Commencement Matters

Water and Sewerage Schemes Provision

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I welcome the Minister of State.

I would like to raise the issue of the proposed Milltown group sewerage scheme. Milltown is located north west of Monaghan town and is typical of the outskirts of Monaghan, where ribbon development and unseweraged housing clusters have developed on the periphery of the town. Residents in Milltown recently formed a group sewerage scheme. They employed a consultant engineer and concluded that the most viable and economic option for the group sewerage scheme was to connect to the main sewer by connecting to a nearby existing housing development called Telaydan Heights. Milltown group sewerage scheme consists of approximately 30 domestic members and 32 commercial members. Funding was approved by the Department under the rural water programme for the scheme 2014 to 2015. There were some outstanding legal matters that needed to be addressed and as a result the scheme did not proceed. However, agreement has since been obtained by the group to connect to a local sewer pump in Telaydan Heights.

The Blackwater, which is the largest river in County Monaghan, and one of the most substantial catchments of Ulster, is close by. The houses in the Milltown area of Monaghan are serviced by domestic on-site wastewater treatment systems. The risk of environmental pollution to the Blackwater from these septic tanks is very high due to the age, construction, subsoil conditions, vulnerability and close proximity to the Blackwater River and its catchment streams. Monaghan town and its environs are constructed directly over a regionally important limestone mass which means, in layman's terms, that the Monaghan public water supply comes from that area. It is alarming that the septic tanks, which cause pollution, could be interfering with the water supply there. The Milltown group sewerage scheme's primary aim is to extend the wastewater collection infrastructure to serve the ribbon developments and unseweraged housing clusters within the area. It is a matter of connecting 32 septic tanks, which are problematic, into the main sewer.

Milltown group sewerage scheme proceeded to tender in 2016 with an estimated cost for the full scheme of €358,000. The Department, assisted by an expert panel, reviewed and prioritised group schemes throughout the country under the multi-annual programme for 2016 to 2018. Milltown was a scheme prioritised for funding along with six others throughout the country. It is estimated that 90% funding would be required for this scheme to proceed, as the minimum contribution per household would be €2,250.

There is another scheme where the funding is 75% but that would leave the cost to the householder too expensive and would thus make the whole scheme unviable. That scheme, therefore, requires 90% funding in order that it can proceed to construction stage.

Monaghan County Council's environmental section has done great work on this scheme and fully supports it. It is vitally important that the funding will be allocated, hopefully this year, to this scheme so that the 30 septic tanks can be connected to the main sewer and pollution can cease.

I ask the Minister of State to provide a date for the commencement of this funding. When will the 90% funding be allocated in order to make that happen?

I thank Senator Gallagher for raising this issue in order to bring some clarity to it. My Department’s new multi-annual rural water programme 2016-2018 includes funding of group sewerage schemes, through measure 4(d), where clustering of households on individual septic tanks is not a viable option, particularly from an environmental perspective.

In December 2015, my Department received sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to increase the maximum grant per house to €6,750 - up from €6,500 - to cover a limited number of new demonstration group sewerage schemes, namely, two per year. In addition, sanction was also given for these new demonstration group sewerage schemes, in exceptional circumstances, to avail of a supplemental grant, subject to my Department’s approval, where the project represents the most economically advantageous option. Where a supplemental grant is approved, the overall level of funding from the rural water programme is limited to 90% of the cost per house subject to a minimum contribution of €2,250 per house.

Local authorities were invited in January 2016 to submit bids for consideration by my Department under the new multi-annual rural water programme 2016-2018, as Senator Gallagher mentioned. A proposed Milltown group sewerage scheme was included by Monaghan County Council under measure 4(d). The proposed scheme, with an estimated cost of €280,000, would cover 32 houses and have a unit cost of €8,750 per house.

In total, 83 bids were received from 17 local authorities requesting funding under this measure. Under the new multi-annual funding framework, an expert panel was convened by my Department to examine the 2016 bids from local authorities for projects under a number of the programme’s measures, including measure 4(d), and to make recommendations to the Department on funding. The panel recommended a priority list under this measure, including the Milltown scheme at priority five, and my Department accepted the panel’s recommendations in full when approving the rural water allocations for 2016.

As only two demonstration group sewerage schemes can be advanced in any given year, funding will not be available to Monaghan County Council for the Milltown scheme until 2018, unless a scheme prioritised higher than Milltown by the council is not in a position to be advanced this year, in which case the Milltown scheme would be given a higher priority. It is intended to make interim funding allocations under the programme to the local authorities by the end of March 2017 and any re-prioritisation of the Milltown scheme would be notified to Monaghan County Council at that time. Therefore, it will be the end of the month before we have an update.

An bhfuil tú sásta?

Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá, le do thoil. I thank the Minister of State for his response. He said that no funding will be allocated for the scheme in 2017 and that it would be 2018 at the earliest. I appeal to the Minister of State to re-examine that to see if it is at all possible to issue funding this year. Many local people have gone to a lot of trouble by way of forming companies and employing consultants to make this happen. It will be disappointing for them if it does not proceed in 2017. I ask the Minister of State to reconsider allocating funding for it this year rather than next year.

As I said, we will have a fair idea by the end of March how it stands with the extra plants recommendations. They are independent of the Minister and have made recommendations for priority five, which would lead to funding for 2018. If one of the projects before that drops out, or is re-prioritised in the coming months, there is a chance that it could come into 2017. As it stands today, however, it looks like 2018. If so, most people will be happy that it is coming down the track.

I understand the Senator's request for us to deal with it as urgently as we can, and I will feed that back to our officials, but it is listed as priority five. There are only two per year so unless some other scheme cannot go ahead-----

Can the Minister of State confirm at this stage that 90% funding will be made available for this project?

Local Employment Service

I thank the Minister for taking the time to deal with this matter, which concerns the local employment service. My understanding is that over 300 people are employed in the service. Their role was to assist people to find employment but the one good complaint now is that the number of people who are back at work has increased dramatically. Unemployment has come down from 15.1% to 6.6% and, as a result, they are now complaining that they do not have work and they are concerned about their future role. Those people are anxious to have their role clarified in terms of the workload. My understanding is that as a result of the JobPath programme we are having huge success getting people into employment but the question is about the future for those employed in the service. Where does the Minister see their position in the next two to three years? It is in that context that I raise this issue.

My Department has contracts with 22 local employment service providers for 2017, the same number as 2016. Local employment services, LES, form part of the State’s employment service and funding for the provision of the LES service has been maintained for 2017 at the 2016 levels of €20 million.

The LES is one element of the overall activation service being delivered by my Department, which also includes our own Intreo service and the contracted JobPath service. They each provide unemployed jobseekers with advice and assistance to identify, pursue and secure employment. In addition, local employment services provide activation supports to six other target groups most distant from the labour market including refugees, people with disabilities and Travellers.

Prior to the introduction of Intreo and JobPath, my Department had approximately 300 case officers, which included LES contracted staff, to serve over 460,000 people on the live register. That was equivalent to a case load of over 1,500 jobseekers per case officer as against international benchmarks for best practice in the delivery of such services of less than 200 per case officer.

In developing the Intreo service and introducing JobPath, the total number of case officers has increased to approximately 1,200. Combined with the very welcome reduction in the number of people on the live register - from a peak of over 460,000 in July 2012 to about 275,000 today - the average caseload is now around 230:1.

This reduction in unemployment has also allowed my Department to increase the quality of case officer support to people who face the most difficult challenges in finding employment. These jobseekers are typically long-term unemployed and are dealt with either by the local employment service or by JobPath. In line with international norms, my Department is seeking to maintain the case load for this cohort at no more than 125 per case officer.

In order to achieve this level of case officer support, my Department has reduced the number of people referred to local employment services but has asked the providers to increase the time they allocate to work with each individual jobseeker to provide a more enhanced and higher quality service. This should result in reduced pressure on the service and also an improved level of service for jobseekers, which focuses on quality outcomes.

A customer may be referred to the LES where, following a 12 month engagement with Intreo or JobPath, they are not pursuing an education or training programme or have not secured sustainable employment. As I have indicated, the future role of the local employment service and its employees will have a sharper focus on qualitative outcomes for clients referred by my Department.

I thank the Minister of State for a very comprehensive reply. I note that he is now talking about a lower caseload per person employed in the local employment service. That is welcome. I hope we will continue to get a reduction in unemployment and that by early this year the rate of unemployment will be down to 6%.

Again, I thank the Minister of State for his response which the people employed in the local employment service will be happy with.

Flood Prevention Measures

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis as teacht isteach inniu. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney, for taking the time on 21 February to meet with the residents in Portrane, an area where I was a GP for many years. Councillor Tom O'Leary, who represented me on the day, was very impressed with the practical advice offered by the Minister of State and his stated commitment on camera to fund works at this location under the minor works programme. I understand applications of up to €500,000 can be considered. However, this issue has been ongoing for too long. The local residents are extremely worried, frustrated and angry that no action has been taken to deal with their plight, namely, the real risk to their homes from flooding by the nearby sea. The residents have been responding proactively to try to defend their homes from the sea and feel abandoned by the authorities. They installed many temporary one tonne sandbags in order to protect the boardwalk, which has now washed away.

When I was a Deputy and Minister for Health, I met with residents and the then Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Brian Hayes. Following on from the meeting, an allocation of €200,000 was approved for The Burrow in Portrane under a national plan to deal with flood risk and damage. Nothing practical or real has happened since then. Reports have been written but real action to deal with the serious threats seems to be at a stalemate. I regret to say the only wall that cannot seem to be breached at The Burrow in Portrane is the wall of red tape stopping local residents from getting fair treatment and works to protect their homes.

The local residents' committee hears of flood defence works being approved at other locations and cannot understand why The Burrow in Portrane cannot get similar funding and works carried out to deal with the threat to their homes from the sea. Ray Brett, who the Minister of State met recently on his visit to The Burrow, explained to him that €1 million was approved and spent in Lahinch on a similar sensitive habitat area and is asking that such a scheme would be considered for The Burrow in Portrane. The installation of a membrane dug down 6 m and backfilled to protect the toe and sand dunes seems an environmentally practical solution, which was approved and has been proven in Lahinch.

In 2015, Fingal County Council advised a local Portrane family to evacuate their home. I am sure the Minister of State would acknowledge that is a very serious matter. I ask him, in a positive manner, to try to progress a solution. I know the Minister of State wants to do that. The issue requires a permanent solution. Has Fingal County Council contacted him or the Department since his visit to The Burrow in Portrane on 21 February, two weeks ago? In order to bring some sort of finality or deadline to the issue, could I suggest or encourage the Minister of State to write to the council CEO, Paul Reid, and ask Fingal County Council to produce a plan for consideration by his officials within four weeks? I suggest that in one week or two weeks following that, the Department would facilitate a round-table meeting with officials from the OPW, the National Parks & Wildlife Service, Fingal County Council and three members of the Fingal coastal erosion committee in order to agree an acceptable plan that could be considered for approval by the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, in his capacity as Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW.

If action is not taken, homes will be flooded and under threat, roads will be flooded and the natural habitat and dunes we all want to protect will be gone. It is time to knock heads together, which I know the Minister of State wants to do. As a practical man who has dealt with such issues as a public representative, I hope he will agree to setting up this process and arrive at a solution, which I am told he is anxious to fund.

Can I plead that the residents not be subjected to another winter of inaction and uncertainty in regard to the safety of their homes?

I thank Senator Reilly for raising this important issue. I am familiar with the case. As the Senator said, I visited Burrow Beach and Portrane on 21 February to view at first hand the impact that coastal erosion is having on the area. As I stated at the time, my office has surveyed and assessed the coastal erosion risk along the entire national coastline, as part of the Irish Coastal Protection Strategy Study, ICPSS. This information has been published and is available to all local authorities.

The study enables local authorities to develop appropriate plans and strategies for the sustainable management of the coastline in their counties, including the identification, prioritisation and, subject to the availability of resources, the implementation of coastal protection works of a structural and non-structural nature. My office supports and assists intervention management options which are economically justified on cost-benefit grounds and are environmentally sound.

Fingal County Council is working hard to identify viable solutions to the erosion problem at Portrane and I look forward to receiving proposals from the council in due course. The Office of Public Works, OPW, operates the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme, under which applications for funding from local authorities are considered for measures costing up to €500,000 in each instance. Funding for coastal erosion risk management studies may also be applied for under this scheme. Funding of up to 90% of the cost is available for projects which meet the eligibility criteria, including a requirement that the proposed measures are cost beneficial.

Fingal County Council applied for and was approved funding of €57,800 under this scheme in 2012 to carry out a coastal erosion risk management study of Portrane to Rush which included Burrow Beach. The funding was drawn down in 2013 following completion of the study. Following the severe storms of winter 2013-14, funding of €200,000 was provided by the OPW to Fingal County Council under the Government decision on repair works to damaged coastal protection infrastructure which included projects at Burrow Beach.

Coastal erosion is a natural and ongoing process which takes place around the entire coastline. Coastal erosion may threaten human life, infrastructure such as roads and may undermine and cause damage to properties. However, it should be recognised that coastal erosion also has beneficial effects on the local environment, such as providing natural nourishment and a supply of sediment to adjacent beaches.

The primary objective of Government policy on coastal protection is to ensure that in areas identified as being at greatest risk of damage or loss of economic assets through coastal erosion or flooding, appropriate and sustainable measures are identified by local authorities to protect those assets and, where such measures are economically justified on cost-benefit grounds and compatible with all required environmental and other statutory requirements, they are implemented subject to the availability of resources.

Local authorities may carry out coastal protection works using their own resources. If necessary, they may also put forward proposals to the relevant central Departments for funding of appropriate measures depending on the infrastructure or assets under threat. As intervention within a coastal area may cause problems further along the coast, any proposed intervention measures are best developed in conjunction with a formal coastal erosion risk management study which has carefully investigated the problem and explored the full range of management options. The OPW has published guidelines for coastal erosion risk management measures and funding applications under the minor works scheme are available. I assure the Senator that the OPW will continue to work with Fingal County Council to address coastal erosion issues in the county over coming years, having regard to availability of resources and in the context of the framework for State investment in this area that I have outlined.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I am sure he shares my frustration and that of the residents that funding of €67,000 has been drawn down in order to have a study completed. The study has been done, but no action has been taken. People are living in fear of their homes. There is a risk that if flooding occurs and defences are breached, it will affect low-lying land, cut off a large area of recreation and separate 20 or 30 houses from the rest of the peninsula.

I am glad the Minister of State mentioned Rush because there is erosion on that beach. I live in the area and I see the changes on a daily basis. I plead with the Minister of State to help me to put pressure on to make sure we get a result.

We have spent the money on the studies. There is no more time now for further vacillation; we need action. While I accept there is a need for an overall approach to coastal erosion, it is not going to be sufficient to say to the people in Portrane and, to a lesser extent, those in Rush, that we should wait for a country-wide coastal study before any action is taken. The members of one family, in particular, are in fear that their house will fall into the sea. We do not want that on our conscience.

I hear what Senator Reilly is saying. The national protection strategy is in place. When I met the residents in Portrane, I said to them that the local authority is best placed to make an application. If the local authority needs assistance from the Office of Public Works in dealing with that application or the issues that may arise, then, by all means, my office is available to assist it. On 22 February representatives from Fingal County Council were to meet local residents and local authority members to discuss the options available or to set up what might be an implementation committee.

Our door is open. When I came into office, I wrote to all the chief executives in the local authorities to invite them to make applications for minor works schemes. We have money and we want to be able to spend it on works that we can get done as quickly as possible, as in the case of this particular issue. I have seen the damage to the walkway and the debris strewn around the beach. It is not the way things should be left. The Office of Public Works will work closely with the Fingal County Council in that regard.

Thank you, Minister of State. Perhaps Senator Reilly will talk to his local councillors to see if he can pressurise them to move it on.

Ambulance Service Provision

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Up to 1.2 million people across Dublin depend on the Dublin Fire Brigade emergency medical services. Dubliners proudly support Dublin Fire Brigade. This is evident from the rally that took place last night outside City Hall, Dublin. Those at the rally were supported by each grouping on the council, including the group of the Minister's party, Fine Gael.

In fact, Dubliners have proudly supported Dublin Fire Brigade since its inception. It is the oldest uniformed organisation in the country. In 1705, for the first time, four mechanical units were given to fight fire in the city. In 1898, what we know today as the Dublin fire rescue and emergency ambulance service was established in Winetavern Street in the Liberties in Dublin 8. It has continued, unbroken service to the people of Dublin since then.

Senior management at Dublin City Council, led by the chief executive, Mr. Owen Keegan, has decided to change this. They have decided to fix what is not broken. They are going to break it up and they want to remove the ambulance call and dispatch function. Cén fáth? Why would this be the case? Why disrupt an incredible, efficient and necessary service?

Members of the fire brigade are present today. The rest of them are out fighting and saving lives. They are first responders. They have come because they are so incensed by what is going on and how they are being treated, especially by Dublin City Council. They are highly-trained paramedics. They use emergency vehicles and operate a highly-efficient and dedicated call and dispatch centre that consolidates all fire and emergency calls. The linkage of the call and dispatch centre with paramedics and emergency vehicles means that both ambulances and fire and rescue vehicles can be sent simultaneously to situations where they are required. We have car crashes daily from early morning to late at night. The current set-up means that fire operations can also act as emergency cover if the ambulance is not available.

When we make or receive 999 calls as nurses, the fire brigade comes to the rescue of people in need 90% of the time. Dublin Fire Brigade provides a world-class service and has the second fastest response time in Europe. Its gold standard model has been adopted in Berlin, Tokyo and Paris. The fire service in London sent staff to Dublin to conduct research on this model and is about to implement the same service. Lo and behold, on a whim, the CEO of Dublin City Council, Mr. Owen Keegan, using a reserved function, has decided to take this away.

The Minister of State will refer to the HIQA report and its findings regarding the improvement in ambulance response times throughout the city and county, but he must recognise that the expert report dealt adequately with all of the queries, difficulties, scenarios and nuances with which HIQA came up and that there is no need for HIQA to implement its report. That could be recognised by HIQA, but it certainly needs to be recognised by the Minister of State and the senior Minister. It is imperative that this service be retained. I ask the Minister to address the dispute and avert the final option of two days of strike action. The industrial action would spread nationwide. First responders are respected, as are all 24-hour emergency service staff, including nurses, doctors and gardaí. They are the essential fabric of this society and Dubliners are proud to support the fire officers who will be supported by every last man, woman and child in the city if they choose to take industrial action.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I welcome the fire service staff who are present and commend them for their work.

I am grateful to the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister of Health who offers his apologies, to provide an update for the House on the current discussions about ambulance services in Dublin. The HIQA report on ambulance services which was published in December 2014 highlighted significant public safety issues arising from two ambulance services operating in the same domain. The report identified concerns about the existence of two separate control and dispatch processes and also highlighted the need for greater clinical governance of both services. It pointed clearly to the need for enhanced integration of service provision in the greater Dublin area.

The capacity review published last year examined overall ambulance resource levels and distribution against demand and activity. It identified deficits in ambulance capacity, including in the Dublin area. It also identified the requirement for the migration of all call taking and the dispatch of ambulances in Dublin to the National Emergency Operations Centre to ensure a safer and more responsive service. We all agree that we want such a service. Implementation of the recommendations made in the capacity review requires a multi-annual programme of phased investment in ambulance manpower, vehicles and technology. To this end, increased funding has been made available for ambulance services in the HSE national service plan 2017. New resources will go into the services this year.

The Dublin ambulance services review which was jointly commissioned by the HSE and Dublin City Council is focused on identifying a service model for the optimal provision of emergency ambulance services and patient care in the Dublin region, including service quality, patient safety, capacity and value for money. Late last week a copy of the final review, as well as a joint HSE and Dublin City Council implementation plan, was submitted to the Department's Secretary General. The report and implementation plan are under consideration. Departmental officials are engaging with their counterparts in the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government on the report and implementation plan, with a view to agreeing a position on the appropriate way forward prior to the submission of the report and a proposed approach to their respective Ministers.

With regard to the expert panel referred to by the Senator, my information is that following publication of the HIQA report in 2014, Dublin City Council established a trade union consultative forum to work towards securing agreement on a model of operation to address the recommendations made in the report. The forum established an expert panel which prepared a report that provided an alternative proposal on call taking and dispatch functions. It is understood the expert panel proposed a technical solution to link the Dublin Fire Brigade call centre with the National Emergency Operations Centre. The Department of Health has been advised that the various options for call taking and dispatch were examined by the Health Service Executive and Dublin City Council in the context of preparation of the implementation plan.

I am disappointed at media reports this morning that strike notice has been served on Dublin City Council. The action proposed is not in the best interests of patients who would be better served through engagement to reach agreement on a way forward. I urge everyone involved in the process to do so.

I dispute and reject the emotional blackmail being directed at 24/7 first responders. It is similar to what occurred when nurses voted to strike. The only interest shown at the time was in who had died. The Minister of State takes a similar line in arguing that only patients will suffer. Firefighters do not take industrial action lightly. They have been forced into doing so and the Minister of State should not use emotional language when discussing the dispute. His response contained many anomalies.

If the Senator will bear with me for one moment, I will explain the position. The Minister of State is speaking on behalf of the senior Minister.

That is unfortunate.

Two of my sons are firefighters and I understand where they are coming from. However, a time limit applies to contributions.

I ask the Minister of State to take note of the emotional language used in the reply he gave. He indicated that departmental officials had engaged with Dublin City Council and the HSE on the back of the HIQA report. Why are they not engaging with the experts and professionals working at the coalface who know about value for money? They also know what response is needed for patients and their families in this city. Why did Dublin City Council use its reserved function to collapse the negotiations that had been taking place for two years? No explanation was given for the collapse of the talks in January. Trade unions cannot be prevented from using their strength and taking industrial action. The Minister of State has indicated that the expert panel report was examined. It is obvious that the expert panel was not listened to and that we are coasting along in the hope the issue will not be raised in this Chamber or resolved for the good of Dublin and society as a whole.

As I stated, the Minister of State is substituting for the line Minister and may not have all of the answers.

In that case, this discussion is pointless.

I reject the Senator's comments on the use of emotional blackmail. I commended the work of Dublin Fire Brigade and welcomed firefighters to the Seanad. I am well aware of the great work they do, but I would like them to become more directly involved and engage with the issues. Like the Senator, I am a former Dublin city councillor and familiar with the current city manager, having dealt with him on many issues. There is no coasting along in this dispute. I will convey the Senator's views and concerns to the Minister.

The Minister of State and I listened to the impassioned case made by Senator Máire Devine. I am sure the Minister of State will convey her sentiments to the senior Minister.

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