Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 17 Jun 2010

Vol. 712 No. 4

Adjournment Debate

Swimming Pool Projects

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Connick, to the House.

The Acting Chairman is well acquainted with the issues I propose to address during this debate. The difficulties that were experienced last September, when the swimming pool at the St. Vincent's Centre was closed due to a lack of funding for its refurbishment, represented a major setback for the Daughters of Charity, who run the centre. Swimming pools are of wonderful value — for rehabilitation purposes, for example — in centres where many people receive services on a residential or day care basis. The swimming pool has been closed for some time now. It was one of the first serious cutbacks in the services being provided to intellectually challenged people at the St. Vincent's Centre. As the Acting Chairman knows, the Daughters of Charity have been providing an excellent service at the centre, which is based on the Navan Road in Dublin, for a long period of time. Approximately 300 people are catered for there on a residential or day care basis. The centre is a well respected institution in the community.

A bombshell landed on the Daughters of Charity last month when the HSE indicated they would have to pare €4 million from their services by the end of the year. If they had been given that information six months ago, it would have been easier for them to adjust. The cuts will be exacerbated because they will have to be made in the remaining half of the year. They will be sharper in the areas in which they fall. The first requirement indicated by the HSE is that 56 staff members will have to be taken off the payroll. Overall staff numbers will have to be reduced from 1,046 to 990. A sanction in the form of a 5% cut has been threatened if quarterly targets are not achieved. These measures will affect the services being provided at the St. Vincent's Centre. The HSE has already instructed the closure of the Ard Cuan respite care centre on the Old Cabra Road by 30 June next. All service users, including their families, were only told about this on 8 June, which was very short notice. The entire service provided off-campus is closing down entirely.

On top of this, the respite care service at the Sancta Maria unit, on-campus at the Navan Road centre, will be reduced to being provided four nights, Monday to Thursday. The number of family support hours provided for will also be significantly reduced. The opening hours of Connect, the after-school club, will also be significantly reduced, while the annual summer camp will not be able to function because there is no money to provide support. Parents will have to pay for the transport of their children to Deck, another service provided in the summer, if it will be able to function, which is unlikely. The skills development programme will have to close for four weeks instead of the usual three in the summer. Staff members have been informed that they will have to take an extra week's holidays at their own expense or be redeployed to some other area. These are severe cutbacks which are being implemented in the middle of the summer. The management of St. Vincent's Centre is endeavouring to ensure residential and day care services will be maintained as well as possible for the remainder of the year.

As I said, the centre has already had to close its swimming pool owing to lack of funding for refurbishment. One would expect services provided for one of the most vulnerable sectors of the community — people with intellectual disabilities — would be the last to be hit, but they have been targeted in this case. I urge the Minister to consider what can be done to reverse these cutbacks. The cutbacks to funding for librarians in disadvantaged areas who were to be given the chop in August last year were reversed last week. This service was important, particularly in terms of promoting literacy and numeracy, and I am thankful the Minister saw fit to reverse that decision because much good work has been done. I now ask the Minister to consider reversing this €4 million cutback in the service provided by the Daughters of Charity in Dublin.

I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children. I thank the Deputy for raising it and I am pleased to take the opportunity to outline the position on funding for the Daughters of Charity services at St. Vincent's Centre, Navan Road, Dublin 7.

I reaffirm the Government's commitment to providing high quality services for all people with a disability under the national disability strategy which has the objective of putting in place the most effective combination of legislation, policies, institutional arrangements and services to support and reinforce equal participation for people with disabilities. The strategy is the framework being used to achieve positive and active measures to support the participation of people with disabilities in society. Government policy and best practice recognise that clients and service users need to be at the centre of service delivery. On an ongoing basis, we are examining the way in which services are delivered to ensure people with disabilities are provided with the best possible services in an efficient and appropriate manner.

The Government's commitment in the area of disability and mental health is consistent. Overall, approximately €1.6 billion is spent annually by the health service on disability programmes, including residential, day care, respite, assessments and rehabilitation services. In recent years significant additional resources have been provided for services and supports in this area. The multi-annual investment programme 2006-09, a key component of the Government's disability strategy, had by the end of 2008 provided for approximately 804 new residential places, 307 new respite places and 1,863 new day places for the intellectual disability service and 275 new residential places and 911,626 extra home care or personal assistance hours for people with physical and sensory disabilities.

The HSE has advised the Minister for Health and Children that it is very much aware of the valuable contribution of the services provided by the Daughters of Charity for people with intellectual disabilities in Dublin. During the period of the multi-annual investment programme the Daughters of Charity services received funding from the HSE in the region of €85.126 million in 2005, €94.748 million in 2006, €101.301 million in 2007, €106.790 million in 2008 and €110.542 million in 2009. This sustained level of additional investment reflected the significant growth and development of the Daughters of Charity services throughout this period.

The HSE is aware of the challenges service providers, including the Daughters of Charity, are experiencing and the particular difficulties facing all health services in 2010. In this context, it is vital that all providers work creatively and co-operatively to ensure the maximum level of service is maintained for service users within the funding resources available. The HSE plans to maintain access to appropriate treatments and services for clients during 2010, despite the current resource pressures. It is aware of the challenges which this reduction in allocation will present to organisations in ensuring they meet the needs of service users and in planning for emergencies that arise throughout the year. It is recognised that the maintaining of service levels within available resources will require significant levels of co-operation, change, flexibility and creativity. The HSE will continue to work in partnership with the voluntary service providers in dealing with issues that arise from funding allocations to ensure the needs of service users are prioritised and addressed.

Disability service providers have been requested to submit their plans for the maintenance of service levels within available resources. They have been asked to review all items of expenditure which do not immediately and directly affect front-line services and consider where rationalisation can be effected in other areas; review the manner in which services are delivered; identify any opportunities to reduce costs by sharing services and-or activities with other statutory or non-statutory agencies; reduce the cost of back office administration functions and all other unnecessary costs; and consider rationalising general management structures. The HSE will continue to work with voluntary service providers to streamline costs and identify areas in which efficiencies can be achieved without affecting front-line service delivery.

Decentralisation Programme

In July 2006, 37 staff from the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs moved to new advance offices in Tubbercurry, County Sligo. The plan was that the staff would be based there temporarily pending construction of a new headquarters at Knock Airport in County Mayo. Later other sections of the Department transferred to Tubbercurry. For the past six years the staff in question have been working effectively at the Tubbercurry location and, by all accounts, have settled into a successful and happy lifestyle.

The former Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, for whom I have tremendous respect and who was committed to rural regeneration during his time as Minister, had originally planned for the relocation of the Department to Knock Airport. This move never happened, as the proposed office building at Knock Airport did not receive planning permission. It was then proposed that the staff would move to Charlestown. When that option was rejected, a facility in Kiltimagh was examined, but it has now been rejected. It is clear that there are no suitable premises at Knock Airport and that the premises identified in Charlestown and Kiltimagh have been established as being unsuitable. Planning for an eventual move by staff to a County Mayo location is no longer feasible or practical.

There is now an air of unreality about the commitment of the former Minister to move staff to County Mayo. I accept that he made his original commitment in good faith; however, six years on, it is time for the current Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Pat Carey, to re-evaluate the situation. The staff working and living in Tubbercurry are uncertain about their long-term work and living locations. All of the staff who transferred to Tubbercurry are well settled into the local community and do not wish to uproot and move again. For their part, the local Tubbercurry community has made them welcome and did everything possible to ensure the new arrivals were integrated smoothly. Tubbercurry and the wider south Sligo area have benefited economically and socially from the arrival of the departmental staff. In addition, some new jobs have been created in business support and related activities.

I fully support the broad decentralisation programme. The Western Development Commission carried out a study of the beneficial impact of decentralised offices in various parts of the country, particularly the west, and noted that the economic impact of the relocation of jobs to the western region had been positive and significant.

Public sector employees have taken up opportunities to relocate to the western region for quality of life reasons. I refer to the many benefits realised by easier commuting to work. The western region offers many advantages, some of which we heard yesterday in Dáil Éireann, in terms of cost savings and benefits from living in a close community, being closer to family and living in a rural location. Eventually the western rail track will come to Tubbercurry.

The relocation of Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs public sector jobs to Tubbercurry brought major benefits to south Sligo. Will the Minister confirm that staff will remain in Tubbercurry, and will he confirm that any necessary work to ensure the best working conditions for staff will be carried out?

Under the decentralisation programme, 140 staff of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs were due to decentralise to Knock Airport. However, following a decision in 2008 by An Bord Pleanála to refuse planning permission for the development of the Department's headquarters at Knock Airport, the Government decided in October 2008 to proceed with the decentralisation of the Department's headquarters to Charlestown, County Mayo.

Following the announcement of Government to decentralise the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, it was decided to relocate an advance party to temporary accommodation in Tubbercurry, County Sligo. From the total of the 140 staff due to decentralise to Charlestown, County Mayo, a total of 100 staff have now relocated to Tubbercurry, County Sligo. A significant number of the business units of the Department, including the full rural, community and financial business units, are operating successfully in Tubbercurry, where two properties are being rented to accommodate the staff concerned.

The two properties in Tubbercurry, County Sligo, which the Department are currently occupying, were selected for the Department by the Office of Public Works, which is responsible for the acquisition and rental of State property. These properties meet all the requirements of the Office of Public Works. The Office of Public Works is currently leasing the two properties in question and has leases on the premises until July 2012.

Regarding the Deputy's statement that new proposals that the staff transfer to Kiltimagh have been examined and rejected, I confirm that in May 2009 the Government was approached regarding the suitability of a building in Kiltimagh as a headquarters for the Department. The Government requested the OPW to carry out a review of this accommodation and to assess whether it was suitable for the Department's headquarters. The advice received from the OPW was that the building at Kiltimagh was not suitable for the Department's headquarters and did not meet the physical requirements of the Department.

It is not the case that new proposals that the staff transfer to Charlestown have been examined and rejected. The position is that in light of budgetary constraints and affordability issues, the Government decided to defer proceeding with permanent accommodation in Charlestown at this time. This location, along with four other deferred projects — Drogheda, The Curragh, Mullingar and Carlow — will be considered as part of the overall review of the decentralisation programme in 2011.

Local Authority Housing

In Dublin South East over the past 18 months I have noticed an increasing number of flats being left vacant even though there is a massive demand for social housing. Social housing lists are under severe strain. In Dublin 2, Dublin 4, Dublin 6 and Dublin 8 there are more than 240 flats lying idle. At a conservative estimate, that would accommodate 500 people. This would cater for a significant number of individuals and families who could live in more suitable accommodation. At present, there are adults with two or three children living in a one-bedroom flat while they see a vacant two-bedroom flat next door. It appears that nothing is done with these properties. The people are obviously frustrated.

A person came to me recently and told me he was considering squatting. I cannot blame people for this. I would probably do the same if I was in his shoes. However, that will not solve the Minister's difficulties. The Minister has done a major job and allocated considerable funding. Some €7 million has been allocated to retrofitting voids and energy ratings, €2 million has been allocated to compliance with new rental standards and €1.7 million has been allocated for improvement works on flats. Under section 58 of the Housing Act 1966, the management and maintenance of local authority housing stock, which is largely financed from internal resources, is a matter of for each housing authority. During the boom years, Dublin City Council used to employ contractors to improve the flats and subsequently allocate them. Now, times are different. BER statements are taking a considerable length of time and the local authorities are failing to certify flats. If the prospective tenant is willing to accept a flat in its current condition, it should be allocated on that basis. This would allow the accommodation and the housing stock to be used up. The Minister has developed initiatives to ease the pressure on the social housing list. I am not sure how much support he is getting from the local authorities. He has drawn up a range of measures to tackle the difficulties and challenges of the social housing lists.

It is not acceptable that some 240 flats in a very small area are lying idle and this matter should not be left to the council. That accommodation should be allocated as a matter of urgency. The Government should intervene and tell the manager that the job is not being done. I am not sure where the council spends money or whether it has been allocated enough money. However, a scheme should be set up so that an emergency fund is provided and Dublin City Council must meet certain targets before money is allocated to the council.

I thank Deputy Andrews for giving me an opportunity to outline the significant funding and progress on refurbishment of vacant Dublin City Council flats in Dublin South-East and elsewhere. My colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and local services, Deputy Michael Finneran, supports an ambitious social housing programme with new and ongoing projects under way throughout the country. It is a matter for Dublin City Council to determine the content of their programmes including any plans for social housing refurbishment in Dublin South-East, taking into account existing commitments, priority projects and any related co-funding and timescale considerations subject to compliance with any necessary departmental sanction, terms and conditions.

Some €179.085 million was allocated to the city council for its social housing programme in 2010, including €94.340 million for housing supply and €75.745 million for housing improvement. The housing improvement allocation included €62.295 million for regeneration, €2.7 million for remedial works, €7 million for retrofitting voids and energy upgrades, €2 million for compliance with new rental standards and €1.75 million for improvement works, such as extensions and conversions to meet special needs.

The Minister of State with responsibility for housing and local services is also committed to a multi-annual regeneration programme in Dublin city to help to improve the lives and conditions of the communities involved. Over the past decade, the Government has invested more than €100 million in the Dublin City Council inner city flats regeneration programme and the Minister has allocated a further €11.5 million in 2010 to support regeneration and improvement works in the inner city area.

The number of vacant local authority units nationwide is reported on in the annual local authority service indicators report.

The end 2007 report showed that a total of 5,090 dwellings, excluding those that were subject to major refurbishment programmes, were empty across the country. This represented 4.3% of the total stock of 118,000 dwellings. The 2008 report shows a decrease of 1,231 on the 2007 total — a 24% improvement — bringing the number of vacant units down nationally to 3,859, or 3.15% of total stock.

In order to achieve further improvements, especially energy efficiency improvements, a fund of €40 million was set aside in 2010 to provide co-funding for the retrofitting of vacant properties, both casual and planned, across local authority housing stock. The allocation to Dublin City Council of €7 million for retrofitting voids and energy upgrades, €2.7 million for remedial works and €2 million for compliance with new rented standards will have a very positive impact on improving vacant houses and flats across the city, to facilitate the early re-letting of such properties.

I point out that under section 58 of the Housing Act 1966, the management and maintenance of local authority housing stock is a matter for individual authorities. I am happy to say that Dublin City Council has the full support from the Minister of State with responsibility for housing for its social housing investment programme and, in particular, for its delivery of a range of housing responses to meet additional housing needs.

Departmental Offices

I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this important issue. Rural Ireland requires the services of various Departments and, from a rural perspective, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food offices have been an absolute requirement for the dispersed farming and rural community. A Government decision was taken in line with budgetary and economic matters to control spending in that Department, which I can understand. However, at the time an effort was made to undermine to some extent the work that is carried out in those offices. Some sought to suggest that much of the work could be dealt with over the telephone or on the Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is an absolute requirement that a number of satellite or part-time offices be established in those counties affected by the closure of their central district veterinary office. In the case of County Clare, a workable solution would be to have a satellite or temporary office within the confines of Ennis Mart, a location where farmers congregate on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This would provide an adequate and appropriate location for the services of the Department, especially in regard to veterinary matters, and would ensure that farmers had easy access to those services. In recent weeks farmers have found considerable difficulty in getting through the office in Limerick, now the designated office for County Clare farmers, despite their consistent efforts to reach or make contact with that office by telephone. This is creating great levels of frustration, especially for those farmers who require services for getting permits to have diseased animals slaughtered and many other regular interactions they would have with Department offices.

The suggestion that much of this business is transacted now over the Internet is a fallacy. Some larger farmers may have business of a kind that enables them to conduct it over the Internet but for the vast majority, especially smaller farmers, of whom there are many in County Clare, it is not acceptable to suggest they can transact their business in this way.

I appeal to the Minister of State to give serious consideration to this. I do not believe there would be any — or at least, not many — additional costs associated with having a member of departmental personnel located on a site within the mart complex in Ennis a number of days a week. There would be no increase in staff complement arising from such a decision and it would show a very strong commitment by the Department to service the farming community.

It is important this be dealt with now because there is a considerable amount of hardship as a result of the inability of some to make telephone contact with the Department. In addition, it is a complex journey to reach the office in Limerick, particularly from the north and west of the county. For that reason, I appeal again to the Minister of State to review this matter at the earliest opportunity. I do not ask him to incur any additional expense on behalf of the Department but to utilise existing services in an efficient manner that provides the best available service to the farming community.

I thank Deputy Timmy Dooley for raising this matter with me. On 15 July last year, the Government approved a plan for a reorganisation of my Department's local office network. The plan involves reducing, from 57 to 16, the number of offices from which my Department will operate district veterinary, forestry and agricultural environment and structures support services. To this end nine new regional offices have been established at Castlebar, Drumshanbo, Enniscorthy, Navan, Limerick, Roscommon town, Tipperary town, Tralee and Waterford city. Seven further new regional offices are soon to be established at Cavan, Clonakilty, Fermoy, Galway, Naas, Raphoe and Tullamore. More than half of the 41 local offices planned to close have closed to the public and the remainder are to close shortly.

The local office network reorganisation plan is an important phase in the ongoing overall reorganisation of my Department, which has seen staff numbers in my Department reduced by over 750 including the transfer of approximately 400 staff to other Departments, mainly the Department of Justice and Law Reform, for the operation of the PULSE system in Castlebar, and local offices of the Department of Social Protection and other Departments. In addition, some 600 staff were redeployed internally to new and expanding work areas including the single payment scheme and the implementation of new environmental, food safety and animal health controls required by the EU. These savings reflect changes in my Department's work practices, improved business processes, the greater use of computerisation and the wind up of livestock offices and takes account of the changes arising from CAP reform, the continued implementation of the Department's decentralisation plan, the findings of the organisational review programme and the objectives set out in the Government's transforming public services programme.

Internal reviews of my Department's operations have highlighted changes in the workload of the local office network arising from significant decreases in the incidence of animal diseases; CAP reform giving rise to changes in the delivery of schemes and services; investment in information technology, especially in the areas of animal health and welfare, customer management, animal movement identification and the management of field inspections; adjustments to schemes and programmes; reduced footfall in local offices; and advances in the broader areas of transport and communications.

Bearing these changes in mind the aim of the local office network reorganisation is to rationalise the overall number of locations across the country to facilitate the more efficient management of schemes, services and disease levels. Providing satellite agriculture offices on any basis outside of the 16 new regional offices does not feature in the reorganisation process.

I am confident that the 16 chosen locations for the new regional offices will provide an improved customer service in all regions of the country while at the same time reducing the cost of delivering the services provided for the Department's many customers and stakeholders. In addition, the new regional structure will facilitate the retention of the appropriate number of staff required in each location, while at the same time maintaining a very high quality of services across the country.

This decision, when fully implemented, will result in financial savings in the Department's running costs of some €30 million annually, and the reduction of over 400 staff. By rationalising our local office network we can improve services to our clients by concentrating the remaining staff resources of approximately 1,000 people at the newly developed centres. This initiative is part of a continual process of modernisation of the Department. The various staff associations have been consulted in relation to the redeployment of staff within the Department and to other Departments.

I wish to express my appreciation to the staff in our local offices for their contribution to the work of the Department over the years and to their continued commitment to providing a quality service to our stakeholders. I would also like to assure this House and our key stakeholders of my continued commitment to providing an exemplary support service across all areas of Departmental activities and I strongly believe that this will be best delivered through the new regional office structure now being implemented.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 22 June 2010.