Priority Questions

State Airports

Timmy Dooley

Ceist:

1 Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the efforts he has made to advance an agreement with the US Administration to provide for cargo pre-clearence of US customs at airports here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33485/11]

The Ireland-US pre-clearance agreement signed by both Governments in November 2008 provides for the pre-clearance of commercial aircraft as well as general aviation, both private and business aircraft. General aviation pre-clearance at Shannon Airport was always considered an important feature of pre-clearance given the number of such aircraft that already land there for refuelling en route to the US. The agreement does not provide for cargo pre-clearance.

It has always been Ireland's position that when passenger pre-clearance was fully established, discussions on the pre-clearance of air cargo from Ireland would be opened up with the US. Accordingly, with the advent of commercial pre-clearance at Dublin Airport earlier this year following its commencement in Shannon in 2009 the issue has been raised in the context of the pre-clearance consultative group, which held its inaugural meeting in April. The group comprises US and Irish officials and was established to monitor progress in pre-clearance and deal with issues that arise. My Department will continue to pursue the matter with the US authorities with a view to achieving a positive outcome for Ireland.

I do not want to be critical of the Minister because I am aware of the good job he is doing in his Department. However, given the length of time he has been in office I had hoped he would have engaged with this issue by now. While I accept the matter is not entirely the responsibility of his Department, pre-clearance of cargo at Irish airports can contribute to growth and employment. With that in mind, political contact should have already been made with the US Secretary of Homeland Security and Secretary of Transportation. The Taoiseach should also have engaged with the matter given that the global forum was organised at Farmleigh House to encourage business here.

This is a viable project which is supported by logistics companies worldwide. Lynx has indicated a willingness to participate in developing facilities in Shannon and the Minister and his Department have been helpful to the company. It is making its investment on the basis of the potential for long-term gains from the pre-clearance of cargo. Given that we have a fantastic opportunity to generate employment, will the Minister or his colleagues, the Ministers for Justice and Equality and Foreign Affairs and Trade communicate directly with the US Administration to advance the proposal?

I agree that pre-clearance of cargo would be helpful in terms of offering a competitive advantage to Irish airports. That is being pursued but, as Deputy Dooley will be aware from his time on these benches, there is a way of handling these matters. Contacts are first made at official level and site visits are then carried out. There is a right time to raise the matter at political level. In the coming weeks I will meet the US director of Customs and Border Protection in Ireland to carry out a site visit. I will most likely visit the United States in the spring and if anything can be achieved at that stage I will seek to meet the Transport Security Administration or the Secretary for Homeland Security, Ms Napolitano. It is important that political contacts are made when a logjam needs to be broken but the work between officials is proceeding satisfactorily at present.

I accept that it is at times necessary for a Minister to intervene to progress projects but, in an effort to set the tone for discussions among officials, it would be valuable to develop the political context. We need to engage in high level political discussions rather than waiting to take on the role of fixer whenever an obstacle emerges. I encourage the Minister to establish political contacts. Perhaps the Taoiseach could raise the matter directly with the US President during his St. Patrick's Day visit.

I have held discussions on the matter with the US ambassador in recent weeks. Opportunities will be taken at the right time and place and there will be visits in February or March. We do not want a Minister to fly to Washington for an unsuccessful meeting with the US Secretary of State because the groundwork was not done beforehand. The Deputy can rest assured that the Government sees the potential for competitive advantage this offers to our airports. However, we should not over-estimate the benefits of pre-clearance. Much of the hype that accompanied the introduction of pre-clearance facilities for passengers has not materialised into additional business. We need to pursue the matter but we should also be realistic about the economic benefits.

Swimming Pool Projects

Sandra McLellan

Ceist:

2 Deputy Sandra McLellan asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the number of pools that were grant aided under the local authorities swimming pool initiative; the number of applications that were received for this scheme; if all of the funding available was spent; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33487/11]

I recently announced an initiative under the local authority swimming pool programme for a combined grant of up to €400,000 per pool to enable local authorities to improve energy efficiency and enhance access for disabled people to swimming pools. Some 40 local authorities applied for funding for 63 swimming pools and three rounds of allocations were announced, on 28 August 2011, 19 October 2011 and 25 October 2011, respectively. A total of €10.67 million was allocated to 33 local authorities in respect of 56 pools. The names of the individual pools that are being funded are published on my Department's website.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply and the grant aid we received towards our swimming pool in Youghal. Any grant of sports capital funding is more than welcome in the fight against obesity in children and adults. Was funding made available for all of these projects and, if not, how many were refused and on what grounds?

I thank Deputy McLellan for tabling this question because there was misinformation in the national and local media in regard to the applications. We received applications for 63 swimming pools and allocated funding for 56. In regard to the reasons the remaining seven pools did not get funding, some of the local authorities were offered funding by the Department under the jobs initiative but they were not able to draw down the funds by the end of the year and two local authorities recently received funding under the previous scheme. Given that every application would have received money, when Labour Party and Fianna Fáil councillors in Dublin make statements in future they might get their facts right. Every local authority could have been funded under this scheme but some of them could not draw down the funding on time or were funded under the previous scheme.

Will the moneys remaining in the fund be ring-fenced for swimming pools and is it intended to accept another round of applications when this is open to the public?

We have not made a decision in regard to another round. Any funding allocated thus far has to be drawn down by the end of the year. We will give further consideration to the schemes to be brought forward next year and we are announcing our capital programme tomorrow. I cannot say anything more in that regard.

The local authority swimming pool programme provided opportunities to build swimming pools in various areas. As the major cost that local authorities face in respect of swimming pools is the heating bill, facilitating energy saving measures and wheelchair accessibility will be a godsend to local authorities. The Government and local authorities would benefit from the savings achieved on heating swimming pools. For now, I hope the pools that have received money will have the work completed by the end of the year. It is major investment and it is also part of the stimulus budget to create employment. Some of the councils expected me to give money to local authorities that did not make applications. We cannot do that. If they do not make an application, they cannot get funding.

Rural Transport

Mattie McGrath

Ceist:

3 Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in view of the tighter road traffic legislation introduced recently and the lack of public transport facilities in rural areas, if he will ensure that the rural transport budget is safeguarded in budget 2012; his views that there is unequal access to transport facilities in rural areas as opposed to towns and cities; his further views that the lack of rural transport facilities leads to increased rural isolation; his plans to introduce initiatives such as rate supports or tax incentives for rural businesses in the tourism industry such as country pubs who are suffering as a result of the lack of rural transport facilities and who wish to provide a transport service for their customers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33645/11]

The programme for Government acknowledges the importance of transport for rural communities and includes a commitment to maintain and extend the rural transport programme with other local transport services as much as is practical. Work in that regard is proceeding and I am very supportive of it. However, like all Government funded programmes, the rural transport programme, RTP, is being considered in the context of the ongoing central review of expenditure which is endeavouring to identify savings.

I assure the Deputy that I am very much aware that public transport is not just an urban issue, but one that is very real for rural areas. The issue of rural transport and preventing rural isolation is quite close to my heart, given that I, like the Deputy, come from a small village in Tipperary. Many people in rural areas have great difficulty accessing services, and schemes such as the RTP can and do transform life for those who benefit from it. I am very committed to this continuing as a way of trying to tackle rural isolation. I am examining this issue on two fronts, both as part of my role regarding rural transport but also in the context of the review of the taxi sector, where I am actively examining the role of taxis and hackneys in rural areas with a view to trying to tackle the rural isolation caused by a lack of transport in many areas, even in areas where the RTP is operating.

I am also aware of the importance of country pubs in the economy. A visit to an Irish pub is an acknowledged attraction for foreign visitors. A pub accreditation scheme is being rolled out by Fáilte Ireland throughout the country. Pubs are a central component of communities in rural areas. As regards tax incentives and local authority rates, these are the respective responsibilities of the Minister for Finance and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.

I thank the Minister of State and wish him well in his new office. While I welcome parts of his reply, I am disappointed with the last part. The Minister of State admitted that he comes from a rural area similar to mine. Somebody needs to tie the elements of this together. We have the new legislation in the Road Traffic Act, rural isolation and the lack of transport. This is despite the operation of the rural transport programme, RTP. It is not operating anywhere at night. Ring a Link has tried to do it. The Minister of State has met people from Ring a Link and I hope he will be able to meet the group from south Tipperary to examine what it is doing. Somebody needs to bring this issue together.

As regards rates and tax, we cannot simply say it is somebody else's responsibility. I acknowledge that it is but when the previous Minister was introducing legislation, he promised there would be tax incentives for publicans who wished to buy an eight-seater vehicle to help to keep their business alive. Remember, they are paying rates, tax, income tax, insurance, wages and so forth. This is vital if they wish to provide transport. Otherwise the tourists the Minister of State mentioned will not visit anywhere other than hotels. I hope the Minister of State will try to bring that together. Given his background, he should put together a working group to examine this. The budget is only a few weeks away so the Minister of State should see whether he can do something in that regard.

As part of the review of rural transport and considering greater integration of rural transport across a range of areas, including education and health, we will consult the Departments. In that context I will bring the issues the Deputy mentioned to their attention, as well as many other issues. A wide range of issues are involved. I will meet the group referred to by the Deputy. I have taken on board the issues the Deputy mentioned relating to the provision of services, particularly late at night and at weekends, when there is a greater demand for them. We will be examining those issues and having discussions with various groups, including the vintners, in the near future. As a consequence, through the policies for integrated rural transport and the review of the taxi and hackney services throughout the country, I hope to contribute positively to the supply of services across rural areas with a continuation of many of the services in the RTP and also possibly through the provision of additional services in the taxi and hackney sectors, which will be changing in the coming years.

I welcome the Minister of State's comments and I look forward to having an input into the consultations on the taxi service for rural areas. It is non-existent, as the Minister of State knows. Anybody who has a family in a rural area that might be ten miles from a town cannot get a taxi out until everybody in the town is dealt with and that leads to all types of problems. I hope the Minister of State will fight to ring-fence the rural transport funding. It is less than the amount Derry International Airport gets from the Department and it is a life saver for many of the rural projects that have been established.

Deputy McGrath and I do not agree on many things but in this scenario we agree a great deal on the issues. I will take his comments on board. It will be a combined approach between the changeover in the integrated rural transport side and a renewed policy relating to taxis and hackneys. Between both we should have a better policy for rural areas.

Public Transport Projects

Timmy Dooley

Ceist:

4 Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the current status of the metro north project; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33486/11]

Funding for all transport capital projects for the next five years will be determined in the context of the capital review which will be published tomorrow. I will announce my Department's plans for such funding, including decisions relating to the large public transport projects in the Dublin area such as metro north, immediately thereafter.

When I tabled this question I was not aware that the Government would take the decision it took on Tuesday on the amount it would spend and the projects on which it would be spent in the coming years. There is a clear indication in the announcement last week that €750 million is being cut from the capital budget for next year. It is not necessarily my job to remind the Minister of the commitments his party and the Labour Party made about their willingness and desire to put in place appropriate and necessary measures to ensure unemployment levels would be addressed through the creation of employment. One of the most obvious ways to do that is through State spending and the capacity to employ people through an effective capital programme. Given the significant cuts the Department will have to make in its capital programme, how does the Minister intend to assist in the recovery of the State through the creation of jobs?

The Minister attempted to create employment in the tourism sector earlier this year through the jobs initiative, but that has not materialised. It was a gamble at that stage. A recent paper published by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, clearly indicates that while a stimulus project or plan should generate extra employment and ultimately pay for itself, this has not and will not. Where do we go from here in terms of job creation and finding a solution to the current crisis?

I do not accept that the measures introduced to boost tourism have not increased the number of jobs. The Restaurants Association of Ireland has indicated an increase in job numbers and we will see from the quarterly results whether job losses have stabilised or increased in the tourism and leisure sector. The ESRI report acknowledges that reducing VAT has increased the number of tourists visiting the State, but the revenue lost, in terms of the reduced VAT intake, is not compensated for in the additional revenue that has come in from those tourists. The ESRI does not comment on employment. That remains to be seen. However, with a 10% increase in tourist numbers this year, I would at least expect the number of people employed in the sector to stabilise or increase. I certainly hope it will increase next year.

As regards the capital budget, the announcements will be made tomorrow. Everyone on the Government benches understands that cutting spending and increasing taxes are not good for the economy. We are not stupid. We realise that increasing taxes and cutting spending will further depress the economy and make it more difficult to achieve growth and employment growth. The reason we are doing it is not because we think this is the way we will solve the country's problems but that we cannot afford to finance the State. We have a primary deficit of €12 billion, which is the gap between what we raise in tax and revenue and what we spend. That has nothing to do with interest repayments on debt, the banks or bondholders. It is simply our primary deficit and it must be addressed. We must work out the best way to address it. In that context, one must choose between current spending cuts, capital cuts and tax increases. The Government has taken the view that it wishes to honour its commitments not to increase taxes on work and not to cut social welfare rates as far as is practicable. It believes this is the most effective way to maintain demand in the economy as much as possible. Capital investment is a very expensive way to create jobs. The probable best way in which the Government can sustain employment is to try to keep wages up and taxes down and that is its priority.

I believe the Minister's analysis of the impact of the VAT reduction within the tourism sector is flawed. It entails measuring growth in tourism against a very poor year, that is, the previous year, which was greatly affected by the ash cloud from the volcanic eruption. Clearly, the Minister's VAT reduction measure has not had the benefit it was set out or expected to achieve. My suggestion concerns the €400 million the Government has taken from the private pension funds. While I will not discuss the impact this measure had on such pensions, it had a capacity to raise funds. Had the Government a more appropriate methodology for investing that sum in the economy, it could have had a greater potential to increase employment levels. I suggest it was a pool of funding that could have been used to provide for the Minister's capital programme, thereby sustaining investment in the economy in those shovel-ready projects many of the Minister's colleagues identified in advance of the election and which were going to be the panacea to create employment when the Government parties came to power. Sadly, that has not happened. Will the Minister review the €400 million grab on pensions and consider the use of that pot of money towards assisting in the capital funding available for those important projects?

That seems to be a different question as we are discussing metro north. However——

To clarify for the benefit of the Minister, he has set out the economic parameters in which he finds himself with the capacity to fund certain programmes that have been identified. I suggest there are alternatives.

The 0.6% levy on private pension funds is a temporary measure and will only be in place for three to four years. It brings in approximately €450 million per year, which would not pay for metro north. To be clear, the cost of the project is significantly higher than that, even when spread over a prolonged period. The money that is being raised from the 0.6% levy on private pension funds has gone into a number of measures and not simply the VAT reduction. It also has gone into a reduction in employers' PRSI, which has not yet been assessed. Most people accept that reducing employers' PRSI, thereby reducing the cost of employing someone, will protect jobs and potentially will allow for employment to be increased. While the Government must make this judgment call, it is not yet necessary. It was introduced last June and has only been in place for less than five months. The VAT reduction will be reviewed at the end of 2012 with a view to the 2013 budget. The short answer to the Deputy's question is that the levy is temporary but is not sufficient to create significant jobs on the capital side. In addition, the VAT reduction will be reviewed for the 2013 budget.

Public Transport

Dessie Ellis

Ceist:

5 Deputy Dessie Ellis asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport his plans to ensure that cost cutting measures and rerouting plans being put in place by Dublin Bus will not adversely affect service to those who most depend on same. [33489/11]

As the Deputy will be aware, there is no ministerial role in the operation of Dublin Bus and the provision of services, including the rerouting of some services. It is a matter for the company in conjunction with the National Transport Authority, NTA. The funding of public service obligation, PSO, services is governed by a public transport contract between the NTA and Dublin Bus. That said, I have raised this issue with Dublin Bus repeatedly.

The Deloitte cost and efficiency review of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann was published in January 2009 and identified some scope for greater efficiencies in Dublin Bus. Following the report's publication, Dublin Bus undertook an extensive review of its bus network and subsequently announced plans for the re-organisation of routes and timetables. The objective of the redesign was to provide current and future bus customers with a service that will be modern, accessible, integrated, easy to understand, punctual and frequent.

I understand that Dublin Bus has held more than 30 public meetings and 250 meetings with key stakeholders as part of its consultation programme. All changes are advertised in advance through national and local media and through social media, as well as house leaflet drops to areas serviced by the bus routes where changes occur.

I support the efforts of Dublin Bus to achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness under the Network Direct programme and significant efficiencies and savings already have been achieved. Given the losses recorded by Dublin Bus in 2010 and further reductions in the PSO subvention due over the coming years, it is important that the Deloitte report and the Network Direct programme are fully delivered on to ensure the viability of the service. In some instances, Network Direct has led to an increase in passenger numbers for some communities. I will continue to raise this issue with Dublin Bus to ensure the transport needs of many communities continue to be served. It is an iterative process.

The Minister of State is aware that Dublin Bus has cut almost 200 buses in the Dublin region and the effects have been enormous. I disagree fundamentally with the premise that one must continue to cut and must make any system financially viable. It can be argued that Dublin Bus provides a great service and it is one of the least subsidised in Europe, which in itself speaks volumes. As an example of the bus cuts, four bus routes are being merged into one in one area of Finglas. The effect this has on communities and people such as old-age pensioners and those with wheelchairs who seek to get from A to B during the day is calamitous. It is highly unfair to communities that fought hard to get such services. I note the Minister of State stated that he has spoken to Dublin Bus but has asserted its operation is up to that company and the National Transport Authority. Ultimately, Members must ensure that people are serviced and that is the most important point.

The Deputy should ask a question please.

Moreover, this only pertains to Dublin and I would hate to see the effects this will have in other areas outside Dublin. The Minister of State should continue to argue. I have attended many meetings in this regard right across the entire north-western area and in a manner that is replicated throughout the city, people are unable to get buses, are obliged to walk long distances and areas are not being served. This is my main worry and we have experienced a huge increase in traffic as a result.

I understand the Deputy's comments and genuinely take them on board. As I have stated previously in the House, Members should by all means drop me a line regarding grievances they consider to be fundamental and I will bring them to the attention of Dublin Bus and have them looked into. That said, a serious quantity of money has been given to Dublin Bus. Between 2000 and 2010, €725 million has been paid in compensation for the public service obligation service. More direct routes have been put in place and there now are fewer diversions off quality bus corridors with bus routes being straightened up. Services are becoming far more frequent and 60% of customers now are being carried on the high-frequency routes. All Members will acknowledge that even the departure tables constitute a step in the right direction whereby people know buses will come at similar times each day. There are more frequent buses on many routes and from a customer service perspective in particular, the issue of better cross-city connections and better connections with the DART has come across well. I refer to improved punctuality with the highly successful real time passenger information, RTPI, signs of which the Deputy is aware. Moreover, additional use of technology, be it through applications or websites, also has increased effectiveness. Overall, it has become a more simple network. While I believe it needs time to bed in, the ongoing work is iterative and is having a dramatic impact for Dublin Bus and the Government will support it.

A brief question from Deputy Ellis.

As for the amount of transport and the number of people using it, in some cases two and three bus routes are being merged into one. Proportionately, passenger numbers obviously will be a lot higher if one puts them all into a single bus. One must be careful about throwing out figures like that and the Minister of State should take on board that sometimes this is what is happening.