Adjournment Matters

Mortgage Arrears Proposals

Tá fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, who is the right man for this Adjournment debate. He is not quite the Minister for Finance, but he is in there with a shout. This Adjournment debate concerns why the Central Bank is not using the mortgage arrears resolution process, MARP, as an instrument to benchmark against how the banks are doing to help customers in arrears reach a mortgage resolution. I am also asking about the progress made towards achieving targets.

We have a huge problem on our hands. Some 142,892 mortgages are in arrears for more than three months, which amounts to one in every five homeowners. Some two thirds are in negative equity, which is a trap. This is about nothing other than the family home. I cannot think of anything more important to a family. What has the Government done to help? It has introduced the Personal Insolvency Act, which is good but very slow. We should not need to go down that route if a resolution can be sorted out between the bank and the homeowner in arrears.

This is where the Central Bank's MARP comes in. In March 2013, the Central Bank introduced the MARP, which has five detailed stages - communication, the completion of a standard financial statement, assessment, resolution and appeal. If people are not happy with the appeal, they can go to the Financial Services Ombudsman. I was very surprised that, at the September 2013 meeting of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, the banks were allowed to produce vague, general statements on their progress towards achieving the targets set by the Government to help people reach a resolution. At the very least, the banks should have been asked to specify how many mortgages in arrears were at various stages of the MARP. This would have given a clearer indication of the work the banks were doing to assist customers to find a sustainable mortgage solution. MARP is a valid instrument yet the Governor, Professor Honohan, and the Central Bank are not using the instrument.

A colleague tabled a parliamentary question and the reply stated: "The Central Bank of Ireland has informed me that it does not track the number of borrowers covered under the MARP but does track the number of mortgage accounts in arrears". What is the point if we do not have joined-up thinking between the banks, the Central Bank and homeowners in arrears? The Government is setting targets.

How can one manage a process if one is not measuring it?

The latest quarterly figures from the Central Bank, issued in June, show, as I said, almost 143,000 mortgage accounts in arrears, 79,000 of which are in a restructured arrangement. These are quite shocking figures. What about the 63,000 or so mortgage accounts that are in arrears but have not been restructured? There are huge gaps in the process. What is the point of having a mortgage arrears resolution process if the Central Bank and its Governor, Mr. Honohan, do not use that valid and useful instrument to track the progress of its constituent banks in working with customers to achieve mortgage solutions? How can the Government reliably establish the progress made in achieving the targets that have been set if it is not more tightly managing the process?

The bottom line is that the Central Bank cannot manage what it does not measure. It is a process worth managing because it is, after all, about helping people to keep their homes. We must have a more proactive approach by the Central Bank and the Governor on this matter. The last Government was guilty of light regulation in this area, while the former Regulator, Mr. Neary, did not manage the process in an effective way. I am concerned that danger may lie ahead if Mr. Honohan does not take a more proactive stance with the banks to ensure sustainable solutions are devised for home owners. What is the point of having the useful instrument that is the mortgage arrears resolution process if it is not used?

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue,which I am taking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Michael Noonan, who cannot be here.

The Government has put in place a comprehensive strategy to address the mortgage arrears problem, as the Senator outlined. A key part of this strategy is the Central Bank's mortgage arrears resolution targets, MART, initiative. This process, which was launched last March, requires the main mortgage lenders, in the first instance, to propose sustainable solutions to their mortgage customers who are more than 90 days in arrears. It also requires the lenders to conclude sustainable solutions with borrowers.

The first target set by the Central Bank required the relevant banks, by the end of June this year, to propose a solution for 20% of their mortgage arrears customers. In his presentation to the Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform in September, the Governor indicated that, based on returns from the individual banks, such proposals were made in respect of almost 34,900 primary dwelling and buy-to-let mortgages. This amounted to approximately 33% of the relevant mortgage arrears accounts, which was higher than the 20% target.

Sustainable solutions are key, as the Senator rightly said, for borrowers in genuine difficulty and, in the long run, for the banks themselves and the wider economy. While it is up to the lenders to propose sustainable solutions in the first instance, it is also necessary to verify independently - this is the key issue - that such proposals are sustainable and durable. That is why the independent audit process is fundamental to the overall MART process. It is important to note that when the Governor spoke at the committee meeting in June, he would not have had the full, independently verified data at his disposal. The Central Bank has informed me that audit work on the first returns by banks under the MART process is well under way and it expects to receive initial reports on these later this month.

While the Central Bank is not in a position to disclose data on an individual bank basis, it has noted a significant mix of "restructure" versus "loss of ownership" treatments across the banks. Those restructures include term extensions and arrears capitalisation, to mention just two. The emphasis on legal action is intended to press those borrowers in arrears who, despite repeated efforts by the bank, have so far failed to engage in a meaningful way. It is anticipated, therefore, that many of the cases in respect of which a legal route resolution is currently proposed will not, in the end, lead to repossession. Where a customer engages or re-engages with the lender, it is expected that an alternative long-term sustainable solution will be achievable in many cases.

The issue of a "legal letter" is not in itself a solution to a mortgage problem. This is a point I made perfectly clear in a radio interview I gave after the June committee meeting. The code of conduct on mortgage arrears makes clear that banks can commence legal proceedings in respect of a mortgage secured on the primary home of a co-operating borrower only where they have fully engaged with the borrower and taken into consideration all the options for alternative repayment arrangements offered by them as a way of addressing a mortgage difficulty. Banks which do not comply with the code of conduct are not acting in a manner consistent with the MART process.

The MART process is an ongoing one. The audit under way relates to the quarter two proposed solution returns made by the relevant banks. These banks are now due to submit their end of quarter three returns with a target for proposed solutions set at 30%. They are required to have proposed solutions to 50% of their arrears customers by the end of December, and for 70% by the end of March 2014. Furthermore, they are required - this is the crucial point, irrespective of proposed solutions - to have concluded agreements with 15% of their customers by the end of 2013, and with 25% by the end of March 2014. The Senator should bear in mind that these targets are not just a matter of Government policy. They are reflective of our firm commitment in this regard to the troika, which has correctly highlighted mortgage arrears as an area in which we must make much better progress. All of the returns will be subject to audit.

It is important that the pace of sustainable restructures should intensify. We all accept this. The new mortgage arrears data published by my Department, which relate to the majority of the Irish market, suggest that a certain momentum is now building. For example, at the end of August, some 41,000 mortgage accounts on primary dwelling houses had been permanently restructured. This included more than 2,500 split mortgages, of which the Government is anxious that lenders should offer more. The banks must build on this progress and show that solutions are available to borrowers who engage with their lender. As our statistics show, these restructures can be offered to borrowers who are already in arrears, as well as those who feel they are in danger of going into arrears.

In summation, all of the necessary elements to effect meaningful solutions to the mortgage arrears problem are in place. The expectation now is that the banks, with the co-operation of customers in difficulty, will work together to ensure the issue is addressed in a definitive manner over the course of 2014. It is the firm intention of the Government that, 12 months from now, we will be in an entirely different position, given the number of solutions that are proposed and the actual conclusion of those sustainable solutions, 25% of which must be in place by the end of March next year. The requirement that all solutions be sustainable is crucial. A situation where people are denied a reasonable and workable solution is bad for the individuals concerned, for the banks and for the broader economy. To reiterate, it is our firm intention that one quarter of all customers in mortgage arrears will have concluded permanent and sustainable solutions with their lenders by the end of March.

I have heard what the Minister of State has had to say, but we have an opportunity to make even more progress. As he said, the quicker we are out of this, the better. We will not solve the problem completely but there is a missed opportunity here, as written in the reply. It states:

The code of conduct on mortgage arrears makes clear that banks can commence legal proceedings in respect of a mortgage secured on the primary home of a co-operating borrower only where they have fully engaged with the borrower and taken into consideration all the options for alternative repayment arrangements offered by them as a way of addressing a mortgage difficulty. Banks which do not comply with the code of conduct are not acting in a manner consistent with the MART process.

Why is the Central Bank not using the mortgage arrears and resolution process to tightly measure and manage progress? The audit referred to by the Minister of State would be made easier if the MART process was enforced and reported, not just by commercial banks but by the oversight of the Central Bank. We are missing an opportunity to make more progress.

With respect, I am not sure I fully understand the Senator's question. If she is concerned about a lack of oversight on the part of the Central Bank, the task of which is to manage this on behalf of everybody, all I can say is the information given by the Governor of the Central Bank to the committee was given in the initial phase over the summer because he had not concluded an independent audit. That will be published by the end of the month and we will be in a greater position for verification. We can use terms until the cows come home but the net issue is whether the 100,000 people in this position will find a solution to their problem. I say to the Senator, on behalf of the Government, that we are more than confident that the approach being adopted by the Central Bank which is putting out the information on a quarterly basis, with the information put out by the Department of Finance on a monthly basis - a new initiative on our part - will give us the full view of the banks getting on with the task.

The Central Bank can do more.

I cannot allow further debate on this issue.

We could all do more. Much progress has been made and more needs to happen. The Senator will see it in the next 12 months.

I hope so. I am watching it.

Driver Licence Applications

Like everybody else, I am keen to ensure national documents such as driving licences and passports are fraud-proof and I am aware that Interpol has often discussed this, particularly with regard to passport fraud. The 34 national driver licence service centres have, at least in theory, been put in place in order to counter fraud with regard to driving licences. I could not find the figures for fraud relating to driving licences but that does not mean they are not available. Perhaps the Minister of State could highlight those, as we often use the term in a broad sense but when we try to find specifics, it proves to be a little more difficult.

Despite great effort, including ringing the national driving licence service centres and the Department, I could not find out the cost of this new network of centres. I appreciate that bringing together a network of centres is not an easy task and this was done in order to streamline the issuing of driving licences. In the immediate aftermath of the opening of the centres, there has been an enormous backlog, which was not anybody's intent. I am not here to criticise in that regard and I assume it will be sorted.

There are issues about which to be worried. Why are we bothered to have people have photographs and signatures taken when we still use the post offices to issue passports? Is it the intent of the Government to change the system for passports, given that there is much more fraud relating to passports? They are both documents of identity and if there is a new system for one, perhaps there will be a new system for the other. The other matter about which I am concerned relates to the idea that we have a network of post offices across the country. The Minister of State is from a rural constituency so he knows the value of those offices, which is not to be undermined or cheapened in any way, shape or form. They are very useful places to pay bills and television or dog licences. Various banks use them for banking facilities, and one can get a passport through the post office. I had a very good experience in that regard, taking the hassle away from the Passport Office when it was very busy. I appreciate that it may be possible that post offices put in for the tender but did not get it.

Are we properly proofing those tender applications for the rural communities, which in this case are assured there is only a 50 km drive if people want to get a driving licence? A young person seeking a driving licence may have to ask somebody for a lift, and people are short of money and it is a bit of a schlep to get to various places. There is only one centre where I live in Sligo, and Donegal only has two centres in Letterkenny and Donegal; many areas in the two counties are quite a distance from these centres. There is only one centre in Mayo, along with half a centre in Belturbet. It seems the network is incomplete and I wonder if the Government's intention is to extend it, or perhaps post offices may come to the rescue in this matter, given that they form a network in their own right. They serve a valuable purpose in more ways than we imagine.

Will the Minister of State provide the cost of the centres and the level of fraud that is recorded? Is it the Government's intention to change the system for passports and has the proofing for rural communities been taken into account in this case? If it has not, could that process be incorporated in future? I am sure the Minister of State is well aware of the good work of Irish Rural Link, particularly Mr. Seamus Boland. Those people are always to the fore in asking us to proof issues for the rural community, and I cannot see how that could have been missed in this case.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. The new national driver licensing service is a matter of widespread public interest and I am happy to have a chance to discuss it. We should, first, be clear about the facts of what has changed in the area of driver licensing during the past year. Before January 2013, driver licences were issued by the motor taxation offices of the local authorities. This involved over 30 motor tax offices, all providing staff and resources to the processing of driver licence applications and the issuing of licences. Effectively, there were over 30 licensing authorities.

The EU requirement to introduce a plastic card driving licence from January 2013 meant that there would be significant changes in the way licences were produced and this provided an opportunity to review the entire system for driver licensing. Following from a study which examined the alternative ways driver licensing might be organised, the Government decided in May 2011 to move to a centralised national driver licensing service. At the same time, it decided that the Road Safety Authority would be given charge of this service. Centralising the service offers a number of benefits over the old system, and it ensures greater consistency of practice and service across the country and will be more efficient and cost-effective. The creation of a single service also provides for greater security and, under the RSA, offers a one-stop-shop to the public, from theory test to driving test to licence issue.

The new system, designed by the RSA, involves three outsourced elements, overseen by a specialist unit based in the RSA headquarters in Ballina. The three outsourced elements are a card production facility, a front office for engaging with customers and a back office to process applications. Contracts were awarded by the RSA for all three services following competitive procurement processes. The contract process was a matter for the RSA and neither the Minister nor the Department had any role in it. As an open competitive process, any interested party was entitled to submit a tender for consideration.

Last January the RSA formally became the national driver licensing authority. Between 19 January and 25 October of this year, there was a transitional arrangement under which the local authorities continued to provide customer services relating to driver licences on behalf of the RSA. On 29 October, the RSA assumed full responsibility for the service. Under the front office contract, provided by SGS Ireland Limited, customer services are offered at 34 full-time centres and two part-time centres around the country. They are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. They also remain open through lunchtime. These opening hours are more flexible than those previously available and will make it easier for customers to visit at a time convenient to them.

Furthermore, people will be able to use any of the offices to apply for a renewal of their licence rather than, as under the previous system, only the centre in their own local authority. The new network provides a service within a 50 km distance of 95% of the population. There were some teething issues with the launch of the new service on Tuesday, 29 October, which the RSA has advised me have now been substantially resolved. The main difficulties were delays for customers in some NDLS centres, the customer helpline being out of service for part of the first day, and an IT problem at 12 of the 34 centres on the morning of the first day. These problems were in part caused by a high level of demand. A number of solutions have been put in place by the RSA to address the earlier difficulties experienced. These include the assignment of additional staff, the roll-out of a further information campaign and the deployment of a manual booking system of which applicants can avail. In the course of the past few days, the NDLS has operated a manual booking system to manage queues on the ground and that has helped to reduce queues across the network. Additional staff have been and will continue to be assigned on the ground to ensure that customers do not have unduly long waits.

Furthermore, the RSA has indicated to me that it is working with the front office contractor to develop an online booking system to be deployed within a month. I understand that, in the light of the volume of demand at various front office locations, it has been proposed that the booking system will be deployed across all of its offices. I also understand that provision will be made for emergency situations by reserving some capacity for customers who need a licence at short notice.

The reason people are required to attend in person to have their photograph taken is that the new system is designed to be compliant with level 2 of the standard authentication framework environment, SAFE 2, developed by the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Social Protection. SAFE 2 is a protocol for ID verification designed to improve security for ID and is also used for the Department of Social Protection's public service card. Among other safeguards, it requires people to attend in person in order that their image is captured as part of the verification of their identity. That is an important measure to prevent fraud. It is important to also state that the requirement to attend in person occurs only once, when the person receives his or her first credit-card-style driver's licence under the new system. After attending once in person, people can renew their licences through the post and are not required to attend the centres in person again when their licence needs to be renewed or updated.

The move to a centralised driver licensing service is the right one in the long term and will provide a better service to the public as well as greater security and better value for money. While there have been teething troubles with the new system, they are being dealt with quickly and effectively by the RSA.

I appreciate some of the clarification provided. Perhaps it was unfair of me to ask about the cost of the service when it was not in the original question. Should I redirect my queries to the RSA? In terms of the fraud concerning driving licences, I imagine that is something on which the Department has figures. I appreciate entirely that the RSA was the contracting authority and, therefore, set out the tender. The Minister of State should forgive me for not understanding whose role it is. It is not clear whether it is the Department’s role or the role of the RSA to proof such tenders for rural travellers. The Minister of State knows how far it is from Kinlough to Carrick-on-Shannon or even to Sligo. It is quite a distance. If one lives in Glenties in Donegal, one also has to travel quite a distance. Such persons are not catered for in the current system. I wonder what we can say to them.

I, again, thank the Senator for raising this important issue. Problems have arisen and people are concerned. I am aware of the case of a young man aged 17 yars who had all his documentation, had completed his theory test and was entitled to his licence but was sent home because he did not have proof of address, such as an ESB bill, and neither did he have proof of his PPS number. I was outraged by this, but it was in keeping with the rules and regulations.

The Senator inquired about the cost. I will ask the Department to respond to her on the three issues she raised, including, in the next few days, the one relating to the cost. The Senator is correct that fraud was a serious issue. I am unaware of whether the system will be adopted in the Passport Office. We have had serious incidents with passports.

The Senator also asked another important question. I agree with her point about local post offices. An Post made an application, but in the case of a tender process neither the Minister nor the Department can have any hand, act or part, rightly so. Local authorities could have made an application, but they did not. It was open to any body to make an application for the service. It is necessary to comply with EU regulations on safety and security. We are aware of social welfare fraud and the savings that have been made due to tackling the issue. I welcome anything that prevents fraud. The benefit is that one photograph will be sufficient for a lifetime. One could ask whether we will all still look the same as we do today in 20 or 30 years time, but they are the rules and regulations and we must adhere to them. The photograph will be secure and nobody else will be able to use it, which is good. I hope it works. I will ask the Department to answer as many of the Senator's queries as possible.

Services for People with Disabilities

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch. The purpose of the motion is to bring to her attention the situation concerning the Dyspraxia Association of Ireland, the country's only charity providing vital support for people with dyspraxia. That is in the absence of any unified position from the HSE. The association depends heavily on volunteers, with the exception of one part-time member of staff, namely, the development officer. The retention of this part-time position is vital for the continuation of the service. Owing to the depleted financial situation of the association, the development officer will be made redundant on 15 November, in two days time. The fantastic service that has been provided by the development officer and the volunteers will no longer be available.

Will the Minister of State indicate what could be put in place to assist the Dyspraxia Association of Ireland in order that it can continue to provide this vital service? As she is aware, dyspraxia is a lifelong neurological disorder which affects cognitive ability and causes difficulty in planning and carrying out sensory motor tasks. It affects up to 6% of the population, which is a considerable amount, up to 2% of them severely. A total of 5% to 6% of children aged between five and 12 years are affected by dyspraxia. Boys are three times more likely to be affected than girls. It can affect all areas of development – intellectual, emotional, physical, language, social and sensory - and impairs a person’s normal process of learning. Some of these children are very intelligent, but because of the effects of the condition they are hindered.

The condition is formally recognised by international organisations, including the World Health Organization. Occupational therapists, psychotherapists and the provision of extra help at school can all help a child with dyspraxia to cope and overcome many difficulties. Awareness of the condition in this country is extremely poor, which means that people with dyspraxia and their parents or carers struggle to get the condition identified in the first instance and they find it very difficult to access the help and support they require. There is no cure, but early intervention, in particular, is important. Will the Minister of State indicate why the HSE does not refer people to the Dyspraxia Association of Ireland in order that early intervention can take place? The association addresses the problem, raises awareness and provides a telephone helpline to people who are left out on a limb due to long waiting lists. In some cases people have had to wait for two years without any help or contact. The Dyspraxia Association of Ireland can step in and provide support, mostly on a voluntary basis, and increase awareness. The HSE provides a direct therapy service and there is a long waiting list of 18 months to two years for any intervention or occupational therapy. A study by Dr. Madeleine Portwood in 1997 at the Deerbolt Young Offenders Institute showed that 61% of juvenile prisoners showed symptoms of dyspraxia ranging from mild to severe. She concluded that early identification would reduce the number of young people who had become school failures and felt life had nothing left to offer them.

Early identification, as the Minister of State knows, is of key importance. We must identify and then help the people concerned. The doubly disadvantaged study concluded that children, young people and adults with dyspraxia were significantly at risk of becoming socially excluded. We all know the problems that such social exclusion can bring. In that context, I ask the Minister of State why the HSE does not, as a matter of course, interlink with the Dyspraxia Association of Ireland. The association cannot do all of the necessary work on its own and people cannot be left for one year or 18 months without help. I ask the Minister of State to set up a meeting with the association in order that it can show her evidence of what it has achieved to date with very little funding. The association is dependent on corporate and individual donations and has set up an online donations facility to try to deal with its depleted financial resources. Services will no longer be provided by the association in two days time. I, therefore, ask the Minister of State to intervene. I am aware that the HSE in County Louth, working with the association, intervened recently on behalf of 40 people with dyspraxia. That could be used as a template for the future. The association is not looking for much funding. A sum of €70,000 or €80,000 would help considerably. I know that there is some national lottery funding in HSE coffers and perhaps some of it might be used. My plea is urgent and I ask the Minister of State to intervene.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I am in no doubt about the seriousness of the current pressures on the health service. We are still in the process of developing a service plan. However, notwithstanding the financial pressures, the Government is fully committed to ensuring the ongoing delivery of vital services and supports to people with disabilities within the confines of the resources available to us. The HSE has been provided with funding in the order of €1.4 billion to fund its 2013 disability services programme for children and adults with disabilities. This represents approximately 11.5% of overall health expenditure. As the Senator probably knows, the majority of this funding is distributed through non-statutory agencies which deliver over 80% of all disability services. There are in the region of 300 such agencies across the country which provide a significant and broad range of services for children and adults with disabilities in partnership with and on behalf of the HSE. It is worth remembering that many children and adults with disabilities can be supported very effectively within mainstream child and adult services.

Dyspraxia is a developmental co-ordination disorder that affects movement and co-ordination. It can affect the learning capacity of some children and for this reason, such children may require additional supports in the school setting to keep up with their peers. I understand a comprehensive range of supports are in place in the school system to support these children.

From a health perspective, there are a number of therapies that can make it easier for people with dyspraxia to cope. These include speech and language therapy to improve speech and communication skills and occupational therapy to find ways for people to remain independent and complete everyday tasks. Such therapy services do not necessarily have to be delivered through specialist disability providers and are frequently accessed through primary care teams and community therapy services.

I am very aware of the excellent work being carried out by the Dyspraxia Association of Ireland on behalf of children and adults across the country with dyspraxia. I also know that the association is not in receipt of a core grant from the HSE and must rely entirely on membership subscriptions, donations and its own fundraising efforts in order to finance its activities. It is not alone in this situation. Numerous organisations around the country which are providing supports for specific diagnostic groups do not receive HSE funding. The funding of these organisations is an issue that is under active and ongoing consideration by the HSE. Pending the completion of the HSE's national service plan for 2014, it is not possible to predict the service levels and funding to be provided next year for the disability sector.

I, again, thank the Senator for raising this issue.

The Minister of State has said additional supports are available in schools, but supports are needed before children start school. She has also maintained that therapy services are available through primary care teams, but, in reality, primary care teams are not present on the ground. The Minister of State has said the funding of organisations such as the Dyspraxia Association of Ireland is under active and ongoing consideration. In that context, I ask her to commit to meeting the association in the context of the service plan for 2014. It is out on a limb and receives no official support. It is providing a great service and taking a lot of pressure off the Department of Health and the HSE. The fact that a considerable number of people with dyspraxia end up in prison is significant in the context of preventive health care. Having said that, some members of the Dyspraxia Association of Ireland are among the most intelligent people in Ireland and all they need is a little help and early intervention.

I will find out who is the best person for the Dyspraxia Association of Ireland to meet because it might not be me. Perhaps the new HSE director of social care might be the best person. I will investigate that issue further.

As part of the negotiations on the HSE's service plan, we are seeking a particular sum of money for services for those under 18 years. We must start to deliver services before there is a diagnosis. Children with dyspraxia often have co-ordination difficulties and their clumsiness has been recognised. Speech therapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy services must be provided alongside the supports available in schools. While a diagnosis is important at some stage, particularly if someone needs more specialised interventions, service delivery should not be conditional on a diagnosis. The Dyspraxia Association of Ireland does an extraordinary job. It has worked in a space that was not occupied by any other service providers and has developed a high level of expertise based on the lived experiences of its members. We must try to co-ordinate the activities of all of the groups providing services and to cut out as much of the duplication of effort as possible. These issues are all being examined.

District Veterinary Offices

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Tom Hayes, who is a very practical man and I am confident that he will have very good news for me.

The matter I raise is the need for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to reverse the decision made by his Department to end front office administration of the district veterinary office on Sacred Heart Hospital Road, Roscommon. The town has had an excellent and long-standing relationship with the district veterinary office going back to the 1960s when tuberculosis was rampant. The office was initially located on Circular Road and then moved to the Convent of Mercy site. It is now based in a beautiful premises on Sacred Heart Hospital Road.

I was in the office on Monday with forms for my own farm. My wife, Mary, was also there recently to discuss grants paid out in 2012. It is very convenient to be able to go to it and receive such good support from the courteous staff who work in it. I commend the staff for the work they do. The office is in a great location in the town and it has parking and other facilities that are second to none.

It is a great disappointment to farmers in the area that it is proposed to close the front office and reduce staff numbers to 1.5 whole-time equivalents, which would not be sufficient to provide a comprehensive service for farmers in County Roscommon.

Farming is going through a progressive period at this point, as the Minister of State knows. Roscommon is playing an important role in the production of first-class cattle weanlings and sheep. The reduction of staff numbers from 14 clerical officers to 1.5 whole-time equivalents in the Roscommon office would be a detrimental step for the area. The existing staff are well trained with a great knowledge of farmers in the region, serving the farming community well over the years. There are successful marts in Roscommon, Elphin and Castlerea, with many livestock exporters in the area providing valuable jobs. They require a fully staffed district veterinary office to provide them with necessary documentation.

A neighbour of mine, Mr. Charlie Clarke, a representative of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, has been very active in highlighting the closure of this office. On Monday night, there was a large meeting, comprising 400 farmers, at Roscommon town mart to discuss the closure. Farmers there could not understand how the Department could move experienced staff from this office to the Department of Social Protection. It defies logic that staff with experience in an export-oriented area would be moved to an administrative unit and one for which they have to be retrained.

There are many livestock exporters in the area such as Mr. Hubert Maxwell who exports to Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation. He has expressed great concern about the future of his business if this office was closed. The whole of the farming community in County Roscommon is genuinely concerned about this closure. Farmers would prefer to see this long-standing service continue and do not see the reason it should be transferred to Cavan or Portlaoise. There is enough work in the area for the continuation of this service.

My Department has not closed down the public office of the district veterinary office in Roscommon town. In fact, it intends to maintain a public office in the town.

Following the successful reorganisation of my Department's local office structure in recent years which resulted in the reduction of the local offices from 58 to 16, my Department conducted a review of the work carried out in the remaining local offices during 2012. The objective of the review was to identify any non-essential work and which, if any, of the essential functions should be organised differently. The review was also to make recommendations which would inform the Department's longer term vision and strategy for delivery of these services in the light of reducing public service numbers. The review was in line with the Government’s policy which imposes an obligation on all Departments to conduct their business as efficiently as possible.

The review made several recommendations aimed at improving business processes both in the local offices and in the manner in which they implement various schemes, in particular the disease eradication schemes, with a view to reducing the administrative burden on farmers and the cost to the Department of administering these schemes. Two of the recommendations were that cattle passports should no longer be taken up from TB-restricted herds and that the practice of issuing movement permits for clear cattle in reactor herds should be discontinued. The review also concluded that, arising from the investment in technology and the substantial reduction in disease levels in recent years, there was already a surplus of administrative staff in the local offices. It concluded that the implementation of the recommendations contained in the report would result in a significant reduction in the administrative staffing requirements in these offices.

The recommendations relating to the TB eradication scheme have now been implemented and well received by the farming organisations. Implementation of these recommendations has significantly reduced the workloads of the administrative staff in the local offices and, in the light of this, my Department further recommended that the administrative functions of the local offices could be more efficiently delivered through one or two centralised offices, thereby leading to a substantial reduction in the number of administrative staff required to deliver these functions.

I have accepted this recommendation and Cavan and Portlaoise have been designated as the two centres where the administrative functions will be centralised. These two centres have been selected because my Department already has a significant presence there and, following the introduction of centralised human services and payroll services across all Departments, additional staff will become available to service the administrative functions of the district veterinary offices in these two centres.

Implementation of the recommendations contained in the review group' report fits in both with my Department's objectives in driving efficiency and savings, as well as with the broad public service reform agenda. Centralising administrative procedures will enable my Department to reduce the number of administrative staff it requires to support veterinary office operations and, accordingly, the cost of providing its services. This is in line with the Government’s policy. In addition, the centralisation of administrative functions will facilitate the redeployment of staff from the local offices to other State agencies and, thereby, enable the Government to provide services through these agencies more efficiently.

The centralisation of administrative functions will not negatively impact upon local access and services for local customers. The Department vets, inspectors and technical officers will remain in place at these offices to service our clients across all of the schemes that are provided from our regional offices. In view of this, front-line services will be fully maintained and public access for all of the Department's stakeholders will continue to be available at the 16 regional offices.

In line with my decision to centralise administrative services, administrative functions have already been transferred out of several regional offices, notably, Ennis, Clonakilty, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford, without any negative implications for the provision of services to farmer clients. The transfer of the administrative functions out of other regional offices such as Roscommon will be considered in the light of the availability of opportunities to redeploy the staff concerned to support other critical public services. In this context, my Department has been in contact with several State agencies, including the Department of Social Protection, on the establishment of redeployment opportunities with a view to progressing the centralisation process.

The volume of work administered by the administrative staff in the district veterinary offices has declined considerably in recent years due to computerisation, the significant drop in the incidence of disease, particularly TB and brucellosis, and the changes made to the TB eradication scheme last year. For instance, in Tipperary town, the staff in the district veterinary office were the most hardworking and dedicated. They were transferred to the Garda vetting agency based in the town and retrained. They would tell the Senator the change was good for them and secured their employment in the town. I met some of the farmers at the recent meeting in Roscommon town. I explained how the change in my local district veterinary office had no impact on the service delivered to me. We need to be straight with people. If these offices were left open, it would be at considerable cost. Accordingly, the suckler cow premium which we introduced in the budget could not be implemented.

I accept the Minister of State’s response, but the fact is the staff complement is going from 14 to 1.5 which is impractical for Roscommon. I do not know what the arrangement was in Tipperary town.

The Minister should review this in the light of the situation that will arise in Roscommon. It is a very busy office, probably busier than the one in Tipperary. As we have more sheep and suckler cows than in Tipperary, perhaps there is a greater demand than in Tipperary. All I ask is that the Minister of State have an open mind to deploy as many staff as possible to meet the needs of the people in the area to ensure service quality is retained.

The Tipperary office had a larger staff of 28 which was reduced to four. The same service is offered. People do things in a totally different way. Farming is changing. If one asked the farmers at the recent mart in Roscommon if they would leave out a suckler cow scheme or charge for it, one could not do it. One must be far more efficient. I am a farmer; I know and use the service. More than 40 staff work in the district veterinary office in Tipperary town. The same situation will obtain in Roscommon town. However, I take the Deputy's points and if there is any further clarification Department can give, I will ask it to do so.

Staff reductions should not pay for a suckler cow scheme. The suckler cow scheme should be on its own and not dependent on-----

I cannot open up the debate on this issue. I thank the Minister of State.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 14 November 2013.