Rural Transport Initiative.

I welcome the Minister of State. Longford Community Resources is a joint Leader partnership company covering the entire county. Surveys undertaken in Longford indicated a great need for a rural transport service in the county, particularly the northern part, which is a CLÁR-designated area. In 2002 the north Longford transport working group was formed, which consisted of representatives from each community in the region, public health nurses, Leader and other State agencies providing services in the area. All worked together to prepare a rural transport plan which subsequently received funding of €95,000 for implementation by ADM through the rural transport initiative of the Department of Transport. This funding came from the National Development Plan 2000-2006.

Since the new transport routes were set up, the transport services have received a wonderful response from local communities. More than 1,500 elderly passengers have used the service with great enthusiasm; it enables isolated rural people to travel to go shopping, attend medical appointments, visit banks and solicitors and renew friendships, all of which increases their health and independence and improves their quality of life. Use of the services has been monitored, and more than 95% of users hold free travel passes, 80% are female and 20% male. In addition, 93% of users are over 65 years, which proves the service is of enormous benefit to north Longford.

I have received many inspiring letters from some of the service's elderly passengers which outline what the service means to them. It has given many elderly people in the area a whole new lease of life. They look forward to weekly trips to Longford and Granard as they meet friends and neighbours on the bus and can catch up with local news. Meeting friends for a cup of tea in a neighbouring town can be a highlight of their week.

The rural transport scheme is an important social outlet for vulnerable old people who often feel isolated and excluded from modern life. A letter sent on behalf of pensioners in the Dromlish-Ballinamuck-Granard area states how much they appreciate the bus service: "This service is a godsend. We can visit the shops, the library, health clinics, banks or solicitors without any worry or problems."

Grave concerns have been expressed to me about future funding by the Minister of State's Department which is needed to maintain this important service and many elderly people with reduced mobility have pleaded with me to contact the Minister on their behalf. This service has changed their quality of life for the better and in the interests of the elderly I plead with the Minister of State to ensure full funding is restored to the rural transport scheme in north Longford. The Minister of State launched this scheme himself and the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has looked into the scheme also. I know the Minister of State brought the manager of the Longford service to his own county to try to start a similar service in Donegal.

The service gives value for money and I appeal to the Minister of State to retain it for the elderly people of Longford, which is a rural county with limited services. This service has given the elderly a new lease of life and I plead with the Minister of State to ensure the funding is in place for it. Earlier this year Longford County Council backed me in a resolution supporting the service and I am sure people from Longford have been in contact with the Minister of State in this regard. I await the Minister of State's response with bated breath and hope it is positive.

It is a pity the Senator cannot be truthful with the pensioners he purports to support. Instead of telling them there has been a cut in Government funding he should tell them there has been a 20% increase. He has confused the people working on this worthwhile initiative. The issue has been confused by the Senator's use of the word "cutback" when there has been an increase. Mismanagement by the group concerned is the problem here, rather than any cutbacks, and I explained that to the group when I met its members today.

ADM Limited has been managing the pilot rural transport scheme, the rural transport initiative, since 2001 on behalf of my Department. The RTI provides funding on a pilot basis for community organisations and community partnerships to address the particular transport needs of their rural area by actively engaging in the provision of transport services. Specific allocations for individual RTI projects are made from this funding by Area Development Management Limited.

Some €3 million has already been provided annually by my Department for the initiative in the two year period ending December 2003 and further funding of €3 million is being provided in 2004 — there is no reduction. This €9 million commitment so far compares with € 4.4 million earmarked for the RTI in the national development plan. In other words, there has been an increase of 50% or more.

The RTI is now operational in virtually all counties and 34 community transport groups are being funded under the initiative. Some 2,500 transport services are being provided on approximately 380 new rural routes established under the initiative and approximately 20,000 people are using the RTI transport services every month.

I understand from ADM that for a variety of reasons the drawdown of RTI funds in 2002, when it was set up, by transport groups was slow resulting in a substantial carryover to 2003. We did not take the funding away; we carried it on to 2003 and gave it back to them. This carryover was boosted by the €3 million allocated by my Department in 2003. In addition, we arranged that the free travel scheme of the Department of Social and Family Affairs was extended to the RTI last July and some €500,000 was made available to the various projects.

Significantly enhanced funds were therefore available for the RTI in 2003. By the end of the year all 34 RTI groups, including the Longford Community Resources Limited RTI project, operating under the name North Longford Transport Initiative, had become operational. Indeed, many of the projects had expanded their services significantly from those originally proposed for the 2003 funding allocations. In contrast to 2002, practically all of the available funding for the RTI in 2003 was expended during that year.

I understand from ADM that the RTI funding allocation for the years 2002 and 2003 for the north Longford transport initiative was €101,349. However, only a minimal amount of this funding was expended in 2002 because the project was not in a position to roll out its services in that year, which I understand and accept as being reasonable in a roll-out year. This resulted in a disproportionate amount of the two year allocation, some €93,652, being concentrated in one year — 2003. In addition, the company was allocated €6,720 from the allocation for the free travel scheme in 2003. I am informed by ADM that the 2004 RTI allocation for the north Longford transport initiative is €58,064 but this does not include any allocation in respect of the free travel scheme or any funding which the project might acquire from other sources.

As the House can see, there has been no reduction in the annualised funding available for this project. A total of €101,349 was allocated to the project for the two year period 2002-03, of which €6,349 was for pre-development work. Thus, €95,000 was available for transport operational purposes over the two years, which averages out at €47,500 per annum. The allocation for 2004 is €58,064, which does not include the free travel element, which has yet to be allocated to the group. Therefore, on an annualised basis, there has been an increase in the funding for the project of 20% to 25%. There is every indication that the rural transport initiative has been an excellent success so far. I was in north Longford and saw for myself the success of these schemes, especially for the people they serve. The effectiveness of the overall scheme is being evaluated by Area Development Management Ltd.

In this instance, the project has been politicised, instead of understanding that in a first or draw down year certain moneys will not be spent but that on an annual average there has been an increase in the amount of funding given to this initiative. I am looking into this because I understand these genuine people want these services to be continued. I am trying to find the extra funding to allow us to overcome these mistakes which were not of my Department's doing or the result of Government cutbacks. Mistakes were made at local level and I am trying to overcome them.

I am shocked and disappointed but not surprised at the Minister of State's opening remarks.

The Senator cannot comment on that.

He blamed Leader in Longford, which is very unfair of him.

Senator, resume your seat please.