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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 1 Mar 2022

Vol. 1018 No. 7

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Flood Risk Management

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

58. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the flood relief measures for County Louth; the progress to date; the additional staffing resources provided by the Office of Public Works to Louth County Council; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11508/22]

I ask the Minister of State the status of flood relief measures for County Louth, including the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme; the progress to date; and the additional staffing resources that will be provided by the Office of Public Works, OPW, to Louth County Council.

In 2019, the OPW completed a flood relief scheme at Bellurgan at a cost of some €700,000. It protects 35 properties. The evidence provided by the CFRAM programme, which was launched in May 2018, supports the Government's €1.3 billion planned investment in flood relief through the national development plan as part of Project Ireland 2040. One key output of the CFRAM programme was the flood risk management plans that contain proposed flood relief measures informed by costs, benefits and environmental factors to address the flood risk in each assessed community and nationwide. To deliver the proposed measures set out in these plans, Louth County Council, working with the OPW, has agreed to be the lead agent in the delivery of flood relief schemes at Dundalk, Blackrock south, Drogheda, Carlingford and Greenore, Baltray and Ardee, all of which are in the first tranche of projects being progressed.

The development of flood relief schemes, overseen by project steering groups with representatives meeting monthly from the OPW and Louth County Council, involves five distinct, sequential and related stages. The first stage involves assessing the flood risk and identifying options, followed by planning, detailed design, construction and maintenance. Public consultation forms part of each stage and project websites, available on floodinfo.ie, provide updates on each scheme.

The Dundalk, Blackrock south and Ardee projects, which are being progressed simultaneously, were chosen by Louth County Council as the first project to be advanced in Louth.

The tender for engineering and environmental consultancy services was awarded in 2020 to a joint venture between Binnies, formerly Black & Veatch, and Nicholas O'Dwyer Limited. The proposed scheme will protect some 1,880 properties when completed and the scheme option is expected in the first half of 2023.

In regard to the Drogheda and Baltray schemes, the tender for engineering and environmental consultancy services was awarded to RPS Consulting Engineers Limited in September 2021. The proposed scheme will protect 450 properties when completed and the scheme option is expected at the end of 2023.

The OPW is meeting Louth County Council over the coming weeks to discuss finalising the engineering and environmental consultancy services tender brief for the Carlingford and Greenore scheme. Unfortunately, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is indicating that my time is up.

Obviously, projects such as those for Dundalk, Blackrock, south Drogheda, Carlingford, Greenore, Baltray and Ardee are vital for the future. Given the circumstances we find ourselves in regarding climate change, etc., it is absolutely necessary that we get them done as soon as possible. In fairness to the Minister of State, he furnished me with some details in writing a week or so ago, which I appreciate.

There is a wider question, which relates to places such as Annagassan and Termonfeckin. I understand the CFRAM process investigated possible structural flood relief measures for both of those towns but an economically viable scheme was not identified and a review of risks, likely costs and benefits is to be undertaken. The OPW had put in place a process for undertaking such a scheme viability review, SVR, process, including for Annagassan and Termonfeckin. Will the Minister of State provide some detail on that general process?

Thank you, Deputy. The Minister of State to respond.

Is he looking at anywhere beyond those areas?

I was in County Louth with our colleague, Deputy O'Dowd, not too long ago, where I met with officials from Louth County Council. In the case of Annagassan and Termonfeckin, the CFRAM process investigated possible structural flood relief measures for both but economically viable schemes have not been identified. The OPW is undertaking a review of the risk in both communities and the likely costs and benefits of the scheme will be included in that. The OPW has put in place a process for undertaking such a scheme viability review, the purpose of which is to determine whether potential schemes should be taken to the full flood relief scheme project stages. Once the outcome of the SVR is known, the OPW will discuss the results with Louth County Council. Further work on this is being undertaken between the OPW and the council. We appreciate that the risk will not go away in these vulnerable locations. All of the Louth coastline, through the Meath coastline and into north County Dublin is a particularly vulnerable area. A 1 m rise in Irish seawater levels is not going to lessen that vulnerability.

I appreciate the Minister of State's answer. It is vital that due diligence is carried out as to what best fits in sorting the problems in places such as Annagassan and Termonfeckin. I am also thinking of areas such as Dromiskin that have flooding difficulties. Will any other places be considered for the these types of SVRs? Beyond that, is there a wider timetable for when some of these projects will start to be put in place properly, having regard to the planning difficulties about which the Minister of State has spoken? A review in this regard is on ongoing by the Attorney General, which I expect will come to some sort of positive solution around some of these issues.

I want to raise the issue of regular flooding on the Kylemore road in County Galway. When flooding occurs, it no longer likes a road but instead like a river. It is extremely dangerous for people who are trying to pass. The road is regularly used by tourists, who may not understand the dangers posed by the flooding. When it is impassible, it means a 30 km detour for anybody wanting to go through there. An associated issue is that concerns have been raised about the impact dredging would have on the pearl mussel. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that if a report needs to be done, it should be done now. We cannot continue with a situation where flooding is occurring at the same level as it currently is, given the impact on members of the local community going about their daily business.

I am not sure the Deputy's question was relevant to County Louth.

There was a bit of poetic licence.

I am sorry, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I usually do not come in on colleagues' questions.

It is okay to come in on a question but the point raised must be relevant to that question, which in this case relates to a particular county.

I only saw it was to do with flooding.

I will leave it to the Minister of State as to whether he wants to respond.

Given the pertinent issue Deputy Farrell has raised, I am sure the discretion of the Chair will be exercised and some leniency can be given.

On Deputy Ó Murchú's questions, Louth County Council has the option of progressing some of the minor issues through the OPW's minor works scheme. We are encouraging local authorities to work with us on that. In fairness to the council, it has a very proactive history of engagement with the OPW. I was very impressed with the engagement I had with the county manager and senior officials when I met with them in Drogheda to discuss what is proposed for that town as well as the larger schemes such as that for Dundalk. The reviews of the other schemes will be concluded probably at the back end of this year or the first quarter of next year.

In regard to the issue with the Kylemore road referred to by Deputy Farrell, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle may also be interested in my answer. The Deputy has brought the issue to my attention and my officials in the OPW are looking at it. On the point she raised relating to a particular species of mollusc, the matter will require appropriate assessment, including environmental impact assessments. I understand Galway County Council has undertaken work in this regard but I am not aware of the extent of it. I will come back to the Deputy with a more comprehensive answer in this regard. My primary concern is, I am sure, one shared by her and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, which is to ensure access for people in the relevant parts of Connemara and south Mayo, as well as those near the Kylemore road.

I am sure the Deputy sitting behind Deputy Farrell, as well as Deputy Ring, Senator Kyne and others are equally interested. I will come back with a fuller answer.

Public Sector Staff

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

59. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he is engaged in discussions to agree revised principles for a new higher education staffing agreement to update the current employment control framework; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11405/22]

I thank the Minister of State for thinking about County Mayo.

I will send her the details.

I thank him for his positive action. That is what I like.

Is the Minister engaged in discussions to agree revised principles for a new higher education staffing agreement to update the employment control framework? I have raised this issue a number of times since the Government was formed. The sector and its workforce have struggled under the employment control framework since 2010. It is still in place since Fianna Fáil was previously in government. Will he provide an update on the new higher education agreement that will replace it?

I thank the Deputy for her question. As she will be aware, and as set out in my previous responses on this matter, officials from my Department engage on an ongoing basis with their counterparts in the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on multiple policy issues, which include the consideration of principles for a higher education staffing agreement. The purpose of such an agreement, once finalised, will be to update the existing employment control framework approach that has been in place since 2011 and still is in place in a number of sectors in the public service.

The employment control framework for the higher education sector is updated on an annual basis, having regard to the funding decisions made as part of the annual Estimates process, and is then put into operation by the Higher Education Authority, HEA, across all higher education institutions. Overall staffing in the sector, both core and non-core, has increased by approximately 4,500, or 18%, since 2016. While the operation and management of the existing employment control framework approach is a matter for the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, the HEA and the individual higher education institutions, a key issue from my Department's perspective is to ensure it appropriately reflects fiscal, expenditure and public service staffing and pay policies. Regarding the overarching principles for a new approach, my Department is seeking to ensure staffing decisions taken in the higher education sector are affordable and sustainable both from a higher education perspective and from an Exchequer and wider public service staffing and pensions perspective.

My Department is also mindful of the need to ensure that there is appropriate flexibility built in to any revised approach so that higher education institutions can operate efficiently in making their staffing decisions, having regard to their overall expenditure allocations and other appropriate controls.

I understand the role of the Department is to ensure that it is sustainable from a fiscal and expenditure perspective but that is the heart of the issue and it is why the employment framework was introduced in the first place. I welcome the establishment of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and I, like many working in the sector, took that as a signal that the Government was finally ready to take higher education out of austerity mode. That is over two years ago and 12 years since the austerity measure of the employment control framework was established. This essentially limits the ability of colleges to hire permanent staff. I have been repeatedly assured by the Minister, Deputy Harris, that the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is in regular engagement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. How far along are we in the process, what are the blockages and when can workers in the sector expect progress? I take on board what the Minister is saying about the additional staff but if they are on precarious hours and not on proper contracts then that makes a mockery of it.

It is important to say that we are seeing a significant expansion of the number of people working in the higher education sector. The control framework the Deputy referred to is updated annually following the Estimates process. The key driver is what annual budget is agreed for the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, which then makes its way down to the higher education institutes. A 4,500 headcount increase, or 18% in six years, is significant. Since 2015 the annual expenditure allocated to higher education has increased by more than 40% and this year the allocation will be approximately €2.4 billion, which is the highest it has ever been, higher even than the previous peak funding levels in 2008. It is a substantial increase from the low point of planned expenditure in 2015 and the Deputy will be aware of many of the highlights within that, including €420 million being allocated to student supports such as SUSI grants. We have agreed the NDP, with significant annual increases for the Department to roll out the capital programme across the higher education institutes.

The Minister will understand that the funding per student is down 37% on what it was in 2008. Most early career academics and researchers now go from one precarious contract to another. Some 16% of researchers in the technological sector are on permanent contracts but only 5% of researchers in universities are on full-time contracts. It is important to remember that many of these researchers had to complete year upon year of study, many as PhD researchers, where they are paid less than the minimum wage in the form of a stipend and have no workers' rights. The researchers are often in their 30s and 40s and unable to get a mortgage due to the precarity of their work. The precarious nature of their work has forced them to put many life decisions on hold. I speak to academics with permanent contracts and to those without and they all say the same thing. Damage has been done to the profession and this needs to be treated as a matter of urgency.

By setting up this new Department the Government has underlined the importance it attaches to the research sector. Having a full Cabinet Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is making a difference and that can be seen in the record allocations of funding that have been made. In recent years, through Covid, we have seen a major expansion in the number of places that have been funded in third level and further education. We are seeing an increase in the number of staff in the sector. We have to make sure we have adequate core funding for this sector into the future, that we address access issues and that it is affordable for young people and people going through adult and further education opportunities to avail of those. Cost must not be a barrier to that. Those are the core priorities of Government in that regard.

Project Ireland 2040

Joe Flaherty

Question:

60. Deputy Joe Flaherty asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the action he is taking to get value for money under the National Development Plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11368/22]

I am aware that the Minister recently announced the appointment of five external members to the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board. Heretofore the membership of the board was predominantly comprised of Secretaries General of the main spending Government Departments and the appointment of five new external members will bring additional knowledge, greater private sector experience and important independent and regional perspectives to the deliberations of this important board. Can the Minister advise on the actions he is taking to ensure he gets value for money under the NDP?

I thank the Deputy for raising this question. The fact that the Government is committing a record amount of public money for the public capital investment programme underlines the level of importance we attach to this issue. We want to achieve regional balance and we recognise that there is a need for continued investment in infrastructure across our country. That includes measures in housing through the Housing for All programme; transport, where we have allocated €35 bullion out to 2030 for projects; climate action measures; investment in new schools;investment in new hospitals; and improvements to existing infrastructure. As the Deputy knows, I have introduced a number of important reforms, one of which the Deputy has touched on, namely the expansion of the membership of the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board to include new external members. That is an important reform and in addition, I have also set up a new major projects advisory group to advise my Department on the large capital projects that we have to adjudicate on and give our approval to through Government. We have also set up a new resource for line Departments in the form of a panel of external experts to assist them in bringing projects through the public spending code. The key issue is to identify problems early on in the process. That will prevent the incidence of the cost over-runs and project delays that we have seen too much of in the past, though we should acknowledge that the vast majority of projects are delivered on time and within budget. The reforms I have introduced will make a difference and will add significant additional rigour to the assessment of projects.

I welcome the Minister’s comments and his enthusiasm for and commitment to this sector. His points on regional and balanced development were particularly timely and he will be aware that Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, recently shelved the funding for eight major road projects. I will go partisan on this point and say that the most important project within those eight would be the N4 upgrade from Mullingar past Longford. It is particularly disappointing that this money has been shelved. To date, €6 million has been spent on the project and were it to advance it would be well in excess of €100 million and would come under the remit of the major projects advisory group. I take on board the points the Minister makes on value for money and on ensuring from the outset that money is spent prudently and wisely. Surely the concept of having spent €6 million on a project to date and then suddenly pausing it does not make sense. I would hope that the Minister can take this away and look at it with his colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and see if perhaps the additional necessary funding can be secured for all eight of those projects, but most importantly for the N4 upgrade.

While it is the direct responsibility of the individual line Minister to manage his or her capital budget, I acknowledge the need to make sure we have a pipeline of projects moving through the system. If it is the medium to long-term objective of Government that a particular project would be delivered then it makes sense for it to continue to move forward through the project lifecycle because various stages have to be passed through before a project goes to tender and on to the construction stage. One of the lessons learned from projects being stalled in the past is that when money then became available projects were not necessarily ready to absorb that capital and move to construction. The priority for me is to ensure that our capital budget is spent, that it is spent well and that we get value for money. We have an overall budget of €12 billion this year, which is a record level of investment by our country in our infrastructure. We had underspends in each of the last two years and Covid is the reason for that.

However, I certainly expect Departments to spend all of their money this year. Where projects are desirable and have merit, it makes sense for us to continue to bring them through the project lifecycle. I will work with the Deputy on that.

I am heartened by the Minister's response to this issue. An additional €1.5 million this year will keep this project on track and allow the design team to continue with the route-selection works. Everything the Minister has said would echo the views of the midlands, generally. This is a critical infrastructure and road, not only for the midlands, but for the wider north-west region. It behoves us, as legislators and the Government, to ensure in the interest of balanced regional development that this road programme is put back on track this year. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues in Cabinet can ensure that the necessary funding comes into being to allow the road project proceed.

Achieving regional balance requires us to invest in the regions and improve the infrastructure of the regions, be it necessary public transport links or road infrastructure. As the Deputy knows, we have an overarching programme for Government commitment that the ratio of new investment in transport will be 2:1 in favour of public transport, relative to road infrastructure. There is also, however, €360 million per annum that will be used for active travel measures. We see that being rolled out by my colleagues, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, in welcome investment in greenways and improved pedestrian and cycling facilities throughout the country. I acknowledge the Deputy's consistent representations on the issue and I am happy to try to work with him and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, to see whether we can make any progress over the period ahead.

Questions Nos. 61 and 62 replied to with Written Answers.

Healthcare Policy

Marc Ó Cathasaigh

Question:

63. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the steps that have been taken by the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer to promote and enable the development of e-health; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11472/22]

I wanted to put a question to the Minister on the promotion and enabling of e-health. Over the course of the Covid pandemic, we have seen a considerable move towards working from home. We have also seen the ill-effects of the cyberattack. I wanted to ask him what steps have been taken by the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer to promote and enable the development of e-health and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As the Deputy is aware, Harnessing Digital - The Digital Ireland Framework document was deliberately written to align Ireland with Europe's Digital Decade: digital targets for 2030. While my Department is primarily responsible for co-ordinating the delivery of the digital Government element of the digital Ireland framework, we will, of course, work across all of government, including the Department of Health and the HSE, in the achievement of the specified targets.

We have seen a significant step forward in the provision of e-government services in Ireland over the last few years, with our passport, Revenue and driving licence services all proving extremely popular and an ever-growing uptake of MyGovID and use of gov.ie. I acknowledge the work of the Deputy's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, who cannot be here as he is abroad on Government business, for driving a number of these reforms.

During the worst of the pandemic, we were able to stand up numerous services, including in e-health, with the vaccination portal and world-leading contact tracing app. The digital Covid certificate system was developed by the Department of Health and the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, OGCIO, within my Department. There is considerable material here, which will be put on the record, but I want to specifically touch on the issue of e-health.

The Department of Health and the HSE have committed to revise and deliver a renewed e-health strategy by 2030. In doing so, they continue to work closely with my Department. We will also work with it as it delivers on Ireland's national recovery and resilience plan, and the renewed national development plan's digital commitments in respect of e-health and digital health services.

This will involve: continued phased deployment of electronic health record systems; use of health identifiers to create records that are unique to each patient; e-pharmacy and e-prescribing; summary and shared-care records; tele-medicine and remote care monitoring solutions. We have received specific funding under the national recovery and resilience plan with regard to a suite of e-health projects which, perhaps, I can come back on in a moment.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The digital Covid certificate not only enabled our people to travel with digital proofs of Covid-19 vaccination and recovery but we were also able to open up a portal to pharmacies and testing centres to provide proofs of negative tests for travel. Then we were able to create a privacy-enhanced version of our verifier to help open up hospitality and, finally, create the means whereby nearly 53,000 Irish people who were vaccinated in other countries have been able to avail of EU-compliant digital Covid certificates.

These successes provide a firm foundation for a more advanced and user-centric service model, with the evolution from e-government, where existing manual services and processes were computerised, to digital government, where services are re-imagined and developed based on a greater understanding of user journeys and choices.

The Government is committed, over the next several years, to build upon our strong foundations and to creating a trusted, user-driven, intuitive, inclusive and efficient world-leading digital government service, in which 90% of applicable services are consumed online. This is a very ambitious objective because it covers Government, local government, education and justice as well as healthcare. Moreover, we will develop priority plans and approaches through consultation with the most important users of the systems, our people and our businesses.

I am convinced that building our digital offerings around the needs of our people will further facilitate the already increasing uptake of digital government services, helping us drive towards the 90% of applicable services consumed online by 2030 target. This, in turn, will help facilitate the freeing up of resources to better support those who may struggle with technology, and-or may not be in a position to independently engage online.

This includes supporting such cohorts to engage, through providing them with digital skills and access to infrastructure, but also through focused supports such as assisted digital approaches, where individuals can get the necessary help to enable them over time to grow their confidence and capability in digital transactions. This will be further supplemented by non-digital complementary options, where more appropriate. Creating a better face-to-face experience for those who need it most and improving the times when and locations where these services will be available is an important part of an inclusive approach where everyone can benefit from digital transformation.

It is also important to foster public trust in the safety, transparency and the value of digital solutions. To that end, my Department has driven forward the implementation of the Data Sharing and Governance Act 2019, which will provide full transparency around the sharing of data across the public sector. We have also worked with the National Cyber Security Centre and the public service, including the HSE, in the development of baseline security standards to raise the protection of citizen data. Both of these initiatives will help underpin e-health development.

These initiatives, coupled with investment in foundational infrastructure and national systems to enable transformation and reform of the health service in Ireland, will help to reduce our reliance on acute hospitals. It will also empower citizens to monitor their health status, adapt their lifestyles and support independent living and enable people to be cared for closer to home. Finally, the Government is digitally enabling the healthcare workforce in order that it has access to modern, fit-for-purpose technology, which allows them to save time, record better data and provide better care to their patients. For support staff, the provision of tools such as the integrated financial management system will increase efficiencies.

I acknowledge the role of NearForm in my home town of Tramore which was instrumental in the production of that Covid tracker app. It did a great job of work in a short space of time and for relatively good value. I worry, when I hear the new e-health strategy will be delivered by 2030, which seems an inordinate amount of time. While the cyberattack, which was a calamity within a catastrophe in that it happened during the worst of the Covid outbreak, presented an enormous challenge, it also presented an opportunity in that a great deal of new equipment was brought in and maybe the opportunity for a new approach. The Minister mentioned the digitisation of records. That needs to be moved forward, as quickly as humanly possible. This is something we have set out in Sláintecare and maybe there is an opportunity to grasp this, rather than set a timeline that leads us so far into the decade.

We all acknowledge that the pandemic accelerated many reforms throughout the system, including in the area of digitisation, especially in health. These reforms have been worked towards over a period of time, but the barriers were cut through and they were made to happen over the past couple of years. We now need to embrace them and build on them as a foundation for further reforms into the future.

If one looks at the €75 million suite of projects for which we have secured funding from the European Union under our national recovery and resilience plan, e-pharmacy is key. The deployment of new pharmacy systems within hospitals will not only provide better visibility of medications, usage and cost, it will enable the possible extension of these systems for use as e-prescribing tools throughout many of our hospitals.

In addition, community e-health solutions will include delivery of ICT communications and technical infrastructure and a key project in health, which is badly needed, is an integrated financial management system. I look forward to seeing the HSE and the Department of Health advance that project as a priority over the year ahead.

I have so many points I would like to address but I do not think I will have time. There are huge opportunities here with e-health and that is why I would like to see it accelerate as much as possible. There are huge opportunities in supporting ageing in place. Ongoing health monitoring, which would lead us to earlier and better interventions in people's health, could be so important. There is a huge opportunity in providing healthcare in hard-to-reach areas such as the islands, where it is very difficult to access healthcare, when put together with e-prescribing.

However, we need a strategy in place, because there are also issues around the safeguarding of privacy, if we move the more integrated model in order that people have more rights and control over their records. I have worries about the erosion of working conditions. We see a movement towards a platform working model beginning to grow up in the caring economy. That worries me, from a workers' rights perspective. However, we should move forward with this, as quickly as we possibly can, grasp those opportunities and face up to the challenges.

I agree with the Deputy's sentiments. There is a fantastic opportunity here that we need to embrace. The Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, and I will, in the coming days, launch Connecting Government 2030, a digital and ICT strategy for Ireland's public service. That will lay out, in much more detail, many of the key reforms on which we are working towards which will involve building towards 90% online uptake of key public services, in line with the targets set by the EU's digital decade.

However, the Deputy made a critical point on access. Access to healthcare is not just about accessing a physical building or hospital. It is about accessing services online. The roll-out of the national broadband plan to remote areas of our country is absolutely imperative to that. All the measures we are progressing in the e-health area will, ultimately, help to reduce our reliance on acute hospitals. We also have to ensure that our workers in the healthcare sector are equipped with the technology, equipment and resources that they need to fulfil their functions. The Government will continue to work towards that.

Questions Nos. 64 and 65 replied to with Written Answers.

Freedom of Information

Thomas Pringle

Question:

66. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the public consultation process on the Freedom of Information Act 2014; when a further round of submissions will open; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11027/22]

Recently, I got some woefully inadequate freedom of information, FOI, responses from a number of Departments. I note the Minister's FOI review roadmap indicates quarter 1 of 2022 for the publication of the consultation paper and commencement of the public consultation.

We are fast approaching the end of quarter 1. Is the Minister on schedule to meet this target?

I thank Deputy Pringle for raising this important issue. I am pleased to have the opportunity to update the House on the progress of the review of the Freedom of Information Act. The opening public consultation on the review closed shortly before Christmas. This preliminary consultation was designed as an opportunity for all interested stakeholders to have their say in setting the direction of the review at an early stage of the process. Stakeholders in the public sector, journalism, academia, the political domain, as well as individual members of the public, were asked to briefly identify key issues with the current FOI system in Ireland as they see it.

Close to 1,200 responses were received from a diverse range of stakeholders, which demonstrates the high level of interest in this matter. These responses are currently being analysed by my officials and will inform a further consultation paper. It is expected that this paper, which will set out the key themes and issues to be addressed in the review, will be published in the coming weeks. Once it is published, individuals and organisations will have an opportunity to make further detailed submissions around the themes identified in the initial consultation.

We will again make every effort to ensure that this next phase of consultation has the broadest possible reach to ensure the diverse perspectives of all interested parties are represented. In announcing this review, I indicated that it should be an open and collaborative process involving all sectors. I am glad to report that the review to date has progressed in that manner and will continue to do so.

Alongside this, an independent customer satisfaction survey to be conducted on my Department's behalf by Ipsos, which is designed to assess the attitudes of requesters and staff members of public bodies towards the FOI process, is at an advanced stage of preparation and will be launched shortly. Further work will take place later in the spring and into the summer, including a review of international best practices, ongoing engagement with key stakeholders, including the Office of the Information Commissioner, OIC, and an exercise to estimate the cost of processing FOI requests. Once these strands have been completed, a final report with recommendations will be prepared for publication later in the year.

I thank the Minister for the update on the process as it stands. I wrote to him approximately four weeks ago in general terms regarding a recent response to an FOI request I submitted to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the mica issue. I am still awaiting a response from the Minister's office in that regard. As I indicated in my correspondence to the Minister, I am not looking for a generic response outlining the appeals process that is open to me and I do not want such a response today either. What I was doing was highlighting what I consider to be a negative institutional attitude taken by organisations of the State to the FOI process, and especially the FOI applicant, which is very important. I note the Minister stated in his review that he might have something on that. That is very important. Will that be part of the review process that is to take place?

To what is the Deputy referring?

Will the way in which the FOI bodies look at applicants be part of the review?

Yes. I will follow up on Deputy Pringle's correspondence and make sure he gets a comprehensive reply.

Without going into any individual case, it is important to point out that the Information Commissioner is fully independent in the performance of his functions and his office is currently the ultimate recourse for adjudicating on a complaint or appeal in relation to FOI. I believe the review, which is well advanced, is the most comprehensive and open review that has ever taken place. I am coming at this from the perspective of not trying to narrow or limit the operation of FOI but to open it up and make sure it meets the requirements of people and that where information should be made available, it is provided in a timely manner and with a minimum amount of hassle. That must be the objective.

I would like to see more information published in the normal course of events to avoid having to refer to FOI but that will take some time to work through. This reform process is now well advanced and will result in very significant reforming legislation in the area of freedom of information.

The review should also examine how FOI officers deal with FOI requests across different Departments, bodies and such. The standard of response people get and the way requests are dealt with are very mixed. That is very important.

The Minister spoke about the costs of an FOI project. That is true. The raw cost to the Exchequer can be calculated with a very high degree of certainty. There is no doubt about that. I hope the Minister intends to look at the intentions in his Department to use proposals to restrict access to information or gut the already weak and inadequate legislation as a cost-cutting measure. We should be providing more information. The Minister mentioned that information should be widely available. If the Departments published everything, they would have very little to do with FOI. The information would be provided in order that people would be able to get it if they wanted it. That is ultimately what this is about. The cost of operating this FOI system is prohibitive and unnecessary and leads to a mistrust in the State.

I can understand why some people would be sceptical when they hear a Government is carrying out a review of freedom of information. The assumption might be that its purpose is to restrict the operation of FOI in some way. That is not where I am coming from on this issue. I also assure the Deputy that it is certainly not a cost-cutting initiative either.

The Deputy raised a point about freedom of information officers. I think the issue he is getting at is one of consistency. The feedback and role of FOI officers will be very much part of the review process. In quarter 2 of this year, officials in my Department will facilitate focus groups and interviews with a number of key stakeholders to ensure a comprehensive insight into the broad range of perspectives and the operation of the system in Ireland is secured. That will include engaging with freedom of information officers. We can learn a lot from them and their experience. They can share some valuable insights. All this is working towards a final report. Ultimately, I anticipate that I will bring the general scheme of a Bill to Government, which will go to pre-legislative scrutiny later in the year.

None of the Deputies who tabled subsequent questions up to Question No. 83 is present.

What is the next question the Leas-Cheann Comhairle has for which a Deputy is present?

The next one is Question No. 88 from Deputy Máiread Farrell.

Question Nos. 67 to 87, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

National Development Plan

Mairéad Farrell

Question:

88. Deputy Mairéad Farrell asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will provide a list of the capital projects outlined in the national development plan which are currently behind schedule; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11387/22]

The Minister is more prepared than I am. I ask him to give an update on the capital projects outlined in the national development plan, NDP, including any that may be behind schedule.

As part of Project Ireland 2040, the National Development Plan 2021-2030, which was published on 4 October last year, sets out the Government's overarching investment framework and broad direction for investment priorities for this decade.

As Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, I am responsible for setting the overall capital allocations across Departments and for monitoring monthly expenditure at a departmental level. My Department is also responsible for maintaining the national frameworks within which Departments operate to ensure appropriate accounting and value for money in public expenditure, such as the public spending code. The public spending code sets the value-for-money requirements and guidance for evaluating, planning and managing capital projects. Management and delivery of individual investment projects within the allocations agreed under the NDP and within the national frameworks is a key responsibility of every Department and Minister.

It is important to acknowledge that the majority of public investment projects are delivered on budget and on time and there is a high level of professionalism across the sectors.

Reforms are also ongoing in governance and in their broader capability to help to ensure successful delivery. In my role, I am responsible for setting the guidance processes for the spending of capital funds. The NDP also sets out the range of actions that are being taken to strengthen delivery, to maximise value for money and to ensure, to the extent that is possible, that projects are delivered on time, on budget and with the benefits targeted at the outset. For an extensive list of projects that are currently planned and in progress as part of Project Ireland 2040, the Deputy might consider the publications that were published alongside the NDP, in particular, the updated investment tracker, which provides a composite update on the progress of all projects.

I thank the Minister for that update. We are all acutely aware of how important capital projects are for the infrastructure deficit that we have in so many aspects of our daily life, as well as in different areas across the country. It is for that reason that I thought it was important to ask this question and to get that level of update. Not only will capital projects assist in any infrastructural deficit, they are also important for the creation of good jobs for people across the area and indeed in rural and more isolated areas who may not may not have had the same opportunities. I welcome what the Minister said. It is important that we do everything in our power at all times to ensure that these projects are delivered on time.

There is a lot of information available online. We published alongside the NDP, as I mentioned, the updated investment tracker. That sets out a composite update on the progress of all major investments, with an estimated cost of greater than €20 million. The NDP is also accompanied by the "My Project Ireland” mapping tool, which provides details on specific projects by county. This includes smaller investments such as schools and social housing projects. All of that information is on gov.ie/2040. It shows the investment tracker and the mapping tool. We publish as much information as we possibly can. For many of the smaller projects, an inquiry to the individual Department would get the most accurate response. Certainly, for the larger projects, we co-ordinate the reporting online on a regular basis.

It is important that that information is available. It is good to see that that is readily and easily available online for those people who are concerned, or who have questions. That aspect of addressing those smaller scale questions directly to the Minister is important for accuracy. I welcome the information that the Minister has given here this evening. It is important. I will share it with those people who have contacted me about different capital projects and ensuring that they are delivered on time.

I thank the Deputy. We all have a role in raising the profile of those information sources. I am not sure if as many people as we would like are aware of the extent of the information available concerning individual projects. It is very user friendly. You go onto the mapping tool, you click on your county and you will see all of the significant projects that are being advanced under the national development plan. You can get an update on all of those.

Now, every Minister and Department has certainty of their capital budget until 2025. This enables them to plan the delivery of a pipeline of projects over that period of time. The Department of Transport and the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications have a line of sight out to 2030, given the long lead-in period that is involved in the multi-annual projects they are seeking to advance. The important thing now is to get as much information as possible across to the general public so that it can see how the vast resources that are being provided under the national development plan are being deployed.

Questions Nos. 89 to 91, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Brexit Supports

Thomas Pringle

Question:

92. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the breakdown of funding schemes established under the recently established Brexit adjustment reserve; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11029/22]

I have a question on the Brexit adjustment reserve, BAR. I am looking for a breakdown of where the funding is going. I have the response, but I have not seen the answer. The answer did not fully respond to the question. One thing I would like to impress on the Minister is the need for our offshore islands to be included in that and for them be funded significantly for piers and harbours. That is vitally important.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Brexit adjustment reserve aims to provide financial support to the most affected member states, regions and sectors to deal with the adverse consequences of Brexit. Ireland will be the largest beneficiary of the reserve, with an allocation of over €1 billion, the equivalent to just over 20% of the entire reserve. Approximately 80% of the funding will be paid to member states as pre-financing in three tranches of the period 2021 to 2023. I am pleased that on 6 December last, the European Commission approved payment of Ireland’s first tranche of €361.5 million, making us the first member state to receive such approval. To qualify for funding, expenditure must be incurred between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2023. The direct link to the adverse consequences of the withdrawal of the UK from the EU must be demonstrated.

In Ireland, the allocation of resources from the reserve is being aligned with the annual Estimates process, which has been the vehicle for allocating Brexit resources since the UK referendum on EU membership in 2016. Budget 2022 announced that approximately €500 million of the overall BAR allocation will be made available as a first tranche of funding, with the remainder available next year. Indicative areas for BAR funding that were identified include enterprise supports, measures to support fisheries and coastal communities, targeted supports for the agrifood sector, reskilling and retraining and checks and controls at ports and airports.

To allow partners to proceed with programmes to be funded under the reserve, some €54 million was allocated as an initial funding in the Revised Estimates for public services 2022, with further allocations to be provided later this year, when there is more certainty on the requirements and timelines for spending of funds.

Initial allocations were made. The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science was allocated €14.5 million for Skillnet digital skills programme and Erasmus after Brexit initiatives. There is also an allocation to the OPW, to support its work to develop the infrastructure for checks and control at Rosslare Europort. I will proceed in a moment with more information.

I would be interested in seeing the breakdown of those in particular. The Minister mentioned that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will be one of the sectors that will be funded. That is vitally important. It should be funded additionally, rather than the current spend being put in under this and governing it that way. In particular, in that context, the Irish Islands Marine Resource Organisation, IIMRO, has made a submission for island infrastructure that is vitally important. As the Deputy will know, their suffering is greater again, because they are on offshore islands. As well as this, they rely on buying boats from England, which cannot be done now. What is important is that the infrastructure that they rely on will be improved, so that their ability to make a living is better and easier for them. I ask the Minister to look at that, in particular, in relation to the funding.

The key requirement here is to demonstrate the direct link between the project, or what we are seeking to fund, and the adverse consequences of Brexit. This is because this funding is governed by EU regulations and is subject to EU audit, as well as rules that go with that. That is the key test, as such. The link with Brexit cannot be general in nature. It has to be demonstrable and quite specific. It is really up to every Department to come up with individual proposals that they believe that meet the criteria of the Brexit adjustment reserve. As the Deputy would expect, I have much engagement, in particular with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and his Department, because coastal and fishing communities in particular are directly impacted by Brexit. The Deputy will be aware of the work of the task force which has made a series of recommendations. We are now working our way through those. There is a certain reference period. The money must be spent before the end of next year. We are looking back to see what has already been spent that might be reckonable. Insofar as is possible, I want the money to be spent on new things that will address the negative effects of Brexit through changes that we are going to fund.

Will the Minister impress on the Department the need to examine the funding allocations for the offshore islands as well? They are at an even greater disadvantage, with Brexit impacting on them directly. It is possible the larger fishing ports and so on will take up all the funding that is available under the Brexit adjustment reserve fund, but it has to go wider than that. The islands have made a detailed submission to the various county councils to seek that funding and that should be taken on board and seriously examined.

I support Deputy Pringle's call for our fishing communities to be supported through the Brexit adjustment reserve fund. Farming families in Ireland were one of the poster boys for the potentially devastating impacts of Brexit and, therefore, in the outworking of this fund, which is welcome, they need to be supported. Up to now, the only element within the agrifood sector that has been supported financially is the meat processors, that is, the factories, whereas the people who need support are family farmers on the ground. They have been impacted, as we have seen particularly in the pig sector, as well as in the poultry sector and other areas. Will the Minister work with his colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to ensure a substantial portion of this funding goes to those who need it, including family farmers?

I will discuss the issue relating to the offshore islands with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. I expect to bring a memorandum to Cabinet in the coming weeks on the Brexit adjustment reserve to give an update to the Government as to where things stand. We have again engaged with line Departments on specific proposals they believe meet the criteria and qualify under the Brexit adjustment reserve.

I reassure Deputy Carthy I have ongoing engagement with the Minister in respect of farm families and fishery and coastal communities, which, I am sure we will all acknowledge, have been most impacted by Brexit. They will be significant beneficiaries of the funding that has been provided.

We are almost out of time. Deputy Carthy will not have the full period of allocated time for the final question.

Public Sector Pay

Matt Carthy

Question:

93. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the number of instances in which his Department has set aside existing guidance as to remuneration rates for civil servants or employees of State-funded bodies regarding persons earning more than €120,000 per annum since February 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11299/22]

In how many instances since February 2020 has the Minister's Department set aside the existing guidance on remuneration rates for civil servants or employees of State-funded bodies regarding persons earning more than €120,000?

The current framework for pay determination provides that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has statutory responsibility for the remuneration of civil servants, as set out in section 17 of the Civil Service Regulation Act 1956, as amended.

The statutory framework governing remuneration for posts in State-funded bodies is set out in the relevant legislation governing each post. The terms for these posts are determined in line with the relevant statutory framework. Additionally, the pay of public servants is managed under the framework of Building Momentum - A New Public Service Agreement 2021-2022, which was agreed in December 2020. This is a two-year agreement extending the framework of public service agreements, including the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020, which expired on 31 December 2020.

As the Deputy will be aware, prior to 2009, the remuneration for senior posts was informed by recommendations of the review body on higher remuneration in the public sector. The review body was an independent advisory body established on a non-statutory basis in the 1960s and provided objective, evidence-based assessments to inform pay policy via periodic reviews of the adequacy of remuneration for senior grades. With the onset of the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, era, the final report of the review body was published in December 2009. As I recently outlined to the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach at a meeting attended by the Deputy, I intend to establish an external review panel to examine the current process for determining the terms and conditions of employment for senior posts, and I expect to bring a proposal to the Government very shortly in that regard. I will write to the committee with the details, as I promised I would do.

Perhaps the Minister will use his remaining minute to answer the question I put to him in the first instance. I asked about the number of instances in which he has set aside the existing guidelines. We welcome the fact new measures will be put in place, but in my work as a member of both the Committee of Public Accounts and the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I have encountered at least two instances where the existing guidelines were breached. The Secretary General of the Department of Health received a pay increase of more than €80,000, with no justification, rationale or process whatsoever, and we still do not know exactly how the Minister and his colleagues in the Government came to that decision. Likewise, in the case of the chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland, a substantial increase above what the existing guidelines had laid down was approved by, in the first instance, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and then signed off by the Minister, Deputy McGrath. Again, it is very difficult to get answers as to how that decision was arrived at.

I reiterate my question. In exactly how many instances have the existing guidelines on pay been breached?

The Deputy touched on two broad areas. On civil servants, the legal position is clear. There is a statutory framework for the determination of pay. It is to be found, as I said, in section 17 of the Civil Service Regulation Act 1956, as amended. Under that legislation, the power is vested in the Minister, who has statutory responsibility for the remuneration of civil servants.

When it comes to State-funded bodies, there is separate legislation in respect of each governing sector, and the terms for the posts are determined in line with the relevant statutory framework. In all cases, the relevant statutory framework has been complied with in any decisions that have been made.

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachtas.ie .
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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