Vote 42 - Rural and Community Development (Supplementary)

This meeting has been convened to consider the Supplementary Estimate, Vote 42 - Rural and Community Development and Islands, which has been referred to the select committee by Dáil Éireann. I welcome the Aire Stáit, Deputy Joe O'Brien, and Ms Sheenagh Rooney, assistant secretary general of the Department of Community and Rural Development. I thank the Minister and his officials for the briefing document they have provided for this meeting. As the Minister of State is present, officials should not speak during the public session.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I advise the Minister of State that his opening statement and any other documents submitted to the committee may be published on the committee website. Before I call the Minister of State to make his opening contribution, at the previous discussion on the more extensive Estimate for the Department and on the issue of the LEADER programme, committee members felt strongly that a transitional arrangement needs to be put in place for that. While the Minister for Community and Rural Development, Deputy Humphreys, has indicated that it is her intention to bring forward a transitional programme, it seems to be very much along the lines of an administrative funding to keep the administration of the LEADER companies going. The reality, however, is that it will take at least two years before a new LEADER programme is in place, so not only do we need to look at the administrative aspect of this, we need to ensure these companies have a productive work programme over the next two to two and a half years to implement and that they have a fund to invest into those communities. I indicated to the Minister of State in advance of this committee that I hope he can provide the committee with an update on the progress in implementing a realistic transitional fund for the LEADER programme.

I may address the LEADER issue after my initial statement.

I appreciate the opportunity to present this request for a technical Supplementary Estimate for the Department of Rural and Community Development. It will facilitate the allocation of additional funding of €10 million for the Covid-19 stability fund, increasing the total value of that fund to €45 million. It will also finance a community resilience fund, which will assist community groups to continue to operate and provide services in a Covid-19 environment. It will also encourage involvement in the Keep Well campaign which focuses on keeping active, staying connected, switching off and being creative, eating well, and minding one's mood.

As noted, this is a technical Supplementary Estimate with no net increase to the vote. The €10 million is to be recouped from the Dormant Accounts Fund, with the community resilience fund financed through current savings identified in the Department’s Vote.

With regard to the Covid stability fund, the planned additional funding of €10 million will see the total fund increase from €35 million to €45 million. The original €35 million allocation was shared across three Departments, with €22 million for my own Department, €10 million for the Department of Health and €3 million for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. This funding split was based on the sectors that grantees operated within. However, for ease of administration at this stage of the year, the proposed additional €10 million would be allocated to the Department of Rural and Community Development Vote, and would see the Department's provision increase from €22 million to €32 million.

The purpose of the Covid stability fund is to provide grants to charities, community and voluntary organisations, and social enterprises that provide critical services to the most vulnerable in society and which have seen their revenue drop significantly during the pandemic. Pobal is administering the scheme on behalf of my Department, and to date four tranches of grants have been announced, allocating funding of €30.1 million to 568 organisations. Full information on the grants made to date is available on gov.ie. However, I will mention a few organisations that have benefited. There has been €200,000 for Mayo-Roscommon Hospice Foundation; €85,000 for Killorglin Family Resource Centre; €34,000 for Galway Autism Partnership; and €19,000 for Corduff Community Resource Centre. These examples demonstrate the broad range of organisations benefiting and the services that can be maintained due to this funding.

The pandemic is continuing to weigh heavily on the sector. Challenges remain, such as the level 5 restrictions entered into in recent weeks. The logic for the additional €10 million is to mitigate these impacts and others. The additional funding will further support organisations assisted under the first round so they can continue their important work in assisting the national response to the pandemic. I am certain that the funding to date and this additional funding have been a vital support so that these and similar organisations can continue their work and help those in need during these challenging times.

I would finally note that this is a technical Supplementary Estimate, as the measure is being financed through the Dormant Accounts Fund. The funding is recouped from the Dormant Account Fund, managed by the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, rendering this expenditure Exchequer neutral. I think the use of the Dormant Accounts Fund has been central to ensuring that these supports for the broad community and voluntary sector have been of such a significant scale. I am delighted that, given the source of this money, it is being put to such a practical and important use.

On the community resilience fund, the second technical Supplementary Estimate is seeking movement of current savings from subhead B11, community enhancement programme, to enable a community resilience fund for small grant supports to community facilities and organisations at local level. These proposed supports will assist two areas. First, they will assist local community and voluntary groups to adapt their services and operations to fit the new Covid-19 reality. This is consistent with an action assigned to our Department under the Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19. Examples of measures supported could be funding consumables necessary to support public health guidelines, including social distancing, offering online activities, providing social supports and friendly calls by phone etc. Second, they will help to animate community groups to enable them to become more involved in the Government's Keep Well campaign. It will seek to assist their participation in all five themes of the plan, particularly the staying connected theme.

Funding will be allocated to each local authority area, and the fund will be administered by the local authority development committees, LCDCs. Sufficient flexibility under the fund will be granted to support community groups with day-to-day running costs if needed. Savings identified initially for this proposal amount to €770,000, with €570,000 from subhead A4, rural supports, and €200,000 from B5, LCDC supports. This forms the basis for one element of the technical supplementary before the committee today. The proposal is to open a current element under the B11 community enhancement programme subhead. It is from this subhead that the proposed community resilience fund will be disbursed to LCDCs for onward distribution to local community and voluntary groups as part of Government’s pandemic response.

We continue to assess whether other small current savings can be identified across the Vote and would like to be in a position to supplement this fund further, possibly enabling a fund in the range of €1.5 million to €2 million in total. If further current savings can be identified and the committee is in agreement with the Supplementary Estimate today, any further funding would be subject to sanction by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Overall, the community resilience fund will provide significant practical funding supports at local level with local flexibility and decision making, ensuring the impact on the ground is maximised.

As noted, this technical supplementary is required as the B11 community enhancement programme subhead contains only capital funding, so a Vote is required to enable current expenditure. Again, this measure is net expenditure neutral given that savings elsewhere are funding the proposal. However, it will ensure that our current funding is put to best use in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

I thank the committee for taking the time to consider the Supplementary Estimate and I am happy to answer any questions that arise.

I will say a little bit about LEADER. I reassure the committee that active planning is ongoing and there will be an announcement very soon. The current seven-year programme, which is co-funded by the European Commission, will come to an end at the end of this year.

I will just go through a few context points. Proposals for a successor LEADER programme at EU level are intrinsically linked to the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, which co-funds the LEADER programme. Proposals for the post-2020 CAP were launched in June 2018 by the European Commission. However, given the lengthy nature of discussions on the CAP and the wider EU budget at EU level, there has been a delay in adopting these proposals. This means that the next LEADER programme will not commence until January 2022 at the earliest.

The programme for Government includes a commitment to prioritise a State-led programme to bridge the gap between the current LEADER programme and the next EU programme, which will not commence until 2022 at the earliest. The objective of this commitment is to allow rural development projects to continue to be delivered under a transitional programme using the LEADER model until the new EU programme commences.

An extra €4 million has been provided for LEADER in budget 2021 to bring the total allocation for next year to €44 million. I can confirm that this allocation will be used to fund a combination of existing projects as they come to completion as well as for new projects to be approved under the transitional fund.

The funding will also support the administration costs of the local action groups, including their implementing partners who deliver the programme locally, in closing out the existing programme and delivering the transitional programme.

It is important to recognise that LEADER is a multi-annual programme and that payments in respect of projects which are approved in any given year are generally not drawn down until subsequent years as and when they are completed. In this context, costs related to projects under the transitional programme are also likely to be met from the provision in my Departments Vote in 2022 and 2023.

The design, duration and composition of the transitional programme are currently being finalised and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, hopes to be in a position to shortly announce the full details of project and administration allocations under the programme. To give reassurance, we are acutely aware in the Department of the importance of LEADER and the importance of keeping the moment going on it as well. There will be an announcement coming soon.

I thank the Minister of State for that update. If we could return to the Estimate before us, are there questions on the Supplementary Estimate?

I thank the Minister of State for coming before the committee today. I very much welcome the Covid stability fund and the community resilience fund. They are fantastic measures. They are going straight into the community and voluntary sectors which are a wonderful support.

There is mention that there have been savings within the Department. Could the Minister of State outline what sections those savings have been derived from to give an overview of where this funding is coming from?

We had committed funding to promote the operation of the local community development committees, LCDC, and there were some savings there. The other area of savings was from rural supports which, frankly, I am not as familiar with. There was; €570,000 from subhead A4 - rural supports; and €200,000 from the LCDC supports. We are looking at other areas as well to hopefully bring us to savings of between €1.5 million and €2 million that we can put directly into communities at a practical and immediate level before the end of the year.

Is it the Minister of State's intention that these two schemes would continue throughout 2021? It is hard to see into the future, but are there provisions being made to have similar schemes into next year?

In terms of the Covid stability fund, there are no plans at present but we will be actively monitoring the situation on a weekly basis. Obviously, it depends on Covid and the restrictions that we are required to adhere to. At present, there are no plans but we will be actively monitoring it.

The position in the case of the community resilience fund is similar. I suppose, with the community resilience fund, we are in a position coming to the end of the year where we can reallocate funding to areas that need it more at present, that is, I guess, the front line across communities. That is why it is going in that direction.

It is going through the community enhancement programme. That programme will continue every year anyway as well but there is a little reorientation at present to facilitate current expenditure under the community enhancement programme rather than the capital programme to allow people to get some practical aids to bridge gaps, especially where people are in isolated situations during the lockdown.

I welcome the Minister of State's comments on LEADER. Is the Minister of State aware of whether there has been any engagement with the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, the representative group, on the transitional arrangement? It is important that there would be.

I cannot comment directly because it is not my area of line management. I would be surprised if they were not because they are key partners across the board. In terms of various programmes that the Department funds, they are one of our key partners. I cannot give the Deputy that answer directly. It would be the direct responsibility of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.

I thank the Minister of State for the presentation.

On the Dormant Accounts Fund, has the Minister of State any idea of the unallocated funds? There is the reserve. Putting that aside, there are funds that have been allocated but have not been spent for which one must make a contingency. Then there are the unallocated funds. Has the Minister of State any idea where those stand at at present?

On the Dormant Accounts Fund, how much of the money is now being spent directly by agencies such as the HSE and how much of it is going to community and voluntary groups around the country? My understanding of the Dormant Accounts Acts is that the funding must be for social and economic disadvantage, educational disadvantage and disability. I am curious as to whether there has been a little quiet mainstreaming in replacement of what should be Exchequer funding out of the Dormant Accounts Fund. The fund was always meant to be for the community and voluntary sector and special issues, not for substituting State funding. We saw the same happen with the lottery funds. Those were all meant to be additional funding and then, slowly but surely, they replaced the Exchequer funding. If I asked a number of Ministers how much of their funding was from the national lottery, they would not know from their Estimates unless they started digging into the DNA. It is merely a matter of them having this amount of funding and they negotiate it with the Department of Finance as per usual. The Dormant Accounts Fund was different because it used to come back to the Minister. I do not know if that still happens. Every project comes back to the Minister for approval around a committee. It is where the Minister sits and looks at the ceiling and states that he or she agrees or otherwise with this or that. It is all done in a process but it used be done by a committee. The Minister of State might also confirm if that is still the situation.

On Deputy Ó Cuív's first question on the size of the Dormant Accounts Fund, the total value at the end of October 2020 was €312 million. Of this, €101 million is in the reserve fund set aside for repayments to account holders. The remaining €211 million is in the investment and disbursement fund.

How much of that has been allocated but not spent? Once one allocates money to a project, one has to keep money, aside from the reserve, for that as well. How much loose money is in it? I presume there is not €211 million. Does the Minister of State understand what I am saying? The Minister of State said there was €312 million, with €101 in the reserve. That is a statutory reserve. That is gone. There is €211 million left. Of the €211 million, presumably there are projects that have been approved for which the Minister of State must make contingent provision when they spend. That should leave a net figure of what the Minister of State still could allocate and be covered.

Potentially. The fund is risk averse. All I can state, I suppose, is the amount that has been spent this year and last year under the action plans is in the region of €40 million. To flag it with the Deputy, I am looking into this as well as previous Ministers have. It is certainly something that I am examining in terms of the capacity to use it.

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh took the Chair.

My understanding is also that, bizarrely, there is a contingent liability on all the money. In other words, it is still on the State's book. When the Minister of State spends the money and goes to the Department of Finance looking for permission to spend more money, the Department will tell him that there is a still a contingent liability on the State for all of the money that was ever taken into the Dormant Accounts Fund.

The fund came into operation in 2001 or 2002. It definitely goes back that far.

There has not been a single year where the incomings have been more than the outgoings. I understand that the average amount coming in from the Dormant Accounts Fund is €20 million net per annum. It used to be at any rate. The Minister of State can check this out if I give him the figures. If the outgoings are more than the incomings, we are saying that people who left money in banks 50, 60 or 70 years ago have suddenly been able to establish ownership of it. They are probably long dead, so establishing a right to the money would be fairly ingenious. Even if they could, there is €110 million to meet their entitlement. If all of that, plus the other money that has been allocated, is spent, then there is still this year's incomings.

I will give the Minister of State an example of my argument. The State writes off bank loans every now and again, or it used to when we had a Central Bank of our own. It would decide that there was X amount that would never come back. There was a windfall for the Exchequer. It is time that we put a stop to the fiction that everyone who ever put money into a dormant account will come looking for it. We know following 20 years of this scheme that this is not happening. In fact, the opposite is happening, with more and more money becoming available. Has the Minister of State had discussions with the Department of Finance or would he consider doing so? Otherwise, it will tell him every time he looks for money that this is a contingent liability on the State and, therefore, Exchequer funding. It is not actually dormant account funding, all of which is counted as a liability on the State's balance sheet. Have I explained myself badly?

I know exactly where the Deputy is coming from because this matter is of interest to me as well. He asked a bunch of questions and I am unsure whether I will be able to answer all of them, but I take his core point. I have started internal discussions about this matter in the Department. The Deputy's suggestion of speaking to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which now holds the purse strings, is one that I will consider.

I do not have the information with me today, but I have examined the account's inflows and outflows for the past 20 years. They are not as predictable as one would like. There were some years where there were unexplained large withdrawals and others where the amount in the account decreased. For example, there were a couple of years during the recession where there were net extractions, for want of a better phrase. The Deputy's point is correct, though. Over time, the account is increasing incrementally. The difficulty is that its outgoings year by year are unpredictable. However, there is a reasonable range outside which the account has not strayed. Perhaps that is the range we should be considering.

Regarding the Deputy's question about how it-----

I have no problem with the reserve being the reserve. That is the cushion. However, holding onto the entire amount from day one is wrong. A new formula should be worked out, one in which the reserve is untouchable. That is the rainy day fund. To say that everyone who ever put money into a dormant account will one day walk into a bank is stretching credulity, though.

Point taken. Regarding how the money is spent, that information has been published for public scrutiny in the action plans. The 2021 plan was published last week. People can examine how the money is being spent. The majority of it is going to the community and voluntary sector. I will keep an eye out for it being used to fill holes that should instead be financed through voted expenditure. There is a risk of Departments straying that way, but this is generally managed well.

Perhaps I have not answered the Deputy's questions in the depth he would like, but that is as much information as I have.

This has been a useful debate.

I thank the Minister of State for circulating this report. I welcome that additional funding is being provided to the community sector, in particular services on the ground, given that is where it is desperately needed. For a large number of small community facilities and organisations, €1,000 is a lot of money and makes a significant difference.

From my experience in various groups, the funding that comes through local authorities gets to them quickly and easily. There is little form filling and so on. I question the use of Pobal, though. From the feedback I have received, applying to Pobal for small grants is sometimes too much hassle. Can we take the streamlined way funding is provided by the local authorities' local community development committees, LCDCs, and apply it to Pobal, particularly for small amounts? I understand that some large grants are required and we need to be diligent in how they are made, but we have an opportunity to examine how smaller grants can be disbursed to communities quickly.

To clarify, is a set percentage supplied by the Dormant Accounts Fund every year? If the fund is worth €10 million, for example, is 20% of that disbursed, put into the reserve fund and so on? I am not clear on this. I am looking at the documentation, but I cannot see from it how the decision is made.

I agree that providing money quickly through LCDCs is the best way to handle small grants. That is why we are doing this the way we are.

Pobal manages a range of funding programmes. If there are particular programmes where accessing funding is a problem, we would like to know. We could bring that information to Pobal. It has a range of approximately 20 funding programmes of various kinds. Pobal would be interested in knowing, as would I, if there are issues with getting small grants out efficiently.

Regarding the percentage of the Dormant Accounts Fund that is used, the quick answer is I do not know. That is key information to find out. The National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, is clearly risk-averse, but it is worth delving into this and shedding more light on how the money is used.

I wish to ask a question that may be tangential to the Estimate. It relates to remote working hubs, in particular the mol digiteach in Gaeltachtaí. With the current sea change in remote working, there exists an opportunity. With the Bille na dTeangacha Oifigiúla (Leasú) 2019, which is before the Dáil, we will enshrine in law the right and ability of people within Gaeltacht communities to access services through the Irish language. Now would be the time to leverage the sea change and build a decentralised workforce within Gaeltachtaí that would be able to act on behalf of all Departments. Irish speakers would be in their own communities and providing State services. This would not necessarily have to be done Department by Department. Would welcome funding be made available for that type of remote working? We have an opportunity now to consider this idea in earnest. This is probably more of an observation than a question.

I am happy to comment on it, albeit it briefly. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is especially interested in having a network of remote working hubs, particularly along the western side of the country. She sees the value in that. The Western Development Commission will play a role in developing that network. We want to a situation whereby someone could check a phone app to see where he or she could go to work remotely. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of options in rural Ireland to do that and make this approach viable. It is high on the Department's agenda. To my knowledge, the Secretary General chairs the cross-departmental group that is pushing this idea. For a variety of good reasons - Covid, well-being, lifestyle and environmental - this is a no-brainer in terms of where to put political priority now. The Vice Chairman's point is taken and we are working on it.

I will provide some figures. Budget 2021 allocated an additional €5 million to support the expansion of the hub network model into a national initiative. The interdepartmental working group I mentioned has been convened to progress this work and significant funding is being provided through the town and village renewal scheme and the rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF. The town and village renewable scheme is providing €200,000 for the development of the Cavan digital hub and €150,000 to support the Ludgate hub in Skibbereen.

Rural regeneration and development funding of €2.9 million has been provided to support the development of eight different hubs, right across the Gaeltacht in particular. That is to directly address the Vice Chairman's point.

I am conscious that the Minister has another appointment upcoming. Deputy Ó Cuív wants to come back in.

When we were discussing this matter with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, I put forward the idea that we already have a lot of decentralised Civil Service offices around the country, from Buncrana to Na Forbacha, all the way around. The reality is that I am not sure whether all those buildings are fully utilised. I asked that question of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and received a reply. He was able to tell me how many decentralised offices the State owns and rents throughout the country. He could not tell me the utilisation level of any of those offices. If one is in the public service, it is better to work from a public service office. Someone might be in charge of that office so a person working there would have oversight, secure lines and the whole lot.

I know for a fact that an extension was built to the office in Na Forbacha. A translation section was to go in there and provide translation to all the public service offices around the country, semi-State and Civil Service, that needed translation done centrally and to a quality, rather than using terrible Google Translate answers. That was cancelled in 2012, for whatever reason. I know that office space is there. There is nothing to stop the Civil Service saying that 20, 30 or 40 civil servants who work in different Departments, the Department of Education or whatever, on condition they work through Irish, could be located in Na Forbacha on a co-location basis. The senior official there would look after the ordinary, day-to-day things like administration and so on. It seems to me that those kinds of locations are already available. It is amazing that the Office of Public Works, OPW, does not know how many spaces are available for this kind of choice working.

I also think it would stop the silo effect which is a terrible problem in the Civil Service. One would think that the 15 or 16 Departments were competing companies rather than a Civil Service serving one Government. Everyone in the Government sits and works together but, when one starts working downwards, they fight each other as if they were all protecting their own little empires. I just bounce that idea at the Minister of State because sometimes the simple and ready-made solutions are overlooked. There are Civil Service offices in every county around the country. That is one idea.

I will ask just one other question because I understand that time is short. At the end of October, only 50% of the capital expenditure of the Department of Rural and Community Development had been spent. That is crazy. Every year, we get the same thing and it all happens in the final two months of the year. That is bad practice. Many schemes that were announced for 2021 have not had their allocations of funding approved yet. I got a reply to a parliamentary question to that effect. Will the Minister of State get up-to-date figures, subhead by subhead, of the capital allocation and expenditure to date, now that we are halfway through November? The Department always seems reticent to show the figures but I have a suspicion that there will probably be an overspend on the LEADER programme but a significant underspend on some other programmes. I would hate to see anything going back to the Exchequer. It is hard enough to extract it, as the Minister of State will soon find out, without having to give it back at the end of the year, or to carry it forward, or to be making prepayments to local authorities, which I also disapprove of because sometimes they do not spend it for years.

I will take the Deputy's last point first. We are on track to spend our allocation this year. That is good news. Covid-19 has impacted that significantly but we have caught up and are on track.

The Deputy made a point about the State-owned buildings that could be used. It is not an unreasonable suggestion. I will impress that point upon the Minister. While the broader remote working hubs allow access to the public and private sectors-----

----- the Deputy's suggestion is more than reasonable and I will bring it back again to the Minister. I agree that it is a reasonable suggestion.

The Deputy asked about expenditure. As of now, gross departmental expenditure to date is €262 million. Capital expenditure has ramped up significantly over the past number of weeks and expenditure to date is €99.5 million, with a remaining allocation of €68.7 million. Those are up-to-date figures.

May I make one further, final point? I take it the Minister of State is responsible for Pobal.

That is correct.

When we can travel again, I suggest that the Minister of State visits Clifden. There is a Pobal sub-office there that makes all the rural social scheme, RSS, and Tús payments and so on. The amount of travel amounts to one or two people going to Dublin occasionally, or that was the case before Covid and that has now probably proven to be an unnecessary journey. It is providing steady employment and wage packages to 30 or 40 people in Clifden. It is worth a visit because it shows that people who said that everything has to be centralised were wrong. One of the conditions under which Pobal got the pay-out of RSS and Tús was that it would be located in Clifden as part of the decentralisation programme. That has been very successful and the Minister of State should visit the office to see for himself an operation that works totally under the radar and has never had a complaint about payments. There have been many complaints about Pobal and its bureaucracy but there have been no complaints about payments under RSS and Tús. It is a model of where we should be going on an absolutely relentless, step-by-step basis. There is no need to be pushing people into overcrowded cities with overly costly rents when a lot of people would prefer to live in a rural community.

I was not aware of the Pobal office in Clifden. The Department has 80 staff members, basically half the Department, in Ballina. I am open to going to Clifden.

Those staff used to be in Tubbercurry.

I have to be careful where I stay in Clifden, if I do go that far.

Just do not play golf.