemented. A number of those relate to the delivery of a broad suite of supports provided to private nursing homes, including free PPE, serial testing, HSE Covid-19 response teams, infection prevention and control training and temporary accommodation for staff.

Continued learning and understanding of the progression of the disease in Ireland is an integral part of the expert panel's recommendations. There has been a significant and ongoing consideration of the impact of the pandemic, with various examinations and the compilation of reports with a focus on Covid-19, its affect on nursing homes and the learnings that can inform future policy regulation and the model of care for older persons. There has also been a very clear national commitment to continue to learn from the pandemic, as the national and international understanding of the virus evolves and, where necessary, to ensure that the public health-led approach evolves as evidence and learning materialises. The findings of these reports confirm that the very infectious nature of Covid-19 makes it difficult to prevent and control in residential care settings. We are continuing to look at options that may be available to the State in the context of listening to the voices of those who have lost loved ones.

Covid-19 Pandemic

I tabled this matter not to scaremonger or bring about a spiral of fear but to raise a very practical question. My concern does not pertain to those who are vaccinated, it relates to those who are unvaccinated coming from the UK by air or sea. Immunologists and scientists are extremely concerned about the situation. The UK is going to return to the herd immunity strategy it launched at the beginning of the pandemic.

On 15 June, we changed our travel restrictions for travellers from the UK when the Delta variant began to take off there. We increased the number of days required in home quarantine up to ten days and following a second PCR test. There has been a quantitative change in the context of the 19 July or "Freedom Day", as Boris Johnson calls it. To date, 86% of people in the UK have received their first jab and 64% have received their second. The timeline is that all adults will not be fully vaccinated until mid-September. The north east of England is seeing a massive surge in cases. South Tyneside has recorded an increase of 195% in the past seven days and the jump in cases in the same period in Sunderland was 131%. The Delta variant now accounts for all new cases of Covid-19 in the UK. The authorities in the UK expect to have 50,000 cases per day by 19 July and there could be as many as 100,000 cases per day later in the summer when the children are going back to school.

Euro 2020 is taking place, including a semi-final at Wembley tonight, with thousands of supporters out on the streets. In Scotland, there was a huge surge in cases after the national team's matches. Nicola Sturgeon has stated that the Delta variant will just rip through the population. We are also opening for non-essential travel from Europe on 19 July. The vaccines have protected people, but the chain has been broken to a certain degree. We do not know how much it has been broken. There are fewer people in hospital, fewer people in ICU and fewer deaths, but my concern is that with the Delta variant running rampant, the UK could become a variant Petri dish or factory. Mutations could develop in light of how the Delta variant is running through the population in the UK. We must protect our vaccination programme from the point of view our population. We must learn from the experience at Christmas, when the Alpha variant came in as a result of people travelling here from the UK who did not quarantine as they were asked.

Some 50% of our adults have been fully vaccinated but only 69% of people have had a first dose. We are moving quickly and we hope to have most of the population vaccinated by August. It would be a great success if we did that. We still have to rely on the public health advice. We need more public health consultants and teams. We must continue with our track-and-trace process and ensure that people social distance, wash their hands, wear masks and self-isolate. There must be serious discussion with NPHET and the HSE on whether mandatory hotel quarantine is put in place for those travelling to Ireland in order to keep more infection and possible mutations of the Delta variant out until our vaccination programme is fully implemented. I am not trying to increase the fear factor, but we have come so far and the population has done so well and we should remember that asking people to quarantine for ten days in their own homes did not happen at Christmas. We have learned from the experience and we should consider mandatory hotel quarantine now.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. The script I am going to read is the one he has provided.

Government advice to avoid non-essential travel, including from Great Britain, will remain in place until 18 July. The common travel area allows Irish and British citizens to move freely between Ireland and the UK. Throughout the course of the pandemic, however, the Government has targeted public health interventions for travel. Evidence on the epidemiological situation is given close consideration due to the high volume of travel between Ireland and the UK. Currently, passengers travelling from the UK are required to complete a Covid-19 passenger locator form. Those arriving from Great Britain must also have evidence of a negative pre-departure PCR test, taken no more than 72 hours before arrival, and are required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Legally, passengers can exit quarantine with a negative PCR test taken five days after arrival. At present, however, additional advisory measures apply following travel from Great Britain. Passengers are advised to continue to quarantine until a test can be taken after the tenth day and the result is negative.

The Department has put in place enhanced communications with relevant travellers to promote awareness of these measures, including on-board announcements on all relevant flights and ferries, radio advertisements and additional calls and texts issued through the passenger locator form to provide public health advice. From 19 July, Ireland's approach to international travel will broadly align with the EU, including on the operation of digital Covid certificates. Discussions are ongoing between the European Commission and certain third countries, including the UK, to facilitate the mutual recognition of digital Covid certificates.

Those who have been in a designated state within 14 days prior to their arrival into the State must quarantine in a designated facility. From 19 July, the list of designated states will broadly align with the countries to which the EU has applied an "emergency brake". There are also certain other circumstances where arrivals from non-designated states must quarantine in a designated facility, for example, those who arrive without evidence of a negative pre-arrival PCR test. There are some exemptions from the obligation to undergo mandatory hotel quarantine, including for example essential workers or those who have received the full course of a Covid-19 vaccine which has been approved for use by the European Medicines Agency. The mandatory hotel quarantine policy will continue to be kept under ongoing review, informed by the trajectory of the pandemic, the progress of our vaccination programme and the management of risks to public health. Ireland and the UK remain in close contact at political and official level on our respective approaches to managing travel in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, including in the context of our systems for mandatory hotel quarantine.

I know the Minister of State is standing in for the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, but I do not think there is a sense of urgency in this reply, to be honest. Our population has gone through 18 months of severe restrictions and we are still maintaining those restrictions because we are obviously concerned about our families and the people around us who we love. Even the WHO’s Mike Ryan said today there is a huge danger from our neighbours, the UK, unless we start talking about this now and unless we start looking at what we have to do. I am not talking about mandatory hotel quarantine for the next ten months but until our vaccination programme is robust enough to be able to protect our population. We should at least give that break to our population and that security that at least we are making an attempt.

On the question in regard to the North and people flying through Belfast, we should be talking to our counterparts in the North and if not having checks on the Border, then, perhaps, a kilometre or two beyond the Border, checking people flying in and coming down from Belfast. We have to give ourselves all the chances we can to stop this disease coming in again, on top of the Delta presence that we know is going to increase quickly. We are trying to deal with that but we have more infection coming in from the UK and also possible variants. That is the crucial thing that could break the chain of the vaccination programme unless we take this seriously.

I urge the Minister of State to go back to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, the HSE and NPHET to ask them to seriously discuss this, so we have something in place for 19 July and are not responding by bringing in something in two weeks time, when it is too late. It is very important that we protect our population.

I thank the Deputy. I will take back to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, exactly what she has relayed here on the floor of the Dáil. The Minister and his team are being proactive. It was only last Friday that they took the twin-track approach to the vaccination for those aged 18 to 34 when we are still coming down through the cohorts. That is in order to keep pace with the Delta variant and to try to get as much of the population vaccinated as quickly as possible. It was very good to hear that we will have 50% of the population fully vaccinated today. I know that does not allay any of the Deputy’s fears, as outlined in her questions, but I will take on board exactly what she has said and bring it back to the Minister who, hopefully, will be able to answer her in the coming days.

Rural Schemes

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for being here on the graveyard shift and the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, for staying late to take this Topical Issue matter. It is a very important issue that affects thousands of families all over the country. Right now, thousands of local improvement scheme, LIS, roads are awaiting funding to be repaired and brought back to an acceptable standard.

There is a misconception that these are private roads and they are often referred to as private roads. The reality in many cases is that these are roads that local authorities have, to be kind, ignored for years. They are non-council roads but there is an impression they are gated roads that only one family can use, which is a misconception. These are very often important roads used by multiple families. Unfortunately, many have fallen into a terrible state of disrepair and people need financial support from the State to keep the roads in a decent condition in order to be used.

Just last night, I was on Farnes road in Castlemaine, County Kerry, where there are 13 houses. There is nothing private about that road but it is a non-council road in appalling condition. The neighbours came together last night and themselves filled some of the potholes with tarmac, but that is a stop-gap measure and the road is still very substandard. These are all citizens who deserve to have excellent infrastructure, as every citizen deserves to have, but particularly for that last half a mile up to their house. People pay their motor tax and they contribute to society in so many different ways, yet the road to their home is in an appalling condition.

This is happening all over the country. There are hundreds of cases in Kerry and thousands nationwide. I acknowledge the work that has been done in recent years to get the scheme moving again and to get extra funding to clear the old lists and open up new applications, but, quite simply, the money there now is not enough and is only a drop in the ocean. I understand some €10 million was allocated this year and while I acknowledge that is a 5% increase on last year, realistically, €10 million would only cover a fraction of the roads in Kerry, never mind the roads all over the country.

I have started a campaign in the last couple of weeks to “clear the LIS-t”. The local improvement scheme is very worthy of funding and it is money that can be spent immediately. Employment would be created immediately and people would not have to get planning permission as these are shovel-ready projects. It would mean a huge difference to the quality of life of people living close to these roads. It is not just homes and farmyards that are connected by these roads. Many important amenities, such as our mountains, lakes, rivers and walkways, are connected. Even in my own community, I can point to numerous roads that connect the seashore, the mountain and the walkways, and they are local improvement scheme roads that are awaiting funding.

I do not think the Department of Rural and Community Development can do this alone as it does not have a huge overall budget. That is why I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, is present because I feel that his Department, through local government, has a role to play, as absolutely and very blatantly does the Department of Transport. It used to be a transport issue and it was shipped over to the Department of Rural and Community Development in 2016. I congratulate the former Minster, Deputy Michael Ring, on the work he did to progress this issue and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has done great work as well. However, they cannot do it alone and they need help. I call on all three Departments to chip in but I also ask that, in every Department, there be a look at redirecting capital funding that cannot be spent at the moment because of Covid and the re-profiling of that towards the local improvement schemes. As I said, it would improve quality of life but would also provide much-needed employment for people all over the country.

I was here for the first Seanad Commencement matter this morning on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and I am here in the Dáil for the last matter this evening on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, as well.

I thank Deputy Griffin for raising this issue. I certainly recall that, during my time on Kilkenny County Council, the local improvement scheme was a hugely popular scheme and was always oversubscribed. There is no doubt it is a challenge to try to clear that list, as the Deputy said.

The local improvement scheme is a programme for improvement works on small private or non-public roads in rural areas which are not under the normal maintenance of the local authorities. As the Deputy is aware, the scheme is funded by the Department of Rural and Community Development and is administered through the local authorities. The focus of the scheme is to support the continued improvement of rural roads and laneways that are not normally maintained by local authorities but which represent a vital piece of infrastructure for rural residents, as the Deputy stated. I know how important the scheme is for people in rural areas, and for farm families in particular. There is no other source of funding for these roads, which provide vital access to agricultural lands and rural homes. The Deputy mentioned Castlemaine and the property owners themselves coming out to fill the potholes. It is a huge challenge. The scheme is also used to fund non-public roads leading to important community amenities, such as graveyards, beaches, piers, mountain access points or other tourist and heritage sites, which are very important in my own remit.

The Department provides an allocation of funding each year to the local authorities for works on these roads. The selection of roads to be funded under the scheme is then a matter for each local authority based on the priority or condition of particular roads in their county. The local authority may rely on existing lists of eligible roads and-or advertise for new applicant roads.

Individual applicants contribute towards the road projects. This can vary from 10% to 15%, depending on how many beneficiaries are on the particular road. This contribution is currently capped at €1,200 but the majority of beneficiary contributions are well below this figure.

Since the LIS was relaunched in its own right in 2017, almost €69 million has been allocated to local authorities for improvement works on these roads. As part of the Our Rural Future policy, the Government has committed to increasing the level of investment in the repair of non-public roads through the local improvement scheme. Given the value of the scheme for people living in rural areas, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, was pleased to be in a position to increase the allocation for the LIS this year. Funding for the scheme in 2021 increased by 5% to €10.5 million, although I accept that is not enough to cover the scale of the challenge we are talking about. Every local authority received an increase in its funding this year.

I confirm that the Minister is exploring the potential to allocate further funding from the scheme in the coming weeks if there are cost savings elsewhere in the Department of Rural and Community Development's budget. The Deputy made a good point about the responsibility and relationship between the three Departments that could share the burden. It will become an increasing challenge. We are dealing with increased weather events due to climate change, with deluges of rain throughout the year. This adds to the pressure on these local roads, especially where road surfaces are washed away, sometimes in a single rainfall incident. There is no doubt that this is a significant challenge and we should look at trying to increase support and funding for this across Government.

I appreciate the Minister of State's response. I also appreciate that it is not his primary area of expertise. I think it is pertinent that he is in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. That Department can play an enhanced role, as can the Department of Transport. While the intention was positive, it was quite regressive that the local improvement scheme was moved out of the Department of Transport. It is such a large Department with such a large budget that the scheme could have been better off in that Department. We are where we are today and it is never too late for those three Departments to adopt a collaborative approach, come back together again and do what they can for those local improvement schemes.

Wheelchair users, people trying to push buggies, little children who are trying to learn how to cycle bikes and other people have no way to use the roads that I have seen and helped to repair recently. We have to think about road users who simply cannot avoid the potholes. Some of these roads are peppered with potholes. People with young children and elderly people await funding to improve the roads. I acknowledge the hardship schemes that local authorities have for ambulance access, etc., but there are many similar situations around the country, with vulnerable people with specific health issues. In an emergency, emergency personnel would have a difficult time getting to the location.

The points about access for services and especially ambulances are important. There has been a 5% increase in the allocation for this year. Approximately 350 projects are expected to be completed this year. That is a significant step forward and we need to ramp that up significantly. I appreciate the points. I will be happy to take the matter to my colleagues in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, especially the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, and to discuss the matter with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton. The opportunity to look at supports from other Departments should be explored. The Minister intends to try to clear that list. While there have been calls for the scheme to be expanded to other road services such as farm sites, the Minister's current intention is to clear the list, since there is a considerable backlog. We should consider other options to support rural communities to which the Government gave a strong commitment under Our Rural Future.