Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 2 Oct 2013

Vol. 815 No. 2

Topical Issue Debate

Water and Sewerage Schemes Funding

I welcome the Minister. Members of every household in the country want clean and safe water when they turn on their taps. I commend the Minister on his ambition for this country that a uniform and satisfactory clean water supply should be available to all houses and businesses regardless of where one lives. The Minister will be aware that currently this is definitely not the case. The disparate quality of water is most marked between urban and rural areas. In some rural areas of Mayo the water coming through the taps is not only unfit for human consumption but in some cases not fit for personal bathing, nor even to use for washing clothes. In most cases the contamination is naturally occurring because of the ground conditions in a particular area and in spite of drilling wells and being resourceful in many ways people cannot get a clean water supply. I have seen red coloration coming through the taps that makes it unsuitable for people to wash their clothes.

This year the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government allocated €200,000 to Mayo County Council for new group water schemes. However, to date, notwithstanding the fact that communities in Kilmurry, Downpatrick, Ballycastle, Massbrook, Aghalonteen, Carracastle and Furmoyle, comprising 210 houses in total, have been waiting for years for a new group water scheme, the council has not been in a position to spend one red cent of the allocated funding. That is not for want of trying on the part of the council and the communities. The problem is that the estimated cost of each scheme is too high compared to the amount of funding available from the Department. Because of the relatively small number of houses in these far-flung proposed group water schemes in rural areas, the cost of constructing the schemes per household is higher than in more densely populated areas where there are more households to contribute towards the cost of the scheme. Under the current funding rules the county council is only entitled to recoup a maximum of €6,500 per house from the Department. In turn, each household contributes approximately €1,200 towards the cost.

In the case of the six Mayo schemes I have mentioned, it leaves a total funding shortfall of €432,000. Previously, the shortfall was funded through the CLÁR scheme, but since 2008-09 when it was abolished, the problem has become very acute, with no movement or progress on the schemes, notwithstanding the fact that local households have actually paid their contributions. In addition, they paid over €170,000 in consultants' fees to have proposals submitted to the Minister and signed off on. They cannot recoup the money until the schemes go ahead. They are out of pocket with nothing to show for it.

I acknowledge that this is a problem the Minister has inherited, but I ask him to intervene and put in place a solution to allow the long-overdue water schemes to proceed. The communities would have benefited from CLÁR funding in the past because they were identified as areas of rural disadvantage. I ask the Minister to increase the departmental contribution for the former CLÁR-associated disadvantaged areas. At present, it is the same amount per household nationwide, or a sum up to that maximum. The people themselves cannot afford to make up the shortfall, nor should they be asked to do so, considering that it is already recognised that they are living in disadvantaged circumstances. I ask that they be refunded the cost of the consultants' fees for the schemes and not be left out of pocket any longer.

I am aware that Irish Water will have responsibility for implementing the Minister's vision for clean water, but I am also aware that it may take up to five years for all the responsibilities to be transferred fully from the water services departments of local authorities and that an issue arises over public and private group water schemes and their sources. It is not quite clear who will be responsible.

The rules are in place and it appears that Mayo County Council will not be able to spend its funding. I ask that the Minister intervene in the practical way in which we have become accustomed to seeing him do his business and provide a solution and hope for the people affected who have been waiting a long time.

The provision of public transport services are operational matters for the relevant transport provider in conjunction with the National Transport Authority (NTA), which is the licensing and regulatory body for public transport.  I have referred the Deputy's question to the NTA for direct reply.  Please advise my private office if you do not receive a reply within ten working days.

I really liked the Minister's closing remarks. We all know the problem is caused by reducing budgets, but the people in question paid their contributions as far back as 2008 and 2009. If the CLÁR funding had been available in those years, the people in question would have been up and away because the shortfall would have been made up. They have been waiting since that time and there is still the shortfall.

I acknowledge the considerable block grants given to County Mayo. The sum of €200,000 pertains to new schemes. I am aware that considerable resources are given to maintain existing schemes, ensuring proper water quality and monitoring. I do not dispute that grants are given to schemes via the council, but I am just talking about the new schemes. I acknowledge the investment the Minister has made in making connections to public mains in rural areas. This will be of great benefit and give security and a proper water supply in far-flung areas outside urban areas. The areas to which I refer are badly affected and have a terrible water supply. I appreciate the Minister's assurance.

I remind the Deputy that since 1997 local authorities have devolved responsibility in drawing up the list of areas they wish to have considered for funding. They can actually target some funding themselves in consultation with the Department. I realise the areas about which the Deputy is talking have a particular issue in getting a local contribution. The €6,475 per house might not be enough to make a scheme viable. However, as I stated, I am awaiting feedback from the National Rural Water Services Committee on new group water schemes. Perhaps the Deputy might arrange to make a submission to the committee and the necessary details available to my Department in order that we will be able to consider them in the context of the arrangements for 2014.

Road Projects Issues

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this important matter. The Narrow Water Bridge project has been a long-running saga for the people of County Louth and south Down. However, we are now entering a critical phase and it is time for all stakeholders to put their money where their mouths are. Louth County Council confirmed in early July that the construction of the proposed cross-Border bridge had been put on hold after tenders received from construction companies for the project ran substantially above the allocated budget. Tenders received ranged from €26 million to €40 million, plus VAT, some €15 million over the allocated funding. In the meantime, the council pledged an additional €2 million for the project in August. It accepted the EU funding, but the final financial package remains unsecured. The €17.4 million in EU INTERREG funding allocated for the project means a decision needs to be made in the coming weeks. If the project does not progress, a contingency plan may be put in place that is deliverable and will achieve a full draw-down in the remaining timeframe which ends in December 2015. We need to act quickly to get the project off the ground and resolve how we are to proceed.

The extremely disappointing news about the overruns comes only two months after the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to put forward its part of the funding. The Government's decision in the past few weeks not to provide additional funding is a further blow to the viability of the project. The bridge over the Newry river at Narrow Water has the support of the Governments of the Republic and Northern Ireland. The project won approval last year from An Bord Pleanála and the Northern Ireland planning authority. The funding deficit must be tackled and it is vital that the Government take the lead in addressing the issue by meeting the councils involved and creating a new source of funding to make progress on this decades-long project.

The development of the bridge will greatly assist in the growth of tourism, economic regeneration and enhancing social relationships in the respective areas. The completion of the project after decades of lobbying by the local communities will mark an important symbolic leap forward for North-South relations in the Border region. I am calling on the Government to revise its disastrous decision not to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to provide additional funding. The Government must ramp up support for the joint committee between Louth County Council and the Newry and Mourne District Council and co-operate with the Northern Ireland Executive to find a workable solution to secure funding and get the project off the ground.

Fianna Fáil has been a consistent advocate of this project and after so much progress has been made in terms of planning and securing funding from Europe, it would be a tragic decision to scupper matters at this advanced stage. I exhort the Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan, to convey the very strong feelings and sentiments of the people of the Cooley Peninsula and the Mourne region of south Down on the vital importance of this project to them and to the region. It is hugely symbolic and the bridge will open up an area of the country that has been severely underdeveloped as far as tourism is concerned. The potential to create jobs and to get additional spending power into the region is obvious. The bridge would be a very important leap forward and I exhort the Minister of State to convey those sentiments to the relevant Department.

I thank Deputy Kirk for the opportunity to address this issue. Unfortunately, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, is unable to be here as he is in London at a number of tourism promotional events but this is a project the Minister is well aware of and has engaged with significantly over the past year.

As I am sure all Members of this House will now be well aware, the improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority, in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from local authorities' own resources, supplemented by State road grants. The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is also a matter for the local authority.

In 2011, Louth County Council in conjunction with its Northern Ireland project partners, East Border Region and Newry and Mourne District Council, decided to submit the Narrow Water Bridge project for INTERREG IVA funding. Prior to this, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport had indicated that due to budgetary constraints and the need to prioritise road maintenance, it could not provide funding to progress the project by itself.

The project partners submitted an application for funding of €17.4 million based on a project cost of €18.3 million. The Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, approved the €17.4 million funding on 24 October 2012. The SEUPB indicated that given the amount of funding involved, project approval was dependent on financial support from the relevant Northern and Southern authorities.

After the SEUPB approved the project in principle, it sought confirmation from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Northern Department of Finance and Personnel of the required financial support before issuing a letter of offer to the project promoters. In January this year the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport confirmed its upfront contribution of €3.91 million. Confirmation of funding was also sought at the same time from the Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel. The project was approved for funding by the Northern Ireland Minister in late May, subject to the letter of offer from SEUPB, including a number of specific conditions. These conditions included a commitment by Louth County Council that it would have sole responsibility for any cost overruns within the eligible spend time frame and in the event that the project extended beyond that period. In addition, Louth County Council was also required to meet all the maintenance and associated costs related to the upkeep of the bridge and its service area.

Pending receipt of project approval, Louth County Council went ahead with seeking tenders from short-listed contractors. The tender assessment process, which was completed in early July, showed a shortfall of the order of €15 million in the funding, as construction tender prices came in at nearly double the estimated cost. As mentioned previously, while Louth County Council had indicated to SEUPB that it was willing to meet any funding shortfall, this was on the understanding that any shortfall that did arise would be small.

On 9 July the council released a statement indicating that the tenders received ranged from €26 million to €40 million plus VAT, which was substantially above the allocated budget for the project, leaving the council with a substantial funding shortfall. The council also stated that while it would try to see if the shortfall could be filled through any combination of additional funding and cost reductions, the project had been put on hold. Unfortunately, on the basis of the tender prices received, the cost of the project is well beyond that projected and bridging the shortfall is very difficult. Furthermore, the increased cost of the project now has significantly reduced the benefit-to-cost ratio associated with it.

I understand that the SEUPB has been in discussion with Louth County Council and its project partners regarding the financial viability and deliverability of the scheme. This is to be expected given the scale of the cost increase. It is a matter for the SEUPB, taking account of its responsibilities for the allocation of INTERREG IVA funding, to assess the position and satisfy itself as to the deliverability of the project. As part of this process, SEUPB sought clarifications and additional information from the project partners which it is now assessing.

No formal proposal has been made by Louth County Council to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport on increasing the Department's funding contribution. Due to budget cutbacks, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has had to curtail investment on major new or improvement projects in recent times in order to focus available funds on necessary maintenance and repair work, based on the current estimates. As the Deputy will be aware, a further reduction of in excess of €100 million in the 2014 budget for regional and local roads is scheduled. It is from this budget that any additional funds for the Narrow Water Bridge would have to come. Notwithstanding this, the Minister has indicated that he would be willing to consider helping to make up some of the shortfall but only in the context that there would be significant contributions from all other parties, including the Northern Ireland Executive. As I understand it, to date such a package of funding has not been put together.

If it does not prove possible to advance this project, there are a number of other transport projects of a cross-Border nature that can be pursued to ensure that this funding is not lost to the island. I wish to stress that the Minister is open to proposals.

In response to the reply from the Minister of State, has any initiative been taken by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to get an emergency discussion forum going between the various local authorities and the two Government Departments, north and south of the Border to determine whether a suitable package can be put together to finalise the project? It would be a huge loss if this project does not go ahead. Getting capital spending into that part of the country has been a huge challenge and not much public money has ever been spent in the area. Given the hugely symbolic importance of the project in the context of North-South relations, it would be catastrophic if it were not to go ahead.

The other possibility, in the event of it not being possible to put a package together at this point in time, is to make contact with the SEUPB with a view to extending the period during which the €17.4 million in funding is available from the INTERREG IVA fund. Has the Department determined whether it would be possible to extend the period to allow for a change in economic fortunes to facilitate the approval of the project at some not too distant point in the future? A number of issues must be considered. The reality is that if the INTERREG money is not drawn down now for the project, the project is effectively gone for the foreseeable future. While nobody can look into a crystal ball and predict what will happen in five or ten years time, I greatly fear that the project will be put on the back burner and will not proceed. Tourism in what has been described as the Killarney of the north, the Cooley mountains and Mourne mountains area, which is a beautiful part of the country, is seriously under-developed primarily because the connection between the two areas is not as it should be. The bridge would fill that gap and would be of huge economic benefit. I exhort the Minister of State to go back to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and tell him that we need the bridge.

I was in Carlingford over the summer and it is indeed a beautiful part of the country. I also know that this project is important to this Government and the Government of Northern Ireland. Deputies from all parties in County Louth have been strongly promoting the project for some time. It was Louth County Council, together with its Northern Ireland partners, East Border Region and Newry and Mourne District Council, which put the proposal forward. A proposal has not been put to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport so far. I would imagine that such a proposal would need to be put ---

Is the Department open to it?

I just said the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, has indicated he would be willing to consider helping. He has made the point that there would have to be a contribution from Northern Ireland, helping to make up some of the shortfall, however. My understanding is a proposal needs to be put by the two local authorities to the two Governments. I realise funding needs to be drawn down as quickly as possible.

This a four-way partnership. They all need to be pulled together.

It is not anybody’s fault that the tenders came in at a much higher level than was expected. If a proposal can be put together quickly, the Minister has indicated that he is willing to consider it.

Medical Card Applications

I am glad to have this opportunity to raise an issue which will be familiar to all Members. All of us have at some stage been asked for advice or help with regard to medical card applications. Of course, we are usually only ever asked to help in cases where a card has been refused on grounds of income and a review or appeal is sought on grounds of hardship, in most cases caused by the expense of dealing with an ongoing illness or disability.

It is important when dealing with such cases that the system is fair and is seen to be fair. In cases where a refusal to grant a medical card is being reviewed or appealed, the Health Service Executive, HSE, issues a simple “Yes” or “No” decision at the end of its deliberations. This is fine where a review or appeal has been successful but it is deeply frustrating in the unsuccessful cases where people are left in the dark as to the reasons behind the decision.

It is not unreasonable for the HSE to provide a basic summary of the reasons behind such decisions. Such reasons may include insufficient medical evidence, a relatively low level of cost or a myriad of other explanations. This information could prove crucial in deciding whether or not to proceed to a further appeal.

The HSE, however, does not seem to share the belief this is a reasonable proposition. Incredibly, it actively blocks any attempts to disclose the reasons behind its decisions and will only provide them on foot of a freedom of information request. Surely, such a stance cannot be justified. One promise we made when we got into government was to bring more transparency to our decision-making process across all State bodies. Much progress has been made and more will come. In light of such changes, the attitude taken by the HSE is looking increasing archaic and obstructive.

I believe there is a culture in the HSE that has to be changed. There are elements of management within the organisation that do not understand the principle that they are there to serve the public, not to make life difficult for them. Such a culture was referred to recently by the outgoing Ombudsman who pointed out the contrasting difference in policy between the Department of Social Protection and the HSE whose default position seems to be closed and defensive, often to the great cost of the State and the distress of our citizens.

On this particular issue, I see no reason for the HSE to continue with its policy of requiring freedom of information requests before releasing information regarding medical card decisions. If anything, it would streamline the process and help reduce the small number of spurious appeals. More importantly, it would of course remove much of the frustration and distress for medical applicants. Also there is the additional difficulty for some families that they may be handling the application for a person who is unable to do so themselves, either through illness, age or disability. Freedom of information requests in such cases can be difficult if those assisting are not legally the guardians or wards of the person requesting the card.

Will the Minister give strong consideration to changing these procedures? I cannot see how any cost would be incurred by such a change. If anything there could well be savings. More importantly, we would make our system a little bit more human and easier to navigate.

I thank Deputy Nash for raising this matter.

Medical cards are provided to persons who, under the provisions of the Health Act 1970, are in the opinion of the HSE unable, without undue hardship, to arrange general practitioner, GP, services for themselves and their dependants. The assessment for a medical card is determined primarily by reference to the means including the income and reasonable expenditure of the applicant, his or her partner and dependants.

Medical card and GP visit card eligibility is subject to periodic assessment review by the HSE to determine a person's continuing eligibility to be approved for a medical card or GP visit card under the general medical services scheme. This can either be on the basis of a self-assessment completed by the card holder or a full review assessment conducted by the HSE.

In the former case, the card holder is simply asked to declare whether his or her circumstances have changed to an extent likely to affect their continuing eligibility to be approved for a medical card. A person who answers "No" to this question on the returned review form will have eligibility renewed for a further period. A person who answers "Yes" is required to provide the details of current circumstances relevant to conduct a full assessment of eligibility.

In cases where a full review of eligibility is undertaken, the review proceeds with an assessment of household means to determine if the applicant is within the income limits to qualify for a medical card or GP visit card. If a review application is assessed to be ineligible on the basis of means for both a medical card and GP visit card or means assessed eligible for a GP visit card only, and the application also includes other medical, social or financial details that do not form part of the means assessment, the application will then be considered on discretionary grounds for a grant of a card under the undue hardship-undue burden provisions of the medical card scheme of assessment.

Having completed a full assessment of a review application, a letter issues to the applicant advising of the decision on the application. If a review application is assessed ineligible or eligible for a GP visit card only, the letter issuing informing the applicant of this decision will include an explanation of how the application was assessed and the details of the means assessment calculated on the application. In addition, the letter will notify the applicant of the details should he or she wish to appeal the decision or provide additional relevant information for a further review assessment.

Notwithstanding the above practices adopted by the HSE in informing an applicant on the outcome of the assessment of the review application and how this decision was concluded, an applicant can appeal this decision or exercise the right under section 18 of the Freedom of Information Act to be provided with a statement as to the reasons for decisions or actions that caused the withholding of a medical card or GP visit card eligibility to the individual concerned.

I appreciate the time the Minister has taken to address this issue in the Chamber. I am familiar, as every Member and public representative is, with the processes involved in appealing a medical card decision. A situation I encountered recently with a constituent has shone a light on some of the inadequacies of this process. The Department of Social Protection deals efficiently with providing details of why a welfare payment has been refused. The HSE and the Department of Health need to be informed by this approach. It is beyond me as to why, in this day and age, a citizen would need to institute a freedom of information request as to why he or she was refused a medical card. I do not believe it is fair or humane. It is not a practice over which we can continue to stand. It is important that this issue is addressed in terms of transparency, openness and fairness.

It is bizarre the HSE has not learned lessons from the past. While I accept it is improving in many respects, along with interacting with the public, it still needs to be understanding of personal circumstances and provide basic information to applicants who have been refused a medical card. The HSE has been less clear on refusals due to illnesses or disabilities. I hope the Minister of State, with his progressive reform agenda, will deal with some of these bureaucratic inadequacies in the HSE, which will go a long way to inspire more confidence in the organisation.

I will take very seriously what the Deputy has said on this issue. Towards the end of his second contribution he distinguished between a decision on the basis of income, where the income categories are relatively straightforward and ascertainable and the person either satisfies the requirements or does not, and a discretionary decision. Where the discretionary aspect comes in, a decision is made on the basis of the HSE's additional jurisdiction to extend a medical card even in circumstances in which the person does not satisfy the income limits. When the HSE responds, it also indicates how the decision was concluded. That does not satisfy the Deputy in terms of what information should be given to the applicant on why he or she was refused. The applicant is told that he or she was refused but not why. I will undertake to examine that question. Could the Deputy indicate that his issue is that subset of persons who are relying on an application for a discretionary medical card? I will certainly consider that.

Child Benefit Reform

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important issue. One in ten primary school children and one in six secondary school children miss more than 20 days of school every year, one eighth of the secondary school year. Last year, almost 1,500 children left school and were not recorded as turning up in secondary school. We have a severe problem that is building serious social issues for the future.

A number of years ago Deputy Bruton proposed that children be paid to remain in school. We cannot afford to do that in the current economic circumstances, but we cannot afford to do nothing either. I propose the abolition of child benefit for school-age children and its replacement with a school attendance payment. This would take account of children who are ill or home-schooled, and would be paid in the same manner and at the same rate as child benefit. Not only would this keep children in school; it would also save the Exchequer between €100 million and €135 million annually. The administration system is already in place and I seek some joined-up thinking in the interest of children, families and the taxpayer. Annually, the control division of the Department of Social Protection brings in savings of between €75 million and €85 million under the child benefit scheme. In addition, €4 million to €5 million is sought from overpayments annually. Introducing such a payment system would also have a significant impact on child benefit fraud and over-claims, saving the taxpayer €10.5 million to €36 million per year.

To date the Department of Social Protection has opposed such a move on the basis that it would be illegal under EU law, as this would mean child benefit would no longer be paid to parents living in Ireland whose children reside in another EU country. However, this proposal would be a fraud prevention measure while also helping to address truancy and cutting down on bureaucracy, rather than focusing solely on stopping the €13.2 million that is paid annually in respect of children who live elsewhere in Europe. As a result, this would not only address the issues under EU law, but would also meet some of the criteria laid down by the European Central Bank and Ireland's EU targets for reducing red tape and streamlining government.

Disappointingly, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, and her Department have failed even to put such a proposal forward at EU level. Disappointingly, the Department continues to issue 600,000 letters a year, enough to wallpaper Croke Park Stadium two and a half times, to try to save this money when a simple system could not only save the money but also ensure that children attend school. It is time we started to do things differently in Ireland and act in the interests of people by joining up government. We cannot continue to do things as we did them in the past, especially when it takes money out of the pockets of families.

Finally, I give the example of Jenny, who is six years of age. In December, her school principal contacted the National Education Welfare Board to say she had been absent for 65 days. The education welfare officer contacted the family, called to them, wrote to them and issued legal threats, and eventually the family ended up in court. The mother was fined €200 and the father €300. Since they went to court Jenny has attended school, but it should not have cost the taxpayer nearly €24,000 and Jenny a year of school before action was taken to bring that about. This initiative can work; it can ensure that young people attend school and save the taxpayer money.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am talking about replacing the current social welfare system with a National Education Welfare Board system, so it is not a duplication but a reduction in bureaucracy. Children are not attending school today. One in six secondary school children misses more than 20 days of school, while one in ten primary school children misses more than 20 days of school. This has a huge impact on their young lives and leads to significant social consequences down the road. The Department of Social Protection is abdicating its responsibility because these children are not attending school. Why are we continuing to pay child benefit to them? Here is a proposal, bringing the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Social Protection together, that can save a significant amount of money and give young people the opportunity of education. Surely Jenny, and every other Jenny in this country, has a right to a proper education.

Why should Jenny have to wait until her parents are prosecuted and why should she have to lose a full year at school before getting a proper education? We have a responsibility to ensure every Jenny in the country receives that education. Principals around the country can tell us that some parents are not prepared to get up in the morning to get their children out to school. However, if there was a financial impact in that regard, their attitudes would change. Jenny's case is just one example. When the fine was introduced, the family perked up and ensured she went to school. Let us make sure we send a clear message that there is a responsibility to attend school and that if children do not, we will hit the parents in the pocket, saving taxpayers' money and the lives of these young children.

I am not sure there is a huge amount I can add to what the Minister indicated in his response. As I made clear, the social security rights of people living and working in the European Union are governed by EU regulations. The Deputy has raised a number of issues in his contribution, but the principal issue is the one on which he touched towards the end, namely, that depriving parents and families of child benefit or the new payment that may replace child benefit would be a good instrument to ensure school attendance. I note the suggestion the Deputy has made, but I am not sure it is one that would receive universal approval. It is worthy of debate, but his proposal would not be without controversy. I will stick to the response the Minister has given on the substantive issue raised by the Deputy.