Electronic Voting.

Questions (1, 2)

Bernard Allen


1 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the position regarding the introduction of electronic voting; the reason he will not include a verifiable paper audit trail in the system; the further reason he will not acquire the source code from the Dutch software company; and the way in which voting and counting units were acquired by his Department before the signing of the contract to purchase and before obtaining sanction from Dáil Éireann. [7294/04]

View answer

Eamon Gilmore


2 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the expenditure, including VAT, incurred to date on equipment, software and training for electronic voting; the estimated cost including VAT of the proposed system; the estimated cost including VAT of the proposed computerised electronic counting system; the estimated costs including VAT of the publicity campaign to promote electronic voting; his views on whether this expenditure represents value for money; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7292/04]

View answer

Oral answers (90 contributions) (Question to Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

Detailed planning and preparations for the countrywide use of electronic voting and counting at the European and local elections are proceeding. To date, 5,190 voting machines have been delivered to returning officers, software has been subjected to continuous testing, training of returning officers and their staff is continuing, and a public education and awareness campaign on the new system is under way. In addition, the Government this week appointed an electronic voting and counting commission to make reports to the Ceann Comhairle, the first to be received not later than 1 May 2004, on the secrecy and accuracy of the Nedap-Powervote system.

My Department and independent local returning officers have exercised responsibility under successive administrations for the safe, accurate and efficient conduct of elections in Ireland. The Nedap-Powervote electronic voting and counting system has been designed, tested and proven in practice to meet these requirements. Systems embodying a so-called voter verifiable paper audit trail have not.

Only a small minority of electronic voting systems in use worldwide incorporate this function. In Brazil, one of the countries which has most extensively adopted this approach, the Superior Electoral Court has now determined that the use of a paper trail should be phased out and reliance should be placed on electronic storage of votes only. Those advocating use of a parallel paper trail in Ireland have offered no evidence or practical experience of how voters interact with this system in the real election situation. In contrast, my Department has piloted the Nedap-Powervote system on two occasions and commissioned surveys demonstrating high voter satisfaction with it.

The accuracy of the electronic voting and counting processes envisaged for Ireland has been extensively tested and verified. Tests involving a comparison of paper ballots and electronic votes have also been carried out and may be repeated as required to provide reassurance on the accuracy of the system. Use of a parallel paper system would involve a dual system in which constant confusion would arise as to whether the electronic data or the paper ballot would represent validly cast votes. In addition, the need to use printers throughout polling day would increase the likelihood of system malfunction, as occurred in a Belgian pilot scheme in 2003, following which the printer function has been abandoned.

With regard to the making available of the election management source code, I have indicated that this matter will be examined later in the year when the system, including a profile to cover presidential elections, will have been fully completed.

Election administration expenses have always been met from the Central Fund rather than voted by the Dáil. Section 37 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 applied this arrangement to the costs of acquiring electronic voting and counting systems. Following a Government decision of 30 October 2002, a letter of intent to purchase the voting machines, subject to certain conditions, issued on 28 January 2003. The commitment to purchase the voting machines was essentially conditional on the conditions in the letter of 28 January 2003 being met. The final contract was signed on 19 December 2003. Some €31.65 million has been spent to date on system hardware. The estimated cost of the system software is €467,000. Training is ongoing and cost details are not yet available. The total estimated cost of the project, excluding training costs, is €44 million, including VAT.

The voter education and awareness campaign is estimated to cost €5 million of which €1 million is VAT. This programme will include approximately €1 million to promote awareness of the polls in June and encourage the electorate to vote. The campaign will also include a mail shot to every household in the country. The cost of the awareness campaign at the general election pilot for electronic voting was €263,000, and not €80,000 as has been wrongly quoted. This is consistent with the cost of the current campaign which is for the whole country and also incorporates the voter awareness campaign and the national mail shot.

The introduction of electronic voting and counting is a desirable modernisation of the electoral system. It will improve the efficiency, speed, accuracy and user-friendliness of elections. It will also eliminate the democratic wastage associated with spoilt votes.

How can the Minister reconcile his bluster regarding the technological strength of the system with the statement released yesterday by the Irish Computer Society — which is the policy committee — and its chief executive for software engineering who said that any electronic voting system must include a paper-based voter verified audit trail because it is the only way to prove or disprove the accuracy of the electronic count? How does the Minister match that statement from the Irish Computer Society with the Brazilian experience?

If the Minister is so strong in his belief in the technological strength of the system, will he tell me how the software will address the petitions function and how it will be applied in the case of a court challenge to an electoral decision? Will he give me a straight answer to that question? The Minister should put aside his bluster about the strength of the system because he is on shaky technological ground. He is creating a crisis of confidence in the electoral system which can only be put right by the Government admitting that some major outstanding questions have not yet been answered.

If Deputy Allen wants to align himself with the group that held the press conference yesterday, that is fine.

My questions have nothing to do with the group.

The Deputy specifically asked me about the group.

The Minister should not misrepresent me. I said the Irish Computer Society.

I disagree with the group. It is talking about two completely different systems. It is not commenting on this one. Let us be clear — this is also a matter for the Fine Gael and Labour parties. The group is opposed to all forms of electronic voting.

I asked the Minister a question; I did not ask about the group.

I am answering it. If the Deputy wants the information, I will give it to him but he should, please, allow me to answer.

Will the Minister answer the question I asked?

The Deputy did this the last day also. If he wants me to respond, I will.

To the question I asked.

These are the points I want to make. The group is not dealing with the system about which we are talking. If it wants to deal with a paper trail system, of which there is none anywhere in the world — the Deputy referred to Brazil, on which I commented directly——

The Minister referred to Brazil.

The superior electoral court in Brazil has now determined that the use of a paper trail should be phased out and that reliance should be placed entirely on the electronic storage of votes.

What about the petitions function?

A paper trail scheme was piloted in Belgium but it has also been discounted in favour of a purely electronic system, for the obvious reasons.

I am glad the Deputy gave me an opportunity to raise the issue of a petition to the High Court because, as I repeated on a number of occasions, if a High Court judge adjudicating on any case wishes to see a paper ballot of all ballots cast in an election, it can be produced.

It is as simple as that. Every vote cast may be seen from number one to whatever number of preferences. The system has the capacity to do this, as I have outlined umpteen times. Equally, before polling begins on election day, the returning officer will get the findings of a paper audit of the system confirming that no votes are stored. There will also be confirmation in print-out format there was no interference with the ballot paper. This will have to be signed by the returning officer. It will be open to any representative of a candidate to also sign off on that issue with the returning officer. Equally, at the end of the process, the paper record will form part of the election process, as catered for in law. The system will sign-off on the number of votes cast and so on, which can be married with the number which has been ticked off on the register as having voted.

I reject the inference that I have created doubts about this system. I agree that there has been a serious attempt to undermine it. I am delighted we did not opt for the system which operates in America. I would not trust that system either and it has rightly been questioned. They are PC-based and open to other systems but this one has been in use for many years and tested.

Is the Minister saying that the counting machine is not PC-based?

No, it is not. Reference was made by the society to the touch screen system in use in America.

Nobody raised that.

I am not sure what the group calls itself but it appears to be moving the goalposts. It is beginning to come to the conclusion that its outcry about a verifiable paper audit trail no longer provides a valid central thesis on the issue.

It certainly is mine.

The Taoiseach indicated on the Order of Business yesterday that the commission would be entitled to recommend that electronic voting not be used in the forthcoming local and European elections. Will the Minister confirm that this option is open to it? In the event of such a recommendation being made and accepted by Government, does he have a contingency plan for the use of the traditional system of voting in the forthcoming elections?

Given that the legislation required to allow electronic voting to be used in the European and local elections has not yet been published or introduced, much less enacted by the Oireachtas, will the Minister justify the expenditure of €50 million of taxpayer's money on his favourite toy? Could the Department not find something more useful on which to spend this sum such as the provision of bathroom extensions for people with disabilities who have been waiting for three years, or the provision of heating in houses which lack such basic facilities? Where is the promised legislation to allow the system to be used in the forthcoming elections?

I publicly stated last week that if the commission, having examined the system, was unhappy or had a fundamental problem and recommended that we should not proceed with it, the Government would not proceed with it. It would be wrong——

Is the commission entitled to do so under the terms of reference set for it?

Yes, it is.

That is not clear from the terms of reference.

It is totally open to it to do so. The terms of reference were written precisely to accommodate any option which it may come up with.

It can recommend that the system not be used.

I said that publicly and the Taoiseach has repeated it in the House. There is no argument between us. That is only right.

We are in the hands of the commission.

Which is what many people want to provide independent verification. I am happy, as I have said all along, to have it verified. On the question of a contingency plan, if there were to be such a scenario, the answer is yes. We would have time to return to the previous system of a paper ballot. We made sure to consider this and will have the capacity to do it. The sum is €44 million, not €50 million, as the Deputy suggested.

If one adds 44 and five, the total is 49.

The point is that the sum of €44 million did not come from my Department's Vote, as the Deputy knows. The moneys——

It is public money.

The Deputy suggested that I could have spent it on bathrooms and so on but it is not part of my Department's Vote.

It is taxpayer's money.

We can argue that point.

The Minister cannot argue it; it is.

For the sake of clarity, they are not moneys that I could have used for something else.

It was taxpayer's money.

It comes from the Central Fund, as it always has in elections. It was always the case that there would be a cost attached. That was clear when it was mooted two or three years ago. There were indicative figures at the time of the actual cost. There is an upfront capital cost but also a strong payback in the context of the overall cost of elections. It was never presented as a money saving venture——

——no more than the installation of an electronic voting system in the House. The same applies to any other business that has embraced the world of technology in which we live. The same is true of the couple of million people who have bought mobile phones because they are more efficient, quicker and easier to use. The Oireachtas made that choice. There was not a dispute in the Houses of the Oireachtas between the parties about the move to electronic voting.

There was.

I looked at the Official Report.

So did I.

Certain questions were raised but I can quote colleagues of Deputies Gilmore and Allen who spoke during the debate. However, I do not wish to waste their time.

I spoke in the debate.

I am aware that the Deputy did. I do not dispute that.

We opposed its introduction.

There is no question that this system was fully supported by the Oireachtas. The confusion has not been caused by the Government.

What about the Minister's U-turn?

We are well over the time allowed for this question.

There was no U-turn by me on the issue.

When the Minister was abroad, the Government said there would be a facility. The Minister is going around in circles.

As the Deputy well knows, my officials and those in the Office of the Attorney General are working day and night on the legislation to get it right. We must remember the principal reason for it; it is due to a decision on the Carrickmines case which questioned the validity of secondary legislation.

Which I pointed out.

We must proceed to the next question.

We could take the view that we believe the legislation in place is sufficient but from the point of view of safety, as a belt and braces measure, we have decided to introduce primary legislation to make absolutely sure we can move in this direction. It is not overly complex.

When will we see the legislation?

I hope to have it as quickly as possible.

Next week?

Will the Minister make the heads of the Bill available?

I have to bring it to the Cabinet first.

The heads have not yet been drawn up.

We must proceed to Question No. 3.

The Taoiseach said on the Order of Business yesterday that the Bill was being drafted. How could this be the case if it has not been approved?

The general outline of the Bill and the issues to be dealt within it have been approved by Government, as normal. It is being drafted. Therefore, the Taoiseach is correct.

If it is being drafted, the heads are available.

We are way over the time limit.

Have the heads been agreed?

The general principles have been agreed. The final heads of the Bill will be referred to the Government.

Have the heads been agreed?

They have not been agreed.

The Deputy knows——

They have not been agreed.

I am not the person drafting the Bill.

We will proceed to Question No. 3. We are way over the time limit on these questions.

All I want to know is——

The Office of the Attorney General and the Department are drafting the Bill as quickly as possible. I will get it to the House as quickly as possible.

Will it be this side of St. Patrick's Day or Easter?

It will be brought to the House as soon as is humanly possibly with the co-operation of the Whips of the Labour and Fine Gael parties at a Whips' meeting.

Have the heads been agreed?

I ask the Minister to deal with Question No. 3.

With all speed but with great care the Bill will be brought to the House.

The heads have not been agreed.

Waste Disposal.

Questions (3, 4)

Arthur Morgan


3 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the measures he is taking to address the serious problem of illegal dumping of waste from the State in the Six Counties and the discussions which have been held with the authorities in the North on this problem. [7323/04]

View answer

Arthur Morgan


128 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the measures he is taking to address the serious problem of illegal dumping of waste in the State and of waste from the State being disposed of illegally in the Six Counties; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7324/04]

View answer

Oral answers (20 contributions) (Question to Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 and 128 together.

There can be no excuse for illegal waste activities, irrespective of whether they take the form of illegal dumping within the State or the illegal exportation of waste to another jurisdiction. I have, therefore, introduced a number of significant initiatives designed to achieve more vigorous enforcement of the waste code.

I took the opportunity by way of the Protection of the Environment Act 2003 to provide new enforcement powers for the environmental authorities concerned and to increase the maximum fines that can be imposed for contraventions of the waste code. I have recognised the need for improved structural arrangements to underpin the enforcement effort. Last October I announced details of the establishment of a new Office of Environmental Enforcement, OEE, located within the Environmental Protection Agency. While it has a wide remit, the OEE, at my request, is focusing on waste related enforcement activities as a priority.

I have allocated €7 million from the environment fund to support the first year of a major five year programme of local authority waste enforcement activities. The aim is to provide a stronger and more visible local authority enforcement presence on the ground and ensure more frequent inspections and speedier responses to reported instances of illegal dumping.

I am not in a position to comment on individual cases of suggested illegal dumping in this jurisdiction as the investigation of such complaints is a matter for the relevant local authority, the OEE and, in some cases, the Garda. On reported incidences of illegal cross-Border dumping in Northern Ireland, the OEE is considering how the extent of such incidences might be more precisely established. I am aware that there are ongoing contacts on individual cases between the relevant authorities, North and South. I have also recenltly received correspondence on the matter from Omagh District Council, in response to which I have sought a report from the OEE. The relevant authorities in this jurisdiction will co-operate actively with the authorities in Northern Ireland with a view to dealing effectively with illegal cross-Border movements of waste.

Is the Minister satisfied with the action being taken by his Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, local authorities and the OEE? If so, why is the activity of illegal dumpers continuing? If not, what action will he take to make the relevant groups more effective? He will agree that they have not been effective given that between six and eight 40-foot trucks per day are trundling in and out of Eskra, County Tyrone, containing documents from a Department. Does he agree that waste from the State is mounting in illegal dumps throughout the North, in Border areas in particular, because of a lack of activity and seriousness on the part of the relevant agencies in pursuing the illegal operators? Does he further agree that it is increasingly evident that illegal waste contractors are getting a clear message that they are free to continue their illegal activity, in the North in particular?

I agree with the Deputy in that there was a weakness in the system and that we needed to upscale enforcement of waste regulations substantially. We have done this in the past year with the support of all Members of the Oireachtas and it is already beginning to have a significant effect.

I do not agree that wholesale dumping is taking place in Northern Ireland but if Sinn Féin, given its extensive contacts, has information on who is engaged in illegal dumping, I would be delighted to receive it. Equally, I would be very pleased if it informed the Garda or the OEE in the Environmental Protection Agency.

Or the PSNI.

Yes. All of these bodies can combat the problem. I can only act on the facts as they are presented but if the Deputy has more information, we would be more than happy to receive it.

It is not necessarily illegal to ship waste, for which there is a legal basis. There are legal activities but as the Deputy is well aware, there are always those who seek to undermine and break the law, and they can be very clever in doing so. We must be ever vigilant regarding such activities. The OEE which is now beginning to take major action will certainly be of great assistance.

As a matter of interest to the House, I was astonished about ten days ago while trying to get onto the M50 not far from Rathfarnham when I saw a major roadblock. When I approached it, I asked what it was for and was told it had been initiated by the local authority and the Garda to detect illegal dumping. It was the first time I had come across such a roadblock.

Did they suspect the Minister?

No. It was a spot check. I was thrilled to see the authorities doing such a check and assure the Deputy that they were surprised to see me. Everybody was happy.

Such activities are very much part of the efforts being made by the local authorities, the Garda and the OEE within the Environmental Protection Agency. I very much welcome this development and hope to see many local authorities and the Garda co-operating in making spot checks throughout the country. If they do not rid us entirely of the problem, we can certainly reduce it to a manageable level. Those operating illegally will be brought to book. Any effort Members of the House can make in achieving this end will be very welcome.

Did the Minister discuss specific dumps in his contacts with agencies in the North? Were investigations launched? If so, when will the results be available and will the House be informed of them? Does the Minister agree that the Government's failure to pursue a policy of reduce, reuse and recycle is one of the root causes of the waste management crisis and fuelling the illegal dumping of waste?

I have stated I recently received correspondence on the matter from Omagh District Council, in response to which I sought a report from the OEE. Obviously, there is much contact at official level. I do not have any further details of individual contacts but my Department certainly works very closely with its co-Department in Northern Ireland. We are involved in many issues together. There is weekly contact. As the Deputy knows, we are taking an all-island approach to resolving some waste management issues.

The illegal dumpers are also taking an all-island view.

If the Deputy and his party could be of assistance, we would welcome it.

Last summer I visited——

We must proceed to the next question.

——every location in south Tyrone.

Question No. 4, please.

I am delighted with the success of the Race against Waste campaign. I was surprised and very heartened to find out today that some of the St. Patrick's Day parades had adopted the theme "reduce, reuse and recycle". If this is not driving the message home and winning the argument, I do not know what is.

St. Patrick will look after the snakes.

I am sure he will. He drove the snakes out of Ireland.

He did not get all of them.

He might also help us to drive out the illegal dumpers and their fellow travellers.

National Parks.

Questions (6)

Eamon Gilmore


5 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the way in which the €675 million worth of CO2 emission allowances, which he proposed to allocate free of charge to certain industries, will be financed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7293/04]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

In preparation for international emissions trading under the Kyoto Protocol, the European Union is establishing a scheme for greenhouse gas emission allowance trading to commence in January 2005. The Government has agreed to make available to the emissions trading sector, comprising about 100 installations in the powergen, large industry and large institutional sectors, an average of 22.5 million allowances per annum over the three year pilot, "learning by doing", phase of this scheme to the end of 2007.

The EU emissions trading scheme creates a new commodity, an "allowance" equivalent to one tonne of CO2, valid only for the purpose of meeting the requirements of Directive 2003-87-EC establishing the scheme. Operators in the 15,000 installations across the enlarged European Union must surrender annually one allowance for each tonne of CO2 emitted in the previous year, and to meet this obligation, may trade in these allowances. Their value will be determined by the market in them, and this will act as a powerful incentive, through the internalisation of environmental costs, for companies to identify and implement emissions reductions measures at or below the prevailing market price. All companies will wish to avoid exposure to the need to purchase allowances at a price higher than in-house reduction costs and avail of the opportunity to sell spare allowances thus generated on the market.

The Government is bound by the terms of the Directive 2003-87-EC to make available at least 95% of allowances free of charge. The total value of the allocation for the three years 2005-7 equates to €675 million, based on a price estimate of €10 per tonne of CO2 predicted by the consultants advising Government. That is the price generally expected to emerge in the European Union. While the EU emissions trading scheme creates a market for a new asset, there are no financing costs for Government in this process but there are stringent penalties in place to ensure companies do not exceed their limits. The penalty in the pilot phase is €40 per tonne of CO2 emitted which is not offset by an allowance surrendered and cancelled, rising to €100 per tonne from 2008.

A total of 0.75% of the allowances will be auctioned to defray the administrative costs in the EPA and there are other provisions in the draft national allocation plan published by the EPA for auctioning that may benefit the Exchequer. These are the auctioning of any allowances not issued from the new entrant's reserve, and any not issued to installations which close.

Why did the Minister allocate considerably in excess of the minimum he was required to allocate? Will he confirm that his recommendation to Government was closer to the minimum than the figure eventually allocated? Why were allocations made to sectors in excess of current emissions? The largest sector, power generation, is getting 14.5 million allowances compared with current emissions of about 14 million allowances. The cement and lime sector is getting almost four million allowances compared with current emissions of about 3.5 million. The heading other combustion is getting about three million allowances compared with current emissions of 2.6 million. If the object of the exercise is to reduce emissions, why has the Government allocated to the largest polluters allowances in excess of the amounts they are already emitting?

Ultimately who will pay for this? Will the Minister confirm he has in his Department a report from Byrne Ó Cléirigh which estimates that average electricity bills for the householder could go up by almost 30% when the regime, including carbon tax, is in place? Has the Government made a decision to give what is, in effect, a subsidy to pollute to large polluting enterprises and sectors of industry while the householder and motorist will end up paying for this largesse through increased electricity and petrol prices?

I thank the Deputy for his questions. I would have expected him to ask such questions, many of which are the same as the ones I asked myself. This area was one of the most difficult for me to understand. I spent months trying to understand the creation of a market and how it would work. I had to be sure that it could deliver. If the figure emerges, for example, at €10 per tonne, companies will have two choices. They can do nothing and their allocation should roughly equate to what their CO2 emissions will be, which would mean they would have no gain. We do not want this, rather we want a real environmental approach to this issue. Built into this system is strong encouragement for companies to reduce. After 2012 circumstances will be far more severe for all countries, including Ireland.

If the average is about €10 per tonne, we expect many companies will see a value in making substantial investment in emissions reduction and may then see the benefit. The system contains a carrot and a stick. This represents learning by doing, the general view in the European Union. Potentially, much money is at stake. We all must be extremely careful about how we look at this matter, both from an Irish and European point of view. After 2008 there will be serious issues.

The Deputy also asked about the balance. The figures for actual output in Ireland are hotly disputed and depend on the consultants to whom one speaks. While some would put the figure much higher, I do not. I accept the figures on which we have based this assessment. However, others dispute them. While reputable companies have been employed to demonstrate that the figures may be higher, we are operating from the lower figure.

What has happened in the economy over the past ten years and more importantly over the past five or six years has had an impact on our energy needs. We negotiated a figure in 1998 which was 13% higher than our 1990 emissions level. However, we have now gone substantially beyond this. At one stage we were 31% higher but are now at about 28.5% or 29% higher. We have an enormous task to get back to the 13% level by 2012. At this stage the indications are that while we will achieve it, it will be at a price. This is not a pain free exercise and depends on everybody buying into and understanding the system.

There needs to be balance between competitiveness in the economy and environmental costs — a delicate balance. There is a very fine line. I believe we are at that line which could move a point or two one way or the other. We are not absolute in this, nor is any country in Europe. During the Council of Ministers meeting this week when the issue came up, we asked the Commission to give its views. Clearly, it had concerns about the allocations countries were considering making. While the Deputy is right in saying I had a lower figure in mind, I rightly had to listen to the arguments, as one would. I tried to balance all of the issues.

The Tánaiste would not be pleased due to competition concerns.

I am not saying that. We are at a very early stage of this process. The Deputy is absolutely on the mark with his questions. Ministers in all European countries are grappling with this issue. Clearly, those who champion competitiveness are not necessarily concerned with the environmental issues on the other side. What is happening in America gives me great heart about the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, which I believe will happen. Even though the United States has not bought into the protocol, the change taking place——

Will the price of electricity increase?

While we do not want to see the price of electricity increase, time will tell. Clearly, there will be some marginal movement. There will be costs to the power generation sector in general in becoming more efficient. Ireland's big disadvantage is that generation is heavily fossil fuel based. That is the reason my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and I have been singing the mantra of trying to upscale substantially the level of wind energy generated. More than 25% or 30% of Denmark's energy comes from wind, which shows it works and can be efficient. I would like to see Ireland do the same.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

Questions (7)

Kathleen Lynch


6 Ms Lynch asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the number of persons awaiting payment of the first-time buyer’s grant at the latest date for which figures are available; the reason for the long delay in making these payments; the steps being taken to ensure that all such grants are awarded without further delay; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7140/04]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

There are 1,679 applications for payment of the first-time purchaser's new house grant being processed in my Department. There has been no undue delay in the processing of applications, having regard to the unprecedented volume of applications received in the three week period following the announcement of the termination of the scheme. Every effort is made to ensure grants are paid as soon as possible following receipt of claim for payment, with the services of five inspectors, who had retired, being retained to undertake inspections and inspectors being deployed between areas in response to fluctuating workloads.

The first-time buyer's grant was abolished shortly before the budget in 2002. I believe the cut-off point was 14 December 2002. Why have more than 1,600 grant applicants still not been paid 15 months later?

Applications are still coming in because the original date was to have been in November or December 2002. However the Deputy will recall that we gave——

How can applications still be coming in?

The applications of those taking up occupancy of houses are still being processed. We allowed an extension for those who received approval in November or December 2002.

We gave that extension a few months ago to 2 April next. In 2001 there was in excess of 10,000 applications and in 2002 there was in excess of 25,000 applications, nearly 14,000 of which came in a three-week period. The applications are being processed. The deadline for occupancy was extended from before Christmas to 2 April next and reminders are being sent to everybody to the effect that this will be the final deadline. There are 36 inspectors working on this, including people who had retired and were retained. There is tremendous work still going on. People have until 2 April to notify the Department that they are in occupation and wish to draw down the grant.

The grant should never have been abolished in the first place.