Commencement Matters

Public Service Code of Conduct

Tá céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Ba mhaith liom tréaslú leis as ucht a cheapacháin. Is maith an rud é go bhfuil Gaillimheach sa ról atá aige. I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment as it is the first time I have had the opportunity to do so on the floor of the Seanad. I wish him well and it is great to see another west of Ireland man close enough to the Cabinet table, at least, and having some influence on policy making.

This question arises from recent investigations I have been doing around people who are employed by State agencies etc. There are a number of State agencies and anecdotal evidence suggests that people, for example, who worked in county councils - the Minister of State was in Galway County Council for a while - move on when finished their tenure. In some cases, they work for companies working as contractors for the councils etc. Two former employees of Údarás na Gaeltachta who were involved in policy development with regard to seaweed cutting and aquaculture went on to work with a company in that area which they would have previously dealt with from a policy perspective.

I am not insinuating any impropriety in what any of the individuals are undertaking at present. Ministers, Deputies, Senators and civil servants are required to adhere to standards in public office, and there is a code on standards of behaviour that we are expected to adhere to. However, there is no similar code of service under the standards in public office legislation for public servants. The website has a heading for public servants but it states that the Department of Finance has yet to prepare codes of conduct for directors or employees in State bodies and the wider public service.

I looked at the Civil Service code of standards and behaviour, as one would imagine the code for civil servants should be quite similar to that for public servants. In many cases civil and public servants are comparable with regard to pay scales, working conditions and contractual obligations etc. The Civil Service code is not out of the ordinary and it is quite normal in the run of things. I appreciate many State agencies have their own codes of conduct etc. The guidelines for the Civil Service were drawn up in 2004, which is 12 years ago. I take it that in that time, nothing appears to have been done around the code of conduct and standards of behaviour for the public service. It is quite unusual and strange that this would not have been done or brought up to date at this stage.

For example, the code for the Civil Service covers quite a number of headlines. It outlines the standards required of civil servants and underpinning service delivery in respect of impartiality and so on. It deals with behaviour at work and the standards of integrity, conflicts of interest, gifts, hospitality etc. It is very similar to what we are asked to do as public representatives, which is correct. There is an interesting section towards the end dealing with the acceptance of outside appointments and consultancy engagement following resignation or retirement. There is something in that code of conduct that considers cases in which people working for the State in a policy capacity had dealings with certain organisations or companies and what would be expected of a civil servant after such employment.

Why is there such a delay in drawing this up for the public service? For example, No. 20.2 of the code states:

Any civil servant intending to be engaged in or connected with (i) any outside business with which he or she had official dealings or (ii) any outside business that might gain an unfair advantage over its competitors by employing him or her, must inform the appropriate authority of such an intention.

That is very practical and fair. I hope the Government is looking at bringing in something similar for public servants.

I thank the Senator for his kind words. I am delighted to be here to take this matter on behalf of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

The current position regarding codes of conduct is that section 10 of the Standards in Public Office Act 2001 provides for the introduction of codes of conduct to be observed by the persons to whom they relate and provide guidance in the performance of their official duties. The standards commission is responsible for the publication and distribution of such codes of conduct but the codes themselves are drawn up by a number of parties under the Act. The codes of conduct for Members of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann were drawn up by the appropriate Committees on Members' Interests. The code of conduct for officeholders was drawn up by the Government. The Civil Service code of standards and behaviour was drawn up by the then Minister for Finance in 2004 following consultation with the Standards in Public Office Commission and staff representatives. This code was revised in 2008 and is now the responsibility of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The code of conduct for local government was drawn up by the then Minister for the Environment and Local Government under the Local Government Act 2001 following consultation with the Standards in Public Office Commission.

Codes of conduct for directors and employees in the wider public service have not yet been prepared, notwithstanding the fact that the 2001 Act provides that such codes "shall be drawn up from time to time". The Senator is right. This is now the responsibility of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. That is not to say that codes do not exist within the wider public sector. For example, many public bodies in the education sector and the health sector have codes of conduct and I understand that the code of ethics for An Garda Síochána is currently being prepared. In addition, directors and other senior public officials in the public sector are subject to obligations under the ethics Acts and, of course, public bodies are all subject to the code of practice for the governance of State bodies, which was recently published. That code provides a framework for the application of best practice in corporate governance. It is strongly based on the underlying principles of good governance, namely, accountability, transparency, probity and a focus on the sustainable success and performance of the State body concerned in light of the particular public functions it undertakes. Good governance supports a culture of behaviour with integrity and ethical values.

As the Senator is aware, a significant programme of legislative reform was undertaken by the previous Government to strengthen openness, transparency, governance and accountability of the institutions of the State. The Minister is committed to continuing that work. One of those reforms is the development of the Public Sector Standards Bill. The Minister is pleased to advise the Senator and the House that a key reform proposed within that Bill is the establishment in legislation of a set of integrity principles for all public officials and the subsequent development by the new public sector standards commissioner of a model code of conduct applicable to all public officials based on these integrity principles. The Bill includes general principles on standards of integrity and concern for the public interest. Public officials will need to adhere to the principles of accountability and transparency in government and public affairs and use resources efficiently and effectively.

The Bill also provides that the new commissioner will issue a model code of conduct based on these general principles with which public officials must comply in the performance of their duties. The Bill provides that public bodies may adopt their own codes to meet particular requirements while adhering to the principles and standards in the model code. The commissioner may advise as to whether amendments to any such code are required. In the Minister's view, this approach, where all codes must conform with the model code developed by the commissioner, will lead to the adoption of best practice and the removal of any inconsistencies and differences in standards and approaches taken. The Public Sector Standards Bill was published in December 2015 and completed Second Stage in the Dáil in January. A very constructive debate has led to a number of Committee Stage amendments, the preparation of which is currently under way. It is the Minister's intention to enact this legislation as soon as possible. In conclusion, while there is currently no specific code of conduct for the wider public service, the officials in question are subject to the ethics Acts and the code of practice for the governance of State bodies and many codes are already in existence in this sector. These officials will be subject to the model code, once in place, following enactment of the Bill.

I welcome the fact that a Bill is being brought forward but I worry about the time lapse. The basic question is why it has taken so long. I mentioned 12 years but if the legislation was enacted in 2011, it is even longer. Perhaps the Minister of State could ask the Minister the reason the Standards in Public Office Commission cannot update the code and put what would be a model code in place sooner rather than later so that all these disparate codes can be brought under one regulation under the commission's guidelines. I think that would be very beneficial and important and could be based on the Civil Service code that is already there.

I take the Senator's comments on board and will communicate them to the Minister. I am also concerned about the delay but I assure the Senator and the House that the Minister will do everything to bring this legislation forward as soon as possible.

Flood Prevention Measures

I welcome the Minister of State. This matter relates to flooding in the Shannon region. As the Minister of State is undoubtedly aware, Athlone and the surrounding area suffered terribly from flooding last year. On 4 December 2015, it became very obvious to people in the town that we were in very big trouble. Thanks to the hard work and perseverance of home owners, county council staff, the Army, gardaí and over 100 volunteers, almost all of the houses in the area were protected. There was much talk back then about what needed to done and what could be done. We all know that the issues associated with the River Shannon are very complex and that there are too many agencies involved. All of these agencies have a valid input but nobody is taking responsibility. Back then at a meeting in the Sheraton Hotel in Athlone, I asked the Taoiseach to consider appointing a Minister with responsibility for flooding within the OPW. As they say, the rest is history and the Minister of State is here today. The Taoiseach set up the Shannon flood risk State agency co-ordination working group, which consists of members from the ESB, Waterways Ireland, Inland Fisheries, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Bord na Móna, the OPW, Irish Water, local authorities and the Departments of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. It is obvious that there are too many agencies involved.

We have reached the end of October 2016 and I have yet to see any flood relief schemes in place in Athlone or the surrounding area. Last year, many politicians did a great deal of talking about all the things that the Government was not doing. The Minister of State made a big announcement in Athlone recently - an event to which he forgot to invite me - in respect of a €6 million package for work on defence walls, embankments and floodgates. These are all very welcome but they had been announced previously. It had always been planned that money would be spent on these issues after the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, report. There is nothing new in any of this. Eleven months on, nothing has happened. People are still living in fear and dread of a repeat of last year. People still have no insurance. Some elderly people are still worried sick about being trapped in their homes again. They do not need big announcements, they need action.

I have consistently said that the Minister of State and the Department must listen to the people who live along the river. Nobody knows the river like the locals. Locals believe that some remedial works involving dredging could have been carried out along the river which might have alleviated the floods. It is obvious that if there is dirt in a drain, it will interfere with the flow of water. If the dirt is cleared, the water can flow. The same can be said for the river. I know the Minister of State has conflicting views about dredging. On 20 September, he said that there was no evidence that dredging was needed in the Shannon. However, on 20 October, he told the Dáil that localised dredging could be on the agenda. The farmers and locals along the River Shannon do not have conflicting views on dredging.

Like me, they believe and have been calling for dredging for a long time now.

The cut at Meelick needs to be cleared as well. Some clearing work was done years ago but it was never finished. We all know that the water in the river will find its course. If the way is blocked, the water will find another route. Another thing that needs to be looked at is the water level in Lough Ree. The levels should be brought back to the levels of the lough in 1979. The levels were raised in 1979 temporarily for navigation purposes, but they were never put back.

All these things could not be done before now because too many agencies were involved. Now, we have one person responsible for the situation, the Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Deputy Canney. It is now time for action to be taken. It is not good enough to tell people that the works promised in the announcement by the Minister of State will take place next year. Fingers crossed, the weather will remain dry, although we had a dry October last year too. I thank the Minister of State sincerely for coming to the Seanad to respond to this Commencement matter. Since it is my first time to encounter the Minister of State in the House, I wish him well in his portfolio.

I thank Senator McFadden for the opportunity to respond to the questions she has raised. I will give the House an update on the actions in respect of flooding along the Shannon.

The core strategy for addressing the significant flood risk along the River Shannon is the Office of Public Works catchment flood risk assessment and management programme. Of the 300 areas for further assessment nationwide, 26 are in the Shannon river basin district. These have been addressed within the Shannon CFRAM study. Draft flood risk management plans have been made available for public consultation. The consultation period for the Shannon CFRAM study closed on 23 September and included a series of local public consultation events. The flood risk management plans will now be finalised. The plans will take on board the comments received and will include a prioritised list of feasible measures, structural and non-structural, to address flood risk in an environmentally sustainable and cost-effective manner.

Building on past investment, the Government has demonstrated its support of flood relief by extending its commitment to provide €430 million to flood risk management between 2016 and 2021. The allocation for flood defences will more than double from €45 million to €100 million per annum. The OPW estimates that up to €1.2 billion in benefit has been derived from the investment to date, with 12,000 properties protected and flood damages and losses avoided. This is a major achievement and it is the Government's intention to continue to build on this major achievement and to prioritise investment in flood defence schemes.

Athlone experienced severe flooding last winter and the situation could have been far worse but for the extraordinary efforts made by the local authority emergency response team and assisted by volunteers from the local community. I am determined that residents and business owners in Athlone should not have to go through that experience again. It has been decided, therefore, to advance the flood relief schemes for the town. The OPW and Westmeath County Council are working together on the development of a flood relief scheme for the town and the OPW has agreed to fund the development and implementation of a viable scheme for Athlone based on the options identified in the Shannon CFRAM report. The works are estimated to cost approximately €6 million and are planned to commence in 2017. When completed, the project will provide protection to approximately 250 homes.

Other major schemes along the Shannon are already under design and construction, including those at Foynes and Kings Island in Limerick and at Ennis lower and Ennis south. The OPW can provide funding to local authorities under the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme to undertake minor works to address localised flooding and coastal protection problems within their administrative areas. So far this year, 38 additional projects with a cost of €1.7 million along the Shannon have been approved by my office. These will provide important localised flood protection and mitigation.

Last winter, the Government took decisive action to support the existing plans in place to address flooding on the Shannon and established the Shannon flood risk state agency co-ordination working group to enhance ongoing co-operation of all State agencies involved with the River Shannon, including ESB, Waterways Ireland, Bord na Móna, Inland Fisheries Ireland, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, OPW and all the relevant local authorities. The extensive work programme, published on the OPW website, highlights the current proactive and co-ordinated approach by all State agencies to flood risk management on the Shannon catchment. The working group is building on the existing work and commitment of all the State agencies involved in flood risk. The group is focused on ensuring the best possible level of co-ordination between all statutory bodies involved in flood management on the Shannon. It is solutions focused and designed to deliver the highest level of efficiencies to add value to the catchment flood risk assessment and management programme.

The group has held three open days on its work programme to discuss the role and work of the group with the public, and has met representatives of the Irish Farmers Association to discuss and explore the approach being adopted to address their issues of concern. The group met last on Tuesday, 18 October. It discussed the benefits of possible measures to manage flood risk for winter 2016-2017. Arising from the meeting, a decision was taken by the group to trial the lowering of the lake levels in Lough Allen to help mitigate potential flood risk for this winter. From the analysis completed, this move may have a small but positive impact on the extent of certain flood events that might occur during the winter. This is to be achieved through protocols being agreed between the OPW, ESB and Waterways Ireland with input from the relevant local authorities. The modelling and analysis completed shows that this action can only be executed in specified conditions to avoid causing or exacerbating flooding downstream and the trial will need to be carefully monitored. While the impact of this initiative may be small, it demonstrates the continued commitment of the agencies to work in a co-ordinated way to explore all measures that may benefit the communities along the River Shannon. The group has also agreed to evaluate the benefits from any short or medium-term programme of localised dredging and any future piloting to remove pinch points along the Shannon. The group will discuss this evaluation and progression with the lake levels trial at its next meeting to be held at the end of October.

I chair an interdepartmental flood policy co-ordination group and shortly I will bring a report of the group to Cabinet. The group is developing a range of policy initiatives to underpin the overall investment by OPW in managing flood risk. It is also considering a number of other prevention and mitigation measures for providing flood relief and may include schemes for individual property protection and voluntary home and farmyard relocation.

Local authorities are designated as the lead agencies for responding to severe weather events, including flooding. The emergency response plans, which were effective during the flood events last winter, have been reviewed to ensure a rapid and effective response if similar events occur this winter. One important aspect of flood risk management in future, in addition to the OPW flood defence solutions, will be to raise the awareness of flood risk and encourage people, businesses and communities to take action to protect themselves and their properties.

The office of emergency planning is responsible for managing the Be Winter Ready campaign, a Government information campaign. The office is actively planning the launch of this year's campaign on 9 November 2016. In conjunction with the OPW, a specific Be Winter Ready public information leaflet on flooding has been prepared. It brings together information already available from various sources, including the OPW flood preparation website, www.flooding.ie, and provides practical advice for homes, business and farms in the event of farm flooding.

I assure Senator McFadden and the Seanad that the Government will continue to ensure that measures to deal effectively with flooding will receive the highest priority and attention now and in future. This will happen through the development of the proactive CFRAM programme and associated plans as well as the continued significant investment in flood defence capital schemes.

I welcome the moneys. Those moneys were made available before, although I do not doubt the Government's commitment. I was smack bang in the middle of all of it last year when Athlone flooded. I was out, day and night, like others and several Ministers came down to us. I am aware of the Government's commitment. I welcome the remarks of the Minister of State about local dredging in some parts. I also welcome the consideration of lowering Lough Allen. These are remedial works, but I wish they had been carried out before now because people have been talking about this for a long time. At the same time, I welcome the moves.

I also welcome the Be Winter Ready campaign and the information on the website and so on. I have another concern in respect of people living in rural areas, including farmers outside Athlone and further downstream.

Is there any possibility of considering a grant to support them to protect their homes themselves with flood defences? Perhaps the Minister of State would examine that. I thank him for coming to the House to discuss this.

I wish to clarify a number of matters because people continue to say that nothing is being done. By the end of this year there will be 12 major flood relief schemes under construction compared with four in 2015. I agree that there has been much talk about the Shannon and very little action. I assure the Senator that it is my intention to ensure we deliver as quickly as possible.

The important point about Athlone, which might be missed, is that we are advancing those works. We are not waiting for the CFRAM study to be completed. We have brought forward the scheme for Foynes and that is under construction. Works are taking place and they will continue to happen. I pay tribute to all the stakeholders along the Shannon who continue to co-operate with me in trying to deliver as much as we can as quickly as possible.

We can do our best about flooding but we cannot control rainfall. We just must be as prepared as possible for it. On the Senator's point about farmers in isolated rural areas, there are a number of schemes which I mentioned, such as the individual property protection scheme or the minor work schemes, for which the local authorities can apply. A great deal of work has been done in that sphere so far, amounting to €1.7 million. In addition, more than €5 million has been spent on dredging works on tributaries to the Shannon. Works are being carried out continually.

Primary Medical Certificates Eligibility

I again welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath. You are becoming a frequent visitor to the House.

I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to come to the House this morning. The tax relief scheme for the purchase of adapted vehicles for disabled drivers and disabled passengers is instigated by the granting of a primary medical certificate. This is an excellent scheme which makes a huge difference. It is the difference between many disabled people actively participating in their communities and being prisoners in their own homes. It is also the difference between disabled and elderly people being able to attend hospital appointments and not.

In rural constituencies, such as the area I come from in Mayo, there is rarely the option of using public transport. Travelling to University Hospital Galway is a six-hour round trip while travelling to a Dublin hospital is a ten-hour round trip.

I have some simple questions. Why do profoundly and permanently disabled people continue to be discriminated against in the criteria for accessing this scheme? Why are people with upper body disabilities excluded from the scheme? Is equal access to hospitals and other services not important for them?

I can outline three cases that come to mind. The first involves a woman whose arm is amputated to the shoulder. It is not going to grow back. She needs a specially adapted vehicle to get around just as much as if she had lost her leg. She lives on her own and has no other means of transport. Is she not as entitled to access the relief scheme as somebody who has a disability in their lower limbs?

The second case is an eight year old boy who is PEG fed and has severe scoliosis. He is not strong enough to undergo the operations he desperately needs. His parents make frequent trips to Crumlin and other hospitals. They need an adapted vehicle for the long and tiresome journeys they must undertake. Why are they refused access to the relief scheme?

In the third case, Deirdre is a 12 year old girl with a condition called Cornelia de Lange syndrome. She is non-verbal and has complex physical and mental special needs. As Deirdre cannot speak, I will speak for her and her parents, a fisherman and a housewife living in a remote rural area. Given Deirdre’s multiple health problems, they must make continual trips to hospitals and services, such as speech and language therapy, paediatrics, orthodontics, neurology, urology and genetics. Why in heaven's name did they get a letter stating, "Due to the strict criteria laid down for the primary medical certificate you were unsuccessful in obtaining same"?

I beg the Minister of State to put an end to the humiliation and struggle Deirdre and others with profound permanent disabilities are faced with when refused transport simply because their main disability is in their upper limbs. The Minister of State is a man of compassion. He is now in a position to right this wrong. I ask him to re-examine the criteria for this tax relief scheme with the Minister for Finance and stop the discrimination against people with upper limb disabilities. When will the motorised transport grant scheme, which was closed in February 2013, be reinstated?

I thank Senator Conway-Walsh for raising this important issue. I am well aware of her strong support for all people with disabilities. As the new Minister of State with responsibility for disability, I appreciate any support from all the parties because there are times when one must really fight to demand services and also fight for the rights of people with disabilities. I thank the Senator for her support.

My colleague, the Minister for Finance, operates a tax relief scheme for the purchase of adapted vehicles for disabled drivers and disabled passengers. He is also responsible for setting the eligibility criteria for this scheme. The disabled drivers and disabled passengers tax concession scheme, to give its full name, provides relief from VAT and VRT up to a certain limit on the purchase of an adapted car for the transport of a person with specific severe and permanent physical disabilities, payment of a fuel grant, an exemption from motor tax, and an exemption from toll bridge charges. To qualify for the scheme an applicant must he in possession of a primary medical certificate. To qualify for that certificate an applicant must be permanently and severely disabled within the terms of the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers (Tax Concessions) Regulations 1994 and satisfy a range of conditions. The extent of the involvement of health personnel relates to making a professional clinical determination as to whether an individual applicant satisfies the medical criteria. This determination is undertaken by senior medical officers for the relevant local HSE administrative area on behalf of the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners. However, these HSE personnel have no role in setting or amending the criteria. That is the kernel of the issue.

A successful applicant is provided with a primary medical certificate which is required under the regulations to claim the reliefs provided for in the scheme. An unsuccessful applicant can appeal the HSE senior medical officer’s decision to the disabled drivers medical board of appeal, which is under the auspices of the Minister for Finance. The appeals board makes a new clinical determination in respect of the individual. This medical board of appeal is independent in the exercise of its functions to ensure the integrity of its clinical determinations. That is an important point.

As Minister of State with responsibility for people with disabilities, I can have no role to play in the exercise of these functions. I have been informed by the Department of Finance that the criteria to qualify for the scheme are necessarily precise and specific. After six months a citizen may reapply if there is a deterioration in her or his condition. It should also be noted that the scheme represents a significant tax expenditure, with a cost of over €50 million to the Exchequer in 2015, up from over €48 million in 2014. We have to keep our eye on that. There are other people with another agenda in respect of that €50 million.

The Minister for Finance has informed me that he recognises the important role the scheme plays in expanding the mobility of citizens with disabilities. He has managed to maintain the relief at current levels throughout the economic crisis, despite the requirement for significant fiscal consolidation. He has also informed me that from time to time he receives representations from individuals who feel they would benefit from the scheme, but who do not qualify under the six criteria. While he has sympathy for these cases, given the scale and scope of the scheme, he has no plans to expand the medical criteria beyond the six currently provided for.

I am pleased to inform the Senator that the programme for partnership Government acknowledges the ongoing drafting of primary legislation for a new transport support scheme by the Department of Health. Work on the policy proposals in this regard is at an advanced stage and I anticipate this will be brought to Government shortly.

Is the Minister of State saying that we need to change the legislation and, if so, what part can he play in changing it? I appreciate the role of the Department of Finance but we need to get to the bottom of this. If legislation needs to be changed we need to bring that forward. My party will prepare that if it is necessary but I would appreciate the Minister of State's guidance on that. The Minister for Finance's sympathy is of no use in trying to get sick and disabled people to a Galway or Dublin hospital from Mayo. All the sympathy in the world will not do that. We need him to act.

How many appeals have been received by Dún Laoghaire in the past 12 months and how many decisions have been overturned in favour of the applicant? I appreciate it will take some time for the Minister of State to get that information. Time and again people go to Dún Laoghaire and are dismissed. The people who have appealed at the end of the six-month time limit ask what is the point in dragging a sick child all the way to Dún Laoghaire again to be refused. When will the heads of the motorisation grant Bill be produced? Will that be before Christmas and how long after that will it be before a decision is made to make that grant available again?

I thank Senator Conway-Walsh for raising this important issue. I accept her point about the families and the ten-hour trips. She mentioned three genuine cases. Part of my role as Minister of State with responsibility for people with disabilities is to reflect and bring that view in. This issue is covered by the Department of Finance. I have an internal debate going on about that. If legislation needs to be amended that would be part of my remit. My focus is on the person with the disability such as the three cases the Senator mentioned. This is not a question of sympathy but of equality and justice for these families. I have to try to get around the problem. My gut feeling is that the legislation needs to be changed. That would be part of my portfolio. I will follow up on that for the Senator.

I will find the precise information about the appeals and will come back to the Senator with it. I do not have an update. I managed to get the motorised grant into the programme for Government. It is on page 71 and it states: "Work is underway on the drafting of this new legislation for the introduction of a new mobility scheme to assist those with a disability in meeting their increased mobility costs." There are 3,000 or 4,000 people who would fit into that category. I am hopeful of getting that done in the next couple of weeks but the officials are saying before Christmas, to be safe. I want it in the next two weeks but the officials say it will definitely be before Christmas.

We are trying to reinvest in and rebuild the health service. We have had a rough couple of years and the focus has to be on rebuilding the service but as Minister of State with responsibility for people with disabilities I want to get my slice of the cake to progress the issues the Senator raised this morning. I thank her for raising them.

Sitting suspended at 11.16 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.