Topical Issue Debate

Water Services

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important matter and I thank the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, for coming to the Chamber for this debate. The Vartry tunnel is a 4 km long, rock lined tunnel built in the 1860s which runs through the Wicklow Mountains. It supplies water from the Vartry reservoir to more than 150,000 homes in south County Dublin and north County Wicklow. I am deeply concerned by reports that a faultline has been identified in the rock which may result in the collapse of the tunnel at any time. The tunnel has been listed on the Environmental Protection Agency's list of facilities requiring remedial action.

The Minister, Deputy Hogan, will appreciate that this is a matter of considerable urgency. Some 80 million litres of water flow through the tunnel on a daily basis, representing approximately 20% of the total supply of water to the greater Dublin area, including towns like Bray and Greystones. If the tunnel collapses, which could occur without any warning, no alternative water supply will be available to service houses and businesses currently served by the Vartry tunnel. Not only would this be a huge inconvenience for many families, but it would also raise significant health and safety concerns. I understand from media reports that in the event of such a collapse, it could take months or years to restore the water supply to the affected areas. I hope the Minister can allay my fears in that regard. At a time when the Government is rightly doing everything it can to protect jobs and promote employment, this is an additional worry for local businesses in the area.

I ask the Minister to ensure the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Environmental Protection Agency take pre-emptive action now so alternative measures can be put in place in the event that the Vartry supply experiences difficulty. I understand that Dublin City Council has made proposals in this regard, involving the development of a 1 km bypass pipe that would run parallel to the existing pipe. I hope the Department will engage constructively with the council on this so the minds of my constituents in north Wicklow can be put at rest. I recognise there are competing demands for investment in water supplies in different parts of the country. I appreciate that the level of investment in our water infrastructure was inadequate when this country was experiencing an economic boom. It is a matter for the Minister to try to right those wrongs in extremely difficult circumstances. I know he is aware of the need for significant improvements in our water infrastructure. I have spoken to him at length on the matter. Water shortages are becoming increasingly frequent, particularly in winter. Significant leakage across our water network remains a real problem. I believe this unique and pressing case merits the immediate attention of the Minister.

I thank Deputy Harris for giving me an opportunity to outline my position on this important subject, which clearly demonstrates the importance of water volumes and water quality for the community in general. I will continue to prioritise capital funding under my Department's water services investment programme, which is clearly underpinned by the need to address deficiencies in quality and security of water supply. This is in line with the risk-based approach that has been developed by the Environmental Protection Agency since 2008, whereby it has listed public water supplies that require corrective action on a remedial action list. Under the 2010-12 water services investment programme, some €285 million has been set aside for contracts to start for water supplies on the remedial action list. A further €28 million has been allocated under the rural water programme since 2008 for smaller works that are required. The EPA report that was published yesterday, The Provision and Quality of Drinking Water in Ireland — A Report for the Year 2010, indicates that good progress has been made in addressing supplies on the remedial action list. Of the original 339 supplies on the list, 166 have been removed with works to be completed on a further 136 by the end of 2011. Action programmes are in place for most of the remaining supplies.

I assure Deputy Harris that an action programme is in place for the Vartry supply, backed by funding from my Department. I am disappointed that the EPA has reported slow progress on addressing issues with this supply. The Vartry supply has served the citizens of parts of Dublin and Wicklow for over 140 years. It supplies 80 megalitres of potable water to 335,000 people every day. In 2007, my Department approved a preliminary report which recommended the replacement of the existing Vartry tunnel with a new 4 km tunnel on a direct line from Vartry waterworks to Callowhill, at an estimated cost of €19.4 million. A planning stage budget has been approved. The project is included in the water services investment programme as a project to advance through planning. My Department is awaiting the submission of contract documents from Dublin City Council to enable the scheme to proceed to construction.

Dublin City Council has proposed an advance works project to mitigate the risk to public health that was identified by the EPA, pending the construction of a new tunnel, by providing UV treatment at Callowhill. As part of the review of the water services investment programme earlier this year, this contract was added to the water services investment programme, as a contract to start, at a cost of €1.5 million. I understand the city council is working on detailed proposals for this project. My Department has also approved funding for a number of additional project staff for the delivery of water services capital projects in Dublin, including the Vartry tunnel replacement project. Capital investment in water services is being given a high priority by the Government, with €371 million being provided in 2012. The next stages of the action plan for the Vartry tunnel replacement and the more immediate works at Callowhill will be a priority for funding within the available resources as they are developed by Dublin City Council. I urge the council to finalise these proposals as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister for his positive response. Many of my constituents — the Ceann Comhairle's constituency of Dún Laoghaire is served by a similar supply — will be astonished and annoyed to learn that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has allocated funding and made provision for additional staffing measures and that a preliminary report was approved in 2007. People woke up yesterday, in 2011, to read in the national newspapers that the north Wicklow water supply could be affected by these problems at any stage. I am encouraged by what the Minister has said. I would like to add my voice to the Minister's call for Dublin City Council and Wicklow County Council to get involved as quickly as possible. I would like the Minister to ask the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to contact Dublin City Council to see if progress can be made on this matter as quickly as possible.

I accept that legitimate concerns have been raised about the supply of drinking water to parts of Wicklow and Dublin from the Vartry supply. I reiterate my firm commitment to the advancement of proposals, including those in the action programme, aimed at addressing these deficiencies. I want infrastructural provision in the water sector to be accelerated. Important decisions on the reform of the sector will be made from this perspective in the coming months. We will build on the existing strengths of the current system to achieve our goals. Projects in the current water services investment programme will form part of our investment plans under any structural arrangements. Important projects, such as the replacement of the Vartry tunnel, need to be advanced as quickly as possible. The Government has committed to invest €1.6 billion in capital funding in water services between 2012 and 2016. I urge all authorities, including Dublin City Council, to press on with the delivery of priority projects. I can confirm that I will contact the local authority in the Deputy's area to see what can be done to expedite the proposals that have been mentioned.

Industrial Development

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important issue for debate during Topical Issues. This matter was discussed the other evening at a town hall meeting of Mullingar's business community, which I attended. I would like to give some background to this matter. I will preface my remarks by saying I do not hold the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, personally responsible for any of this.

We have had enough of that today. A 68-acre site was purchased by IDA Ireland in 2002. It was intended that a great new technological park for the town of Mullingar would be developed on the site. Permission was granted to install all services on the site in 2003. The park is now fully served by road, broadband, electricity, public lighting and footpaths. The attention to detail was such that the park even has a bus stop. Permission was subsequently granted for two units in an effort to attract new business to the town. The park is totally empty today, however. It is being used for grazing purposes. I wonder how much those grazing cattle are costing the Exchequer. Historically, the people of Mullingar have not had good experiences with IDA Ireland. In 1997, IDA Ireland announced that Oxford Health Plans was planning to locate in Mullingar and intended to employ 500 people. The firm had 40 staff in Mullingar at first and increased this to 180 before it closed its doors two years later. Similarly, the Hon Hai Precision Industry Company located in Mullingar in 1999 to great fanfare but little came of it.

I have submitted a number of parliamentary questions on this matter since I was elected to the Dáil. Most recently, in October of this year, I asked the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to state the number of visits by potential clients to the IDA Ireland park in Mullingar that had taken place since February 2011. The Minister said in reply that he had been "informed by IDA Ireland that so far in 2011, the agency has hosted three site visits by potential investors to Mullingar". That is nothing short of disgraceful and shameful, particularly when one examines the site visit figures for other IDA Ireland parks in the region. When representatives of IDA Ireland addressed Westmeath County Council on 11 May last, they said there is no such thing as a fair share or an equal slice when it comes to bringing direct investment and jobs to Mullingar. IDA Ireland should market Mullingar as a priority location in keeping with its stated policy objective of balanced regional development and delivering 50% of projects to regions outside Dublin. What has Mullingar done wrong? It is strategically placed in the centre of Ireland and is well-serviced by a road infrastructure. Travel times from Mullingar to Dublin Airport and Dublin Port are two hours, an hour and a half to Galway, two hours to Belfast and two and half hours to Cork. Rail services have been improved over the past several years. Mullingar has a well-educated workforce and is close to major third level institutions such as Athlone Institute of Technology, which celebrated its 40th anniversary as seen on "Nationwide" recently, and NUI Maynooth which is only 30 minutes away. However, IDA Ireland still treats us as second-class citizens.

The Government recently decided to close the Army barracks in Mullingar with the relocation of 200 jobs. In its capital expenditure plan, it announced it would discontinue with the decentralisation of Department of Education and Skills offices to the town with a further loss of 300 jobs. While most decentralisation programmes were a bit airy-fairy, I was informed the Mullingar proposal was the most subscribed of all the plans.

Who will take control of IDA Ireland, as it seems to be a law unto itself? Will the Minister inform me what Mullingar needs to do for IDA Ireland to stop ignoring a business park in the town in which it has invested millions of euro? The agency has failed abysmally in attracting jobs to Mullingar or to work with Enterprise Ireland or the local enterprise boards. It has hoarded this business park away for itself. Several companies have approached the agency to purchase units in the business park, only to be refused unless they had IDA Ireland approval. As the Minister knows, opening up just one unit can have a knock-on effect with other businesses opening in the vicinity. What are the Government's plans for job creation and investment in Mullingar? What are the Minister of State's proposals for this 68 acre functional business park, along with those of IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, which is still being used to graze cattle?

I thank Deputy Troy for raising this matter. I have some sympathy for his position as I understand the frustration of any Deputy who represents areas outside of the large urban conurbations when it comes to attracting inward investment to their business parks. I too have had words with the agency when it comes to its policy of attracting inward investment to places other than the larger urban conurbations.

IDA Ireland's property portfolio comprises approximately 1,240 ha. Under section 16 of the Industrial Development Act 1986 the agency has responsibility for managing its property programme which consists of the acquisition and disposal of land, the development and servicing of land and the provision of building solutions. The programme has been designed specifically to support the promotion of Ireland and its regions as a suitable location for foreign direct investment, FDI, by providing tailored property solutions.

The midlands region is a priority for IDA Ireland and it is continuing to market the region, including Mullingar, to its existing clients and to potential new investors. In line with the national spatial strategy and IDA Ireland's strategy, Horizon 2020, IDA Ireland is focused on advancing regional economic development, primarily through gateway locations and in the midlands this includes Mullingar, Tullamore and Athlone.

IDA Ireland has invested heavily in the business and technology park in Mullingar to make it more attractive to overseas clients. The agency has confirmed that it will continue to promote this park and other local private property options to secure new investments for Mullingar and its surrounding areas. As Ireland competes for high-end investments, the concept of scale is crucial to success. Leading corporations require a significant population of highly qualified talented people, effective physical and digital infrastructure, coupled with the availability of sophisticated support services, an attractive quality of life and proximity to third level institutions.

IDA Ireland is actively marketing the midlands gateway through its network of overseas offices and is in regular engagement with all local economic stakeholders including local authorities, midlands gateway chamber, county development boards, academia and Enterprise Ireland to develop constantly the value proposition for the midlands and to provide the most attractive conditions for growth.

With the improved infrastructure that is now in place, a significant number of people commute from within the midlands gateway. IDA Ireland considers a project win in one midlands town to have a positive impact on the other surrounding areas due to the close proximity of all main locations.

As well as marketing the region for new greenfield investment, IDA Ireland continues to work with existing clients to deepen their mandate in Ireland and to continue to reinvest in their sites in the region. This encourages further business in areas which are compatible with our skills base and which are sustainable within our economy in the longer term.

The strategy of developing lands and property in advance of securing new business has been a fundamental and successful tool in the IDA's marketing to overseas clients. The ready availability of property solutions often eliminates the lead times normally associated with acquiring property and for completing necessary development work. It also allows for the commencement of projects at an earlier date by eliminating many of the potential difficulties associated with land acquisition, planning and construction.

It is an accepted that the role of IDA Ireland in making available appropriate and timely property solutions tailored to the needs of prospective multinational clients has been a key contributor to winning FDI to Ireland.

I have been informed some clients tend to opt for site locations in larger urban areas. I agree with the Deputy that there must be a meaningful dialogue with IDA Ireland around the designation of hubs in attracting inward investment to sites such as the one in question. There may also be a need to examine more closely how these sites can be better utilised.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. IDA Ireland's policy states it would be in keeping with the authority's stated policy objective of balanced regional development to have 50% of projects delivered to regions outside Dublin and Cork. The Minister of State correctly pointed out that the midland region is receiving investment and he stated the gateway hub of Tullamore, Athlone and Mullingar is being looked after, but only two of those towns are being looked after. There is no IDA Ireland development in Mullingar. He also referred to proximity to third level institutions. The availability of a highly educated workforce is of huge importance to potential investors. The town is well located with AIT down the road and NUI Maynooth up the road, both only a 30 minute drive away.

According to reports regarding the upcoming budget, no grants will be made for fourth level education and that will have a detrimental affect on IDA Ireland's efforts to attract foreign direct investment. If the student registration charge is increased further, it will also have a detrimental effect because young people will be disincentivised to attend third level and educate and upskill themselves to a level that would attract foreign direct investment.

Will the Minister of State take a personal interest in the site in Mullingar? I am sure he will visit the region. When he does so, will he visit the IDA Ireland park in Mullingar to see first hand how well located and serviced it is and how quickly it could be made ready and available to a potential client? IDA Ireland should look outside its own parameters regarding this park. It seems to covet the site because no one else can get a look in. The authority has had it for the past 11 years and it has not attracted any company. Enterprise Ireland, the local authority, the county enterprise board and community organisations should be given the opportunity to avail of it and let whichever group comes forward with a reasonable suggestion use it. If that means they have to be given the site without paying for it, so be it. Captains of industry who are prepared to take risks and invest their own capital in line with their entrepreneurial spirit to create jobs in our locality should be let on to the site. People need to be incentivised to spend their own money to create jobs because the State will not do so. The State needs to introduce policies to incentivise people to generate job creation using their own wealth.

Will the Minister of State give a commitment to do this, especially given the recent decision to close the Army barracks in Mullingar and to cancel the decentralisation of the Department of Education and Skills to the town? The town has lost 500 jobs. IDA Ireland says it prioritises areas that have suffered job losses. Mullingar must be at the top of the list if that is the authority's criterion.

I have sympathy for the Deputy regarding the issues raised. If one considers this from the vantage point of companies that may invest inward, they do not necessarily look at county boundaries or constituencies and, therefore, if they are considering the midlands gateway, they will look at the towns, in particular, not the county boundaries.

IDA Ireland is bringing investors to the other two towns.

I take what the Deputy said in good faith. Given that Mullingar has a strong stakeholder forum, I respectfully suggest it should take up the cudgel through its local public representatives to forge a closer link or dynamic with IDA Ireland in respect of the issues he has outlined.

With regard to a site visit, I can bring this to the attention of the Minister. I have visited AIT and NUIM. They are two fine institutions conducting world class research and there is continued investment by the Government in science, technology and innovation to ensure this world class research can be maintained.

There is merit in the Deputy's contribution. There has to be a dialogue around these sites throughout the country and how they are marketed and utilised. We need a discussion about a more lateral approach and if a set of potential investors locally or a set of stakeholders or entrepreneurs who are from without the IDA Ireland portfolio want to engage, an approach should be made to the authority to discuss the potential of the land use. I fail to see why that could not happen. I thank the Deputy for raising these issues.

Inter-Country Adoptions

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise the issue of inter-country adoptions between Ireland and Ethiopia. I refer to the difficulty being experienced by people who want to adopt children from Ethiopia because of the absence of a bilateral agreement. The enactment of recent legislation in the area, while, by and large welcome, has effectively made it impossible for Irish couples to adopt Ethiopian children. This not only poses obvious problems for first-time or prospective parents seeking to adopt from Ethiopia but it also means that Irish couples who have previously adopted an Ethiopian child and who may want to expand their family will not be in a position to adopt a second child from that country. They are in a difficult space.

In this context, I call on the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to review this situation and specifically to begin negotiations with the Irish Ethiopian Adoption Organisation with a clear view to establishing a bilateral agreement between both countries. Ireland has a positive history of adoption from Ethiopia going back over 20 years.

The most recent figures indicate that between 250 and 300 adoptions of Ethiopian children by Irish parents have taken place during that period. There are now in the region of 7 million orphans in Ethiopia. Of that number, just over 3,000 Ethiopian orphans are currently the subject of intercountry adoptions.

We have a duty to reach out to Ethiopia, which has a population of 80 million people. We are facing into an extremely difficulty budget and our country is experiencing many economic and social problems. Our concerns pale into insignificance when one considers the problems relating to poor education provision, health, shelter, sanitation etc., with which Ethiopia must deal. The position in Ethiopia is not improving, it is getting worse. Only 17% of Ethiopia is urbanised and the rate of youth unemployment there is worse than that which obtains anywhere else on the planet. More than 1 million people in Ethiopia have AIDS or HIV and the country has endured its own well-publicised share of civil conflict in the past.

As the Minister is aware, Ireland ratified the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoptions in 2010. The enacting legislation, the Adoption Act 2010, came into force on 1 November of last year. The Hague Convention establishes minimum standards for the protection of children and eliminates various abuses previously associated with the intercountry adoption process. In that context, the ratification of the convention and the accompanying legislation are to be warmly welcomed because they ensure that high standards and specifications are applied to the intercountry adoption process at all times. In addition, the best interests of the children involved are placed above all other considerations. Section 40 of the Adoption Act stipulates that, in respect of intercountry adoptions, only children from contracting states may be adopted by Irish couples. The only other avenue by means of which Irish couples may adopt children is if they come from a country that has a bilateral agreement with this State. That Ethiopia has limited resources means it has been unable to ratify the Hague Convention. As a result, and in order for adoptions to continue into Ireland from Ethiopia, a bilateral agreement between the two countries must, as required under the Adoption Act, be put in place.

It is important to point out that the Hague Convention allows for adoptions to countries which have not ratified the convention. As already stated, the Adoption Act 2010 allows for bilateral agreements with such countries. As far as I understand it, Ireland is the only country which has restricted adoptions to countries which have ratified the convention and which will not allow adoptions — carried out to Hague standards — from non-contracting states with bilateral agreements. Significantly, countries which have ratified the Hague Convention — the UK, Belgium, Norway, Sweden and Germany — facilitate adoptions from Ethiopia, despite the fact it has not yet ratified the convention. Furthermore, Australia has a bilateral agreement with Ethiopia. I am of the view that the position with regard to Australia could be mirrored in Ireland. While this country currently has no bilateral agreements, history shows that the now expired bilateral agreement with Vietnam was an exceptionally positive collaboration. As a result, there is no reason an equally productive link could not be established with Ethiopia.

It is worth noting that 80% of all intercountry adoptions worldwide are from countries which have not ratified the Hague Convention and 20% are from those which have ratified it. There are many families in Ireland which are, for one reason or another, seeking to adopt Ethiopian children but which are being prevented from doing so. There is an easy remedy to this situation. I call on the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to agree to a request from the Irish Ethiopian Adoption Organisation to have a meeting with her and to authorise the Adoption Authority of Ireland to commence negotiations with the Ethiopian authorities on establishing a bilateral agreement with Ireland.

I am taking this matter, which is of great interest to many Members, on behalf of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, and I thank Deputy McCarthy for raising it.

There was a fundamental change to adoption in Ireland with the commencement of the Adoption Act 2010 and the coming into force of the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoptions on 1 November of last year. In the context of intercountry adoption, Ireland has now signed and ratified the Hague Convention, which aims to promote the highest standards and best practice in intercountry adoption. The practice of intercountry adoption is not without risk. The Hague Convention seeks to minimise that risk, with those countries who are party to it working in collaboration in order to build confidence in the process in both sending and receiving countries.

The Adoption Authority of Ireland, AAI, is the central authority for this country with regard to intercountry adoption. As the Hague Convention is designed to ensure a minimum set of standards in respect of such adoption, the AAI has indicated that its first priority is to reach agreements on arrangements with other countries which have ratified the convention. Representatives of the AAI recently returned from the USA and intend to develop an administrative arrangement with that country in respect of intercountry adoption. In the coming weeks, these representatives also intend to visit Mexico and Vietnam in the context of entering into administrative arrangements with both jurisdictions. An arrangement with the latter will be dependent on the entering into force of the Hague Convention in Vietnam on 1 February 2012.

The Minister has been informed by the Irish Embassy in Addis Ababa — it is of assistance that we have an embassy there — that the Ethiopian Government is strongly committed to protecting the best interests of the child and that the ratification of the Hague Convention is an objective for it. While the Ethiopian authorities are supportive of the goal of Hague-compliance, it seems likely that it will take time for them to put in place arrangements to allow for their ratification of the convention. UNICEF is working closely with the Ethiopian authorities to support the development of enhanced policies and programmes in support of children.

As well as providing for the ratification of the convention, the Adoption Act also provides that we may, as Deputy McCarthy noted, enter into bilateral agreements with countries such as Ethiopia which have not ratified the Hague Convention. The negotiation of bilateral agreements on intercountry adoption with states which have not ratified the Hague Convention is governed by section 73 of the Adoption Act 2010, which states "the Authority, with the prior consent of the Minister, may enter into discussions with any non-contracting state concerning the possibility of the Government entering into a bilateral agreement with that State". The opening of negotiations on such a bilateral agreement would require an analysis of the current situation regarding adoptions in Ethiopia; issues regarding the compatibility of the laws between the two countries; and the plans of that jurisdiction vis-à-vis the Hague Convention.

In the context of Ethiopia, the AAI has given preliminary indications that certain issues — particularly those relating to the effect of Ethiopian adoptions in the context of the Adoption Act 2010 — which will require detailed consideration are likely to arise. It is also acknowledged that the adoption process is a tremendously emotional journey to which legal rigour must, in the best interests of the child and all other parties to an adoption, be applied. Add to this the period of change the Adoption Act 2010 has induced and the result is a very difficult and demanding landscape for prospective adoptive parents. There are few certainties or guarantees and, on occasion, governments in both sending and receiving countries may make decisions about what is in the best interests of children that will give rise to concerns on the part of prospective adoptive parents.

The Minister is extremely conscious that the AAI has a full work programme in the terms of Hague countries, as well as the important upcoming priority of engagement with Vietnam. In addition, the AAI and officials from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs will be undertaking exploratory meetings with the Russian authorities in the coming weeks. The AAI must also prioritise checks of legal compatibility with a wide range of jurisdictions in order to process applications for the recognition of the adoptions of children already adopted from abroad by Irish citizens. These are desktop reviews in respect of which legal advice is needed. They are urgently required in order to regulate the status of children already adopted.

The Minister has sought an update on Ethiopia from the AAI and the Irish Embassy in Addis Ababa to assess possible next steps vis-à-vis that jurisdiction. However, further action must have regard to the wider work programme of the AAI and its agreed priorities.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Burton, for taking this topical issue.

It is clear from her reply that there is a legislative framework which will allow the inter-country adoptions to take place, leaving aside the difficulties Ethiopia may be experiencing in ratifying the Hague Convention. There is a legislative framework and provision to allow us proceed with a bilateral agreement.

We have an embassy in Addis Ababa. I am happy to see that the Minister has sought an update, both from it and from the adoption authority but I have two specific requests. First, I urge the Minister concerned, Deputy Fitzgerald, to meet the Irish Ethiopian Adoption Association and resolve the remaining issues. Second, I urge her, as is only right and proper, to allow the bilateral agreement to take place so that we can promote families coming together and allow people in this country who want to adopt an Ethiopian baby the joy and happiness that such adoption will bring to their lives. It will also allow those who have already adopted children from that country to expand and develop their family unit.

We are living in difficult times but this is a good news story. It is a good story for children and for families. It is something that the Government needs to pursue with a considerable degree of enthusiasm, compassion and speed. The apparatus and legislative framework are in place. What we need is a political push. We have an embassy in Addis Ababa.

The Minister, Deputy Burton, spent a significant period of her life in the continent of Africa. She will be aware of the difficult social and economic issues challenging the livelihood of people in Ethiopia. I ask her to urge the Government and her colleague to pursue this issue.

I would respectfully ask that the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, would get back to me following the update that she has sought from the Irish Embassy in Ethiopia and having considered the possible next step. The framework is in place and we need to push it in that direction.

I will ask my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, to give urgent consideration to the meeting Deputy McCarthy suggests with the Irish people interested in adopting from Ethiopia. As I stated in the detailed reply, there is much work ongoing arising from the entering into force of the 2010 Adoption Act. Also, Ireland has finally, after long years of discussion, signed up to the Hague Convention. That is very helpful.

I have been in Ethiopia where there are, unfortunately, a number of children in orphanages. Deputy McCarthy mentioned the figure of 3,000. Where a child would otherwise spend his or her childhood in an orphanage, there is a strong case for facilitating a good quality home to adoptive parents who would love and look after that child.

I, myself, was adopted. Of course, Ireland has a long history of adoption. In the 1950s, we had children going to America to be adopted in the period after the Second World War. We are not without our own history, including those children coming back subsequently to Ireland to look for their birth roots. It is important in this instance that we look at the interests of everybody, foremost of which are those of the child, including, as I stated, the issue of a child being in an institution such as an orphanage for all of his or her childhood as opposed to finding a loving home. The fact that we have an embassy in Ethiopia is helpful. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald to send Deputy McCarthy a report on the briefing that she gets from the embassy.

The Minister has done much positive work since she took up office. As a matter of interest, I received a table from officials from her Department outlining the numbers of registrations of adoptions from Ethiopia as follows: in 2011, 41; in 2010, 75; in 2009, 21; and in 2008, 26. There is a history. I am sure the Department will furnish Deputy McCarthy with the details of the non-Hague Convention adoptions from abroad. The total of non-Hague Convention adoptions, according to this table, were: so far in 2011, 135; and in 2010, 168.

Clearly, now that we have signed up to Hague Convention, adoption is still continuing. It is merely that the framework must meet the requirements of that convention and the sending country also must establish and meet fairly stringent requirements on its side. That is in the best interest of the child.

I will raise what Deputy McCarthy has said with the Minister.

Employment Support Services

The website of the JobBridge scheme lists the following eligibility criteria: one must be unemployed and actively seeking work, and one must be on the live register and currently in receipt of jobseeker's benefit, jobseeker's allowance or signing for social insurance contribution credits for three of the past six months. This appears fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, it is not so. Only when one reads the fine print of the scheme is it revealed that a person can meet these criteria and still be excluded, on the basis that the person is also in receipt of one parent family payment. For the record, one can be in receipt of one parent payment and a reduced jobseeker's benefit payment.

Therefore, single parents are obliged to give up their one parent payment if they wish to avail of the scheme. This is unfair, discriminatory and detrimental, not only to the parent but to his or her child or children. It must be remembered that the purpose of the one parent payment is to help the recipient provide for his or her child in the absence of income from a partner. It is not a payment made solely for the benefit of the adult in the family.

When my colleague, Deputy Ó Snodaigh, raised this matter with the Minister by way of parliamentary question, Deputy Burton's response was to state that "Individuals in receipt of One Parent Family Payment may access a wide range of activation supports including the FÁS Work Placement Programme". However, the FÁS work placement programme is, according to the scheme's own website, "unpaid and voluntary". In fact, participation in such a scheme may entail a net cost to the participant, particularly in rural areas such as my constituency where travel is likely to be involved, and costs such as lunches and child care. The weekly JobBridge payment, €50, may be a pittance to some but at least it would go some way towards the costs of a person's involvement in the scheme. The FÁS programme is not an adequate substitute.

The problems this exclusion is causing are not hypothetical. I received the following correspondence from a constituent in receipt of lone parent family payment and already participating in a work placement programme. She writes:

It is beginning to get disheartening going into a job every day not getting paid. I am struggling to get by. I have not been able to pay my mortgage for months, I can't afford to tax my car at the moment, I have no oil for my house and it is starting to get colder. I am at my wits end trying to figure out how I am meant to pay my bills, raise my two teenage sons, celebrate Christmas and put my son through college next year when all I am in receipt of is €247 a week from One Parent Family payments. I get nothing from their dad and no other help. My parents are unable to help me anymore as my dad is struggling to find work himself and I took up this work placement as a way to try and make a future for myself and my boys. I am fighting back the tears typing this because I have always been such a self-sufficient person and I feel that I am now such a failure because I can't provide for my children. I feel totally trapped and at a loss of what to do next. If I leave my work placement, I blow any chance of getting a job in the future here but it is costing me money I don't have, to come to work every day.

I ask the Minister to consider sincerely the words I have read. This constituent, who is well known to me and whose integrity I can confidently vouch for, is not only suffering financially because of her inability to access even the meagre payment available under the JobBridge scheme, it is also clearly causing her enormous emotional distress. She is not alone. I have no doubt that any Member in this House who talks to constituents will know of cases similar to that I have outlined. In the face of an economic crisis, the Government's policies are leading — I do not believe this in any way stretches the situation — to mental health issues for people. That is a fact of life, very sadly, from the cohort and profile of cases that are coming to my office on a week-on-week basis. I ask the Minister to sympathetically and compassionately respond to the appeal I have made.

I thank Deputy Ó Caoláin for raising this important issue in general and in particular for his constituent. Earlier this year, the Government announced its jobs initiative, which was a major step in helping to get Ireland back on the road to recovery. The Government's aim was to begin the process of restoring confidence in Ireland's economy, but also restoring hope and confidence in the huge number of people who currently find themselves out of employment. JobBridge, the national internship scheme, is a key element of the jobs initiative.

Since its launch on 1 July this year, JobBridge has already achieved significant milestones. As of last Friday, there are just under 2,600 internship opportunities being advertised on the JobBridge website,, and a total of 2,879 interns have actually commenced their internship. These figures show the strong level of interest in JobBridge, both from a host organisation perspective but also, importantly, from prospective interns.

The aim of JobBridge is to assist individuals bridge the gap between unemployment and the world of work. JobBridge provides those seeking employment with the opportunity to undertake a six or nine month internship in a host organisation. The scheme aims to offer individuals of all skill levels, ranging from those who left school early to highly qualified graduates and postgraduates, a unique opportunity to develop new skills to complement their existing skills and earn valuable experience. Upon completing their internship, participants will have improved their prospects of securing employment.

In the current labour market environment, JobBridge also provides individuals with a unique opportunity to secure work experience in a new field. These could be people coming from the construction industry who no longer have employment and need to get into a new field. The scheme enables people to break the cycle whereby unemployed people are unable to get a job without experience and cannot gain experience without a job, either as new entrants to the labour market after education or training or as unemployed workers, like construction workers, whose existing skills need to be enhanced to ensure they stand the best possible chance of securing work.

In order to be eligible for the scheme, individuals must be in receipt of a live claim on the live register and have been receiving jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance, or signing for social insurance contribution credits, for at least 78 days in the last six months. The purpose of these eligibility criteria for the JobBridge scheme is to provide a pathway to appropriate employment, training and education opportunities for those on the live register so that, as employment opportunities become available, they are taken up by those on the live register. Given the scale of the unemployment crisis, it is imperative to keep those on the live register close to the labour market and to try to prevent the drift into long-term unemployment. For these reasons, the eligibility for the scheme is confined to those on the live register and in receipt of unemployment payments or signing for credits for at least 78 days of the last six months. In so designing the scheme, the policy objective is to prioritise scarce resources on those on the live register so as to increase their chances of leaving it and ensure a reduction in Exchequer costs over time.

The Department continues to monitor and review the operation of the JobBridge scheme, including its eligibility criteria, on an ongoing basis. However, for the reasons outlined, there are no plans to amend the participant eligibility criteria. I assure the Deputy we keep it constantly under review. I have taken many queries and questions from Deputies in the House. We have changed the scheme on an ongoing basis and we will have an evaluation system in place. This has already gone to tender and it is a first in regard to social welfare that we would evaluate results as close as possible to people actually undertaking various activation programmes. This is something people have spoken about over a long period.

JobBridge is the first initiative operated under the new national employment and entitlements service, which was a commitment contained in the programme for Government. The implementation of this new service under the management of the Department of Social Protection is a crucial element of improved targeting of the resources applied to work placement, training and education for unemployed people and will provide the framework within which the reinvigorated national employment action plan will deliver activation policies and priorities.

Individuals in receipt of one-parent family payment have access to a wide range of activation supports. The Deputy referred to the FÁS work placement programme, specifically in regard to his constituent. The problem with the work placement programme is, as the Deputy pointed out, that there is no top-up payment and many people on that programme have opted, where they qualify, to transfer over to JobBridge. I am continuing to keep all of this under review.

We are constrained by the circumstances in which I got the go-ahead in Government to proceed with this scheme in the context of the discussions with the people from the troika, who want to see the activation of people on the live register. Initially, we are confining it to such people because those are the terms and conditions. However, I am keeping this constantly under personal review, as are the people on the steering group. We meet very frequently to, as it were, gather all the experience of what works and what does not work. I appreciate the Deputy's concern in this area.

I outlined a previous reply by the Minister to my colleague, Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh. It was the Minister's reply that made reference to the FÁS work placement programme in the first instance. Sadly, it has brought no benefit other than the experience itself in the particular case I cite. With respect, although the Minister gave a lengthy, nine paragraph reply, it is only in the last paragraph that any reference is made to the situation in regard to one-parent family payment, which is the focus of my question.

There should be no mistake. We were not, by any means, enthusiasts for the JobBridge scheme when it was first introduced. We believed it was poorly designed and aimed at camouflaging the real situation in regard to the unemployment rate. We argued it was not a substitute for a programme of job creation, which we do not believe the Government has seriously brought forward.

I am sorry to interrupt. The Minister must reply before we conclude.

As long as the JobBridge scheme is all that is on offer, I will of course make the case that lone parents and non-parents alike should be treated similarly. In this instance, if the Minister is to undertake any review, I urge her to hear and heed the cry of this woman, who is representative of a number. It is not going to break the bank but it will make a huge difference. They are very eager and anxious to take it up.

I will bear in mind what the Deputy has said. We got the go-ahead for the scheme under the very stringent conditionality that it related to people on the live register, for reasons I am sure the Deputy appreciates and understands. JobBridge is not for everybody, and I never claimed it was. It is a specific initiative providing 5,000 places over a two year period. It is very heavily subscribed, as the Deputy knows, and the feedback from it is quite positive. An evaluation mechanism to be put in place has gone to tender.

I am keeping the scheme under constant review. I am aware that some members of the Deputy's party are immensely critical of it, but it has a valuable role for people who are caught in the catch-22 situation of being unable to get a job because they do not have experience and being unable to acquire experience because they cannot get a job.