Commencement Matters

Greenways Funding

I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. He is always welcome to this Chamber, as he was a by-product of this great Seanad.

I, too, welcome the Minister. This is the first time two people with the name Paschal have been involved in a debate on different sides of a motion. That is a little bit of history.

In November 2013 Leitrim County Council submitted an application to the National Cycle Network, NCN, local authority funding scheme 2014-16. I understand from Leitrim County Council that five projects were funded nationally but the Leitrim project was No. 6 on the list and just lost out. The matter is a constant source of debate and dialogue in that part of the county. It was a single application for the development of the greenway from Drumduff, County Leitrim on the Leitrim-Sligo border to Blacklion in County Cavan, a distance of 40 km, the application contained two clear options for funding one of two distinct phases. The first option was for a bound surface from Drumduff to Manorhamilton, a distance of 18 km at a then cost of €2.3 million and-or for a bound surface from Mahorhamilton to Blacklion, a distance of 22 km at a cost of €4.3 million. Leitrim County Council considered that its application had the potential to deliver considerable social, recreational and economic benefit and looked forward to the feedback on it from the Department. As I have said, the application was unsuccessful on that occasion.

I have raised this issue because the Government has indicated in recent weeks that it will provide extra funding for the development of greenways. The Taoiseach, as the Minister knows, was present in Moate for the official opening of a greenway in that part of the world. It was interesting that the chairman of Westmeath County Council, Councillor Paul Daly, referred to that piece of railway track being used in the movie "The First Great Train Robbery" starring Sean Connery. I remember seeing that film which I recommend to Members. It is now part of a greenway that will stretch from Dublin to Galway.

The Minister will be very aware of how important tourism is to County Leitrim which has a very low industrial manufacturing base, in particular the area around Manorhamilton to the Sligo border. The development of tourism attractions is crucial to the future economic wellbeing of the area. This can only happen with State aid, as there are insufficient resources within the county council and the local communities to develop the greenway, much and all as they have the will and the desire to develop it. Everybody is in favour of developing this disused railway track dating from the middle of the last century. This is not a new issue and I am sure it has been on the Minister's desk from before the time he took over. I hope he will have some positive news for me.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. This is the first time we have dealt with each other on a matter such as this. It is the first time we have had a Commencement matter to address. What we now need is for Paschal Sheehy to cover this item and then it will be an historic coming together of different Paschals across the country.

I agree with the Senator that greenways are making a significant contribution to tourism development across the country and also to sustainable transport. I am reliably informed that the greenway the Taoiseach opened on Sunday was being actively used by local residents long before it was officially opened, such was the recognition of its use and value.

We are all familiar with various greenways in place across the country that have the economic effect described by the Senator. We have only to look at the work under way in Waterford and what it is doing in regard to greenway development. We are all familiar with the success of the greenway in County Mayo and the effect it has had on many of the communities located along side it. The challenge we face in terms of greenways is twofold. The first is funding, an issue on which I have to respond as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, but the second - I am not saying it applies to this proposal - is that as we look at expanding the number of greenways in the future, we will have to work to ensure they are all of the quality required and that they are located in and traverse through areas that reflect the best practice of tourism. Fáilte Ireland has done much research on the development of greenways across Ireland and Europe. It is clear they need to be constructed in a certain way and traverse through communities and amenities in a particular way in order to generate the demand that will make these good investments by central Government and local authorities.

On the particular greenway to which the Senator has referred, my Department is aware of the proposal. I acknowledge the quality of the work under way. As to how funding might be imminently drawn down for this project, it is my understanding the local authority is putting together a very good proposal on how the greenway could access EU INTERREG funding. Given the way the greenway is being constructed, it may well meet many of the criteria laid down for this funding stream. I recommend that this be considered at the first opportunity for two reasons. First, the call for applications for the funding programme will open on 4 December and, therefore, there is a window of opportunity for the greenway to access funding and, second, this programme and the way it is constructed makes available a very high percentage of the total amount of the cost of the project. This particular funding stream has the ability to deliver up to 85% of the total cost which would be a massive contribution to the construction of this greenway were it to be successful. My Department and I will certainly be available to help in any way we can to support the application and ensure it is as effective and as comprehensive as possible. As this funding opportunity will be open soon and as it can offer a significant amount of funding, it offers the best opportunity for the project to receive funding to allow it to move to construction in the future.

I have been made aware of what the Minister has outlined in regard to INTERREG V funding. The council is very much on top of this and, as the Minister indicated, it is in the process of putting together an application. However, it begs the question that the Minister is dealing with a local authority with limited resources. There is a 15% shortfall in funding. In raising the issue I did not want to muddy the waters by referring to the INTERREG issue as I wanted to get an indication of the Department's and the Minister's thinking on it, which is supported by Cavan County Council and Sligo County Council. Sligo County Council is making a separate application for its end of the project. The project was specifically about County Leitrim, but there is also the cross-Border element.

I am unsure whether the Minister can give an indication at this point, but in the event that Leitrim County Council receive funding and were it to require financial support to fulfil the other 15% because I do not know from where it would come, would it be a matter for the Department to consider an application from the council?

I thank the Minister for taking this matter and outlining the importance he attaches to greenways in general and this one, in particular. I reiterate that he can appreciate the reason there is such universal support in County Leitrim for this proposal because it could prove to be a catalyst for the development of further incoming tourist numbers other than residents. This applies, in particular, in a region that, as a former chairman of Fáilte Ireland north west, I am aware has the lowest level of visitors of all regions in Ireland because of its peripheral nature and other reasons. The Minister can understand why I perceive issues such as this as being of great importance in the development of a quality tourism product.

That is the $6 million question for the Minister.

Indeed. I am confident that were the local authority to go ahead with the project and were it to be successful in its application for INTERREG funding, it would be able to find from within its own resources the final 15%, if that was what was required. In advance of that happening, however, it might be more sensible for me to state I support the application the council intends to make for INTERREG funding and, as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I very much recognise the value of the project. The Senator has already touched on its cross-Border element and I also point to the degree to which I understand it would mirror the Shannon-Erne Waterway for some parts of it at least. The local authority is doing good work in preparing an application and for the time being, it would be wise for everyone to concentrate his or her efforts on how to best support that application and cross all those bridges in the future as to how other funding could be found.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and agree wholeheartedly that it is the kind of project that would make a great difference to allow more people to experience the beauty of County Leitrim.

I thank the Minister.

Pensions Levy

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter. Many anomalies arise in respect of the infamous pensions levy. My understanding is somebody who works in the private sector and is a retained firefighter does not pay any pension levy by virtue of the amount they earn as a retained firefighter. A person who is self-employed and a retained firefighter will pay 4.5% in a pensions levy. However, if one is employed by a local authority as a semi-skilled worker, one pays 10% in a pensions levy on one's wages and 10% as a retained firefighter, which is a huge chunk to take from a working family's wages. Many such individuals are now struggling with both the pensions levy and the universal social charge, USC. I note the welcome changes to the USC announced in the budget, on which the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, is to be complimented. Crucially, however, in all cases of retained firefighters paying a pensions levy, they still do not qualify for a pension. I note members of the Garda took and lost a court challenge on the subject of the pensions levy. They lost it on the grounds they actually were paying into a pension fund, which is why they continue to pay the pensions levy. However, the retained firefighters are not paying into a pension fund but are paying a pensions levy. Therefore, I call for the abolition of the pensions levy in this instance and believe it is in the gift of the Minister to so do.

I thank the Senator, on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, for raising this important matter.

The public service pension-related deduction, sometimes referred to as the pensions levy, applies to the pay of pensionable public servants. However, it is not a pension contribution. The measure was introduced as an emergency measure in 2009 to effect a reduction in the remuneration paid to public servants, including retained firefighters, as a contribution to the necessary reduction in public service expenditure brought about by the financial crisis at the time.

The measure is progressive in that the reduction applied is directly related to the amount of remuneration paid, with those earning more being subject to the greater reduction. The first €15,000 of remuneration paid is exempt from reduction.

The specific law underpinning the pension-related deduction is the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2009, as amended. That Act provides that the pension-related deduction is to apply to the pay, including any non-pensionable pay elements, of public servants who are pensionable. In this connection, the term "pensionable" is defined in terms that give it a broad reach. It includes not just membership of a public service pension scheme but also any payment in lieu of such membership. I understand from the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government that retained firefighters have historically qualified on retirement for a one-off, non-recurring gratuity calculated at one eighth of their annual retainer payment multiplied by the number of years of actual service up to a maximum of four times the annual retainer. To qualify for the gratuity, a retained firefighter must have a minimum of two years service. The maximum gratuity payable is four times that of the annual retainer and retained firefighters do not pay any contribution to that gratuity.

Retained firefighters in place in 2008 and those hired thereafter until the end of 2012 were given the option of joining the local government superannuation scheme and receiving a pension and retirement lump sum based on their pensionable remuneration and length of service. All retained firefighters appointed after 1 January 2013 must join the single public service pension scheme. Section 2(1)(b) of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2009 provides that any public servant who is a member of a public service pension scheme or who is entitled to benefit under such a scheme or receives a payment in lieu of membership of such a scheme is subject to the deduction. The payment of the one-off gratuity at retirement to retained firefighters who are not members of the superannuation scheme constitutes a payment in lieu of membership of the pension scheme and, as such, all retained firefighters, regardless of whether they are members of the public service pension scheme, are subject to the deduction.

I will address the recently announced plans by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for the reduction of the pension levy as it applies to all public servants, including retained firefighters which, I am sure, will be good news and welcomed by the retained firefighters, when the Senator has had a chance to respond.

The Senator may ask a brief supplementary.

In the first sentence of his response the Minister of State said "the public service pension-related deduction, sometimes referred to as the pensions levy, applies to the pay of pensionable public servants." As stated, they do not pay into a pension fund. I appreciate that they receive a gratuity. It is a one-off payment and not a pension. There is a difference. They were still entitled to that gratuity prior to the introduction of the pensions levy, as an emergency measure, in 2009. As matters are improving, consideration should be given in these cases to exempting retained firefighters. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could bring this matter to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and ask him to re-examine it. Gardaí took a case which they lost purely because they were paying the pensions levy. Being assured of a gratuity is different. If a case was taken to the courts in this instance, what would be the outcome? I would appreciate whatever the Minister of State can do to improve the lot of retained firefighters. When a guy is working with a local authority, pays 10% on his wages - €28,000 or €29,000 - and then receives another €16,000 as a firefighter on which he has to pay 10%, it is a heavy burden on families.

I agree fully with the Senator that it is a heavy burden on families. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Government are very eager to reduce that burden. I concur with the Senator. He quoted the first sentence of my response. I reiterate that, in legislation, the term "pensionable" is defined as not just membership of the pension scheme but also any payment in lieu of such membership. Without being technical about it, that is the legal basis and why the position is as it is.

As the economy grows, the absolute priority of the Minister and the Government is to reduce the burden on public servants. We all know the very positive impact that retained firefighters have in all communities throughout the country. The agreed proposals brought forward by the Minister - they are in line with the Lansdowne Road agreement and will be subject to the enactment of the recently published Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill 2015 - will provide for a significant reduction in the PRD burden on all public servants, including retained firefighters. This follows on from a more modest reduction in the rates applicable, which were agreed to under the terms of the Haddington Road agreement which was implemented in January 2014. The new Bill with which we will debate shortly in this and the Lower House and which we will, I hope, pass into law, provides that the threshold for annual earnings below which the pension-related deduction will not be applied will increase from its current level of €15,000 to €26,083 per year on 1 January 2016 and to €28,750 per year on 1 January 2017.

This substantial relaxation of the pension-related deduction, as proposed in the new FEMPI Bill, will mean significant income gains for all affected public servants and, more particularly, ensure a significant proportion of public servants will be fully exempt from the pension-related deduction by 2017. Many retained firefighters would be expected to be among those exempt entirely from the pension-related deduction in this way, assuming their only public service remuneration consists of their retained firefighter earnings and that they are not simultaneously working in other public service jobs.

The message from the Minister and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Government is that as the economy has continued to improve, we are now in a position to reduce the burden. If the legislation is passed, the threshold will be increased this January from €15,000 to over €26,000 and from January 2017 to €28,000, which will remove many public servants, including many retired firefighters, from the PRD net, which I am sure will be welcomed by all.

Hospital Services

I welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar.

I, too, welcome the Minister. The last time I met him in person was at the funeral in Dundalk last Thursday. I was with him this morning via the use of technology during his interview on "Morning Ireland" on the care of people in hospitals outside the jurisdiction.

I tabled this issue for discussion in the Commencement debate having read in a newspaper article that Baggot Street Hospital was to be sold for €14 million. According to Department of Health archives, there were 193 beds in the hospital, which equated to a capital cost of approximately €73,000 per bed. In terms of their replacement, according to data from the HSE capital spending programme, the cost of the provision of 50 beds at Tralee General Hospital is €9.4 million, while the cost of the provision of 100 beds in Ballincollig hospital is €19.47 million, which equates to approximately €190,000 per bed. I am concerned about the bad value being obtained by the Department of Health in the sale of Baggot Street Hospital, particularly in the context of the Minister's remarks this morning on having to send people abroad, the widespread recognition - there is no one more avid in recognising it than the Minister - of lengthening hospital waiting lists and future shortage of capacity in hospitals. Prima facie, it does not appear to be a good deal to sell the 193 bed spaces at Baggot Street Hospital for €14 million. Is it worth investigating whether it would be more useful to retain them in the system, in which, as the Minister will agree, they are badly needed?

Having read the data, I estimate that approximately 674,000 bed days have been lost in the city centre of Dublin following the closure of the Adelaide Hospital, Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital, Dr. Steeven's Hospital, Mercers Hospital, the Meath Hospital, St. Vincent's Hospital on St. Stephen's Green, the National Children's Hospital, Jervis Street Hospital and the Richmond-St. Lawrence's Hospital. Following the sale of Baggot Street Hospital, a further 62,000 possible bed days will be lost. It is also proposed to remove beds from Holles Street Hospital and the Rotunda Hospital. Based on an analysis of the last population census in Dublin, prepared by Mr. Jamie Cudden of Dublin City Council, Mr. Brian Hughes of the Dublin Institute of Technology and Mr. Declan Redmond and Mr. Brendan Williams of the School of Geography in UCD, we are moving hospitals away from the direction in which the people are moving.

They found a 62% increase in Dublin city centre between the 1991 census and the 2011 census. They stated the increase reflected the high level of apartment building in the inner city from the late 1980s onwards.

They point out that in the rest of the Dublin City Council area there was a decrease of 1.2% in the population between 1991 and 2011. We all want hospitals near where people live - the population is increasing in the city centre - and where people work - happily the level is increasing in the city centre. Is this deal justifiable, given the need to have hospitals near where people live and in an area in which the population is rapidly increasing? I was surprised to read what the three scholars had found about the increase in population in the centre of Dublin. Prima facie, it does not look like good value for money to do so, given the cost of replacing beds elsewhere.

In his interview with Cian McCormack this morning the Minister welcomed anything that threw up cost comparisons. I had tabled the motion before I heard him speak, but it is in that spirit. I agree with him; if it turns out that what we have before us today does not make financial sense, at least we will have discussed the hypothesis. He said anything like it strengthened his case for spending. He mentioned keeping taxpayers' money in Ireland when he had debates with his colleagues. It could also shorten waiting lists and strengthen his case for more funding.

In that spirit, that we are all on the one side on this issue, does the closure make sense, given the location of patients? Does it make sense, given the cost of beds in the health service?

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to advise the House on the proposed sale of the old Baggot Street Hospital complex. This facility, like much of the health care infrastructure, dates from around the mid-1800s. As a consequence, it is of limited use as suitable accommodation for the delivery of modern health services. The complex also contains a number of protected structures. Therefore, given the age of the complex and its protected status, the cost of upgrading the buildings to meet modern standards for health care accommodation would be prohibitive. If it were still in use as an inpatient hospital, we would be planning to rebuild it on a new site, as we are with other hospitals of a similar vintage such as the Rotunda, Holles Street and Temple Street hospitals, for example, all of which will be replaced by new modern hospitals in the next ten years.

The inability of older facilities such as Baggot Street Hospital to respond to changing health care needs and medical technologies impedes the efficient delivery of modern health care and the development of clear care pathways. Old facilities also have much higher recurring costs. The costs of meeting sustainability targets on energy alone would be prohibitive. The national energy efficiency action plan sets a public sector energy efficient target of reducing energy usage by 33% per annum which is to be achieved by 2020.

In addition, the HSE must comply with the Government's green procurement guidelines. These require public bodies to ensure a minimum building energy rating of B3 is achieved in all new build and leased buildings from January 2012. From January 2015 the minimum rating is A3. We have to reduce the number of environments where inadequate infrastructure is determining how resources are spent.

In an improving property market, the HSE sees an opportunity to leverage the sale of Baggot Street Hospital. The proceeds of the sale will deliver accommodation for primary care and community services in central Dublin. The balance of the proceeds will fund modern accommodation for mental health services. The new primary care and community care facilities and the redevelopment of the old hospital complex will revitalise the surrounding area.

It is Government policy to enable people to easily access a broad spectrum of services in the community through their local primary care team. Therefore, the development of primary care health services is central to the Government's objective to deliver a high-quality, integrated and cost-effective health care system. This ensures health care is delivered in the most appropriate and economic setting. Our key objective is to ensure the right facilities are provided to support best practice models of care and that they are suitably located, efficiently designed and appropriately procured to serve the health needs of communities. In addition to providing the most appropriate health care for the local resident population, those employed in the surrounding area may also access these services.

I thank the Minister as always. I am concerned that the big increase in the population in the city centre is not being factored into much of our planning for the future of the city centre. In addition, those who work there need access to hospitals.

As a person who lived in the city centre for a long time, I am aware that hospitals such as the Adelaide had a significant place in the local community. Such hospitals were really valued as institutions. Hospital beds have moved out of the city centre at such a rate, even though the population is moving back in.

Reference was made to energy costs. The cost of replacing 193 beds is substantially in excess of what we will get for selling the 193 bed places. I am concerned that sometimes there is too much emphasis on the age of buildings in terms of hospitals when the waiting lists reflect people wanting more staff, which I know the Minister has addressed and on which he has reported to the House. Is there an edifice complex? Is the HSE determined to rebuild the entire hospital stock when people would like more doctors and nurses? Is the capital budget subject ot full appraisal? Reference was made by the Minister to energy costs but the wage costs, the medical costs and the cost of people being on waiting lists are greater.

I do not know how far the sale has progressed, but perhaps in the light of what the Minister said this morning and the high cost of sending people abroad, if they avail of their entitlements under the European laws to which he referred, we might adopt a revised attitude to dispensing with old hospitals, in particular in areas where so many of them have been shut down and turned into office blocks and given over to other uses. One could ask whether some of these decisions were short-sighted.

When the Minister was responsible for transport, I discussed with him the reopening of the railway line between Connolly Station and Heuston Station. Instead of Dr. Steevens' Hospital becoming the headquarters of the HSE and an office block, it would have been an ideal location for a hospital because people from all parts of the country, from Dundalk to Tralee, could travel to the station across the way. I would welcome more planning on these issues. I am sure I will discuss this matter with the Minister from time to time, but there are factors that must be taken into account. I thank him, as always, for his reply and wish him well in his post and endeavours. Perhaps this particular sale might not support the goals which we jointly share.

I have not had a chance to visit Baggot Street Hospital yet, but I am due to visit it in the next couple of weeks to take a look at the place for myself. To the best of my knowledge, it is not used as an inpatient hospital any more; it is used for other services. Perhaps some short-stay services are provided, but it is not used as an acute hospital; therefore, to do what the Senator proposes would mean turning it back into an acute hospital. That would have a very high cost associated with it which HSE Estates believes would be greater than building something from scratch.

There are big problems with the old hospital buildings. Very often one has 20 to 30 beds to one toilet and because the buildings are old, it is very difficult to provide additional toilets. While that might have been acceptable in the past, it is no longer the case. Increasingly, building standards for hospitals require people to be either in private rooms or to at least have 3 m on either side of their bed for infection control, which cannot be achieved in an old building. Such buildings also have very high running costs. There are enormous difficulties getting medical gases in because one has to pipe through stone walls sometimes. In addition, much of the new equipment, including the big X-ray machines, cannot fit through the doors and into the rooms in old hospitals where the only equipment they might have had in the old days was an X-ray machine.

The point the Senator made about the city centre and the fact that the population is moving back is worthy of consideration. Most of the old city centre hospitals, in effect, were moved to the suburbs. If I remember correctly, Jervis Street Hospital was one of the hospitals that was relocated to Beaumont Hospital, while the Adelaide and the Meath hospitals were relocated to what is now Tallaght hospital. That reflected the fact that at the time, the suburbs were burgeoning and the city centre was emptying out. As the Senator rightly pointed out, good planning, good transport and common sense suggest we should move people back into the city centre in the years to come. That process is under way. If we were to increase the bed stock in the city centre area, it would make more sense to have new wings and new blocks at the likes of the Mater, St. Vincent's University and St. James's hospitals.

There are already three major hospitals not far from the city centre. Accordingly, putting in a fourth one, with all the costs associated, would have to be considered. An opportunity will potentially arise in the next five to ten years because several existing city centre hospitals will become vacant. These include Crumlin, Holles Street, the Rotunda and Temple Street hospitals. Consideration will have to be given to how they could be used for alternative health care purposes.

I thank the Minister for giving his experience as a hospital doctor which is better than that of any economist.

Housing Provision

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for allowing me to raise the matter of the vacancies in public housing stock across the country, as well as the many vacancies in the private housing sector. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan.

The Government seems to be transfixed on rent certainty as it seems to be a cause of ongoing internal debate around the Cabinet table. However, the certainty we require concerns the supply of local authority housing and the allocation of vacant properties. Figures presented in the other House several weeks ago indicated almost 3,000 vacant local authority houses were available for repair and, I hope, allocation. In County Cork alone, between the city and the county, there are approximately 700 such houses. It is very difficult for the tens of thousands of people on housing waiting lists to see these statistics and how 3,000 local authority houses have not yet been allocated. Obviously, some of these houses require a degree of refurbishment. All of us as individual public representatives, however, have come across cases where houses which have become vacant are in excellent condition, almost turn key, but there is still a lengthy delay in their allocation. Recently, I inquired about a house in the Cork area which, to the very best of my knowledge, was in a condition that would allow it to be made available for letting immediately. When I asked in September whether it would be made available in October or November, I was told it would probably be next February or March before it would be made available. That is unacceptable. We must ensure that once a house is vacant and in fit condition for letting, it should be let in the immediate future. At a time when tens of thousands of people are on housing waiting lists, it is unforgivable that there are such vacancies. Will the Minister of State let me know what the Government is doing to ensure these 3,000 vacant houses will be made available to people on social housing lists as soon as possible?

There are also tens of thousands of vacant private dwellings across the country, many of which were previously not available for letting. At a time of an acknowledged housing crisis and when rural, as well as small town and village, depopulation is a critical social problem, we have to examine all solutions. Does the Minister of State have statistics from her Department or the CSO for the numbers of vacant private dwellings? We have to devise some scheme to encourage the letting of these properties. While I am not a major fan of tax breaks or incentives, mainly because they have left a long disastrous legacy, we may have to look at putting schemes in place to encourage the repair and refurbishment of some of these properties for letting. There have been schemes such as the rural resettlement scheme which have been tremendously successful.

One size does not fit all and that must be at the core of our thinking in dealing with our housing problems. The Cabinet might be having internal debates about rent certainty, but there is the issue of vacant local authority houses and the issue of there being probably thousands on thousands of vacant private houses across the country. Towns and villages are dying off. A significant number of people, although, admittedly, not the majority, on housing lists in the larger cities would be willing to take up the offer of a tenancy of a good house in a rural area if the proper procedures were put in place. We must be more joined-up in our thinking in regard to the housing crisis. Tens upon tens of thousands of people are looking for houses, there are tens on tens of thousands of vacant houses across the country and it is not good enough that we cannot marry these two statistics into a solution.

Will the Minister of State an update on the number of local authority and private houses that are not occupied and indicate the Government's intentions and plans in that respect? The Government's debate on housing must stretch far beyond rent certainty and into the territory of making those houses available and getting them filled as soon as possible.

I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue. I know that the issue of vacant local authority housing, or voids as they are called, has been a topical one, given the need to address the waiting lists and to make best use of the existing stock, while the extensive programme of new build that the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, has put in place with the local authorities is advanced. The issue of voids and their reletting has always been an issue with elected public representatives on local authorities. The time it takes to redo a house and relet it has always been a bone of contention.

An important point to make is that there is no fixed number of vacant local authority houses. The numbers change constantly across all 31 authorities, as tenants move in and out of social housing. General statistics for local authority housing stock, including vacant units, are published annually by the Local Government Management Agency as part of its service indicators for local authorities and are available on its website.

Recognising that there had been a build-up of vacant social houses for a number of years, in 2014 my Department introduced a new programme to support local authorities in returning voids to productive use. More than 2,333 units were remediated under that programme which is targeted at lettable units and making them energy efficient.

For 2015, given the continuing need to make social housing available as early as possible, we are supporting local authorities to tackle another 2,500 vacant units. In addition, local authorities also do their own work on the more routine relettings, where a lower level of expenditure is involved.

The key focus of the Minister is on ensuring Exchequer support is made available where it is needed to complement the work local authorities do with their own resources. The allocation of targets for a further 2,500 units this year is in response to the number of vacant, lettable units that local authorities have identified to my Department. Exchequer funding for the authorities is on condition that the accommodation will be occupied immediately following the works, with priority given to homeless families to the greatest extent possible.

In regard to privately owned properties, there are in excess of 323,000 tenancies registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board. The private rented sector has more than doubled in size in recent years, with one in five households now accommodated in it. My Department does not have the power to direct private property owners to let their properties.

However, under the Department's housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme, eligible households can source their own accommodation in the private rented sector and rental payments are then made electronically, directly to the landlord, on behalf of the tenant. More than 4,300 households are being supported under the HAP scheme across the pilot local authority areas operating the scheme, with more than 2,000 unique HAP scheme landlords involved in these tenancies.

In summary, therefore, the Government is responding comprehensively to the social housing challenge through the social housing strategy 2020 and in respect of vacant social houses, the necessary support is being given to the local authorities to get units back into use for those on the waiting list. As for private rented accommodation, the roll-out of the HAP scheme which is progressing well provides an important vehicle for ensuring this type of accommodation can also be brought into play to assist in meeting social housing needs.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I acknowledge she is concerned; the Government is concerned, as is everybody else. However, we require action rather than concern. Will the Minister of State simply reflect on the fact that it is unacceptable that houses should be vacant for so long? This might require a change in the law. Certain housing applicants would be willing to move into a house and carry out minor repairs. However, houses are not being let because a lock or a pane of glass is broken or there is a minor internal difficulty. Will the Minister of State reflect on this? Will her officials also examine the current housing application form? Many people apply for a council house, as they are entitled to do, to qualify for the HAP scheme, but the council housing application form is detailed. It is 20 pages long and one would need a PhD to fill it in. The fact that people who have lived outside the country for one month or six months or 12 months have to obtain certification from authorities abroad that they do not have properties in those countries adds greatly to delays. These blockages could be cleared. The Minister of State will be aware from her time on the council that every applicant for a council house has his or her application checked by a housing officer who physically calls to him or her. I cannot understand why a 20-page form is required. When the Leas-Chathaoirleach and I were members of Cork County Council, a one-page form did the job every bit as well and it was a much quicker process. There is a great deal of daft bureaucratic red tape which should be removed and written out of the script. If we want to make progress in filling vacant houses, we have to use our cop-on and a little common sense. I ask the Minister of State to examine these minor issues. A housing applicant almost requires a PhD in form filling before he or she can even submit a form to the local authority, which is unnecessary.

I take the Senator's points. We have had discussions about using common sense and joined-up thinking. We are also considering a rural repopulation programme within rural economic development, RED, zones but that would not be on a statutory footing. It would be a voluntary repopulation programme which we are in the process of developing.

Sitting suspended at 3.25 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.