Questions Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, answered orally.

Housing Finance Agency

Question No. 11 answered orally.

Questions (10)

Seán Fleming

Question:

10. Deputy Sean Fleming asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the State’s policy in respect of dividends from the Housing Finance Agency; if the policy has changed in recent times; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23699/14]

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Written answers (Question to Public)

There has been no change in policy in relation to dividends from the HFA. The primary concern is to ensure that the HFA, like any financial institution, maintain sufficient reserves.

The reserves of the Housing Finance Agency at the end of 2012 stood at €72.8m having increased by €13.7m during 2012. It was considered by the Board that the Reserves, which are maintained at prudent levels to counter risk, had reached a point that allowed a dividend of €20m to be declared. A dividend of €20m to the Housing Finance Agency's beneficial shareholder, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, was agreed and then declared at the Agency's Annual General Meeting on 25th April 2013.

However, local authorities had introduced a Mortgage Arrears Resolution Process (MARP) in 2012 for local authority mortgage holders that are in or are facing mortgage arrears. The Local Authority MARP process is in line with the guidance set down by the Central Bank, and comprehensive information on this process is available at www.keepingyourhome.ie. My intention in accepting a dividend, which was agreed with the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government, was that the dividend should be for the benefit of the Local Government Mortgage Arrears Resolution Process Fund. This will greatly enhance the capacity of that resource to assist local authority borrowers in mortgage distress.

Accordingly, it was decided in late 2013 to waive the dividend as financial procedures prevented the direct application of the dividend to the MARP Fund. On waiving my rights to the dividend, I requested that the HFA uses the funds to help address the issue of mortgage arrears in the local authority sector and that HFA Management will arrange a suitable mechanism for forwarding the funds into the Local Authority MARP fund. In order for the HFA to pay the €20m in funds directly into the MARP Fund, legal advice indicates the HFA may require changes to its statutory powers and its Articles of Association. I understand that the legal mechanism required to pay the €20m into the MARP Fund is currently under discussion between the Housing Finance Agency and the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, and this mechanism is expected to be in place in 2014.

Question No. 11 answered orally.

Fiscal Policy

Questions (12, 16)

Bernard Durkan

Question:

12. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the extent to which he expects the targets laid down by the troika to be achieved by the end of the current year; if, in this context, he anticipates the possibility of using the principle of enhanced economic growth as a means of meeting the ongoing budgetary targets; if this is an option to prevent further cuts and is likely to be of greater benefit to the economy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23670/14]

View answer

Bernard Durkan

Question:

16. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the degree to which he expects reductions in public expenditure, increased economic growth and-or reform to feature in 2015 while at the same time meeting the targets laid down by the troika; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23671/14]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Public)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 12 and 16 together.

While Ireland is no longer in a Troika programme following our successful programme exit in December 2013, we are still subject to the fiscal deficit ceilings for Ireland as set out in the Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP).  The Government's overall fiscal target is to reduce the General Government Deficit to 4.8% for 2014 and to bring it below 3% by end 2015. 

The Expenditure Report published on Budget Day, 15 October 2013, set out a series of expenditure measures agreed by Government that need to be implemented in order to meet our fiscal targets in 2014. All Ministers and their Departments are aware of the necessity to ensure that the expenditure savings required to meet these targets are delivered.  The total voted gross expenditure ceiling for 2014 is €53 billion; this is split €49.7 billion current and €3.3 billion capital.  The new control measures introduced in 2013 to enhance the Medium Term Expenditure Framework will assist with ensuring that Departmental expenditure targets are met.

The Expenditure Report 2014 also set out Gross Voted Current and Gross Voted Capital expenditure ceilings for 2015 that will help to ensure that we achieve our deficit target of 2.9% by the end of 2015.  The second Comprehensive Review of Expenditure is now underway.  This will be a focused examination of expenditure by all Departments, taking account of Government spending priorities, in order to identify areas of potential savings and efficiencies.  The Departmental reviews will inform Government decisions and will help underpin the basis of the multi-annual expenditure ceilings that will be published as part of the Expenditure Report 2015.  The exact expenditure measures required to meet these targets will be agreed by Government in the context of Budget 2015 taking into account macroeconomic developments.

Flood Risk Assessments

Questions (13)

Denis Naughten

Question:

13. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the steps he is taking to implement the recommendations in the Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht report on Shannon flooding published in 2012; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23690/14]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Public)

As outlined to the Deputy in the reply to Parliamentary Questions 16 and 41 of 26 February 2014, the core strategy for addressing flood risk in the Shannon Basin is the River Shannon Catchment Flood Risk Assessment & Management (CFRAM) Study and I am advised that good progress continues to be made on the project.

A total of 66 locations along the Shannon have been identified for further assessment under the Study. The output of this important project will be an integrated plan of specific measures to address, in a comprehensive and sustainable way, the significant flood risk factors in the Shannon basin.

As the Deputy is aware, operational control of water flows and levels on the Shannon is the responsibility of both the ESB and Waterways Ireland. In order to address ongoing concerns that the existing water level control regime may be a contributory factor in early Summer flooding in the Callows, the OPW facilitated discussions between these principal operating stakeholders with a view to their agreeing a new interim control regime on the regulation of water levels. Under this interim regime the ESB agreed to a trial lowering of the Spring/early Summer target levels in Lough Ree to reduce somewhat the risk of summer flooding, particularly in the Shannon Callows area. This trial commenced in Summer 2013 and will remain in place until the publication of the Shannon CFRAM Plan.

On foot of discussions between the OPW and the IFA and with the cooperation of both the ESB and Waterways Ireland, a water level monitoring exercise is being carried out as part of the CFRAM process. This will allow for analysis of water flows and levels at key points around the Lough Ree and Callows areas. Interim data from this exercise has been collated and this data will feed into the overall Shannon CFRAM study. The interim data is available on www.shannoncframstudy.ie and on www.opw.ie. The OPW will continue to review these developments on a regular basis in consultation with the ESB and Waterways Ireland.

The Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht report on Shannon flooding dealt with and included recommendations on a number of issues within the areas of responsibilities of a range of Government Departments and State Bodies. The OPW responded to the Committee, by way of a written reply in September 2012, in relation to the specific matters within the OPW's area of responsibility. The main area addressed in the reply related to the CFRAM programme and how the OPW is addressing flood risk on the River Shannon in the context of that Programme. The Committee Report was forwarded to OPW's technical consultants for consideration in the context of the Shannon CFRAM Study. The Committee received a briefing from the OPW in late 2012 including briefing on the Shannon Levels Operations Report.

Severe Weather Events Expenditure

Question No. 15 answered with Question No. 6.

Question No. 16 answered with Question No. 12.

Questions (14)

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

14. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the amount of money approved by the Office of Public Works relating to the storm damage in January of this year; the amount of this money it is hoped to spend this year in repairing the damage caused and in preventative measures; the amount of this money approved for offshore islands; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23647/14]

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Written answers (Question to Public)

The Government decided on 11th February 2014 to allocate total funding of up to €69.5m for repair of public infrastructure and facilities damaged by the severe weather events in the period 13th December 2013 to 6th January 2014 based on estimates of costs provided by Local Authorities to the Department of the Environment Community and Local Government (DoECLG). This allocation included up to €19.6m for repairs of existing coastal protection and flood defences, to be provided through the Vote of the Office of Public Works (OPW).

The DoECLG wrote to all local authorities notifying them of their allocations in respect of each category of infrastructure covered by the Government Decision. Each Council was directed to submit overall programmes of works to the DoECLG detailing how it proposes to spend the total allocation that is being made available. The Council must also submit the relevant elements of its programme to each Department from whom funding will be made available for consideration of technical aspects of the proposed works. In preparing this programme, it is a matter for the local authorities to satisfy themselves that works they propose to undertake fall within the ambit of those covered by the Government Decision.

The programmes of coastal protection and flood defence projects received by the OPW are reviewed having regard to the Council's allocations and related guidance issued by the DoECLG to the local authorities in relation to works that may qualify for funding.

To date, total funding of €18.240m has been approved and allocated by the OPW to nine Local Authorities that have submitted programmes of works as directed by the DoECLG. This funding includes €0.93m in respect of approved projects on 12 off-shore islands. A further €0.055m has been allocated for works on islands that are linked to the mainland by causeways.

The commencement and progression of the works is a matter for the local authorities. The OPW has informed the local authorities that in order to assist them in a practical way and to avoid any potential cash-flow issues, it will consider requests for advance funding of up to 80% of the estimated cost of approved projects where a contract for works has been made. It is not possible at this point to estimate the precise amount that will be spent by the local authorities or that will be drawn down by them from the OPW this year.

Question No. 15 answered with Question No. 6.
Question No. 16 answered with Question No. 12.

National Lottery Licence Sale

Questions (17)

Seán Fleming

Question:

17. Deputy Sean Fleming asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he is satisfied with the operating plans for the new national lottery licence is respect of protecting vulnerable persons from developing gambling problems; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23698/14]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Public)

I am committed to ensuring that the National Lottery continues to operate in a socially responsible way under its new licensee.  I consider it very important that the Lottery continues to build on its strong record in this area dating back to its foundation in 1986 and I welcome the National Lottery's ongoing commitment to best practice in this regard.

Pension Levy

Questions (18)

Joan Collins

Question:

18. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform when the PRD or pension levy, introduced in 2009 via the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2009, will be abolished or revised to exclude workers earning less than €60,000 per annum. [23651/14]

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Written answers (Question to Public)

The public service Pension-related Deduction (PRD) was introduced in March 2009 under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2009. PRD is a progressively structured multi-band reduction imposed  on the pay of pensionable public servants. 

PRD continues to be a critical component of the public service pay and pension measures adopted as part of our national fiscal consolidation. Across all sectors of the public service, and based on the current PRD rates structure, it is estimated that the deduction raises in the region of €950 million per year. A large proportion of this revenue would no longer accrue to the Exchequer if PRD was abolished or no longer applied to persons earning less than €60,000 per annum. In these circumstances, that revenue would have to be raised through other means in order to maintain our necessary fiscal consolidation targets. Nevertheless, a start has been made in relation to the amelioration of the impact of PRD on public servants. As legislated for in the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2013, and as provided for in the Haddington Road Agreement, the rate of PRD on the €15,000 to €20,000 band of pay received fell from 5% to 2.5% on 1 January 2014. This rate cut is worth €125 annually in gross terms to most public servants, with those taxed at the standard rate enjoying the greater gain in terms of take-home pay boost.

I should also point out that I will be reviewing PRD, as part of my overall annual review of the wider set of emergency fiscal measures introduced under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Acts 2009-2013. This review arises under section 12 of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2013, and I am required to cause a written report of my findings to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas. As part of that review I must consider whether the measures continue to be necessary having regard to the purposes of the legislation, the revenues of the State and State commitments in respect of public service pay and pensions. My next such report will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas by 30 June 2014.

Public Procurement Contracts

Questions (19)

Clare Daly

Question:

19. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his views on whether the public sector procurement policies are playing a role in driving small companies out of business; and his plans to change them. [23649/14]

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Written answers (Question to Public)

The reform of the procurement system across the public service is a key element of the reform programme for the public service.  Public Procurement savings enable public service organisations deliver much needed services within the tighter budgets that they much now operate. The fragmented procurement arrangements across the public service have enabled suppliers to charge different public service bodies different prices for the same goods and services. This is not sustainable, as the State cannot afford to continue to purchase works, goods and services in a manner that undermines the level of services it can deliver.   

Reforms are being carried out in a manner that recognises the importance of SMEs in the economic recovery of the country.  The establishment of the Office of Government Procurement will be key to bringing a more professional and whole of government approach to procurement. It will drive fair, transparent and open competition in the marketplace but also continue to work with business to ensure that government procurement policies are business friendly.

As a government we want better value for money for our substantial procurement spend and we want Irish SMEs, where necessary, to form consortia to ensure they can tender on a competitive basis for this work.  In this regard the Office of Government Procurement has facilitated workshops and presented at seminars to over 4,500 SMEs nationwide.  These 'Meet the Buyer' events afforded suppliers an opportunity to meet and discuss the issues with public service buyers and provide networking opportunities for suppliers and encourage consortia-building.

The Office of Government Procurement is committed to ensuring that SMEs are fully engaged with public sector procurement and the opportunities presenting.  In conjunction with the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the OGP has set up a high level group on SME access to Public Procurement.  The focus of this group is to develop and monitor strategies for SME access to public procurement.  The group also has regard to the Government's Action Plan for Jobs and specifically those actions aimed at maximising procurement opportunities for SME in the public sector.  In this context my Department has also recently finished reviewing and updating existing guidelines and procedures aimed at promoting SME participation in public procurement.  Circular 10/14, launched on 17 April, sets out new initiatives aimed at opening up opportunities for small businesses to bid for State business, reducing barriers in the procurement process and reducing costs for bidders.  These new guidelines have been broadly welcomed by industry representative associations.

Departmental Expenditure

Questions (20)

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

20. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the total expenditure to date this year on voted services; the way this compares with profied capital and current expenditure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23648/14]

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Written answers (Question to Public)

The Government decided on Departmental allocations for 2014 in the Budget which was announced on 15th October, 2013. The full details in relation to these allocations were set out in the Revised Estimates for Public Services, 2014 (REV) published on 18th December, 2013 and approved by the Dáil on Thursday, 30th January, 2014.  Ministers and their Departments are responsible for ensuring adherence to Vote-level allocations and for managing the delivery of services. After the REV was approved, each Vote set out its expected net and gross expenditure profile on a cumulative month by month basis and, as is normal, these profiles were made public and were laid in the Oireachtas Library.  All Departments report to my Department on a monthly basis in relation to their actual current and capital expenditure compared with their published profiles and explain variances where they arise. The updated expenditure position is published each month by my Department as part of the Exchequer position published by the Department of Finance.

I am pleased to report that the overall Exchequer voted gross and net expenditure figures to the end of May are showing that both current and capital expenditure are below profile.  Gross voted current expenditure of almost €20.9 billion is €82 million below profile with gross voted capital expenditure of €780 million being €57 million below profile.

The Government is committed to ensuring that our fiscal targets for 2014 are achieved, and in this regard my Department meets regularly with line Departments to review financial management with regular reporting to Government on these matters.

Office of Public Works Properties

Questions (21)

Patrick O'Donovan

Question:

21. Deputy Patrick O'Donovan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the number of decommissioned former Garda stations that have been handed over to community and voluntary organisations; the number of those which are being actively considered by his Department for handing over; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23646/14]

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Written answers (Question to Public)

The Commissioners of Public Works have assigned seventeen former Garda stations to local community and voluntary groups subject to agreed licence. The Commissioners are currently examining proposals from community and voluntary groups for a further five former Garda stations.

Budget 2015

Questions (22)

Seán Fleming

Question:

22. Deputy Sean Fleming asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if the budget planning process for budget 2015 has commenced; the priorities that he has set for the next budget; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23702/14]

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Written answers (Question to Public)

Following on from Ireland's successful exit from the Troika programme in December last, the Government's fiscal target for 2015 is to bring the General Government Deficit below 3 of GDP, in line with our commitments under the Excessive Deficit Procedure.

In order to help ensure that we achieve the deficit target for 2015, the Expenditure Report 2014 (as published on Budget Day in October 2013) set out gross voted current and capital expenditure ceilings for future years including 2015.

I announced at Budget time that our second 3-yearly Comprehensive Review of Expenditure would be carried out this year to help inform the setting of expenditure ceilings for 2015, 2016 and 2017.  This review is now underway and will be a focused examination of expenditure by all Departments, taking account of Government spending priorities in order to identify areas of potential savings and efficiencies.  In parallel, a separate Review of Capital Expenditure is also being conducted with a view to realigning future investment priorities and to reset the medium-term capital envelopes for the next five years.

The Comprehensive Review of Expenditure and the Review of Capital Expenditure will inform discussions in relation to Budget 2015, including Government decisions on the expenditure ceilings for the years ahead, and will underpin decisions on the specific expenditure measures required to meet our fiscal targets for 2015.  Decisions on the Budget will be informed by the up-to-date economic and fiscal outlook at that time.

Decentralisation Programme

Questions (23)

Seán Kyne

Question:

23. Deputy Seán Kyne asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if, in the context of the review of decentralisation necessitated by the unprecedented difficult financial position of the State, has has plans to review the possible relocation of units and sections of the public service to locations outside of Dublin in the interests of sustainable regional development; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23682/14]

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Written answers (Question to Public)

The Government agreed in November 2011 that the Decentralisation Programme, announced in the December 2003 Budget Statement by the then Minister for Finance, should be cancelled in the light of the budgetary and staffing outlook. It was also agreed that a review of 22 projects should be carried out. Following completion of that review in January 2012, a total of 43 projects had been cancelled, while 50 were maintained, to be managed in the same way as other regionally based offices and Departments.  It was agreed that one project - the Defence Forces in the Curragh should proceed, on a cost effective basis, as soon as budgetary resources permit. 

Up to the date of the cancellation of the programme, about a third of the target numbers over 3,400 were decentralised.  While the decentralised offices account for less than 10% of serving civil service staff, taken together with the pre-existing regional and district offices of Departments the proportion of civil servants working outside Dublin is now just over 50%.

Given the need to focus on programmes and projects that will best support economic recovery, as well as the ongoing necessity to achieve significant expenditure savings and efficiencies, there are no plans at the present time to introduce a further programme of decentralisation.

Consular Services Representations

Questions (24)

Olivia Mitchell

Question:

24. Deputy Olivia Mitchell asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the action that has been taken on the release of an Irish citizen (details supplied) who is imprisoned in Egypt; if further pressure on the Egyptian Government to obtain their release is possible; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23684/14]

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Written answers (Question to Foreign)

I wish to inform the Deputy that I have raised my concerns at this individual’s continued detention without trial with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Nabil Fahmy, on 11 November and 23 December 2013. In addition, the Embassy of Ireland in Cairo has been in sustained and direct contact with the Egyptian authorities in relation to this case. Our Ambassador Isolde Moylan and her colleagues in Egypt have met with and continue to liaise with senior officials from the Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Justice, and the office of the Prosecutor General.

From the beginning, the Consular Section in my Department has been actively liaising with the family of this individual and the Head of Consular Section in Dublin met with family representatives on 17 August, 19 September, 24 October and 16 December 2013, 16 January, 6 March and on 1 and 21 May 2014. Also, the Embassy in Cairo has been allowed regular consular access to this individual and consular visits were made by the Embassy on 24 August, 8 September, 15 September, 10 October, 24 October, 30 October, 10 November, 21 November, 3 December and 18 December 2013 and 8 January, 26 January, 13 February, 23 March, 9 April and 5 May 2014.

In March 2014, the Minister for Justice wrote to the Egyptian Minister for Justice Abdel-Moneim Othman, raising the Government’s concerns at the individual’s continued detention and requesting the opportunity to speak about this case as soon as possible.

Furthermore, I wrote to the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ms. Catherine Ashton, on 9 May 2014, asking that she raise her concerns on this individual’s case in her contacts with the Egyptian authorities.

The EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Mr. Stavros Lambrinidis raised this case with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Nabil Fahmy, and the Prosecutor General, Hisham Barakat, during his visit to Cairo in February 2014. However, as you will be aware, the individual named is still before the judicial system in Egypt and we are precluded from getting involved in the judicial process. Let me assure you that I continue to remain seriously concerned at the continued detention of this individual and have directed that the Irish Embassy and the Consular Assistance Section at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade continue to give all appropriate consular assistance.

Human Rights Issues

Questions (25)

Clare Daly

Question:

25. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will make representations to the Government of Sudan and the Sudanese Embassy in relation to the death sentence on Mariam Yaha Ibrahim Ishag, which is an appalling abuse of human rights. [23846/14]

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Written answers (Question to Foreign)

The Government, and our European Union partners, are completely opposed to the death penalty in all cases. We also attach the utmost importance to combating all forms of discrimination based on religion or belief. Freedom of religion or belief is one of Ireland’s priorities for our membership of the Human Rights Council, from 2013 to 2015, and we have played a central role in the negotiation of two important resolutions on this issue in the past year. I am appalled by the sentencing of Mrs. Mariam Ishaq. On 15 May, the EU issued a statement, which I fully support, expressing dismay at the sentence and emphasising that freedom of religion or belief is a universal human right that must be protected everywhere and for everyone. Sudan has ratified the relevant United Nations and African Union conventions and has an international obligation to defend and promote freedom of religion or belief.

Ireland and our EU partners have been calling on all countries to repeal legal provisions that penalise or discriminate against individuals for leaving or changing their religion or belief or for inducing others to change a religion or belief, especially when such cases are punishable by the death penalty. We are committed to working to ensure that citizens of Sudan and elsewhere do not suffer violence or discrimination on the grounds of religion.

I have asked our Embassy in Cairo, which is accredited to Sudan, to follow the case of Mrs. Ishaq closely, and to ensure that our serious concerns are understood. We will also continue to follow developments in cooperation with our EU partners.