Adjournment Debate

Arts Funding

This motion arises from a recent briefing for Oireachtas Members held by the Arts Council, the meet and greet organised by the National Campaign for the Arts and from the recent annual Theatre Forum conference held in NUIG, at which the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht was guest speaker.

The Minister is personally committed to the arts and is involved in the cultural life of Listowel, an area that produced those world famous writers, John B. Keane and Bryan McMahon. Even so, it is important to place on record the Government's commitment to maintain existing funding levels for our cultural institutions, including the National Library and National Museum, the Arts Council, the Irish Film Board and Culture Ireland.

The Minister will agree it is in our best interest as a nation to encourage, develop and stimulate public interest in all aspects of the arts, social and cultural affairs despite our current economic challenges. To sustain a vibrant cultural life, it is essential to promote the knowledge, appreciation and practice of the arts; it is not an isolated activity but reaches into most aspects of the lives of our people. In this capacity, the work of the Arts Council gets results in annually supporting 2,000 jobs directly and 3,000 jobs indirectly. The wider sector supports 27,000 jobs and contributes €382 million in taxes. The wider creative industry contributes €5.5 billion to the economy and supports 96,000 jobs. It is clear that funding the arts is an investment not an indulgence. It is good for our society, our international reputation and our economy.

Because we in Ireland have an innate talent in the arts, be it literary, performance or visual, we somehow take that talent for granted. When our economy was performing well, the then Government never achieved the figure of €100 million in funding, which was the aspiration of the Arts Council. By 2007, a figure of €80 million was provided but by 2010 the figure was down to €68.6 million. The real effect of this cut has been the loss of jobs in the arts world. I am glad to note that Culture Ireland and the Irish Film Board, while also sustaining cuts over the past three years, continue to deliver quality experiences to our national and overseas audiences, providing significant employment in the process.

In terms of our quality of life, we can all relate to wonderful arts experiences, such as poetry, music, film, that stimulate us and enhance our lives.

Our schools have a key role to play in this area as they can provide equal access for their students. We have not fully realised the potential that regular participation in arts activities by young people has in increasing their self esteem and confidence and in reducing anti-social behaviour. In Laois-Offaly increasing numbers of young people are dying by suicide and I strongly believe that their participation in arts projects would help them cope with the challenges of modern life.

If we look closer again we can find wonderful projects across the country in which elderly people in community nursing and day care units are having quality arts experiences. I urge the Minister to take a look at the Anam Beo project based in Offaly. It is run on a tiny budget and involves professional artists working with older and disabled people to teach them to paint and make short films among other things. For many, it is the first time they participated in such activity. To quote one participant who is now 88 years of age, "I would be dead if I didn't have this to look forward to every week".

Many other community groups and development agencies use the arts as a tool for engaging with disadvantaged groups. The arts are non-judgmental and accepting of all abilities and backgrounds — an important factor in breaking down barriers. In the Laois-Offaly constituency established venues such as Birr Theatre and Arts Centre and the Dunamaise Theatre depend on public funding both from the Arts Council and local authorities to continue to provide for their communities. I look forward also to the planned Tullamore Arts Centre being developed to further strengthen the arts infrastructure. Sculpture in the Parklands is another shining example of how local partnerships can produce a magnificent resource in cutaway bogs for locals and tourists alike.

On an international level artists of all disciplines have won Booker prizes, Grammy awards, Emmy awards, Nobel prizes, Oscars and Tony awards. To quote the Arts Council, "if the arts were the Olympics Ireland would top the medal table". Despite those awards, the average income for an artist in 2008 was a modest €14,676.

The arts experience which artists create play a vital role in making this country a magnet for 5.5 million visitors a year. According to Fáilte Ireland, 80% of foreign tourists cite culture and heritage as a motivating factor in choosing this country as a holiday destination. The 178 arts festivals currently funded by the Arts Council are also a significant part of our tourism product. In considering the arts one finds that they are intertwined across many Departments — Education and Skills, Transport, Tourism and Sport, Health and Environment, Community and Local Government to mention a few. I hope that some structure could be put in place to bring all of that together so that we can get an accurate picture of the impact of the work each Department plays in cultural life.

Unfortunately, funding for arts and culture has declined from €206 million in 2007 to €153.2 million in 2010. That is a significant drop. Despite that, we must acknowledge that arts and culture are key to quality of life, international reputation, tourism product and, significantly in the current climate, the economy. I will conclude by quoting the National Campaign For The Arts core message:

We believe in a society that values creativity, imagination and expression. We believe the arts generate growth and tourism. We believe the arts enhance our reputation. We believe the arts enrich our lives. We believe in the value of the arts.

We must endeavour to sustain what we already have.

I thank Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy for raising the matter on the Adjournment. I am very much aware of her commitment to and interest in the development of the arts in County Offaly.

As Minister responsible for the arts and culture sectors I am acutely aware of the necessity to secure the best possible funding provisions for those sectors. I assure the Deputy that I am passionately committed to working towards that objective. In the debate relating to the implementation of the programme for Government, I explained that it is the Government's intention to make the arts and culture part of our "primary script". It will become a central essential part of the narrative about the character of a new, different, changed and better Ireland. It will therefore no longer be regarded as a discretionary activity.

To survive, grow and prosper as a country, we must look to the talent and ability of the people. The ability to innovate, think afresh and to be creative must be nurtured and encouraged. I am convinced that vitality in arts and culture induces vitality in a country. That vitality is realised through the process of stimulation through works of art — such as in music, plays, books and films — and design, such as in architecture and in crafts. All facilitate a country's capacity to be reflective, interested, and bold.

Recognition of the role of the arts and cultural activity can be seen in the investments made in the sector. In the five year period 2007-11, a total of €865 million was spent on arts, culture and film as well as an additional €54 million on the National Gallery. I am fully aware of the difficulties facing all of those involved in those areas and the tremendous work they have done in maximising their available resources. Through the vital work of the Arts Council, the Film Board and Culture Ireland the Government continues to work to support these efforts and to maintain employment levels. We will also continue to develop the priceless contribution of our cultural institutions to the overall well-being of our community.

It is interesting to note that our national cultural institutions continue to attract large numbers of visitors and are a vital component in Ireland's cultural tourism product In 2010, more than 3.5 million people visited cultural institutions funded by my Department. The National Museum alone attracted almost 1 million visitors across its four sites in 2010, putting it on a par with many other notable international galleries and museums. Similarly, the 2010 attendance figures at the National Gallery of Ireland place it ahead of many distinguished international comparators, for example the Serpentine Gallery in London, the Tate in Liverpool and MoMA in San Francisco. The Irish Museum of Modern Art, IMMA, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and its reputation, both nationally and internationally, has never been higher, with IMMA ranking in the top 20 galleries of its type in Europe.

Visitor numbers to the cultural institutions for the first quarter of 2011 continue to grow, as evidenced by the popular and critical response to exhibitions such as The Moderns, and the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera show at IMMA; the very positive response to the newly refurbished Treasury exhibition featuring the Faddan More psalter at the National Museum and the popularity of the Masterpieces exhibition from the National Gallery's collection.

Investments in cultural institutions continues to improve and enhance the facilities at the National Museum, IMMA and the National Gallery in the areas of storage, securing and improving the fabric of the buildings and improving the visitor experience. Such investments, while having as their primary function the maintenance of our cultural heritage for its own sake, play an incalculable role in attracting millions of visitors to our shores. The direct benefits that accrue to the country by way of cultural tourism represent a significant return on the investment in cultural institutions and cultural infrastructure generally.

We are aware that culture is cited by the majority of visitors to Ireland as a key motivator in choosing this country as a destination. Studies have shown that the list of top visitor attractions is dominated by natural and built heritage and in addition, festivals, musical and other events attract major numbers of attendees. Tourists who engage in cultural pursuits while in this country are higher than average spenders. A total of 73,000 jobs are dependent on cultural tourism, 3.4% of the total workforce. Every tool at our disposal is being used to maximise the potential of the investments made by all those who are involved in both working in or promoting those sectors. We are conscious not only of the role of the arts, culture and creative industries in providing vital opportunities for self-expression and participation, but also of their economic potential. We are determined to do our best to provide the conditions in which creative expression can flourish and are committed to enhancing access to the arts for people of all ages and income levels.

Through the various programmes, initiatives and supports offered both my Department and the agencies within my area, many such opportunities are available to develop and enhance robust employment prospects. Under the ACCESS capital investment scheme operated by my Department, more than 40 infrastructural projects are up and running across the country providing arts and cultural related employment channels. Arts administrations, artists, plus operators and occupants of cultural centres, and music venues are able to avail of and earn a living from these initiatives. With the continued support of the community and the public, these have become thriving social hubs in their localities and continue to make an important contribution to sustainable economic recovery.

Indeed, in the programme for Government, it is our intention, for example, to encourage the Arts Council to continue to dedicate resources to touring, explore philanthropic, sponsorship or endowment fund opportunities and promote genealogical tourism. The programme also states that the Government would encourage greater co-operation between local authorities to promote the arts and develop cultural tourism. In this context, since taking office I have begun an engagement with the local authority and community arts leaders in Kerry to develop a pilot template integrated strategy for arts, culture and creative industries at local level. This will lead to co-ordinated delivery of an enhanced and inclusive arts and culture experience for the public at large. It will be used as a template for local authorities across the State. It is my intention that at the end of this Government's term we will be able to report that the arts and culture sectors have grown and flourished.

Irish Red Cross

I appreciate the opportunity to raise this matter.

I first refer to the commitment given in the programme for Government, which states: "We will initiate a detailed legal review of the basis, structures and governance of the Red Cross in Ireland to improve its functioning in the light of changing circumstances." Serious concerns and questions have been raised about alleged abuses of power, misgovernance and misuse of financial resources in the Irish Red Cross Society for over 20 years, yet the State unquestioningly gives it an annual grant of nearly €1 million. The OPW also provides the IRC with its head office at 16 Merrion Square effectively free of charge. In comparison, the budget of Irish Aid has been cut by 8% since late 2008, while the IRC has suffered no cut whatsoever.

Concerns about misuse of power and financial irregularities in the IRC have been raised by staff, board members, media and politicians for over 20 years. There was a surge in revelations in 2009 and 2010 following an intensive media campaign and the decision by Noel Wardick, former head of the international department at the IRC, to go public with his concerns. Mr. Wardick spent four years trying to have the matters addressed internally — all, unfortunately, to no avail. Mr. Wardick was fired for gross misconduct in November 2010 under the charge of breaking his confidentiality agreement. This is yet another example of an employee reporting serious concerns in good faith and in the public interest and suffering serious employer reprisal. Seven months later, Mr. Wardick remains unemployed. Transparency International Ireland has called for whistleblowing legislation to include provisions allowing for criminal prosecutions to be taken against employers who take retaliatory action against whistleblowers who report the truth in good faith. It would have been easier for Mr. Wardick to remain silent.

In the past, the Government has always taken a hands-off approach to questions raised about the integrity of IRC actions, despite appointing its chairman and 16 members of its central council and despite the presence of a Department of Defence official on the IRC governing executive committee. It appears that Governments have been happy to involve themselves in absolutely every aspect of IRC operations except those relating to governance reform, financial irregularities and abuse of power.

The Minster will be aware of the scandal regarding the undeclared Tipperary bank account which was found to have €162,000 intended for the victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami lying in it for over three years. The organisation's vice chairman was a signatory on the account. The matter was swept under the carpet despite the resignation of the then honorary secretary in protest over the society's failure to investigate the matter. She formally wrote to the then Minister for Defence, Deputy Willie O'Dea, and was effectively ignored. An internal investigation was carried out in late 2010 but despite the identification of major breaches of financial policy and certain actions deemed as "a threat to IRC governance", no one was held to account or blamed. Nothing has changed. The signatory on the aforementioned account, the society's vice chairman, Tony Lawlor, was re-appointed as vice chairman in May 2011 for the 21st year in a row. The treasurer, Ted Noonan, who failed to investigate the matter at the time, was re-appointed in May this year to the board for the tenth year running.

The IRC made substantial operating losses in 2008 and 2009. It broke even in 2010 only because more than €600,000 intended for Haiti was recorded as domestic income. This is a practice that has apparently gone on for years within the IRC and is morally reprehensible. In reality, the society made a large operational loss in 2010, yet it still managed to pay its secretary general €165,000 and spend €140,000 on legal fees in trying to silence Mr. Wardick, including legal suits against Google and UPC.

Any independent examination of media reports, industrial relations hearings and parliamentary questions over the past 20 years will bear out the fact that the IRC is a highly dysfunctional organisation with real and serious questions to answer about its financial affairs. Since 2007, the IRC has had four secretaries general, which is a clear sign of the problems that remain unresolved in the society.

The so-called new IRC constitution is also deeply flawed and is designed to ensure those in power remain in power for many years to come. I believe there was minimal organisation-wide consultation on its drafting and it must not be approved by the Government or enshrined in legislation without significant amendment. The Minister has said he is in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General with regard to the legal review, as outlined in the programme for Government. There is a real worry that the Minister will use the new legislation to enshrine the new IRC constitution into law, which will in effect secure the power bases of the long-serving, discredited incumbents, which is exactly what they are hoping for.

The IRC is not obliged to report separately, in financial or narrative form, on its €1 million Government grant. It appears as a one-line income and expenditure item in its audited accounts. The Government basically gives the grant annually to the IRC and thereafter washes its hands of its responsibilities. Based on the evidence to date, all the information now in the public domain and the real concerns that exist inside and outside this House, the Minister must seriously consider withholding the annual grant of €1 million and review its donation of free property to the IRC for use as its headquarters until such time as a comprehensive independent investigation into the society takes place and is concluded.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter.

As the Deputy mentioned, the Irish Red Cross Society is the recipient of an annual grant-in-aid allocated from the Department of Defence Vote. The following are details of the grants paid to the society from the Defence Vote over the past ten years. In 2002 the grant was €809,000; in 2003 it was €821,000; in 2004 it was €866,000; in 2005 it was €880,000; in 2006 it increased to €951,000, and up to and including this year it has remained at that level. The grant to be paid in 2012 is being considered as part of the review of departmental spending currently being undertaken.

The grant from the Defence Vote is paid to the society each year in quarterly amounts and includes a sum of €130,000 which represents the Government's annual contribution to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The balance of the grant goes towards the salary and administration costs of running the headquarters of the Irish society. In addition, the society also pays, from its own resources, an affiliation fee to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which this year is expected to amount to approximately €160,000. Each year, the society publishes its independently audited annual accounts and nothing has come to light to indicate that the grant-in-aid has not been properly expended.

As the society is a body corporate which, in accordance with the legislation, is responsible for the handling of its own internal affairs, it is not a matter for my Department to be involved in the day-to-day running of the society. However, in light of the claims of maladministration within the society, I asked for assurances from the chairman of the society regarding the use to which the funds that are granted annually from the Vote of the Department of Defence are put. Comprehensive and satisfactory answers have been provided by the chairman, which showed that the total cost of running the head office of the society in 2010 amounted to just under €1.3 million. I am of the view that organisations in receipt of funding from the Exchequer should publish detailed accounts that provide transparency on how such funds are used.

Such organisations should also publish their annual reports on time. It is not satisfactory that the annual reports for 2009 and 2010 remain yet to be published. The programme for Government provides for the initiation of a detailed legal review of the basis, structures and governance of the Red Cross in Ireland to improve its functioning in light of changing circumstances. Proposals for reform of the governance of the Irish Red Cross Society initially arose from a resolution that was passed in November 2007 by the council of delegates of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It urged all national societies to examine and update their statutes, rules and related legal texts by 2010.

A working group to propose changes in the governance of the Irish society was established by the Irish Red Cross in 2008. Its chairman presented the findings, which included changes recommended by the international federation, to the central council of the Irish Red Cross Society at a meeting held in November 2009. The working group's report was then submitted to the Department of Defence early last year.

Following the Department's review of these proposals and the related legislation, a draft order that would amend the Irish Red Cross ministerial order 1939 was submitted to the Office of the Attorney General. The 1939 order sets out the basis upon which the society is governed and was made pursuant to the Red Cross Act 1938. Discussions with the Office of the Attorney General on the extent of changes that can be made to the 1939 order are continuing. Whatever changes are made to it, a comprehensive review of all Red Cross legislation, and in particular the primary legislation, will then be commenced by my Department.

In this regard, while I am conscious of the importance attaching to the independence of the society, I have been in contact with the chairman of the Irish Red Cross recently about the society's corporate governance arrangements. On 8 June 2011, he advised me that work is well under way with regard to corporate governance changes. Initiatives introduced have included statement of directors' roles, responsibilities and accountabilities; a signed code of conduct for directors and management; a strategic planning framework; a register of organisational risks; an induction process for new directors; the establishment of an independent audit committee with external participation; performance evaluation for senior management and plans for board evaluation; a statement of fund-raising principles and behavioural code; and analysis and reporting of non-compliant branch financial returns. Work is well advanced in drafting financial policies relating to reserves management, borrowing capital expenditure, procurement and investment.

While some progress has been made by the society in this regard, it is crucial it makes further substantial progress to ensure its corporate governance structures comply with the highest standards. For instance, it is not conducive to good corporate governance that any individual should serve indefinitely on the central council, the executive committee or in the same appointment. I made a case on this through correspondence to the society. As a beneficiary of State funding, both directly and indirectly, I have urged the society to make further substantial progress in this area to ensure its corporate governance standards meet what would be regarded as acceptable for an organisation of its calibre.

In correspondence with the society on 16 May 2011, I expressed the view that as a matter of principle I regarded it as unhealthy for any organisation to have individuals serving at leadership level in excess of 12 years in total and in any one position for longer than six years. With this in mind, I asked the society whether a more comprehensive reform of the corporate governance arrangements than previously proposed might be considered. The chairman, in response, explained the society is making progress in developing a much more robust corporate governance system.

The issue of turnover and rotation at leadership levels was raised at the recent central council meeting. The chairman informed me agreement was reached on a mandatory three-year break or one full-term break for executive committee members in circumstances where a member may have previously served for two full terms. This agreement occurred subsequent to correspondence with the society in which I engaged.

I have arranged to meet with the chairman of the society presently. An overriding principle must be to ensure that any legislative changes made have the full support of the international federation and that the society's management framework requires the full and required standards acceptable in the 21st century.

Ambulance Service

I thank the Minister for Health for his work to date trying to maintain health services after inheriting a funding debacle from the previous Administration. I am sure every local health service across the country will be deemed as urgent and a priority. However, ambulance provision in west Cork and the services provided at Bantry hospital are pressing issues for my constituents in Cork South-West. It is proposed to reduce ambulance cover in south-west Cork from four ambulance stations to two on a rotating basis and stop night cover. While it may appear as a cost-saving exercise on a spreadsheet, anyone familiar with the geography of Cork South-West will realise the proposed cover is not adequate and will jeopardise the health of many.

In the western side of this constituency, the general hospital at Bantry is up to 50 miles away from some people in its catchment area, not including those on the offshore islands. A journey for some of these people to the accident and emergency department at Cork University Hospital can be far as a 110 miles. To that end, a good ambulance service is critical and is in effect our accident and emergency department. If this service is reduced, lives will be put at risk particularly those in the peripheral areas of south-west Cork.

The existing service is commendable with the dedicated teams of medical technicians working long hours, sometimes travelling from Castletownbere to Cork all in an evening. Emergency services in the area are complemented by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, retained fire services and the Coast Guard. A fundamental link to these and Cork University Hospital is the ambulance service. The Health Service Executive claimed there is a safety issue involved in the provision of ambulance cover, quoting the HIQA seven-minute response to a call threshold. In fact, the HSE is quite prepared to replace the ambulance service with a first-responder service to appease HIQA. Unfortunately, such a service is not adequate for a road traffic, cardiac or stroke victim who needs to be taken to a hospital for further treatment within an hour. There is not a snowball's chance in hell an ambulance will leave Clonakilty, or even Bantry, to pick up a cardiac arrest patient in Castletownbere and get back to Cork University Hospital in less than three hours. That is assuming the ambulance will be available in the first instance.

This reduction in ambulance cover in south-west Cork seems to be a spreadsheet exercise. Taking into account the geographical layout of the area, I would warn any decision-maker not to interfere with the area's ambulance service. As already stated, it is our accident and emergency service and we are more dependent on it than is the case in any other region. Those involved with the ambulance service work extraordinarily hard and I am of the view that the service deserves to be enhanced rather than diminished.

I am also concerned with regard to the doubts surrounding the emergency services provided at Bantry Hospital. Again, the management, clinicians and staff at this hospital work extremely hard. All the services provided there have been enhanced. Obviously, cancer care and other specialist services are not on offer at the hospital and local people are quite prepared to travel the 100 or 110 miles to Cork University Hospital in order to access such services. All we are seeking is that emergency services continue to be provided at Bantry. We are not asking that they be provided at a location two or three miles away. Some of us are only seeking that the ambulance service be provided within a 50-mile radius. However, we cannot countenance a situation where we will have a reduced ambulance service and where people will be obliged to present at Cork University Hospital some 110 miles away. I strongly urge the Minister for Health to reconsider any proposals to reduce the services on offer at Bantry Hospital or to downgrade the ambulance service in the Cork South-West constituency.

I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Health. The Minister sends his apologies that he cannot be present.

The Minister is happy the Deputy has raised these important and interrelated issues. As a general principle, the Government has made it clear that it wants a health system which is safe, high quality and affordable. The Minister for Health does not wish to see a diminution in any level of service. However, the country is facing into an unprecedented economic crisis and the HSE must live within its budget and prioritise its services.

The Minister for Health has made clear on many occasions that local hospitals can and should be a vibrant element of local health services, providing treatment and care at the appropriate level of complexity to the patients in their areas. However, the care provided must be safe and must not put patients at risk. The Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, has set a framework for the type of services that can safely be provided in smaller hospitals and in respect of the structures required for good governance and accountability within our hospitals. This has been set out in the reports on Ennis and, subsequently, Mallow hospitals.

Pre-hospital emergency care is critical to the successful implementation of the HIQA recommendations. The national ambulance service, NAS, is working to develop the management and integration of its services. This includes a reduction to two ambulance control centres nationally, with appropriate technology, a clinical lead for pre-hospital care, performance indicators for pre-hospital care and standard national criteria for non-emergency patient transport. In particular, since January 2011, the NAS has been working towards improvements in emergency response times, as measured against HIQA's response times and quality standards.

There are 18 ambulance stations in Cork and Kerry and these have approximately 200 staff. It is one of only two regions still operating on-call arrangements for out-of-hours ambulance services where staff are at home and are summoned to answer calls. On-call arrangements are gradually being replaced with proper on-duty rostering to ensure that vehicles are dispatched as quickly as possible. This clearly improves efficiency and means that a quicker and safer service can be provided to patients.

The HSE has already been able to greatly increase the level of on duty rostering in Cork city and Killarney. There is now no on-call in any station at weekends, the period of highest activity. The changes involve altering work practices and these must be negotiated. The on-call service is now only provided from Monday to Thursday and has been reduced from 44 hours to less than 16 hours per week per individual. The remaining on-call commitment is under discussion at the Labour Relations Commission, LRC. However, it is important that staff work with management to deliver the changes that are required and to overcome any blockages in implementing these changes, which are for the benefits of both patients and taxpayers.

The NAS is, under the auspices of the LRC, developing a plan that includes rapid response cars, staffed by advanced paramedics and emergency paramedic ambulances. Rapid response cars are already in place in west Cork and are to be deployed at various times in Youghal, Millstreet, Skibbereen, Cahirciveen and Castletownbere. Rapid response vehicles staffed by ambulance staff on duty, rather than on call, will improve the immediate response time compared to on-call arrangements. In June, the HSE and NAS agreed that the new cars and ambulances model will be implemented on a phased basis — the first phase will not affect the west Cork service; the NAS will set out the priority for stations to move to the new model; following implementation, reviews will be held under the LRC; and implementation in west Cork and south Kerry will not proceed until this review is completed.

The national ambulance service has made a major investment in the education and training of approximately 200 advanced paramedics. It is essential that these personnel be deployed in an effective manner. The HSE south's plan to develop an integrated university hospital network in Cork and Kerry, which was published in 2010, recognises the vital service that Bantry Hospital provides to the people of west Cork. The hospital will continue to provide consultant-delivered, selected acute medicine, geriatric medicine and day surgery. It will also provide outreach specialist services for initial assessment and post-treatment follow up care in areas such as gynaecology, rheumatology, orthopaedics, urology and gastroenterology.

There will be at least five consultant physicians based at Bantry for a viable consultant duty roster as part in the regional hospital network. Its location, activity and integration with local primary and community care services will make it an important teaching site for medical and other health profession students from University College Cork, UCC. The Minister and the HSE recognise the importance of Bantry General Hospital and the contribution it has made, and will continue to make, to the provision of hospital services in the region.

Sports Capital Programme

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter. I also thank the Minister of State with responsibility for sport for coming before the House to take it. I congratulate him on his county's good win last Sunday. Unfortunately, it was against my county. I hope we will put matters right next year.

In the past the sports capital programme provided essential funding to sporting clubs and organisations throughout the country. I have seen evidence of this at my local GAA club in Carnmore, which has developed three new playing pitches and a hurling wall and which has considerably improved and upgraded facilities as a result of the provision of national lottery funding. Following these development works there has been much better participation in sport by people of all ages in the community.

Involvement in sport has far-reaching and positive consequences for society as a whole. It is an important social outlet which improves physical and mental health. It also encourages personal development, assists in addressing the growing problem of obesity in this country and, in the context of rising unemployment, provides important structures to help prevent social exclusion, particularly among young people. The priority given to funding clubs in areas of social disadvantage has brought about even greater benefits in the context of a reduction in antisocial behaviour and preventing young people from drifting into a life of crime and drug addiction. In many of the areas, there was little prospect of clubs being in a position to raise sufficient funds by acting alone. Assistance from the national lottery programme was vital to these clubs.

Sport has a remarkable ability to make us all feel good. In the current economic climate, that is extremely important. We witnessed the benefits of this recently when Rory McIlroy won the US Open. In many instances, and particularly in rural areas, local sports clubs foster a sense of identity and are closely intertwined with entire communities.

Since the introduction of the sports capital programme, over 7,400 projects have benefited from funding of approximately €738 million. This has helped to transform clubs, from the smallest to the largest, through the provision of improved facilities. The funding has directly and indirectly benefited every household in Ireland and its value cannot be underestimated.

Since the sports capital programme closed in 2008, the cost of building work, materials and labour have been substantially reduced. I am of the view that there could be no better time than now to reopen the programme. While I acknowledge that we are still in difficult economic times, if the programme could be reopened it could provide a stimulus to local economies. In addition, it would offer much better value for money than was the case in the past. The advantages for reopening the programme for social, commercial and economic reasons are numerous. For example, there would be a reduction in unemployment because tradesmen who are currently without a job could find work in their localities. Sales of materials would provide a boost to the local economy and improved facilities would result in increased participation in sport and social interaction within our communities.

Funding larger scale projects would also provide a boost to the tourism industry, as visitors from Europe travel to Ireland to support their local teams in matches and to partake in the various sports for which Ireland is renowned. Connacht, our area, has qualified for the rugby Heineken Cup and will benefit in that regard. Clarinbridge, a local club which has received significant lottery funding also won the all-Ireland this year.

During the 12 years the sports capital programme has been in operation, sporting clubs have been able to complete capital projects they might not otherwise have had the resources to undertake. These same clubs cannot raise funds locally for any further development necessary to build on the vital role sport plays in our society. Will the Minister of State outline where the funds which are being raised through the national lottery, which were previously allocated to the sports capital programme, will now be allocated? I call on the Minister of State to give a commitment that the scheme will be reintroduced in 2011.

I thank Deputy Grealish for raising this issue. He is correct, there is one item missing from Mayo, the Sam Maguire Cup, but we have the Taoiseach and the Minister with responsibility for sport and we are working on that.

Under the sports capital programme, funding is allocated to sporting and to voluntary and community organisations at local, regional and national level throughout the country. Since 1998, the Department has allocated almost €740 million in more than 7,400 separate allocations. This funding has transformed the level of sports facilities throughout the country. Some €33 million has been provided in the Department's Vote for 2011 to meet payments in respect of projects which have been allocated funding under the sports capital programme, and the subhead is part-funded from the proceeds of the national lottery.

While there has been no new round of the programme advertised since 2008, it is business as usual for grantees previously allocated funding, and the Department continues to make payments to such grantees. Over 1,000 payments were made last year to projects which were being developed across the country. Such payments allow clubs to drain pitches, erect floodlighting, buy non-personal sports equipment, build changing rooms and sports halls and generally increase the opportunities for people to engage in sports at all levels.

In allocating this funding, special targeting and priority is given to projects in RAPID, CLÁR and local drug task force areas. These projects are permitted to have a lower level of minimum own funding available, 20% for projects in CLÁR areas and 10% for RAPID and local drug task force areas, in comparison with the normal 30% towards their project. They may also receive extra marks during the assessment process. In the most recent round of the sports capital programme in 2008, successful projects under the programme in RAPID areas also qualified for additional top-up funding of up to 30% of their sports capital programme allocation, from the then Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Through these measures, the sports capital programme has invested over €150 million in projects in designated disadvantaged areas. In turn, top-up arrangements in RAPID and CLÁR areas have allowed further allocations of more than €22 million to be made.

A draft five year national sports facilities strategy was completed last July in the Department. It is currently being updated to take account of developments since then and should be submitted shortly to me for consideration. The aim of the strategy is to provide high-level policy direction for future investment and grant assistance at national, regional and local level and to ensure a co-ordinated approach across the various agencies and Departments involved in supporting the provision of sport and recreational facilities.

The programme for Government provides that "In future sports funding should prioritise projects which further greater participation in sport on a local and national level". This will be a central focus of any new round of the programme. I am looking at the options that may be open to me with regard to a new programme within the present financial constraints but no decision has been made yet on the timing of the next round of the sports capital programme.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 30 June 2011.