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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 23 Sep 2021

Vol. 1011 No. 5

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Covid-19 Pandemic

Mairéad Farrell


1. Deputy Mairéad Farrell asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he has given further consideration to amending the public sector sick pay or occupational injury and illness schemes in the context of long Covid; if so, if the estimated cost or estimated range will be provided; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45428/21]

We know long Covid is a real, serious and debilitating condition from which many people are suffering. I previously raised with the Minister the possibility of amending the occupational injury and illness scheme or public sector pay. He told me at that point that he was aware of the situation and it was under active review. Is there any update in that regard or an estimation of the cost of doing this?

I thank the Deputy for her question. The position in respect of Covid-19 absences in the public service has not changed since her previous question on the matter, which was answered in January. At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was decided that special leave with pay would be used for self-isolation or a diagnosis of Covid-19 for public service employees in order to assist with the prevention of the onward spread of Covid in the workplace. The arrangements relating to special leave with pay are reviewed and monitored by my Department on an ongoing basis, taking into account the evolving circumstances and public health advice.

The Government agreed Ireland's plan for the next and final phase of our response to the Covid pandemic and published its Covid-19: Reframing the Challenge, Continuing Our Recovery and Reconnecting plan on 31 August. Subject to the continued progress we have seen as a result of the vaccination programme, and all of our efforts in preventing the spread of Covid, we will enter a final phase on 22 October. This phase will see the majority of restrictions lifted and replaced by guidance and advice to enable us to work together to protect ourselves and to live our lives to the fullest extent possible.

We have provided support for our public service employees, including our front-line workforce, through the provision of special leave with pay for Covid-19. The current arrangements, like all other Covid-19-related policies and regulations, will be reviewed and will be subject to amendment as we see the continued benefits of the vaccination programme as we enter the next and final phase of this pandemic. My officials are keeping all Covid-related working arrangements for public service employees under regular review. Although special leave with pay is available for self-isolation and where a person has been diagnosed with Covid for certain time periods, public service employees may access the public service sick leave scheme thereafter. The scheme provides for certain payments to staff during periods of absence from work due to illness or injury.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

It provides for a maximum of 92 days on full pay in a rolling one-year period, followed by a maximum of 91 days on half pay in a rolling one-year period, subject to a maximum of 183 days paid sick leave in a rolling four-year period. There is access to additional sick leave in certain circumstances as guided by the critical illness protocol.

I have been contacted by several young women who have been affected and deeply impacted by long Covid. I will recount the story of a woman named Karen who contacted me. She is 36 years of age and a front-line worker who tested positive on 31 December. She was admitted to the Mater Hospital on 8 January and had to be put on an oxygen machine because she had double pneumonia. Although she recovered from Covid in April, she was referred to the respiratory post-Covid clinic at which she was seen by a range of consultants. Other people who contacted me do not work in the public sector but have had an equally difficult experience. Karen returned to work in late April but relapsed seven weeks afterwards and was forced to go on sick leave and has remained on it. She suffers from headaches, chronic fatigue, dizziness, bad brain fog, breathlessness, high heart rate, palpitations and a lack of energy and she is always tired as a result of long Covid. We need action for people such as Karen.

That sounds like a very difficult case. My thoughts are with that lady. It might be helpful for me to put on the record the arrangements for special leave with pay in the context of Covid. Where an employee had been in the work premises outside of home during the 14 days prior to contracting Covid, special leave with pay may be paid, including for long Covid where necessary and for as long as needed. Where an employee has not been in the workplace in the 14 days prior to contracting Covid, special leave with pay may continue for up to 28 days. If an employee is still unwell after 28 days, he or she will move to ordinary sick leave arrangements. The Deputy will be familiar with the details of the ordinary sick leave arrangements, which, in general terms, are pretty good across the public sector. All of this will be kept under review. In the context of long Covid, there is provision in certain cases for special leave with pay to continue. If that does not apply in any individual case, the normal public service sick leave scheme will kick in and apply.

This woman told me that she is on a couple of new drugs which are used to address long Covid and which cost more than €100 a month. Neither of these drugs is covered by the drug payment scheme. For people who are out of work and cannot afford such drugs, this really is crippling. It can be equally difficult for those in receipt of sick pay who are likely to have other outgoings such as mortgages, rents, etc. I know the Minister is not responsible for health but he is the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the power of the purse lies with him. These people are suffering from long Covid. This is a woman who worked on the front line in the public sector but several young women who have been out of work have come to me on this issue. They may have been the main breadwinner in their relationship and they are now really struggling. It is an issue that we will encounter more and more and we really need to tackle it now.

Long Covid is very serious. It is a condition that the Government takes very seriously. We acknowledge how debilitating it can be for individuals in various circumstances. The truth is that we are learning more and more about it with each passing day. As I have outlined, in certain cases the special leave with pay applies for employees who suffer from long Covid. The particular context for that is where they had been in the work premises in the 14-day period prior to contracting Covid-19 so there is a demonstrable possible link between the contraction of Covid and their attendance at the workplace. In that scenario, the special leave with pay can continue for as long as necessary. I do not know if that applies in the particular case to which the Deputy refers. If it does not apply, the normal public service sick leave scheme kicks in. The latter has certain provisions relating to the number of days in a one-year period and over a rolling four-year period and so on for which people can be out sick and continue to be paid in full. If the Deputy wishes to send me the details of the particular case to which she refers, I will happily consider it and take it up with the relevant Minister.

Flood Risk Management

Holly Cairns


2. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the flood relief scheme in Bantry, County Cork. [45593/21]

As I know the Minister is aware, flooding continues to be a real risk for Bantry, with businesses and homes regularly enduring flooding events. He saw the extreme flooding in the summer of 2020. The Bantry scheme has been in the works for several years. I ask the Minister to please outline the progress made on the project, including any interim defence measures that will be made available.

The Minister and I visited Bantry after the devastating flood last year. We are both well aware of the torment the town faced at that time.

The reality is that interventions cannot come soon enough for Bantry. The flood risk management plan was launched in May 2018 and includes a recommendation to progress the project-level development and planning of a flood defence scheme for the town. A steering group comprising representatives of the Office of Public Works and Cork County Council is in place to progress the Bantry flood relief scheme. The scheme will protect approximately 198 properties when completed. On 11 March 2021, Cork County Council, in partnership with the Office of Public Works, issued tender documentation for the procurement of engineering consultants via e-tenders. Tenders were received on 30 July 2021.

An assessment of these tenders has been completed and it is expected that consultants will be appointed in the coming weeks. Once consultants are appointed to progress the flood relief scheme for Bantry, consultation with statutory and non-statutory bodies, as well as the public, will take place in the appropriate stages to ensure that all parties have the opportunity to make an input into the development of the scheme. In the meantime, Cork County Council has engaged a contractor to treat some of the invasive species in preparation for any flood relief scheme that will be undertaken in the town.

The flood relief scheme will be funded from the initial allocated €1 billion for flood risk management over the period of the National Development Plan 2018-2027. Provision for the cost of the scheme is included in the multi-annual capital allocation for the Office of Public Works, OPW, from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Cork County Council has also commenced the preparation of the consultants' brief to carry out the repair and the reconstruction of the Main Street culvert, which has been identified as a significant element contributing to the flooding on Main Street, New Street and north and south of Wolfe Tone Square in recent months. The OPW is liaising with Cork County Council on the integration of these works with the flood relief scheme for the town. In March 2021, an application was made under the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme for interim works to mitigate flooding in Bantry, which includes installation of non-return valves. I will continue my response shortly because there is other material the Deputy might find beneficial.

I thank the Minister of State for the update. The flooding in Bantry, like other areas of west Cork, is a significant risk and source of uncertainty for households and businesses. Bantry is at risk from both tidal and fluvial flooding. It is important that these elements are considered together to put in place an integrated infrastructure to address the interconnected issues. As we approach the consultation phases of the project, I encourage the Minister of State to proactively engage with the community, which has a wealth of knowledge on the issues and solutions. In addition, the town needs interim measures to mitigate against flooding risk in the meantime. While the council's application for assistance under the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme is with the OPW, as the Minister of State mentioned, any action he can take to expedite that process would be most appreciated, particularly with the winter months approaching.

The Deputy will be aware that during and since the summer of 2020, I have had a number of opportunities to visit the west Cork area - not just Bantry, but also Clonakilty, Bandon, Skibbereen and Rosscarbery. In the intervening period, I have met the Cork county manager and his team to follow up on what exactly has been done in the interim period. The commissioner of the OPW with responsibility for flooding and the director of flood relief and responsibility for the OPW have also been constantly monitoring the progress that has been made.

While I accept there is concern among all Deputies and other public representatives in the area, we have made significant progress in some of the west Cork towns to which the Deputy referred. For instance, the works in Bandon and Clonakilty have been completed and the works in Skibbereen are almost complete. However, significant works in other west Cork areas need to be completed. I am aware that other questions on this matter are to be answered today and I accept there is frustration about the length of time being taken. I am sure Deputies will have an opportunity to air their frustration and perhaps I will be able to discuss how some of that frustration may be addressed later on.

The Minister of State mentioned that there are several schemes in west Cork that are at a more advanced stage, namely, Bandon, Clonakilty and Skibbereen. In response to parliamentary questions that I submitted, the Minister of State noted that these schemes have been substantially completed, except for outstanding issues in respect of the Cork Road and Rossa Road in Skibbereen and the issues with the fish pass in Bandon.

The residents with homes in those areas that are now protected by flood defences need access to insurance and mortgages but cannot do so in many cases because the schemes are not officially recorded as complete. That has been a major impediment for them. I know that flood insurance is an entirely different issue, but I ask the Minister of State to look into the steps required to ensure each of the programmes or schemes can be signed off and completed as soon as possible so that people can acquire flood insurance, mortgages and planning for extensions. People across west Cork are being held back in that regard.

From my perspective, and I am on the record of the House as making the point, when the State, through the Exchequer and the taxpayers, puts large sums of money into protecting communities from flooding, whether in Mallow, Fermoy or elsewhere in County Cork, in Clonmel in County Tipperary or in any other town in the country, and these investments are proven to work, there is a reciprocal expectation that Insurance Ireland will pony up and allow those communities to get on with their lives. I have raised this issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, through the interdepartmental working group on flooding. I know it is an issue that he is equally concerned about. We need to get to a landing place where local authorities and the OPW, through the Exchequer, make massive investments - worth hundreds of millions of euro - in communities where flood defences are put in and they work-----

Sorry to interrupt but can the schemes be signed off? Will the Minister of State provide an update on when, for example, the scheme in Skibbereen will be signed off?

Where schemes work and have been finished for years, as a citizen, taxpayer and representative of the people, I would expect that Insurance Ireland would provide insurance. Where that is not the case, I think it is a legitimate question-----

I am asking about the OPW signing off the schemes as completed.

That is not a matter for the OPW. Those working at the OPW are engineers, not underwriters. It is not our job to assess insurance. That is the responsibility of an entirely different part of the Government.

No, but it is the OPW's job to finish the scheme so that people can get insurance.

Where we finish schemes, we do so with local authorities. Where schemes are finished, and there is plenty of evidence of this around the country, that is a legitimate question that needs to be asked. However, it is one for an entirely different Department. Insurance Ireland has a role to play in this. There needs to be a bit of honesty attached to it. Where hundreds of millions of euro - in fact, billions of euro - are being spent by multiple agencies of the State to defend people, those people are entitled to legitimately ask why they cannot get insurance.

Public Procurement Contracts

Mairéad Farrell


3. Deputy Mairéad Farrell asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the remit of the new interim procurement reform board; the terms of reference of the board; if a list of board members will be provided; the stakeholders that will be consulted; the proposed date for the board to publish its findings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45429/21]

There has been concern, much of which has been reported in the media, in relation to public money that was spent on faulty equipment, for example, PPE, arising clearly from failures in due diligence. The Minister of State has announced the formation of a new interim public procurement reform board. Will he outline the terms of reference of the board, provide a list of its members and the stakeholders that will be consulted and indicate the proposed date for the board to publish its findings?

I will address the Deputy's written question. I am happy to come back to the questions about ventilators in the HSE in my second response.

The interim procurement reform board was appointed by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in May 2017 to oversee delivery of the procurement reform programme, advise the Government on a national public procurement strategy and advise on the Office of Government Procurement's objectives and business plans. The board meets quarterly and publishes an annual report to the Minister. The most recent report for 2020, published in August, is available on the Office of Government Procurement, OGP, website. Its terms of reference include overseeing the implementation of the public procurement reform programme; advising the Government on a national public procurement strategy; advising on the OGP objectives and business plan and overseeing its delivery and performance; advising on the sector sourcing partner organisations' objectives and activities; providing leadership to the procurement executive in relation to its roles and functions and agreeing methods of working and reporting by the executive to the board; representing customer departments and offices and providing leadership and sponsorship for the procurement reform programme across the public service; advising on the development and implementation of strategies to communicate the work of the OGP across the public sector, including any policy and training implications for the wider public sector; and overseeing the development and monitoring of service level agreements between the OGP and Departments as well as bodies under their aegis, including bodies responsible for leading centralised or sectoral procurement programmes.

The membership of the board consists of 11 members. Three are independent members recruited from outside the public sector and eight are senior public servants. The members are the independent chair, Mr. Maurice Quinn; Ms Katherine Licken, Secretary General at the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media; Mr. Paul Quinn, chief procurement officer and CEO of the OGP; Mr. Greg Dempsey, assistant Secretary General at the Department of Health; Mr. John Swords, national director health business systems in the HSE; Mr. Eamonn Hunt, assistant CEO of the Local Government Management Agency; Mr. Declan Hughes, assistant secretary general at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Mr. Ronnie Downes, assistant secretary general at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Mr. Dónall Curtin, independent member; Ms Brid O'Donovan, independent member; and Ms Deirdre McDonnell, assistant secretary general at the Department of Education.

According to the Comptroller and Auditor General, more than one third of our spend on PPE had to be written off. That spend amounted to over €900 million. Much of that PPE was thrown in the bin. For example, hand sanitisers had to be recalled after millions of euro were spent on them.

After spending millions on hand sanitiser, the HSE purchased now infamous ViraPro hand sanitiser in March 2020. It received a shipment in July 2020. A month later, the HSE learned that hand sanitiser had to be registered with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to ensure its safety, but it was not safe so it was recalled. Then there was a massive failure involving the ventilators. In total, 2,200 ventilators were ordered, at a cost of €81 million, from different suppliers not previously used. Fewer than a quarter were delivered and none was put to clinical use. That is extremely concerning when we see everything going on in this State. Can the Minister of State confirm for the record that there were no other such purchases of faulty goods or equipment?

These stories of the delivery of substandard medical equipment to the HSE underline the importance of having central procurement. The aims of public procurement are to make sure that we achieve a good price for the State, obtain a quality product with basic standards and have transparency, whereby we know deals are fair and non-discriminatory. In an atmosphere of emergency procurement, when facing a crisis as great as the global pandemic, of course the three pillars of procurement are skipped and the State runs the risks of obtaining a low-quality product and overpaying for goods. It also runs the risk of a failure in transparency whereby we must ask whether we are sure funds have been correctly allocated. What the Deputy has described just underlines the reasons we have public procurement in place and the importance of having it.

It is possible to obtain goods in an emergency by short-circuiting or bypassing the normal public procurement procedures. While some of the PPE that was delivered to Ireland was unusable and substandard, 80% of it, I believe, was acceptable. If we cast our minds back to the time when health business services representatives of the HSE were on a runway in China trying to negotiate against other countries to obtain vital PPE to protect front-line healthcare workers and elderly people in nursing homes, we must recall that they had to get PPE virtually at any cost. They had to get it back to Ireland. They succeeded with the help of Aer Lingus and the heroic help of many people across the public and private sectors, who joined together and brought back as much PPE as they could. I understand that the HSE currently has a great surplus of PPE and has a supply that is expected to last for many more years than first believed. It is true, however, that some of the PPE was substandard, and that underlines the importance of having public procurement guidelines in place.

I do not believe anyone would argue that we do not need public procurement guidelines. The Minister of State did not really answer my question on whether there were purchases that we are not aware of. He said 80% of the equipment was to standard but that still implies a significant risk. I am aware that we went outside the normal competitive process and used negotiated procedure but there were clearly huge risks and issues over substandard or totally faulty equipment. A recent study by the World Bank ranked countries' approaches to procurement across a range of factors, including regulation. We did not score well in that regard; in fact, we scored quite poorly. I am interested in having an answer to my first question. Second, what does the reform board plan to do in respect of regulation?

The Deputy's first question was on the extent of the procurement and whether more substandard equipment was delivered to the HSE. As she can imagine, I would expect there was more. I do not have the full report from the HSE. It has sent us initial reports at this stage stating how much of its procurement was done in an emergency fashion. The Comptroller and Auditor General will also be investigating the matter. In this regard, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, wrote to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to advise him that the emergency phase had now passed and that we now needed to return to normal procurement rules and monitor everything. We must ask what we learn from this and what the outcome or consequence is. It is for the interim procurement reform board and the Government as a whole to assess what happened in the Department of Health, the circumstances, the extent and the changes that need to be made to address the issue.

Does the Minister of State know when he will have the report?

Later this year.

As Deputy Michael Collins, who tabled Question No. 4, is not present, we will move to the next question.

Freedom of Information

Catherine Connolly


5. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the review of freedom of information, FOI, legislation; the person or body that will be carrying out the review; the terms of reference of the review; the timeline for the completion of the review; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45634/21]

Is ceist shimplí dhíreach í. It is to ascertain the status of the review of the FOI legislation, the person or body that would carry out the review, the terms of reference for the review and the timeline for completion. Could the Minister make a statement on it?

I thank the Deputy very much for her question. I am glad to have this opportunity to provide the House with further details on the upcoming review of the Freedom of Information Act. My Department will shortly publish a roadmap document that will set out in detail the process for the review and give detailed information on how interested stakeholders can get involved.

My firm belief is that we should be seeking to promote a collaborative approach not only to the review process but also to "doing transparency" more broadly. We should recognise that all stakeholders, from the public sector to the media, academia, activists and interest groups, in addition to individual requesters, have a role to play in delivering effective and meaningful State transparency for the Irish public, and must work together to achieve that goal.

The remit and outcomes of the review will be driven by evidence. The review will, accordingly, seek inputs from the broadest possible range of stakeholders throughout the process. It is planned that public consultation will take place later this year. It will largely determine the scope of the review. I urge all interested parties to take this opportunity to make their voices heard and define the issues that will be considered in the review.

Following the scoping consultation, my Department will prepare and publish a document setting out the issues that have been identified. This document will be published and further consultation will take place early in the new year that will allow stakeholders the opportunity to make detailed submissions based on the themes that have been identified. These submissions will be central to the outcome of the review.

Alongside the public consultation process, my Department will engage in focused and targeted information gathering, driven by any knowledge gaps identified as the review progresses.

Two projects have already been identified as necessary and will commence later in the year. First, a customer satisfaction survey will be undertaken to assess the attitudes of requesters and staff members of public bodies towards the freedom of information process. Second, there is to be a project that aims to assess the cost of FOI so that we can have a clear picture of the resourcing demands that are required to operate the system as it stands. In addition, the review will consider international good practice and developments and seek to take account of the transformation in the manner in which people interact with information since the 2014 Act came into force.

I thank the Minister for confirming that there is a review. That was announced in June. I welcome that. I am a little worried about the vagueness of the phrase “in the coming weeks”. Will the Minister be more specific on when the roadmap will be published and when we will have the final result with a view to amending the legislation, if necessary?

I listened last week to the Minister's speech on the Sinn Féin motion on FOI. I thank him for that speech because he included a lot of detail. I actually agree with him that we should be changing the approach entirely. It would be great if we did not need the FOI arrangement but we do. We went through the circular process of introducing it, which was revolutionary at the time, but it was not broad enough. Then we changed the system and introduced a fee, and then we removed that fee. I notice that 50% of all the requests were by individuals seeking personal information. This is an extraordinarily high rate. Why is that the case? I will keep to the time because I am very strict on it when in the Chair.

We will be consulting closely with the Office of the Information Commissioner on an ongoing basis as the review progresses, given the central role that office plays. As the Deputy knows, I announced the review back in June, before any of the recent controversies arose. I want to be clear to the House that the intention of the review, from my perspective, is to strengthen and improve the FOI system; it is certainly not about narrowing the scope of FOI or anything like that. I was of the view, having settled into office, that there was a need for the system to be reviewed. Having said that, it is by no means all bad. There were 41,000 requests processed in 2019. Even last year, 32,652 were processed. The system delivers, in respect of four out of five FOI requests, all or part of the information requested. In about 3% of cases an internal review is sought, and in about 1% of cases a review is sought by the Office of the Information Commissioner.

In 70% of the cases on which the Information Commissioner adjudicates, the decision is in favour of the public body. I agree that we need to improve matters. I thank the several thousand members of staff who work and operate this system. We need to listen to them as well because they can identify gaps in the system and areas for improvement.

I am not sure if I can do justice to this in a minute. I reiterate that of the figure that the Minister has mentioned for 2020, half were personal requests. I am aware of the position with the local authorities. I very much hope that the Minister’s scoping exercise and analysis will look at them and why applicants on housing lists have to go through a torturous application process in order to get their personal details as to where they are on the list or why they were removed from it.

Then, of course, there is the cognitive dissonance relating to Ministers in the context of the Freedom of Information Act and deleting texts while they are obliged to do certain things under the law. There are all sorts of contradictions here. We then have the Information Commissioner, who operates on a presumption that a refusal is not justified unless the public body shows to the satisfaction of the commissioner that the decision was justified. On the other hand, public sector bodies seem to issue refusals in the first instance and the information has to be dragged out of them. I may be exaggerating a little but we really need to look at that. We are aware of the case of Ken Foxe and the fact that official information was being held on non-official forms. There are all sorts of things going on. Will the Minister provide specific dates as to when he expects the process to be completed?

I certainly would like to get to a point where the need for FOI requests would be reduced and where more information would be more readily available, particularly in the context of personal requests. It can be quite a cumbersome process to get people the information that they need.

I will be bringing a memorandum to Cabinet - I expect to do so as early as next week - setting out the process and seeking formal Government approval. We want to do this properly. It will take some time to complete the process and it will be next year before the review is complete.

I make the point that all public bodies have records management policies and the position is clear regarding the retention of data and what the obligations are in that respect. It must be done in a manner that is consistent with the National Archives Act, the data protection legislation, and, of course, the Freedom of Information Act itself. I want to take a collaborative approach to this review. I recognise that while overall the system is working well, it is in need of improvement. I am determined to work with the Opposition, with stakeholders and with everyone else to bring about those improvements. The process in this regard will formally commence once Cabinet has approved the review, but it will be next year before it is complete.

National Development Plan

Jackie Cahill


6. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform when the review of the National Development Plan 2018-2027 will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45684/21]

Mairéad Farrell


33. Deputy Mairéad Farrell asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the date of the final publication of the revised national development plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45416/21]

Michael Moynihan


48. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform when the review of the national development plan will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45454/21]

Christopher O'Sullivan


74. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the national development plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45491/21]

Questions Nos. 6, 33, 48 and 74, in the names of Deputies Cahill, Mairéad Farrell, Moynihan and Christopher O'Sullivan are grouped. I call Deputy Cahill, who tabled Question No. 6.

I thank the Acting Chair. When will the review of the national development plan, NDP, be published and can the Minister make a statement on it, please?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6, 33, 48 and 74 together.

I thank the Deputies for submitting these questions. The revised NDP is currently being finalised and it will set out annual expenditure ceilings for the initial five years for each departmental Vote group, including capital ceilings for 2022. This document is due to be published in the coming weeks, following final Governmental approval. Subject to Government approval, it is my intention that the revised NDP will be published before the budget.

As part of the programme for Government, the review was brought forward from 2022 in order to assess the resourcing requirements for the most important challenges facing us, as a nation, including Covid-19, climate action, housing, balanced regional development, healthcare, etc. The final phase commenced in October 2020, which included public consultation, Review to Renew, as well as further evidence-gathering by way of sectoral submissions for Departments and a series of technical papers. The results of phase 1 were published in a report in April on my Department's website. The technical and consultative work carried out as part of phase 1 forms the evidence base to underpin the decisions being taken in phase 2 of the NDP. The objective of phase 2 is to set out the revised sectoral capital allocations as well as providing a renewed focus on delivery of efficient and cost-effective public infrastructure. The range of indicated sectoral priorities will be identified as part of the final revised NDP.

It is important to note that the NDP is fundamentally a high-level financial and budgetary plan which sets the framework and broad direction for investment priorities. Following the intensive work by my own Department and all other Departments on these issues, I look forward to being able to publish an ambitious plan that balances the significant demand for public investment across all sectors and regions of Ireland along with a major focus on improving the delivery of infrastructure projects to ensure speed of delivery and value for money for the general public.

I want to talk about two road infrastructure projects in Tipperary. The first is essential and relates to the N24. This project will bring about connectivity between Waterford, Rosslare and Limerick. Tipperary town is completely choked with traffic congestion. It is essential that it gets priority and is dealt with first in the context of this very essential road infrastructure project across the southern part of the country.

My hometown of Thurles is suffering the same serious traffic congestion. There is a relief road plan for Thurles that is ready to go. It has all of the permissions, the land has been acquired and is awaiting capital investment. We also need a financial commitment to a ring road for Thurles. Again, the commercial viability of Thurles, like Tipperary town, is completely threatened by traffic congestion. It is essential that those road infrastructure projects be included in the capital development plan. We need action on the N24 project, with particular emphasis on the bypass of Tipperary town, and the ring road for Thurles.

I now call Deputy Mairéad Farrell..

Can I just confirm that I can only contribute once because there are a couple of-----

The Deputy can come back in as this is her first time to speak.

That is great. Thank you.

Can the Minister confirm if the €1.1 billion in additional capital outlined in the summer economic statement will be allocated across Departments under the revised NDP? Health and housing are two massive areas in respect of which there are serious infrastructural deficits. I hope that the revised NDP and the upcoming budget will tackle these deficits. Can the Minister confirm the ceilings for housing and health for 2022? Will he indicate how much more capital the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will receive under the NDP for 2022 compared with the capital provision and the projected outturn for 2021?

Two of the Deputies who tabled these questions are not present. Deputy Mairéad Farrell is allowed in once because she is coming in as an extra-----

That is what I thought. That is why I asked all my supplementary questions.

I will allow the Minister to answer. The Deputies who have indicated will be allowed to speak afterwards.

This was Deputy Cahill's question.

I spoke first, so I will not go again now. I will speak afterwards.

Can I have an opportunity to speak for one minute?

If the Deputy's question is one of those grouped, he would be entitled to come in twice.

One of the questions in this group is in my name.

That is what I was trying to establish. I do not have a list of names in front of me.

We are all rusty after the recess.

We will just get through this. Deputy Mairéad Farrell's question and that of Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan are both in this group. There are three other questions grouped with that of Deputy Cahill. Anybody else who wants to come in may do so later.

We are all very rusty. There is no reason to worry about it.

I thank the Deputy.

I have lost ten seconds already.

I have the names now.

I thank the Minister for his reply. This is a unique opportunity for us, as Deputies, to highlight the importance of certain infrastructure projects within our constituencies. There are some that I would certainly like to see included in the upcoming revised NDP. The first I will mention is the need for a southern relief road in Bandon town. Bandon is the largest town in my constituency. It has major potential but at the moment it is experiencing serious traffic congestion. There is a transportation and public realm enhancement plan, TPREP, work which would make the town more pedestrian-friendly and which should ease traffic within the town, but this will not work unless a southern relief road is provided. There is a partial road in place at the moment and it needs to be completed. It is a vital piece of infrastructure, not just for Bandon town but for all of west Cork and I would love to see that included in the plan. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

The additional €1.1 billion in capital for 2022 outlined in the summer economic statement will be allocated as part of the capital ceilings that will be published in the review of the NDP. The detail of exactly what the Departments of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Health, Transport and so on for next year and for every year out to 2025 will be confirmed when the review is published and the ceilings are set out.

I thank Deputies Cahill and O'Sullivan for raising a number of specific projects they are passionate about and have been lobbying for in the course of the review of the NDP. As they will understand, the selection of individual projects is generally made by the line Department, which then provides material to us in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, where we have overall responsibility for co-ordinating and pulling together the revised NDP and setting the ceilings. I have nonetheless taken note of the issues they raised and acknowledge they have raised them with the line Minister as well.

I want to raise a further couple of infrastructure projects in my county, one of which the Minister visited before he took office, namely, the Dean Maxwell nursing home, Roscrea, which is very important to the town but needs significant capital investment. I hope that will be catered for in the programme.

The other project is in Ardfinnan, which the Taoiseach visited on Friday last. A pedestrian walkway bridge in the town would be very important. There is an historic bridge, which is a protected structure, and for the past six years there has been single-lane traffic, which is very disruptive to the village. I urge the inclusion, therefore, of the pedestrian walkway as well. I could list a litany of further projects but they are just two in my constituency that I would love to be considered.

I am a bit disappointed that the Minister will not outline the ceilings. He is making my life slightly more difficult. I assume we will have them in good time before the budget is introduced. If the Minister does his change his mind and wishes to give us that additional information, that would be lovely.

On the NDP, we have heard many reports of bid rigging and about the costs of projects and so on being inflated. Officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment are on record as stating that this is happening and is inflating costs, which is a matter of great concern. We need to examine the regulation of such tenders. What are the Minister's plans in that regard?

I appreciate that we must raise these projects with the line Ministers as well, which we have done, but this is a unique opportunity for us to raise projects with the Minister and highlight the importance of having them included in the NDP. I will outline a few further projects.

The Bantry flood relief scheme was discussed in the Chamber earlier. That needs to be progressed and included in the plan. In health, the need for an endoscopy unit in Bantry General Hospital is very important. Finally, in the area of tourism, there are three key projects I would love to be delivered for west Cork because it is a key tourist destination, namely: the development of the Dursey cable car across Dursey Island - what a fantastic feature that could be; the development of a Baltimore breakwater, which would allow the development of marine facilities at the well-known tourism destination of Baltimore; and the stunning fishing village of Union Hall in west Cork, which needs an upgrade in its marina and pier facilities. Cork County Council is developing a plan in that regard and I would love it to be supported.

As my colleagues have done, I welcome this opportunity to raise these issues with the Minister. He will be aware of the N25, which is probably one of the busiest roads in the country. There is currently a major bottleneck at Castlemartyr. I understand that there are approximately 22,000 vehicle movements per day through one small crossing there. There have been major tailbacks and the area is now highlighted regularly on traffic news as one of the main black spots. Cork County Council and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, are anxious to provide some form of relief road there and have carried out quite a bit of work on that but I understand that unless it is included in the NDP, it cannot proceed.

Another road the Minister is familiar with is that into Cobh. The town has experienced substantial growth in marine traffic, including cruise liners, and there are major plans, as the Minister will be aware, to develop offshore wind energy facilities and so on. The road into the place, however, is Dickensian and the bridge was built in the 1800s.

I acknowledge the great work the Minister and his team are putting into the review, which involves a very detailed process. Nevertheless, this is an opportunity to signal the rebalancing of our economy towards the Atlantic economic corridor. There are a number of key projects in this regard. I refer to the western rail project, which is ready to roll. The project was recently reviewed by Dr. John Bradley and shown to be economically feasible. The Athenry to Claremorris extension is ready to go and would be a key investment in low-carbon transport for the Atlantic economic corridor.

Separately, the N26 is the final major road infrastructure project to have been undertaken in County Mayo. The first phase was completed in 2004 and we now need to move on the second phase, along with a continuation of the project linking the N26 to the N59. We have engaged with the line Department but we need a whole-of-government approach to indicate this review takes seriously the Atlantic economic corridor and the associated counties.

I thank Deputy Cahill for placing the NDP on the agenda. In respect of Dublin and questions over the MetroLink, I ask that it be prioritised in the NDP review, as well as DART underground. These are key infrastructure projects that were mooted previously and need to be retained on the agenda, as does the N11 interchange. Finally, coastal defence is required for Dublin Bay and that could perhaps be linked with the Sutton to Sandycove walkway and cycleway. All the projects are essential for Dublin and its expansion.

There is a long list for every county in regard to the NDP. I would love to see the Minister hit the nail on the head with regard to the unsewered villages of rural Ireland. In Clare in particular, there are five or six of them. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, visited Broadford just a few weeks ago. It is important that we end that long-standing practice of raw sewage passing into local streams and drains.

The first phase of the Limerick northern distributor road has been approved and its construction is well under way, but it stops at the roundabout. We need to complete it in its entirety and that needs to be a priority.

Finally, in preparation for the new NDP, there has been much discussion of park-and-rail facilities along the Clare-Limerick-Galway railway track. I would love them to be developed in proximity to Cratloe and Thomond Park, near to Limerick city. Would it not be wonderful to get that railway line along the west of Ireland, giving proper connectivity to the west?

I thank all the Deputies for raising a host of projects with me directly on the floor of the House. Many of those projects have been brought to my attention over the course of the review of the NDP and colleagues have been in touch with the relevant line Ministers as well, as have I in respect of a number of the projects. I will do so again, particularly in regard to any that have been raised for the first time this morning.

I might make a few broad points. The content of the NDP is not exhaustive. It is not a list of every project that each line Department intends to deliver over the next ten years. Nevertheless, I fully understand the desire to have specific projects called out and included in the plan.

There is a need to improve delivery and address capacity constraints, given that we are seeing significant underspends in the system on the capital side. I do not want there to be underspends because we are allocating the money for a reason. We want the projects to be delivered and completed. I assure the Deputies that balanced regional development is a core objective of the review of the NDP.

We are going to provide a record amount of public resources for what will be the largest and most ambitious public capital investment programme in the history of the State.

Finally, on the issues of value for money and the pressures that are arising in respect of construction inflation and so forth, I and the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, are both engaging with the Office of Government Procurement on the issues that are arising there in the context of the public works contract. We want to see tenders successfully completed and awarded and jobs delivered.

We are way over time given the number of speakers who contributed. We are moving to other questions but one Deputy inadvertently missed his priority question so, with the permission of the House, I am prepared to let him back in because it was inadvertent. I am saying that in case he is listening. The next question is No. 7 and I am going back to strict times now. The Deputy is not present so I will go through the list. I call Deputy Devlin.