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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 16 Feb 2022

Vol. 282 No. 13

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Disability Services

Today, I will speak again about the Phoenix Centre, which is located in what was the old Mount Carmel Hospital on the grounds of St. Joseph's Care Centre in Longford. The building was built in 1844. The rest of the buildings on the original site were demolished in the 1960s and a new purpose-built building, which is today called St. Joseph's Care Centre, was built. The building is being upgraded. The Phoenix Centre is located in the building and is the base for Disabled People of Longford, early intervention services and school-age teams. Basically all speech and language or occupational therapy and psychology services for people in Longford are based in this building and it is not for purpose.

I spoke on this matter in November 2021 when waiting lists for services numbered 600 children. Only recently, I met the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, at the centre. Over 700 children are now on waiting lists for services while over 200 children are waiting for assessments of need. There is only half a speech and language post, which is unacceptable for the people in my home county, particularly parents and families.

Staffing needs to be put in place. I am very confident following my meeting with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and HSE officials. A commitment was given that extra staff and resources would be put in place to deal with many of the issues.

The reality is that it is on the second storey of a building that is 180 years old. It is not fit for purpose. There has been a lack of investment put into that building because of discussions to build a new purpose-built centre, or relocate to a new purpose-built Phoenix Centre, which is badly needed.

First of all, I want to put on the record that I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for coming, meeting with parents and finding out what the issues are on the ground with regard to services, etc. in the county. We also spoke on the lack of overnight respite for families and children in the county. There has not been respite in the county for nearly six years. I am very confident that we will make positive moves with regard to that and have something permanent put in place at some stage later on this year.

The people of Longford, the children and the families deserve a proper service for the children in our area. We need it to be located in a building that is fit for purpose. The reality is that this building is not fit for purpose. It is on the top of a hill and a person can hardly park their car when they go to it. It is not fit for purpose for anyone with any sort of a disability to access. I just want to get a commitment from the Department. There have been discussions going on for a long time on this. When will a building that is fit for purpose be put in place for Longford?

I wish to thank the Senator for raising this important matter today. The Phoenix Centre in Longford is utilised for both adult and paediatric services, including a day respite service for adults aged 18 to 65 years; a children’s disability network team providing therapeutic family-centred clinical assessments and interventions for children with complex needs; and providing support to the carers, service providers and the local community with the emphasis on sharing resources, skills, knowledge and expertise.

The HSE has advised that community health organisation, CHO, 8 is developing plans to relocate certain services to Ballyminion, including the children’s disability network team. The HSE advises that work continues on progressing the proposed relocation, although it is not currently in a position to advise on a likely date for the relocation of the services. While awaiting this new accommodation, the Phoenix Centre has been made as suitable as possible to meet the demands of the services for children and adults with a disability in Longford, through a series of initiatives, such as the booking of all existing therapy space; the upgrading and reassignment of existing centre space, including the waiting areas to support the staff teams; and the booking of suitable external accommodation in order to provide for medium-to-large group or family training programmes. These initiatives are ongoing in line with health and safety policies and infection control guidelines. In addition, the HSE advise that analysis of all 12 networks in the CHO 8 region is ongoing to identify medium- to long-term options, which would provide a higher standard of accommodation for all network teams.

As I am sure the Senator is aware, capital spending in disability services in recent years has quite rightly focused on the continuation of the decongregation process leading to an unprecedented level of investment in disability services, with an investment of €100 million for new initiatives in 2021. The increased level of funding will enable the HSE to build on initiatives currently under way, including the decongregation programme, with a renewed focus on assisting people to move out of congregated settings to homes in the community. I am pleased to inform the Senator that CHO 8, in which Longford is located, received €10.4 million between 2016 and 2021 to fund decongregation projects. This level of funding was the second highest amount allocated to a CHO in that period. This spend resulted in 17 new decongregation units being completed in that time. This benefited 65 people moving from a congregated setting to independent living between 2018 and 2021 in the CHO 8 region, which is a significant achievement. I trust this clarifies the matters raised.

To be honest, this does not clarify the matter raised. It does not answer the question I asked. While I welcome the investment of €100 million for initiatives and I welcome the fact that there is significant funding into the CHO area, CHO 8 actually covers six counties - Longford, Westmeath, Laois, Offaly, Louth and Meath.

The reality is that we are providing the previously listed services in a building that was built in 1844 and is not fit for purpose. As I said, we have a serious need of extra services in our county, based on the list I was given of over 700 people and children waiting on various services. There are more than 200 children waiting on assessment of need.

As I said, we do not have a building that is fit for purpose. That is the question I wish to clarify. When will we in Longford get the proper building and facility that we need and deserve for the people of our county? To be quite honest, I would just like this to go back to the Department because this does not clarify what I have raised. I would ask it to clarify that for me and the people of Longford.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue of the building not being fit for purpose. I will bring his concerns back to the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities, Deputy Rabbitte. This Government will remain focused on providing the best services we can for children and adults with disabilities, whether it be therapeutic interventions, day services fit for the 21st century, independent living supports or respite or residential care, while keeping the health and well-being of people with disabilities as our utmost priority.

The Senator outlined that he needs a proper building and a facility. In one of my early statements, the vision for provision of disability services for people of all ages in the coming years was ambitious. In conclusion, I want to assure the House that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, remains fully committed to that objective. The Government has allocated additional funding for overdue assessments. Hopefully, I will bring the Senator's concerns to the Minister of State this afternoon.

Artists' Remuneration

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for taking this issue. As we know, during past two years, among those who have been most heavily affected and impacted have been our artists, musicians and those who are involved in the events and creative sectors. It is not just because of a loss of income, but for many of them being unable to perform or engage in artistic works has impacted as well on their identity. It is important that this scheme is right.

I know that it is a commitment of the programme for Government. It is something the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, is personally very keen on and, indeed, across the House the support for the arts is very visible. I am aware the Minister set aside €25 million for the scheme this year. I am hoping the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, will be able to provide us with some updates on the scheme. I genuinely believe that if we get this scheme right in terms of supporting artists and we can pass out the intermittence du spectacle scheme that operates in France to support artists, it could be, perhaps, the most revolutionary scheme since Charles Haughey introduced the tax exemption scheme for artists during the 1960s. It could help to cement Ireland's reputation as a cultural and creative centre.

Consultation took place with a number of arts groups in December and there was an online consultation that took place in January. There is real anticipation among the arts and creative communities around trying to get answers now on how this scheme will operate. I hope the Minister of State will be able to give us details on the plan's roll-out. The indication was that it would be in early 2022. Do we have a timeframe?

Have we, as yet, any indication of who will be covered? The arts and creative industries, as the Minister of State knows, are quite broad, and I would be keen to include dance teachers and choreographers who are working around the country. A very broad range of individuals, including musicians, drama directors, set designers and costume designers, are involved in the arts and creative sectors.

It is important for the scheme to be a success that it tries to be as broad as possible. Is there any update with regard to the selection process? How is it determined who is going to qualify for this scheme? How will it be qualified? Will there be an appeals mechanism for those who are refused?

I do not know whether the Department has yet measured the level of interest. I can only know by talking to arts organisations and others that there is huge enthusiasm about this. If there is anticipation of the level of interest, and while we do not want to raise too many expectations, can we be certain we are going to meet some of the expectations that have been raised? Crucially also, how do we measure success? How do we know this scheme, which we all want to work, will be successful? For me, it is going to be that we are supporting artists during the fallow period when they are working on creating some of their work, but at the same time they need certainty of an income. What will the relationship be between the artist social welfare scheme that currently exists and this new basic income?

It is an exciting project but it is important we provide as much clarity as possible for those who are anticipating its introduction. The application process should be relatively simple but I would like to see it as a broad scheme, covering as wide a range as possible of those within the creative sector. I have raised this before with the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin. She is equally enthusiastic, as I hope the Minister of State is. I hope in his response he will be able to give us some of those answers.

I thank Senator Byrne for raising this important matter. The basic income for arts pilot schemes will be delivered by my colleague, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin. The arts and culture task force, established in September 2020, was tasked by the Minister with producing a report to include a set of recommendations on how best the arts and culture sector could adapt and recover from the unprecedented damage arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. The task force’s number one recommendation was to pilot a basic income scheme in the arts for a three-year period. As part of the economic recovery plan, the Minister secured Government commitment for the scheme. The Minister allocated €25 million as part of budget 2022 for the launch of the project.

To progress the pilot, the Minister established an oversight group tasked with appraising the recommendations set out in the Life Worth Living report and to advise on the manner in which the basic income for the arts would be delivered. The oversight group considered that the objectives of the pilot should include minimising the ongoing loss of skills in the arts sector, both artists and creative arts workers, and contributing to the sector's recovery post pandemic, with ongoing social, economic, local and national benefits.

The Minister published the report of the oversight group in January and recommended that the Department of Tourism, Arts, Culture, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media should take responsibility for the operational delivery of the pilot; that the Department should develop an ongoing research and evaluation programme for the duration of the pilot; that the pilot should focus on professional artists, including developing artists, to ensure artists have the opportunity to focus on their creative practice; that creative arts workers should be eligible, that is, those working in the sector who have an essential creative input into the final output of an artist's practice, for example, screenwriters and directors; that participation in the pilot should be a non-competitive process, which would mean once a person could satisfy the eligibility criteria, he or she would be included in a randomised selection process; and that a control group of unsuccessful but eligible applicants should be established to collect data to underpin a comprehensive ex post appraisal of the pilot.

These proposals were put by the Minister to a stakeholder forum last December which was attended by more than 150 artists and representatives from 50 resource and representative bodies from the arts sector. Following that, the Minister launched a public consultation on the pilot scheme during January. I understand the Department has received a significant number of submissions to the public consultation, reflecting the high level of interest in this new policy intervention. A report on the consultation will be released shortly and the Minister intends to consider the outcomes of that consultation as she finalises the pilot scheme. The purpose of the consultation was to ensure the public, artists and those working in the arts and culture sector have the opportunity to contribute to the policy development for the pilot on key issues such as objectives, eligibility criteria and how to support emerging artists.

Work on finalising the eligibility criteria and online application portal is progressing well on the basic income for the arts pilot. As the consultation process on the policy is just concluding, the launch date for the basic income for the arts pilot scheme has not yet been finalised, but the Minister intends to make an announcement in the coming weeks. The Minister is a fierce advocate for the value of the arts in this country and feels privileged, as Minister for Tourism, Arts, Culture, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, to be in a position to deliver this pilot and to have secured the Government’s commitment for a three-year basic income pilot scheme for the arts. The delivery of the pilot is a key priority for the Minister to underpin the recovery in the arts and culture sector and provide much-needed certainty to the artists and creatives who choose to avail of the pilot scheme.

I might suggest by the response, and I appreciate it has been provided to the Minister of State by the Department, that if this was a drama, he was trying to lead up to the denouement, because some of the language being used, such as "will be released shortly", "as she finalises the pilot scheme", "work on finalising is progressing well", "the policy is just concluding", and "has not yet been finalised but there will be an announcement in the coming weeks", provides us with these teasers that have been provided to us in many ways over the past year. It is important there is ongoing consultation with the sector so that the final scheme reflects the process of both the direct consultation and the online consultation. It is important, and I hope Deputy Feighan will bring this back to the Minister, that we get clarity on this very soon, and I will note her response in the coming weeks. It is also key, however, that we try to be as imaginative and ambitious with this scheme as possible. It will send out a very clear signal to our artistic and creative communities throughout the country of the importance of that sector and about how we recognise the contribution they make economically and socially to this country.

I thank Senator Byrne for his interesting response. As I have stated already, the Minister and her Department are examining the responses to the public consultation in tandem with suggestions received as part of the stakeholder forum. She will finalise the eligibility criteria and application form in the coming weeks.

The basic income for the arts pilot scheme will run over a three-year period. The intention is to research the impact a basic income would have on artists' and creatives' working patterns by providing opportunities to focus on their practice, to minimise the loss of skills from the arts as a result of the pandemic, and to contribute to the sector's gradual regrowth post pandemic.

I am sure the Senator will agree that such a significant and important policy intervention takes time to operationalise. The Minister hopes to announce the launch and details of the basic income for the arts pilot in the coming weeks. The Minister will also shortly release the report on the public consultation. Stakeholder engagement is core to the policy. I appreciate the Senator's interventions and hope that the Minister will be in a position in the coming weeks to have some good news.

I thank the Minister of State. Is the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, available? No. We are going to change the order of the Commencement matters.

He can take my matter if he wishes. On past performance it does not matter who does. It is not the Minister of State's fault.

There should be a penalty for bad art as well. With rights go responsibilities.

It is the Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne.

Consumer Rights

I welcome the Minister of State. He has just missed a very interesting Commencement matter on the subject of a basic income for artists. I was going to say that I hoped that the proposal I had not too long ago, that the loophole or the abuse of the artist's tax exemption, might help pay for such a basic income. However, that is not my matter here today.

There should also be penalties for bad art. If we consider Agriculture House and what was there before it, it would make one wonder what some of our creative people get up to and how much of a debt we owe them.

On the subject of cash payments, one of the many changes Covid-19 has brought to our lives is the huge increase in payments by card, particularly contactless payment, rather than by cash. Those who would never have dreamt of paying for small amounts by card now happily tap for convenience. We are all carrying far less cash than we did two years ago. According to the main banks, automatic teller machine, ATM, withdrawals are down approximately one third compared to 2019 and card payments are up approximately one fifth. This is positive in some ways. Not only is it more sanitary but it reduces the amount of cash that gets lost or that can be stolen, as well the security costs for banks and businesses of transporting it.

However, there are significant downsides. The Consumers' Association of Ireland, CAI, warned recently that there is an increasing trend whereby businesses, in many cases, retail businesses, are now refusing to take cash and will only accept payment by card. This poses serious problems for many citizens, particularly people on limited budgets, low incomes or social welfare. Older people, not all but many, are culturally adapted to using cash and it helps them to manage their household budget. We always encourage people of whatever age to keep their savings in banks and not to keep large amounts of cash in their homes, particularly in the wake of the horrific robberies we have heard about recently.

In response to the CAI's comments, the Irish Independent stated the position of the Central Bank to be: "Consumers will continue to be able to use cash and will not be forced to use electronic payments." However, that just does not seem to be the case. As we know, there is often a big difference between what State agencies say and what the law actually provides. The Minister for Finance recently outlined to Deputy Nolan the legal position on this, which is:

If a business specifies in advance ... that payment must be in a form other than cash, the customer cannot subsequently claim a legal right to pay in cash. Therefore, under certain circumstances, retail businesses or service providers can refuse to accept payment in cash.

I wonder whether that recent statement by the Minister completely undercuts the position of the Central Bank.

I would like to draw the attention of the House and of the Minister of State to the European Commission 191/2010, on the scope of legal tender of euro banknotes and coins signed by Mr. Ollie Rehn. He was a regular visitor to those shores a decade ago, and by the sounds of it he liked to pay for things in cash while he was here. The recommendation states:

The acceptance of euro banknotes and coins as means of payments in retail transactions should be the rule. A refusal thereof should be possible only where (for example, the retailer has no change available)."

A recommendation is not binding law, as we both know, but it is a statement of best practice and Ireland, clearly, appears to be diverging from it.

I would be grateful if the Minister of State could clarify the right of people to use cash for payments? Can they insist on doing it or not? Is this issue currently governed by statute or it is a simple matter of contract under common law? Which recent statement on this was correct: that of the Minister or the position of the Central Bank? How do we reconcile the contradiction? What is the position of the Government on the Commission recommendation, to which I referred, on the scope of legal tender of euro banknotes and coins? I do not think we are in compliance at present. Should we be looking at ways to amend consumer law to allow citizens to pay for goods and services in cash if they wish to do so, or in almost every circumstance, to ensure that business cannot refuse cash in any blanket, capricious or arbitrary fashion? Perhaps at least in area of small retail transactions, this needs to be regulated.

Before I respond, I echo what the Senator said about the advice to people not to keep cash at home, notwithstanding the issue with the legal status of cash he has raised, because it is not safe and there are rules and provisions for bank accounts to be opened if people do not have them.

I thank him for raising this issue. It is 20 years this year since we as Europeans held a brand new currency in our hands - the euro. The changeover from 12 national currencies to the euro was a one-of-a-kind operation in history: the European Central Bank, ECB printed 15 billion euro banknotes and 52 billion coins were minted at that time. Over the past decade, we have seen a shift in the way consumers and businesses pay and bank. While historically Ireland has been a relatively cash-intensive economy significant progress has been made and there has been a rapid increase in the take-up of electronic payments.

Under the European Union payment accounts directive, which was transposed into Irish law in 2016, all Irish banks must make available a basic bank account for people who currently do not have a bank account. The basic bank account is free of charge for everyday banking services for the first year.

As the Senator said, the Covid-19 pandemic has also acted as a catalyst for the move towards digital payments and the move away from cash. The most recent Central Bank of Ireland statistics on debit and credit cards, published at the end of January, highlights that in December 2021 the volume of ATM transactions was 2% lower than compared to December 2020 but 31% lower than December 2019.

Notwithstanding a significant increase in the take-up of electronic payments, cash remains a vital part of the Irish payment system. A study, conducted by the Department of Finance in 2018, concluded that a fully cashless society would not be an appropriate objective.

In September 2020, as part of the EU digital finance package, the European Commission published the retail payments strategy. One of the key aims of the strategy is to maintain access to, and acceptance of, cash across member states. The strategy recognises the importance of ensuring there is continued access to cash and the increased use of digital payment methods does not lead to the type of financial exclusion to which the Senator referred.

In accordance with Article 128 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Council Regulation No. 974/98 of 3 May 1998 on the introduction of the euro, euro notes and coins have the status of legal tender in euro area member states, including Ireland.

The Senator referred to Commission recommendation 191/2010 on the scope of legal tender of euro banknotes and coins, which provides the acceptance of euro banknotes and coins as means of payment in retail transactions should be the rule but that a refusal thereof should be possible in certain circumstances, for example, if the retailer has no change available. However, as the Senator said, the Commission recommendation is a recommendation and not a binding legal requirement.

Retail transactions are governed by contract law in Ireland and, in this context, where a business places no restrictions on the means of payment it is prepared to accept, it must accept legal tender when offered by a customer to settle a debt that has arisen. However, if a business specifies in advance of a transaction that payment must be in a form other than cash, the customer cannot subsequently claim a legal right to pay in cash, even if that cash is legal tender. This can be achieved, for example, by displaying signs at the till or at the store entrance. Therefore, under certain circumstances, retail businesses or service providers can refuse to accept payment in cash once they have advised the consumer in advance of the transaction.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. It is very comprehensive except to the extent that it does not specify what the Government's view is on what is happening. It is quite clear that non-acceptance of cash should only be in exceptional circumstances if the retailer has no change available. It cannot be the case that one could be in compliance with the recommendation if one never has any change available. The Minister of State has rightly set out the contractual position but the question is: ought it to be the law that businesses should always be ready to accept cash and only in exceptional circumstances where they have no change should they be allowed to refuse it?

I have a certain suspicion that it suits the Government to allow people to be gently pushed towards payment by card. It reduces the potential for the black economy and the under-reporting of transactions. Certainly, the increase in card payments is surely linked to the very impressive VAT returns for 2021, which exceed the VAT returns for 2019, which is incredible when we consider large sections of the economy were shut or restricted during 2021. However, we should not use the behaviour of a small section of society who engage in the black economy to penalise law-abiding consumers who wish to use cash, particularly vulnerable customers. If we keep the focus on the customer, particularly the vulnerable, should the Government not move to legislate in this area to create a requirement that in all but exceptional, undesired and accidental circumstances, cash would have to be accepted?

I again thank the Senator for raising this issue. Certainly, it is an important matter for consumers, businesses and the State, as alluded to by him. The Commission recommendation is in place but, as he agrees, it is a recommendation and not a legally binding law. Retail businesses under current law can refuse to accept payment in cash, once people are told beforehand.

I am not the Minister for Finance but I do not know of a legal impediment for the Senator to bring forward Private Members' legislation on the issue. I assume that would not be in breach of European law because the recommendation is in place. In fact, what he is proposing would be in line with the recommendation. However, as a matter of current law and the Government position, I have set that out in this reply.

Would the Minister of State take a suggestion back to the Government that it might use its ample amount of Government time to legislate in this area?

I certainly will pass that on to the Minister.

I thank the Minister of State for that.

Fire Stations

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for attending. I acknowledge the important and life-saving role carried out by our fire personnel in Galway city and county, and across the country. Whether it involves fires, road traffic accidents or river rescues, it is vital life-saving work and sometimes, unfortunately, recovery. I know that fire personnel see some harrowing scenes in their daily work.

Proper facilities are the least we can provide for our fire personnel. The Minister of State's Department has done significant work throughout the country and in the capital plan to support local authorities in the provision of fire appliances and stations. In Galway city, the fire station on Father Griffin Road is of its age and era. It has been described as archaic. The site has flooded in the past, does not have training facilities and is too small. There is broad agreement that a city the size of Galway, with a growing population of 80,000 and which is projected to grow under the national planning framework, needs a new fire station. It needs a purpose-built, state-of-the-art, fit-for-purpose facility with proper training space. The city council, in conjunction with the county council which leads on fire services for the city and county, is engaged in an ongoing effort to find a suitable site within the city environs, preferably on city council lands. Sites have been suggested near Bóthar na dTreabh, which has appropriate access to the road network in the city. The site at Father Griffin Road may be retained, subject to assessment, as an ancillary site for the immediate locality, especially as it is in the heart of the city and proximate to the River Corrib, which flows through the city. I understand the Corrib is one of the fastest flowing rivers - if not the fastest flowing river - in a city environs in Ireland and possibly across Europe.

We know the important work that our fire personnel do in life saving and recovery. The facility in Father Griffin Road is not fit for purpose. Galway city is a growing centre of population. We need room to expand and a fit-for-purpose and modern facility for the people of Galway. Indeed, the existing fire service also provides cover for areas in south Connemara. There is a new fire station in south Connemara. I was pleased to work with local groups to deliver that facility through the county council and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We now need to look at a proper fit-for-purpose building for Galway city.

What engagement has the Department had with Galway County Council, as lead agent on behalf of the city and county, on identifying and acquiring a site? Will financial support be provided to build a fit-for-purpose site, subject to planning permission and all that goes with that? What engagement is the Department having with chief fire officer in Galway to push the project forward? I know the Department has done a lot of work and is working with the council on the construction of fire stations in Loughrea and Athenry. However, Galway city, with a population of its size, needs a new, modern, fit-for-purpose facility to enhance the services it provides for the city and its environs and its engagement with other fire services in the county. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.

I thank the Senator for raising this most important matter today and in recent weeks and months. I am aware that my officials have been liaising with Galway City Council on this matter in recent days on foot of the Senator's representation and intervention. The provision of a fire service in its functional area, including the establishment and maintenance of a fire brigade, the assessment of fire cover needs and the provision of fire station premises, is a statutory function of individual fire authorities under the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003. The Department supports the fire authorities through setting general policy, providing a central training programme, issuing guidance on operational and other related matters and providing capital funding for equipment and priority infrastructural projects.

In December 2020, a new fire services capital programme was announced for the period 2021 to 2025, with a funding allocation of €61 million. Following extensive engagement with fire authorities, a number of proposals for station works were received. The proposals were evaluated and prioritised on the basis of the area risk categorisation of the fire station, established health and safety needs, state of development of the project and value for money offered by the proposal. The new programme will see six replacement fire stations built, continued support for the construction of a further 12 new fire stations, nine fire station refurbishments, as well as the allocation of 35 new fire engines. Galway is one of the counties to have been allocated an appliance, at an approximate cost of €450,000. A new fire station for Athenry in County Galway is also included in the capital programme 2021-25.

My Department works closely with the relevant local authority to progress each fire station project through the necessary stages. Project consideration stages include submission of preliminary and detailed appraisals; submission of design brief; selection of site; application for approval in principle; appointment of design consultants; submission of a preliminary design; planning application; submission of preliminary cost plan, detailed design and cost plans; tender process; and construction stage. In order to maximise the available capital programme funding, the Department reassesses the status of projects in the programme on an annual basis, and some flexibility is normally available to advance projects that are ready and offer best value for money, taking account of the state of readiness of projects more generally.

The Department is aware that at present, Galway city fire station is operating in temporary facilities. The Senator has outlined very clearly the urgency attached to that. It is my understanding that Galway City Council is working with the fire services in Galway city to identify an appropriate site for a headquarters station in the city. When an appropriate site is identified and if the potential project is submitted to my Department for funding, the project will be evaluated urgently for inclusion in the capital programme as outlined.

I know this issue of critical importance to the Senator. As I said, he has raised it with me a number of times in recent weeks. We are now awaiting a submission from the council. I can commit to the proposal being given serious consideration on the basis of the strong argument the Senator has made regarding the provision of a new facility. The Senator has pointed out that we are facing two very difficult weather events in the coming days and in the week and a half ahead. Our fire service is always on the front line, protecting citizens and the most vulnerable. We need to be at the forefront of assisting the service. The Senator has made an excellent case for the development of a new facility in Galway city.

I thank the Minister of State. His comments on the fire service are very true.

I thank the Minister of State for his positive reply. I am sure that on his next visit to Galway city and county, he will be happy to meet the relevant personnel to discuss a fire service facility for Galway. I invite him to do so.

The Minister of State mentioned the project consideration stages. When they are all listed we can see that it is a long process to get a new building delivered. The stages include submission of preliminary and detailed appraisals; submission of design brief; selection of site; application for approval in principle; appointment of design consultants; submission of a preliminary design; planning application; submission of preliminary cost plan, detailed design and cost plans; tender process; and construction stage. The project in Galway is therefore one that will run for a number of years. However, we need to get the site identified and get a submission from the local authority to the Minister of State's Department. I am sure the Minister of State, together with his officials, will be able to evaluate and progress the project as quickly as possible for the city of Galway and its environs. It is a growing city, as the Minister of State is aware. I know that he is a regular visitor to the Galway races. It is a popular place. There is a hospital, a university and an institute of technology in the soon-to-be Atlantic Technological University. The city has a large population and road network. It is vital that our fire services are fit for purpose and modern. I urge the Minister of State to take hold of this project when it reaches his Department from the county and city councils.

I thank the Senator for his intervention. As a former student of NUI Galway, I know the city very well.

This is of critical importance, and that is why officials from our Department met with the chief executive of Galway City Council when this issue was raised. We assured him that once a site is found and an application is brought forward, we will give it the attention it deserves. These things take time, however, and we must be honest about this point in respect of the different stages in the process. We will, though, give this the attention required. As the Senator correctly said, our fire service is critical in keeping us all safe as we go about our daily lives. The service is often taken for granted, but those of us in public life know how important it is because we meet so many people who have been protected by it. I assure the Senator, therefore, that we will follow up on this issue and I will be happy to meet with the various stakeholders on a visit to Galway city and county.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ag 11.21 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ag 11.30 a.m.
Sitting suspended at 11.21 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.