Commencement Matters

Farm Inspections

I welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney.

I, too, welcome the Minister and thank him for taking this Commencement matter which I have raised a number of times in recent years. As the Minister is probably very well aware, the inspection regime causes considerable distress to farmers whose properties are being inspected. It is imperative that I highlight the practices that have been followed by some officials during the most recent inspection period.

In the Galway East constituency and elsewhere throughout the country inspectors arrived on farms and conducted inspections without giving prior notice. In the ordinary course of events, this would render their arrival on farms illegal. However, they carried out their inspections under the terms of the animal feed and hygiene regulations and, under EU law, no notice is of such inspection is required. A difficulty arose in many cases in that the departmental officials then proceeded to carry out tagging inspections of sheep and cattle, in respect of which 48 hours notice is required, and further inspections of land eligibility, of which 14 days notice should be given.

Many farmers have come to my office to complain about the penalties imposed on them. From my legal experience, it is clear that the departmental officials exceeded their jurisdiction in cutting any single farm payment stemming from cases in which the minimum notice period was not respected and, therefore, the penalty could not be upheld if challenged through the courts. Some departmental officials gave notice to farmers of their payments being cut. This was done on an ad hoc basis, without particulars being provided of which cuts were being made or how they had arisen. It is clear that we need to strive for better standards to ensure best practice is adhered to and that the fundamental principles of fair procedures are upheld in farm inspections.

A number of farmers in the Galway East constituency where I live have informed me that they dread farm inspections. In many cases they believe they are being treated unfairly and are afraid to stand up for themselves for fear of detrimental action being taken against them in the future. This is wrong. It is an unacceptable imposition on the farming community and we need to put a stop to it.

I have raised this issue in the Seanad on several occasions. While I acknowledge that the Department and the Minister have worked hard on the charter of rights for farmers, it is very much a fluffy document. I do not believe it gives any legal status to farmers and does little to empower them throughout this process. Procedure is important. It should be incumbent on agencies to give farmers at least seven working days notice in writing that an inspection is to be carried out on their land, including of cattle and sheep tagging and so on. This is standard practice on the part of other agencies of the State. I refer, for example, to the Revenue Commissioners and the fact that they give notice of proposed audits, etc. I do not think farmers should be treated any differently. It is unacceptable that they would not receive, at the very minimum, a letter informing them that they are to be subject to an inspection in the weeks ahead. Farmers, particularly hill farmers, of which there are many in the constituency in which I live, would then at least have an opportunity to enlist the support of neighbours in rounding up cattle and sheep to ensure they were properly tagged and could thereby pass inspection. These are proactive measures to deal with the current situation relating to procedures for carrying out farm inspections. I look forward to the Minister's response.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to set the record straight on a number of matters. First, I would like to outline to the House the background to the inspection requirements relating to the direct payment scheme and other area-based schemes.

In the context of the delivery of the direct payment scheme and rural development measures, my Department is required to carry out an annual round of inspections on a number of farms. These cover such issues as eligibility under the schemes and compliance with cross-compliance requirements as set down in EU legislation. The basis for such inspections is governed by EU legislation and there are certain minimum numbers and types of inspections that must take place annually. Eligibility inspections must be carried out on a minimum of 5% of beneficiaries. These inspections verify the eligibility of the land declared for the drawing down of payments and ensure any ineligible land or features have not been not been included for aid purposes and that other scheme-specific eligibility criteria have been met.

My Department has made every effort to respond to concerns about the impact on farmers of on-farm inspections. Arising from this, 75% of land eligibility inspections are initially carried out without any farm visit as the information required is acquired using the technique of remote sensing via satellite imagery. In addition, the governing regulations allow for eligibility inspections under the various schemes to be combined. For example, cases selected for inspection under the basic payments scheme can also count towards the inspection requirement under greening, the young farmers scheme, etc., thereby limiting the overall number of such inspections required to be carried out.

The rate of inspection for cross-compliance is a minimum of 1% of beneficiaries regarding all statutory management requirements, SMRs, and good agricultural conditions, GAC, in terms of standards. However, 3% of farmers must be inspected under the bovine identification and registration, IDR, requirements and 3% of sheep or goat farmers must be inspected, covering 5% of the flock.

My Department endeavours to minimise the number of farm visits as much as possible by combining animal IDR inspections with land eligibility inspections, where feasible. Rules regarding advanced notification of inspections are clearly laid down in the governing EU regulations and must be adhered to by officials of my Department. The regulations allow the Department to give notice of land eligibility and cross-compliance inspections involving SMRS, other than those relating to food, feed and animal welfare. However, this notice must be strictly limited to the minimum period necessary and shall not exceed 14 days. For checks involving cattle and sheep identification and registration, the minimum advance notice is 48 hours.

For SMRs dealing with feed, food and animal welfare, no advance notice may be given and these inspections must take place on an unannounced basis.

Following discussions with the farming organisations, as part of a review of the farmers' charter of rights, it has been agreed that where the purpose of the visit by the inspecting officer is a combined notice and non-notice inspection, this will be clearly explained by the inspecting officer to the farmer.

All no-notice inspections will be conducted separately from all notice inspections, unless the farmer requests otherwise, which I think is the issue the Senator is raising. A written notice will be given to the farmer on arrival at the holding and the inspector will inform and agree with the farmer when he or she will return to complete the notice elements of the inspection. In other words, we are separating the two. We have had a long and detailed discussion with farming organisations on this issue. I was involved in much of those negotiations and to simply brush it off as fluffy language is-----

It was the charter of rights-----

Yes, the charter of rights.

-----that I referred to as fluffy. There is no legal basis for it.

I am sorry, but the Senator has had her say and I am now responding, if that is okay.

There is an agreement between farming organisations that represent the interests of farmers and the Department on how a new approach towards inspections would be followed that is consistent with the regulations under which we need to operate, as otherwise we will be subject to disallowances. Farming organisations have signed up to it, but the Senator does not seem to be happy with it. I am not quite sure on whose side she is. Farming representative bodies are happy with the new farmers' charter. We are now going to implement the new much more farmer-friendly approach towards inspections. It is the result of long and blunt discussions to ensure we will abide by the rules and regulations, as we are legally obliged to do. At the same time, we are introducing as farmer-friendly a regime as possible.

I do not want any scenario whereby farmers are in fear of departmental officials coming onto their land. I know that the Senator has raised these issues before and think we have responded to them in the discussions with farming organisations in putting together a new approach in the charter for farmers' rights. The approach will now be to ensure the new system works and is implemented in a way that is farmer friendly, on the one hand, and also, on the other, abides by the tight regulations under which we have to operate.

I thank the Minister for his response. I fully understand why farm inspections happen and I am also well aware that some occur without a physical visit to the land involved. I am not interested in them, but I am interested in situations where there is a physical inspection. I acknowledge that the Minister has made efforts with the charter of rights for farmers, but there is nothing wrong with potentially putting it on a legal footing down the road. Perhaps that is something at which the Minister might look. In the interim, however, perhaps he might consider this regime of a seven-day written notice to farmers in advance of an inspection taking place.

I do not think that is necessary. The Senator seems to be operating a parallel negotiation to what the farming organisations were seeking. We have spent hours discussing a charter of farmers' rights. As we have made decisions and signed off on it, I am not going to start undoing it now when it has been finalised and agreed to by all of the farmers' representative bodies. The focus we need to have is to ensure we have a consistent and fair inspection regime and that we will not go on farms unless we absolutely have to do so. Some 85% of area-based inspections are now made via satellite and we only have visitations if it is necessary to follow up on them and if there is a reason to do so.

Some of the other unannounced inspections are in areas where one has to have such inspections. If one is concerned about welfare, one must be able to make an unannounced inspection to see what is happening on a farm. One cannot give notice of it; therefore, we are required to have a certain amount of unannounced inspections. To be fair, the Senator is right to raise this issue. The real problem arose in the past when unannounced inspections turned into announced inspections because when inspectors were on a farm to carry out unannounced inspections, they were also looking at other issues on the farmyard.

That really upset farmers who felt they were entitled to receive notice before people came to look at a whole series of things. We have addressed that issue by saying no farmer will now be required to accept an announced inspection, for which the period of notice should be reasonable, on the back of an unannounced inspection. That will no longer happen, unless a farmer chooses to say, "I have nothing to hide. You can look at what you want. Let us get it out of the way today." An impression was given by farming organisations that there was pressure on farmers to accept a series of inspections on the back of an unannounced inspection. That is not acceptable and we have changed it. It will not happen in the future.

May I come back in?

No, there is no provision for that to happen.

Departmental Budgets

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh.

Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Táim ag ardú ceiste bunaithe ar thuairiscí sna meáin agus ar thuarascáil a d'fhoilsigh an tArd-Reachtaire Cuntas agus Ciste an tseachtain seo caite maidir le caiteachas na Roinne Ealaíon, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta. Bhí mé ag éisteacht ar maidin lena mhuintir féin as Tír Chonaill ag caint faoin easpa caiteachais atá ar na hoileáin Ghaeltachta ó thuaidh i dTír Chonaill. Is dócha go gcuireann sé olc orthu i ndáiríre píre nuair a chloiseann siad go bhfuil €8 milliún den bhuiséad a bhí ag an Roinn nach bhfuil caite. Cuireann sé olc ar go leor daoine ar fud na Gaeltachta atá ag plé le tograí éagsúla agus a bhíonn ag déanamh éilimh ar an Roinn Ealaíon, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta ar thacaíocht airgid toisc go ndeirtear leo nach bhfuil an t-airgead sin ar fáil.

Ba mhaith liom soiléiriú a fháil ón Aire Stáit ar an chaoi a bhféadfadh sé seo a tharlú. Cén chaoi nár chaith an Roinn €8 milliún den bhuiséad a bhí ann? De réir an taithí atá agam féin ag plé le tograí ar an talamh, caithfidh mé adhmháil go raibh Roinn na Gaeltachta, go háirithe, an-mhaith ag deireadh na bliana, sna blianta a caitheadh, má bhí airgead fágtha sa chiste, ag tabhairt tograí eile chun cinn. Tograí iad seo a bhí réidh le himeacht. Bhí an Roinn ábalta an t-airgead a chur ar fáil do thograí, b'fhéidir, nach raibh ar bharr an liosta i dtosach báire ach a tháinig chun cinn de bharr go raibh airgead fágtha sa bhuiséad.

Tá sé dochreidte nach gcuirfí an t-airgead ar fad atá ar fáil don bhuiséad Gaeilge, Gaeltachta, ealaíon agus oidhreachta ar fáil don phobal a bhfuil sé sin ag dul dóibh. Léiríonn sé seo domsa cineál mí-stuamacht ó thaobh bhainistiú airgid agus ó thaobh ábaltacht na Roinne na tograí a bhí an Roinn ag plé leo a thabhairt chun cinn sách sciobtha nó léiríonn sé nach raibh an Roinn ag déanamh an faisnéis airgeadais agus cuntasaíochta de réir a chéile i rith na bliana le go mbeadh a fhios ag an Roinn go mbeadh farasbarr i dtreo deireadh na bliana agus go bhféadfaí sin a roinnt ar thograí fiúntacha eile.

Ní gá dom ach dul tríd chuid de na tograí éagsúla atá fíor-thábhachtach dúinn ó thaobh phobal na Gaeilge agus na Gaeltachta. Bíonn muid á bplé anseo go rialta. Ó thaobh an phleanáil teanga, ní leor an méid airgid atá curtha ar fáil. Tá sé sin ráite ag an Aire Stáit é féin roinnt uaireanta. Nuair a fheiceann muid go bhfuil milliúin curtha ar ais ó Roinn na Gaeltachta nach raibh caite in 2014, is é an trua nach raibh sé sin curtha ar fáil le caitheamh ar an bpleanáil teanga do na grúpaí pobail sin atá ag iarraidh an teanga a chur chun cinn. Tá na comharchumainn bánaithe ag Roinn na Gaeltachta le roinnt blianta anuas. Bhí sé sin ag tosú sula raibh Rialtas an Aire Stáit tagtha i gcumhacht, leis an gceart a thabhairt, ach is trua é nach bhféadfaí airgead breise a chur ar fáil dóibh siúd. Tá go leor tograí éagsúla ag na comharchumainn ar fad ó thuaidh, ó dheas agus san iarthar agus mar sin de agus obair fhiúntach á déanamh acu a bheadh an-tábhachtach sna ceantair Ghaeltachta agus a bhainfeadh an-leas go deo as an airgead sin.

Bhí cás an-bheag ag an irisleabhar An tUltach. Ní raibh na daoine ansan ag lorg ach €20,000 le fanacht ag imeacht ó thaobh an fhoilsiúcháin sin a chur i gcló. Léirigh siadsan a gcuid díoma an tseachtain seo caite nuair a chonaic siad go raibh €8 milliún á chur ar ais agus nach bhféadfaí €20,000 de sin a bhaint as an gciste agus a thabhairt dóibh siúd le deis a thabhairt dóibh maireachtáil. Tá grúpaí ealaíne agus amharclainne ar fud na tíre. Táimid ag cloisteáil go bhfuil ganntan airgid ag na hinstitiúidí cultúrtha, go bhfuil gearradh siar déanta ar na huaireanta oscailte agus go bhfuil deacrachtaí acu ó thaobh líon foirne.

Tá Teach an Phiarsaigh luaite go sonrach sna hailt a fhoilsíodh an tseachtain seo caite a luann nár caitheadh €250,000 air. Cuireann sé sin olc orm. I bhfad sula raibh an tAire Stáit ceaptha mar Aire Stáit, bhí muid ag ardú cás Theach an Phiarsaigh, ag rá go raibh brú ama ann ó thaobh 2016 de agus go raibh gá an áit a bheith réitithe. Cuireann sé olc orainn nuair a fheicfimid gur cuireadh ar ais €4 milliún toisc nach raibh an Roinn agus an dream a bhí ag plé leis an obair sin á déanamh sách sciobtha.

Gearradh buiséad caipitil Údarás na Gaeltachta ó €26 milliún in 2008 anuas go dtí €5 milliún. D'ardaigh sé rud beag anuraidh ach tá ganntanas airgid caipitil ar Údarás na Gaeltachta ó thaobh chruthú fostaíochta sa Ghaeltacht. Cén fáth nár tugadh cuid den airgead dó sin? Ghearr an Roinn an deontas ó thoabh an bháid farrantóireachta go hInis Mór. Dúirt an Roinn nach raibh dóthain airgid sa chiste. Bhí deacrachtaí againn le deireanaí ó thaobh Aer Arann agus an Roinn ag iarraidh gearradh siar ansin. Tá na hoileáin eile ó thuaidh, mar a luaigh mé, ag lorg sciar níos mó den airgead. Bhí airgead sa bhreis anseo go bhféadfadh a bheith caite ansin ach níor chaith an Roinn é. Tá Comhar na nOileán i bponc agus an chosúlacht air, muna n-aithreoidh cúrsaí, go mbeidh fíor-dheacrachtaí ag an gcomhar an bhliain seo chugainn.

Tá seans ann go mbeidh an tAire Stáit ag rá liom gan bheith buartha agus go bhfuil cuid den airgead sin iompraithe ar aghaidh go dtí an bhliain seo chugainn. De réir mar a thuigim an chaoi ina oibríonn sé, bainfear na milliúin seo as chiste 2015. Dá bhrí sin, tá an t-airgead sin imithe agus ní raibh sé caite. Níl sé seo maith go leor. Níl sé ceart go mbeadh muintir na Gaeltachta, muintir na n-ealaíon nó muintir na hoidhreachta fágtha siar leis ós rud é nach raibh an Roinn ábalta a jab a dhéanamh mar is ceart. Tá súil agam go bhfuil míniú sásúil ag an Aire Stáit dúinn ar an fáth gur tharla sé sin. An féidir an t-airgead sin a fháil ar ais ar bhealach ar bith?

Tá díospóireacht leathan ar intinn an Seanadóra inniu. I dtosach báire, cuirim fáilte roimh an deis atá tugtha dom ag mo chuid chomhghleacaithe sa Seanad léargas gairid a thabhairt ar sheasamh caiteachais na Roinne Ealaíon, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta ag deireadh na bliana 2014. I dtosach báire, ní raibh fo-chaiteachas de €8 milliún i gceist in 2014. Leagtar amach i dtuarascáil an Ard Reachtaire Cuntas agus Ciste do 2014, a foilsíodh an tseachtain seo imithe thart, na figiúirí ábhartha.

Taispeánann an tábla ar leathanach 7 den chuntas leithreasa don Roinn Ealaíon, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta gurbh é €263.897 milliún an t-ollsoláthar caiteachais a vótáil an tOireachtas don Roinn do 2014 agus gurbh é €257.166 milliún an táirgeacht. Sin difríocht de €6.731 milliún. Léiríonn tuarascáil an Ard Reachtaire Cuntas agus Ciste freisin gur tugadh ar aghaidh 92% den iarmhéid sin i gcomhair caiteachais in 2015 agus géilleadh an fuílleach de bheagán os cionn €500,000 don Státchiste. Is gnáthghné de chuntasaíocht an Rialtais i ngach Roinn airgead a bhaineann le tionscadail chaipitil, a reáchtáiltear thar bhlianta féilire, a thabhairt ar aghaidh.

Tabharfaidh mé tuilleadh eolais anois ar na ceisteanna seo. Ba é €259.458 milliún soláthar iomlán an mheastacháin a vótáil an tOireachtas i gcomhair na Roinne don bhliain 2014. Chuimsigh sé sin ollsoláthar caiteachtais vótáilte de €263.897 milliún lúide fáltais mheasta de €4.439 milliún. Ag deireadh na bliana ba ionann an táirgeacht iarbhír agus €251.262 milliún. Sin difríocht de €8.196 milliún ón mbun-mheastachán de €259.458 milliún. Trí rud is cúis leis an difríocht seo. An chéad chúis ná beagnach €500,000 de choigiltí i gcostais riaracháin. An dara chúis ná €1.465 milliún i bhfáltais a bhí níos airde ná mar a bhíothas ag súil leis, nach mór a ghéilleadh don Státchiste mura vótálann an tOireachtas ar son a mhalairt. An tríú chúis ná €6.216 milliún i gcaipiteal a choinnigh an Roinn agus a tugadh ar aghaidh in 2015.

I ndáil leis an ollsoláthar caiteachais vótáilte de €263.89 milliún, ba €257.166 milliún an t-ollchaiteachas iarbhír agus b'shin €6.731 milliún níos lú ná an meastachán, mar a luaigh mé ag an tús. Seo a leanas mar a baineadh na coigiltí sin amach. Fuarthas coigiltí de beagnach €500,000 as bainistiú stuama ar chostais riaracháin ar nós taisteal agus cothabháil, seirbhísí comhairleoireachta agus theicneolaíocht faisnéise. Géilleadh an choigilt riaracháin sin don Státchiste ag deireadh 2014. Ní mór don Roinn coigiltí den sórt sin a ghéilleadh ach amháin má tá a mhalairt údaraithe go sonrach ag an Roinn Caiteachais Phoiblí agus Athchóirithe.

Bhí coigiltí €6.216 milliún ar chaipiteal ann. Tháinig na coigiltí sin chun cinn ar na cúiseanna seo a leanas. Tháinig €4.75 milliún as ionad imeachtaí Chorcaí ós rud é nár úsáideadh an soláthar ceadaithe mar gheall ar chastacht an tionscadail agus mar gheall gur thóg an próiseas tairisceana níos mó ama ná mar a bhíothas ag dréim leis. Tháinig €1.216 milliún as Deich mBliana na gCuimhneachán 1912-1922 de bharr an dul chun cinn a bhí ní ba mhoille ná mar a bhíothas ag súil leis i dtaca le roinnt tionscadal comórtha, go príomha ionad taispeántais léirmhínitheach Ard-Oifig an Phoist. Tháinig €250,000 as Teach an Phiarsaigh, áit a ndearnadh coigilt de bharr nach ndearnadh dul chun cinn ar an tionscadal chomh sciobtha agus a bhíothas ag dréim leis, mar gheall, go príomha, ar cheisteanna a bhain le talamh a fháil.

É sin ráite, níor chaill an Roinn aon cheann de na coigiltí sin, mar gur tugadh iomlán an €6.216 milliún ar aghaidh trí ghéilleadh iarchurtha sa dóigh is go dtiocfadh leis an Roinn an t-airgead a úsáid in 2015. Mar is eol don Seanadóir, is córas é seo faoi alt 91 den Acht Airgeadais 2004 trína bhféadfaidh Roinn suas le 10% dá cuid caipitil a thabhairt chun cinn trí ghéilleadh iarchurtha go dtí an bhliain ina dhiaidh sin, lena chaitheamh le linn na bliana sin ar chláir tosaíochta caipitil.

Mar sin de, tugadh an €6.216 milliún ar aghaidh go 2015 le caitheadh mar seo a leanas. Bhí €1.216 milliún le caitheamh ar Dheich mBliana na gCuimhneachán, €1 milliún le caitheamh ar ionad imeachtaí Chorcaí, €3.75 milliún le caitheamh ar oidhreacht nádúrtha, an tSeirbhís Páirceanna Náisiúnta agus Fiadhúlra, agus €250,000 le caitheamh ar Theach an Phiarsaigh. Mar shampla, rinneadh an €250,000 den choigilt a bhain le tionscadal Gaeltachta Theach an Phiarsaigh a thabhairt ar aghaidh lena húsáid in 2015. Tá tabhairt ar aghaidh na gcoigiltí caipitil chun na críocha sin leagtha amach san imleabhar meastachán athbhreithnithe do 2015 agus iad faofa ag an Oireachtas.

I dtaca le soláthar fáltas réamh-mheasta 2015 de €4.439 milliún, ba é €5.904 milliún fáltais iarbhír na Roinne, arbh ionann sin is €1.465 milliún d'airgead breise isteach don Státchiste. Tharla sin de bharr méadú ar líon na gcuairteoirí ar áiseanna ar nós Páirc Náisiúnta Chill Airne agus Teach Mhucrois agus tá sé i gcomhréir leis an mhéadú ar líon na dturasóirí a tugadh faoi deara ar fud na tíre le blianta beaga anuas. Ní mór don Roinn insreabhadh méadaithe den sórt sin a ghéilleadh ach amháin má údaraíonn an tOireachtas go sonrach a mhalairt.

Go hachomair, mar sin, rinneadh an difir de €8.196 milliún atá luaite thuas a thabhairt ar aghaidh go 2015 lena úsáid ag an Roinn nó a ghéilleadh don Státchiste i ndiaidh é a fháil mar gheall ar bhainistiú stuama ar chaiteachais riaracháin agus fáltais fheabhsaithe isteach sa Roinn.

Is í an teachtaireacht is mó a ba mhaith liom a chur in iúl anseo inniu ná gur tugadh ar aghaidh aon choigiltí a bhí ar fáil i Vóta mo Roinne agus a d'fhéadfaí a thabhairt ar aghaidh lena n-úsáid in 2015 agus gur méideanna beaga a bhí i gceist leis na coigiltí eile a d'eascair as bainistiú stuama ar chostais riaracháin. Tá dea-theist ar mo Roinnse maidir lena chinntiú go n-úsáidtear na hacmhainní a leithdháiltear ar a réimsí cláir ar an mbealach is éifeachtaí is féidir. Ní mór a rá thar aon rud eile gur caitheadh, nó gur tugadh ar aghaidh le húsaid i mbliana, isteach is amach le 99.8% den mhaoiniú uile a vótáladh do mo Roinn.

Sin freagra Státseirbhísigh gan dabht. Nach bun agus barr an scéil ná go bhfuil an tAire Stáit ag rá gur tugadh an t-airgead ar aghaidh agus go gcaithfear i mbliana é, ach nach mbainfear é sin as an ollmhéad a bheas le fáil i mbliana? Dá bhrí sin, b'fhéidir nach raibh sé caillte anuraidh ach beidh sé caillte i mbliana. Léiríonn sé sin go bhfuil droch-bhainistíocht á dhéanamh ar na tograí éagsúla agus ar an sreabhadh airgid i Roinn an Aire Stáit. Céard tá sé chun a dhéanamh chun é sin a leigheas?

Sin an freagra atá ann agus is léir go bhfuil na figiúirí iomlána ann. Tá soiléireacht ann. Tá achan amhainn sa Roinn tábhachtach. Labhair an Seanadóir Ó Clochartaigh faoin laghdú airgeadais a bhí ann d'Údarás na Gaeltachta agus Rannóga eile thar na blianta. Ar an drochuair, ní raibh mise freagrach as an Roinn na blianta sin nuair a bhí an tír i dtrioblóid eacnamaíochta. Ní mise a bhí freagrach as an Roinn ag an am sin agus ní mise agus mo chomhghleacaithe a bhí freagrach as an Rialtas. Sin an fíor-scéal. Ba mhaith liom bualadh le hachan duine a bhí freagrach as agus mo chomhghleacaithe atá ar an taobh eile sa Teach seo chun é sin a phlé. B'fhéidir nach bhfuil cúrsaí eacnamaíochta fós ceart ach tá rudaí ag dul ar aghaidh agus b'fhéidir go mbeidh scéal dearfa sna blianta romhainn amach anseo.

Home Help Service

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I have raised this matter on a number of occasions. From my file I see that in February 2013 I raised the matter of the two Labour Court recommendations that gratuity payments be made in lieu of pension entitlements to a cohort of home help workers who were funded in the main by the HSE. In the intervening period we have had some changes in the health service. I have continuously corresponded with the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, on this matter. In February this year there was a little light when he informed me following further correspondence to him:

My Department in conjunction with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the HSE has initiated a review of the matter involving the Department's legal advisers. It is expected that this will conclude in March 2015.

That did not happen. I raised the matter again in the Commencement debate in the Seanad. I was told that, in line with the discussions that were happening on the new pay deal for the public service and the Civil Service, it was being looked at again and that a conclusion would be reached by September 2015. I am obviously very anxious that these low-paid workers get what they are entitled to. In some instances, it will run into a few thousand euro, which is not an insignificant sum. I think everyone will agree that home help workers carry out a crucial role on the front line in the health service in caring for the sick, the elderly and the infirm at home. I do not think we can allow a situation to persist where what the Labour Court recommended in 2009, one of two recommendations, that they were entitled to these payments, should be withheld further.

I hope the Minister of State will have some good news for me today. We were told that this issue would be effectively resolved by September 2015. It is not a substantial sum of money. From the calculations my party colleagues and I have made, we are looking at a figure of between €12 million and €15 million countrywide, but it might not even be that much. The recommendation has been made and the workers are entitled to the money.

I thank the Minister of State for her presence and look forward to her response.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue which I went through with his colleague, Deputy Billy Kelleher, recently.

The Senator's question on home helps is specific and he has clearly stuck to his question but the issue has a wider context. I thank him for raising the issue in the House. He will, of course, be aware that the issue of paying gratuities to a particular group of home help workers was considered by the parties at the recent public sector talks that were facilitated by the Labour Relations Commission. The Minister and I believe it is important that we do all we can to ensure those members of the elderly population who wish to stay in their own homes and communities are supported and facilitated to do so. Also, I want to ensure we support in every way we can the return of those who have required acute hospital care back into their homes when they are fit for discharge.

In 2015 the HSE will spend €330 million on home care packages and home help services, including €185 million to provide 10.3 million home help hours. As the Senator rightly pointed out, the people concerned form an invaluable group in terms of services delivered within the wider community. Home help services are provided mainly by HSE directly employed staff. A home help contract introduced for HSE employees in 2014 followed on from a lengthy consultative process under the auspices of both the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court. The annualised contract which was accepted is fundamental to both parties as it matches the actual workforce to the changing needs of the service as well as giving certainty to employees by way of guaranteed weekly minimum paid hours. However, in the greater Dublin area, as well as in counties Wicklow and Clare, home help services are provided by voluntary providers on behalf of the HSE. It is this group of home help workers on whom I shall focus and I know that the Senator has a particular interest in them. Voluntary providers are funded under section 39 of the Health Act 2004. The HSE has in place service level agreements with these providers that sets out the level of home help service to be provided in respect of the grant to the individual organisations and requirements in terms of standards of care. As the home helps employed by these section 39 organisations are not HSE employees, the HSE has no role in determining the salaries or other terms and conditions applying to these staff, including pension arrangements. Accordingly, such arrangements offered by individual providers will vary.

Access by home helps who work in voluntary organisations to a pension has been the subject of a number of Labour Court recommendations involving SIPTU, IMPACT and the HSE. Implementation of a Labour Court recommendation on the payment of a gratuity to the home helps employed by the section 39 organisations has been hindered in recent years by the budgetary posiion, a situation I know the Senator will understand. The matter is further complicated by the fact that the HSE is not the employer and, therefore, has no role to play.

As I noted in my opening comments, this issue was discussed during the recent Lansdowne Road talks in the context of which a side agreement was made. The parties reached agreement on a process for giving a more formal consideration to the matter and to establish in the short term a working group to examine a number of issues, including gratuity payments for home helps. This process will now be progressed following the recent ratification of the Lansdowne Road agreement. Initial contacts have taken place between the HSE and the relevant staff associations. It is expected that the first meeting will take place during the month of October. The precise time for the duration of the work involved will be agreed at that stage which is likely to be approximately three months.

I acknowledge the valuable contribution home help workers make in communities and the fundamental role they play in ensuring the members of the growing elderly population are facilitated as much as possible to live as independently as they can. I hope this is the beginning of the process. I also hope the Senator's long and considered correspondence with the Department of Health, longer than anyone else, will, in fact, contribute to an outcome with which we can all live.

I thank the Minister of State and appreciate the response. I know that it came from the Department, not specifically from herself. However, I am very disappointed with it and will quickly tell her why. I know that she will raise the following matter and, in fairness, she has done so before. The HSE and the Department have broken every agreement on a timeframe up to now.

On 9 June I was told the first meeting would take place within four weeks - that is in writing from the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar - and it was scheduled to conclude its business by 30 September 2015. Would the HSE and the Department allow this to happen if these were highly paid hospital consultants? Is it that these are the lowest paid workers within the health service that they are not being given priority? I know that the Minister of State has a great deal of sympathy and support for these workers. All that is happening - I mean no disrespect to her as this is the response she has been given by the Department - is that we are being strung along big time. Every single response, going back to early 2013, referred to timeframes, an understanding of what I was saying and so on. The Minister was explicit in the timeframes he gave to me on 9 June and this now kicks it into next year. God knows where any of us will be at that stage. I was trying to get it concluded before the end of this Dáil and Seanad term. I ask the Minister of State to use her good offices to tell the departmental officials and the HSE that this is not acceptable. This is a small number of people who have been earning €8, €9, €10 and €12 per hour, some of whom are due €5,000, €6,000, €7,000 or €8,000 which is a significant amount of money to them. They have been incredibly patient up to now.

I am really disappointed with the response. I intend to take up the matter again and will write to the Minister, asking why he is permitting the Department to continually miss deadlines and set new ones which I know will be missed. I am seeking the Minister of State's assistance in telling them this is not on because it affects low-paid workers all across the country who are only asking for what they are entitled to. I realise there have been budgetary constraints. We realised this in 2013 when I first raised the issue. We have been incredibly patient, but I will not be anymore. I seek the Minister of State's direct intervention and assistance to put a fire under a couple of people within the Department and get them to sort it out. It is not a whole hill of beans; the matter can be dealt with very quickly.

The significant part of the answer refers to the conclusion of the Lansdowne Road agreement. This issue needs to be discussed to reach agreement in terms of the section 39 bodies. While they are funded in the main by the HSE, it is not the direct employer. I take on board what the Senator is saying. Depending on circumstances, the urgency of an issue and who is involved and who the direct beneficiaries are, things move slowly or quickly. What is significant about the answer is the fact that the Lansdowne Road agreement has been concluded. It should be the benchmark in terms of the three-month process from October. The clock is ticking. Most definitely, I will convey the Senator's concerns to the people involved.

That would be much appreciated.

Sitting suspended at 3.20 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.