Priority Questions.

Arts Funding.

Olivia Mitchell

Ceist:

1 Deputy Olivia Mitchell asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if he will report on the value for money being achieved from the per cent for arts scheme; if he will recommend a revaluation of the scheme to determine if it is achieving best outcomes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10974/08]

As Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism I have responsibility for the promotion of the per cent for art scheme. At present my Department is chairing the interdepartmental public art committee. This committee is examining the current guidelines for the scheme and it will report to me on the matter early in due course. In that context, information on investment under the scheme is being collected from all participating Departments and agencies. When that information is available, a true assessment of the impact of the scheme can be made. There is no doubt that the visual impact of this scheme has been overwhelmingly positive. If the guidelines need to be updated, especially in the context of the monetary cap on the scheme, or in the context of proportionality, the guidelines will be republished.

The per cent for art scheme has enhanced and embellished our land, city and townscapes immeasurably. The scheme has given an invaluable platform to many of our visual artists and I look forward to its continued relevance.

I hope the Minister has more luck than I had in gathering information about art pieces when I submitted questions to all Departments. The feedback I received was worrying. I agree that the scheme has major potential and has provided art around the country, has provided employment to young, emerging and established artists and has raised awareness of art. It has major potential but from what little research I have done it seems we are not getting the best bang for our buck. Most Departments have no clue how much they have spent. Three Departments had a vague idea of what they had spent but in most cases where they had an idea, capital projects that would have qualified for the per cent for art scheme did not draw it down. What I found most worrying was the opportunity lost by the scheme. The Departments of Health and Children; Transport; and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the three big spending Departments in terms of capital projects, had no idea how much they had spent and no way of finding out. They did not see any reason to keep a register of what had happened in the past or to change their ways in the future. The exception is the HSE, which is considering employing someone to deal with public art. To date, no one knows what art is out there, there is no register or audit and no idea if items purchased with public money are still in place. Driving around the country, I see that pieces of outdoor sculpture have been stolen or defaced or degraded by the environment. Also, inappropriate pieces are being purchased and I am worried about the quality of the selection process and the monitoring of projects. Is anything happening in that regard?

I appreciate that most counties have an arts officer but they tend to be called in only for work undertaken by the local authority. We must use the resources we have to allow local authorities to take on public arts officers or consultant arts officers working between a few counties. There must be more monitoring of the scheme if we are to get bang for our buck. Does the Minister agree? I wish him well in seeking a register of what is out there, which I failed to do.

This scheme goes back a long way, to 1978, when the Office of Public Works established an artistic embellishment scheme based upon the principles of the per cent for art scheme, whereby 1% of all construction budgets could be applied to an artistic feature. In 1986 the Department of the Environment established a similar scheme and the Minister with responsibility for arts became involved thereafter. It has a long history and has been underused. I would like to breathe new life into it by relaunching it. With that in mind, an interdepartmental committee on public art has been reconvened and has held three meetings to date. The committee is tasked with reviewing the guidelines of the scheme.

Some people confuse the scheme with motorway art. It could be a hospital or school that spends the 1% on its grounds. There is a cap on the scheme and for projects costing between €2.5 million and €6.3 million, an art budget of 1%, up to a maximum of €38,000 is allowed. For projects costing between €6.3 million and €12.7 million, an art budget of €51,000 is allowed. If we are to make progress we must change the caps. The figure of 1% does not quite capture it. I support the concept and would like to breathe new life into it and relaunch it. I will keep the pressure on the committee.

I welcome that. In terms of the cap, there is potential and the Minister needs someone in charge of the scheme locally to draw three or four together. We could get better value for money if one project was undertaken. It does not need to be sculpture, it could be a piece of work or a music programme.

I take note of that.

National Aquatic Centre.

Mary Upton

Ceist:

2 Deputy Mary Upton asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if the review of the first full years trading at the National Aquatic Centre is complete; when he expects the benchmarking exercise to be available; the reason given by the NAC for a decision to increase fees for a participation club (details supplied) by over 300%; his views on the unusual offer made to members for the club in lieu of the proposed increase; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10988/08]

Olivia Mitchell

Ceist:

3 Deputy Olivia Mitchell asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if he has satisfied himself with the operation of the National Aquatic Centre; the criteria in terms of outcomes that have been established against which to measure success; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10935/08]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 3 together.

The National Aquatic Centre is operated by NSCDA (Operations) Ltd., a subsidiary company of the National Sports Campus Development Authority. All day-to-day operations of the National Aquatic Centre are a matter for the authority and the operations company.

When the National Aquatic Centre was restored to the ownership of the NSCDA not only did the centre require an extensive capital programme, much effort has gone into rebuilding the reputation of the centre and increasing its customer base.

Notwithstanding the need to provide an initial subsidy to the centre in its first full year of operation after it was repossessed by the NSCDA. I have previously stated my view in the House that the centre should in time be able to operate on a self-financing basis. In order to assist in this overall process, the National Sports Campus Development Authority has arranged for a financial assessment study to be carried out which will benchmark the National Aquatic Centre against other equivalent facilities. Work commenced in early February with an estimated timeframe of approximately two months. This exercise, together with the centre's 2007 performance, will inform the level of standard against which future performance will be measured.

Regarding the particular club referred to by Deputy Upton, I have been advised that negotiations are continuing with regard to the fees for usage of the centre's facilities in 2008. I hope an agreement can be reached which is satisfying both to the centre and the club in question. I am advised, however, that the proposed annual fee to which the Deputy refers does not represent the level of fees which are to be charged to the club but, rather, the commercial value of the pool usage which the club is seeking. Furthermore, the "unusual offer" referred to by the Deputy was in fact proposed by the club itself not the management of the centre and was acceptable to the centre and subsequently withdrawn by the club.

I call Dr. Upton.

Nearly as distinguished as Pat Kenny.

I thank the Minister for the reply. I tabled the question in respect of the club, which is of the view that there was a proposed increase of 150%. The NAC swim club is critical to a number of athletes, including paralympians. Its social value is making a major impact. The fee structure seems extraordinary in terms of required increases. I referred in my question to the "unusual offer" which I now understand was made by the club. The National Aquatic Centre sees the offer as a commitment, but it was meant as a once-offpro bono gesture and not to be included formally as a continuous commitment, as the club cannot commit to such fees.

No club could accept the situation in which the club in question finds itself. I am anxious and have instructed officials — in so far as they are involved because this is a matter for the centre as opposed to officials — that an agreement acceptable to the centre and the club should be reached. I told the House previously at Question Time that the centre should at least break even on its day-to-day operations. We should retain this target because not to do so would lead us down a long road towards a subsidy. Irrespective of the capital subsidy for the project, providing a current funding subsidy on a long-term basis would be the wrong direction to take. The club should not and will not be the one to suffer in the middle of such a policy. The centre is doing better in the first quarter of this year than it did in the first quarter of 2007. Its financial operations have shown an improvement, which is encouraging. I am hopeful an agreement can be arrived at.

I raised this matter previously and agree that we must target a break-even figure for the operation of the centre. Like Deputy Upton, however, I wished to raise the question of the particular club mentioned. I will not go into detail on the problems it is facing because this matter raises a broader question concerning how the centre has been managed. Since its inception, it has haemorrhaged money and credibility. It does not have a CEO. While everyone states it is a beautiful centre, it is under-utilised and there is a suggestion it is not being managed well. The CEO issue and dissatisfied swimming clubs show a lack of determination on the Minister's part to turn around fortunes in respect of what was a significant investment of more than €70 million of taxpayers' money, including €2 million in subsidies last year and a sum of €600,000 to put its roof back on.

The development in question is part of the centre's attempt to break even, but should it not be marketing the pool to bring attract additional business in order that it can be used? It costs more than €1 million per year to heat and is under-utilised. The way to break even is not to chase away current customers. The reduced figure suggested to the club's members, many of whom are disabled and some of whom are paralympians, is more than €1,000 per year per member. If members of the same family — three children, for example — are in a club, as is often the case, the price being asked is ridiculous in respect of a facility where we want to increase the level of participation. The Minister must address the management problem quickly.

I am sorry to learn that Swim Ireland has washed its hands of the dispute. It is the representative body and should get involved in the matter. Unless a settlement is reached in the next week, the centre may lose the club. It has lost the water polo club and the divers are worried that they will need to leave when their renewal date is reached. That was not the intention behind the centre. I would not have a problem with subsidising it were it being utilised to the maximum and providing the national and local facilities envisaged, but it seems it is a white elephant.

Attendance figures for the NAC in 2007 amounted to 540,000 and its financial performance in the first quarter of this year has been better than in the first quarter of 2007. Its performance is improving.

From a low base.

Granted. The CEO position has been advertised and someone of a strong nature has been identified. The post will be filled shortly.

It is legitimate that the taxpayer should fund the capital cost. However, the taxpayer is entitled to seek to have the day-to-day costs covered in so far as they can. I did not insist on that this year and instead agreed to a current subsidy of €1.8 million, meaning the clubs need not carry the cost. To ask the centre to strive to break even is not unreasonable, as it would have many good effects. The centre will continue to be a success.

I am reassured to know that the Minister is hopeful that an agreement will be reached with the club. It would be a tragedy for sport and the club, in particular, if the agreement were to fall apart.

Without going into the specifics of the charges — I accept that the details must be hammered out — what is being referred to broadly is out of line with what would occur in respect of another club. The club's loss of a swimming lane could be seen as imposing an additional charge of 25%. Various factors were built into the desired outcome of the negotiations. The sports facility is an important one. It would be a great shame if it were to be neglected or any necessary subsidies were not provided. It is one of the few family friendly facilities in the Dublin area. I am anxious to be reassured on the project's success.

The Government and everyone in the House are fully supportive of the NAC and wish it success.

Horseracing Ireland.

Olivia Mitchell

Ceist:

4 Deputy Olivia Mitchell asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if he envisages new funding arrangements for Horse Racing Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10976/08]

Government support for the horse and greyhound racing industries is provided under the horse and greyhound racing fund which was established under the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act 2001 for the purpose of further developing both racing industries. Under the provisions of the 2001 Act, the fund receives a guaranteed level of finance based on excise duty on off-course betting in the preceding year subject to a minimum level based on the 2000 amount adjusted for inflation. Any shortfall in the amount generated by the excise duty is made up by direct Exchequer subvention. In 2004 the Government agreed to increase the aggregate limit on the fund from €254 million to €550 million to allow for continuation of the fund for a further four-year period to 2008. Since 2001 the fund has provided a guaranteed level of funding for Horse Racing Ireland which will have amounted to more than €436 million by the end of 2008.

In 2008 Horse Racing Ireland, HRI, is to receive more than €61 million from the fund.

Since the establishment of the fund a major period of development of the horse racing industry has resulted. The funding has allowed Ireland to develop into a world centre of excellence for horse racing. Horse Racing Ireland has undertaken a capital investment programme that has underpinned growth in the sector.

In 2004, HRI launched a €250 million capital development fund for Irish racecourses, which is being spent over five years, to continue the substantial upgrading of racecourses. HRI will provide up to €135 million in grant aid and the racecourses will finance the balance from their own resources.

The allocation of €70 million under the new national development plan for capital investment for the horse and greyhound racing industries will assist long-term planning, which will result in the further development of a network of modern well-managed facilities that will continue to be attractive to the public.

To date, the fund not only has helped towards providing some top class racing venues and facilities but also has underpinned significant employment in the horse racing industry. The prize money it has facilitated has been an important boost for horse breeding, which is a significant net contributor to the economy and has an important role to play in generating employment, particularly in the tourism and agri-economy sectors, making it a significant regional employer and an important contributor to rural communities.

The current round of the fund is due to expire at the end of 2008. A review of the horse and greyhound racing fund will be undertaken this year and any extension of the fund will require the approval of the Government and the Oireachtas.

I agree with the Minister that this is a highly important industry for many reasons, including employment and rural employment in particular. Horse Racing Ireland and the bloodstock industry together constitute one of our critical industries and it is appropriate that the State should ensure that horse racing is facilitated, if not subsidised. As this is such an expensive sport obviously it has difficulty breaking even and traditionally, betting has been used as a way of funding it.

However, the Minister must realise the present position simply is not sustainable. Even were a new fund to be created, I presume this would require legislation at some point during the year, it would not be sustainable for the taxpayer to pay more towards the sport of horse racing than to all other sports combined in respect of current expenditure. It is quite shocking to note that the Sports Council, which funds a considerable number of sporting bodies, received approximately €57 million this year while the racing fund, which admittedly also includes greyhounds, amounts to €66 million in current spending. This cannot be justified or sustained. Consequently, what thought has the Minister given as to how the industry is to be funded?

While I apologise for going on at some length, this is a complex issue. I understand the reason the tax rate has been reduced from 5% to 1% is because of the threat posed to bookmakers' shops by on-line betting. However, I am uncertain of the validity of that argument as I have not noticed any falling off in off-course betting. This year's results for Paddy Power PLC, show its profits were €72 million, half of which is attributable to on-line betting. However, the remainder came from the retail business that is done in off-course shops.

If the Deputy wishes the Minister to reply, one minute remains.

I note Paddy Power PLC has opened 18 new shops, ten of which were new and the rest being acquisitions. I find it hard to believe it could not sustain a higher rate of tax, if that is what is required. This is not a sport in which many people actively participate. Given the obvious limits to the State's resources, such funding should be going into increased activity, particularly for young people. While I recognise this is an extremely important industry to Ireland, such moneys should not be sourced from the sporting fund. Will the Minister reconsider the taxation issue or have any other bright ideas come up? Other countries appear to employ a mix of what we do but not all of them accept that on-line betting will be the end of off-course excise duty.

On-line betting and technology certainly has changed the nature of many industries, including this one. The Deputy will recall this goes back to 2001, when the House enacted the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act. It considered it to be a formula to — pardon the pun — ring-fence the income and support for the horse and greyhound racing industries. The view taken in 2001 was that the formula was a guaranteed level of finance based on excise duty on off-course betting in the preceding year, subject to a particular level of shortfalls. This has led to Horse Racing Ireland receiving €61 million from the fund in 2008.

As I noted in my response, an opportunity exists to review the position. The current round of the fund is due to expire at the end of this year and a review of the fund will be undertaken in the course of 2008. If it is decided that an extension of the fund is needed, that will require the approval of this House by way of legislation and obviously it also will require the support of the Government. There will be an opportunity to review the position. This matter was examined carefully in 2001 when it was felt that given the importance of the industry, its size, the employment it offers and so on, a formula was needed for the future financing of the industry and that formula was arrived at in the 2001 legislation.

Everyone should be slow to disturb it if it is succeeding. However, that would not prevent the Government from reviewing it to ensure it is succeeding and that review is under way.

May I ask a brief question?

We are out of time.

I understand Horse Racing Ireland has made a recommendation. Has the Minister received it yet? It also has recognised this is not sustainable. Has he received recommendations for alternative sources of funding?

The Minister should respond briefly.

I am unsure whether I have received a formal recommendation. I receive regular submissions from Horse Racing Ireland but I do not recall a specific one on that subject.

Perhaps this industry should be financed from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment rather than through sport.

I also should point out that this area substantially is a matter for the Minister for Finance.

As the Member who tabled Question No. 5 is not present in the Chamber, I will move to ceisteanna eile.

Question No. 5 lapsed.