Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Medical Card Administration

I raise this matter because, over time, it has dawned on me that what is happening seems to be unfair and inequitable. If one gets sick with a serious illness, obviously one's income will not match the outlay for treatment. That outlay is €800 for any inpatient treatment over 12 consecutive months. I have been helping patients to apply for medical cards because they have been given bad news about the state of their health and what they need to do. The Minister of State will be aware that it takes time for medical cards to be declined, issued or appealed. Another issue that needs to be explored is trying to keep the interim guys at bay until a decision is made about medical card applications. As patients are granted medical cards that do not apply retrospectively to the date of application, the forms that they fill in about their income and outgoings do not take into account the additional costs of being sick such as transport, medication, different diets or whatever else. Those forms are sent in at the time patients realise they are sick and need a medical card. The medical card takes weeks, if one is lucky, to be granted and, if it is granted, it is dated from the time the decision is made, as opposed to retrospectively when the patient began receiving treatment from the health service.

Will the Minister of State examine this issue? I have asked the HSE whether it retains data. This is about the interactions between the medical card section and the finance section of the HSE which issues bills. It is grossly unfair. When someone applies for other benefits or supports from the State at times of need, they are applied retrospectively to the time of application. It is from the time the decision is made in this case. I am interested in the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. As she will be aware, under the Health Act 1970, as amended, eligibility for health services is based primarily on residency and means. The Act provides that all persons ordinarily resident in the country are eligible, subject to certain charges, to public inpatient hospital services. The current public hospital statutory inpatient charge is €80 per day, subject to a maximum of €800 in any period of 12 consecutive months, while the outpatient charge for attendance at an emergency department is €100.

All persons accessing an emergency department and public inpatient services in a public hospital are liable for the statutory charges, subject to a number of exemptions, including where a person is a medical cardholder. While medical cardholders are exempt from hospital charges, the exemption is only valid from the date of issue of the medical card. Patients, therefore, continue to be liable for any charge which occurred before a medical card has been issued. It should be noted that in cases where patients who are terminally ill, in palliative care or are seriously ill and in urgent need of medical care that they cannot afford, the HSE has an effective system in place for the provision of emergency medical cards. They are issued within 24 hours of receipt of the required patient details and the letter of confirmation of the condition from a doctor or medical consultant. Given the nature and urgency of the issue, the HSE which has responsibility for the national medical card unit has appropriate escalation routes to ensure the person gets the emergency medical card as quickly as possible.

I fully understand the sentiment behind the raising of this issue, but I am sure the Senator can appreciate that not every application for a medical card will be approved.

The national medical card unit receives approximately 39,000 medical card and GP visit card applications each month. A large percentage of these will be deemed to be unsuccessful for reasons such as the provision of insufficient information or a failure to meet the qualifying means threshold. Therefore, the exemption from hospital charges is only valid from the date of issue of the medical card. This position is in compliance with the legislative framework. It is important to note that every effort is made to process medical card applications as quickly as possible in order to ensure those who are eligible do not encounter a financial barrier to accessing healthcare. In that regard, the national medical card unit has consistently met its key performance target, which is to have 95% of complete medical card applications assessed for eligibility within 15 days. I have been assured that there are currently no delays in the processing of medical card applications.

I hope this clarifies the matter for the Senator. I assure her that the charging of fees and the processing of the medical card applications operate in a fair manner within a legislative framework.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Unfortunately, I do not think it is what is needed. We need to look at the applications. The Minister of State has stated almost 40,000 applications are made each month and that many are deemed to be invalid for one reason or another. We need to get data in order to be satisfied that we are going in the right direction. The main point I am making is that there is a need for fairness and equality in retrospectively accessing health or other social welfare benefits that are afforded to those in need. Retrospective access is possible when every other type of application is made for supports or benefits, but it is not possible in the case of medical cards. One could have a great deal of intensive inpatient treatment over a 15-day period. In many cases, the period is even longer because people have to reapply or obtain additional information they were unable to provide in the first instance. Vulnerable persons with serious medical conditions do not need this extra hassle. I am of the view that what is happening is discriminatory.

While I acknowledge the point the Senator is making, I emphasise that one does not need to be sick or be going to hospital in order to apply for a medical card. People are free to apply for medical cards on any given day and at any given time. They are encouraged to do so. Decisions are based on people's means. Many individuals make applications long before they go near a hospital or receive treatment. I have outlined the emergency procedures that allow decisions to be made within 24 hours as long as sufficient documentation is available. I am not sure changing the entire system to accommodate perhaps two or three people who are caught in the scenario the Senator is talking about can be justified. I do not want to put a number on it.

It would be much more than two or three.

As a percentage, it would be minuscule-----

That is why we need the data.

If we were to change the entire system for everybody, it would have substantial financial consequences for the health service. It is all very well to say this would be a good idea, but from where would we take the money? Should we take it from the nursing home sector or the mental health sector? At the end of the day, we have a finite budget. We have to take all of these factors into consideration when we examine proposals of this nature.

I am sure the Senator will raise the matter again.

Hospitals Building Programme

I know that the Minister of State is familiar with the vital projects in counties Leitrim and Roscommon that I am raising. One of the most comprehensive programmes of investment in public nursing home facilities in the history of the State was unveiled under the previous Fine Gael-led Government. As part of a €400 million investment programme, 33 existing nursing home facilities are being replaced, while a further 57 facilities are being refurbished or extended. Before this breakthrough announcement, many communities feared that some nursing home facilities would be closed because of a failure to meet the required HIQA standards. Naturally, this caused a great deal of concern among communities across the country. This significant funding programme means that such closures will not happen.

The excellence of the care received at many of these nursing homes must always be acknowledged. However, the physical environment requires substantial improvements, as the Minister of State is aware. The biggest beneficiaries of this funding in my region are St. Patrick's Hospital in Carrick-on-Shannon which has received €16 million for a new 90-bed community hospital and Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon town which has received €9 million for a new 50-bed unit. There has been some concern recently about the identification of a site for the new St. Patrick's Hospital in Carrick-on-Shannon. One site that had previously been earmarked for the project fell through because of concerns about potential flooding. I understand a preferred site has now been selected. The Minister of State might be able to shed some light on when this site will be purchased to allow the project to be advanced. The upgrade project at Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon will involve an extensive refurbishment of the building to provide residents' accommodation in en suite, single and two-bed rooms, with suitable communal space and sanitary facilities. I understand there are difficulties in getting these projects up and running from a management point of view. I would be grateful if the Minister of State could outline a timeline for the planning and design elements of the projects, both of which are very important for counties Roscommon and Leitrim.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and giving me an opportunity to update the House on the provision of community nursing units at St. Patrick's Hospital in Carrick-on-Shannon and Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon. The Government's overarching policy is to support older people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. While the standard of care delivered to residents in public units is generally very high, we recognise that many community hospitals are housed in buildings that are less than ideal in the modern context. Without those buildings, however, many older people would not have access to the care they need. It is important for us to upgrade the public bed stock. That is the aim of the five-year capital investment programme for community nursing units which was announced in 2016. The programme provides the framework for an enhanced programme of replacing, upgrading and refurbishing care facilities, as appropriate. Significant work has been undertaken to determine the optimum scheduling of projects within the phased provision of funding to achieve compliance and registration with HIQA.

Sacred Heart Hospital and care home in Roscommon has 95 beds. It is registered with HIQA and has an excellent reputation as a care facility. It provides 80 long-term care beds for older people and 15 short-term palliative, rehabilitation and respite care beds. It is intended to provide a replacement 50-bed unit at the hospital and refurbish or upgrade some of the existing complex to meet the required standards. Preparatory work on the project brief, site selection, option appraisal and cost estimates has been completed. The project has been approved by the HSE's national property steering group, subject to funding. It is hoped to commence the design process in 2019.

St. Patrick's Hospital in Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim, is registered with HIQA and can accommodate a maximum of 46 people. It comprises long-term beds, a specialist dementia unit and short-term palliative and respite care beds. The preferred site for the proposed new build at St. Patrick's Hospital has been approved for purchase, subject to planning, by the HSE national property steering group. The legal agreement is being finalised. The design team has been instructed to commence the design process. The capital plan provides for funding to commence design following the purchase of the site.

All stages of capital projects, including the design and tendering processes, are subject to review to ensure they deliver value for money. Where possible, this includes future proofing to ensure capital developments meet current standards, as well as provision for additional capacity, improved equipping, or both. All of these factors need to be addressed appropriately. The health capital allocation in 2019 is €567 million for the construction and equipping of health facilities. Following the publication of the HSE national service plan for 2019, the HSE is developing its capital plan for 2019. Health capital projects, including community nursing unit developments in Roscommon and Carrick-on-Shannon, will be considered in this context.

I thank the Minister of State. I am delighted that the Government is fully committed to upgrading nursing homes, especially St. Patrick's Hospital in Carrick-on-Shannon and Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon. I would like to mention something I have noticed during my involvement with various developments, including the development of an endoscopy unit at Roscommon University Hospital. If I had not sat in on many of the meetings of the management team, the design team and the various stakeholders, I would not have realised how much work had to go into developments of this kind. There are meetings every week. The management personnel at hospitals and nursing homes have to sacrifice an awful lot of their time and energy when things like this are happening. While I know that the Government can provide funding, I am concerned to ensure we can get enough people together to work with all stakeholders at Sacred Heart Hospital and St. Patrick's Hospital. We should be aware that when people are very busy, they sometimes do not have time to plan for the future. I would never have realised the serious workload they faced. I thank everybody I dealt with in Roscommon hospital. They went beyond the call of duty to get these projects up and running. Many people, including officials in the Department, sometimes fail to realise hospital staff have to work extremely hard.

The Senator has his finger on the pulse with regard to all hospital issues in Roscommon.

There is no doubt about it.

If anyone could, Senator Feighan could write a book on the politics of hospitals, that is, he could write about getting them right. He had a great success story in Roscommon County Hospital. It was tough and arduous and many of us on the sidelines admired his tenacity in the face of a lot of opposition. He was on the side of right, for which politicians are not always renowned. I am delighted that these two projects are progressing. As long as I am the Minister of State in charge of community hospitals, I will certainly do my bit to ensure both projects, as committed to here on the floor of the House, get to design stage and are progressed on that basis.

That is positive news for Senator Feighan. Next we have Senator Tim Lombard. I see that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, is waiting patiently in the wings to take this Commencement matter.

Ferry Services Provision

I welcome the former Senator Ross to his alma mater.

This morning I have tabled a Commencement matter for the attention of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. In the light of Irish Ferries' plan to reduce its services through Rosslare Europort I ask the Minister to clarify the national strategy to promote the viability of trade routes between southern Ireland and the Continent. I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. It is an important debate that we will have about the viability of these routes, particularly from the southern half of Ireland to the Continent. One might ask why a Senator from Cork would raise the issue of services from Rosslare. The news that the route to France, particularly for commercial trade, is to be curtailed is very serious. Let us consider the town of Castletownbere in the southern half of Ireland. Some 2,500 articulated trucks leave it every year. They will now have to go to Dublin. We do not need extra traffic passing through Dublin. Their route always passed through Rosslare to the Continent. They carried fish, particularly whitefish. As it is the largest whitefish port in Ireland, access to trade routes is a very important issue. That is a really core issue for us, particularly in the light of Brexit. For any route to be curtailed is a big issue, but for this route to be curtailed is a major issue for us on the southern side of the island.

We really need to examine how we can have a viable trade route to the Continent that does not involve taking all of our goods up the M50 and through Dublin. When I was Mayor of County Cork in 2012, we lost the Cork-Swansea ferry service. It was a real loss to us as a community. It took us until the establishment of the Wild Atlantic Way to see recovery. The ferry service was a really important tourism link between us and Wales and a major loss to our community.

We need to plan ways to support and develop these trade routes and to get access. Access to markets is so important. These access routes are literally lifelines for us. We have a major fishing trade, a major agricultural trade, pharmaceutical businesses and many other industries in the south. All of our produce is now going through Dublin Port. From the Minister's point of view, it does not make logical sense. We need to promote the ports. Not only do we need to promote ports like Rosslare; the Port of Cork, in particular, needs to be promoted. We need to ensure viable trade routes out of the Port of Cork to the Continent. We have trade links through Brittany Ferries. That firm is very valuable, particularly at weekends when it serves as a tourism route. There is also a route to Spain. However, we need to promote more if we can. The more access to markets we have the better we will do as a society. Developing routes is a major issue, particularly on the southern side of the island.

I appreciate the Senator's concerns for his community and understand his interests. I emphasise that we are talking mostly about Irish Ferries which is a commercial company. It operates passenger services between Ireland, Britain and France under the flag of Cyprus or the Bahamas. Any decision taken by the company to change how it operates is a commercial decision by it. Irish Ferries has announced that it is unlikely to have a ferry service from Rosslare to France in 2019. However, the new Irish Ferries vessel serving Ireland and France, the WB Yeats, will substantially increase freight capacity above current levels. It will also increase its summer tourism capacity by 20%. A second and larger ship, costing €165 million and slated for delivery in 2020, will further increase the company's freight capacity. Currently, Stena Line operates three weekly journeys to Cherbourg from Rosslare and is an important transport service for the south-east region. From a tourism perspective, while it mainly facilitates Irish tourists holidaying in France, it also brings French and other European tourists to the south-east region.

Rosslare Europort is targeting growth and new business opportunities and recently received the approval of the Iarnród Éireann board for a strategic plan to grow the port’s business, including investment plans for up to €25 million in customer facilities, port infrastructure, port assets and new technology. The port is engaging with a number of potential new shipping customers to supplement existing operators and offer greater choice to freight and passenger business. Iarnród Éireann and Rosslare Europort briefed my Department late last year on the company's plans for strategic development of the port in the coming years. There is also ongoing engagement between the Department and the port on the implications of Brexit and the port's future development potential as a vital part of the country’s trading infrastructure.

The Irish Maritime Development Office, IMDO, is the shipping sector’s statutory dedicated development and promotional agency. It has a number of initiatives to support the development of the shipping industry generally. It pursues its promotional activities, supported by the Department, as appropriate, through direct marketing, including contact through the embassy network and holding information seminars for the industry. In addition, a range of beneficial fiscal reliefs are in place for the shipping sector with EU state aid approval. They include tonnage tax, a refund to employers of social insurance contributions related to seagoing employees and a unique income tax allowance for seafarers at sea for more than 161 days.

The Government also has a number of initiatives in the area of maritime education, providing grants through the IMDO for the training of seafarers. Through the IMDO, my Department regularly meets shipping companies and continues to encourage and support owners in establishing new shipping services here. The Irish market for shipping services is highly competitive and provides a diverse range of maritime links into and out of the State and to the UK and continental Europe. These links are frequent and competitive and vital to facilitate trade and tourism. More than 20 shipping operators provide scheduled shipping services from Ireland. They include companies providing year-round scheduled passenger services between Ireland and the UK and France.

The shipping industry has shown itself to be responsive to market demand. Ireland has low barriers to entry in its shipping and ports sectors, making it relatively easy for new routes to be opened where they are viable and for additional capacity to be added on existing routes. In 2017 Brittany Ferries commenced a new service between Cork, Roscoff in France and Santander in Spain, with return sailing twice weekly. In 2018 additional capacity was introduced by Irish Ferries, CldN, Cobelfret and Brittany Ferries. All shipping companies servicing routes to and from Ireland operate as independent commercial companies. The services are market-driven. In the past ferry operators have responded to economic developments and increased or decreased capacity in response to these developments. Any new initiative to enhance shipping services must continue to be market-driven.

The Senator may ask a very brief supplementary question.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response on the state of the shipping industry and how we are supporting the market. From my point of view, it is about creating access, particularly from the southern half of Ireland. I mentioned Cork Port. I saw the results in 2012 when we lost the ferry service. I saw what it did to our industries, whether haulage or tourism. There is an opportunity, particularly for Cork Port and the region of Cork, to develop another route from Cork to France. It does not even need to be run on a daily basis. It could perhaps be run every second day. We need to examine that issue.

Brittany Ferries has been very good to Cork Port in the last few decades, particularly in the past 30 years.

We must engage with these entities to see if we can promote more services from Cork to France in order that we can have the viable trade route that we need for our goods.

Brexit could alter the position also.

I will bear in mind what the Senator has said when I am talking to the ferry companies.

Community Employment Schemes Review

I thank the Minister for attending. I understand she proposes to establish an interdepartmental group to examine the future of community employment schemes with a view to ring-fencing social inclusion places and allowing services in communities to be maintained. Fianna Fáil is a strong supporter of, and advocate for, community employment schemes. One of the first schemes was started in my constituency. The programmes not only benefit participants but also the community by providing essential services.

One of the stakeholders that relies on the schemes, Graiguecullen Parish CLG, contacted me because it had requested a meeting with the Minister to share its concerns about the scheme, as it stands, and its ideas for improving the scheme for all concerned. However, it never heard from or had a meeting with the Minister. An approach was adopted in 2017 whereby all CE placements were categorised into two strands: social inclusion - to acknowledge that not all community employment places were the same and to provide an opportunity for those who were very distant from the labour market to work and deliver services to local communities - and job activation, which is more directly related to employment opportunities for the long-term unemployed. My concern is that since coming into government almost eight years ago, Fine Gael has concentrated more on the job activation element of the community employment schemes and not valued or appreciated the important social inclusion element and the vital role it plays. That is the strand many stakeholders are interested in retaining and expanding.

It is heartening that the Minister intends to engage in a special examination of the social inclusion element and all the benefits it brings. It is time that this was done. Does the Minister intend to meet the stakeholders as part of the examination in order to ensure any reorganisation of the community employment scheme can be holistic and sensitive to the needs of all the participants? There are over 20,000 participants in community employment schemes but only 30% to 40% of the placements are categorised as social inclusion. We are returning to having lower numbers on the live register and I am concerned that because the number of community employment scheme places is linked with those numbers, an unintended consequence could be a reduction in the number of schemes available to people who need them and to communities that need the help. I am aware that the Minister supports this valuable service and the much-needed opportunities provided to allow all individuals who might not work otherwise to contribute to their local towns and villages, especially in rural communities.

Graiguecullen Parish CLG has been in existence since the early 1990s. Fr. Sean Kelly, the parish priest in Graiguecullen, came up with the idea of people working in their community while claiming social welfare support. A small group of parishioners got together to seek opportunities within the community to create employment by developing local resources such as sports activities, providing support for the elderly and maintaining schools in the community, thereby giving people a sense of identity and belonging. Following many meetings with the Minister of the day, Graiguecullen had the first pilot programme in Ireland for what was then a FÁS scheme. It continued to grow and there were many benefits from the years of this important scheme being available. In recent years the age profile of people applying for the community employment scheme there has increased. Currently, 12 participants are over the age of 55 years, while five are over the age of 60. After a year in receipt of qualifying social welfare payments, people aged 55 years and over can remain on the community employment scheme for a maximum of three consecutive years. After this period, it may be possible to requalify for a community employment scheme following a further year in receipt of a qualifying social welfare payment.

According to the community employment scheme procedure manual, a person aged 55 years and over should be given access to training and development and supported in addressing any barrier to employment. Graiguecullen has identified issues with the system in that, while it offers access to training and development, many participants over 55 years of age do not wish to take up a course or feel they do not have the capability to return to education. Graiguecullen interprets this as allowing participants over 55 years of age to remain on CE for three years and that while they are given access to training and development, they do not have to participate in it. The Department's interpretation only allows participants one year on the scheme unless they are undertaking the Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, accredited training leading to a major award.

Graiguecullen Parish CLG has asked me to appeal to the Minister to ensure that in her review participants over the age of 55 years will be allowed a maximum of three years without training and development requirements. We all know that those who are over 55 years do not find work easily. They are often early school leavers. According to the community employment scheme procedure manual, those aged 62 years and over and who are recruited under the service support scheme pilot initiative may remain on a community employment scheme continuously up to State pension age and be given access to training and development and supported in addressing any barrier to employment. The Graiguecullen scheme is allowed to have three participants aged 62 years and over. It advises me that it believes any participant aged 60 years and over, not 62 years, should be able to remain on a community employment scheme continuously up to the State pension age, with an increase in the number allowed on each scheme. Recently, it had two participants who were over 60 years of age who had to go back into the jobseeker system, even though they wanted to continue to work on the scheme. It is hard to find a job at that age.

I could say a great deal more. I realise how important the scheme is to the Minister and appreciate the work she is doing. Can she examine these cases? In addition to Graiguecullen, I have met many people in Carlow who are on community employment schemes and have asked me if they could be left on them. It gives them a sense of community and pride.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to respond. If the Cathaoirleach will indulge me, I wish to welcome the pupils from St. Paul's national school in my home village of Ratoath who are in the Visitors Gallery. I welcome them to democracy in action.

The Senator will be aware that the Department operates a number of employment support programmes which have a significant social inclusion focus across communities, including the community employment, job initiative and rural social schemes. These schemes are delivered by local sponsoring groups, development companies and, in Gaeltacht areas, Údarás na Gaeltachta. The community employment programme has been running since 1994, the jobs initiative scheme since 1996 and the rural social scheme since 2004. All pf these schemes are well embedded in community areas nationally and engaged in significant levels of service support and delivery. It is my strong view that the local services which are supported by these placements should be safeguarded into the future. Currently, they are not. That is why I sought the agreement of the Government to establish an interdepartmental group to explore the most appropriate organisational arrangements, including which Department should host the community employment social inclusion placements which include drug rehabilitation and childcare community employment schemes, as well as the rural social and job initiative schemes.

It is important to emphasise that when the community employment scheme was established, it was, first and foremost, an active labour market programme. It was designed to assist targeted unemployed individuals to return to employment. Its aim was to provide excellent work experience, as well as training and development that would assist a person participating in the scheme to achieve sustainable employment. It does that, but it also does much more. Since its establishment, the community employment scheme has since been categorised into two strands, namely, social inclusion and activation. The social inclusion placements are more suited to adults who need extra support to be able to work in their communities. They can be older workers, persons with disabilities, Travellers, homeless people, refugees, those requiring drug rehabilitation and ex-offenders leaving prison who need to be supported. The expected pace of progression from a social inclusion placement is much slower than the pace we would expect from an activation or employment and training perspective.

Since being appointed as Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, one of the more enjoyable parts of my job has been travelling throughout the country and meeting the people who are running community employment schemes and, more importantly, the people who are participating in them. For me, the community employment shcme is as much about supporting progress into gainful employment in the community as it is about providing self-esteem, value in the local and social economy and inclusivity. It is about the people who are on the margins of either an age profile or a stage in their life because of some difficulties they have had. It is about supporting and including these people in a productive way in enjoying their social community.

It is about recognising the value of the services they give in their local communities, acknowledging, rewarding and empowering them, but, most of all, acknowledging their input and recognising that without them providing these services, the communities would not have these services. I know that is a failure of the State in some ways in that other Departments do not provide them, but we need to recognise and genuinely value them. Thiat is the primary reason behind the establishment of the interdepartmental group. It did not seem right to have these two distinctive sides of the same coin being governed and ruled by a criterion set up specifically for activation, employment and training. It is not possible to have the same set of rules to govern what we call the socially inclusive places and the employment training. I have not managed to be able to relax these rules across the board. If the Senator has any specific case, I ask her to bring it to my attention. We are trying to look at individuals on an individual basis. However, no one can micromanage the scheme to any great extent for the 21,000 people employed and supported in community employment. That is why I want to have a proper conversation about the differences between people on the same scheme and the different paces at which people need to be supported under the same scheme. That is why the interdepartmental group will assess the best course of action required so as to protect the governance and the successes we have in community employment activation but also to establish the appropriate home and structure for what is sheltered employment in communities. We need to build custom built services that will ensure they are wholly inclusive for everyone who requires our assistance. For those who want a fulfilling future through the vehicle of community employment, that is great, and they should continue to be supported through employment, activation and training, both financially and socially in equal measure.

The social inclusion placements, though, require a separate focus to ensure those who are at the furthest distance from the labour market but who are genuinely interested in working and delivering services in their local community have the opportunity to do so, not on a short-term, one or two-year basis. If they want to do it, if it is fulfilling and gives them value and self-esteem in their daily activities, that fundamentally should be supported in the long term. I know some people do not agree with me. That is the reason for the approach of having the interdepartmental group, having us all sitting around the table, recognising as we do, as politicians, the real, inherent value in community employment not only from a socially inclusive perspective but also from an activation and training perspective. We can sit around and have a real, honest conversation about how they should be split, who has which responsibilities and at what pace the rules and governance of both strands should be set. I genuinely consider the socially inclusive positions in CE schemes as vital and fundamental not only to the common good of the State but, more importantly, to those people who have had the opportunity to work on them. Equally, they are detrimental to the people who have been forced out of them because of the existing rules and I want that to stop.

I will have the first meeting of the interdepartmental group in probably the next week to ten days. It will be short and sharp. The group's work will be done by the end of March and I want to be able to go back to the Cabinet with the recommendations from it. What I do not want is for us to be embroiled in months and months of long-term meetings about whether we will do this. I already know in essence what I would like to do. I need to bring everyone with me. It is not that I am discounting the valuable advice and information from all of our community employment host companies and participants, but I want to bring the political establishment with me first. Once the interdepartmental group has finished its work at the end of March, I will welcome any and all participants who would like to talk to me, send me written submissions or give me their experience and value. It is because of my engagement with the people in question in the past 18 months and pleasure and privilege to be able to do so that I know fundamentally that we need to change and protect, support and reward social inclusion places and give them the pride and the self-esteem they get from fulfilling their daily duties in communities. We need to give that as reassurance from us.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to say this. I genuinely welcome wide support of information options, including any suggestion she may have from the wider political representations of both Houses. In the next few months I will go out to our host companies and listen to them. I want this to be done quickly. Whatever budgetary measures are needed - I know that there will be some - I want to be able to start fighting for them this year in order that we can see the changes happening and those socially inclusive places supported, protected, ring-fenced and rewarded when I am still around, I hope, not when the Senator's party may have taken over.

The Minister has given the Senator a very extensive-----

If the Senator just listens to me for one second, I will explain. We usually allow eight to ten minutes for each matter. We are now almost 15 minutes on this one. The Minister has been very frank, open and engaging. Perhaps she and the Senator might meet or communicate on the matter. I will let the Senator in for a brief supplementary question. The problem I have is that someone will say I gave the Senator 15 minutes and that I gave him or her only eight.

That is fine. I have loads of names for the Minister. I thank her.

In fairness, the Minister has been extremely open and engaging-----

-----and given the Senator an avenue and an opportunity to engage with her. I wish them well with it.

I thank the Minister and the Cathaoirleach.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.